DURING the Malayan Emergency, the Gunung Rapat New Village was just like any other simple Chinese settlement in Ipoh at the time – created to separate the villagers from communists.
But today, it is the home to the popular heong peah (fragrant biscuits) cottage industry.
Many villagers believe that it was the Yee family who started the booming business back in 1981.
The crispy, flaky delicacy now famously associated with Gunung Rapat is highly sought after by locals and tourists alike.
Apart from the family’s famous Yee Hup Biscuits, there are around 10 more houses in the village producing the same fragrant biscuits.
One of them is Wui Mei Heong Peah.
Its founder David Ong, 34, said apart from the original heong peah flavour, his business introduced three other flavours – durian king, black sesame and white coffee.
“When I launched my business five years ago, heong peah was already a popular item here in Gunung Rapat.
“To set myself apart from other businesses, I felt challenged to come up with something different,” he told MetroPerak.
Through many days of baking and experimenting, Ong said he successfully came up with these three flavours without compromising the rich taste of the original flavour.
“If there’s anything worth knowing throughout my 13 years of learning how to bake heong peah, it’s the importance of mastering the flavour.
“No one would come to you if your biscuits can’t match up to the taste of other businesses,” he said.
Producing around 10,000 pieces a day, Ong also ships his biscuits internationally to the United States, Singapore and occasionally Taiwan, China and Hong Kong.
At Seng Kee Food Trading, founder Teoh Seng Kwok, 47, takes pride in his biscuits as they are made the traditional way using clay ovens fired by burning coconut shells.
“Nowadays, most businesses rely on machines to get the job done because machines can produce a higher quantity in a short amount of time to cater to business demands.
“But for me, I believe the biscuits are special when done the traditional way,” he said.
Although in terms of flavour, a machine-made biscuit and a traditionally-baked biscuit would not taste much different from one another, Teoh said it was the biscuit’s shape and texture that made the difference to him.
“You will notice that the filling of a traditionally-baked biscuit sags downwards a little, producing an oval shape, while machine-baked ones are perfectly even and round.
“And with the use of coconut shells as fuel, the fire is strong enough to ensure that the biscuits are crispier too,” he said, adding that he produces 2,000 pieces a day.
Two months ago, Teoh began using machines to bake the biscuits in a separate shop in Taman Saikat to meet export demand.
He also produces gai zai beng (chicken biscuits), tau sar piah (mung bean pastry) and lou po beng (wife biscuits) as well.
Locals called the place Gunung Rapat, which means “Close Hills” in English, as the village is located next to hills closely adjoined to one another.
Resident Yep Yen Wah, 72, said the village was also adjacent to many vegetable farms and rubber tree plantations, both of which were the main sources of income for the people in the olden days.
“Places that are now residential areas near Gunung Rapat used to be where all the rubber tappers would go to in the morning for work.
“Farmers would often take the trishaw to the Central Market to sell their wares in the morning,” he said.
Pointing at the traffic light junction in front of Megoplex, Yep said it used to be the main entrance of the then fenced up village.
“The British would patrol the village often and stand guard at the entrance.
“They will only open the gate at 4am and close it at 5pm. If you come back any later than that time, you’re on your own outside there,” he said.
Yep also recalled how restrained their lives used to be when he was just a kid in the new village, as food was rationed.
“We must state clearly how many people are living in our house.
“If we have four in the family, the British will only give us four bowls of rice.
“If we have any visiting friends during that time, extra food won’t be given,” he said, adding that the villagers often had to cook their own simple dishes such as vegetables to go with the rice.
Yep said people in the new village also reared pigs.
“We used to dump all our leftovers into a big barrel to cook the food for the pigs to eat,” he said.
Around the 1970s, things started changing for the new village as the vegetable farms gradually made way for the development of housing schemes.
Fellow resident Lim Ah Jee, 61, said although this was the case, the developers were kind enough to compensate the farmers for the land.
“But, tragedy struck in the early 1970s when one of the largest tin mines in the village, located close to Simpang Pulai, collapsed.
“Everything turned chaotic as there was so much clay and mud spilling onto Jalan Gopeng (now Jalan Sultan Nazrin Shah), completely covering all the famous caves like Ling Sen Tong, Nan Tian Tong and Sam Poh Tong nearby.
“As that was the only road that leads to Kuala Lumpur, no one could go south for about a week and the landslide killed around 20 to 30 people,” he said.
Village chief Tee Seng Har, 51, said development for the new village soon improved, with a new market built in the heart of the village along with rows of shophouses that make up the main road of Gunung Rapat today.
With 850 housing units, two primary schools and a bustling fast food hub comprising brands such as Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and Domino’s Pizza, Gunung Rapat is considered one of the prime areas of Ipoh today.
Caves are one of the area’s best for eco-tourism, thanks to the natural and picturesque hilly surroundings.
With so much development taking place here over the years, Ipoh city councillor Low Leong Sin stressed that the state government should take good care of its new villages such as Gunung Rapat, as the drainage system was inadequate.
“Although we have not reached the critical level of major floods yet, flash floods are already happening here after a downpour.
“The livelihood of the people here are at stake, as floods could cost them their homes, their businesses and their belongings.
“I hope the state government can look into enhancing the drainage system not only for Gunung Rapat but other new villages as well,” he said, adding that prevention was better than cure.