Monday, August 13, 2007

A Gold Mine in Tin

A Gold Mine in Tin

Head on over to the heart of Kuala Lumpur, and you'll find yourself immersed in a metropolitan hub, pulsing with energy and life. Rewind back 150 years earlier, however, and you'll find that Kuala Lumpur once lived up to its name as being the "muddy river mouth".

In 1857, a member of the Selangor royal family, Raja Abdullah, brought in prospectors to the Klang river in search of alluvial tin deposits. It was right here in Ampang, where the Gombak and Klang rivers meet, that the prospectors struck what was to be the land's proverbial gold.

Once a swampy site prone to incidence of malaria, it would have been hard to imagine that this very place would grow exponentially over the years to become present-day KL. The city's growth was a result of being the production hub for tin Ð especially at the Langat, Klang and Selangor river valleys. The tin industry's epicentre, however, lay in the Kinta and Perak river valleys near the city of Ipoh.

With the discovery of large tin deposits in the states of Perak and Selangor, a large influx of migrants from the southern provinces of China came to then-Malaya to seek their fortunes.

Tin was used chiefly to produce tinplate (steel coated with tin) for food products, as it could preserve food in the absence of air. The most common and effective way of mining tin was with the use of gravel pumps, introduced in the late 1800s by the Chinese, who used this method in their native country. Gravel pumping involved spraying high-pressure streams of water onto tin-bearing rocks to break them up.

The end product would then be pumped into a plant for recovery of tin and other materials. Gravel pumps were advantageous as they were inexpensive, and required low capital cost to set up.

In the heyday of tin, dredge operations were a common sight Ð the first was installed in the Kinta Valley in 1913. Seven years later, 30 units were installed, and by 1940, 123 dredges were in operation. Dredges had a floating, flat-bottomed platform, which was where the digging, washing and processing of the ore was performed.

The towns surrounding these tin mines benefited both socially and economically from this lucrative industry. Ipoh, for example, transformed into a more structured and planned town with wide streets, and brick and stucco shophouses. Many of its buildings had neo-classical designs, and the streets were lined with stylish and well designed two- and three-storey buildings.

Not only did these mining hubs profit from the tin industry's boom in the 70s - the workers did, too.

Leong Yoke Soo, 78, a former dredge master with the Malaysian Mining Corporation Bhd at Tronoh, Perak, recalled this period of time: "It was the peak of tin mining production, and dredges were building up like nobody's business." What made him stay in the industry for 35 years, he said in an interview, was the treatment and the benefits he was given.

"I was paid very well, about RM5,000 to RM6,000 a month. A teacher, in comparison, would earn RM1,000 a month - but we really worked very hard.

"My family and I stayed in the mines, and there was transportation for our children to go to school. I was even sent for seminars and management training courses - we were all very well looked after."

Historically, the Malay Peninsula became synonymous with tin, and grew rapidly in 1883, when Malaya overtook Britain to become the largest tin producer in the world. According to the Malaysia Smelting Corporation Bhd (MSC), in the late 1970s, Malaysia had ,ore than 1,000 tin mines, producing an average of over 70,000 tonnes a year.

In 1990, following the collapse of the industry in 1985, yearly production was recorded at 20,700 tonnes - with Malaysia being the world's fourth largest tin producer. Just eight years later, Malaysia's tin industry took a sharp decline, producing only 5,800 tonnes of tin per year. China, in comparison, churned out a whopping 79,000 tonnes of tin, and was ranked the No. 1 tin producer worldwide.

Why did the industry decline? First, the International Tin Council collapsed in 1985, leaving gross debts of almost US$1.5 billion (RM5.19 billion), and causing world tin prices to fall by almost 57%.

Malaysia was greatly affected, and coupled with the 1985 economic crisis, tin prices tumbled from RM32,000 per tonne in the late 1970s to less than RM17,000 per tonne in 1985. Newer mines in both Indonesia and China were also able to produce the metal at a lower cost, and soon, Malaysia was unable to compete.

Today, according to MSC, Malaysia produces only 5,000 tonnes a year - 1.8% of the global output of 270,000 tonnes.

Source: Joyce Au-Yong, TheSun, Monday, August 13, 2007

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Joyce,

Do you know if there is any way of finding the company records of the British Engineering Company working on the Sirusa Mines in Port Dickson back in the 1930s.
I am attempting to look for a long lost great-grandfather but I do not have his name only the fact that he was the head of that company. I have googled many times but found nothing. If you could guide me in the right direction I would be very grateful! Cheers, Cat