SEREMBAN, July 15 — They had travelled 3,000 kilometres from Huizhou, Guangdong to this former tin mining boom town in Negeri Sembilan in search of a better future.
That was more than 120 years ago.
Today, the descendants of those Chinese pioneers who came to work the mines are battling to live out their remaining years in Kampung Atap, also known as Kampung Hakka.
After surviving the rise and fall of the tin mining industry, they just may fall victim to the one thing they cannot stop — development.
Located about two kilometres from Exit 2104 Mantin, between the Nilai and Seremban exits on the Kajang-Seremban Highway (Lekas), the entrance to this 32-acre village opposite the 113-year-old St Aloysius Church is easily missed.
Once in the village, there is SRJK Chi Chi Mantin primary school on the right and Tan Gong Temple on the left, both more than a 100 years old.
But the signs of encroaching development are hard to miss. About a third of the village has already been cleared and 30 old houses torn down to make way for modern dwellings the villagers are not likely to be able to afford.
The 40 families who remain here are at a crossroad. They know that apart from the school and temple, the 21 acres of land they call home will be swallowed up by development, displacing them. But they are determined to fight as best they can to hold on to their homes.
Most have grandchildren too many to count and teeth too sparse to fill out their smiles. They are the ones who are prepared to stand in the way of the tractors which are coming to bulldoze away their homes.
Many make a living by selling fruits, vegetables and herbs from their tiny gardens or rear birds to be sold at pet shops in the city. Some even sell bundles of old newspapers to nearby orchards to wrap and protect fruits still hanging on the trees.
While most of them just want to be allowed to spend their remaining years in the only homes they know, there are some who do not want to see their personal history wiped out.
Chong Tze Yaw, 46, the chairman of the village residents committee, told The Malay Mail Online that the villagers are clinging on to hope.
“I believe if we do it properly, we have 40 to 50 per cent chance, but if we don’t fight, we have no chance at all,” he said.
Chong has been arrested four times for being involved in protests to save the village his family has called home for six generations.
He has even turned his house into an educational centre for visitors.
Rakan Mantin, a group which was formed to help bring attention to the plight of the villagers, organises tours for the public on the history of the village, and uses the centre as a meeting point.
“It’s not that we want compensation, but our grandparents set down roots here,” he said, adding that he fears the development will wipe out the traces of Hakka heritage in the area.
“Preserve our heritage and culture, it’s a basic human right, we hope that they won’t demolish this village, we want them to preserve it,” he said.
The villagers had taken their fight to court and lost, freeing the developers to move in on the century-old village.
According to media reports, the land on which the 32-acre village sits now belongs Mega 9 Development Sdn Bhd which bought it from the Nilai Municipal Council.
Mega 9, also the developer of the land, has demolished 30 houses and cleared 11 acres of village land and is soon expected to take aim at the remaining 21 acres in the second phase of the development.
Mega 9 General Manager Tan Kok Chai told The Malay Mail Online that the company is being very generous, and flexible as a developer.
He said the company has offered RM12,000 to those living there and they are entitled to a seven per cent discount if they choose to purchase one of its low cost units priced at RM40,000.
“For those who can’t afford to buy or can’t get a loan from the bank, we are saying they can move into one of our units, and the couples can live out their old age there,” he said. This is on top of receiving the RM12,000 compensation.
He also said for those who may want to own a low cost unit but do not qualify for a bank loan, he or she can work out an instalment plan with the company. It would be on a case-by-case basis, he added.
Tan said although about 90 per cent of the residents have agreed on paper to give up their land, the company will only compensate the full amount after the houses are demolished.
Meanwhile, home owners who are no longer living in the village are entitled to RM10,000 in compensation.
He said depending on Phase One’s progress, Phase Two could begin as early as the end of next year.
But there seems to be a disconnect between the developer and the residents. Although some of the residents acknowledged that the offer has gone up to RM12,000 from RM7,500 previously, there is a deep mistrust as to whether the developer would pay out the full amount.
Also, they did not seem to be aware of the offer to move in to the low cost housing for free.
Last month, many of them told The Malay Mail Online that they have nowhere else to go and few resources to fall back on.
Kok Swee Lin, a sprightly 73-year-old, said she had refused the RM12,000 because it was too small.
“What can we buy with RM12,000? A chicken coop? I say give me a house in return, if not, we’ll stop the tractor, till our death.
“We’re old already, we’re not afraid to die,” she said in a booming voice.
Her history with the village can be traced back all the way to her maternal grandmother. She said people left because they could afford to move, but not her family.
She is determined to fight the developers when they come to turn her out, she said.
According to Kok, the developer had offered RM1,000 to owners of abandoned houses, RM3,500 to those renting the houses out and RM7,500 to those still living in their homes.
But after protests from residents, she said the developer then increased the offer to RM12,000.
“But this developer is very bad, didn’t go by his word. After promising some RM12,000, they only gave RM5,000,” she claimed.
Choo Sui Yin, 78, a widow living on her own, said she has nowhere to go if forced out of her house.
“I have five children, two daughters and three sons. But they don’t even have enough for themselves, how are they going to take me in?” she said.
Her younger neighbour, Chow Loong Hin, said her family was offered RM7,500 but they too had turned it down.
“We didn’t want it because it’s not even enough to rent a house, we want either a low cost house or more money,” said the forty-something.
Eighty-seven-year old Kong Sook Koon, who came to the village with her parents, when she was barely eight, was told to move from her family home in 2011.
She now lives with her married son and his family.
“We asked for RM12,000 but the developer didn’t even want to pay five sen, how are we supposed to move?” she said.
“Some gave up and just left… how long are we supposed to fight for?” Kong added.
At this moment, the fight seems to be one that is already lost.