Taiping came into prominence during the 19th century when tin deposits were discovered in the area. This discovery led to the boom of the tin mining industry and attracted huge numbers of settlers, especially the Chinese. As with any historical records, there is an accompanying legend in regards to the discovery of tin in this area.
Long Jaafar has been credited in history books as the person who discovered tin in Larut in 1848. According to a legend, he had an elephant pet named Larut and used to take the animal along with him during his journeys between Bukit Gantang and Lubok Merbau. During one of these trips, the elephant went missing. It took three days before Larut the elephant resurfaced. When Long Jaafar was reunited with the animal, he noticed mud, grass and most importantly, tin ores embedded on its legs. Tin was then discovered and the area named after his elephant, Larut.
Regardless of the true discovery, large numbers of Chinese immigrants started pouring in to cash in on the tin fever. Things became so competitive and bitter that feuds began to arise between the different Chinese groups. Conflicts reached its highest point in the early 1870s and this was when the British decided to intervene and took control over the town.
Taiping used to be called Klian Pauh (Klian meaning mine and Pauh is the name of a type of small mango). It was the capital for the districts of Larut, Matang and Selama and also the whole of Perak. Along with its important status comes fights and struggles for supremacy and control. Thus, Taiping was embroiled in a long, drawn out war that brings about a change of rulership for Perak.
In 1850, the Larut district was conferred to Long Jaafar by Raja Muda Ngah Ali and the Chiefs of Perak; namely the Temenggong, Panglima Bukit Gantang, Panglima Kinta, Syahbandar and Seri Adika Raja. When Sultan Abdullah, the Sultan of Perak passed away in 1857, those below him started a string of succession disputes. Various royalties started abusing their power and this angered the common folk, resulting in rival Malay camps eventually taking sides with one or the other of the two major Chinese secret societies active during that time.
All the while, Long Jaafar founded and developed his administrative centre in Bukit Gantang and created Kuala Sungai Limau at Trong as the main harbor for the Larut Settlement. Come 1857 and Long Jaafar was succeeded by his son Ngah Ibrahim. It wasn’t until the May of 1858 that Ngah Ibrahim received an acknowledgement letter from Sultan Jaffar Muazzam Shah.
During Ngah Ibrahim’s reign, the number of Chinese doubled and by early 1860, two large groups came into existence; the “Five Assocations” whose members worked in the mines of Klian Pauh (Taiping) and the “Four Associations” whose members plied their trades in the mines of Klian Baharu. This division among the Chinese tin workers created a major rift and an inevitable war between the gangs. It wasn’t long before Larut was plagued by these conflicts, known as the ‘Larut Wars’, in a bid to rise to the top of the tin mining throne.
In 1875, Datok Maharaja Lela assassinated the first ever British Resident in Perak, Mr. James Wheeler Woodford Birch at Pasir Salak and following this tragedy, the capital of Perak was moved from Bandar Baru to Taiping. The town’s mining industry continued to boom, leading to the construction of Malaysia’s first railway, built to transport tin from Taiping to Port Weld (now Kuala Sepetang) at the coast for export. The first train in Malaysia took its run in 1885. Taiping continued to thrive and by 1900, an English language school, a newspaper and the Perak Museum (the oldest in Malaysia) had been established. Despite rapid developments, the capital of Perak was eventually transferred from Taiping to Ipoh in 1937.
Nothing is eternal, as soon tin deposits in Taiping started to dwindle along with its economy. Though the metal still remains an important industry in the area, it never achieved the prominence it enjoyed during the 19th century. Today, Taiping relies on rubber and rice to supplement its modest tin production.
And so it is that this place, once known as Klian Pauh, carried a history so rich and colorful. From the Chinese gang wars to when the British Government decided to make Taiping into an administration centre, the sleepy town has awakened to become a busy, roaring giant of the 19th century.
Along with progress comes a string of historical firsts that tagged the town of Taiping as one of the oldest town to ever exist in Malaysia. After more than a hundred years of roller coaster rides, Taiping still stands strong, although not as the giant it was but more of a historical treasure trove rich with nuggets of past events that history buffs will enjoy consuming.