Sungai Lembu: a ‘new village’ from the Malayan Emergency

A Chinese settlement teeming with history, intrigue and unspoilt natural charm

Sungai Lembu ©

At the height of the Malayan Emergency following the conclusion of World War II, the British colonial administration created special settlements where various rural Chinese communities were relocated so that they could be monitored and prevented from interacting with the dreaded communist insurgents.

Sungai Lembu © Adrian Cheah

Today, the only one of these “new villages”, as they were called, to still exist in Penang is in Sungai Lembu. Nestled behind the thickly forested hill of Bukit Seraya, the secluded village presents a breezy carefree atmosphere that is a far cry from the tense and sometimes violent era that it witnessed decades ago. 

Sungai Lembu © Adrian Cheah

Lying along a narrow green strip on the eastern side of the hill, the village’s wide expanse is surrounded by fruit orchards, oil palm plantations and noxious poultry farms. The streetscape is characterised by low-rise homes with small gardens, idyllic roads and lots of fruit trees. The village also houses a well-known Chinese national school, eponymously named Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan (Cina) Kampung Sungai Lembu.

Sungai Lembu © Adrian Cheah

The residents here pride in growing some of the most delicious fruits in the region. The claim may not be too amiss. There does seem to be freshness in the flavours of the papayas, bananas, jambu air (rose apple), nona (custard apple), jackfruits and other produces that are grown and sold here.

Sungai Lembu © Adrian Cheah

The village is particularly famed for its durian. Various varieties are found here. Local growers claim that the 101, Musang King, Green Dragon and Durian Susu sub-species have distinct savoury feels from durians found anywhere else because the hillside soil here is different.

Mengkuang Dam © Adrian Cheah

Indeed, the earth here is rather fertile with groundwater percolating from the rainforests of both Bukit Seraya and its adjacent Bukit To’ Kun. The latter is an especially rich natural water catchment on whose western flank the authorities have built the colossal Mengkuang Dam. 

A river where cattle bathed

Sungai Lembu © Adrian Cheah

The village’s very name is derived from a river that flows from the hill. It is said that in the olden days many goods were transported on bullock carts along the slender and lengthy Jalan Sungai Lembu which bypasses the village. These bulls and other cattle, including buffalos, were popularly bathed at this river by their handlers, leading to the vicinity being referred to in Malay as “sungai lembu” or “river with cows”.

Sungai Lembu © Adrian Cheah

Near the river lies a disused small well – the only one left from about ten endowment wells that had been built by the British for local residents in the olden days to draw water before piped water supply was introduced. It has been proudly preserved as a remnant of the new village’s early history, with a sign placed over it. Poignantly enough, a small tree has grown in the well.

Sungai Lembu © Adrian Cheah

Opposite the well, on the other side of the road, is another reminder of the village’s past. Two military pillboxes that had been built on the perimeter of Sungai Lembu to overlook the Bukit Seraya forest still stand there today. One of them is located higher up on the slope. 

Sungai Lembu © Adrian Cheah

They were used to guard against any intrusion from communist mercenaries who were feared hiding in the forests. Beside the pillboxes is an old police station sited on the foothill of Bukit Seraya. Made largely of timber planks, its walls still bear the blue colour associated with Malaysian police bases, though the paint is rather jaded now.

An old signboard at the site reads “Pondok Polis Sungai Lembu”. There is also a plaque at its main door from the structure’s official opening on March 19, 1977 by the then Penang chief of police Abdul Majid Ahmad. A fruit farm and an oil palm estate have taken over lands adjacent to the idle desolate building.

The great fence of Sungai Lembu

Standing at the pillboxes and gazing in the direction of the village, one can picture the tall security fencing that once surrounded the community there during the Emergency. The fence served as a barrier to prevent the villagers from delivering rations and other supplies to the communist forces which consisted largely of Chinese fighters. In fact, the colonial police screened anyone who needed to leave the village through the boundary’s exit points to check on how much food and other materials they carried. This was done to ensure that the goods were not meant to be passed to the insurgents.

Interestingly, in a study titled “Sir Henry Gurney and Measures to Eradicate Communists in Malaya, 1948-1951”, historian Ho Hui Ling cites a security order issued by Penang’s then resident commissioner Arthur Vincent Aston on June 5, 1951. Areas covered under the order included Jalan Sungai Lembu, as well as the road leading from Bukit Mertajam to the nearby town of Kulim, across the state border in Kedah.

For many decades, the people of Bukit Mertajam and Kulim have also endeared this area for another reason – to be buried. There are seven large cemeteries located along the winding Jalan Sungai Lembu, most of which are still in use and even being expanded at present. All of them feature antiquated headstones with Chinese inscriptions and Taoist-Buddhist ritual designs.

Pagar Teras © Adrian Cheah

The only Christian cemetery among them lies in Pagar Tras, next to the ruins of an ancient church built in 1882 by the Hakka Chinese community that once thrived there. Fascinatingly, the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as it was named, was designed to resemble the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. This was due to the influence of the French Catholic missionaries who operated in the region more than a century ago.

Pagar Teras © Adrian Cheah

In 1952, the families that lived in Pagar Tras were relocated elsewhere due to the British colonial government’s ruling on the relocation of rural residents during the Emergency. Of these, 14 families were moved to the Sungai Lembu new village. Incidentally, the phrase “pagar tras” in Malay should mean “terraced fencing”. One wonders if the name was given following the long fencing erected by the British to limit the locals’ movements.

While Sungai Lembu now appears placid and quiet, it comes alive with thousands of visitors converging in the village during an annual “ultra-marathon” that flags off from its Chinese public school. The gruelling race draws a number of international athletes who relish the challenge of running along circuits of between 30km and 100km - past fruit farms, paddy fields, Malay kampungs, tree plantations, verdant forests and the two iconic hills – in a tribute to the people who tilled and preserved this historic enclave over the years.

Sungai Lembu © Adrian Cheah

The fading memories of the Sungai Lembu new village may well represent the fate of numerous other cultural settlements whose experiences have been forgotten in Malaysian history. The memories only remain in the few ageing members of these communities. Theirs are pure unblemished accounts of our precious past. Around the world, various local communities are striving to preserve their legacies and stories for visitors and their own next generations. Therein lies the challenge for Malaysia's own civil society, academia and the authorities to gather and preserve the memories and records of our own forebears before they are lost forever.

Yeo Keng Chuan © Adrian Cheah

With appreciation to YB Yeo Keng Chuan (top left with writer, Himanshu Bhatt) and the Sungai Lembu village security and development committee (JKKK) for assistance in the gathering of information for this article.

Written by Himanshu Bhatt
Photographs © Adrian Cheah
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