France and Perak – The Historic Links [fr]

There is more Frenchness to Perak than you think! Follow us and discover past and present links between the beautiful State of Perak and France.

1- Early contacts

Perak was known to the French sailors quite early in history – as early as the 16th century, but the region does not appear to have been a port of call for their ships. During this early period, they would rather call in Melaka, to the South, or in Port Queda (Kuala Kedah) to the North.

On French maps and documents of the 17th and 18th century, the name of the Sultanate appears written in different ways, such as Piera, Péra, Perah or Perach.

And very early on, as well, the French knew Perak for its production of tin. For example, in 1650, Thomas Le Fèvre wrote the following depiction: “In the Kingdom of Kedah, one finds pepper. Four leagues (about 20 kilometers) from there is the city of Piera, where takes place a trade of calaem, which is a sort of tin.”

However, the first French people to settle down in Perak in the 19th century were probably the Catholic missionaries.

2- The French Catholic Missionaries: Building Churches

The church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Taiping was founded in 1875 by Father Allard, one year after the establishment of the British Protectorate over Perak. First built out of wood, in the area of Klian Pauh, it was later reconstructed in bricks. In 1884, when Frenchman Jacques de Morgan drew the church in his notebook, it had already acquired the architectural shape it still has today. This church mainly served a Chinese community who was brought to the area and granted land by the government.

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Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Taiping today (from taipingcatholic.org)

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The church drawn by Jacques de Morgan in his notebook, in 1884

In Taiping, another church was built in 1897-1899, to serve the Indian community: the Church of Saint Louis. A boys’ school was established in 1895 and a girls’ school in 1903.

Among other early Catholic churches established by French missionaries in Perak, one was built in 1882 in Bagan Serai, which at the time was in the middle of the jungle and had no population in sight. Father Fée had indeed convinced the British authorities to grant him a concession of 700 acres, on which he then convinced Tamil families to settle down, develop agriculture and establish together a community named “Sousei Paleam” (Saint Joseph village). Until recently, this area of Bagan Serai was still called “Kampung Padri”, in memory of the founding Father. The first church and priest house were wooden structures, and they had to be rebuilt twice. Finally, in 1905, a brick and mortar Church of Saint Joseph was inaugurated. In the meantime, in 1897, two schools had been erected to serve the community.

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The Church of Saint Joseph in Bagan Serai (source: Google Street View)

In Ipoh, the first Catholic chapel was built by the French engineers at their tin mining concession in Lahat, in the mid-1880s. Then, in 1890, Father Barillon opened another church closer to Ipoh city center – the Church of Saint Michael, to serve the Chinese community. Then were established schools for boys (St Michael Institution) and for girls (Main Convent Ipoh). A Church of Our Lady of Lourdes was also built in 1905 for the Indian community.

Other churches or chapels were founded by French missionaries all around Perak in Batu Gajah (Church of Saint Joseph, built in 1885 and rebuilt in 1928 – still a very beautiful building today), Kampar (1908, rebuilt 1938, also a remarkable building), Tapah (1895, rebuilt 1962), Bidor, Teluk Intan (1894, rebuilt 1923), Sitiawan (1929, rebuilt 1999), Gopeng (1919), Kuala Kangsar (1912, rebuilt 1972), Sungai Siput (1913, rebuilt 1960), Parit Buntar (1905, rebuilt 1960) and Lumut (1911), and there were also Catholic communities in Pusing and Sungkai which were all led by French priests.

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St Joseph Church in Batu Gajah, photograph copyright Ken Neoh, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenneoh/

Interestingly, a history of Catholicism in Perak written by the Paris Foreign Missions Society in 1903 states that the Sultan of Perak had, at a date not specified but probably towards the end of the 19th century, offered a piece of land to the Catholic missionaries, as well as a grant equivalent to 5000 francs of the time, for them to build a new church. This support of a Sultan for the development of Catholic communities reminds of other similar stories, for example the one taking place in Kuala Kedah in 1782, when Sultan Abdullah of Kedah offered a house to the French missionaries to settle down and use as a church, or when Maharaja Abu Bakar gave a piece of land in 1883 to build the chapel “Our Lady of Lourdes” in Johor, or when Sultan Ibrahim of Johor donated a statue of the Virgin Mary to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Johor Bahru in 1947.

3- Building Schools

Apart from churches, most of which are still in operation, the educational heritage provided by the French missionaries in Perak is particularly well developed. Most of the schools they founded from the 1880s onwards are still operating today. These schools have contributed to the education of generations of boys and girls of Perak, from all communities and all religions.

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Saint Michael’s Institution, Ipoh

In general, the first schools were established by the parish priests, who belonged to the Paris Foreign Missions Society. They saw these schools as a necessary addition to their churches, and they sometimes also established orphanages. The priests would then, after a few years, seek the help of French congregations more specialized in education – in particular the Infant Jesus Sisters (for girls’ schools) and the La Salle Brothers (for boys’ schools). These Brothers and Sisters grew the schools into much larger institutions. In Perak, the number of schools founded by French missionaries is one of the largest of all States of Malaysia, with almost 30 primary and secondary schools still operating today. The list below is probably incomplete and may well present errors (as the full research on this subject still remains to be conducted), but it gives a good idea of the scale of French missionary education in Perak.

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Main Convent School, Ipoh

Girls’ schools, founded or developed by the Infant Jesus Sisters : SK and SMK St Bernadette Convent (Batu Gajah), SK and SMK Main Convent (Ipoh), SK Marian Convent (Ipoh), SK and SMK Tarcisian Convent (Ipoh), SJKT St Philomena Convent (Ipoh), SJKC and SMK Ave Maria Convent (Ipoh), SK and SMK Convent (Teluk Intan), SK and SMK Our Lady Convent (Sitiawan), SK and SMK Convent Klian Pauh (Taiping), SJKT St Teresa Convent (Taiping), SJKC Convent (Taiping).

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Boys’ schools, developed mainly by the La Salle Brothers: SK and SMK St George (Taiping), SK La Salle (Kampar), SK St Francis (Sitiawan), SK La Salle (Ipoh), SK and SMK St Michael (Ipoh), SJKC and SMJK Sam Tet (Ipoh), SK and SMK St Anthony (Teluk Intan) and the Marist Brothers: SJKC and SMJK Sam Tet (Ipoh).

4- The Mining Projects

Three Frenchmen surveyed Perak in the 1880s and wrote interesting documents on the history of the region: Jacques de Morgan, John Errington de la Croix and Xavier Brau de Saint-Pol Lias. The first two were engineers, both looking for tin mining opportunities, but also collecting ethnological information about the Orang Asli. The third (Brau de Saint Pol Lias) was a scholar also dealing with tin mining, and his visit to Perak was part of the same sudden interest for the region among the French explorers who were looking for trading opportunities.

In 1881, John Errington de La Croix incorporated the Société des Mines d’Etain de Pérak to exploit a concession in Lahat. In 1884 Jacques de Morgan floated his own company, so he could exploit the concession of Klian Lalang, which was granted to him by the British Resident Frank Swettenham, in exchange for his work to map the region. Eventually the two companies merged and in 1886 the Société des Etains de Kinta was formed, better known as SEK. It was among the very first European companies to start industrial mining activities in Perak. The development of the city of Kampar is very much linked to the SEK, as is, according to some accounts, the first hydro-electric power plant in Malaysia, built by the company in 1906.

Three other French mining companies were later present in Perak: the Société Française des Mines d’Etain de Tekkah in 1909, as well as the Société Civile Minière de Changkat Papan in 1912 and the Société des Etains de Bayas Tudjuh in 1924.

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The Sungai Raya River at Kampung Tanjong, Simpang Pulai, sketched by Jacques de Morgan in 1884…

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… and the same Sungai Raya River at Kampung Tanjong, Simpang Pulai, today!

Jacques de Morgan’s “Explorations in Perak, 1884” were published in French in 2003 by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and in English in 2020 by the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. An exhibition was held from January to August 2020 at the Alliance Française de Kuala Lumpur his explorations. The launching of this exhibition was officiated by His Royal Highness the Sultan of Perak.
A beautiful on-line exhibition on Jacques de Morgan’s explorations in Perak is also accessible on the website of the French Ministry of Culture (in French language only, for now) at:

https://archeologie.culture.fr/jacques-morgan/fr/voyage-malaisie

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John Errington de la Croix wrote accounts of his observations in a geographical review published in Paris in the 1880s. The photographs he took in Perak are available on-line. Although they are not very well labelled, it is probable that most, if not all, of those labelled “Malaisie” were taken in Perak. The collection can be browsed at:
https://art.rmngp.fr/fr/library/artworks?authors=de%20la%20Croix%20John%20Errington

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John Errington de la Croix, on the road in Perak – Photo copyright Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac

Errington de la Croix also managed to convince Swettenham, who had organized the Perak exhibits at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London in 1886, to offer to the Paris Ethnography Museum part of these artifacts. Swettenham did so and obtained in return a medal from the French government (Palmes Académiques). These collections are now kept at the Musée du Quai Branly.

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A Malay food cover from the Colonial Exhibition in London in 1886, now kept the the Quai Branly Museum in Paris
Xavier Brau de Saint-Pol Lias shared his findings in a book entitled « Pérak et les Orang Sakeys – Voyage dans l’intérieur de la presqu’île malaise » in 1883.

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Kuala Kangsar, Capital of the Perak States, In Pérak et les Orang Sakeys, Xavier Brau de Saint Pol Lias, 1883

With the arrival of more French engineers to oversee mining operations, an Honorary Consulate of France was established in Ipoh in 1920. It remained active until 1978. The Honorary Consul was usually the Director General of SEK.
And at the beginning of the Second World War, a cell of the Free French (La France Libre), faithful to General De Gaulle and fighting against the occupation of France by Germany, was established in Ipoh. It was made of French mining engineers and planters. We know, for example, that this little group was visited in July 1941 by the Representative of De Gaulle in Asia. But little is known about what happened next, in particular during the Japanese occupation of the peninsula during the rest of the war.

5- The Planters

Planters from France also contributed to developing agriculture in Perak, in particular the Société financière des caoutchoucs (Socfin) through its estates around Trolak and Slim River (Lima Blas Estate, K’lapa Bali Estate…). These plantations in Perak were the very last to be still owned by Socfin in Malaysia before the company withdrew entirely from the country in 2003.

For an interesting account of daily life in the Lima Blas plantation in the 1950s, from someone who grew up within the plantation, have a look at this page:
https://greenfingers-farmer.blogspot.com/2009/03/socfin-was-one-of-plantation-pioneers.html

6- The History of Malaysia’s National Anthem Negaraku

The history of Malaysia’s National Anthem seems to link France and Perak, through a song “La Rosalie” which is said to have inspired the Anthem of Perak, before it became the Negaraku.

According to historians of the Seychelles, and to accounts from members of the Perak Royal family, the melody was first heard in the Seychelles by Sultan Abdullah during his exile in the 1880s, or by his family members, and then chosen to become the Perak anthem at a point which is not entirely clear. It is also not clear if this tune had roots in France, as some claim: it is said to have been written by famous song-writer Pierre-Jean de Béranger, but actually no written trace has been found of this melody in his works. There is, therefore, quite some mystery around the history of the tune…

What is clear, though, is that this beautiful melody was very popular in the 1920s in the Indian Ocean and in Indonesia: the very first recording of the song with Malay lyrics (“Terang Bulan”) was actually made in Paris, in March 1927, by a Javanese singer! Have a look at this great story here:
https://my.ambafrance.org/Full-Moon-in-Paris

7- A bit of architecture

The palace of His Royal Highness the Sultan of Perak, Istana Iskandariah, in Kuala Kangsar was completed in December 1932 by French engineering and construction company Brossard & Mopin, who mastered the technique of reinforced concrete and had activities across the Asian region.

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An advertisement in The Straits Times, 17 December 1932, showing the new palace of His Royal Highness the Sultan of Perak (source : National Library Board, Singapore)

Brossard & Mopin also built, in Ipoh, the branch of the Mercantile Bank of India, in 1931 – as they did in 1929 the extension of the Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Penang and in 1937 the Central Market in Kuala Lumpur.

8- France and Perak today!

An important French economic presence
According to Perak State Statistics, France is the largest European investor in the State, with accumulated investment of RM 4.2 bn out of RM 6.6 bn. The most famous French company in Perak is without doubt the Ayam Brand factory in Taiping, which opened in 1977 and represents today 1200 jobs for the citizens of Perak.

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Growing links in education and science

French language is taught in 9 secondary schools in Perak, with 1400 learners.
Productive cooperation developed between Universiti Teknologi Petronas and several top universities in France. 15 to 20 French university students spend one or two terms each year at UTP.

And there is also more “Perakness” in France than you think!

The famous French movie “Indochine” was filmed partly in Perak in 1992. Parts of Ipoh were used to represent Saigon in the 1930s. This is one cinema link between Ipoh and France, of course together with Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh, who has strong attachments in France!

The first Malaysian chef to ever obtain a star in the Michelin guide (2018) for a restaurant in Paris is Ipoh-born Mrs Kwen Liew (Liew Shiao Khuen), at her restaurant Pertinence, 29 rue de l’Exposition in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. The people of Perak can be really proud of her achievement.

And Perak has recently become famous among French readers thanks to the novel “The Sum of our Follies”, by Malaysian writer Shih-Li Kow, who describes the life in an imaginary city of Perak. The French translation obtained the “Prize for First Novel by a Foreign Writer” in Paris in 2018, and has become a best-seller in France. Although the story takes place in an imaginary Malaysia, the book is an extraordinary invitation to pay a visit to Perak and choose for yourself the place that would correspond the best to the little fictional city of Lubok Sayong in the novel!

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Frédéric Laplanche, August 2020
All my gratitude to Serge Jardin who helped review and correct this document

Latest modification 10/09/2020

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