The Roots of Pandamaran

08 June 2017

We explore Port Klang’s town of Pandamaran, the largest new village in Selangor.

Home to the largest concentration of bak kut teh joints in Klang, Pandamaran was originally a wide marshland. However, apart from the famous dish, not many know that Pandamaran also holds the status of being the second largest new village in Malaysia ­– and some say largest in Selangor. Originally known as Pendamaran, Pandamaran’s name is related to the name of a tree known as Damar or Shorea javanica, whose pale yellow sap is used for paints and varnishes. Hence, “Pandamaran” means the place where the Damar tree is found.

Kuan Tien Keng temple, one of the biggest Chinese temples in Pandamaran.

Pandamaran began to be populated in 1947 with a community of Chinese workers who came to Malaysia to escape the war and work in Port Klang, which was known as Port Swettenham back then. This also correlates with one popular bak kut teh origin theory; most labourers start their day with a nourishing breakfast of rice with pork in herbal broth to keep them going. Apart from hard labour, some of the residents (records show that there were roughly 70 households in the area known as Jalan Bukit Kerayong) were pig farmers and rubber tappers. After the emergency was declared in 1948, the British colonial government began relocating residents from the dispersed villages of Kuala Selangor, Tanjung Karang, Banting and Dengkil into the area, which was finally renamed as Pandamaran after Malaya gained independence.

Framed newspaper clippings on the wall are testament to bah kut teh shop Mo Sang Kor's fame.

One such family that was shepherded to Pandamaran was Lim Hock Soon’s family. “My parents were from Dengkil, but I grew up in Pandamaran,” Lim recalls. The 56-year-old sugarcane stall owner describes life during that period, “Life was hard. We were farmers, growing vegetables and rearing some poultry and pigs. Not a lot, but enough to get by.”

As the youngest in a family of five, he was lucky enough to be able to complete his high school education. “Some of my older brothers and sisters didn’t even go to high school! I was lucky to be able to attend Hin Hua High School. The monthly school fees were RM8! Monthly bus fees were RM7. It was a lot of money. As soon as I was old enough, I began cycling to school to save money.”

Jalan Chan Ah Choo – usually referred to as da jie chang (the main street) – is the heart of the village. Flanked by zinc-roofed bak kut teh shops, food stalls and kedai runcit with peeling signboards, it’s where the locals gather for their morning dose of pork bone broth and gossip. It’s also where we first found Lim, with his sugarcane stall that’s located next to Mo Sang Kor, the oldest bak kut teh shop in Pandamaran.

Handing out packets of freshly pressed ikat tepi sugarcane juice, Lim says meditatively, “I think the biggest change in the village would be the buildings. Last time, it was all wooden attap houses. Today, we have bungalows. That means there are fewer fires too.”

Lim at his sugarcane stall.

Much like any village in Malaysia, time moves at a slower pace in Pandamaran. People take their time making pots of Chinese tea after a satisfying meal of bak kut teh, large rain trees sport a food stall or two taking advantage of the shade, and the serenity of the village broken by the occasional puttering of motorcycles. It’s hard to believe the rumours of Pandamaran as a centre of triad activity.

“Well, there was a huge fight right here at this bak kut teh shop a few years ago,” Lim shrugs. “There have always been triads. You have to remember that these triads started out from the days in China. It was to look out for one another and protect their territories. They don’t go around causing trouble for no reason anyway. It’s a nice place to live.”

Kedai Ayam Goreng Yao Yao Ping is a Pandamaran institution in itself. The founder imported an ice shaving machine from Taiwan 40 years ago to start selling shaved ice and fried chicken by a primary school.

Shooting the breeze under a tree is a tempting way to spend a lazy afternoon. But eventually, we rouse ourselves from the afternoon stupor and bid farewell to Lim. His niece, Lim Bee Hua brings us on a tour around the village.

Divided into four zones, Pandamaran has a sizeable community of about 40,000 residents. It has come far from its days as a marshland. After factory plants began setting up in the early 1980s, it changed the economic landscape of the village. Houses once built of plank wood began to be rebuilt with bricks to reflect the newfound status of prosperity of the villagers. Bee Hua recounts that during her childhood, she would visit an old lorry factory every day to scavenge for discarded planks to use as firewood at home. She was 15 years old when her family finally had gas supply at home.

A gate in the heart of Pandamaran by the main street.

Today, a short drive around the sprawling village reveals five high schools, three primary schools, a sports complex, a large morning market, a football field, numerous seafood restaurants, and even a temporarily closed public swimming pool. As with many of the residents, Bee Hua herself has moved out to the neighbouring development of Bandar Botanic. However, she still visits her relatives regularly, and some of her friends are content to remain in the village.

Built in 1984, the Pandamaran hockey stadium is one of the oldest hockey pitches in Malaysia. It was returfed in 2016.

Pandamaran retains a prosperous air with mushrooming businesses and factories. With Chinese residents making up 90 percent of the population, Pandamaran also has numerous Chinese temples (20, according to latest records), reflecting the village’s working class community. The largest and oldest temple is Tokong Kuan Tien Keng, famous for its large temple festivals complete with Chinese opera performances and food stalls, with the whole village turning out for the celebration. The biggest day of the year would be Bai Tian Gong, the ninth day of the Lunar New Year, believed to be the birthday of the Jade Emperor of Heaven where one could expect huge displays of fireworks throughout the night.

It’s indeed rare to see a village in Malaysia retain its small town charm amid the rush of development. As we return to Lim’s stall under the tree, thunder begins to rumble. Even as ominous clouds gather for the downpour, Lim is still calmly handing sugarcane juice and freshly cut fruits to his customers. “It’s going to rain, I’d better pack up soon,” he says. “Thanks for coming by. Come again for the bak kut teh!”

By Gabriel Tan

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