Dig­ging into Pudu’s past

A fas­ci­na­tion with his­tory leads to a book from an un­likely source.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - By LIM CHIA YING star2@thes­tar.com.my

JAMES McAnna hails from a for­mer coal-min­ing town and has spent 50some­thing years liv­ing and work­ing in Scot­land and Bri­tain. So why has the Scots­man writ­ten a book on Pudu? Af­ter all, the old en­clave in Kuala Lumpur might be in the throes of de­vel­op­ment right now but it’s hardly a tourist mag­net.

But that is ex­actly what drew McAnna to the place when he first vis­ited in 2006. The com­puter con­sul­tant had just ar­rived in Malaysia, on the run from a harsh Bri­tish win­ter, and a young Malay girl tout­ing for busi­ness at the air­port per­suaded him to stay in Pudu. As it turned out, Pudu’s tourist-free sur­rounds were per­fect for an as­pir­ing writer work­ing on his first manuscript.

That first book was a fam­ily his­tory set in Scot­land; a book on Pudu had not oc­curred to McAnna yet.

But the area’s un­pre­ten­tious air – its raw­ness, if you will – made a last­ing im­pres­sion on him, and sev­eral vis­its to Malaysia over the years al­ways saw him head­ing to Pudu. KL’s mar­vel­lous malls and chic cafes were not for him. In­stead, he en­joyed idling away the hours at Pudu’s old ko­pi­ti­ams, sip­ping cups of lo­cal cof­fee or pots of Chi­nese tea, watch­ing “real” lo­cals go­ing about their daily lives.

In an e-mail in­ter­view from the south of Eng­land where he now lives, McAnna shares how he found him­self miss­ing Pudu when he re­turned to Bri­tain.

“I sup­pose that my ear­lier search for ac­counts of peo­ple mi­grat­ing to a coal-min­ing town (for the book on his fam­ily’s his­tory) in­flu­enced my cu­rios­ity to­wards the tin-min­ing com­mu­nity of Pudu. In many ways, the search for in­for­ma­tion and the con­struc­tion of a story be­came in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked,” he says.

He was soon dig­ging up in­for­ma­tion about Kap­i­tan Cina Yap Ah Loy, vis­it­ing our Na­tional Mu­seum and dis­cov­er­ing that there is very lit­tle doc­u­men­ta­tion on Chi­nese his­tory and her­itage in KL.

Rel­e­vant ma­te­rial was gath­ered mostly from the In­ter­net over six months, and once he was sure the con­tent suf­ficed, he took six more months to pre­pare The ‘Good Brothers’ Of Pudu: A Chi­nese Malaysian Com­mu­nity Of Kuala Lumpur, a book that was pub­lished last month.

“It’s amaz­ing what one can find online th­ese days. Apart from vis­its to a cou­ple of places in KL and my self-taken pho­tos, my main in­for­ma­tion source was the In­ter­net,” says McAnna.

“But there were ob­sta­cles none­the­less – the main one be­ing re­stricted to just English lan­guage sources, since I don’t speak or read Chi­nese. What I found were mostly old books and news­pa­per ar­ti­cles from the Net, so I’m hop­ing that read­ers can pro­vide me with old pho­tos, fam­ily sto­ries and Chi­nese sources of in­for­ma­tion for a re­vised edi­tion in fu­ture.

“In fact, I’ve made some in­ter­est­ing new con­tacts in the brief time fol­low­ing the book’s pub­li­ca­tion. There’s a whole lot more to Pudu wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered, I’m sure.”

The re­search and writ­ing ex­pe­ri­ence taught him an “aw­ful lot about the Chi­nese con­tri­bu­tion to KL’s his­tory, and a lit­tle bit about Sun Yat Sen’s con­nec­tions with KL”, he says, re­fer­ring to the fa­mous rev­o­lu­tion­ary and found­ing fa­ther of mod­ern China who had vis­ited Malaya at the turn of the last cen­tury.

“Most, if not all, sources I have come across on the In­ter­net and in old books men­tion 1906 as the first time Dr Sun vis­ited Malaya. How­ever, I came across a 1930s source which sug­gests – if true – that he was there sev­eral years ear­lier in KL. But I have been un­able to find a sec­ondary source to con­firm this.”

A sec­tion of The ‘Good Brothers’ Of Pudu men­tions se­cret so­ci­eties rel­e­vant to Pudu’s his­tory. McAnna con­fesses, though, that the sub­ject isn’t one he feels com­fort­able talk­ing about, and brushes off any ques­tions about mod­ern se­cret so­ci­eties.

“Suf­fice to say that it (the book) gives an idea of how se­cret so­ci­eties were a ma­jor fac­tor in the de­vel­op­ment of Kuala Lumpur and the found­ing of the Repub­lic of China. The Tong­menghui, in par­tic­u­lar, was a cru­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion for Dr Sun and his sup­port­ers in Nanyang (the Chi­nese name for South-East Asia then) hop­ing to over­throw the Manchu dy­nasty.

“In the world of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics and se­cret so­ci­eties, the past of­ten un­der­stand­ably re­mains well hid­den – which it­self may ex­plain why it’s so dif­fi­cult to find out about old Pudu. The ‘Pudu Tem­ple’ con­fronta­tion be­tween the po­lice and an al­leged se­cret so­ci­ety meet­ing in 1909 is a case in point. I’m sure there is a lot more to be dis­cov­ered on that.”

(The news­pa­pers of that time re­ported on the in­ci­dent, a fierce gun bat­tle be­tween the Bri­tish­led po­lice force and Chi­nese men dressed in red sashes that took place in July 1909.)

McAnna’s pen­chant for his­tory is ev­i­dent not only in The Good Brothers Of Pudu but also in his first book, The Ulva Fam­i­lies Of Shotts, which he re­gards as a com­bi­na­tion of mem­oir and his­tor­i­cal de­tec­tive work.

The “Ulva” in the ti­tle, he ex­plains, is a small is­land in the in­ner He­brides, off the Scot­tish west coast, where his great-grand­fa­ther orig­i­nated; “Shotts” refers to the for­mer coal-min­ing town he grew up in that is lo­cated half-way be­tween Ed­in­burgh and Glas­gow. What started as ge­nealog­i­cal re­search into the ma­ter­nal branch of his fore­fa­thers ended with the dis­cov­ery of long-for­got­ten con­nec­tions be­tween Ulva and Shotts, and his first book.

“I have dis­cov­ered that his­tory is not a dead sub­ject, de­spite what some may think. Facts which seem ir­rel­e­vant will gain sig­nif­i­cance as your story grows, bring­ing light to long-for­got­ten tales.

“Apart from the process of writ- ing his­tory, there is also peo­ple’s re­ac­tion to a bit of his­tory. As in­di­vid­u­als, we may well feel our part in the greater scheme of things to be ir­rel­e­vant. How­ever, I think we see in a so­cial or lo­cal his­tory, a lit­tle bit of the his­tor­i­cal process in which a com­mu­nity changes over the years. It gives us real-life sto­ries of or­di­nary peo­ple from for­mer days to in­spire us.

“And we are liv­ing through his­tory too, just as those tin min­ers of Pudu did in the past. Let’s hope we have given them their place in his­tory as founders of a great city, and I’m sure they can in­spire us, per­haps even lend some sense of mean­ing to our lives,” he says.

Writ­ing The Good Brothers Of Pudu brought to mind com­par­isons be­tween Pudu and the home­town he wrote about in his first book, it seems.

Shotts was an iron and coal town, and his fa­ther, grand­fa­ther and great-grand­fa­ther were coal min­ers (McAnna has a de­gree in psy­chol­ogy from the Univer­sity of Glas­gow and worked in the IT in­dus­try as a con­sul­tant for sev­eral blue chip com­pa­nies).

While Kuala Lumpur grew from a jun­gle into a tin-min­ing com­mu­nity and then a mod­ern cap­i­tal, Shotts has seen the death of heavy in­dus­try with­out sig­nif­i­cant ex­pan­sion and is now no more than a com­muter town, McAnna says.

“Pudu is one of the orig­i­nal places of KL. The lo­cals can learn a lot about the early tin-min­ers and pioneers who built the place, whether they are walk­ing on the streets, re­lax­ing in a cof­fee shop or pay­ing re­spect at a lo­cal tem­ple.

“I hope peo­ple will con­tinue to pre­serve their sense of iden­tity, and hope­fully, my book helps in a lit­tle way to bring its his­tory to a larger au­di­ence.

“While vis­it­ing, I have seen big changes, such as the de­mo­li­tion of Pudu Jail, the old Peng Hwa food court and ‘ The Rich Club’ on Changkat Thambi Dol­lah. I do miss the old Peng Hwa. While the new place is great, any­one who has been to the old one would know it was unique. But I guess noth­ing lasts for­ever,” he laments.

McAnna’s third book, Echoes Of Dis­tant Shotts: A Fam­ily Mem­oir From A Scot­tish Min­ing Com­mu­nity, on his fa­ther’s an­ces­try will also be pub­lished soon. Ac­cord­ing to him, it is more than just a fam­ily’s his­tory, it is a com­mu­nity his­tory placed within a wider Scot­tish con­text. James Mcanna be­gan writ­ing when his in­ter­est in his­tory had him do­ing re­search that cried out to be placed in a nar­ra­tive.

The ‘Good Brothers’ Of Pudu : A Chi­nese Malaysian Com­mu­nity Of Kuala Lumpur by James McAnna is avail­able from print-on-de­mand ser­vice Blurb (tinyurl.com/ny­cv7dl). Or­ders to Malaysia will take about three weeks to ship plus an ad­di­tional four days to print. The book is priced at £12 (RM66.29) and the cheap­est ship­ping rate is £11.99 (RM66.24).

Pudu pro­gresses: Writer James Mcanna’s im­age of the de­mo­li­tion of the Peng Hwa food court in Pudu; crowds turned up to wit­ness the pass­ing of a his­tor­i­cal land­mark. — Pho­tos from James Mcanna

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