Penang was recently crippled by floods.

SOCIAL media went to town last week with news and pictures of the devastating floods that hit Penang. While graphic images of mudslides, fallen trees and inundated roads are to be expected during such unusual torrential downpours, I was aghast at the sight of those taken at a home for the aged where the elderly and invalid lay unattended on waterlogged mattresses.

My heart went out to the affected poor who neither have the avenue to voice their grouses nor have the financial resources to rebuild their lives and homes after the water has long subsided. News of non-governmental orgainsations handing out much-needed aid to the people living in those affected areas at least offered glimpses of hope.

Ironically, this recent environmental disaster brought to mind an unexpected stroke of good fortune that I had last year when a collection of photographs was put on sale on the popular eBay website. The seller simply titled his listing as “Old Malaya Photographs“ but my heart skipped a beat when I clicked on the details to see the items for sale. The well-taken images showed various scenes in Malaya.


The after-effects of the recent island-wide floods in Penang prompt Alan Teh Leam Seng to revisit his collection of photographs taken during 1910 and 1911 when nearly all of KL was flooded.

The 50-odd photographs were all stuck down on pieces of foolscap paper which were starting to yellow with age. The top right hand corner of each page was numbered, making me speculate that those individual pages must have been ripped from either a self made album or some other compilation. Best of all, the original owner had taken the trouble to caption nearly every photograph in the collection.

Based on the pencilled captions, I gathered that those sepia images were taken by the Brown Comet Estate manager to chronicle, among others, the two consecutive floods that took place in 1910 and 1911. Both devastating inundations happened during the last few months of the years and the capital of Selangor was hardest hit.

Severe floods were a common occurrence in Kuala Lumpur during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Reports go as far back as 1881 when continuous rainfall lasted for 30 hours between 3am on Dec 21 and 9am the next day. The bridge over the Klang River was first to be destroyed around noon on the first day when a bamboo raft, carried by swift currents, collided into it with great force. Then the water began entering the shops, which were simply built of earth, causing the destruction of 92 dwellings. Even the new bridge over the Gombak River wasn‘t spared.

The Straits Times on Dec 31 that year reported that the Selangor flood was the most disastrous in living memory. It reported that the streets of Kuala Lumpur were under three metres of water, washing away a great number of houses including the newly-built brick house belonging to the-then Capitan China and state councillor, Yap Ah Loy.


Photo taken near the Selangor Club building during the 1911 floods.

PRICELESS ACQUISITION

Realising that flood devastation had a very pronounced impact on our nation‘s early history, I knew that I had to lay my hands on those historic photographs listed on eBay. Mustering my very limited funds set aside for buying collectibles, I quickly put in a modest bid and prayed hard, hoping that no one else had noticed the listing.

A long waiting game ensued as the seller had opted to list his items for nine full days. While that decision worked to his benefit as it allowed the maximum time to attract bidders, it was the complete reverse for me. It turned out to be one of the longest nine days in my life.

Finally the big day arrived. I purposely stayed up until 2.30am to watch the auction close in real time. Despite my bid still holding up in the dying minutes, I was aware that the final seconds would be the most crucial. That‘s the time when the serious buyers, if there were any, would start coming in. These deep-pocketed collectors employ the use of automated bidding software to slot in their high bids at the last three seconds before the auction closes. By then their competitors would not have sufficient time to place even higher bids.

A weight was lifted off my shoulders when the words “YOU WON THIS ITEM” finally appeared on the screen. Lady Luck was on my side. I got the priceless photographs for just a fraction of their actual value. A flurry of emails ensued between me and the seller, a used bookseller in Cardiff, Wales.


The Padang in front of the Government Offices was completely submerged during the 1911 floods.

After making payment and providing the seller with my shipping details, he revealed that the photographs came with other items which he bought at a garage sale. Just to be on the safe side, I paid a little bit extra for the things to be shipped by first class registered airmail. My final request was for the seller to send every scrap of paper related to the photographs to me. Every bit of information would be crucial for me to piece together a complete story related to the precious photographs.

Taking another look at the photographs again today brings back memories of the day when I first laid eyes on them more than 14 months ago. The package from Cardiff took less than a week to arrive and I spent a good two hours on that day to just marvel at the amazingly sharp images. The estate manager must have been a very good photographer!


People trying to build a makeshift raft in front of the Kuala Lumpur Engineering Works building during the 1911 floods.

DEEP IN WATER

Photographs concerning the 1910 floods are found on pages numbered 6 until 10. They show the waterlogged rubber estate and manager‘s bungalow taken at various angles. All have the inscribed date “Dec 24 & 25 1910“ beside them. There‘s even one with the manager posing in front of his bungalow!

There‘s a brief lull between pages 11 to 34 before various images of Kuala Lumpur inundated by floodwaters start to appear in the following six pages. This time all the photographs bear the captions “Dec 1911 Kuala Lumpur Floods“. The absence of flooded rubber estate photographs leads me to deduce that the photographer was away from his workplace when this environmental catastrophe happened.

Another possible reason for his presence in Kuala Lumpur that year surfaced during a chance visit to the Singapore National Library archives recently. While sifting through the extensive records, I came across a report in the Straits Times dated May 25, 1911. It was in the form of a short notice mentioning that the Brown Comet Estate had changed its name to the Selangor United New Comet Estate.

That immediately got me thinking. Could a management takeover have triggered the name change? If that was the case then the manager could‘ve lost his job there and his presence in Kuala Lumpur in December 1911 could mean that he‘d either found a new job there or perhaps was on holiday while waiting to return to Wales. The latter seemed more likely as page 40 which forms the penultimate page in the collection shows the Selangor Club knee-deep in water!

The damaged caused by the 1911 flood was worse than the one that swept across Kuala Lumpur the previous year. The Straits Times on Dec 22, 1911 reported that by 2pm the water at the Padang and many other thoroughfares were 1.8m deep, forcing Government Offices and a large majority of businesses to close for the day.


The railway track leading north to Penang was completely underwater during the 1911 floods.

The report goes on to say that the Chartered Bank had several metres of water in its building and people working nearby, including post office workers, had to swim to work. All kinds of debris were seen floating around town as numerous native houses were washed away by the currents. At the same time, the Government Printing House was damaged to the extent of thousands of dollars but thankfully, no loss of life was reported.

PAYING A HIGH PRICE

Coverage in the Singapore Free Press the next day, on Dec 23, 1911 stated that “...all means of locomotion to town from the residential quarters are blocked.“ This news segment reminds me of several graphic images in the collection that featured the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station as well as a nearby railway track under several metres of water.

Last week‘s newspapers ran many commentaries about the flood situation in Penang. Like Kuala Lumpur more than a century ago, Penang has paid a high price for its blatant disregard of the environment. Problems arising from more than a decade of hill clearing and endless construction have finally come home to roost.

Penang today is a far cry from the amazingly beautiful Pearl of the Orient it once was. The island‘s verdant hills are now peppered with large tracts of exposed land, completely devoid of vegetation. It vexes me to see apathy or the lack of it on the part of the authorities. Environmentalists have been predicting this catastrophe for some time and now they‘ve been proven correct.


Several men posing in front of the Chartered Bank building during the 1911 floods.

Mother Nature‘s way of warning us mustn‘t be left unheeded in our relentless pursuit of material wealth. This is an opportune moment for us to start respecting and caring for the environment. Woe unto those who try to tempt fate as more environmental disasters will no doubt surface to torment us again.

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