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Should Chinese new villages, which were essentially detention camps, be memorialised? Some who stayed there say no

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 25 — Datuk Yap Pian Hon was only seven years old when his family — part of 15,000 people — was relocated to Serdang New Village.

It was 1950 and the British had decided to move Chinese villagers living around Sungai Besi to a centralised location to keep an eye on them and to cut off supplies to the Communists.

Veteran MCA member, Datuk Yap Pian Hon speaking during an interview in Serdang New Village, Selangor on February 15,2024. — Picture by Miera  Zulyana
Veteran MCA member, Datuk Yap Pian Hon speaking during an interview in Serdang New Village, Selangor on February 15,2024. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

Veteran MCA member, Datuk Yap Pian Hon speaking during an interview in Serdang New Village, Selangor on February 15,2024. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

“The only entry into the village was across a wooden bridge over Sungai Kuyuh. The British called it a new village but with the place surrounded by barbed wires, it was more like a detention camp.

“At that time, it was called Serdang Bharu... until 1974, when I was elected assemblyman, I proposed it be called Seri Kembangan, inspired by the word kembang [expand] in Malay so the village which was later turned into a township would continue to grow.

“When we moved here, it was just a piece of land. Nothing like what you see today,” Yap told Malay Mail.

He was reminiscing about how the name came about during one of his discussions with then-Selangor menteri besar Datuk Seri Harun Idris.

Serdang Bharu was the second largest Chinese new village in Malaya after Jinjang; today it has a population of about 150,000 people largely made up of entrepreneurs, businessmen, professionals, civil servants who work in Putrajaya and those who work in multinational corporations located in Cyberjaya.

An aerial view of Serdang New Village, Selangor on February 15,2024. — Picture by Miera  Zulyana
An aerial view of Serdang New Village, Selangor on February 15,2024. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

An aerial view of Serdang New Village, Selangor on February 15,2024. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

In its early days, Yap said houses had to be built from scratch by settlers as the British only provided them with empty plots of land.

The area was close to rubber estates and the jungle, and settlers had to work as miners and rubber tappers to get by.

It was later when Yap served as state assemblyman for the area that seven types of cottage industries were introduced; these included shoe-making and the production of snacks.

Yap, who has lived here his whole life, still has vivid memories of times there was no water or electricity supply or such things as paved roads.

Food was rationed; rice was distributed according to the number of persons in a household to ensure no extra was kept to support the Communists.

“It was very bad. Because the British were worried that the villagers would give out food aid to the Communists, they took charge of cooking, and we ate from a huge communal wok.

“We had very little freedom whereby even the rubber tappers’ packed lunches were checked,” he said.

At the time, Yap remembered that curfew was from 7pm to 5am every day from 1948 to about 10 years after.

“Everyone would put out their light from the kerosene lamps as any light visible after the hour would mean trouble.

“The soldiers would conduct random checks on the houses, and the number of people in each household was strictly tracked where photos were stuck on walls to represent the people in one household.

“If you are visiting you cannot stay overnight in the house, as your photo is not placed at the front entrance of the house. If one person is missing or if there is an extra person, we were required to provide an explanation... failing to do so would land us in trouble,” he said.

An aerial view of Serdang New Village, Selangor on February 15,2024. — Picture by Miera  Zulyana
An aerial view of Serdang New Village, Selangor on February 15,2024. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

An aerial view of Serdang New Village, Selangor on February 15,2024. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

When the State of Emergency ended in 1962, the barbed wires were dismantled and Serdang Bharu was declared a white area, free from Communist threats.

The Serdang parliamentary seat was created in 1995 but Yap represented the area for five terms as its assemblyman, between 1969 to 1990, during which he was also appointed a state exco after he left the DAP to contest under MCA’s ticket in 1974.

“I wanted to create change. I wanted to help the villagers live a better life and I knew that politics was one of the ways where I could mobilise change,” he said.

“Back then, even before the resettlement, people were already facing serious poverty issues. To keep the population from migrating out of the village to search for better economic growth, I knew we had to develop the socio-economic conditions of Serdang. We agreed that the village needed more job opportunities and the answer to this was industrialisation based on small and medium industries,” he said.

Shoe factories had a great presence in Serdang, where during the early 1980s, 60 per cent of Malaysian shoe products were made there.

“I’m very happy with the achievement the township has made. Look at it today. Everyone comes here for food and it’s still booming after all these years.

“Seri Kembangan grew the fastest among the 452 Chinese new villages in Malaysia. Which other new village do you know has schools and shopping centres? It has a wholesale market, hospital, a college, a fire station and even a branch of the National Registration Department.” he said.

One recent issue that has caused unhappiness among the new villagers is the thorny issue of renewal of leaseholds. In light of recent policy changes, many households are struggling to renew their leases.

“Before 2008, it was simpler. If you apply for 60 years' renewal, you only need to pay RM0.50 per sq ft.

“If you apply for 99 years, then you need to pay RM2.50 per sq ft. “Now you need to apply for the leases based on the market price,” said Yap, adding that “some are even at RM60,000 per house.

“How can the villagers pay that much? It is ridiculous,” he said.

Although Chinese new villages in the area have seen positive growth, Yap said people do not want to be reminded of its history.

“Those were very sad and unpleasant days which the Chinese had to go through. Moreover, there’s barely any identity of a Chinese new village left in Serdang. There used to be an old cinema but it’s been demolished, even the market that was the lifeline of the locals has been rebuilt.

Old wooden dwelling units are pictured in Serdang New Village, Selangor on February 15,2024. — Picture by Miera  Zulyana
Old wooden dwelling units are pictured in Serdang New Village, Selangor on February 15,2024. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

Old wooden dwelling units are pictured in Serdang New Village, Selangor on February 15,2024. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

“If you take a drive around the area, yes you may notice some old wooden houses but they are mostly dilapidated as the owners no longer live there and they don’t want to spend money to rebuild,” Yap said.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia emeritus professor and historian Datuk Teo Kok Siong agrees with Yap that Chinese new villages should not be memorialised.

“The Malayan Chinese, in general, were believed by the British to support the Communists who were considered enemies of the state or enemies of the British.

“So that is how these Chinese new villages came about, and they were given the name as it was made up of 100 per cent Chinese settlers and the only non-Chinese were the policemen staying in the police quarters,” Teo told Malay Mail.

“To me, personally, it’s not a right move because for the 600 or so Chinese new villages, from the historical perspective it is full of negative memories.

“Their formation is already negative, as it was meant to confine citizens who were deemed not loyal to the country, so to speak," he explained, referring to the recent proposal to nominate some Chinese new villages in Selangor as a Unesco World Heritage site by Local Government Development Minister Nga Kor Ming.

“The Chinese in the new villages were contained and confined... so they could not speak Bahasa Malaysia at all,” he said.

Even today, Teo said after everything is over, they are still “very Chinese”.

“In the 1970s when I stayed in Jinjang... if you were to get lost and stopped to ask in Malay for directions, you would have to stay overnight there.

“For us to nominate such places which are so unrepresentative of a plural Malaysia is not a good idea,” he said.

Catherine Lu said Salak South New Village no longer looks like what it used to when she was a child and visited her grandmother there for Chinese New Year.

“There is no ‘heritage’ to be recognised so to speak as even my grandfather’s three houses have gone through renovations.

“A lot of the houses have been rented out to migrants. So before the minister says that he wants to turn the Chinese new villages into Unesco World Heritage sites, is he aware of these changes?” Lu asked.