The Golden Chersonese and the way thither, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter xix

The Chinese in Larut — “Monkey Cups” — Chinese Hospitality — A Sikh Belle


I am remaining here for another day or two, so have time to tell you a little about the surroundings.

Larut province is a strip of land about seventy miles long, and from twenty-five to forty-five broad. It was little known, and almost unexplored till 1848, when a Malay, while bathing, found some coarse, black sand, which, on being assayed, proved to be tin. He obtained twenty Chinese coolies, opened a mine which turned out lucrative, and the Chinese at home hearing that money was to be made, flocked into Larut, but after some years took to quarreling about the ownership of mines, and eventually to a war between the two leading clans, which threatened to be a war of extermination, and resulted in British interference, and the appointment of a Resident; and then Chinese merchants in Pinang made advances of money and provisions to such of their countrymen as were willing to work the abandoned mines. Very soon the population increased to such an extent that it became necessary to choose sites for mining towns, granting one to each faction; the Go Kwan town being called Taipeng, and the Si Kwan town Kamunting.

American mining enterprise could hardly go ahead faster. At the end of 1873 the population of Larut was four thousand, the men of the fighting factions only. Eleven months later these two mining towns contained nine thousand inhabitants, a tenth of whom were shopkeepers, and the district thirty-three thousand. Larut is level from the sea-shore to the mountain range, twenty miles inland, and is very uninteresting.

We have been in a gharrie to Kamunting, a Chinese mining town of four thousand people, three miles from here, approached through a pretty valley full of pitcher plants with purple cups and lids. You can imagine the joy of getting into my hands these wonderful nepenthes or “monkey cups” for the first time. I gathered five in the hope of finding one free from insects, but the cups of all were full of dried flies and ants, looking much as flies do when they have been clutched for a few days by the hairs of the “sun-dew.” The lid has a quantity of nectar on its under side which attracts insects; but below the rolled rim of the cup, which is slightly corrugated, the interior is as smooth as glass, and the betrayed flies must fall at once into the water at the bottom and be drowned. As these ingenious arrangements are made for their destruction, doubtless the plant feeds upon their juices.*

[*I have since learned that this is an ascertained fact, and that nepenthes are among the insectiverous plants.]

We went first to a very large tin mine belonging to a rich and very pleasant-looking Chinaman, who received us and took us over it. The mine is like a large quarry, with a number of small excavations which fill with water, and are pumped by most ingenious Chinese pumps worked by an endless chain, but there are two powerful steam pumps at work also. About four hundred lean, leathery-looking men were working, swarming up out of the holes like ants in double columns, each man carrying a small bamboo tray holding about three pounds of stanniferous earth, which is deposited in a sluice, and a great rush of water washes away the sand, leaving the tin behind, looking much like “giant” blasting powder. The Chinese are as much wedded to these bamboo baskets as to their pigtails, but they involve a great waste of labor. A common hoe is the other implement used. The coolies are paid by piece-work, and are earning just now about one shilling and sixpence per day. Road-making and other labor is performed by Klings, who get one shilling a day.

The tin is smelted during the night in a very rude furnace, with most ingenious Chinese bellows, is then run into moulds made of sand, and turned out as slabs weighing 66 lbs. each. The export duty on tin is the chief source of revenue. Close to the smelting furnaces there are airy sheds with platforms along each side, divided into as many beds as there are Chinamen. A bed consists only of a mat and a mosquito-net. There are all the usual joss arrangements, and time is measured by the burning of joss-sticks. Several rain-cloaks, made of palm leaves, were hanging up. These, and nearly all the other articles consumed by this large population are imported from China.

Our Chinese host then took us to some rooms which he had built for a cool retreat, to which, in anticipation of our visit, he had conveyed champagne, sherry, and bitter beer! His look of incredulity when we said that we preferred tea, was most amusing; but on our persisting, he produced delicious tea with Chinese sweetmeats, and Huntley and Palmer’s cocoa-nut biscuits. He then insisted on taking our hired gharrie and scrubby pony and sending us on in his buggy with a fine Australian horse, but Mr. Maxwell says that this was as much from policy as courtesy, as it gives him importance to be on obviously friendly terms with the Resident.

We went on to Kamunting, a forlorn town, mainly built of attap, with roads and ditches needing much improvement, and I bargained for some Chinese purses and visited a gambling saloon, the place in which one sees the peculiar expression of the Chinese face at its fullest development. There is nothing very shocking about it, nothing more than an intensified love of gain without a mask. Each coolie takes his pipe of opium after his day’s work, and each has a pot of tea kept always hot in a thickly wadded basket, a luxury which no Chinaman seems able to do without.

We called at a Sikh guard-house, and the magnificent sergeant took me to see his wife, the woman of the regiment, who is so rigidly secluded that not even the commanding officer nor Mr. Maxwell have seen her. She is very beautiful, and has an exquisite figure, but was overloaded with jewelry. She wore a large nose-jewel, seven rings of large size weighing down her finely formed ears, four necklaces, and silver bangles on each arm from the wrist to the elbow, besides some on her beautiful ankles. She had an infant boy, the child of the regiment, in her arms, clothed only in a silver hoop, and the father took him and presented him to me with much pride. It was a pleasant family group.

The few days here have been a real rest, I have been so much alone. There are no women to twitter; and when Mr. Maxwell is not at work he talks of things that are worth talking about. The climate, too, is bracing and wholesome, and the boisterous afternoon wind, which sweeps letters and papers irreverently away, keeps off the mosquitoes.

I. L. B.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31