P is for Palong

by Maganjeet Kaur

The image below is that of the palong, installed at Gallery C. A palong is essentially an elevated sluice-box supported on wooden scaffoldings. It is an important component in opencast tin mining (both dry and gravel-pump), a mining method exploiting tin-rich alluvial soil.

Palong in Gallery C, Muzium Negara. Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur

The first step in this method is to remove the overburden, as it does not contain any tin. This used to be done manually using shovels until tractors took over; an alternate method uses water jets to strip away this layer of the soil. Next, using monitors, water is applied at high pressure to break down the tin-bearing rock, and the resultant slurry washes down to a sump (bottom of the pit). The mining pit is intentionally made steep to ease the flow of the slurry.

The slurry is then pumped up to the palong by means of a gravel pump, which is housed in an attap shed just above the sump. The gravel pump, originally used in gold mining, was adapted and improved by Australians for the mining of tin. A company based out of Victoria, Australia introduced gravel pump technology at their new tin-mining venture in Sungei Raya, Kinta Valley, in 1907. Gravel pump mining caught on rapidly and was employed by Chinese and European companies.

Tin mine at Kampar, Perak c. 1910. Notice the steep walls of the pit and the slurry in the sump. Image credit: Leiden University Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (photographed by C. J. Kleingrothe).
The image shows an attap shed housing the gravel pump in the foreground and jets of water from monitors in the background. Image credit: Yap Keam Min, http://dspace.unimap.edu.my/handle/123456789/13900

Role of the palong

The palong is considered the most important component of the opencast tin mine as tin is recovered here. Thus, it has to be well designed to avoid wastage. The design must account the gradient of the palong. A gentle slope may result in improper flow of the slurry while a very steep slope, where the slurry flows down fast, results in poor recovery.

The slurry forced up the palong by the gravel pump first goes through a revolving screen that removes large pieces of stones and gravel. As the slurry flows back down the palong, it is agitated by transversely placed wooden bars, which trap the heavy tin ore. The recovered tin is transported to a washing plant known as a tin shed. After washing, the ore is stored in this shed until it is ready to be transported to the smelting plant.

Section of a palong showing the traverse bars. These act as riffles to agitate the slurry. Workers would then rake the tin ore that accumulates behind the riffles. Image credit: Yap Keam Min, http://dspace.unimap.edu.my/handle/123456789/13900


Khoo Salma Nasution & Abdur-Razzaq Lubis. (2005). Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development. Perak Academy.

Sungai Raya Tin Mines. (1907, November 8). The Straits Times. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19071108-1.2.92?ST=1&AT=advanced&K=gravel

Yap Keam Min. (2006, May). Gravel pump tin mining in Malaysia. Jurutera (Unimap Library). http://dspace.unimap.edu.my/handle/123456789/13900

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O is for Overbeck

Maharajah of Sabah

by Kon Cze Yan

Image credit: Dennis Ong

Gustav Overbeck appears in Muzium Negara because of his involvement in Sabah. He was a German businessman, adventurer and diplomat. This man had ADVENTURES! Overbeck was born 1830 in Lemgo (Germany) and died in London 1894 aged 64. His father was a pharmacist and medical councillor.

As a young lad, Overbeck apprenticed with his uncle in the family business. At age 20, he immigrated to the United States. Starting a trading business in San Francisco, he undertook trade journeys to Hawaii, South Seas, Alaska, and other locations. By 1854 at age 24 Overbeck was in Hong Kong and working for the English trading house Dent & Co. In 1856, he was appointed Prussia’s Vice Consul in Hong Kong, and in 1864, he became Consul for the Austrian Empire. In 1867, Overbeck was made a Baron.

Information board on Sabah at Muzium Negara

The Adventurers

James Brooke’s success in Sarawak encouraged a number of other adventurers to attempt similar ventures, albeit for more commercial reasons. From the 1860s, Northern Borneo was caught up in the great land grab starting with the Americans in the first wave. First on the scene was American Consul Charles Lee Moses, who was more of an adventurer and less of a diplomat. In 1865, Moses convinced the Sultan of Brunei to cede him the northern end of Borneo. The Sultan of Brunei was desperate for revenue, but he also hoped that the Americans could act as a counterweight to the British and Brooke’s growing dismemberment of his sultanate.

Moses had no money to finance his venture and he sold his rights to another American, Joseph William Torrey, who established the American Trading Company of Borneo. The Sultan of Brunei proclaimed Torey the Raja of Ambong and Maruda! Unfortunately, Torrey was not a good businessman and his venture failed.

A decade later, the newly created Baron von Overbeck, the Austrian Consul General at Hong Kong, showed up. In 1877, Torey sold his interest to the Baron. The Baron entered into partnership with British businessman, Alfred Dent, to develop the resources of North Borneo. Overbeck also negotiated treaties with both the Sultans of Brunei and Sulu. The Sultan of Brunei appointed Overbeck as Raja of Gaya and Sandakan and Maharajah of Sabah! Later, the Sultan of Sulu added the title Datu Bandahara and Rajah of Sandakan.

Concession from the Sultan of Brunei, 29th December 1877 (left) and Sulu, 22nd January 1878 (right). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Alfred Dent requested for a charter from the British Government and in 1881 formed the North Borneo Company to manage Sabah. Overbeck was bought out and he withdrew, transferring all his titles to Dent.

The Maharajah Mystery

Something may have been “Lost in Translation”. There is much controversy over the English translation of the Sultan’s proclamation and Agreements. The ‘Maharajah’ title flaunted by Overbeck may not have been the title of a monarch, but rather it was “maha rajah”, the job description of the chief supervisor acting as a “tax farmer” throughout Sabah! However, it is clear that the native chiefs accepted Overbeck’s use of the title whether or not it was actually bestowed by the Sultan.

A senior member of the Foreign Office in London noted that “Raja Brooke is evidently incensed with jealousy of Raja Overbeck” but apparently over land and not rank.

Personal Life

Overbeck had four daughters with a Chinese woman named Lam Tsat Tai in Hong Kong. I have not been able to find a photograph of Gustav Overbeck but I found a photo of one of his daughters, Oi Moon, on geni.com.

Oi Moon Chan, one of Overbeck’s daughters. Image from geni.com, https://tinyurl.com/rd46cu4b

When Overbeck was 40 years old, he married Romaine Madeleine Goddard who came from a well-connected political family in America. Their wedding was a Washington DC society event and attended by President Ulysses Grant. The couple had three sons.

Not bad for a son of a pharmacist!


Baker, Jim. (2008). Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore. Marshall Cavendish.

Cheah Boon Kheng. (2001). Sarawak & Sabah. In Cheah Boon Kheng (Vol. Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Malaysia. Vol. 7, Early modern history (1800-1940). Archipelago.

Gustav Overbeck. Prabook. https://prabook.com/web/gustav.overbeck/2323724

Gustav Overbeck. (2021, 28 September). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustav_Overbeck

Rivers, P.J. (2004). The Origin of Sabah and a Reappraisal of Overbeck as Maharajah. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

(2016, November 26) Baron Gustav von Overbeck. Geni. https://www.geni.com/people/Baron-Gustav-von-Overbeck/6000000013491512307

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N is for Nyabor

by Rose Gan

The Nyabor sword, one of a collection of Sarawak weapons in this vitrine, is referred to as ‘Parang Nyabor’ but also known as ‘Pedang Nyabor’. In Indonesia, the spelling ‘niabor’ is used. The nyabor is an Iban warrior sword of ancient lineage, more correctly referred to as pedang because of its length, which at 60-90 cm (2-3 feet) makes it a cutlass rather than a long dagger. The Nyabor was used by Borneo Ibans (sometimes called Sea Dayaks) and is found in Sarawak as well as West and Central Kalimantan. It was an important part of a warrior’s accoutrements, especially from 1800 to the late 19th century.

Parang Nyabor at Gallery C, Muzium Negara.

The iron blade of the Nyabor is broad and slightly curved, coming to a wedge-shaped point at the end. Many have a sharp protrusion on the cutting edge of the upper part of the blade near the hilt, the kundieng, whose purpose is both to parry (allowing a backhand slicing motion) and also to serve as a finger guard. The hilt was made either of antler or deer horn, carved in a triangular stylised shape that has been variously compared to the head of a bird, a horse or a naga, often decorated with floral motifs.

The sheath of this sword (sarung) is undecorated, which is typical of the nyabor, unlike the more colourful mandau/parang ilang daggers with which they are often confused. The Dutch in Kalimantan mostly did not distinguish between the two, referring to all such weapons as ‘mandau’. Careful comparison, however, indicates that not only were the blades of the mandau/parang ilang shorter, but their hilt and sheath were highly decorated with braiding and beadwork in traditional sacred colours.  Nyabors have minimal adornment, mostly plain bands, either of plaited fibre, wood or brass, to which feathers, animal teeth and small bones are sometimes attached. These talismans, as with all Bornean weapons, imbued the owner with the strength and skills of the dead animal in battle.

Nyabor. Image credit: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0

The nyabor was a multi-purpose weapon. It was primarily for battle or headhunting but, unlike shorter blades, it was also useful for slashing so could serve as a tool for clearing undergrowth and forest, essential both for agricultural purposes and also for expeditions through dense jungle, either for hunting, raiding or war. Today, the nyabor is a rare collectors’ item, for this weapon was rarely used after 1900. It is possible, however, to buy reproductions that are still produced for the export and tourist market. Many authentic original nyabors have sheaths of more modern fabrication.

The notes in the vitrine state that the Pedang Nyabor was an Iban weapon used in the struggle against the British occupation of Sarawak. This is obviously a reference to indigenous attempts to oust Rajah James Brooke in the mid 19th century. The weapon would have similarly been used in Kalimantan against the Dutch colonial forces.

This weapon had a central role in the now sensitive subject of headhunting. The Iban people traditionally followed an animist belief system, in which the worship of ancestral spirits ensured the balance of the cosmos. The Iban believed that they descended from a progenitor figure, a bird-god called Sengalong Burung, who came down from the sky. Most of their traditional practices concern the placating of harmful spirits and the summoning of protective ancestors to restore the harmony of their everyday lives. The taking of heads was essential to appeasing the wandering spirit of a recently dead ancestor, assisting its passage to the afterlife and ensuring its future protection for the community. Headhunting was also part of the cycle of fertility of both crops and humans and the response to outbreaks of disease or natural disasters. The heads of enemies, displayed in their houses and around the village, was deemed necessary for their continued prosperity and unity. The spirits of these dead also strengthened the warrior who had killed them, for their abilities and life essence now passed to him. Thus, the heads were always accorded great respect and played a part in important village rituals and dances.   But revenge was also a common motive for the taking of heads. If any perceived injury or harm had been inflicted on a community by a neighbour then they considered themselves honour-bound to take heads from the warriors of that village, often causing vendettas that went on for years.

Ngayau or headhunting, was still rife in 1800. It was officially ended in Sarawak during the administration of Rajah Brooke by the mid 19th century, although it is said Brooke tolerated incidences of headhunting raids when it suited him, if the attacks targeted groups hostile to his government. Since then there have been reports of sporadic outbreaks, particularly during times of conflict, e.g. World War II and during the Konfrontasi with Indonesia.


Gan, Rose. (2011). Indonesian Heritage Society Museum Nasional Training Materials: 2a Ethnography. National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta.

JMM curators. (2011). Muzium Negara Gallery Guide (Gallery C): Colonial Era. Department of Museums Malaysia.

Tropenmuseum Collection: https://collectie.wereldculturen.nl/default.aspx?lang=en#/query/e886074b-4ce5-4336-980d-2a267b5aa073 (accessed June 30th 2021).

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niabor (accessed July 1st 2021).

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M is for Mulu National Park

by V. Jegatheesan

Toward the end of Gallery D is an information board indicating the UNESCO Heritage Sites in Malaysia. One of the sites listed is Gunung Mulu National Park. The accompanying description states that it was gazetted in 2000. Situated in the north of Sarawak, it is 528 sq. km. with 17 vegetation zones and 3,500 types of plants. The 109 palm species alone are within 20 main genus. Gunung Mulu itself is a 2,377-metre sandstone pinnacle. Virgin rainforests cover an extensive network of caves and underground rivers, as well as a limestone pinnacles. However, the most attractive features of interest to an average traveller are the caves and the pinnacles.

Gunung Mulu National Park in 2004. Image credit: Juanita, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Gunung Mulu was first referenced in 1858 by Spenser St. John, the British Consul in Brunei. However, it was only in 1932 that it was finally ‘conquered’ by Edward Shackleton in an Oxford University Expedition. The Sarawak Government gazetted Gunung Mulu and the surrounding areas as a national park in 1974. The first formal study was conducted in 1978, when the Royal Geographic Society started a scientific expedition. Over the course of the next 15 months, some 50kms of caves were discovered, among which were the Deer, Clearwater, Wonder and the Prediction caves. Beginning in 1980, another expedition discovered the Sarawak Chamber. The Clearwater Cave passage, at 102kms, is believed to be one of the largest interconnected cave systems in the world. Over the years, more passages and connections between the caves were discovered over a wider area. In 1984, the Gunung Mulu National Park was declared an ASEAN Heritage Park. Expeditions are still continuing with fascinating discoveries of caves and passages, as well as underground pools, and an immense variety of flora and fauna.

Interior of Clearwater Cave. Image Credit: Sunrise Odyssey from Singapore, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1985, the park was opened to the public and managed by staff located at the park headquarters. Initially, one had to fly to Miri. Then downgrade from the B737 to a Twin Otter to fly to Marudi. From there, it was a daylong journey starting in a river ferry followed by a cramped long boat to the Benarat Inn, which was the only accommodation available for a long time. Over the years, as more tourists became interested in Mulu, one could fly directly to Mulu from Miri and other airports, unfortunately, taking away some of the fun. Early trips to caves were by an engine-driven long boat up to a point after which there was a long trek to the cave entrances. There are more resorts now and the boats are better. Tours are packaged and include not just the caves but also overnight stays in a longhouse and a tough climb to the Pinnacles. But for the more adventurous spelunkers, as those who specialise in cave exploration are called, there are special trips to places where no ordinary person would go. This needs guts.

Photos from the author’s trip to Gunung Mulu National Park in 1993. Clockwise from top left: Mulu Airport in 1993 with a Twin Otter plane in the foreground; on a long boat on the serene river; arriving at the Benarat Inn jetty; Benarat Inn; local village life. Credit for all images: V. Jegatheesan

The caves are usually wide and some lead to caverns. Bats of various species inhabit the caves; the ground and rocks have years of bat dung deposits. Initially, one walked along the natural ground, but now there are well-lit wooden walkways. The Deer Cave is popular as while in it and looking out at the wide entrance, the rocky side appears to be a profile of Abraham Lincoln. The Sarawak Chamber is a gigantic cavern. It measures 600 metres long, 435 metres wide and a maximum of 115 metres high making it the largest cave in the world by area. Guides impress visitors with the fact that eight B747 Jumbo jets can be arranged in it end to end.

The ‘Abraham Lincoln profile’ observed when looking out from Deer Cave’s entrance. Bats can be seen flying in the background. Image credit: Sarawak Tourism Board

Every evening at about 6pm, bats will fly out of the caves for their nightly foraging. The Deer Cave is the most popular for viewing this scene. This simple statement does not come anywhere near the actual sight. Unknown numbers, hundreds of thousands, some say millions, fly out in a continuous stream for an hour at least. It seems they have groups, as one large cloud of bats will fly out, hover and when a group is formed fly off. It is as though they have a predetermined formation.

left: Bats flying out of Deer Cave (1993). Image credit: V. Jegatheesan. right: A bat from Deer Cave (1996). Image credit: Slimguy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Going to the Pinnacles is a journey in itself. From the resorts, one starts on a riverboat trip, then on average a three-hour walk to a campsite. The next day’s climb up a pinnacle is a continuous steep climb, then a clamber and finally a crawl. However, when one reaches the top, the view of massive pinnacles on the hillsides, stretched out like cathedrals, is well worth the effort. After absorbing the view and having a packed lunch, it is back to camp. The return trek and boat trip is done the third day.

left: Steep ascent to the Pinnacles. right: Pinnacles in 1993. Credit for images: V. Jegatheesan

Despite a large tourist flow in certain caves and rivers, the National Park is preserved in its pristine form. It is continuously under study with the deeper caves and caverns not accessible to the public. It is certainly worth a trip.

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L is for Longquan

by Karen Loh

Image credit: Dennis Ong

The Longquan Shipwreck c1400

Celadon bottle vase from Sisatchanalai with elaborate lotus blossoms incised around the body, recovered from the Longquan Shipwreck. Image credit: Sten Sjostrand

Not to be confused with the kilns in Longquan, China, some of the celadon pieces exhibited here at the Shipwreck vitrine in Gallery B were recovered from the Longquan Shipwreck. It was naval architect, historical shipwreck explorer, and salvor, Sten Sjostrand, who discovered this shipwreck in 1996, about 23 nautical miles off the coast of Terengganu. He had just begun searching a new line along the seabed when the wreck first appeared as a big, black image on his side scan sonar printer. Following that, the next step was to send divers down to investigate this black image. In Sjostrand’s own words, “The first dive revealed an enormous ceramic mound rising 1.80 metres above the seabed. It was thirty metres long and eight metres wide. We had never seen, or even heard about so much pottery being found in one place before. The volume of the mound suggested more than 100,000 antique pieces.”

Location of the Longquan Shipwreck site (23 nautical miles off the coast of Terengganu). Image credit: Kayla Lee

A surface sample of the ceramics was collected, which revealed that it was most probably a merchant ship carrying a large assortment of pottery consisting of Chinese celadon from the Longquan kilns, white-glazed bowls from southern China, Sisatchanalai celadon, fish and flower black underglaze plates fromSukhotai and Thai Suphanburi storage jars. In terms of cargo ratio, it was estimated to be 40% Chinese, 40% celadon from Sisatchanalai and 20% underglaze ware from Sukhotai. Due to the presence of Chinese Longquan celadon ceramics in the sample survey, it was decided that the site would be named Longquan, in honour of the Longquan kilns in China. As the Chinese celadon on board were dated to early Ming and judging from the style of the Sukhotai pieces, it was concluded that the ship dated to c1400 CE.

Photos taken during the initial surface investigation on the Longquan Shipwreck site. Image credit: Sten Sjostrand (from the book Mysteries of Malaysian Shipwrecks, 2006)

The Longquan shipwreck lies at a depth of 63 metres (equivalent to the height of an 18-storey building), which is very dangerous dive, even for professional divers. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors, popularly known as PADI, does not recommend diving beyond 40 metres for advanced recreational divers. Understandably, there are many dangers of deep diving, which include decompression sickness (DCS or better known as the bends, which all divers fear), nitrogen narcosis (which has an intoxicating effect), and running out of air (which can be fatal) either caused by faulty equipment or encountering underwater obstacles. As for the ship, it was of a South China Sea design, built from tropical hardwood, complete with transverse compartments separated by bulkheads and joined by the use of wooden dowels. The wreck was relatively intact, and according to Sjostrand, had a “few side boards, which had never been seen before”.

The Longquan was carrying more than 100,000 pieces of pottery, which was considered a very large amount those days. For comparison, this ship was carrying at least 15 times more pottery than the Turiang Shipwreck. Sjostrand discovered the Turiang shipwreck, which dates to c1370, in 1998. Unlike the Longquan, the Turiang was a Chinese-built vessel. The pottery mix carried was also slightly different. She was carrying celadon, green-glazed, and brown-glazed ware from China, Thai pottery from Sukhotai (especially fish plates) and Sisatchanalai, but unlike the Longquan, also had black underglaze Vietnamese ware on-board. Furthermore, unlike the Longquan wreck, the Turiang has been fully excavated.

Sisatchanalai celadon cup from the Longquan Shipwreck; side and bottom view. Image credit: Karen Loh

After the initial survey, the shipwreck site was left alone. Plans were being made to excavate the shipwreck properly with safety of the divers in mind. In Sjostrand’s own words again, “I had been looking forward to unravelling the secrets of this mighty ship and had spent a lot of time devising a way to fully excavate her in shallower water as there are few divers who could work safely at the depth, she was lying in. The plan was to build an ‘A’ frame with some jackets underneath, then to pull steel sheets under the wreck and tie wires to the lifting frame – like a cradle. Then the cradle containing the whole ship would be lifted and placed in a specially prepared trench in three metres of water off Pulau Tioman.” The frame, once lifted could have been a working platform for a maritime team and maybe a tourist observation deck as well, built around the wreck frame.

Unfortunately, these plans were not to be. In April 2001, Sjostrand went to check on the Longquan wreck site and, to his horror, found that the mound of pottery had been levelled, smashed, and broken. He estimated that only 10,000 out of the 100,000 pieces were left! So, what happened to this shipwreck site? Sjostrand soon found the answer. Fishing trawlers had been seen at the site, trawling the seabed with their nets with little regard for the pottery they picked up, damaged or moved. The mound of pottery would no doubt have been trawled on and flattened by their nets. That was more than twenty years ago. It is doubtful that the cargo is still there, which makes the few pieces we have on display in this gallery a limited edition.

Longquan shipwreck recovered pieces on display at Gallery B: 1. Longquan Celadon dish 2. Longquan Celadon bottle 3. Sisatchanalai celadon cup. Image credit: Karen Loh

Why is Longquan Celadon famous?

Celadon or greenware from Longquan was much sought after and exported in large quantities to many countries during the Song Dynasty (1127-1279 CE). The celadon pottery made here was famous for its greenish or grayish blue glaze, which has a jade-like resemblance, and the surface was ‘as smooth and lustrous as jade’. Though the clay body was heavy and thick initially, it was perfected by the late Song period. By then, the kilns had succeeded in producing thinner bodies, maintaining its transparency and even incorporated glaze. Other similar tones such as pale green, bean green and plum green were equally popular. During the Song Dynasty, celadon pottery such as dishes, plates, vases, jars, and bowls with this jade-like glaze were very much in demand. Carved lotus, lotus petals, or stylized floral motifs on bowls, and fish and dragon motifs on dishes and plates were favoured and were the prevalent design choices at that time. So favoured were these pieces then, that even Japan and Korea emulated the style and shapes of pottery from Longquan.

Celadon production in Longquan County began during the fifth to sixth century with its production increasing rapidly and flourishing during the Northern Song period before reaching its prime during the Southern Song dynasty. Longquan County is situated in the Lishui prefecture, along the Lishui River in southwestern Zhejiang, in the south of China. The best-known Longquan celadons have been produced here at the Dayao and Jincun kilns. Longquan kilns have been recorded to have the longest history of celadon production in China with 400-500 kilns discovered by archaeologists since the 1950s. The emergence of Jingdezhen’s blue and white porcelain during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 CE) saw declined demand for celadon pottery and hence its production.

left: Sukhotai underglaze black decorated fish plate; right: Suphanburi storage jar with stamped decoration on the shoulder; both recovered from the Longquan shipwreck. Image credit: Sten Sjostrand


Brown, Roxanna & Sjostrand, Sten. (2004). Maritime Archaeology and Shipwreck Ceramics in Malaysia. RECCEX.

Davis, Aran. Dangers of Commercial Diving and How to Stay Safe. Divers Institute of Technology http://www.diversinstitute.edu

Koh antique blog site, Late Southern Song/early Yuan (2nd quarter to end of 13th Century) Longquan wares. http://www.koh-antique.com/celadon/longquana.html

Sjostrand, Sten & Adi Haji Taha, & Samsol Sahar. (2006). Mysteries of Malaysian Shipwrecks. Pujangga Design & Communications, pp. 82-87.

Xu Naiqing, Wang Youbu & Wu Ying (editors). (2006). The Art of Chinese Ceramics. Long River Press, pp. 130-147.Becoming a Certified Scuba Diver faqs https://www.padi.com/help/scuba-certification-faq

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K is for Kodiang

Solving the Mystery of the Pottery Cones

by Alvin Chua Sern Hao

Image credit: Dennis Ong

Kodiang is a small town situated in the Kubang Pasu district of Kedah, in the northwestern part of Peninsular Malaysia. A nearby limestone outcrop known as Bukit Kaplu has a large rock shelter called Gua Berhala (Peacock, 1959, p. 137) on its north face. The site was visited in 1929 by Ivor H. N. Evans, who found several sherds of cord-marked pottery and a few pieces of antler, including one that had been worked (Peacock, 1959, p. 137). 

Bukit Keplu, Kodiang. Image credit: Ksmuthukrishnan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gua_Kerbau_Kodiang_Kedah2(1).jpg

It was, however, only in 1951 that the conical ceramic objects that Kodiang is best known for were discovered. These were found by Peter D. R. Williams-Hunt during his visit to the site (Peacock, 1959, p. 137). Williams-Hunt published his findings the following year, describing the unusual conical artefacts as follows:

Fragments of about thirty cone-shaped objects of well fired clay each about fourteen inches in height, decorated with fine cord markings and pierced by two or three holes. At least one shows signs of having had a square foot; others are more roughly finished. The exact function of these objects, remains speculative. They are not kiln rests and it can only be suggested that they have some ritual significance possibly in association with Buddhism.

(Williams-Hunt, 1952, p. 182)

Subsequently, these pottery cones were studied by Gale de G. Sieveking and a more thorough assessment of the artefacts was made. Sieveking (1955, pp. 189, 192) elaborated on the technical aspects of the cones’ manufacture, noting, for instance, the way the cones were formed and decorated, as well as the firing conditions. Naturally, this was followed by speculations regarding the function of the cones.

Sieveking (1955, p. 192) entertained Willaims-Hunt’s idea that the cones may have had a ritual function, perhaps for the burning of incense, on the basis of local enquiry. Two counter arguments were then presented – the crude manufacture of the cones, and the absence of traces of burnt incense on the artefacts (Sieveking, 1955, pp. 192-193). It was then suggested that the cones might have been part of a potter’s toolkit. The pointed end could be stuck into the ground, whilst a newly formed vessel could be placed on its ‘rim’, to allow it to dry, or to be decorated (Sieveking, 1955, p. 193). It was further argued that the holes in the cones may have been “slots for the insertion of pieces of wood, which could be used to rotate the cone” (Sieveking, 1955, p. 193).

Fragments of pottery cones found by Sieveking at Kodiang. Labelled ‘A’ is his reconstruction of a cone. Image credit: Sieveking (1956, p. 190-191)

Williams-Hunt and Sieveking’s speculations hardly impressed B. A. V. Peacock, who considered the former a lame suggestion that was made “perhaps in despair”, and the latter “hardly more credible than the one he intended to supplant” (Peacock, 1959, p. 138). Peacock (1959, p. 139) made the significant observation that the “ends are always broken and without a trace of a finished trace”, thus associating these artefacts with the other sherds from the site. He had the fortune of finding at Gua Berhala “a fragment combining part of the base of a cone, including the upper half of one of the holes, with the carinated shoulder of a bowl”. Therefore, Peacock (1959, p. 140) was confident enough to propose that the cones belonged to a type of tripod vessel. Thus the ‘mystery’ of the Kodiang pottery cones was solved.

Fragment of cone attached to pottery vessel, found by B.A.V. Peacock at Gua Berhala. Image credit: Peacock (1959, p. 139)
Reconstruction of the tripod vessel by B.A.V. Peacock. Image credit: Peacock (1959, p. 140)

As a final note, whilst the discovery of the pottery cones at Kodiang was unique at the time, tripod vessels were subsequently discovered in other parts of Southeast Asia. These vessels were found, for instance, in 11 of the 44 Neolithic burials excavated at the Thai site of Ban Kao during the 1960s (Sorensen & Hatting, 1967, cited in Leong, 2003, p. 173); during the 1977 and 1979 excavations at Jenderam Hilir, Selangor (Leong, 2003, p. 178); and as an “isolated free find” in Satun, southern Thailand (Chaiwat, 2007, cited in Ahmad Hakimi, 2008, p. 15).

A replica of a Kodiang tripod vessel at Muzium Negara can be seen at the rightmost. On its left are shards of tripod legs uncovered at Jenderam Hilir, Selangor. Image credit: Ong Li Ling


Ahmad Hakimi, K., 2008. Tembikar Tanah Berkaki Tiga (Tripod Pottery) – Satu Catatan Ringkas Penemuan di Selatan Thailand. Jurnal Arkeologi Malaysia, Volume 21, pp. 14-20. [Online]   http://spaj.ukm.my/jurnalarkeologi/index.php/jurnalarkeologi/article/view/103/58 [Accessed: 9 June 2021]

Leong, S. H., 2003. Tripod Pottery in Mainland Southeast Asia. In: J. N. Miksic, ed. Earthenware in Southeast Asia: Proceedings of the Singapore Symposium on Premodern Southeast Asian Earthenwares. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. 173-186.

Peacock, B. A. V., 1959. A Short Description of Malayan Prehistoric Pottery. Asian Perspectives, Sa-huỳnh Pottery Relationships in Southeast Asia, 3(2), pp. 121-156. [Online]  https://www.jstor.org/stable/42928913   [Accessed: 9 June 2021]

Sieveking, G. d. G., 1956. Pottery Cones from Kodiang (Kedah). Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 29(1), pp. 189-194. [Online]              https://www.jstor.org/stable/41503209   [Accessed: 9 June 2021]

Williams-Hunt, P. D. R., 1952. Recent Archaeological Discoveries in Malaya, (1951). Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 25(1), pp. 181-190. [Online]  https://www.jstor.org/stable/41502945   [Accessed: 12 May 2021]

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J for Jawi Peranakan

Jawi Peranakan of Penang

by Shafinaz Ahmad Shaharir

Image credit: Dennis Ong

Jawi Peranakan, or previously known as Jawi Pekan, refers to a community that originated from social amalgamation and assimilation – a product of intermarriage between local Malay women and Muslim men from Southern India. Although this community has long existed especially in Kedah, Melaka and Perak, it is believed that the Jawi Peranakan in Penang grew in number when Captain Francis Light established Penang in 1786, which attracted numerous merchants and migrants from the Malay Archipelago, China, India, Arabia and Europe. The merchants and migrants from India and Arabia established a new society in Penang known as Jawi Pekan. Many of the merchants established their businesses in George Town and settled down; some of them married local women, others brought their wives, and the sojourners eventually turned into settlers.

Weld Quay in the Port of Penang, George Town circa 1910. Image credit: Leiden University Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KITLV_-80020Kleingrothe,_C.J.MedanQuay_in_Penang-_circa_1910.tif

Back then, the term Jawi Pekan referred to the interracial marriage between Malay women and Arabians, Tamils, Bengalis, Punjabis, Gujaratis, or Afghans, leading to assimilation with Malay culture. Additionally, the term was also used for Muslim people not of local Malay descent. However, in 1871, the term Jawi Pekan was dropped by the British in the Census of Straits Settlements and replaced with Jawi Peranakan; the reason being the said term was not specific and did not use the term ‘Peranakan, which supposedly referred to locally born people with mixed local and foreign ancestries.

At first, the intermarriages only took place between wealthy merchants and aristocratic Malay women. However, a change happened in Penang when intermarriages also began to involve non-aristocrats Indian Muslims and local Malay women. This was because many Indian Muslims migrated to Penang under the British and with the opening of Georgetown as a port of call under the East India Company (EIC). Apart from mixed marriages with Indian Muslims, Malay women in Penang also married Jawi Peranakan from Kedah who migrated to Penang. In addition, the Indian Muslim migrants married local Malay women since they shared the Islamic faith. It is believed that because of the shared religious belief system, it enabled the affluent Indian Muslim tradesmen and merchants to be accepted among the locals, and this resulted in the intermarriages. The long process of amalgamation and assimilation of Malay culture experienced by this society over the years had caused most of the new generation of Jawi Peranakan to adopt many Malay customs and traditions, and no longer maintain their cultures from South India. They were also fluent in speaking the Malay dialect of Penang (Tanjong), while also being able to converse fluently in both English and Tamil languages.

A group of Tamil Muslims in Penang, early 20th century. Image credit: Penang State Museum via http://islamicartsmagazine.com/magazine/view/the_chulia_in_penang/

Jawi Peranakan was an elite group during the early decades of Penang’s establishment; they were highly educated and wealthy as well as successful merchants. They also published the first Malay newspaper in Malaysia known as Jawi Peranakkan. In fact, it is reported that Malay journalism history started in 1876 with the publication of the Jawi Peranakkan newspaper in Singapore. The newspaper was founded by Muhammad Said Dada Muhyiddin, who was of Jawi Peranakan descent. When he passed away in 1888, the management together with the printing press passed to his widow. However, the newspaper eventually ceased publication in 1895. During the time when the weekly newspaper was still in print, it was published every Monday and initially sold for 30 cents per copy. It was written in Jawi, covering local and foreign news. Jawi is derived from the Arabic script and it was used widely by the Malays before the Rumi (Romanized) alphabet was introduced.

Image of the front page of a Jawi Peranakkan newspaper at Gallery D, Muzium Negara. Note that the newspaper is spelled with double ‘k’.

In conclusion, the Jawi Peranakan in Penang is a unique society with a rich culture and heritage that reflect the vast diversity of ethnic groups in Malaysia. In fact, the people of Jawi Peranakan are now largely identified as Malay due to the social amalgamation and assimilation with Malay cultures since a long time ago. They have adopted a plethora of Malay cultures such as food, dress, rite of passage ceremonies such as wedding, and they also use the Malay language. The communal strength of this community is that they are a hybrid of Malay and Indian identities, which make them special and different from the rest of Malay community in Penang and Malaysia as a whole.

Jawi Pekan children of Tamil ethnicity. Image credit: Wade Collection via http://islamicartsmagazine.com/magazine/view/the_chulia_in_penang/


A. Lent, J. (1978). Malaysia’s National Language Mass Media: History and Present Status. South East Asian Studies, 15(4), 598-612.

Abdul Rahim, H. (2015). Bahasa Tanjong: The Heritage Language Of The Jawi. Kajian Malaysia, 33, 91-111.

Hong, C. (Ed.). (2015, February 16). The Other Malaysia: Straits Muslims Show Diversity Within Malays. Retrieved July 21, 2021, from The Straits Times Web site: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/straits-muslims-show-diversity-within-malays

Jasin, A. (2020, Jan 9). I’m A Malay, Therefore I’m Jawi But I Feel Malaysian. Retrieved July 21, 2021, from Malaysiakini Web site: https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/506475

Jawi Peranakkan – The First Malay Newspaper Is Published 1875. (n.d.). Retrieved July 19, 2021, from History SG: An Online Resource Guide Web site: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/4942ebac-41d6-4eb8-abcb-cdece539bbea

Keat Gin, O. (2015). Disparate Identities: Penang From Historical Perspective, 1780-1941. Kajian Malaysia, 33, 27-52.

Kwee Kim, C. (Ed.). (2005, August 22). Pioneers of Malay Journalism. Retrieved July 21, 2021, from The Star Web site: https://www.thestar.com.my/news/community/2005/08/22/pioneers-of-malay-journalism

Merican, A. (2015). Approaches Towars Theorizing Malay Journalism: History, Criticism and Context. Malaysian Journal of Media Studies, 17(1), 1-10.

Merican, A. (2018, April 25). Tanjong Identity: Who Are We? Retrieved July 19, 2021, from New Straits Times Web site: https://www.nst.com.my/education/2018/04/361447/tanjong-identity-who-are-we

Suid, N. (2020). Penerimaan Masyarakat Dusun Mukim Tenghilan Sabah Terhadap Kahwin Campur. Open University Malaysia. Retrieved from http://library.oum.edu.my/repository/1321/1/library-document-1321.pdf

Surat Khabar Jawi Peranakan. (2001). Retrieved July 19, 2021, from Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia Web site: https://www.pnm.gov.my/yangpertama/Sastera_Jawiperanakan.htm

Thulaja, N. (2021, July 19). Jawi Peranakan Community. Retrieved from Singapore Infopedia : National Library Board Web site: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_356_2005-01-13.html

Yusoff, O., & Mohamed, N. (2010). Daripada Jawi Peranakan Kepada Melayu: Tinjauan Terhadap Komuniti Jawi Peranakan Di Pulau Pinang Pada Abad Ke-21. SARI: Jurnal Alam dan Tamadun Melayu, 28(2), 63-82.

Yusoff, O., Mohamed, N., Ramli, A., & Ahmad, Z. (2013). Pemikiran dan Falsafah Adat Resam Perkahwinan Jawi Peranakan Pulau Pinang. Journal of Human Development and Communication, 2, 141-159. Zulkiffli, Z. (2015, April 24). Jawi Peranakan Bukan Mamak. Retrieved July 19, 2021, from myMetro Web site: https://api.hmetro.com.my/node/46073

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I is for Iban

by Shafinaz Ahmad Shaharir

Image credit: Dennis Ong

Sarawak, Land of Hornbills, is the largest state in Malaysia. It is located on the northwest coast of Borneo Island. Sarawak is a stunning state with unique and diverse cultures, along with wild and ravishing rainforests. Before 1841, the Brunei Sultanate reigned over the state, before the Brooke era from 1841 to 1941 and before the Japanese Occupation from 1941 to 1945. After the Japanese sought peace in August 1945, Sarawak was placed under British Military Rule until April 1946. On July 1, 1946, Sarawak became a British Crown Colony before it eventually joined Malaysia in 1963.

Map of Borneo: This island of Borneo that consists of three different countries, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Image source: Peter Fitzgerald, minor amendments by Joelf, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Borneo_map.png

Sarawak is a diverse state, consisting of 26 different ethnic groups including Malay, Chinese, and Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau and other indigenous tribes collectively known as Orang Ulu. Each group has its own language and unique culture. Generally, the indigenous peoples of Sarawak continue to show reverence towards their rainforests even until today. Despite the prolonged exposure to the outside world, the indigenous peoples of Sarawak retain their ancestors’ culture and traditions.

Formerly known as Sea Dayaks, the Iban is one of the most populous ethnic groups in Sarawak. They were known as Sea Dayaks by the British because they were often seen patrolling the sea to help Malays fight against pirates. Furthermore, the ancestors of Iban Sarawak are believed to have come from the Kapuas River region in western Kalimantan; their move into Sarawak was to search for new swidden land and to expand their territories. The earliest Iban migrations to the thinly populated Sarawak can be categorized as an establishment of pioneer settlements along the tributaries of the Batang Lupar and Saribas rivers. The migration during that time is the beginning of the first major movement, which took about sixteenth generations, approximately during the middle of the sixteenth century. Since then, the Iban gradually travelled northward and eastward through the Rejang Valley; today, they are present in every district and division of Sarawak, be it in the countryside or urban areas.

An Iban war perahu (bangkong) on Skerang river. Image credit: Henry Ling Roth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iban_Prahu.jpg

The Iban have a special and unique residence namely the longhouse where the villagers live under one roof. Back then, most the Iban longhouses were situated by the river as it was their main mode of transportation. In addition, there are variations of longhouse designs between different ethnic groups However, the Iban village would normally have only one longhouse, which is in straight-line with a rectangular shape, built using heavy hardwood posts and beam structures. The floors and walls are constructed using bamboos, sometimes with wood barks and palm thatch roofs. It is almost conceptually similar to that of terrace row houses, with each compartment or home separated by walls and sharing a common street. Each family has its own personal compartment known as bilek, which is equipped with sleeping and cooking areas. The cooking area is the area where the ‘ladies of the house’ clean and cook, as well as socialize with other women. Simply said, it is an area only for the females in the house.

An illustration of an Iban Longhouse. Image credit: Henry Ling Roth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iban_Langhaus.jpg

Additionally, the covered corridor known as ruai and located at the front of the bilek, running along the longhouse, can be considered as the men’s domain. The ruai is an area where community meetings, major ritual performances and wedding receptions are held, apart from it being a hall to entertain guests. Here, men also gather for daily chores such as mending fishnets and traps. In essence, while the bilek is a private and domestic space for the family, ruai is a public space dedicated for the longhouse members and guests; it is on the upper floor of the longhouse known as sadau in Iban. The distance between the ground and the base of the house can be several feet. It is assumed that the style of the house, gathered in one common structure, is convenient in order to protect the villagers. Furthermore, its high structure helps prevent effects of flooding and provides protection from wild beasts. In essence, the longhouse structures were developed as a defensive measure to protect the villagers from tribal ambushes, particularly during the old headhunting days, considering the longhouse is difficult to access, especially as the ladders were removed at night as a security measure.

The ruai, where people gather. Image credit: Seth Peli via https://www.expatgo.com/my/2017/01/18/headhunting-in-borneo/

The ancient Iban are well known as fearless and brave warriors, very determined in securing desirable land for swidden agriculture, They will fight enemies or other tribes that intercept their movement or during their mission in extending their lands. The way they fight is different from other Borneans since they are fearless when it comes to displaying their bravery and full-frontal attacks. They also showcase their strength through headhunting or ngayau. It was a custom of Iban warriors to cut off the heads of their enemies after their battles, which were brought back to the longhouse. During the time when ngayau was still practised, it was considered as the symbol of bravery and heroism as well as used to determine an individual’s social status or social rank in the tribe. It is believed that ngayau started when their lands were intruded upon by other tribes and because of the arrival of outsiders that occupied lands belonging to them.

Punan heads taken by the Iban. Image source: https://robinsonmike.blogspot.com/2014_08_01_archive.html

Typically, the Iban warrior possessing strong skills and effective techniques in battles will be the one appointed as the tribal chief, praised by others, as well as feared among the tribes. This explains why, the Sarawak Iban are famously known as warriors and have been called as ‘the wickedest head-hunters’ even though their headhunting days ended a very long time ago. Additionally, because of their bravery, the Iban were recruited as part of the military known as Sarawak Rangers. The Sarawak Rangers played a vital role in fighting the Japanese during Japanese Occupation (1941-1945) and against the communists during Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).

The sword used by the Iban during headhunting is known as Parang Ilang. The sword represents the symbol of courage and their excellent fighting skills. Most Iban men would usually own a Parang Ilang as it is an essential weapon used for hunting and protecting their family from enemies. Apart from that, the same sword would also be used for rituals and traditional medications, which include a cure for shingles (kayap). In the past, the hilt of the sword would be decorated with human hairs obtained through ngayau. Iban hold a strong belief that if the warrior passed away and owned the Parang Ilang, then the sword shall be inherited by the heir of his family because as it is believed that the warrior’s soul remains with the sword despite his demise. Therefore, it shall not be easily passed onto other people except their legal heir. In essence, Parang Ilang is the traditional weapon of Iban where the sword remains important in the Iban community, making it a part of tangible heritage that is still being preserved among the Iban cultures until today.

A beautifully carved hilt of a parang ilang from Muzium Negara’s collection. Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur

Like most of the indigenous people, the Iban are traditionally animists, who believe that everything, be it animate or inanimate, has a spirit that can influence the events in their life. One of the many rituals still being practiced by the Iban is Miring, an offering ceremony aimed to honour the gods, spirits and souls of dead ancestors. This belief seeks their ancestors’ help and blessing before any important event is held. According to the old faith of the Iban, it is believed that if the supernatural is not fed, they will not obtain the blessing, which will cause disasters and misfortunes. The miring ritual is still practiced whenever the Iban celebrate their annual harvest festival known as Gawai Dayak, in order to thank the rice spirits that have blessed their community with good harvests. Gawai Dayak is a major festival not only for the Iban, but also for other indigenous people in Sarawak.

Animistic rituals have been practiced by the indigenous people for a long time but over time, some communities have embraced other religions and changed their lifestyles; majority have embraced Christianity. Nowadays, the Iban have successfully adapted to the modernisation and globalization era, their longhouses are completely equipped with modern facilities and essential necessities such as electricity and water supplies, the Internet, telephone line and roads. Most of the younger generation can also be found living in the urban areas, yet they always return to their hometown especially during the festive seasons to visit families. Furthermore, they also live peacefully with other tribes and races such as Bidayuh, Malays and Chinese. Although, the Iban today have been exposed to modernization and globalisation, yet they have impressively managed to preserve their ancestors’ customs, ritual and traditional beliefs including their traditional costumes, the Ngajat dance, Pua Kumbu, Parang Ilang, traditional foods, the longhouse, Gawai Dayak festival and many more.

The boy is in traditional costume accessorised with headgear and Parang Ilang. The girl is wearing the rawai, a corset of rattan hoops secured by small brass rings stiffened around the torso, with sugu tinggi (silver headgear) and tumpa (bangles). Image credit: Charles Hose, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Young_Ibans,_or_Sea_Dayaks.jpg


About Sarawak: History. (2021, July 11). Retrieved from The Official Portal of Sarawak Government Web site: https://sarawak.gov.my/web/home/article_view/235/246/?id=228

Asri, A., & Tugang, N. (2019). Arts and Aesthetic Values Towards Parang Ilang in the Culture of the Iban. The International Journal of Inovative Design, Creativity and Social Sciences, 3(1), 1-8. Retrieved July 14, 2021, from http://ir.unimas.my/id/eprint/28700

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Gyna. (2021, May 30). Gawai Dayak Miring Explained, inviting the Gods of the Iban people of Borneo. Retrieved July 17, 2021, from https://foreignflavours.com/gawai-dayak-miring-explained-inviting-the-gods-of-the-iban-people-of-borneo/

Hudson, A. (1969). Book Reviews: The Sea Dayaks of Borneo before White Rajah Rule by Benedict Sandin. Retrieved July 10, 2021, from https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1525/aa.1969.71.5.02a00360

Indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities in Sarawak. (n.d.). Retrieved July 9, 2021, from Minority Rights Group International Web site: https://minorityrights.org/minorities/indigenous-peoples-and-ethnic-minorities-in-sarawak/

Jelani, J., & Noor Muhammad, S. (2018). The Influence of Animism on the Customs and Culture of the Iban Community. International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences, 8(8), 763-774. doi:10.6007/IJARBSS/v8-i8/4631

Kiyai@Keai, G., & Tugang, N. (2020). Artifak Budaya Masyarakat Iban: Warisan Pusaka. Jurnal Kinabalu, 26(1), 59-71.

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Nasri, N. (2015, September 13). Tradisi Ngayau Masih Diperkatakan. Retrieved July 15, 2021, from Berita Harian Online Web site: https://www.bharian.com.my/bhplus-old/2015/09/81433/tradisi-ngayau-masih-diperkatakan

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H is for Hercules

by V. Jegatheesan

Image credit: Dennis Ong

“The Finest Bicycle Built Today”

… So read the advertisements for the Hercules bicycle in the newspapers of the late 1940’s.

A British Hercules bicycle can be seen in Gallery C in the section describing the rubber industry in Malaysia in the early days. The latex containers on the sides are a clear example of how this bicycle was used as a transport workhorse of various goods in estates, businesses and elsewhere, now replaced by the motorcycle. Though Raleigh was the most popular as a regular bicycle, Hercules was the utility bicycle seen in towns and villages. Other Hercules models included those for racing purposes.

One never learned to ride bicycles using a Hercules due to its size and weight. The Hercules was bigger and higher than the regular brands, had larger handlebars with a flat carrier added at the back, sometimes also with a metal basket in front. This carrier is known to have transported, among others, sacks of lallang by cowherds, milk containers or a box for various things by tradesmen and of course latex containers for the smallholding rubber tapper.

At Gallery C. Image credit: Maganjeet Kaur

How exactly were these bicycles used in the estates? The trees would have been cut at a slant in the very early morning so that it does not coagulate as it flows into the collecting cups or harden too fast on the cut. Usually about 9 or 10 am, the smallholder would make the rounds on the bicycle, pouring the latex into the metal containers fixed on the sides. Depending on the size of the estate, more trips would be made by the smallholder or collection made by a team of workers. When the containers are full, these are taken to the smallholder’s shed where the latex is coagulated with formic acid and processed to make sheet rubber or block rubber. Larger estates used bullock carts with very large metal tanks while tappers used the ‘kender’ or kandar stick on their shoulder with two containers hanging at the ends, all later replaced by trucks. Other competitor brands of bicycles would also have been used such as the Hopper, another bicycle of somewhat similar build.

Using bullock cart (left) and kandar (right) to transport latex. Credit for both images: Arabis

Old newspaper advertisements up to the mid-1950s reveal that a T. V. Mitchell and Co., of Singapore and Penang, were the representatives who imported, distributed and or sold these bicycles. They also sold through authorised agents in Malaya, Singapore and elsewhere, among which was the familiar Dunlop Rubber Company. They sold the bicycles, as well as spares and accessories via numerous dealers in Singapore and Malaya. Almost every town and village had a bicycle repair shop of some sort, as bicycles were a common mode of transport. Interestingly, a newspaper report in the Straits Times of 5th December 1952, quotes a Mr. P.J. D. Munns, the overseas representative of the Hercules Cycle and Motor Company Ltd., as saying that Muslims preferred dark green bicycles, possibly referring to the Malayan market at that time.

Advertisement in the Sunday Tribune (Singapore), 4 April 1948, page 11, col. 2

Few people remember the exact prices of bicycles; they only remember the price of a new bicycle to be in the region of 100 to 150 Dollars (of that time) in the 1940s and early 1950s. Most who bought paid by instalments usually to the bicycle shop while some saved up for theirs. Handing down used bicycles to children or relatives was also common. Newspaper advertisements in the late 1940s in Singapore reveal a healthy second-hand market with the bicycles selling for about 25 Dollars (of that time).

Hercules bicycles were manufactured by the Hercules Cycle and Motor Company and named for their robustness and durability. The company started in Birmingham in 1911. It was very successful and efficient, but, after 1946, it gradually lost out to competitors’ better-streamlined production processes. By 1960, the company was part of TI Raleigh Industries which made Hercules in its own design. In 2003, the original Hercules Company finally dissolved. However, the brand lives on in India by arrangement with TI Cycles of India.

Hercules logo on the bicycle at Muzium Negara


The Finest Bicycle Built to-day [advertisement]. (1948, 4 April). Sunday Tribune (Singapore), p. 11 col. 2.

Spore is eastern hub of bicycle market. (1952, 5 December). The Straits Times, p. 12.

British bicycles find increasing sales in Malaya. (1956, 15 June). The Straits Times, p. 14.

Personal recollections and conversations with relatives & friends.

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G is for Gawai

by Casper Kaun

Image credit: Dennis Ong; background image courtesy of JMM

“Gawai, the harvest festival was and remains like Christmas and New Year’s rolled into one.”

Anthony Bourdain, while in Entulau Sawawak, 2015.

Gawai, or Gawai Dayak, is a major social and religious festival in Sarawak that is celebrated annually on the 1st of June. The late Anthony Bourdain summed up perfectly the importance of Gawai as he remarked, “Gawai is a big deal in the Iban calendar when friends and relatives return to the longhouse”. There are many variants of Gawai, though the widely celebrated one is the ‘harvest festival’ as the word ‘Gawai’ literally means festival. For the Ibans, Gawai is called Ari Gawai while for the Bidayuhs, in the Bidayuh language, it is called Andu Gawai. In 1965, the Sarawak Government decided to make Gawai Dayak as a public holiday. Gawai Dayak is widely celebrated among the Iban and Bidayuh people or colloquially known as Sea and Land Dayaks. Although it is celebrated in Sarawak, the festival is also celebrated by the Sarawakian diaspora abroad.

Image credit: Travel Triangle

The preparation of Gawai begins days in advance as the main alcoholic beverage served for Gawai called tuak, takes days to be made. It is served during Gawai Eve and on the day itself. Tuak is a form of rice wine, unique amongst the Dayak people of Sarawak. It is sometimes prepared weeks or even a month in advance. Tuak is important during Gawai because for the Ibans, it is also known as ‘ai pengayu’ (aqua vitae), the water of longevity. Besides tuak, other snacks are prepared before the day itself, similar to how the Malays would prepare their kuih raya, weeks before Hari Raya. These snacks include kuih sarang semut, kuih sepit and even keropok (fish crackers). These snacks are kept in biscuit tins lined with newspaper to preserve them for the main day. In addition, days before Gawai, relatives from abroad would start travelling back to their hometowns. Throughout Sarawak, one can observe that the bus stations, airports and ferry terminal would be very crowded as people try to make their way back in time before Gawai.

The day before Gawai, known as Gawai Eve, is when families would host a large dinner gathering, almost similar to a Chinese New Year reunion dinner. This is a time for families to get together, have a good meal and to have a good time. The dishes served during the eve vary from family to family, though we can expect a plethora of Dayak dishes served on the table. In the rural kampongs however, there will most likely be a large gathering at the balai raya or community centre during Gawai Eve. Those attending would be dressed in their traditional attire and the sound of traditional music, played by gongs will fill the air. These gongs are usually ensembles of Engkerumong or Taboh (Iban) or Ogong (Bidayuh). These ensembles are similar to Javanese Gamelan ensembles. Tuak will be shared by the attendees and usually the celebration would be accompanied with traditional dances. This is when one can watch the Ngajat, a traditional Sarawakian Dayak dance, being performed. The celebration during this night will continue to the wee hours of the morning.

Ngajat. Image credit: Antonsurya12, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

On the morning on Gawai day itself, the kitchen will be a very busy place as the folks will be busy preparing the delectable dishes to be served to the families and friends. The traditional dishes range from manok pansoh (bamboo chicken), lemang (glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaf cooked in coconut milk in a bamboo ), kasam ikan (fermented fish), pangkang (glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk in a bamboo but without the banana leaf wrapping), linut (sago porridge), kasam dihan (fermented durian), kasam pangan (fermented pork), midin (jungle shoots) and many more.

Selection of food served during Gawai. Image credit: jacknjillscute.blogspot.com

For Christian Dayaks, a Gawai prayer service is held at church in the morning. Usually during mid-day, this is where Gawai celebration kicks in as people would start visiting their relatives or neighbours’ homes. Food and drinks will be served. Normally people would spend an hour visiting their relatives. In the spirit of ‘open house’, friends would also visit each other’s homes as well to celebrate Gawai together. They would come either in their traditional dress or in their best attire. Visiting would last all day, as people would continue seeing their friends or relatives until nightfall.

In some villages, Gawai is celebrated with a mass procession that would march throughout the entire village. The procession is led by people in traditional dresses as they make their way through the village. Bystanders are welcome to join this procession as it is meant to create a long, human train. At certain points, they would be stopped by villagers on the roadside as they pass through their houses. The human train would be served with tuak or langkau as they carry on their journey. They are also accompanied with the sound of mobile gongs being played by the ensemble crew. Often, this procession would end at the border of the village, and by then, it will already be dusk.

Yearly, during Gawai, pageant competitions would be held. These pageants are called Kumang and Keling Gawai. Kumang is for females while Keling is the male variant. This is where those competing would be dressed in their traditional attire with other accoutrements to match. These accoutrements are usually family heirloom, which is passed down from father to son or mother to daughter. The competitors would be judged based on their outfit and their traditional dancing skills. The competition varies from village to village as each different ethnicity has different traditional outfits.

Kumang & Keling, Kampung Taee 2009. Image credit: frampton panchong via flickr

Traditionally, Gawai is celebrated throughout the month. These days, the festivities normally die down after 4 to 5 days though Gawai formally ends after the Ngiling Tikar ceremony, which may take place a week to a month after Gawai (depending on the village itself).

As Gawai is a big celebration in Sarawak, those celebrating will take between one to two weeks off from work to accommodate the lengthy travel time that might be required, and some to accommodate the lengthy festivities.

Though somewhat similar to celebrating Hari Raya or Chinese New Year, Gawai is a unique celebration on its own. It is celebrated by the Dayaks of Sarawak, regardless of religion, which makes part of the colourful tapestry of Malaysia.

Gawai display at Muzium Negara. Image credit: V. Jegatheesan

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the A-Z at ‘Muzium Negara’ series.

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