Monday, 28 October 2013

A little bit of Bukit Mertajam history

Today's blog article is a translation from a story, 王琛发 (2008), 大山脚历史, that might have appeared originally in a forum hosted on Zoom Penang and possibly copied later to Wikipedia, or vice-versa. However, Zoom Penang no longer exists as a website while Wikipedia still carries the history bit (still full of grammatical errors and all). As I now live in Bukit Mertajam, this story below is both fascinating and interesting to me.

Prior to my moving to Bukit Mertajam, my main interaction with this cowboy town was as a staff of the now defunct Ban Hin Lee Bank. The bank opened its fifth branch in this town in December 1977 and on and off, I had occasions to visit the branch which was initially located at Aston Road and later at Station Road. After Ban Hin Lee Bank was acquired by Southern Bank in 2000, I was sent to this Bukit Mertajam branch for several months where I underwent training and familiarisation before redeployment to Kulim as the head of its deposits department.

Also, it could be that in 1974, the Penang Schools Sports Council decided to organise that year's school chess competition in Province Wellesley. Although I had already left the Penang Free School, my ties were still strong enough and I remember my enthusiasm joining the school's chess team on a bus trip to Bukit Mertajam. Giving the team some moral support, you see.

I also remember at that time, the bus station was located near a field where the present Summit Hotel now stands. In the middle of the field was a small clock tower which has since disappeared. However, I cannot remember the results of the chess competition at all. Did the chess team win, or did they lose? I don't know. That, by the way, was my very first time in Bukit Mertajam.

So here it is, a short but unverifiable account of the development of Bukit Mertajam town. Just don't take it as the gospel truth, okay?
Bukit Mertajam is a town in Central Province Wellesley (Seberang Perai Tengah), Penang, with the Chinese community forming the majority of the total population. Jit Sin High School is one of the top performing schools in Malaysia. The town is also famed for the St Anne’s Catholic Church, with its annual St Anne’s Novena and Feast being held every year at the end of July which attracts thousands of devotees from all around the country. As a major town in Province Wellesley, Bukit Mertajam serves as one of the many economic hubs in the northern region.

A hundred years ago, Bukit Mertajam was merely a barren wasteland filled with wild animals and swampy marshlands infested with crocodiles.

Although so far there is no complete written record on the early settlement of Bukit Mertajam, archeologists had recently discovered much evidence on the antiquity of the town.

According to archeological findings, there was an early settlement in Bukit Mertajam some 1,500 years ago in the fifth century based on the discovery of the Cherok To'kun Relics, which is a stone tablet carved with ancient Sanskrit writings, and which is now displayed in the grounds of the St Anne’s Church along Kulim Road.

Based on the early Chinese settlers of Bukit Mertajam, the urban planning of the old section of the town was established in 1886 by the Hock Teik Cheng Sin temple community, with the Pek Kong Temple as a town core while the shops, markets and bazaars radiated around the temple.

The Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple along Pasar Road not only served as a centre for Chinese folk religious worship but also functioned as an administrative body for the Chinese community which consisted of four clan associations. At that time, the temple community was responsible for the economic and social welfare of the Chinese community including schools, graveyards, events, social activities and properties.

The Chinese community in Bukit Mertajam are mostly from the Teochew clan. They hail mostly from Huizhou, Guangdong, China and speaks the Teochew dialect. The Teochews once made up nearly half of the total population in Seberang Perai.

The time of the Malay archipelago during the fifth and sixth centuries was known as the Indian cultural era in which Malay kingdoms at that time embraced Hinduism. Evidence arising from the discovery of the Cherok To'kun Relics has shown that the early settlers of Bukit Mertajam had Hindu influence.

The Indians have long discovered the Malay Peninsula. In the Indian literature which is known as the Ramayana text, they had referred to the Malay Peninsula as Suvarnabhumi (Land of Gold). During the third century, the Indians began to trade in the Malay Archipelago regions. These traders were mainly from the Southern Indian kingdom of Chola and Pallava. Soon, the Kedah plain had a large influence of Hinduism and Buddhism with the erection of many temples and candis. The Kedah kingdom had been the trading hub and centre of Hindu civilisation in the Malay Archipelago region. Bukit Mertajam at that time focused on paddy cultivation.

The region of Bukit Mertajam was followed by Thai influence during the 18th century. During this era, Bukit Mertajam existed as a quaint Malay village which was based on paddy cultivation. However, these villagers were either persecuted by the Siamese or had fled.

Early Discovery
According to the Huizhou clan association, the town’s history could be traced back to 1822 when the immigrants from Huizhou begin to settle in Penang, involving in farming. Agriculture was once a major industry in Penang.

After Capt Francis Light discovered Penang in 1786, Penang become a centre for spice trade in the East Indies to supply the European market. Then there was a ten-year conflict between the Dutch and the British in South-East Asia. In order to dominate the spice trade and prevent it from further supply disruptions, the British started the cultivation of spice in British colonial settlements like Province Wellesley.

Major Forbes Ross MacDonald was the Superintendent of the Prince of Wales Island (Penang Island) in 1799. In his report, he brought in the Huizhou people and assisted them by providing transportation to travel to Penang from their homeland, land for cultivation, housing and social welfare. This opened up the floodgates for more Chinese to venture into farming in Province Wellesley. At that time, many people in the Huizhou region in China suffered from famine, drought and violence due to land disputes. People from Huizhou came to Penang to look for greener pastures.

In June 1800, the Huizhou people began to settle within the vicinity of the present-day Bukit Mertajam. Earlier in that year, the first Lieutenant- Governor of Prince of Wales Island, Sir George Alexander William Leith, had negotiated a further treaty with the Sultan of Kedah for the cessation of a strip of land in Kedah in the mainland which was later known as Province Wellesley. Province Wellesley was named after Richard Wellesley, the Governor-General of India.

Before the East India Company gained control of Province Wellesley, the Chinese had already begun their sugarcane plantations in Batu Kawan. In 1800, seeing the high demand of herbs and spices in Europe, the British encouraged the residents of Bukit Mertajam to grow various spices such as pepper, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Besides agriculture, the residents of Bukit Mertajam begin to engage in alternative income such as quarrying.

It is known that during the 19th century, Bukit Mertajam was the largest producer of granite in the northern region. At that time, the quarrying areas in the town were the areas surrounding St Anne’s Church and Berapit. Granite was used to construct the Penang prison on the island. They were transported by ferrying the rocks across the sea. The Huizhou people dominated the granite quarrying industry until the Second World War.

During the 1930s the Chinese began mass cultivation of sugarcane in Bukit Mertajam as a source of sucrose for exportation to England. Sugarcane plantations were concentrated in key areas of Bukit Mertajam surrounding the town and the Bukit Mertajam High School area near the railway tracks.

The rivers and streams that flowed from the Bukit Mertajam hill into the low plains are now replaced by the large urban drainage systems to cope with the large amount of storm water. Around the newly built temple which was constructed along the river bank, the Huizhou people first settled as farmers in hilly terrains, farming lands as well as hills. The marketplace was established on hillocks surrounding the valley with the river flowing through the centre.

The region surrounding Bukit Mertajam during the spice trade era in the 19th century was only accessible by boat and junk. Sungai Juru and Sungai Rambai were the main transportation waterways in the town, with Sungai Rambai and the Padang Lalang region as the main harbour that served the town. There was no land transportation that connected the town, except mud roads that led to Butterworth. Therefore, all trade and products such as spices and granites had to be transported through the river.

Early Development
Records have shown the demographics of Province Wellesley in 1861, which at that time had a total population of 64000. Ethnic breakdown was as follows: Europeans 76, Malays 56,236, Chinese 7,204, Indians 3,515 and Siamese 186. The majority of the Malays settled in the northern portion of Province Wellesley as fisherman and farmers, while the Bengalis were involved in the livestock industry. Many Chinese conducted business in the town areas, especially in Bukit Mertajam.

In 1899, rubber plantations had replaced sugarcane. During that time, the railway system that connected Prai, Nibong Tebal and Bukit Mertajam was completed. The railway track which connected Kuala Lumpur and Singapore was completed next in 1909, making railway as the main transportation system. In 1914, rubber was the main production in Bukit Mertajam.

With the rapid development and improvement of the transportation system, the population of the town increased dramatically. The first Malay vernacular school was set up in 1800 in Cherok To'kun. Another Malay school was opened in Sungai Rambai three years later. The first Chinese vernacular school, Jit Sin School, was opened on 3 March 1918. Jit Sin School was first established by the Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple committee along Jalan Pasar, after purchasing 120,000 dollars worth of land for the building of the school. Bukit Mertajam High School was first opened in 1927, the Convent school was founded in 1931 while Kim Sen School was established in 1939.

The first motorcar in Bukit Mertajam was in 1920. By 1930, there were 15 private motorcars owned by the residents of Bukit Mertajam.

Development was slow before the Second World War. Then in 18 December 1941, the Japanese troops attacked Pearl Harbour with Indochina as their military base. Japanese troops first landed in Kota Bharu, Songkhla and Pattani by sea in the same year and then travelled by land to conquer Malaya.

On the 17th of December, Japanese troops conquered Penang, and at the same time Bukit Mertajam was also affected. Before the British retreated in 1941 the railway station in Bukit Mertajam had been blown up. The railway station was constructed again in 1942 by the Japanese and they used Bukit Mertajam High School as a military base. At that time, Bukit Mertajam High School was forced to close down.

After the Second World War ended in 1945, Bukit Mertajam became a thriving town with bustling business activities and trade. Development was rapid. Entertainment centres such as cinemas and theatres were opened in 1956 and 1957.

There was significant urbanisation after 1957. What started as a village later developed into a major urban area. Recent development followed with the establishment of new townships such as Taman Sri Rambai, Taman Kota Permai, Taman Desa Damai, Taman Alma, Taman Sentosa, Taman Bukit, Taman Tenang and Taman Mutiara.

The hospital along Kulim Road was built in 1960, the post office was built in 1968, while the train station was built in 1983.

Today, Bukit Mertajam remains one of the trading and economic hubs in the northern region of Peninsular Malaysia.

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