Thursday, March 17, 2016

Batu Arang's Coal-aful Past

One of the two mine entrances that lead into the tunnels but they have both been closed. 

BATU ARANG, about 50km north of Kuala Lumpur, derived its name from the Malay word for coal, which is arang batu. After coal was discovered here in the early 1900s, British coal miner John Archibald Russell set up Malayan Collieries Ltd (MCL) to start mining operations in 1913. 

Five thousand miners were employed and they worked around the clock in three shifts to meet the high demand for coal in the region. At the height of its prosperity in the 1930s, Batu Arang was believed to bethe most developed town in Selangor and locals even nicknamed it Mini Gold Hill. It had even its own airstrip which allowed salaries of miners to be air-dropped into the town. 

The Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR) built a railway line to connect Batu Arang to Kuang and within the coal mining township, MCL built its own network of tracks linking the various gantry points of the open cast mines and other subsidiary industries, including its own brick factory. 

The decline in demand for coal began in the 1950s when industries and the railways switched to using diesel. The coal mining era in Batu Arang ended in 1960. In the span of 47 years, 15 million tonnes of coal were believed to have been mined from the deep earth and open cast mines. 

Today, all the entrances to the deep earth mines have been sealed. The open cast mines, located on the hillock behind the police station, are filled with water and turned into a huge lake. Access to the lake has also been fenced up but a worker manning the gates allowed me to enter to take pictures. He claimed that the lake was very popular with anglers. At its deepest point, the lake is at least 200m deep, he said. He showed me bits of coal still embedded in the ground. 

At a coffeeshop near the market in town, I asked some old men why Batu Arang had no high-rise buildings. One of them explained that there was a huge network of mining tunnels running underneath the township. Many of these tunnels had collapsed and damaged the buildings on ground level, so for that reason, building highrises which required heavy piling had been prohibited.

On March 15, 1992, the New Sunday Times carried a feature on the dangers that Batu Arang townfolk faced from sinkholes that had appeared over the years due to the collapse of subterranean mining tunnels. 

The open cast mine is now a lake, visible from the hillock behind the
Police Station.
This painting is of one of the entries to the deep earth mines. This tourist attraction is a few hundred metres from the SKJC Chap Khuan, along a laterite path. There is a signboard that marks its location but you have to walk down a 100m path to get to the entrance which is almost swallowed by undergrowth.

While painting this scene, I had to fend off not only mosquitoes but also some suspicious looking characters who had gone into the bushes in front of me. I later found out that these were drug addicts getting their daily fix. Visitors should also watch out for snakes.

Batu Arang was declared a Heritage Town by the State government some years back and today, remnants of its colourful past include a coal miners' settlement comprising dilapidated brick houses, a row of two-storey shophouses believed to be built in the late 1920s, the police station grounds (which once housed the Gurkha forces barracks and were the premises of the Malayan Collieries Ltd), and an abandoned brick kiln.

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