Papan (see map) is a small town in the Kinta district, in central Perak. It is located at the foot of the Keledang range, which you can see as you approach the town. Papan was established as a settlement of Mandailing people under their leader Raja Bilah around 1882.
In the late 19th century, it was a mining town. As was practically every town within the Kinta Valley, and with mining came social volatility and triad warfare. The friction between the Ghee Hin and Hai San secret societies erupted into what was known as the Papan Riot on 29 November 1887. The riot was put down by Lieutenant-Colonel R.S.F. Walker (whose statue stands today in the compound of the Perak Museum).
The town had a slight headstart over Ipoh, but was quickly surpassed by the latter by 1892. When the railway line was built from Ipoh to Tronoh in 1908, it even had a stop in Papan.
Papan is also noted today for being the home of war-time heroine Sybil Kathigasu, an Eurasian of Irish-Indian extraction, who received the George Medal for Gallantry, the second level civil decoration of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, in 1948, the only woman in Malaya to receive it. Her house at 74, Jalan Besar is now managed by the Mr Law Siak Hong, the Vice President of the Perak Heritage Society, as a showcase of her life.
On 18 June, 2011, during a heritage tour organised by the Penang Heritage Trust, I have the opportunity of visiting Sybil Kathigasu's house in the company of Mr Law, who took us around and provided fascinating glimpses of the life of Sybil Kathigasu.
Visitors to Papan will find it to be a small town vegetating in semi-slumber. Right at the heart of town is a Chinese primary school, Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan (Cina) Papan. Children completing primary education here have to continue their secondary studies elsewhere, and the majority of them proceeded to bigger towns and cities where jobs are aplenty.
There was once, when tin prices were at a high, plans to relocate Papan, as it is sitting on is rich in tin. It did not happen. Glorious days of tin mining are long gone. Depressed price for tin in the mid-1980's had collapsed the tin mining industry of the Kinta Valley, drawing the fortunes of small towns like Papan along with it.
Many of the shophouses in Papan are in a run-down state. Quite a number of them are at various stages of disrepair, but lack of funds has prevented any form of preservation.
Papan was in the local media for all the wrong reasons in 2010, when it was revealed that a Japanese company involved in making television tubes was using it as a radioactive dumpsite. On 13 June, 2010 (just slightly over a year from when this article is written), the people of Papan (along with that of neighbouring Bukit Merah and Menglembu) held a demonstration and sent petition to the government to stop the dumping.
Papan is about half an hour south of Ipoh by car. Let me describe the direction from the Ipoh Railway Station. Head south on Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab until the roundabout, then do a 9 o'clock turn to Jalan Leong Boon Swee. At the next intersection, turn right and continue on Jalan Lahat, also called Federal Route 5.
Continue on Federal Route 5 heading south until you reach the junction to Papan on your right. You will see a signage there pointing to Papan on your right, and Pusing straightahead. Take the road to Papan, also called State Route A188, and you will arrive in the town in 5 minutes.
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