Archive for December, 2013

Industrial Heritage and Ecosystem: Charcoal from the Mangrove Trees

Text and photographs: Law Siak Hong 

It is impossible to forget that first time you set your eyes on the Kuala Sepetang charcoal kilns. They form a surreal dreamscape.

Ensconced in a voluminous shed that has been darkened by rising tree oil vapour and the smoke from wood fire, a row of smoking igloos appears to pulse relentlessly. The spectacle is entrancing. While a crisp, dry scent hangs in the open air, you inhale wisps of tart fumes of the oil expelled from the wood in the kilns. It’s atmospheric.

Unforgettable is the experience of the igloos in a darkened shed.

Raised on a base lined with firebricks, the hemispheroid bricks kilns are handmade by a travelling band of craftsmen-builders. Around the kilns, the ground is raw earth, trodden on by men and machines at work, yet powdery from the ash and bits of stray charcoal. In these fascinating kilns, bakau wood is slowly ‘cooked’ for up to 28 days to become charcoal, the best fuel for time-honoured slow cooking as well as frying in a hot wok.

The new may improve efficiency but the old has survived with traditional technology.

Filling the kiln with 10.5 tonnes of bakau billets is a day’s work for eight strong men

For retail, pieces of charcoal are packed in paper bags.

The kilns have always been easily accessible from the main road into Kuala Sepetang. It may be mere coincidence, but until metal roofing began to replace the expansive attap roof twenty years ago, the place did not even figure on the tourist radar. Since then, plenty of visitors have come to see the enthralling charcoal kilns, as photographers, curiosity seekers and tourists throng the place.

For durability, old attap roofs are being replaced by metal sheets

Perhaps surprisingly, the kilns are a legacy of prewar Japanese who introduced the technology in 1930. They gave the industrious Chinese a challenge and a new livelihood. Today, workers in the charcoal industry comprise local Chinese and Malays, both men and women, while foreign workers make up the numbers required in this labour-intensive industry.

A door becomes a convenient black board for reminders

Demonstrating industrial progress: new concrete structures are beginning to replace the traditional wooden sheds.

The Japanese have never really left. Today, they are the biggest buyers of the best charcoal produced here. Even the crumbs are not wasted; they are bagged and exported to Japan, and then moulded into briquettes for barbeques. A couple of decades ago, Japanese traders also began to tap the oil extract expelled from the wood. It’s a lucrative business, as barrels of the miracle liquid are refined to make medicines and cosmetics.

Stretching from Kuala Gula to Pantai Remis along Perak’s coastline, the 40,000-hectare Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve is the largest mangrove tract in peninsular Malaysia. It’s been managed as a sustainable production forest since 1905 and is considered to be an exemplary sustainable mangrove estuary, renowned throughout the world. The management of the mangroves is based on silviculture – allowing for a balance between production and conservation.

Here, then, is the focal point of Perak’s charcoal industry. According to the Malaysian Timber Council, there were 348 kilns in operation in the area in 2009, but today the figure is closer to 400. There are identical kilns in Kampong Dew, Kuala Trong and Kampong Sungei Kerang. Each kiln has an economic lifespan of seven to ten years.

“Shaved” of their bark, billets of bakau wood wait to be transferred to the kiln.

The preferred species for charcoal is bakau minyak (Rhizophora apiculata), which grows along the riverbanks and in more tide-submerged areas. Timber is harvested in a 30-year cycle, after which the trees are clearfelled. Then intensive planting is done two years after final felling. Yields are tightly regulated to ensure a constant supply of greenwood for the charcoal industry.

While charcoal is the primary timber product – in addition to fuel, it is further processed into items like soap, cigarette filters, shoe soles and water filters – mangrove trees also have other uses, providing timber for piling poles in housing and construction, fishing poles, pulp, tannin and firewood.

From the sea, the mangrove forests resonate serenity and harmony. (Photograph:

Matang possess an enchanting beauty and are a rich cornucopia of flora and fauna. Besides the productive timber forest, mangroves contribute substantially to commercial fisheries that operate all year round. They are also a breeding ground and habitat for wildlife such as monkeys, bats, otters, wild boars and snakes, and home to 156 species of birds.

The boardwalk meanders through the forest; bakau minyak and its aerial roots. (Photographs:;

The Matang mangroves are therefore a natural and important coastal ecology that should be better known and understood. Mangroves are tidal, so the sensitive plant, animal and fish communities are subject to fluctuating temperatures, salinity and moisture. Thus, only a few selective species make up the mangrove community. The mangroves are also important for water storage and trapping sediments and carbon, contributing to the control of the quality and quantity of water and particles discharged into the sea.

Recently, perhaps out of zeal for tourism, the historic multi-lingual signboard was “embellished”. (Photo:

When Kuala Sepetang was known as Port Weld, it was linked to Taiping by a 13-kilometre railway, the very first in Malaya. It began service in 1885. Port Weld was the sea jetty for Taiping and the Larut district, and the link to Penang and other parts of the peninsula.

As with early houses, a deck at the fishery co-op extends over the water. In contrast, houses built on the old railway track take on a landed-style.

It takes less than one minute to cross the channel by ferry. Locals would take the ride standing, with practiced ease. The fare: 20 sen.

Passing time with friends, children shoot the breeze bobbing in a fishing boat.

Off work, and in company, men from the village relax at the shelter by the canal.

So, when you visit the kilns for some amazing photographs, take time to walk through the mangrove forests. They are an outdoor classroom for an education on the environment, ecology and a sustainable industry. You may not see many animals during the day but, with patience and in stillness, you begin to catch their movements in and out of the water. It can be humid with little air movement but you will learn a lot from the informative storyboards. But be forewarned: mosquitoes are endemic. For this reason, staying in the holiday chalets in the reserve is not recommended unless, of course, you want to experience the mangrove forests in discomfort.

You may opt for a boat ride out to the island of Kuala Sangga for a day trip or a homestay at one of the floating chalets. To see fireflies, you have to take the boat from Kampong Dew in the evening.

I won’t be forgiven if I leave out food. Apart from curry mee with generous helpings of seafood in the shops and in the market, there are halal mee udang stalls and some pork-free restaurants by the waterfront for excellent fresh seafood. I love a cold beer with an early meal overlooking the water and the mangrove forests at sunset. Sadly, you can’t help but notice the new, incongruous tall concrete building which is a hotel by the sea. Tell us what you think of it.

The Last Conventional Lime Kilns

Text and photographs: Law Siak Hong

Lime is an essential building material. To learn more about it, a team of conservationists from Penang’s George Town World Heritage Inc. came to ‘Pulai-Ipoh’, a major centre of lime production (and limestone paving). Who would have thought that we had to commiserate about the sad exit of a traditional trade?

The visitors had travelled in the morning light and arrived in Ipoh for breakfast. To slip into the mood, we decided on a quick look at some old shophouses in Kampong Kepayang (read our last blog), five minutes away, where lime was used extensively in their construction before the days of modern-day cement. We could have spent more time romancing the ruins but the day’s programme beckoned.

In the meeting room of a plant in Keramat Pulai, our guru Harrison gave us an education on lime.

Harrison is well respected in the industry. Over the course of an hour, we learnt from him why the conventional kiln produces superior quicklime, and that quality loses out to the lesser and cheaper products from the contemporary tower kiln. We learnt, too, that lime is critically important in our daily lives. It is used in myriad ways: water treatment (to ‘soften’ water), sugar refining, food and food by-products, toothpaste, detergents, cosmetics, chemical manufacture, paper, ceramics, construction, smelting, steel, road, petroleum, agriculture and more. Is it for these products that we are destroying the biodiversity and natural beauty of our irreplaceable limestone hills? There must be a way out. Let’s reduce our reliance on them, for starters, and put a moratorium on new hills which have not yet been exploited.

GTWHI team: three architects and a videographer: Yee Li, Yeow Wooi, Que Lin and Gwynn, with our guru, Harrison (middle). Missing here, the researcher Muhammad Hijas appears in another photograph below.

Post-theory, we left the classroom for site visits. The sun was mild. We drove past limestone hills and came to the conventional lime kilns near a small limestone outcrop in Bercham, Ipoh. We discovered that these last conventional lime kilns in the Kinta Valley had been abandoned quite recently. (Why did I not ‘recce’ ahead of the visit?) In the work shed, a couple of workers were bagging the last scraps of quicklime. According to them, there is no more supply of rubber wood for the best fire to ‘cook the rocks’.

Feeling and testing the quality of the lime.

A file picture of the kiln when it was in operation; note the stack of rubber wood. GTWHI’s urban planner/researcher, Muhammad Hijas, squeezes into the lime kiln for the medieval feel of the ‘room’.

Set 80 metres apart, two rows of kilns, three in each, face each other across a little creek – a fire barrier, perhaps. About 4 metres in diameter and 5 metres high, the cylindrical kilns rise behind a retaining wall: a concrete and brick structure. Entry into the kiln to stack the rocks is through a narrow, man-sized passage. In front of the retaining wall is a long shed, a roofed work space with a storage room at one end and at the other, living quarters for the workers, who keep a 24-hour watch on the fire for three days. Work is also done on an upper level. Compacted earth, levelled with the

File picture: limestone piled around on the upper level, to be cooked in the kiln and become quicklime.

rims of the kiln openings, provides the space where rocks would wait to be dropped into the kiln and stacked into a domed vault, piece by piece. What skills, what occupational hazard! The back of the kilns slopes away gently for a small truck to bring up the rocks.

The abandoned kilns and the cool isolated setting. Note the limestone hill in the background. Workers’ quarters on the right have been reconfigured into a store. What’s in store for these kilns?

Harrison walking past the retaining wall of the abandoned kiln.

One set of kilns was already partially concealed by bushes, creepers and wild grass. Dead branches had been dumped into the hollow.

Yeow Wooi recording the structure of the retaining wall at the passage (left). Piqued by the construction, Que Lin the videographer switches role and poses at the passage (right).

While we were looking around, someone unlocked the steel door to the only kiln which had remained intact and accessible! The passage was partially sealed with bricks, and we had to bend down low or crawl in. It felt like we had stepped back in time, into a circular medieval room under an open sky; we would be right at home draped in hessian, mud and ash. White lime had caked up on the bricks lining the kiln, while green moss had found their footing on the wall and the floor.

File pictures: Looking down into the kiln and the narrow passage. The bricks lining the kiln are laid on their edges. Note the irregular surface of the wall.

After lunch and iced tea, we went to a tower lime kiln south of Gopeng. A surprise was waiting in the wings. As we took the first bend of the dirt road to the plant, a brick wall came into view. Hugging the foot of the limestone cliffs were twelve, or more, conventional kilns in the wild. A poignant moment: nature had reasserted its mastery over man-made objects.

Effective and responsible action: thin out the vegetation selectively (aesthetically) and manage the ground covering and the trees; then maintain a clear path to the upper level of the kilns and mark it with a guide rope. Would the holes and the wild vegetation pose any threat to the visitors?

Later, at the plant, we were told that the lime company might adopt and maintain this evocative historical site, for corporate responsibility purposes. For sustainability, cost effective measures are practical and appropriate. Less is more. Perhaps the management will consult with us: PHS.

While a conventional kiln is seen as a hole in the ground, the tower kiln pierces the air. For industrial security, no photography was allowed. The tower kiln is a tall, heavily insulated steel drum, tapered and stumped at both ends. It is suspended from huge I-beams, supported by a massive concrete base. Around the kiln, an open steel staircase links several platforms, where various operational procedures and tasks can be performed. On a tilt, the bucket elevator raises its load of limestone up to the top to tip the rocks into the kiln. Progressing downwards (!), the rocks are heated, cooked and cooled. Quicklime powder, the finished product, is collected at the base and piped into the adjacent silo. It takes sixteen hours for the tower kiln to make quicklime. In comparison, the conventional kiln takes nearly two weeks.

File pictures of the retired tower kiln, similar to the ones we visited in Gopeng, with twin silos (left). A view from the top at the level of the gangwalk from the kiln to the top of the silo (right).

Our close encounter with the retired but magical tower kiln in Keramat Pulai was scratched due to rain…. Suddenly, I am overwhelmed with a deep sense of loss, of a magnitude I have yet to come to grips with. What can be done to save and reintroduce the technology and the art of the conventional lime kiln which produces superior quicklime for our building craftsmen? In the meantime, we must settle for lime of a poorer quality, but one that is cheaper and much quicker to make. Would there be a demand for the superior product or would it be simply a waste of time? This is the kind of problem conservationists grapple with. 

Perak Heritage Society

Persatuan Warisan Perak
(Reg. No. 1254) was registered with the Registrar of Societies in August, 2003.

Office and Postal Address:
85C, Jalan Sultan Abdul Jalil,
30300 IPOH, Perak, Malaysia.
(opposite the Syuen Hotel)

Fax: 05-253 5507


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