“RECALCULATING... go straight ahead and make a U-turn.”
I look at my GPS device with dismay and blame myself for driving too fast. Determined to get to my destination without further delay, I begin to follow the rest of the device’s instructions to the letter. Within minutes, my vehicle finally grinds to a halt at an empty car park.
The grand colonial-styled building beckons as soon as I alight. Although far from being my alma mater, this historic Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) has been on my list of places to visit in Kampar for many reasons. Fortunately, I manage to make time despite my hectic schedule before my drive later to Batu Gajah to spend the night.
Muffled laughter from a corner of the school soon attracts my attention. Within minutes, I find myself in a lively conversation with the cleaning staff who are just winding down for the day. They’re on duty even during this long December school holidays.
They are surprised at my fascination with their school. An elderly Malay woman in the group gets visibly excited and, much to our consternation, disappears into one of the rooms nearby. She soon emerges holding aloft a yellowish parchment triumphantly in her right hand. We crowd around her as she starts pointing out sections in the rough-edged piece of paper which I presume came from an old school magazine.
The first paragraph mentions that ACS Kampar, founded in March 1903 by Reverend Edmund Horley, was built on land donated by a wealthy tin miner, Eu Tong Sen. It was an English public school which was open to all races in Malaya at that time.
During those formative years, the Christian missionaries were entrusted to manage the school with funds sourced from the local Chinese businessmen who were predominantly involved in the lucrative tin mining industry.
Looking at the main facade of the sprawling school complex today, it’s hard to imagine ACS Kampar’s humble beginnings.
Under the auspices of the Chinese Methodist Church, the school began with just a solitary classroom in the church building itself. At that time, it was sited on a 0.8ha plot of land about halfway from the town to the railway station. The roll call then was 45 and there was only one teacher, one Ling Ching Mi. Another teacher, Phong Ah Sang, joined a year later when the student number increased to 70.
Horley, who attended the annual Methodist Conference in 1906, reported that the school was growing by leaps and bounds thanks to Kampar’s rapid growth. Enrolment kept increasing over the next decade and by 1916, the District Superintendent, Reverend G. F. Pykett, complained that the church was already bursting at its seams trying to accommodate five classes at the same time.
A fundraising exercise was soon initiated with Horley spending most of his afternoons collecting subscriptions in town. By 1917, about $8,000 had been collected on top of a $10,000 grant promised by the government. The mining magnets did their part with Eu donating $3,000. In that same year, Towkay Teng Kong Chen shifted the Chinese Church to its present site as he discovered that the old site actually had a rich tin vein underneath it!
The onset of the First World War caused costs to escalate. This prompted further fundraising and changes in the building plan. Fortunately, a new brick building, which could accommodate 320 students, was finally ready in 1918.
The British Resident of Perak at that time, R. G. Watson, performed the opening ceremony which was attended by invitees from all over the country who came by special trains. The celebrations also saw a procession of school children marching through town and Eu extending hospitality to all visitors at his magnificent residence on Coronation Hill.
Apart from their studies, the ACS Kampar students were also very active with extra curricular activities. They were among the first in the state to join the scouting fraternity when it was still at its infancy in Perak. The first Kampar Scout Troop was founded in 1924 with Lee Chak Pong acting as Scout Master. The Scout Troop grew rapidly and over the next 15 years won the Latham Shield seven times. In 1929, the District Scout Commissioner of Perak, H. R. Hertslet, chose the Troop to represent Perak at the Selangor Jamboree.
By 1928, the school’s enrolment reached 352, surpassing its capacity by 32 students. This prompted another round of fundraising to add another wing. Plans were drawn up and eventually materialised in 1936. The British Resident, the same one who opened the main building 17 years earlier, officiated the opening of the $11,000 annexe.
In 1934, Chong Wah Fook, the District Scout Master was decorated with the Medal of Merit by Sir Cecil Clementi, the High Commissioner, who visited ACS for the occasion. During the same ceremony, the headmaster, Yong Njim Djin, mentioned that the school’s initials, ACS, stood for the watch-words “Ambition, Character, Service”.
BATTLE OF KAMPAR
The winds of war started arriving in Malaya in early 1941. The ACS staff rallied to the need of the hour and joined the Passive Defence Services. They carried out various civilian duties until its disbandment on Dec 23, 1941.
My “new friends” leave me the piece of paper as a parting memento as they prepare to clock out. “Leave before dark,” they tell me before parting.
My questioning look draws a final holler from one of the women. “ACS was home to the Japanese Garrison during the occupation years.”
The remark, though intriguing, immediately brings to my mind the famous Battle of Kampar. The last few days of December 1941 saw the town of Kampar in a state of utter chaos. General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 5th Division only had to overcome the British and Indian troops belonging to the 11th Indian Infantry Division in Kampar before marching forward to Kuala Lumpur.
The British chose to set up their defences around several strategically important ridges which overlooked the main road leading to the Malayan capital. Their aim was to delay the advancing Japanese troops for as long as they could. The Japanese, however, had every intention of capturing Kampar as a New Year’s gift to Emperor Hirohito.
On Dec 30, 1941, the 4,000-strong Japanese infantry forces under the command of Major General Saburo Kawamura began encircling and probing the British positions. The next day, the Japanese launched their attack but were soundly beaten back by the gallant Gurkha soldiers supported by concentrated barrages from well concealed infantry howitzers.
At seven in the morning, on New Year’s Day 1942, Kawamura hit the Kampar defences with everything he had. There was fierce fighting with Japanese and British positions taken and retaken at the point of a bayonet. The Japanese brought in fresh soldiers to replace their mounting casualties. In spite of the relentless ground and aerial onslaught, the well-concealed British soldiers stubbornly held on to their positions on the western slopes of Kampar Hill.
Reports filed in the aftermath tell of how Captain John Onslow Graham from the 1/8th Punjab Regiment displayed the ultimate act of bravery when he, despite being wounded, continued leading his men in an attempt to retake their captured trenches.
The gallant captain only stopped when a grenade mangled both his legs beneath the knees. Even then, he continued shouting encouragements to his men, urging them forward while lobbing grenades at the Japanese positions. Altogether 34 Indians died in the attack, they managed to retake their position. Graham succumbed to his injuries the next day and was subsequently mentioned in dispatches for his bravado on Thompson Ridge.
The remaining Allied forces finally withdrew on Jan 2, 1942. Aside from achieving their objective of slowing the Japanese advance by a full four days, the defenders also won a tactical victory by inflicting such a heavy toll on the Japanese forces that some crippled regiments were unable to participate in the final attack on Singapore later in February that same year. The final count showed that the Japanese suffered 500 casualties while the Allied forces only lost 150. For the first time in the Malayan campaign, the Japanese Imperial Army had suffered a serious defeat!
By late afternoon, Japanese tanks and armoured personnel carriers began rolling into Kampar. Standing at the edge of the car park, I look out onto the busy Jalan Kuala Dipang and imagine the terrifying episode that took place here some 76 years ago. Little known to the ACS students at that time, their educational pursuit would be interrupted for nearly four long years!
It now begins to dawn upon me the reason why the cleaning staff gave me the piece of advice before they left. Like other towns throughout Malaya, the Japanese secret police or Kempetai was on the constant lookout for British sympathisers and spies in Kampar.
The school’s assembly ground, located adjacent to the car park area, was regularly used as execution grounds by the Japanese soldiers. I shudder at the thought of rumours about former students hearing sounds of troops marching in the courtyard and witnessing wandering headless prisoners within the school compound!
The surviving pre-war school staff met under the leadership of Wong Hean Kim after Malaya was liberated by the returning British troops in September 1945. Lessons only commenced a month later as the building was badly dilapidated. All its furniture and equipment were looted or used as firewood during the resource-scarce occupation period.
PICKING UP THE PIECES
The students and teaching staff slowly began picking up the pieces, trying their utmost to bring their lives back to normal. Like everyone in Malaya at that time, erasing the grim memories of the occupation was an uphill task for many of them. Only true determination and grit saw them through those challenging times.
The moment to celebrate finally arrived on April 6, 1953 when ACS celebrated its Golden Jubilee. The highlights of this momentous event included the Jubilee Reunion Dinner and visit by the British High Commissioner, Sir Gerald Templer and his wife, Lady Templer.
After Merdeka, the school continued to improve on its academic excellence. By 1962, it became the third largest Methodist Mission secondary school in Malaya after ACS Ipoh and Methodist Boys School in Kuala Lumpur. The student enrolment at that time was a whopping 1,047.
The last item on the page talks about the double celebrations held at the school in 1963. ACS celebrated its Diamond Jubilee on Sept 7 and just nine days later, the school’s entire educational fraternity joined in the festivities to welcome the formation of our new nation, Malaysia.
Before leaving, I manage to take a good look at the school badge by the main entrance. Adopted to commemorate the double bash in 1963, it incorporates three important features in its attractive design — a book (signifying the quest for knowledge); a bunga raya (representing the birth of Malaysia) and a graduating student (to symbolise the school’s contribution to society)