Might a Malaysian ‘ghost town’ become a tourist attraction? Its elderly residents aren’t convinced
Off Malaysia’s North-South Expressway, two hours to the north of Kuala Lumpur, stands a former tin mining town that is at the centre of a half-hearted struggle between residents who would like to turn it into a tourist attraction and those who would prefer to let sleeping ghosts lie.
Papan – little more than a strip of crumbling heritage houses and two parallel alleys of humbler homes – may be ignored by guidebooks to Malaysia, but those who know of the place refer to it as a ghost town fit for Instagram.
“But calling Papan a ghost town is incorrect,” says Philippe Durant, a Belgian photographer who lives in nearby Ipoh and who has dedicated years of his life to photographing and spreading the word about this unique spot. “It is not a ghost town because there are still people living here,” he says.
Papan (which means “plank” in Bahasa Malaysia) was established as a timber outpost in the early 19th century by Mandailing people from Indonesia. Mining took centre stage when large tin deposits were discovered in the 1850s and Chinese migrant workers began flocking to Perak state. The development of Papan’s mines began in 1877 and the town became the hub and administrative centre for tin mining activities in the Kinta Valley.
By the turn of the century, Papan had 146 houses. Black-and-white photos from the 1910s show a bustling town, horse-drawn carriages weaving their way through the crowds and around vendors. Then, there were 13 working mines in the area and more than 2,400 people living in Papan. But the collapse of mining following the drop in tin prices in 1985 led to a mass exodus.
Thirty-one people still live along the main street, in 10 of the old houses, and some 200 live in Old Papan: the wooden houses that line the parallel alleys. Most residents are the elderly descendants of tin miners.
According to Durant, who recently published the photographic book Papan Moods, many are mentally or physically disabled and have no income. They pay the cheapest rent in the state of Perak – if not the whole of Malaysia – at less than 100 ringgit (US$24) per month.
“The houses from the tin rush era belong to a broad range of owners,” he says. “Former mining companies, descendants of Mandailing rulers, descendants of Chinese migrants, locals, unscrupulous investors …
“Most people keep to themselves. When I went on a mission to recount the experiences of the residents and take portraits of the 31 [Main Street] inhabitants a couple of weeks ago, some said no and some didn’t open the door.”
The majority of the softly coloured, uninhabited heritage houses are unlocked and free to explore, although a visit can be dangerous, there always being the risk that a termite-infested floor or ceiling may collapse. However, the two buildings with the most historical value can be admired from the outside only.
On a hill to the right of the main street stands Rumah Besar Raja Bilah, the palace of Papan’s founder and former ruler Raja Bilah, and its mosque. From the overgrown garden, one can just about open a blind hanging in a living room window and peek inside. Visible is an old table surrounded by plastic chairs in the middle of what used to be the grand hall of the palace, built in 1896.
It is similarly possible to peep into house No 74, which is on the left-hand side of Main Street as one enters Papan. This was the house and surgery of Sybil Kathigasu, a nurse who treated resistance fighters during World War II and was tortured by the Japanese invaders.
Two faded newspaper articles about Kathigasu are glued to the facade of the house, leaving the visitor to wonder whether such courage might not deserve at least a brass plaque.
Inside Papan’s former school, one can sense the children of yesteryear as they ran out of class. Desks are scattered, an old television sits on top of a cupboard and children’s drawings decorate the mouldering walls.
Further along from No 74, and on the other side of Main Street, stands the former barbershop. The barber’s chair is still in place, as is the mirror, but considering the state of the shop, one would imagine that no hair has been cut here in decades. The truth, however, is that the shop closed only four years ago, more than enough time for the heat, humidity and greenery to take it over.
As far back as late 1991, the Museums and State Religious departments laid claim to Rumah Besar Raja Bilah, the mosque and its cemetery. The Museums Department indicated in 1992 that it had plans to restore the historical sites of Papan. But nearly three decades later, almost no restoration has taken place.
“There was also a suggestion put forward by the Perak Heritage Society to turn the house of Sybil Kathigasu into a museum but nothing ever happened,” says Durant.
Ipoh, 17km to the northeast and with a similar historical background to Papan, has become a popular tourist destination. Major renovation of Ipoh’s heritage houses started after the collapse of two shophouses in Panglima Lane in 2011, causing the Ipoh City Council to issue a “repair or demolish” ultimatum to the owners of buildings that had become a public danger.
According to a paper written by Suriati Ahmad and David Jones for Deakin University of Australia, “Celebrating Ipoh’s tin mining heritage” became a rallying cry for those wishing to market tourism in Perak in the 2010s. “But on the actual ground, people can only view this scenario in the tin mining museums [such as the Hakka-focused Han Chin Pet Soo] without experiencing the actual [mining] sites,” it reads.
Papan’s village chief, Leong Wai Fan, says that some villagers are opposed to any exploitation of their town.
“Most villagers want to be left alone and they do not wish for Papan to become a tourist attraction,” says Leong, who grew up in the town and is in favour of promoting it to the outside world.
Differences of opinion have caused something of a rift, and when artist Mr Chang tried to attract tourists by displaying artefacts and tools in some of the abandoned houses, to simulate life during mining times, he was threatened by fellow villagers and forced to remove it all.
He has succeeded, however, in decorating Old Papan’s Middle Lane with painted street art – fish and butterflies – and has established a small open-air museum in his garden, hoping tourists pay him a visit.
“I believe the solution for Papan lies in involving villagers in the project of attracting tourists,” says Leong. She envisages a win-win situation for villagers who would make and sell handicrafts to tourists.
“Restoring the buildings in Papan is fundamental to saving our town but I would also love to teach villagers how to use the open spaces overgrown with weeds to grow and sell organic vegetables,” she says.
Durant believes that, although it is a shame to witness the buildings’ rapid deterioration, their authenticity, together with the laid-back, out-of-time atmosphere, is what lends Papan its charm.
But how long can the houses, witnesses to Malaysia’s tin mining past, stand without government or private investment?