Counting sand in an hourglass

A passage through Kerayong River

Death of a coolie

Hen Chang did not die immediately after the earth above him caved in.

He was rescued by nearby coolies and brought to the General Hospital on Jalan Pahang, a single-storey wooden building with modest medical facilities. In April of 1912, the General Hospital was the second oldest hospital in British Malaya and the best Kuala Lumpur had to offer.

New Blondin Mine, located on Kerayong River, was abundant with karang (tin-rich sand) which coolies like Hen Chang dug with a shovel. Though British Malaya had been the world’s largest tin producer for many years, primitive mining methods still dominated the industry.

A typical open cast tin mine of its time, pictured here in Taiping around 1910. Courtesy of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies and Leiden University Library.

A reliance on physical labour meant that mines grew more dangerous as coolies dug deeper. The probability of landslides, floods and river silting increased as mines got exhausted; it was not unusual for mines to be abandoned during this period.

Local businessman Choo Cheng Khay owned mines around the country. He named several acquisitions after the blondin apparatus, a type of ropeway conveyors used in quarries. Born in Penang to Chinese migrants, Choo Cheng Khay was the first to introduce the blondin apparatus to local mining. He later transferred the apparatus to his Kerayong mines and successfully debuted the open-cast mining system in Sungai Besi.

Choo Cheng Khay hoped to expand tin mining on Kerayong River but failed to attract investors. By the time the mine reached seventy-five feet deep, three more coolies would find themselves unceremoniously buried under a cascade of earth. Choo Cheng Khay put the New Blondin Mine project on hold in 1913.

Meanwhile north in the Kinta Valley, work had begun on the tin dredges which would revolutionise Malayan mining.

Kerayong River at a glance

Kerayong flows out of the hills in Ampang via many small tributaries which eventually meet form the main river.

Spanning 12.5 kilometres from origin to confluence, Kerayong River is a common sight for folk living on the east side. It sprawls across the east of Kuala Lumpur, flowing in from the hills of Ampang and the waterways of Cheras, meeting the Klang River at Taman Desa. It has small, unnamed tributaries from many directions which may be responsible for its inconsistent appearance in maps throughout the years.

The river is one of several benefiting from River of Life, a multi-billion ringgit river rejuvenation and beautification project spearheaded by the Malaysian government. Through the initiative, Kerayong River’s water quality will be lifted up to Class II B -- safe for recreational use and body contact -- by the year 2020.

The water quality of Kerayong River changes dramatically and rapidly everytime it rains due to the high imperviousness of the Kerayong River basin. In 2012, a study noted that half of the Kerayong River basin was covered in residential development. The same study also indicated that the urban catchment of the Kerayong River is severely polluted, indicating a chemical oxygen demand (COD) load of 9 kg/Ha.

At present, Kerayong River is in a shocking state.

Mountains of rubbish left behind by residents, industries and high waters are a common sight along most of the rivers in Kuala Lumpur.

For a river to measure up to a Class II B, its water samples must contain no more than 4 cfu/mL of Escherichia coli. Imagine the surprise of researchers studying Kerayong River in 2012 who found levels of E. coli in excess of 1400 cfu/mL. This result describes the number of viable, colony-forming units of E. coli in each milliliter of river water -- 1400 cfu/mL roughly translates to 70 viable E. coli bacteria in each drop of water.

News media has frequently highlighted the river’s struggle with pollution while studies have raises concern for its health. The people who live by the river have treated the river as landfill, disposing rubbish and sewage into the waters. Kerayong River was also suspected to be contaminated with industrial pollution last year, when residents of Pandan Perdana reported foam on the surface of the river.

“Hit-Sand-River”

Razak Mansion is gone. Launched in 1962 by Tun Abdul Razak, it was a government housing project for lower-income citizens. Razak Mansion began as a long row of flats on Jalan Sungai Besi which quickly became recognised for its perforated brick wall surface. Dubbed an “attention-grabbing beauty during its time” in The Star(24 April 2017), it sat 40 metres east of Kerayong River.

Razak Mansion was demolished this year to make way for Razak City, a mixed development project. Its long-time residents were upgraded to the brand new 1 Razak Mansion, constructed 100 metres west of Kerayong River. Featuring a sleeker, more cosmopolitan aesthetic, the new 1 Razak Mansion is 18 storeys high, comprising over 650 units.

The Razak Mansion residential complex was well known for its unique, perforated brick wall surface which ensured good ventilation while filtering sunlight.

Ah Cheong runs a small restaurant in one of the shop lots. He hosts a food and drink stall in his space. The most popular item is steamed rice with roasted chicken or pork belly accompanied with a zingy chilli, ginger and garlic blend. There is an idle noodle soup stall in the corner.

“She’s not working today,” Ah Cheong says in Malay.

The 50-year old hasn’t had much contact with Kerayong River. He recalls the name of the river in his mother tongue (“daa saa ho”) but has difficulty translating it. He persuades a young woman having lunch with her mother and sister into writing it down. The characters are 打 (hit), 沙 (sand), 河 (river). An elderly patron drinking tea on the next table relates that the river was once mined for construction sand. Others would attest to the claim.

It’s business-as-usual for traders of the old Razak Mansion wet market, now that they’ve moved into a new premise just across the river.

But here, approximately 4.3 kilometres upstream for its confluence with Sungai Klang, nobody is sentimental over Kerayong River. The young woman’s sister claims that the current is too strong. The mother insists it is not clean enough for swimming. The elderly patron lost contact with the river after the sand mining ended. .

Asked if he misses his old home, Ah Cheong grins. He has no qualms about his new apartment nor reasons to miss the old. Relocated residents of the old Razak Mansion got bigger and better units at 1 Razak Mansion. There was even a manned guard house at the entrance for additional security.

“It’s a good place,” he says while making calamansi lime juice for a patron. “My old house was four-hundred square feet but the new one is eight-hundred.”

Nearby, the Kerayong River flows steadily by the rubble and remains of the original Razak Mansion. It is unclear if the residents of 1 Razak Mansion will ever be able to connect to the river in its present state.

The site where Sungai Kerayong drains into Sungai Klang, pictured just as the day awakens.

“bagai membilang buah kerayong”

Translated directly, it means “like counting kerayong fruit” and is used to indicate a futile effort. Variations of the river’s name as seen in geographical and historical texts include “kerayung”, “krayong” and “kryong”. The name may refer to bunga kerayong (Peltophorum dasyrhachis) or petai kerayong (Parkia javanica), two types of tree species endemic to Southeast Asia.

The kerayong tree is known to have medicinal properties. In April 1930, the Straits Settlement’s Garden Bulletin recorded the use of a kerayong tree bark to treat coughs. The special Malay Village Medicine issue notes Peltophorum dasyrhachis as the kerayong tree but this listing came with an asterisk. On the other hand, contemporary herbal Malay medicine extolls the virtues of kerayong tree bark for herpes zoster.

A butterfly paints a picture of calmness on the banks of Kerayong.

Kerayong River is home to many different species of plants and animals though neither bunga kerayong nor petai kerayong were spotted near the river in urban areas. Instead, the distinctly-coloured ketapang tree (Terminalia catappa) was seen several times, once choked by a particularly large cultivar of the money plant (Epipremnum aureum). Under Pandan Jaya station are pink and purple specimens of the Mexican petunia (Ruellia simplex).

Biawak (Varanus salvator) and smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata) were seen wading through the river. Observations from the river bank include the skin of a cobra as well as several types of unidentified fishes.

There’s just too much water

It wasn’t until the Storm Management and Road (SMART) Tunnel came along that Kerayong River became the talk of town. Developed by Gamuda and Mott MacDonald UK, the tunnel was built to manage storm water and traffic in the city centre, thus alleviating flooding and traffic jams.

The SMART Tunnel channelled water from upstream of the Klang River into Kerayong River during storms, by means of an attenuation pond in Taman Desa. It began operations in January 2007 and opened to motorists four months later. Soon, it nabbed the UN Habitat Scroll of Honour Award and found itself featured on the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, and the Science Channel.

But here in Taman Pertama, floods still wreak havoc every now and then.

In the past, roads were built parallel to rivers as that was the only route people were familiar with. Today, rivers are built and rebuilt to suit the needs of an ever expanding city.

A muscular young man in a singlet and his hair in a bun leans over a bridge connecting Taman Pertama to Sungai Besi Highway. High above the river, he kept his eyes on the horizon while smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. His friend, Yusuf, answered questions about the Kerayong River.

“There was a boy who drowned in the river not too long ago,” Yusuf recalls as his friend nonchalantly tosses a plastic bottle into the waters below. “They found his body in a former mine.”

Yusuf remembers the river being transformed in recent years. He and other residents would claim that Kerayong River once had more of an “S” shape on this leg of its course, 7.3 kilometres from the confluence.

Mr. Leong(left) and his colleague showing photographs of their temple during the recent flood.

Down the road from both men stood a wooden building with cement floors. In front of the red and white building was a golden ceremonial cauldron. Manned by an old couple, Kuan Seng Than Temple was a house converted into a religious site for the past 30 years.

Speaking in Malay, Mr. Leong is friendly and eager to chat while his wife swapped between frowns and smiles, reluctant to participate but interested in the discussion. Mr. Leung’s friend goes back into the house and brings out two photos. Just moments ago all three were busy cleaning and organising the premises.

“Look at how high the water got,” Leong says while pointing at the photos. “This place floods a lot. We have to close every time it floods. It happens every year, whenever it rains for 1 hour or more.”

Where there was once a squatter settlement, now plays host to a temple and a brand new highway. During the construction of the Loke Yew highway, designed to ease traffic between Ampang and the city centre, the river had to be straightened and widened.

The photos depict Kuan Seng Than temple with water levels dangerously close to the mouth of the ceremonial cauldron by the temple entrance. Leong had been living in Kuala Lumpur for a long time; he remembers when he used to catch prawns in Kerayong River.

“The river was only six feet wide,” he claims. “The banks even had carpet grass growing on them; now it’s mostly just weeds growing there.”

Trying to make things work

Down the street from Kuan Seng Than Temple, two men in uniform are unclogging drains at Taman Ikan Emas food court. Scooping sludge out with a shovel, they worked fast and hard to get the food court ready for dinnertime.

“The drains here become stuck very fast so we need to clean it out frequently,” Mizan explains. “People throw everything into the drain when they should be finding proper ways to do it.”

This is Mizan’s job every single day. Scooping out rotten food, grease and carcasses from drains, all because the residents in the Taman Ikan Emas area are not bothered to dispose of their waste properly.

The impending night-time crowd is expected to generate even more grease, food waste and litter. If these drains aren’t emptied routinely, the food court could be flooded when it rains. Therefore, both men need to collect the sludge in a bucket and dispose of it responsibly.

Mizan and his colleague are from Bangladesh but they speak enough Malay for a fruitful conversation. Mizan notes that Kerayong River does not look particularly healthy.

“The river is dirty, small and smelly now. People throw rubbish into it all the time.” he confesses.

The management of domestic and commercial wastewater leaves much room for improvement, and thought. In most cases, people simply don’t care to follow the guidelines of the city council, and instead choose the cheapest, most obvious method in their mind.

But 12.1 kilometres upstream from the confluence, five men wade in the river along Jalan Maju, Ampang. One of them has a gunny sack containing grey-looking lampam (Barbonymus schwanenfeldii) caught by hand. Hailing from Myanmar, they were busy catching dinner and were convinced that they were fishing in a drain.

“Nine sacks of fish,” spoke David with a smile, “That’s how much we used to catch in this same place five years ago.”

The most eloquent Malay speaker of the lot, David catches fish here every month or so. His hands and feet were muddy from the tainted water. In the distance, a log boom was covered with domestic litter.

A small gunny sack full of fish can last these five men for about a month, provided it is skinned, deboned and stored properly. They are well aware of the health and hygiene concerns with consuming fish from such a polluted river, but the high cost of living coupled with low pay leaves them little choice.

David warns not to cook these fish with its skin and bones. That’s where all the pollutants are concentrated. Even better, drop by Rawang to catch a cleaner, healthier and tastier meal.

But for now, Kerayong River lampam will do.

Move on but stay close

"Excuse me boy, it's three ringgit to park here."

An aged, long-haired man at Pandan Jaya station holds out a piece of paper. His left leg was supported by crutches while his clothes were stained.

Pandan Jaya station is connected to the Sungai Besi highway by means of a metal bridge stretching over the Kerayong river. Located 9.5 kilometres from its confluence with Sungai Klang, the river flows steadily under the bridge, emanating the mild stench of sewage.

Well more than a century has passed since the waterways of the city were used as a means of transportation. Today, the river is more a nuisance than a boon, an obstacle that needs to traversed over.

Across the bridge and by the entrance, an elderly man leans against the railing and stares into the distance. Though responsive, he looked sad. He claimed to have come to Pandan Jaya to visit a friend. He will go home soon.

In a time when things are changing faster than ever, Kerayong River’s clock is ticking. It has found relevance in various areas over the years, whether through transport, mining or food. But as its primary functions became obsolete, the river has slowly faded from public memory.

At the Pandan Jaya Lrt Station, while most of the visitors are waiting for a train, some are just there to watch the world go by.

Like the folks left behind during the ongoing modernisation of Kuala Lumpur, Kerayong River is in need of attention and care. It has served its purpose throughout the years and deserves to be recognised today as a valuable component of the city.

While River of Life is determined to make Kerayong River hospitable again, it will not be sustainable without the concerted effort of everyone living in the Klang Valley. Take a moment to walk down to the river and listen to its story. Visualise its network. Every water catchment is connected -- there’s no containing pollution in a single location.

Until we stop treating the outside world differently from our own homes, we’re going to find ourselves in a world of self-inflicted trouble.