THEY braved 10 to 15 days of sailing in search of a new life in a foreign land.
Those who survived the journey had to undergo quarantine on an island off Singapore for a few days before getting deployed to work in the tin mines in Perak.
The history of Malaya and then Malaysia, which rose to become the world’s biggest tin producer (1880 to 1987), would be very different without these migrant workers from China.
Dubbed Chinese Sinhaks (new arrivals), they were paid a salary of $42 a year.
According to a copy of the work contract in Perak dated 1888, a typical work day meant toiling for eight hours, and they earned an additional 10 cents an hour if they were required to work overtime.
Based on records, tens of thousands of these workers arrived in 1877 and the figures kept rising for the next two decades, with 169,000 in 1899 alone.
Former miner Tan Sri Hew See Tong, 85, said that no words could describe their sacrifices and contributions to the development of then Malaya and beyond.
“Malaya was still covered by jungle then. The mine workers had to go through all the hardship.
“Mining was labour intensive up to 1880, with workers using their bare hands and very few tools,” he said.
Coming from a family of miners, Hew is the third generation and he was in the industry for 40 years (1949-1989) starting at the age of 18.
His grandfather arrived in Gopeng in 1890, followed by his father in 1920.
Both the elder Hews started as tin ore dealers.
Hew’s father Hew Lan Seng subsequently went into mining.
Life-size replicas of the mine workers in the Kinta Tin Mining (Gravel Pump Mining) Museum are testimony of the importance of the role of the workers in the industry.
The brainchild of Hew, the 3,000 sq m museum in Bandar Baru Kampar in Kampar has seen more than 50,000 visitors since its opening end of 2012.
A visit to the museum can be very enlightening for the layman in particular.
An educationist at heart, Hew said it was very important to document the history of tin mining for the future generation.
Apart from the museum, Hew, a former three-term Kampar MP had also written three books on tin mining, and his latest work is titled The Glittering History of Gravel Pump Mining Industry.
The first chapter of the book covers the arrival of the Chinese workers and manual mining.
The history of Chinese involved in tin mining can be traced back to as early as the 17th century.
However, the momentum only started to pick up in mid-19th century.