Ampang’s Forgotten Lifeblood

Navigating the banks of Ampang River and glimpses of the life it sustains

The river under the highways resembles more of a sewerage system than a vibrant river. Kuala Ampang.

It’s late morning when I arrive in Kuala Ampang, at the spot where the Ampang River merges into the Klang River, Kuala Lumpur’s mightiest river. The Ampang River begins its journey as a small, crystal clear stream trickling out of the pristine Ampang Forest Reserve. Here at the point of confluence however, it’s not quite the case.

Downstream

There’s clear evidence of domestic and industrial waste, garbage, and road run off that the river has collected in a bizarre rojak of pollution as it flows downstream. The once grassy banks have been encased in concrete just like the Klang River, with a steep drop on either side into the murky green-brown waters below. The area has been fenced off by Jabatan Pengairan Selangor, with stern warnings put up to deter any potential trespassers, including myself.

A little further into a nearby residential area, short housing lanes lead to a small forgotten urban park with a crumbling pedestrian lane. Rows of decorative palm trees stand out between overgrown grass and rotting benches. The riverbank is rocky and littered with trash, but I spot two men picking their way gingerly through the murky water, triumphantly holding up their catch of the day.

A trash rake facility with a floating log booms on Ampang river.

“Those are the ‘kuli(coolie)’,” says an elderly Chinese uncle in broken Malay, referring to the migrant labourers who build Malaysia’s shiny new skyscrapers and megaprojects. He is seated on his kapchai(motorcycle), dressed in a singlet, shorts, rubber flip-flops and no helmet. “No one goes down to the river anymore, not us. Only the Indonesians and the Bangladeshis”. The two men fishing in the river climb up the concrete edge and walk into the distance with their catch, most likely their meal for the day.

Kuala Ampang

The kapcai Chinese uncle is a typical resident of Kuala Ampang, a new village set up during the Emergency (1948-1960) in the early ‘50s to insulate the local Hakka community away from the Communist insurgents. It was just one of the 49 New Villages set up in Selangor, and a total of 480 across Malaya by 1954. By the end of the Emergency, more than a million people had been resettled into 600 of these new villages, where the population was predominantly Chinese. According to the older villagers, the area was originally a sugar cane plantation in the early 1800s. This was of course before tin was discovered, and eager prospectors scarred the earth for its riches.

Looking out from the Ampang river toward the confluence. The newly built skyscrapers usher in a new change for Kampung Berembang and the surrounding area.

With a population of about 6 thousand people, Kampung Baru Ampang today is a bustling hive of economic activities, with iconic Ampang yong tao foo restaurants, mechanics, and other small trades. Tok Penghulu for the Hulu Kelang area Zaimi Ghazali passes me a report on the village based on interviews with the residents, including those who have lived there for decades. He tells me that at least a quarter of the residents have moved out over the years, as the surrounding areas continued to develop.

Kuala Ampang of today bears little resemblance to its early days. The village still retains traces of its dark past as a makeshift concentration camp for the Chinese residents. Chinese lanterns from a different age can be seen hung up at some homes, their bright red faded to a dusty salmon pink.

Kampung Berembang

With Kuala Ampang town behind me, I spot two boys talking to an elderly Malay man at a warung across the river. I wave hello, and receive a wordless invitation to cross over to the former site of Kampung Berembang, a Malay village separated from Kuala Ampang by the river. Development is still underway, where generations of residents were relocated to make way for development a number of years ago, under the Selangor state administration’s zero squatter policy.

Half-built skyscrapers stand where Kampung Berembang used to be.

The village is named after the Berembang tree, a native aquatic plant growing along tidal riverbanks and creeks with mud banks. These trees are a favourite mating ground for fireflies, painting the leaves with their brilliant light displays. Today, Kampung Berembang is a community housed in a network of flats, a tidy way to deal with the residents who were deemed squatters despite having lived there for generations.

It doesn’t take much to imagine what Kampung Berembang and Kuala Ampang used to look like in the distant past, surrounded by abundant wildlife and lush greenery that twinkled at night.

Jalan Ampang

Going upstream, the Ampang river flows underneath the Ampang Elevated Highway, and then parallel to Jalan Ampang itself. On one end is the epitome of modern day life; prime office real estate, nightspots like Zouk and its peers, and shopping malls like KLCC and Pavillion. The less ventured opposite end is what is left of Emergency era villages and Malay kampungs, struggling to retain their identities in the face of rapid development. One of the oldest roads in the Klang Valley, Jalan Ampang is another living heritage of the city’s early days as a thriving tin mining hotspot.

The open-cast tin mines in those days were pretty elaborate affairs, and once they had been worked out the craters they left would gradually fill with rainwater and turn into lakes.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Moss.

Before the glory days of tin mining, Ampang’s Chinese population numbered only 250. The area was originally populated by immigrant miners from Sumatra, who settled along the upper reaches of the Klang River in the first quarter of the 19th century. Two of the largest Malay groups in the area were the Rawa - Mandiling and Minangkabau, although only the former was involved in tin mining.

In 1857, Ampang saw the arrival of Chinese miners from Lukut, Port Dickson, brought in by Raja Abdullah Raja Jaafar, a Bugis Malay appointed Klang administrator by Selangor royalty. The name Ampang is a corruption of the word empangan, referring to the dams built by the miners in what was once dense jungle. By 1880, the Chinese population in Ampang had tripled to more than 830, outnumbering some 600 Malays. Within another five years, the Chinese population numbered more than 1,100.

In 1891, Ampang’s population had surged to more than 5,000, out of which nearly 90% were Chinese. Most of the Chinese in Ampang originally came from the southern coastal provinces of Kwantung and Fukien in China. The Ampang chinese consisted mainly of the ‘Khehs’ followed by the Hokkiens and Cantonese. The Khehs here were not a homogenous group for they were further divided into ‘Fui Chew’ and ‘Ta-pu’ Hakkas. The latter were the late comers, possibly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were mainly engaged in business: medicine men, blacksmiths, pawnbrokers, tailors, etc.

It’s been close to half a century since the golden age of Ampang tin mining, after the last of the mines were exhausted in the early 1980s. The sprawling mines carved out by water jets have been replaced by residential areas, and Jalan Ampang chokes under the weight of modern-day traffic.

Villages in the city

Along the main road is Pekan Ampang, home to a row of forty century-old shop houses, fragments of Selangor’s colonial history. These properties have been passed down through generations of families, many who still live and work there.

It’s about lunchtime when I park my car in front of a Chinese medicine shop. Plastic chairs serve as the main consultation area, with diagrams of the human body the wall, and the ubiquitous altar at the far end. Several doors down is an old shop with half a dozen vintage sewing machines arranged in two haphazard rows inside.

A woman minds a watch and clock store in Pekan Lama Ampang.

The town’s Chinese heritage is evident in the main trade area, which include a liquor shop, shops selling medicine and herbal remedies, 4D lotteries, and an assortment of non-halal warungs. Not the kind of shops you’ll find in any of the one-too-many shopping malls in the city centre. At one of the few Malay warungs along the street, a Chinese uncle stops by on a motorcycle to drop off a box of mandarin oranges, exchanging pleasantries with the makcik who runs the cashier. Across the road at the pasar, the Chinese fruit sellers call out to several Indian pedestrians passing by; they have clearly known each other for many years. Just another day in Pekan Ampang.

There are some colourful fruits on sale for the New Year, which I am told are only for show. “Pretty, aren’t they?” laughs Madam Wong, who runs the stall at the corner of the small market. I ask how long she’s been selling fruits, and she chuckles again. “A long time! I’m from Pekan Ampang, born and bred. My grandfather migrated to Malaya from China, and I am the third generation of my family here. Even my father is already 80 years old.” Madam Wong candidly mentions talk of returning to their roots during political flare-ups, and I see the hurt in her expression. This is home, no matter where they are from.

Men fishing in the river at Kampung Melayu Ampang. Garbage and unregulated construction choke the river system. In the background is the Ampang forest reserve

In contrast, the neighbouring Kampung Melayu Ampang that straddles the Ampang river celebrated it’s 50th anniversary in 2014. The area was only officially gazetted as one of the early settlements of the Malay migrants in 1964, but houses were built decades before that, with some stretching over the river itself. The area is now a bizarre mix of old and new, where kampung dwellings of assorted sizes and colours often share a fence with a modern palatial bungalow.

Both Pekan Ampang and Kampung Melayu Ampang are typical of the early settlements in Malaya, built along the river with little to no town planning. It’s another example of how the Malay and Chinese communities initially lived side-by-side in pre-independence Kuala Lumpur, with the Chinese mines running alongside Malay agriculture. The racial demographic is somewhat more mixed these days, but the local community appear to be very much at ease with each other.

Waterfront

Development eating into the fringe of the Ampang Forest Reserve.

A little further upstream along Jalan Bukit Belacan, more shop lots have been built along the river to form the Ampang Waterfront. The mixed development was meant to change what a shabby stretch of illegal wooden workshops, stalls and squatter homes, into a recreational area.

A paved path tracks the river, but the area has fallen into a sad state due to a lack of maintenance; metal railings are rusted, twisted, or missing entirely. Bridges dot this forgotten riverfront, connecting the rows of shops to the residential area behind it.

A delivery van is parked among other vehicles along the river, where a man is looking intently down into the water. I make an offhand comment about the trash in the area, and he answers in a more positive tone. “There are fish here though, and we do catch them,” he says. “The tilapia grows pretty big!” This portion of the river is closer to it’s source at the Ampang Forest Reserve, and more locals can be seen fishing on weekends.

A young man with his catch. The polluted rivers are a hazard for people and animals alike. It is feared that fish caught from the river and consumed may have severe health risks.

Walking along, I bump into another Chinese uncle, staring pensively into the distance. He owns one of the car workshops that operate along the river, alongside furniture shops, eateries and others. “The tilapia is pretty tasty,” he admits in broken Malay. “It’s okay to fish here, because we’re near the source of the river.” The water is clearer, and the fish visible to the naked eye.

Aside from the spawning activity, the tilapia can be seen swimming around trash on the riverbed. “People dump all kinds of garbage into the river,” he reveals, shaking his head.

Untreated and unfiltered grease and food waste leaks into the river through the washbasins, sinks and kitchens of many local businesses. Near Waterfront, Ampang

I find hope in the sight of signs of a new life cycle with the hardy tilapia, but that sentiment is tempered by Universiti Teknologi Malaysia professor, Maketab Mohamed. With his experience in water quality and water quality modelling, he has an entirely different take on my observation. “Tilapia can survive in Class IV water,” he says, admitting that the fish are not a sign of cleaner waters. “If cooked it would be safe to eat, but the flesh is probably not too tasty.”

The River of Life Project aims to raise the water quality from the current III to class IIB, making it safe for skin contact, allowing activities like kayaking and swimming. Maketab remains sceptical that this objective can be achieved. “Sungai Ampang is an urban river, therefore mostly polluted,” he says. “RoL hasn’t reached it’s original objective probably because the pollution sources have not been taken care of. Only at the source is the river still clean.”

Giant drains from the business district pours into the river.

He doesn’t go into full detail, but his message his clear. The River of Life Project aims to turn the Klang and Gombak Rivers into a bustling and vibrant waterfront area, but this cannot be done if the 10 tributaries including the Ampang River are not cleaned up first. There are several more years to go before the year 2020 deadline for the project to revitalise the heart of Kuala Lumpur, and all the stakeholders have their work cut out for them to achieve this goal.

Bukit Belacan

One of the few hidden gems left in the city, the Ampang Forest Reserve is nestled at the end of Jalan Ampang, within the Selangor State Park. It’s quiet on a weekday, but an estimated 400 to 500 people come to Bukit Belacan per day during weekends. I wonder how many will brave the forest if they know it was used by Communists as a remote execution ground to behead Japanese sympathisers before Merdeka. In fact, there are reports that Ampang itself was taken over by the Bintang Tiga, during the two-week transition period after the Japanese surrendered and withdrew from Malaya in 1945.

The green lung that remains there bear little evidence of its dark past. Today, the source of the river in Bukit Belacan is plagued by what is known as the urban river syndrome, a common affliction for similar bodies of water unfortunate enough to cross paths with mankind and the resulting development.

Just outside the forest, other pollution sources include garbage dumping, domestic and industrial waste, urban runoff storm water, pesticides and herbicides from a nearby golf course, and even sewage pipe leakage. “I’ve lived in Ampang for 20 years and I’ve seen it go from bad to worse,” says Professor Catherine Yule. She is Head of Academic Development at Monash University Malaysia, with a key focus on researching the health of rivers nationwide.

The start of Sungai Ampang at the Ampang Forest Reserve.

However, she is quick to insist that the story does not end there. “The headwaters are really clean, they’re lovely, they’re beautiful! Very diverse, nice flora and fauna. They support a lot of wildlife,” she says, perking up immediately. “It’s not too late.” There are environmental success stories that Malaysia can learn from, including the clean-up of the River Thames in England, Lake Constance at the Germany-Austria-Switzerland border, and Australia’s Yarra River.

As I leave the forest reserve, a terrapin crosses my path before retreating back into the river. Further out, a pair of painted storks take flight in a flurry of white feathers, joining several more circling higher up in the sky. Perhaps there is still life yet in the Ampang river, despite the many challenges along it’s path.