Roots Living Heritage

Article by Lim Ee Lin

As Museum Volunteers, we try to “take the mystery out of history” and very often to do this, we not only share the facts behind the artefacts we chose to talk about during the tours. Many of us have personal memories of the museum (building), connections to events we highlight on the nation’s history, the multicultural elements in the artefacts, the places mentioned, and people showcased. It is in this personal telling of stories that brings out the passion in our storytelling.

On reading the narratives in Roots Living Heritage, I recognise the personal pride and passion in the 18 accounts shared.  In their introduction, the editors brought up that history writing in Malaysia is presented largely based on official records. However, personal memory is also no less an important source of historical information, capturing the lived experiences which include the more personal experiences, emotions felt, cultures and values practised. It was clear that all the writers were proud to have had the opportunity to formally record their recollections of subjects through a mix of their own personal recollections, memories of friends and family they interviewed, formal reports, and other sources. It is through their interpretation that we now have these 18 vivid insights into our shared history.

Dr Asma Abdullah and Masnoon Bujang already captured the essence of the book’s contents in their review for the Star newspaper. I also concur with their summary that “[a]ll in all, it was a delight getting to know in close proximity the unforgettable events that have taken place in our multicultural setting and their impact on our forefathers. This is our national strength that we must acknowledge, celebrate, and defend.”  All the more when I discovered my own connections with some of the people and places after finding one in the first narrative. The six degrees of separation social distance popularised by Hungarian writer Karinthy is real! Many readers will undoubtedly find their own connections to people and places mentioned in the narratives, and not only to the primary subject.  After all, these narratives were anchored on personal memory. Some of my connections are as follows:

• Colonel Dara Singh was Uncle Dara. I was introduced to him when my late father’s childhood friend Uncle Mindo returned from the UK for a visit and wanted to pay him a visit. I remember visiting the house in Rasah Jaya, the manner in which he shared some stories from his past in both Hokkien and English, how he towered over auntie, the elephant’s foot in the corner of his living room, which was made into a receptacle for canes, etc. One time, he gave us a souvenir to remember him by – if I am not wrong, it was an enlarged reproduction of a US100 dollar note with his face instead of Benjamin Franklin’s. I have kept it all these years but will need to unearth it from one of many souvenir boxes. I am sure that someone else might remember this and have a copy too.

• Rogayah Hanim’s grandson Royal Professor Ungku Abdul Aziz was Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Malaya when I enrolled. Many of us will have a memory of him jogging around campus most evenings in his singlet, short shorts and headband!

• My grandparents started their family in Taiping. My late grandfather worked in a tin mine in Kamunting and I wonder if he was acquainted with Marimuthu Ammal and descendants whether through business or otherwise. Another blast from the past was in the reference to historian Mr D.M. Ponnusamy. I remember him fondly as he used to send me letters and historical accounts written in longhand when I worked at a heritage NGO. I was fortunate to have met him a few times before he passed away.

• A Headmaster’s Journey is an account written by our own MV President Afidah Zuliana Abdul Rahim, about her late father. I also have been taught by teachers like the esteemed Abdul Rahim Che Teh, who took pride in the profession and whose patriotism drove him to always give more than his best.

In addition to the book’s Introduction which introduced a variety of themes found in this collection, I wish to add another – that of the values held by many of the subjects. Whether because of age or interest, these values resonated with me. While I did not have to live through many of the hard times of the era, the growing (pains) years of the nation, being a 3rd and 4th generation descendant of immigrants on both sides of my family means that I have heard a version of the maxims mentioned/held by the subjects. Whatever their background and origins, it is apparent that all the subjects were willing to give it their all, and work together for the greater good.  I hope other readers will also make it a treasure hunt to compile a list of values they pick up from the narratives!

Another element from the book that resonated with me is the idea of interpretation – these narratives of people, places and events are a mix of fact and records with the memory of people. The writers have provided us with their interpretation and readers, especially those who find their personal connections to them add another layer to the interpretation and possibly, emotional connection.  As MVs, we are interpreters of history as displayed in Muzium Negara – a history of this nation of immigrants who have laid down roots and continue to grow the nation. We help each other and visitors to make sense of the displays exhibited, so that they may develop understanding, appreciation and enhance their knowledge of Malaysia. Let us not lose our pride and passion for this!

There will be a Book Discussion Event on “Roots Living Heritage” organised by Arkib Negara Malaysia on Saturday 11 March 2023 at 2.30p.m. Venue is the Main Hall, Memorial Tun Hussein Onn, Kuala Lumpur.

*MVs may peruse a copy of the book at the MV Library.

The Leaves of a Vine

By Chuah Siew Yen

Royalty to Peasantry, Weddings to Funerals: A Millennia-old Habit

The leaves of a vine, the nut of a palm, with a slather of calcium hydroxide paste – this magical combination of the betel quid has excited and intoxicated royalty and peasantry since antiquity.

Image source: Betel Chewing in South-East Asia by Dawn F. Rooney; accessible at:

The relaxing and alerting effects of the quid exudes a general sense of heightened well-being more intense than caffeine or nicotine. Is it any wonder then that the chewing habit spread to the western Pacific, across the Indian subcontinent, reaching as far as the fringes of East Africa to Madagascar in the west; Melanesia to the Santa Cruz Islands in the east; southern China in the north, and Papua New Guinea in the south?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that globally 600 million people today still indulge in betel chewing, also known as chewing betel quid. This translates to one-tenth of the human race, and is recognisable by the ubiquitous red-stained lips and reddish-blackened teeth of the users. The custom pervades Asia, has no gender barriers and embraces all ages and classes.

The essential ingredients of the quid are the betel leaf which has a fresh, peppery taste (though some varieties may be bitter-sweet), the areca nut with its tannin, oil gum and nicotine/arecoline properties, and slated lime which increases the alkalinity in the mouth of the chewer to release the alkaloids, the active ingredients in the nut. Tobacco and other spices such as clove, cumin, and cinnamon, may be added for flavour. Chewing the quid thus produces the signature red spittle.

A betel nut chewer in Papua New Guinea. Image source: Photograph by David Longstreath for the Associated Press (AP)

The chewed preparation is not swallowed. Profuse spittle is produced during the chewing and the excess has to be spat out. This constant spitting is an inevitable part of quid-chewing. Spitting the excess juices in public spaces is not only repulsive and nauseating, but unhygienic. The near permanent red stains left on floors, roads and walls are an eyesore and defaces the environment.

Paan (betel quid) made with areca nut, betel leaves and lime, with or without tobacco, causes profuse red coloured salivation. This saliva is spat, yielding stains and biological waste pollution in public spaces. Many countries and municipalities now have laws to prevent paan spit. Image source: Photograph by Anna Frodesiak; CC0.

When quid chewing spread and was elevated to a higher social practice, the spittle was disposed of into special receptacles now known as spittoons. This later gave rise to an entire artistic genre that included implements for preparing, serving, transporting, and storing betel ingredients. Boxes of various sizes to hold smaller containers of the areca nut, lime and spices were made from wood or lacquer which were initially plain but later decorated. For the aristocrats and royalty these containers could be of silver or gold. As the practice grew in sophistication, a small knife, spatula, and scissors/cutter were added in the box. To complete the kit the tray of containers is placed on a matching spittoon. See picture below. In the Malay language it is ‘tempat/tepak sirih’.

Ingredients found in the individual vessels called cembul of the tepak sirih. Traditionally, each item is positioned according to a particular order. Image source: Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia (PNM); accessible at:

Tepak sirih > Betel quid set
Kepala tepak > Front of tray/set
Ekor tepak > Back of tray/set
Pinang > Areca nut
Kapur > Lime
Gambir > Gambier
Tembakau > Tobacco
Cengkih > Clove
Daun sirih > Betel leaf
Kacip > Cutter/slicer for areca nut

Peranakan tempat sirih, wood, mother of pearl, silver and gold plating, early 20th century, Intan Museum. Image source: Photograph by Haa900; CC0.

The materials and craftsmanship of a betel nut set (tepak sirih) indicates a person’s wealth and status. Only royalty and elites possessed quality metal or porcelain sets and tools while a commoner had access to only wooden ones.

In the past in India and Sri Lanka, it was a custom of the royalty to chew area nut with betel leaf. Kings had special attendants whose duty it was to carry the betel box wherever the king went, and to ensure the ingredients made for a good chewing session.

The origins of betel chewing are unknown although it has long been held that betel chewing is native to India, dating back to Vedic times. According to ancient books of Ayurveda, the practice of chewing betel leaves (not the quid) after meals was common between 75 and 300 CE, for its curative properties.

In Chinese folk medicine betel leaves have been used for detoxification and anti-mutation. There are research experiments where the leaf extract and purified compounds are anti-diabetic and anti-inflammatory. The various Ayurvedic medicine uses for the leaf are as a diuretic, for intestinal ailments and protection from infections.

Despite the widespread use of betel leaves in ancient times, there has not been strong evidence of incidence of oral cancer. Various experiments evaluating the effects of betel leaves suggested no harmful effect when consumed alone. (Bhide et al.)

On its own, betel leaves were used as a stimulant, antiseptic and breath-freshener whereas the areca nut was considered as aphrodisiac. It is again not known when and where these two different stimulants were first put together, but there is archaeological evidence that the leaves and nut were chewed together from very ancient times. References to betel chewing appeared in ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Chinese literature as early as 100 BCE.

It is believed the practice of betel nut chewing originated from Island Southeast Asia where the plant ingredients are native. The oldest evidence of betel nut chewing is found in a burial pit in the Duyong Cave site in Pahlawan, Philippines. The dentition of several skeletons in the pit is stained, typical of betel chewers. One of the anadara shells used as lime containers still had traces of lime. Burial sites in Bohol dated around first millennium CE also had skulls with the distinctive reddish stain characteristic of betel chewing, in the oral cavity.

Areca catechu illustrated by Francisco Manuel Blanco in Flora de Filipinas (1880-1883). It is originally native to the Philippines. Image source: Plate from book; accessible at:

The Areca palm and the heart-shaped betel leaf from the vine of the sub-tropical pan plant were endemic in these areas from where betel chewing probably spread during the Austronesian expansion. The most concentrated areas for betel chewing were the areas where the climate and soil are suitable for the cultivation of the nut and leaf, and where there is an adequate source of lime.

The habitual usage of the betel leaf-nut-lime combination spread from the Philippines to Taiwan and onwards to the rest of Austronesia and neighbouring cultures through trade and migration. Its use was documented by ancient historians in Ceylon and Persia around 600 BCE and parts of the Arab world by the 8th and 9th centuries. It is believed that betel was brought to Europe by Marco Polo around 1300 CE.

Even though the narcotic and stimulating effects of betel chewing had been noticed by travellers and botanists of the 16th century, it was not until the 19th century that attempts were made to study them scientifically.

Through maritime trade through the centuries, the leaf, nut and use of sirih (leaf) and pinang (areca nut) spread from east to west, influencing daily life and rituals from marriages to funerals… and it isn’t limited to ordinary folk; even royalty was in on it! The use of this humble quid eventually became embedded in social convention and court ceremony. The quid became the token of favour in village courtships as well as in royal courts.

Tepak sirih set from Hani’s personal collection. This is a typical presentation to offer guests. Fresh flowers and cinnamon sticks are used to decorate the tray. Photograph by author.

The habit caught on naturally as ingredients were freely traded, available, affordable and … addictive! Synonymous in Myanmar with hospitality and social enjoyment, almost everyone during the past century used to own a betel box as men, women and monks of all ages and ranks chewed betel.

This is clear indication of man’s innate desire to seek temporal solace in stimulants, be they royalty, peasantry, or clergy. Kings, emperors, sultans, emirs – all display hedonistic behaviour, their wealth allowing them to indulge insatiable hunger for things pleasurable.

In 990 CE, a Chinese envoy recorded cultural uses of betel chewing by a Vietnamese king, and by the 17th century, western travellers recorded the phenomenon as a deep-rooted social ritual. Since the 11th century, the royal use of betel in Southeast Asia is described in written records which provide details about the protocol of sharing a quid with a king and the use of betel in royal ceremonies. From the 16th century when Europeans reached the East, they viewed this alien foreign custom as ‘…unhygienic, vile and disgusting…’

Chewing habits of people may have changed, but having been around so long it remains an inalienable part of cultural and religious rituals. Whether medicinal, magical, symbolic, or social, the betel serves a purpose in many cultures, encompassing more than just ritual chewing. From its historical use as medicine, it has evolved to feature symbolically in many important social and religious ceremonies.

Across the Asian region, betel has a strong association with engagements and marriages. In mainland Southeast Asia, the betel nut symbolises love and faithfulness. A decorated betel nut set is featured at traditional weddings and betel nuts are offered as dowries. Sirih, the Malay word for betel leaf, means ‘a young girl who is of marriageable age’, while the word for the areca nut, pinang, can mean ‘to court’ or ‘to propose’. In Sumatra, a Batak man will offer a betel quid to start a conversation with his potential wife, while an Iban woman will take betel from a man if she accepts his marriage proposal.
There was a custom for lovers to chew the areca nut and betel leaf together for its breath-freshening and relaxant properties. Thus, a sexual symbolism came to be attached to the chewing of the nut and leaf, the nut representing the male, and the leaf the female.

On the other end of the spectrum, betel is featured in funeral rites as it is believed to pave the way to a better incarnation. Cambodian-Khmer cultures place a betel leaf together with an inscribed Buddhist verse between the lips of the deceased. In northern India relatives offer their final farewells by placing betel on the dead body. In Luzon Island, betel juice was used to embalm the dead as far back as the 16th century. Because of cross-cultural interactions, many of these rituals overlap across communities.

In between life and death ceremonies, the betel is a significant item in childbirth in several Asian communities. After childbirth, mothers undergo a ritual ‘lying by the fire’ to dry out the womb while offering protective spirits a platter of betel, flowers, candles, and incense. The areca flower is added to the mother’s bath for curative effects on the womb. The baby is laid on a bed of areca nut palms, to symbolise prosperity.

Considered an auspicious ingredient in Hinduism and some schools of Buddhism, the areca nut and betel leaf is still used in religious ceremonies, and honouring individuals at festivals.

Preparing betel quid for sale in Calcutta. Image source:

The practice lives on today in Oceania, many South, East and West Asian countries, and India. In some parts of Asia these psychoactive parcels are still used as a herbal remedy for anything from toothache, indigestion to acne, as well as in veterinary and ayurvedic medicine. Some others believe they have aphrodisiac properties.

Today, the betel habit has declined in popularity, especially in urban areas where quid chewing is frowned upon because of the unsightly splashes of crimson on walls and roadside left by indiscriminate chewers. Modernisation with education has taken over. To many urban youths it is a memory of the past.

But to agrarian communities and rural areas where socio-cultural traditions are so strong the habit is hard to break. Low health literacy is another contributing factor. Quid chewing remains an ingrained habit among working-age men who chew to stay awake during the long hours at work at construction sites, fishing at sea or long-distance driving. The stubborn users seem oblivious that the habit is a deadly addiction as the ingredients in a betel quid are cancer-causing agents and stimulants, and a major cause of oral and laryngeal cancers.

Ni Ni Wah puts a betel quid in her mouth. She dismisses the risks of cancer saying “mouth cancer happens to people who keep betel quids in their mouth all night while they sleep.” Image source: Photograph by Dave Grunebaum for VOA.

Taiwan has made progress toward reducing quid use by implementing numerous government-funded programmes. Nation-wide educational outreach, cessation courses and incentives for cultivating alternative cash crops adopted since the 1990s has resulted in a notable reduction in the number of quid users, but the issue is far from resolved. The betel-nut trade in Taiwan has been widely sexualised: young scantily-clad maidens still hawk the product from transparent cubicles along highways.

Half of Papua New Guinea’s 9 million people are quid chewers – that’s big betel business! This country has the world’s highest oral cancer mortality. In 2013 physicians and public health officials managed to get lawmakers to pass an outright ban on selling and chewing quid in Port Moresby but the success was short-lived. Those protecting their trade protested strongly… and the sale was subsequently allowed in designated areas. Local experts predict that the burden of oral cancer will continue to worsen.

It remains legal to sell an addictive carcinogen without a warning label in much of the world. Policy makers in these regions have continually neglected to adopt public health initiatives to address production and use of betel quid.     

The medical community is stuck on the outside, looking in, as an unregulated industry fuels a health disaster. It is a reminder of how little progress has been made towards addressing health disparities between privileged and marginalised populations.

Note: This article is inspired by the presentation on Betel Chewing – Mythology, Legend, Fable & Folk Tale by Krishnan Karruppan to Museum Volunteers on 2 November 2022.

Edited by Meredith Tomkovitch


1. Dawn, F. Rooney, Betel Chewing Traditions in South-East Asia (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1993), 1. (Call no. RSEA 394.14 ROO-[CUS])
2. “The Epicurean, Palliative Pleasures of Paan,” Himalayan Academy. Publications, published 1 February 1994.

Bandar Warisan: Taiping

Oleh Shafinaz Ahmad Shaharir
Kredit gambar: Muhammad Nazirul Hakim

Bandar Taiping yang terletak di negeri Perak merupakan sebuah bandar warisan yang menyimpan seribu kenangan dan merupakan sebuah bandar permulaan bagi arus pemodenan di Tanah Melayu pada suatu ketika dahulu. Nama Taiping berasal daripada perkataan Cina “Tai-Peng” yang bermaksud aman selamanya setelah tamatnya perang Larut pada tahun 1874. Bandar Taiping wujud hasil daripada kegiatan perlombongan secara besar-besaran yang dipelopori oleh pemimpin Melayu iaitu Long Jaafar.

Asalnya bandar Taiping merupakan penempatan bagi sebilangan kecil masyarakat Melayu namun perjumpaan bijih timah yang banyak di Larut telah menarik perhatian orang asing untuk berhijrah ke bandar ini. Dahulunya sebelum penjajahan British di negeri Perak, Taiping atau nama asalnya Kelian Pauh terletak di bawah daerah Larut. Larut yang dimaksudkan bukanlah daerah Larut, Matang dan Selama yang ada pada hari ini tetapi Larut tersebut merangkumi ke utara hingga ke Sungai Kerian dan menganjur ke selatan sampai ke Sungai Beruas. Nama Larut adalah bersempena dengan nama seekor gajah yang digunakan untuk mengangkut bijih timah tetapi telah terlepas ke dalam hutan. Apabila gajah itu ditemui, kaki gajah tersebut berlumpur hitam dipenuhi dengan pasir bijih timah. Dipercayai disebabkan peristiwa gajah ini, daerah ini dinamakan sebagai Larut dan mula menjadi rebutan para pembesar negeri, penjajah dan pedagang asing termasuk pelombong Cina kerana buminya yang amat kaya dengan bijih timah.

Apabila menyentuh sejarah kegemilangan Taiping, dua tokoh terkemuka Melayu bagi bandar ini tidak harus dilupakan iaitu Long Jaafar dan Ngah Ibrahim. Kejayaan mereka mengubah Larut daripada sebuah kawasan pendalaman kepada sebuah daerah yang kaya dan terkenal tidak harus dinafikan. Ini kerana kejayaan mereka telah mendahului zaman pada waktu itu lagi dengan menjadi pembesar Melayu dan tokoh perniagaan Melayu.

Pemandangan senja di Kuala Sepetang, Taiping.
Kilang arang merupakan industri paling tua di Kuala Sepetang, Taiping.

Pengasas Pengembangan Bandar Taiping

Sebelum kedatangan British ke negeri Perak, Larut ditadbir oleh Long Jaafar yang telah diberi kuasa oleh Sultan Perak ketika itu. Umum mengetahui bahawa Long Jaafar yang telah membuka lombong bijih timah di Larut secara besar-besaran dan sungai-sungai dijadikan lombong bijih timah. Long Jaafar merupakan anak kepada Dato’ Paduka Setia Long Abdul Latif dan menantu kepada Datuk Panglima Bukit Gantang Alang Alaiddin. Long Jaafar berkahwin dengan sepupunya Ngah Pura, anak kepada bapa saudaranya iaitu Alang Alaiddin. Bermula dengan penemuan bijih timah secara tidak sengaja oleh Long Jaafar di Kelian Pauh (Taiping) telah membuka lembaran sejarah baharu dalam perlombongan bijih timah di Larut. Jumpaan baharu kawasan bijih timah yang dikenali sebagai Kelian Baru (Kamunting) turut meluaskan lagi kejayaan Long Jaafar dalam perusahaan bijih timah dan telah menaikkan lagi kedudukan beliau sebagai seseorang yang lebih berpengaruh dan kaya.

Kejayaan Long Jaafar membuka perlombongan bijih timah di Larut membuatkan beliau memperoleh kawasan pajakan di Larut dengan membayar sebanyak $125.00 setahun kepada Datuk Panglima Bukit Gantang. Kedudukan beliau bertambah kukuh apabila pada 28 Februari 1850, Long Jaafar menerima pengurniaan kuasa dan hak memerintah Larut daripada Sultan Perak, Sultan Shahabuddin Riayat Shah (1830-1851). Beliau meluaskan lagi daerah ini meliputi Matang, Kerian dan Selama serta menjadikan Kota Bukit Gantang sebagai pusat pentadbirannya.

Atas kebijaksanaan Long Jaafar, Larut mula berkembang pesat dengan aktiviti perlombongan bijih timah. Sebelum kedatangan pelombong Cina, penduduk tempatan telah melakukan kerja-kerja melombong secara mendulang sahaja. Namun dengan kedatangan pelombong Cina yang dibawa masuk oleh Long Jaafar pada tahun 1840, teknik melombong menjadi lebih rapi dan sistematik menyebabkan beliau membawa lebih ramai lagi pelombong Cina ke kawasan Larut untuk bekerja dengannya. Kerancakan ekonomi ini telah meletakkan Long Jaafar sebagai hartawan dan ahli perniagaan yang amat berpengaruh pada waktu itu. Ini dapat dibuktikan apabila Long Jaafar mempunyai hubungan yang erat dengan saudagar-saudagar Cina di Pulau Pinang dan hasil bijih timah Larut dijual kepada mereka. Hubungan erat antara Long Jaafar dengan orang Cina dapat dibuktikan melalui hubungannya dengan Law Sam. Law Sam merupakan ketua orang Cina bagi sukunya dan merekalah golongan pertama orang Cina yang datang ke Kelian Pauh.

Apabila Long Ja’afar meninggal dunia pada tahun 1857, kejayaan dan kekayaan beliau diwarisi kepada anak kedua beliau, Ngah Ibrahim. Ngah Ibrahim juga berjaya mendapatkan hak untuk memerintah jajahan Larut termasuk Kerian dan Bagan Tiang daripada Sultan Ja’afar Muazzam Syah (1857-1865) pada 30 November 1857. Beliau juga menempa nama sebagai seorang pemerintah dan ahli perniagaan yang amat berjaya seperti bapanya tetapi dengan corak pentadbiran yang lebih moden serta beliau memindahkan pusat pentadbiran Larut dari Bukit Gantang ke Kota Ngah Ibrahim di Permatang (Matang). Apabila berlaku pergolakan kuasa dan termeterainya Perjanjian Pangkor pada 20 Januari 1874, menjadi titik perubahan kepada kegemilangan Ngah Ibrahim yang menyebabkan beliau dan pembesar-pembesar Melayu yang menentang British kehilangan kuasa.

Apabila berlaku pergolakan kuasa antara pembesar-pembesar Melayu dan pergaduhan antara ketua-ketua kongsi gelap Cina telah membuka peluang pihak British menjajah negeri Perak. British juga mula campur tangan dalam pentadbiran Larut. Kapten Speedy, Penolong Residen British dilantik untuk mentadbir Larut dan J.W.W. Birch menjadi Residen Inggeris yang pertama di negeri Perak.  Pihak British menyusun semula pentadbiran di Larut dan memberi nama baru kepada Kelian Pauh iaitu Taiping. Setelah pembunuhan Birch, Taiping dipilih sebagai pusat pentadbiran dan ibu kota negeri Perak. Kapten Speedy dipindah ke Hulu Perak. Semenjak itu, bandar ini mula berkembang pesat dengan pembangunan dan pada tahun 1883 telah wujud bangunan-bangunan baru yang digunakan sebagai mahkamah dan pejabat.

Keunikan Bandar Taiping

Pada masa kini, keunikan bandar Taiping dapat dilihat pada bangunan-bangunan dan barisan kedai-kedai lama yang menjadi ciri penting dalam membentuk identiti bandar warisan ini. Kebanyakan bangunan-bangunan konkrit ini masih kekal dan mempamerkan seni bina kolonial yang dibawa oleh penjajah-penjajah Eropah terutamanya British.

Pembangunan awal di Taiping terbahagi kepada dua era iaitu sebelum kedatangan British dan semasa pendudukan British di Tanah Melayu. Ketika pemerintahan Long Jaafar, sebuah kota dibina di Bukit Gantang sebagai sebuah pusat pentadbiran Larut dan pusat perniagaannya. Kota ini dilengkapi dengan benteng pertahanan dan gudang. Diikuti pula dengan pemerintahan Ngah Ibrahim, beliau menjadikan Matang sebagai kota pentadbiran Larut yang dilengkapi dengan kemudahan infrastruktur seperti jalan raya, balai pengawal, rumah kedai, penjara, gudang senjata, gudang menyimpan bijih timah dan lain-lain lagi kemudahan. Pada waktu ini, kebanyakaan bangunan dibina berasaskan kayu-kayan yang menyebabkan ia tidak bertahan untuk jangka tempoh yang lama.

Menara jam Taiping.
Antara bangunan bersejarah yang telah usang di Taiping.

Era kedua pembangunan Taiping adalah ketika penjajahan British. Pihak British mula membangunkan bandar ini secara terancang serta lengkap dengan kemudahan infrastruktur. Kebanyakan bangunan ini dibina rapi di sepanjang jalan-jalan utama dalam bentuk grid segi empat dan ditanami pokok-pokok. Premis perniagaan dibina dalam bentuk blok dengan sepuluh buah kedai untuk setiap blok di hadapan jalan raya yang lebih lebar. Jalan-jalan utama pada waktu itu adalah Jalan Stadium, Jalan Theatre, Jalan Kota, Jalan Barrack, Jalan Main dan Jalan Old Club. Sepanjang tahun 1880-an pembangunan dan kemajuan di Taiping dikatakan mendahului bandar-bandar lain di Tanah Melayu. Muzium Perak, muzium pertama di negara ini dibina pada tahun 1883 dan selesai pembinaannya pada tahun 1886. Sistem pengangkutan dan perhubungan menerusi jalan darat yang menghubungkan Taiping dan Parit Buntar turut dibina dan hampir selesai pembinaannya pada tahun 1883. Buat pertama kalinya, keretapi membawa penumpang dari Port Weld ke Taiping pada 12 Februari 1885.

Bukti sejarah pembinaan landasan keretapi pertama di negara ini.
Seni bina bangunan lama di Taiping adalah campuran Melayu dan kolonial kesan daripada penjajahan British.

Ketika itu, Port Weld merupakan sebuah pelabuhan yang sangat sibuk kerana hasil eksport dan import antara Taiping dan Pulau Pinang disalurkan melalui pelabuhan ini. Beberapa bangunan pentadbiran kerajaan juga turut dibina termasuklah pejabat pos dan telegraf pada tahun 1884. Penjara pertama di Malaysia juga turut dibina pada tahun 1879 yang dikenali sebagai Penjara Taiping bagi menampung penjenayah yang dihukum penjara di seluruh Negeri-negeri Melayu Bersekutu. Taiping juga mendahului dalam sistem pendidikan Inggeris di Tanah Melayu dengan terbinanya sekolah Inggeris pertama di Kamunting pada tahun 1878. Sekolah King Edward VII yang dibina pada tahun 1883 juga merupakan sebuah sekolah yang terbaik yang bukan hanya terkemuka dalam bidang pelajaran tetapi pelbagai jenis sukan seperti ragbi dan bola sepak. Malah, Taiping ketika itu juga menitik berat aktiviti riadah dan rekreasi dengan wujudnya Perak Club pada tahun 1881, eksklusif untuk warga Eropah dan Eurasian serta Taman Tasik Taiping yang merupakan taman rekreasi yang tertua di Malaysia dibina atas tapak bekas lombong bijih timah pada tahun 1884. Disebabkan kemajuan Taiping pada waktu itu menyebabkan bandar ini amat terkenal dengan jolokan “yang pertama” (first of many) kerana bandar ini mempunyai lebih daripada 30 kejayaan iaitu menjadi “yang pertama” sama ada dalam pentadbiran, pendidikan, kemudahan awam dan komunikasi, institusi keagaaman, pusat rekreasi, penerbitan dan persatuan.

Sekolah Kebangsaan King Edward VII (1883)
Rumah ‘Assistant Resident’ (1884)


Taiping menjadi simbol kebijaksanaan masyarakat dahulu dalam pentadbiran membangunkan sebuah bandar secara teratur serta sistematik yang lengkap dengan pelbagai fasiliti dan kemudahan. Bandar ini telah mencapai usia lebih 100 tahun dan telah diangkat sebagai bandar warisan yang sangat unik malah signifikan dalam perkembangan sejarah awal Malaysia. Malah, Taiping sering menjadi tumpuan para penyelidik dalam pelbagai bidang termasuklah mengkaji seni bina struktur bangunan-bangunan terawal yang terdapat di bandar ini. Pentingnya bandar warisan ini bukan sahaja menjadi tumpuan para pelancong, tetapi untuk tatapan generasi baru Malaysia yang bakal mewarisi negara ini bagi mereka mengetahui tentang asal-usul mereka dan menghayati peristiwa masa lalu negara. Malah generasi baru juga harus tahu bahawa Taiping merupakan tempat bermulanya pertumbuhan nasionalisme Melayu yang diketuai oleh Ngah Ibrahim dan sekutunya dalam menentang campur tangan penjajah British di negara ini. Oleh itu, peranan bandar ini tidak harus diabaikan dan langkah-langkah pemuliharaan bangunan-bangunan yang telah dimamah usia haruslah diberi perhatian dengan segera bagi tatapan generasi akan datang.

Peace Hotel (1928)
Taiping terkenal dengan pelbagai jenis makanan termasuk makanan Hainan.
Ruang depan Hotel Peking (1929)


A. T. (2004). Old Taiping. Malaysia: Alex Teoh Eng Kean.

Azmi , N., Shamsul Harumain, Y., Ali , A., Zaini, S., & Abdullah, M. (2017). Character-Defining Elements of Shophouses Buildings in Taiping, Perak. Journal of Design and Built Environment, Special Issue, 139-149. Retrieved August 23, 2022, from

Khoo Kay Kim. (1994). Taiping: Ibu Kota Perak. Kuala Lumpur: Persatuan Muzium Malaysia.

Mohd Zamberi, A. (2001). Larut Daerah Terkaya. Bangi: Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Muzium Matang (2022). Pameran Khas: Menelusuri Jejak Tengku Menteri Ngah Ibrahim. Taiping: Jabatan Muzium Malaysia

Zainol, R. (2017). Pelancongan Bandar Di Taiping. Sejarah: Jurnal Jabatan Sejarah Universiti Malaya, 15(15), 129-141. doi:

A Jaunt to the National Textile Museum

By Chin Keat Yue

A perfect way to spend a Saturday morning is to take a stroll to the National Textile Museum especially with a well-informed volunteer guide, Anne.  The Textile Museum gives one a good overview of not just textiles and weaving techniques but also various accessories that can also be worn. One will be surprised that the some of the patterns of the olden textiles will not lose out in terms of beauty with their modern contemporaries.

 There are four permanent galleries in the National Textile Museum, viz.:

Pohon Budi Gallery
(Ground Floor)

This gallery tells the story of the evolution of textiles and the techniques associated with textile weaving, beginning with the initial use of bark cloth as covering. This involved the simple art of using stone to beat the bark until it was soft. Early fibre used for weaving was from banana trunk or pineapple leaves. Exhibits include techniques of calendaring and gilding, gold thread embroidery on velvet, woven and embroidered textiles, Iban ceremonial cloth (pua kumbu), songket weaving, beading on shoes, collars, head cloth and tapestry as well as a comprehensive section on batik making.

Examples of beaded articles. Image source: Author’s own.

Various looms were displayed and one is made aware that when using the back-strap loom for weaving, the size of the cloth is restricted to the body width though not the length.

Display of weaving technique. Image source: Author’s own.

Various techniques of creating patterns for example calendaring and gilding, tie and dye method, block printing, canting hand drawn technique as well as gold thread embroidery, using of gold leaf or dust were explained.

Some pieces from The Royal Pahang Weaving are also on display.   

Pelangi Gallery
(Ground Floor)

This gallery explores the various types of textiles. Batik making started in the 1930’s in the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia (Malaya then). Before that batik cloth was imported mainly from Indonesia. The costly batik imports gave a push to the entrepreneurs in the East Coast to start their own batik making. Examples of tie and dye and hand drawn batik are exhibited. Malaysian batik is more colourful compared to its Indonesian counterpart.

Beautiful pattern of the limar songket fabric. Image source: Author’s own.

It was pointed out that the square Sabah textile is usually used as headgear.

The Sarawak pua does not use gold thread as supplementary thread unlike the songket. The pattern in the Sarawak pua can weave a story. The pua can be used as a blanket or even to wrap skulls in the old days.

There is also a good display of Baba & Nyonya textile and Indian textile. The Baba & Nyonya textile carries much more vibrant colours compared to textiles used by the Chinese. Indian textiles were mainly imported from India.    

Ratna Sari Gallery
(First Floor)

If one is interested in having a peep at jewellery and accessories, head toward this gallery. These ornaments are made of not just precious metals like gold, silver, copper but also beads, feathers, etc. and were worn by different ethnicities in Malaysia.  

A good variety of necklaces, pendants, kerongsang (brooches), earrings, rings, bracelets and anklets, belts, engraved buckles with floral designs and some inlaid with gold dating back to early 20th century. Hair pins, weapons (keris), modesty discs are also exhibited in this gallery.

A wedding crown. Image source: Author’s own.

A very interesting find is a wedding crown where the blue colour used was made from the feathers of the kingfisher. Some of the pendants in the necklaces can store amulets for the protection of the wearers.

An example of a necklace with amulets stored in its pendants. Image source: Author’s own.

Teluk Berantai Gallery
(First Floor)

Fine examples of various Malay textiles covering songket, limar sarung fabric, cloth embellished with gold leaf (telepuk), limar cloth and scripted cloth can be viewed in this gallery.

The arrivals of traders from Arabia, Persia, Turkey, China, India, Siam and the islands of Sumatra and Java in the early days would influence the material used then. Over the years the materials used ranged from simple to elaborate songket in fine cotton or on silk.  

Gold paper embroidery collections on display are used as covers for pillows, bridal decoration, wedding dais, etc. Probably the skills required to make them would take time to master as they involved cutting and shaping the gold paper into various designs or motifs sewing them together with coloured threads, spangles and glass-like pieces.

Development of gold thread embroidery (tekat) on textile was largely influenced by imports of gold threads, satin, silk and velvet materials from India and China into the Malayan Peninsular. In tekat the gold threads are laid on the surface of the material and stitched into place.

Examples of gold thread embroidery. Image source: Author’s own.

This last section showcases the cultural wear of the various ethnic groups in Malaysia and reminds the visitors of Gallery D of the National Museum.

Additional Information

The National Textile Museum building completed in 1905 was designed by Arthur Benison Hubback in the Neo-Mughal architectural style. Throughout its history it had been used to house various government departments before it was turned into the National Textile Museum, and was officially opened in 2012 although it was already opened to the public in 2010. It sits adjacent to the Sultan Abdul Samad Building and holds its own in terms of beauty and grace with its distinctive red and white bonding façade topped with onion-shaped domes.  

Ticket entry to the National Textile Museum is a steal at RM2 for an adult ticket (12 years and above) and half the price for senior citizens and the disabled. Non-Malaysians are charged RM5. The National Textile Museum is open daily from 9am to 5pm except the first Monday of each month.

Magna Carta

By Stuart Wakefield

Magna Carta (also known as the Great Charter) was a ground-breaking document that sought to resolve injustices within the feudal system during the early thirteenth century. It was created by militant English Barons to protect their rights and property from the oppressive monarch, King John. The King reluctantly acceded to their demands in June 1215, which included the establishment of the fundamental principle that all subjects, including the King, are subject to the law, as well guaranteeing rights to justice and a fair trial. However, most of the population were peasants whose lives were irrevocably bound to their Lord who owned the land. Initially, the document did not achieve its aims although it eventually became the foundation of the English system of common law.

King John was an unpopular monarch, although he was not the first to accept a charter that granted concessions to English citizens. In 1100, King Henry I issued a Coronation Charter which committed the monarch to curtail its abuse of power as well as limiting taxes and preventing the confiscation of church revenues. Although Henry failed to fully adhere to his promises, his Barons lacked the resolve to oppose him. Barons were high ranking nobles who ruled large areas of land or ‘fiefs’, and they communicated directly with the King. Their principal function was to maintain an army that was available to serve the King.

Photographed at the Salisbury gallery where the original Carta is kept. It is kept in this special enclosure to protect it. Image source: Karen Loh
Copy of the Magna Carta in the gallery. Image source: Karen Loh

Barons were at a lower level of the medieval hierarchy, and King John needed their support, both for the Crusades and to pay a ransom for his brother, Richard the Lionheart, who had been imprisoned by the Germans. The King was entitled to feudal rights that he often abused, which included payments to be made when his eldest daughter married or when land was inherited. He also maintained the right of wardship over heirs who were minors, and he controlled the marriage rights of his tenants’ widows and heirs.

In 1204, the King lost the Duchies of Anjou and Normandy in France, and in 1209 he became the first English King to be excommunicated after a quarrel with Pope Innocent III. In 1213, he suffered further humiliating by the French and needed to restore his standing. His coffers were almost exhausted, and he claimed ‘scutage’ tax, which was paid by Barons who had failed to provide support on the battlefield. By this time, the Pope had nominated Stephen Langton to become Archbishop of Canterbury, despite the King’s opposition, However, he was eventually forced to resolve these differences, and he accepted Langton as well as compensating the Church for revenues that he had plundered.

However, civil war erupted in early 1215, and Baron Robert FitzWalter led a force to wrest control of London. On 15 June 1215, King John was forced to submit at Runneymede, a meadow in Surrey by the River Thames, by placing his seal and thereby accepting the terms of the document laid before him. The manuscript was initially referred to as the ‘Articles of the Barons’ and four days later, after some changes, King John and the Barons issued the formal version that become known as Magna Carta. Clause 61 required the future selection of twenty-five Barons which is why their names were not listed in the document. The number of twenty-five is tied to the Bible, and such legitimisation was meaningful at the time.

The Barons realised that King John could renege on the agreement by arguing that it constituted an unlawful breach of his authority. To counter this possibility, Clause 61 was incorporated which provided a novel solution which the King had accepted that ‘… the Barons shall choose any twenty-five Barons of the realm as they wish, who with all their might are to observe, maintain and cause to be observed the peace and liberties which we have granted’. A violation by either King John or his officials of Magna Carta’s terms was to be reported to four of the committee; and if no remedy was presented within forty days, the King was to empower the full committee to ‘… distrain and distress us in every way they can, namely by seizing castles, lands and possessions …’ until amends were made. Thereby, the charter established the pioneering way of making the King sanction and organise armed action against himself. The means by which such action was to be accomplished was also indicated by use of the common law doctrine of distraint, which was the means whereby debts were collected from debtors and malefactors obliged to answer for their actions in court. The King also shrewdly accepted the Pope as feudal overlord of England, and subsequently, before many of Magna Carta’s terms were fully implemented, he petitioned the Pope to reject the document, which the Pope declared null and void on 24 August 1215.

Panel depicting the four surviving original document. Image source: Karen Loh
Translation of the Carta. It was written in Latin. (Click to view) Image source: Karen Loh

Civil war flared up again within three months, and after King John’s death in 1216, advisors to his nine-year-old son and successor, Henry III, avoided further conflict by reissuing Magna Carta with some of its most controversial clauses removed, and the document was subsequently reissued in both 1217 and 1225. Magna Carta was written in Latin, (although French was the first language of much of the aristocracy). Many of the 63 clauses defined and limited the King’s authority over the property rights of Barons, which reflected the narrow goals of its authors, and for centuries the benefits only applied to the upper classes. Approximately 250 copies of the “final” 1225 document were produced by scribes, (which inevitably resulted in some minor mistakes), and these were dispatched to legal and religious officials throughout England. The only four original copies of Magna Carta remain in existence, of which two are in the British Museum, one is in Lincoln Cathedral and one is in Salisbury Cathedral.

Gamelan: A Cultural Trace in the Malay Archipelago

by Inge-Marie and Dr. Hans Peter Holst (phD)

On our travels around Sundanese Java to research about the art and life of Otto Djaya (1916-2002), the indigenous visual artist and folk painter from Banten, West Java[1], our growing awareness of the Gamelan[2] music[3] and the Wayang theatre[4] increased and the two art forms became peripheral research objectives on their own. It heightened our interest that in Malaysia, where we live, the two art forms are similarly traditional and wonderful.

Gamelan and, more so, Wayang theatre may be vanishing in Malaysia. However, visual evidence produced by YouTube search suggests that currently there is some Gamelan activity in all the states in Malaysia. In fact, Gamelan seems to be attracting a keen amount of interest among the people and the scholars in several States. On the other hand, the Wayang theatre in Malaysia is threatened with imminent extinction. We wanted to know more about the big picture.[5] [6] [7] [8] [9]

In this article, we focus on the music, the Gamelan, because recently we discovered and acquired two ink drawings by Otto Djaya of the Babar Lajar Gamelan ensemble visiting Paris. Both the Ensemble and Otto Djaya were based in Amsterdam at the time.

The signed drawings of Babar Lajar in “Parijs” enabled us to date Otto Djaya’s visit to Paris to exhibit his paintings to December 1947 and to anchor his interest in the Gamelan music[10].

The Gamelan would turn out to be an unparalleled Indonesian cultural treasure similar to the visual arts treasure, painting, contributed by Otto Djaya and his generation of peers. The Babar Lajar Gamelan ensemble was founded in Amsterdam in about 1943. The ensemble was unique by its founder[11], the local manufacture of its instruments during wartime, and its musicians, who were young and musically gifted, and none of whom were Indonesians[12], suggesting the almost hypnotic, cult-like, appeal of Gamelan in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II.  

Indonesian President Sukarno introduced government funded Gamelan schools during the 1950s and 1960s, same as what he did for the visual arts earlier on, in order to encourage and sustain national art forms. “Some Indonesians objected to this elevation of a musical style associated primarily with Java and Bali as a “national” art form – as in a multi-ethnic, multicultural country there are no universal cultural properties”[13].

The indigenous music as well as the visual arts became important propaganda for internationally showing Indonesian culture in the runup to the Netherlands handing over sovereignty to Indonesia in 1949; Indonesia was no longer a colony.

Otto Djaya. 1986. A people inspired by the sea. Serenading water, bliss and sunset; a Sundanese flute, one of the Gamelan instruments. 27×39 cm. Gouache on paper.
Demung, a Gamelan instrument. Note the likeness with the bow and stern of the boat above.
Otto Djaya. 1986.  Fishing boats and fish vendors by the flamboyant tree. 27×39 cm. Pastel on paper.
Gambang, a Gamelan instrument. Some Gamelan designs are inspired more or less by the boat shapes.

Otto Djaya was a Sundanese of West Java. Besides painting Gamelan ensembles into his many paintings of folk dancing and festivals, the boats in his paintings are Sundanese and show an unmistakable resemblance to Gamelan instrument architecture. The Sundanese were captivated by water: stream, lake, ocean. Otto Djaya’s paintings imparted a union of popular culture and music.

Gamelan, an Indonesian Institution

The ‘Gamelan Sari Oneng Parakansalak’ ensemble of Perakan Salak

The “Gamelan Sari Oneng Parakansalak[14] of Sumedang, West Java travelled far from its birth place, a tea plantation in Sukabumi to, first, The International Exposition in Amsterdam in 1883, second, The World Exposition in Paris in 1889 and, third, The World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

In a remarkable coincidence, sixty years after Chicago, at the end December 1945, a 29 years old Otto Djaya, the artist, now a company commander with the rank of Major in the revolutionary Indonesian forces, and his troops played a key role in stopping an advancing British/Dutch tank column at the Bojong Kokasan Ridge, Sukabumi, east of the Parakan Salak area and the tea plantations, the origin of the Gamelan Sari Oneng.   

“Kampung Jawa”, the Javanese village on the Netherlands’ site at The World Exposition in Paris 1889. The Gamelan Sari Oneng performed there with Javanese musicians.

Gamelan music was formally staged in Europe at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Javanese musicians performed Gamelan in the East Indies section of the Netherlands’ pavilion[15] [16]. In 1993, Gamelan was introduced to USA at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois[17]. Western composers and musicians were intrigued and interested to listen and to experiment with the new sound.

In 2021, Indonesian Gamelan was listed by UNESCO on its Representative List of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In comparison, Wayang was listed in 2003, two decades earlier.

In Indonesia, particularly in Java and Bali, Gamelan is the most popular form of traditional music. A Gamelan ensemble typically consists of a variety of metal percussion instruments, usually made of bronze or brass, including gongs, xylophones, and drums. It may also be extended with bamboo flutes, stringed instruments, and vocalists, but the focus is on the percussion.  Metal instruments are expensive to make, compared with those of wood or bamboo. However, they will not deteriorate or change tune in a hot, humid climate. Some scholars suggest that this may be one of the reasons that gamelan developed, with its signature metallic sound.

Gamelan was a feature of court life among the Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms of Java, Sumatra, and Bali. The Buddhist monument of Borobudur in central Java has a bas-relief depicting a Gamelan ensemble from the time of the Srivijaya Empire, 600s-1200s; the musicians play stringed instruments, metal drums, and flutes.

The Majapahit Empire (1293-1597) had a government office in charge of supervising the performing arts, including Gamelan. The Gamelan ensemble was important to court life. Inscriptions and bas-reliefs from Bali, also under the control of the Majapahit emperors, show that the same types of musical ensembles and instruments were as prevalent there as in Java. The gong made its appearance in Indonesian Gamelan during this era as did the stitched-skin drums and bowed strings, at first probably imported as trade goods.

Islam came to Java during the 1400s by Muslim traders from Arabia and south Asia. The most influential strain of Islam then introduced was Sufism that values music as one of the pathways to experiencing the divine. Had a more conservative strain of Islam been introduced, Gamelan in Java and Sumatra might not have flourished.  

In keeping with Sufi teachings, Javanese Gamelan tended to be slower in tempo and more meditative or trance-like. Most of the rhythms are generally soft and reflect the harmony of life, the principles of life generally adopted by Javanese society. Gamelan has become inseparable from Javanese customs and human life and is almost always there in every Javanese ceremony, to accompany dances, dance dramas, theatre, puppets, rituals, events and festivals. In general, no two gamelan ensembles are the same, and those that originated in prestigious courts have their own style and tuning. Varieties of gamelan are distinguished by their complement of instruments and use of tunings, repertoire, style, voice, and cultural context.

There is a principal division between the styles favoured by the Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese. While Javanese Gamelan has soft and slow tones, Sundanese gamelan with its sound of flutes makes it both soft, mellow and romantic[18]. Balinese gamelan has strong and dynamic tones with fast rhythms. Perhaps it can be said that Javanese Gamelan is played for formal dancing and ceremony, Sundanese Gamelan is played for dreamers and lovers, and Balinese for rituals.

Bali is Different

Bali remained predominantly Hindu, wherefore Java and Bali developed different forms of gamelan. Balinese Gamelan emphasizes virtuosity and quick tempos, a trend encouraged by the Dutch colonists. Balinese instruments are built in pairs tuned slightly apart to produce interference beats, ideally at a consistent pace. This concept communicates the idea of repeating rising and falling waves of music.

Bali with its Kebyar[19] music broke away from the Javanese gamelan and the ceremonial gamelan. The Balinese refashioned their music and dance style by Kebyar, which originated in North Bali villages a century ago and spread rapidly over Bali’s music and dance landscape. Soon, ensembles in Central and South Bali were refashioning their ceremonial Gamelan orchestras of suspended gongs, bronze-keyed metallophones, tuned gong chimes, and drums to accommodate the new style[20], additional keys were added to extend ranges, some instruments were melted down and re-forged to respond to Kebyar requirements. Musicians wanted lighter bronze keys and more of them, and longer racks of gong chimes, to play the rapid melodies and sharp accents. Playing techniques and innovations in one realm led to innovations in the other. Kebyar dancing embodies the music’s restless energy and vice versa. It was popularly said that Kebyar is a modernist’s hallucinogenic dream, cast in bronze.[21]

Today most Indonesians have embraced the Gamelan as their national sound and it is heard frequently on the air. Even so, stand-alone gamelan concerts are unusual.  

Gamelan Melayu

Gamelan is said to have originated late in the Srivijaya Empire around the 900s and to have migrated to the Riau-Lingga Sultanate, a long stone throw from Johore. Gamelan[22] instruments were brought to Pahang in the 1800s making it one of the oldest musical instruments found in Peninsular Malaysia today. Gamelan music existed primarily amongst the ruling class at the Pahang, Terengganu, and Johor palaces, as an accompaniment to the traditional dance known as Joget[23], usually performed for guests of the palace, at elaborate ceremonies and festivals.

Since then, Gamelan has continued to be played among the people and has spread to other states[24]. Having little to no function in Malaysia outside of ceremonial performances, Gamelan Melayu is now largely entertainment music to practitioners, performers, and audiences/connoisseurs[25]. We noted that there are many enthusiastic Gamelan performers in Peninsular Malaysia.

Before 1982, Gamelan instruments in the UK existed only at the Indonesian Embassy. Today, the interest in Gamelan flourishes. Today, there are some 150 Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese Gamelans in the UK. Clearly, the British did not think as much of Gamelan during colonial times as the Dutch did.

Contemporary compositions of Adrian Lee for the Rhythm in Bronze ensemble[26], Ng Chong Lee [27], Marzelan Salleh [28], and Junita Batubara [29] are immensely interesting and uplifting.

Adrian Lee, Hakikat Air from Arus Gangsa, performed by Rhythm in Bronze

A Gamelan Symphony Festival was held in 2018 at the Sultan Alam Shah Islamic College as a showcase of Gamelan Melayu, with six local Gamelan groups from both secondary and tertiary education institutions participating. In 2019, the project called for a Gamelan competition, bringing in competitors from a total of eight secondary and tertiary education institutions, with the host emerging as the winner. In 2020, the Virtual Gamelan Symphony Festival (VGSF), aimed to make Gamelan Melayu accessible to the masses, through simple and easy-to-follow video lessons[30] .

Gamelan travelled from Indonesia and inspired others

When western composers presented music inspired by the Gamelan they were met with both derision and enduring admiration at the premiere as, typically, within days, the confusion among audiences and critics had turned into pleasure. 

Was it mere coincidence that the formation of vast stylistic ecosystems came into being simultaneously with modernists in Western music and the first Gamelan presenters coming together? The musical scale was different but the musical characteristics were similar. The Western composers and the Gamelan artists must have shared some deep cultural commonality and instinct of sounds, tuning, and timing. We shall not know, but ecosystems continue to grow. The attraction of Gamelan to Western composers and audiences resulted in both adaption and adoption [31].

The most significant characteristic of Asian music is the use of pentatonic scale and gong chimes, also used in western music along with other instruments. This describes the relationship between Asian and Western music[32] [33]. In Javanese Gamelan music, the slendro scale has five tones per octave, of which four are emphasized in classical music. The pelog scale has six or seven tones, and is generally played using one of three five-tone subsets in which certain notes are avoided while others are emphasized. [34]

We find in our travels that music is spanning the world across cultures. With music compositions of today, especially what suggests to be symphonic, it is difficult to tell if Eastern heritage instruments and tonal systems are inspiring Western heritage or the other way around. Either way, the output is typically capturing the ear and senses and does not give reason to reject classical Western music and/or music and composers of previous centuries and of antiquity. It is deeply satisfactory to witness by ear that music makers have tremendous ambitions and see few boundaries ahead of them.

The tonality and rhythm of Indonesian Gamelan contributed to the ‘atonal’ ideas and compositions by Western composers from around 1900 onward, for instance, Debussy, Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky and Bela Bartok, and many others.  

Erik Satie (1866-1925). The composers Satie and Debussy were the earliest to use the exotic and highly dissonant Gamelan scales. Satie’s Gnossiennes compositions for piano are among his earliest compositions and evokes ‘another world’ by its “highly original modal harmonies, pure simplicity, and monotonous repetition”[35]. The originality and simplicity could possibly have been influenced by Debussy – or it was Satie who influenced Debussy; both were thinking in terms of Gamelan scales in the late 19th century.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)[36], Pagodes[37], 1903.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), String Quartet in F by the Hagen Quartet.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra[38], with Poulenc and Jacques Février on the pianos, 1932.

Colin McPhee (1900-1964)[39]. Returning to North America from Bali end of the 1930s,   he composed Tabuh Tabuhan for 2 pianos and orchestra, without a single Gamelan instrument in the orchestra.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)[40]

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)[41], Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra and Varied Trio (1987).

The Otto Djaya images in the article are the property of the authors and may be copied for educational purposes. The authors borrowed the pictures of the Gamelan instruments from


[1] We are currently writing on our final edition of a book about Otto Djaya (1916-2002):,%20THE%20CHRONICLE,%2015-06-2019.pdf







[8] There are four types of wayang kulit in Malaysia, namely Wayang Kulit Jawa, Wayang Kulit Gedek, Wayang Kulit Melayu and Wayang Kulit Kelantan,   In Malaysia, the culture of wayang kulit is slowly dying out as the younger generations are less interested in this wonderfully expressive culture.

[9] “In Malaysia, Wayang Kulit Kelantan is the pre-eminent form of shadow puppet theatre. However, it is threatened with imminent extinction nowadays. There were more than 300 dalangs (shadow puppeteers and narrators) in the 1960s but the number decreased tremendously to 11 in 1999.” Khor, Khengia (2011). Segi University. The Use of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) to Capture the Visual Styles of Wayang Kulit Kelantan, in International Journal of the Arts in Society, No. 4, pg 203-214.  Wayang was placed on UNESCO’s Representative List of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003. In comparison, Gamelan was not listed until 2021.

[10] Gamelan musicians were to appear and accompany in many motifs of his paintings.



[13] Dr. Kallie Szczepanski, Ph.D. History, Boston University, is a history teacher specializing in Asian history and culture. She has taught at the high school and university levels in the U.S. and South Korea., updated on June 26, 2019.

[14] The pictures of the Gamelan Sari Oneng are borrowed from


[16] The first appearing at the 1899 Paris World Exhibition when the Netherlands’ exhibited of its East Indies colony.  The British pavilion at the Exhibition did not have a similar Malaya element.

[17] On an area of approx. 700 acres at Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance. Pavilions were built by 46 countries; some 27 million people visited the expo. It was synonymous with a world’s fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus. The ‘Syndicate Java Chicago’, formed by two West Java tea plantations, arranged to send a Gamelan with musicians to the Expo. The Gamelan and the free servings of Java tea was enthusiastically received.

[18] Encyclopedia Jakarta. December 2020.

[19] Kebyar means “to flare up or burst open”, and refers to the explosive changes in tempo and dynamics characteristic of the style. It is the most popular form of gamelan in Bali.

[20] McPhee, Colin. Music in Bali. Yale University Press; First Printing (April 1, 1966).




[24] Kelantan:
Negri Sembilan:



[27] Ng Chong Lim, Shadows,performed with the Gamelan trio of Kamrul, Shafic and Susan Sarah John at the ASEAN Chopin Competition 2014.
Dragonfly, piano by Celestine Yoong, ASEAN Chopin Competition 2014
Ng Chong Lim, piano and Ion Mazur violin, 2020, performing Claude Debussy’s Violin Sonata in g minor
A Distant Voice of Rain Forest, piano by Nicolas Ong

[28] Marzelan Salleh, Si Pencuri Epal (A poor boy with his stolen apple). Conducted by Tazul Izan Tajuddin. Performed by UITM Student Chamber Ensemble at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.
Puteri Gunung Ledang, Piano Solo performed by pianist Jamie Tan for the 7th Malaysian Composers Concert Series 2016, at Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.




[32] Batubara, Junita. Story of Tjong A Fie: Programmatic Music Composition Combining Chinese, Malay and Western Music Elements, in International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences, Vol. 7, No. 9, 2017.

[33] 2017




[37]   Insight!


[39] Colin McPhee and Benjamin Britten play Balinese Ceremonial Music for Two Pianos



Victoria Bridge, Karai

by Hani Kamal

Victoria Bridge in Karai, Perak is one of the oldest bridges in Malaysia. It was built in 1897 and completed in 1900. The Victoria Bridge was built across the Perak River linking it to the rail line in Sungai Siput and Kuala Kangsar in the north. This is a single-track railway built to transport natural resources from the interior all the way to Singapore for export.

The Victoria Bridge today. Image credit: Hani Kamal

Karai – Coal Mining Town

Karai is located 9 kilometres from the royal town of Kuala Kangsar, and about 250 kilometres from Kuala Lumpur; it takes approximately 3 hours to reach. People are often confused with the location or name of the sleepy town of Karai where Victoria Bridge is located. The bridge is situated in both the Karai and Enggor towns. The British wanted to name the entire place Enggor, fashioned after Enggor Street in Singapore.  However, the village folks wanted to retain its name Karai. So, it became Victoria Bridge in Karai and the station is called Enggor Station.

The Enggor Station to Victoria Bridge. Image credit: Hani Kamal

In the 1890s, coal was first discovered by a Chinese planter Hok Hin Hoh while planting rubber trees on a leased plot of land. The discovery of coal in this sleepy town turned it into one of the busiest towns up north. Coal was in demand at that time for locomotives and other industrial usage.

During the prosperous period of coal mining between 1905 and 1930s, and with the completion of Victoria Bridge, several shop houses were built along the railway station road. These shops were used as wholesale rubber trade, sundry shop, eateries, pawnshop, liquor outlet, places to smoke opium and gambling dents. These pre-war shop houses remain until today but minus its once boisterous activities.

The Karai shoplots today. Image credit: Hani Kamal

When coal was first discovered in Karai, the concession was awarded to the Enggor Coal Syndicate Ltd. The Enggor mine ceased operation in 1928 when coal prices and demand went down. The low demand for coal and its low price was due to the discovery of newer technology utilizing petroleum.

Newspaper article announcing the closure of Enggor Coal Syndicate Ltd Company. The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 19 July 1928, Page 9.

Construction and Launch of the Bridge

Before the completion of the Victoria Bridge rail, pontoons were used to transport coal across the Perak River. Due to several adverse floods, most of the pontoons were washed away. These big floods expedited the administration to build a bridge high enough to avoid the overflowing river. The Victoria Bridge was constructed twelve meters from the surface of the Perak River. 

The overall length of the Victoria Bridge is 351 meters with each length of the beam measuring 305 meters. Its width is 3.6 meters wide. It is completely constructed with steel beams and six meters deep concrete foundation. There are 6 columns elevated 12 meters from the level of the river surface. The cost of construction was $325,000. Construction of Victoria Bridge commenced in November 1897 and the date of completion was recorded as March 1900. This bridge was fully functional for 102 years (1900-2002). The engineers from Railway Division were G.W. Fryer (Design Engineer) and C.R. Hanson (Resident Engineer), working under the supervision of Happlestone. The bridge is said to be similar to the “Bridge on the River Kwai” and Guillemard Bridge in Kelantan.

The Victoria Bridge was designed for a single-track carriage with 500 millimetres service lanes on both sides of the line. Both pedestrian and motorbikes/bicycles can use it to cross the river. These paths are still in use until today by people to cross the river.

The Victoria Bridge. Today tourists can walk in between the rails.The pedestrian crossings on both sides of the Victoria Bridge still functional till today to cross the river. Image credit: Hani Kamal

The Victoria Bridge was officially launched on 21 March 1900 by the late Sultan Idris Murshidul Azzam Shah (28th Sultan of Perak) at a ceremony which was also attended by Sir Frank Swettenham, the Resident-General for the Federated Malay States, and Sir John Pickersgill Rodger, the acting British Resident for Perak. Sir Frank Swettenham, in his speech during the opening of the bridge, regarded Victoria Bridge as the largest bridge in the East outside of India.  This bridge was named after Queen Victoria, the ruler of the British Empire at the time.

Official opening plaque


Construction of the Victoria Bridge served the purpose of connecting this small town with other towns from Malaya and Singapore. However, when coal-mining activities discontinued, the town also loss its glory. The bridge ceased its function and it was only used to connect the two villages.

During the war, the Victoria Bridge was partly bombed by the British in order to delay the Japanese advancement from the north via Kelantan. After the war, the bridge was repaired and it functioned as usual. Added securities and barracks were built in lieu of local threats from the Malayan Communist Party.

Barracks were built to guard the Victoria Bridge during the period of Emergency. Two post guards were placed on each side of Victoria Bridge. 

By 2002, the Victoria Bridge railway track was abandoned for the new two-way rail track. Overgrowth and weeds ate into its surrounding and it was left unattended until in 2013 when the authorities cleared the area to rebuild it as a tourist attraction. By 2016, The Victoria Bridge was officially registered as a National Heritage under the Department of National Heritage Malaysia.

Sungai Perak Bike Trail to Kampung Raja Intan Suraya (25 km)

The RM2 million Living River Bike Trail Project from Chenderoh to Victoria Bridge was completed on Dec 6, 2020. The Sg Perak bike trail starts from the Victoria Bridge to Kampung Raja Intan Suraya. It was initiated by the state authority in order to maintain its beauty and cleanliness of the river and its villages. It covers 25 kilometres of cycling through fiercely independent old villages along the riverbank of the Perak River.  The starting point is from the Victoria Bridge itself.  Tourists can rent bicycles near the D’Village Resort opposite the Victoria Bridge.  The trail is surrounded by beautiful greens and you can catch people fishing on the side.  The roads are well tarred and highly conducive if you are looking for a “kampong ride”. You can almost imagine how hulubalangs who used to live in these villages jumping into river sampans at the call of das meriam* from the Kuala Kangsar Palace.   There are not many of such charming kampong surroundings left to tell their stories.

*Note:  Hulubalangs or soldiers of Sultans lived along the river banks of Sg Perak are known to be very loyal towards the monarch.  When hulubalangs are wanted at the palace in Kuala Kangsar, canon shots are made as a signal or call for their presence at the palace.  They would jumped into the boats (sampan) and row upstream towards the palace to report for duties. This was narrated by an ex hulubalang many years ago.  He lived in one of the villages and he retired as a silat (martial arts) master.


Haji Mior Haji Zawari. (2020). Karai: Teman dan Senibina. Akitek Suria, Ampang, Selangor.

Mohd Hasrol Haffiz Bin Aliasak, Mhd. Nor Bin Osman, Siti Rahayu Binti Zakaria, Mohd Farid Bin Sa’ad & Nur Lesya Firsya binti Johaimi Ling. Town of Karai : The only coal mining site in Perak and its contribution to the urban development.

SembangKuala. (2010, August 15). Victoria Bridge, Kuala Kangsar.

Victoria Bridge, Malaysia. (2021, October 15). In Wikipedia.,_Malaysia&action=history

Zahratulhayat Mat Arif. (2021, March 23). Living River Bike Trail along Sungai Perak now open. NST.

Dragon (a novel by Rose Gan)

by Maganjeet Kaur

Francis Light is no stranger to us. We know him as a buccaneer and the founder of a British colony on Penang. But who was he really? Where did he come from? What drove him? These questions are explored in Rose Gan’s thrilling novel Dragon: Penang Chronicles 1. The book will be available at the local bookshops by the first week of November 2021 but it is possible to pre-order it online.

I have had the pleasure of reading an advance copy; as a historical novel, it satisfies both the need to have beauty of language in a book as well as the desire for historical information. Rose is adept at creating atmosphere – her description of places, people and events immerses the reader in the time-period in question and, thus, appreciate the story at a deeper level. The novel also fleshes out the many facets of Light’s personality allowing us to understand him better than through the two-dimensional character typically depicted in history books.

The story is so real and engrossing that one may forget this is a work of fiction. We must remember though that there is a lot unknown about Light especially of his early life. We don’t even know how he looks like – the statue at Fort Cornwallis is based on the likeliness of his son, William. Rose’s filling in the gaps based on the in-depth research she has undertaken seem very plausible. Overall, although the book is filled with facts, it is an easy and pleasant read.

Book Launch at Ubud Festival – 10 October, 6.30pm (GMT +8)

Rose will be sharing her journey writing the book on 10 October at the Ubud Festival (click here for details).

Her talk will be streamed live on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Do tune in; you can interact with Rose at this time and ask any questions you may have. If you are not free on the 10th, the recording will remain available online at the links above.

I have written a short summary below if you want to understand the story before the talk (no spoilers, I promise).

The Story in short

The story opens in Suffolk, England, in 1740 with the impending birth of Light, conceived through an illicit love affair. The soon- to- be father sought help to place the unwanted child in adoptive care with the directive that the child be brought up as a gentleman (or a lady, if female). Thus, upon birth, the baby became the son of Mary Light, a young widow, with Sir William Negus as his guardian. Sir William, fond of the boy, provided him with a grammar school education as befitting a gentleman.

We first meet Francis Light at Seckford School in Woodbridge, Suffolk, and quickly come to realise that even at the tender age of fourteen, Light was no pushover; his careful planning and execution to extract revenge on a bullying schoolmate shows the single-minded deviousness with which he later grabbed Penang Island from the Sultan of Kedah. He was a poor student. Although obviously clever, he could not apply attention to the likes of Greek and Roman verbs or religious education. Hence, the principal of the school felt it better if he withdrew from school and focussed on learning a trade. However, he yearned to join the Royal Navy thinking he could, through hard work, climb up the ranks and, in time, command his own ship in spite of his lowly illegitimate status in life. A war could make this a reality.

left: Seckford’s Free School, Woodbridge, a sketch by Thomas Churchyard  c. 1800; right: A small windowpane from the original school, later town library, etched with the names of Francis Light and James Lynn. It was donated to the Penang Museum. Rose has weaved the windowpane into the story in the scene where Light extracts revenge.

In October 1754, he joined the HMS Mars as a surgeon’s assistant. Although bitterly disappointed that he could not join at the rank of midshipman because of his low social status, he made the best of the situation and sought to learn quickly. Here, we catch a glimpse of life on board a warship and understand the importance of rank in eighteenth century British genteel society. We also see his character unfold further – he is observant, calculative, learns quickly and is a good judge of character. He is no fool and does not trust people easily. When the ship runs aground, Light’s singular act of bravery saves all the men on-board and earns him the friendship of Captain John Amherst, which would help his naval career over the next few years.

Example of an East Indiaman, c. 1770. This was a generic term for European ships headed to India.

An appointment with Sir John Cleveland, the First Secretary to the Admiralty, put him in high hopes of getting his name on the List and entering the ranks of an Officer. He was to be disappointed. Then, a chance meeting with James Scott, a former shipmate on the Arrogant, got him thinking of a career path outside the navy. Scott had been offered a position with the East India Company (EIC), also known as the Honourable Company, and was due to sail out shortly. He suggested Light follow his lead as there was opportunity for making lots of money out East. Being illegitimate, however, his application to the EIC was rejected and, so, he went to India as a common sailor on the Clive, an East Indiaman headed to Madras (known also as Fort St. George to the British, today Chennai). In Madras, Light landed a job with the country traders Jourdan, Sullivan and DeSouza, and he finally realised his ambition of captaining a ship.

Representative of the Speedwell type of ship, a country ship captained by Light

Rose fleshes out more of Light’s character. We see a soft side to him when he adopts a starving, orphaned child after he stumbles over him at the entrance of his lodgings. The kid was around ten years old, possibly Bugis, spoke Malay and answered to the name of Soliman. They teach each other their languages and Light’s mastery of Malay would hold him in good stead when he started trading along the Straits of Malacca. We also see that he is not averse to profiteering and smuggling when he sneaks into Dutch-controlled Ceylon. In a run-in with a Bugis ship in which not only his ship and goods were in danger of being seized, but he and his crew potentially slain, we see Light as a silver-tongued orator sweet-talking the Bugis into doing business with him and outsmarting the Dutch.

His old friend, James Scott, had left the Honourable Company and had become an entrepreneur. Light catchs up with him in Junk Ceylon (Phuket today, known previously as Thalang to the Siamese and Ujung Salang to the Malays). Scott wanted Light to partner with him but Light prevaricated. His conversations with Scott reveal his motivations – he wants to be accepted as an equal and to go back to England in glory as a gentleman. Unlike Scott, who had married a Malay and does not care for approval, Light was not willing to be cast out of genteel English society. Hence, we see the motivation behind his willingness to work hard in supporting a British settlement in the Straits.

Through his trading trips down the Straits, we get to understand the political undercurrents and the jostling for power in the region – Siam rising under a new king (Tak Sin), the Bugis-Dutch rivalry for control over the Straits, dissent among the chiefs under Sultan Alaudin of Aceh, and the courting of foreign powers to keep local enemies at bay. With Junk Ceylon taken over by Bugis Riau and Kedah beleaguered by a rebellion as well as by Bugis Selangor, Sultan Muhammed Jiwa of Kedah suggests the EIC set up a trading post at Kuala Kedah and promised that all trade would pass through British hands. He reasons that this will keep other powers at bay and he enlists Light’s help to forward the proposal to the EIC. Is this the chance Light has been seeking for so many years?

19th century Phuket

Light’s attention also turns to marriage. In his typical calculative fashion, he singles out Thong Di – her mother is a member of the Kedah royalty and her father’s family is well connected politically and economically in Thalang. Thong Di herself is a widow with two children; her deceased husband, Martim Rozells, was a good friend with whom he had previously done business. However, Thong Di throws him a curve ball when she suggests an alliance between Light and her daughter, Martinha. Light initially baulks at marrying a girl half his age but eventually comes around after weighing the advantages of the union.

The book ends with Scott suggesting the time was right to ask the Sultan to bestow on him the pearl that he had always wanted – the island of Penang, which he could develop into a settlement. His success in obtaining Penang and his relationship with Martinha is explored in Pearl: Penang Chronicles 2, which will be published next year.

left: statue of Francis Light at Fort Cornwallis; right: portrait of a Malay woman by Robert Home, c. 1790. Could this be Martinha?

Shooting Birds: What one Museum Volunteer does during the Covid-19 Pandemic

by V. Jegatheesan

To paraphrase Lynn Thomson:

To be standing together in a frosty field, looking up into the sky, marvelling at birds and revelling in the natural world around us, is a simple miracle. And I wonder why we are so rarely able to appreciate it.”

Lynn Thomson, Birding with Yeats: A Mother’s Memoir [paraphrased]

A recent article in our blog titled ‘Volunteering at the Museum during the Covid-19 Pandemic’ by Karen Loh, touched on the Museum Volunteers’ organisation and its continuing work. It prompted me to reflect on the previous year. Museum Volunteers have largely carried on with normal life, as well as some new things in the sudden ‘time windfall’. Of course, there is the shopping, cooking, house cleaning because the house cleaner cannot come in, and the outdoor exercises. Tasks previously done on weekends are now spread out over the week. There are the unusual activities like cooking or baking foods you never did before and repairs you always wanted to do but put off. I, however, have found a way to indulge in bird photography just around my garden.

I am a keen amateur observer of birds, but I have only observed because I did not have a powerful camera. I do have powerful binoculars and used this to take notes and then refer to all the colour plates in the book I have on birds to identify them. A challenge in itself. Then, a good friend insisted I use his spare Canon EOS1 Ds Mark III, together with a 400mm and 70-200mm zoom lens. This truly opened up a completely new world nine months ago. Somehow, it seemed that the various birds knew their pictures were going to be taken, so they all appeared and posed for me. After that, some of them would not be seen for a long while or ever again.

Being near Bukit Gasing helps making a collection just by being in the garden. However, it involves hearing new sounds, keeping the camera always on the ready and with its battery charged. The first pictures I took were of the Scaly-breasted Munia. They are certainly rare, at least in my garden, as I have never seen them again. They come in pairs and move slowly around a bushy plant, pecking away at tiny insects or seeds.

Scaly-breasted Munia

Mind you, bird photography is not just point and shoot. The quick dash to capture the pictures, the excitement and shooting it quick in case it flies off, all makes one nervous with a shaky hand resulting in a few slightly blurred initial pictures. However, unlike film, with a digital you can take as many pictures as you want until your hand steadies, because it is all free! All part of the fun!

Then again, many birds sit high up a tree or they may be far away. Then, there are birds that never sit still but continuously flit about in the bushes such as this Olive-backed Sunbird. How does it feed at that speed I wonder?

Olive-backed Sunbird

The Crested Serpent Eagle is a real treat. I first sighted it in the early morning on top of a dead pinang tree. A few days later, that vain bird (or maybe another) was on the top of the telephone pole right outside my front gate like a sentinel! Was it oblivious to my clicking away? It does make an appearance now and again in the late evening, perched regally looking around for prey, which could be snakes or frogs and rats. These eagles nest up in the bukit. On some hot breezy days sometime after 10am, they spread their wings and circle, ‘riding the thermals’ as the hot air lifts them higher and higher, till they disappear from view, with a call that sounds like a baby’s cry.

Crested Serpent Eagle. Clockwise from top-left: in flight, on telephone pole, on pinang tree, up close

If you see the eagle’s crown is ruffled, it is best to make a quick exit, as this means the bird is angry.

I must qualify that the comments I make here are based on my own observations over time and not from books – so please do not challenge me lah. While I could use scientific names like birderus whateverus, I prefer the simple names. Admittedly, I am not yet familiar with the sub-species. Only for a few birds, I can distinguish between male and female. While the explanations are simple, detailed descriptions like habitats, migration patterns, range etc., are avoided as this is all about my sightings only.

Naturally, other than the exotic birds, there are the few plebeian, or ‘commoner birds’. These will be familiar to all.

Clockwise from top-left: Yellow-vented Bulbul, Eurasian tree sparrow, Magpie Robin, Javan Myna

Black-naped Oriole with small fruit

Left: Peaceful Dove, Right: Spotted Dove

Spotted Dive in flight

The Kingfisher comes by because of a monsoon drain nearby. It dives down into this drain and comes up with a guppy in its beak. A couple of wallops of the beak on the wire kills the fish, which then gets swallowed. They are also partial to worms and caterpillars.

Left: White-throated Kingfisher, Right: White-throated Kingfishers fighting for caterpillar

White-throated Kingfisher – the winner

Then there are the seasonal birds, though some have become resident. I first sighted the Koel in this area, as well as in many other parts of the country in about the late 1980s, usually between November and March. Over the years it has become resident all over the country. A very shy bird which is almost always hidden in the trees and therefore difficult to photograph. But one of the ‘gems’ if captured on film.

Left: Female Koel; Right: Male Koel

Their call is a short continuous ‘woo woo’, which gets louder and louder. On a cool evening with the setting sun and a light breeze, the call truly sounds the knell of parting day. (Note to self:  get a video camera).

The Philippine Glossy Starling is a simple black beauty in low light but is really a glossy dark-green in full light. It usually flies in a small flock, roving from one plant to another to feed, stopping long enough to be photographed.

Left: Philippine Glossy Starling; Right: Immature Philippine Glossy Starling

Another year-end bird is the Green Bee-eater, which I first saw at the Kuala Gula Sanctuary swamps ages ago. These are still year-end birds and remain so, except that there are stragglers staying on later than before. They sit on a wire, then dive or fly up and catch a bee mid-air and get back to the wire to eat. If the bee is a bit large, the bird beats its beak on the wire to kill the bee first.

Green Bee-eater, can be seen eating a bee

Some birds you hear but are difficult to see due to their size. They need some effort as they flit quickly in the bushes, pecking at unseen things on branches and twigs. Below are two examples – the Asian Brown Flycatcher and Common Tailorbird.

top: Asian Brown Flycatcher, bottom: Common Tailorbird

The Coppersmith Barbet has a strong voice. Its sound is a regular beat ‘tonk tonk tonk’ and it can go on for quite a while with short intervals, and a ‘sore throat tonk’ sometimes in between. The sound is similar to a coppersmith beating metal to shape it and hence the name of the bird.

Coppersmith Barbet

When I was shooting the Koel, along came this proud Pink-necked Green Pigeon and settled on a nearby branch.

Pink-necked Green Pigeon

Now comes another set of very rare birds for this area; I have seen each of them only once and never saw them again. It was sheer luck of being at the right place at the right time.

Banded Woodpecker

left: a pair of Greater Goldenback Woodpeckers; right: the female of the species

male Greater Goldenback Woodpecker (the redhead is the male)
Wild fowl (ayam hutan)

The Little Egret and White-breasted Waterhen do frequent the neighbourhood, but you need sharp eyes and have to be well hidden to get them.

Little Egret near the monsoon drain
White-breasted Waterhen

Other interesting creatures visited as well.

Left: Common Birdwing Butterfly; Right: Monkey

This bat used to hang from an outer ceiling all day for a few months; flying off in the evening, returning later in the night and then messing up the floor below. You can see why – it was eating a jambu air the night I took this shot.

Bat eating jambu air

Then there is the pesky tree shrew; nevertheless a beauty of its own, unless it runs into the house.

Tree Shrew

This last picture is of birds in a feeding frenzy after an evening rain – all flying so swiftly and up high.

Feeding frenzy after rain

I have yet to get a good shot of the common crow, which does fly by but up high. That is on my To Sight List, which also includes the Heron. For the Heron, I may have to make an exception and go to Taman Jaya to spot them in the ditches. Who knows what other birds I may find there!

When it is safe to travel, trips to Kuala Gula, Frasers Hill and other places are on the card. This will add variety to my personal collection, which I have titled ‘Birds Seen by Me’.

Volunteering at the Museum during the Covid-19 Pandemic

by Karen Loh

The International Museum Day’s theme this year, “The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine” is appropriate in view of the current pandemic and its uncertain future. This article is about the Museum Volunteers’ (MV) experience as we navigated the series of lockdowns, which began on 18 March, 2020.

Volunteering at the National Museum (Muzium Negara)

Having a guide whilst visiting a museum, be it a docent, audio guide or booklet enhances a visitor’s experience. For one hour or so, the visitor journeys with the guide and travels back in time to a particular period through the displays and information boards on vitrines in the gallery. The artefacts are brought to life by factual stories imparted to them as they navigate that display. For example, the visitor does not only marvel at a 560-year-old shipwrecked celadon dish but follows its journey from the time it was first fired at Sisachanalai, Thailand. It was then loaded onto a ship destined for markets in South East Asia but the ship tragically sunk during a great storm. There it lay for 540 years until a marine archaeologist recovered it and it made its way to a museum vitrine, on display, having never served its original purpose.

How then can a visitor experience this journey with their docent when the guided tours have been cancelled and the museums closed due to the pandemic? Even as museums reopen to the public, the number of visitors is limited and guided tours restricted to fewer numbers in a tour group.

New Norm – finding a suitable video-conferencing/virtual meeting platform

When we began the first MCO on 18 March 2020, many of us took the lockdown as an opportunity to rest, spring clean, read the books we had kept aside to read later and indulge in television. Muzium Negara was closed indefinitely and all of our volunteer activities at the museum with it. As the two-week lockdown became four weeks then eight and so on, it became clear to the MV committee that some changes had to be made. We could not afford to sit around and wait for the museum to reopen. The first thing the committee had to do was to learn how to hold our meetings in some alternate mode like video-conferencing platforms. We had to adapt to today’s technology. The second thing was to get the members acquainted with the new technology. We all had to learn how to join an online meeting, turning on or muting our microphone, turning our video camera on or off and screen share, all of which are done effortlessly today. Not willing to pay for any service then, we looked at different video-conferencing platforms besides Zoom (which provided only 40-minutes free service), like Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Meet where subscription payment was not required. While many of the video-conferencing platforms provide similar service, the committee decided to subscribe to Zoom after the second lockdown (MCO 2.0).

MV Committee in a Zoom meeting

The MVs who did not stop working – Research and Focus Teams

Although all of our guided tours and school programme activities came to a halt, our Research team and Focus team continued to operate. The Research team have a deadline to produce Muzings, which is MV’s annual digest. A draft copy of Muzings has to be submitted to JMM for approval before the end of every year until 2024. Besides discussing our articles and trying to solve problems in sourcing for research material, we also held in-house presentations online. This proved to be another learning curve as those who have done this would tell you that speaking to a computer screen with everybody else muted and video camera turned off is a very lonely experience.

The Focus team rolled out their first webinar in July 2020. We hosted the presentation from the IT lab in JMM with assistance from the IT technicians, using JMM’s Skype for business platform. The talk was given in-person by the speaker along with the Focus team present at the IT lab to our attendees online. Though the lab was limited to six people due to SOP, I think this little bit of human presence boosted the speaker’s morale. We also used the extra half hour before the start of a talk to interact with our members online. MCO 2.0 prompted us to subscribe to a video-conferencing platform. All talks from then on were conducted remotely. In retrospect, using a video-conferencing platform has been beneficial to the MV, for not only online meetings and webinars but also reaching out to speakers who do not live in the Klang valley. This has been the positive side of the pandemic. The Focus team and Research team have been able to reach out to speakers from around the world (taking into account the time difference of course). Seminars or conferences, which we had to travel to, to attend previously, could now be attended virtually in the comfort of our homes. It has certainly lessened our carbon footprint.

Interactive Projects at Muzium Negara – new forms of cultural experience

There were months in between the lockdowns when the museum was reopened. MVs used this opportunity to complete their training programme, which had been put on hold since 2019. Other projects such as the following were introduced:

i)  One-hour recorded tours by volunteer guides in four languages: English, French, Japanese & Korean. The tours highlight selected artefacts in each of the four galleries in the museum. The recorded tours have been posted on Muzium Negara’s Facebook page.

ii) Shorter five-minute recorded talks on one artefact in the museum in the language of the guide’s choice. These talks are posted on Muzium Negara’s Facebook and Instagram pages.

iii) Proposed MV activities at the museum after the lockdown: cooking and paper-folding demonstrations as well as a beginner’s level language course.

Looking forward – Results and Discussion

i) Sustainability of the volunteer training programme. In order to become a museum volunteer guide, all docents have to attend the 16-week MV training programme. This programme was cancelled for 2020 and 2021; the programme for 2022 is still under consideration. The training programme involves a classroom style in-person attendance and museum walk-throughs. While online training has not been explored, another option would be lesser numbers per session.

ii) Whether the museum is able to provide MV guides with face shields, face masks and/or wireless tour guide portable audio system for group tours.


There is a global vaccination programme going on with governments providing Covid vaccines for free. As more people are vaccinated, will our volunteer guides resume their duties when the museum reopens? Will visitors need to produce vaccine passports? If not, will our guides feel safe conducting in-person tours? Vice-versa, will visitors join a guided tour? Is the use of audio-guided tours the best alternative? There is still much to be discussed and decided.

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