A brief history of Prai
Legacy and impact of a once-significant hub of northern Malaya
Prai emerged as a notable settlement at the mouth of the Prai River, or Sungai Prai as it is known in Malay, in the mid-1800s. It grew in prominence mainly because its location was strategic – where the river met the waters of the Penang Channel, just across from Penang island.
The river was also easily accessible to maritime voyagers along the navigation route between the Straits of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. Explorers and traders sailing on the seas would turn into the river to venture eastward into reachable inland areas of the Malay peninsula.
Interestingly enough, in the olden days the Prai River’s natural course was used as a geographical landmark to define the political border between the kingdom of Kedah in the north and the British-controlled areas to the south. This happened after the Kedah Sultanate ceded the Province Wellesley area to the British East India Company in 1798. (The British had named the entire region of mainland Penang it ruled as Province Wellesley, after Richard Wellesley (photo right) who was governor of Madras and governor-general of Bengal from 1797 to 1805.)
Hence the river came to be known as “the end” which in Siamese or Thai language is ‘prai’. Kedah was after all deeply influenced by Siamese language and culture.
When the Siamese invaded and conquered Kedah in 1821 the border between Kedah and Province Wellesley was shifted further north with the Sungai Muda used as the new political boundary instead of Sungai Prai. However, the name Prai had already stuck by then. The British also adopted the name, spelling it as ‘Prye’.
The naming of Seberang Perai
After Malaysia gained independence in 1957 the word ‘Prai’ was used in the re-naming of the entire portion of Province Wellesley as ‘Seberang Perai’ – which literally means “across the Prai”.
The name ‘Seberang Perai’ originated from a local phrase used by Prai residents in referring to the land across the Prai River, from the perspective of someone on the southern bank looking towards the northern side. In Hokkien, this northern area was referred to as ‘Koay Kang’ or "the other side of the river".
The population of Prai and its surroundings swelled following the Thai invasion of Kedah in 1821. Many Kedahans migrated south to live in Province Wellesley which was under the British.
Based on what the British recorded, the number of inhabitants increased from about 5,000 in 1821 to some 146,800 in 1835. This led to numerous new kampungs and farms to be set up over the next few decades. The British later also developed lands into agricultural plantations for growing sugar cane, rubber trees and so on. These developments spurred an even larger migration of workers from various parts of the world, many of whom went on to settle in Prai.
The forgotten railway heritage of Prai
It is perhaps no coincidence that the Prai railway, one of the most historic transportation centres in Malaysia, was built in the 1890s. For this was exactly when the tin mining industry in the peninsula had reached its zenith with British Malaya being the top tin producer in the world. It was also at that time that the local rubber industry had resolved major cultivation problems, resulting in rocketing supplies throughout the world.
The station was built at the most northern end of the railway network run by the Federated Malay States. Its location near the Prai River and the port made it very important, as large transhipments of minerals and other products for export were brought here by massive locomotives. Meanwhile, many goods brought in from overseas by ships from overseas, to be transported to other parts of Malaya, were offloaded at the port and conveyed to their destinations by the railway from Prai.
All these led to Prai becoming a thriving, energetic economic and industrial township in Malaya. For the next many decades it kept bustling, with its town’s landscape known for its wharves, factories, godowns and railway.
The chain-ferry near the railway terminal was always busy as the public relied on the system to cross the Prai River from Prai to Butterworth, and vice-versa. A “railway ferry” also operated, carrying rail passengers between Weld Quay on Penang island and Prai.
Till today Prai still bears many of the remnants of its past industrial glories. For though the railway station is no more, there are other significant reminders of the town’s heyday.
Industrial boom of the 1970s
It should also be noted that there were some promising developments in Prai in the 70s that veered its industrial strength towards a new direction, and thereby helping to salvage the economy. Chief among these is the government’s move to earmark an eastern stretch of Prai as the location of a new industrial manufacturing zone.
It is true that the town was adversely impacted when the Prai railway station got superseded by the new Butterworth railway station and after the chain-ferry service ceased to operate in the 1960s. However, the emergence of the Prai Industrial Estate in the 70s may have compensated to a large extent.
The industrial estate is still flourishing, housing some of the big names in the Malaysian manufacturing sector. There are old living landmarks in the form of fully functioning factories like Malayan Sugar, Malayawata Steel, Southern Steel, Harvik Rubber and Soon Soon Oilmills. There are also many other factories such as those dealing with production of biscuits, oatmeals, oleochemicals and electrical products.
They have been joined over the years by giant multinationals like Sony, Mattel, Pensonic, Hitachi Chemical, Mitsuoka Electronic, Chevron and Honeywell Aerospace. Many of them rely on the Prai Bulk Cargo Terminal for transhipment of their materials.
One of the most prominent and legendary industrial organisations in Prai is the Toray group of companies with its cable, fibre and textile concerns.
Quite likely, the emergence of the industrial estate spurred new residential enclaves to emerge in the 70s and 80s, forcing clusters of kampung settlements to be moved. These neighbourhoods which still exist today include places like Taman Nagasari, Inderawasih, Chai Leng Park, Taman Senangin and Taman Emas.