Iron Hills of the North

Ruins of the former Bukit Besi iron ore refinery.

Ruins of the former Bukit Besi iron ore refinery.

"At night, this place would become lively with miners going to clubhouses, playing cards and cockfighting," Embong Osman gestures towards the large patch of red land we were standing on.

At 79, Embong is the last living former miner residing in the tranquil former mining town. He walks across the red rocky plain with ease, showing us the ruins standing eerily among the hills. Originally from Kijal, Embong was among the many who came to Bukit Besi, seeking fortunes in the booming iron ore industry. At eighteen, he was already cleaning iron ore to be transported to the Sura port in Dungun.

Embong with the iron ore refineries in the background.

Embong with the iron ore refineries in the background.

The Japanese first came in 1916 to set up the Nippon Mining Company, starting operations in 1929. It was previously established under a different name, Kuhara Mining Ltd. which began its operations unofficially two years before. The Terengganu state government awarded the mining lease to the Japanese, 1,080 hectares worth of untapped riches.

Bukit Tebok, a former railway line where that took return trips between Bukit Besi and Dungun town.

Bukit Tebok, a former railway line where that took return trips between Bukit Besi and Dungun town.

It was the Japanese too, who established a 29-kilometre railway leading to Sura port in Dungun where Japanese ships awaited eagerly for the iron ore. This involved boring a hole through the now-iconic Bukit Tebok that's now become a landmark for the sleepy seaside town.

"We would frequently take the train back and forth between here and Dungun. There, we'd be transporting the ore directly to the ships while also doing trade like buying goods. It was a lively town," Embong said.

 

This is a stark contrast to the Dungun of now. Its tranquility bears no sign to a past that once witnessed a busy port-town bustling with smoke, trade and riches. In fact, the Sura Shore is now nothing but a bank of golden sand with scenes of picnic-goers and townspeople enjoying a quiet walk down the shoreline. There is no trace of what was once a busy port. Even the lone track-lines, its last physical evidence, was demolished by development and rough oceans over the past four years.

Embong worked in Bukit Besi in the years leading to up the Malayan independence and decades after. During that time, the industry had long exchanged hands from the Japanese to the British, much after the former lost the Second World War. That was in 1945, twelve years before Independence. In fact, even after the Japanese lost the war, the mass industry saw a heightened demand from the Japanese in part of its post-war recovery efforts. 

"I earned about $3.80 a day back then. For eight hours every day, I'd walk up here -" he gestured to the amber ruins, "And just clean the iron. Those rocks you're standing on? They're iron. Pick it up." We obliged and indeed, the answer was in the weight. The red rock in our hands was heavier than a normal rock would be. A great deal of washing and smelting was all it needed to show the ore's true worth.

Those rocks you’re standing on? They’re iron. Pick it up.
— Embong Osman, 79.

To be a Bukit Besi miner back then brought with it much prestige. $3.80 was a large daily sum and the miners' modern day equivalent would be an engineer of Malaysia's petroleum giant, Petronas. "If you were a Bukit Besi miner, you'd immediately be considered as a potential suitor for just about any girl" Embong jokes. During a time when Malaya was in a state of emergency and rationing was a norm, the residents of the mining town could afford to buy fresh produce by the dozen, a luxury in its time.

As operators, the British provided basic utilities such as clean water, electricity and sanitation for free. Over 3,800 miners, diverse in ethnicity, stayed in barracks close to the refineries. Even into the night, loud clanking and roaring could be heard, with the furnaces flaring and smoking around the clock. As a treat, three times a week, the residents would be treated to an outdoor cinema, lavished with an appetite for both foreign and local films.

As a measure of security, a number of troops from the Commonwealth army was stationed in the mining town. A elderly villager, Esah, who worked as a maid to a British engineer's family recalled seeing several "awang hitam", local slang for an African man. So prosperous was Bukit Besi that it even had its own airstrip. Every week, an airplane would land and British officers would load it with bags of monies.

But the mining town is not without mystery.

In the 1940s, rumours of gold whispered both far and wide. It was said that the Japanese had stumbled upon gold amid iron. Ask any Bukit Besi villager about the rumours of gold and they would chuckle, having heard the question for decades. Many have heard of it but dismiss it as a myth. Some would claim that the gold was real, with chests of it hidden underneath the tunnels of Bukit Besi's Rumah No.1, the mining town's headquarters that catered to dignitaries. Even at the entrance at Bukit Besi, where a lone refinery tower stands tall, odd-job worker Zulkifly Mat Zain claims that chests of gold were buried nearby what was said to be a communist gravesite.

Zulkifly Mat Zain, 55, is the son of the town's former locomotive operator. He stands by his relative's home.

Zulkifly Mat Zain, 55, is the son of the town's former locomotive operator. He stands by his relative's home.

The site of a former refinery at the entrance of Bukit Besi.

The site of a former refinery at the entrance of Bukit Besi.

The mining town halted operations in 1971, in the height of the Communist insurgency. The decision was made by the Eastern Mining and Metal Corporation (EMMCO), the final owners of the Bukit Besi mining industry. Ever since then, the refineries were abandoned, the ruins still standing strong; a testament to hardy Japanese engineering. 5 million tonnes of ore remain in the misty hills surrounding the settlement.

Recently, the Terengganu state government teased the possibility of re-opening the iron ore business in the sleepy mining town. In 2009, the state government approved the appointment of companies to revive the mining, a move that was met with disapproval from members of its own state assembly. Its neighbouring state, Pahang recently boomed its iron industry, raking in profits from foreign companies mining for ore. This has caused problems for the locals who complain of the alarming amount of bauxite contaminating its waters and blanketing nearby residential areas.

Despite that, the lure for money tempts a state that is currently relying on the petroleum industry in its economic decline. Before its shift to petroleum, Terengganu's economy was propped up by the iron mining industry. Refineries left behind by decades of disuse and the sleepy former port town of Dungun stand silently, wondering if it will ever return to its former glory.