Penang Botanic Gardens

by Eric Lim

photo source: Penang Botanic Gardens website

The definition of the idiom “old habits die hard” is that it is hard to stop doing things that one has been doing for a long time. This is actually what happens every time I visit Penang, The Pearl of The Orient. I will go to the Penang Botanic Gardens, “come rain, come shine” and always between 7.00 and 9.00 in the morning, the best time of the day to achieve that daily 10,000 step goal. I was in Penang last month with friends and, of course, we visited Penang Botanic Gardens.

An information board located outside the garden’s office building mentions that the Penang Botanic Gardens were established in 1884. It may come as a surprise even to Penangites that the Botanical Gardens on the island goes back earlier than that, in fact, to the 18th century when the island was under the control of British East India Company. Francis Light declared British rule in the island and named it Prince of Wales Island in the year 1786; eight years later, in 1794, saw the setting up of the first Botanical Gardens in Penang. A Kew Gardens-trained botanist by the name of Christopher Smith was given the task to establish the gardens. The first Botanical Gardens was essentially a spice garden as Smith brought in specimens of nutmeg, clove, canary nuts and sugar palm from the Moluccas Island (Maluku Islands) in Indonesia, which were known as the Spice Islands. These grew very well. However, Smith did not enjoy the fruits of his labour as he died unexpectedly in 1805. The Company decided to close the Gardens and it sold off the Gardens’ contents.

Alstonia sp. (Pulai), photo source: Penang Botanic Gardens website

After a lapse of 17 years, the second Botanical Gardens took shape in 1822, due to the urging of Sir Stamford Raffles who had a keen interest in Botany and was at that time the superintendent of the Singapore Botanical Gardens. Sir Stamford Raffles is best known for the founding of modern Singapore in 1819 and this year, the Republic is celebrating its 200th Anniversary. George Porter who was working as the headmaster at Penang Free School was recommended to manage the Gardens. He managed the Gardens for 12 years and once again, it suffered the same fate as the earlier Gardens, as in 1834 the then Governor Kenneth Murchison decided to sell it off for a sum of 1,250 rupees. With the closure, Porter returned to his job as headmaster.

These two earlier Gardens are believed to have been sited at Air Hitam valley and at Sungai Keluang in Bayan Lepas; however the actual locations cannot be identified. It would take another 54 years, i.e in the year 1884, as stated in the information board, for the creation of the third Botanical Gardens. This time, the running of the Gardens came under the Strait Settlements Department of Gardens and Forests with its parent establishment, the Singapore Botanic Gardens. One of its responsibilities was to conduct research on tropical plants for their economic use. One of the success stories was the promotion of rubber trees (Hevea Brasiliensis) to be planted in the Malay Peninsular by British botanist Henry Nicholas Ridley who was at that time working for Singapore Botanical Gardens.

Schima Wallichii, photo source: Penang Botanic Gardens website

The third Botanical Gardens were established at the site of an abandoned granite quarry that lies deep in a tropical valley, at the foot of a big waterfall. Additionally, a river meanders through the valley. Due to a cascading waterfall, the Penang Botanic Gardens were also popularly known as the Waterfall Gardens. Charles Curtis, an avid botanist and a devoted plant collector, was appointed as the first superintendent of the Botanical Gardens. Under his supervision, the Gardens transformed from an old quarry into a magnificent garden – due his great vision in landscaping and his ability to blend into a tropical rain-forest settings. Curtis also focused his research in native plants as well as introduced non-native exotic plants to Penang and Singapore. He continued his good work for the Garden until December of 1903 when he formally retired due to health issues.

All was well until 1910 when there was a proposal to turn the valley into a massive reservoir that would serve the needs of the majority of households on the island. Fortunately, the plan was abandoned and instead, a small reservoir was constructed at the foot of the waterfall. This reservoir is still in operations today and it is supplying water to about 10-15% of the population of the state. During the Second War World, the Japanese army took over and immediately went into excavating tunnels, which were turned into assembling and storage facilities. After the war, Penang Botanic Gardens was separated from its parent establishment in Singapore. The year 1956 saw the appointment of the first local, Cheang Kok Choy as the curator of the Penang Botanic Gardens. Earlier on, Cheang was trained by the British and he continued on the good works of his predecessors until he retired in 1976.

Canon Ball Tree, photo source: Penang Botanic Gardens website

Today, the operations of the Penang Botanic Gardens come under Jabatan Taman Botani Pulau Pinang (Penang Botanical Gardens Department), an arm of the Penang State Government. It is divided into 11 sections namely Aquatic Garden, Economic Garden, Quarry Garden, Secret Garden, Herbs Garden, Aroid Trail, Lily Pond, Curtis Trail, Formal Garden, Sunken Garden and Japanese Garden. There are also four plant houses – Fern House, Cactus & Succulent House, Orchidarium and Bromeliad House. And among the flora that visitors can see includes Cannon Ball tree (botanical name: couroupita guianensis / origin: Guyana), Argus Pheasant tree or commonly called Sengkuang tree (dracontomelon dao / Indo-Malesia), Pinang palm (areca catechu, from which Penang got its name), black lily (tacca integrifolia), Ipoh tree (antiaris toxicaria, from which Ipoh got its name), angsana (Burmese rosewood), Rain tree (samanea saman / South Africa) and many more. The fauna includes the dusky leaf monkeys, long tailed macaques, squirrels and many insects and butterflies.

Apart from the department’s involvement in conservation efforts, research developments and educating the public on nature and gardening, the department is also targeting on the tourism aspects by adding new attractions and organizing events to make the park a popular destination for locals and tourists. Dataran Teratai is one of the attractions; it opened in June 2011 and it features the giant water lilies of the Amazon River basin. It is the venue for the annual International Flora Festival (in May) and Penang Orchid Show (this year, it is scheduled for 11 – 18 August). It is the starting point for the many Penang Hill trails and a non-governmental organization called The Friends of the Penang Botanical Gardens organizes monthly visits to the waterfall which is now privately owned. On a daily basis, visitors can join in the practice of Tai Chi, Qigong and aerobics or go jogging and strolling around the park.

With so much to do and with activities scheduled throughout the year, it is my hope that the next time you visit Penang you will visit the Penang Botanic Gardens/Waterfall Gardens, just like I do. It is open every day, from 5.00 am to 8.00 pm and is just about 8 km from Georgetown city. If you are driving, there are plenty of parking bays. Penang Botanic Gardens, here I come, again.

The large rain tree (Pukul lima) at the Gardens’ entrance (at the centre of the photo) was planted in 1887 to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. It stood tall for 130 years. Unfortunately, it had to be chopped down in 2017 as the dying tree posed a danger. This photo was taken circa 1910. Photo source: Cheah Jin Seng (2012) Penang: 500 Early Postcards, Singapore: EDM.
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Malay Architecture in Terengganu

by Ong Li Ling

I attended a talk on Malay Architecture at Petronas Gallery recently. I was so impressed by the slides shown by Mr Alex Lee that I decided to visit his resort – Terrapuri (The Land of Palaces) at Pantai Penarik, Terengganu.

Mr Alex is a Peranakan who grew up in Marang. He has been collecting old Malay houses since he was 20 years old. In order to build Terrapuri Heritage Village, he secured an 8-acres piece of freehold land in Setiu in 2005. Alex took 4.5 years to build this resort. The resort has 22 villas but only 15 are open at present. The resort usually has full occupancy in the months of July and August. Alan Hoh was employed as the conceptual artist and Oon Soon designed the logo of the resort based on the ancient Istana arch.

Kampung Kuala Baru is part of the Setiu wetlands, which is why the climate is so hot. There are nine ecosystems present including mangrove forest, beach, lagoon and BRIS forest.

The local ulama chooses the suitable location for the house. Old Malay houses are constructed using traditional Malay Geomancy principles. The house is based on the length of the matriarch’s outstretched arms, which is called a depa (wingspan). For example, a house can be 10 depa wide. The owner needs to take accurate measurements; “crow measurements” may result in the owner falling sick. On the other hand, prosperity will ensue if the ular cinta mani measurement is followed, i.e. the height of the main pillar (tiang seri) is an exact round number.

I flew to Kuala Terengganu airport and my Grabcar took around 45 minutes to get to Setiu. After ringing the bell, the resort staff opened the gate to let us in.

The first thing I noticed was the Double Gater layout, a typical architecture during the Langkasuka period. The Langkasuka Kingdom is believed to have been established in the 2nd century CE. It lasted till the 15th century when it was replaced by the Pattani Kingdom.

I admired the sobek (filigree-like woodcarving with old floral carving), which was popular back then. In the old days Kala was used to ward off evil. I also saw several stupa influenced by Buddhism.

I checked into my villa, known as Rumah Binjai Rendah. The typical Terengganu house is known as the Rumah Bujang. It has a gable roof and the outline of a makara. The makara is a mythical half terrestrial, half aquatic animal and it is the vehicle of Ganga, the River Goddess. It is also a symbol of fertility. The Singgora roofs represent the scales of the Makara. Grooved windows are usually reserved for royalty.

The number of steps of the staircase is always an odd number. You step with your right foot first and want to end up on your right foot. This is also the belief in Hinduism.

There are 6 units of Malay houses in the central courtyard. The resort can organise makyong, wayang kulit, main puteri (trance) and gamelan performances upon request.

The Rumah Berang (from Kuala Berang) houses a table used by Tunku Abdul Rahman. The 8-seater hardwood table was the very same one used by our first prime minister when he chaired a meeting with folks from Kampung Atas Tol in Kuala Terengganu.

The Resort Gallery is housed in Rumah Teluk Pasu which is a Rumah Tiang Enam (6 pillars). All houses in this resort are more than 100 years old.

It is customary for the owner to place a needle or coin made of iron under the main pillar (tiang seri) of the house as it is a symbol of semangat waja (courage, strength). This is an old practice. The bangau or egret carving has two faces. In the Mahabharata, the bangau is a makara and it is a symbol of money. The Perahu Bangau is carved with images of characters from the Mahabharata epic. The sanga can be found at the back of boat and it is carved in the shape of a bangau.

The kotak kelaut is where fishermen place their cigarettes and other personal items. This box can be used as a flotation device or safety tool should the boat capsize.

A laksa maker. In addition, brass-ware can be seen at the bottom of the stand.

This mould was used to make Singgora roof tiles.

This cloth is called the bunga halang or bendera pendekar (warrior flag). It protects the house from evil spirits. Every pillar has this cloth tied at its top. Later, due to Islamic influence, Arabic words were inscribed on top of the white cloth.

The carving on the left is geometrical. It has the bunga cina motif. The unduk unduk (seahorse) motif at the bottom protects the house from bad spirits. The carving on the right resembles two eyes and a mouth. It is a kala motif.

A few other design elements can be seen below.

The Baris Laksamana originates from the Ramayana epic in which it protects Sita from dangers. It is now used as a pagar rumah and has the lam alif Islamic wording (there is only one God).
This is a Pagar Musang. It looks like a door but we cannot walk out.
This beautiful wall is known as Dinding Janda Berhias.
Some houses have bamboo walls or dinding pelupuh.

Rumah Tanjung is an 8-pillar house. It was used for the shooting of the movie Merung Mahawangsa and Legenda Budak Setan. The kerecut grass installation in front of the house was designed by famous water colour artist Chang Fee Ming. He called this artwork Standing Proud. Kerecut grass can be used to make mats.

The Kisaran Semangat installation looks like a grinder or mill wheel.

I admired the orange pandan fruit (right). It is called Pandan Laut as it grows by the sea. The white Bunga Keledang or Bunga Kerak Nasi can be found on the resort. In Terengganu it is called Bunga Tikam Seladang.

The Rumah Jeram has a Chinese Peranakan interior design. It is believed that Cheng Ho on his 4th journey to Malaya instructed his men to go into Kampung Jeram to get water.

Boats, the main form of transportation in the past, were stored below the house.

This is a Baloh rice barn to store paddy.

An arch from the Istana at Jalan Kota in Kuala Terengganu.

A spa house where guests can enjoy mandi bunga and massage. Notice the stupa at the top; it indicates Buddhist origins.

Jawi inscription related to the Wali Tujuh.

Salted fish and preserved mangoes were stored in urns. There were no freezers back then and salt was expensive.

The tiang seri is usually the middle pillar underneath the rumah ibu. Minyak Canuar Kampung or Minyak Seri is placed at this pillar. It is made from coconut oil. It serves to bring radiance (berseri) to the people in the house.

The houses are constructed with bendul beams. Nails are not used in the construction of the houses.

Terrapuri in the evening. A big thank-you to Mr Alex Lee for showing me around his lovely resort.

The Batek People

by Ong Li Ling

I recently attended a curatorial tour of Mahen Bala’s Ceb Bah Heb Elders of Our Forest exhibition at the Taman Tugu Nursery Trail. This exhibition is part of a documentary looking at the life of Batek people. The exhibition is on until the 21st of July; do go check it out. The documentary itself looks at the relationship between the forest and its people. You can find more details on the documentary here.

Below is an aerial photograph of Sungai Tembeling. At present, the left hand side of the river is still properly preserved. Unfortunately, the right side has been exploited. If you only live in the jungle, you will never see land this way. The Batek do not see land the way Google Maps, Waze and city folk see land. The Batek use trees and mountains as markers. The coloured structures in the photograph are Batek settlements.

Traditionally the Batek are nomadic and hence they had no proper settlements. Due to pressures from outside and their inability to continue living off the forest, they are changing their lifestyles. Our government is telling them to stay put in order to participate in the lucrative eco-tourism business. This is against their ancestral practice as they are used to travelling and foraging. This photograph shows what the typical Batek person does all day. They are waiting for tourists to pop over so that the curious tourist can take photos with them. Reminds me of the Long Neck women I saw in Myanmar. The tour guides will give them a token amount to “add to the authenticity” of the jungle tour. This shows how hard it is for the Batek people to live off the forest today.

The Batek only take what they need from the forest. Whatever they hunt or forage will be brought back to the village to be shared. They have respect for the animals they kill. They believe bad luck will befall them if they break the taboos.

This photograph shows a typical Batek family and the structures they build. This structure is called a Hayak, Lintus or Lean To. Once they decide where to spend the night, the whole family is involved in setting up their home for the night. When they are ready to move, the shelter is returned to the forest and so their impact on the jungle is minimized. The Batek view the seasons differently than we do. During the fruiting season, they live entirely on fruits. During the flower season, they survive by harvesting honey.

The children are involved with the running of the community from a young age. As soon as they are able, they learn survival skills such as how to use the parang and how to weave batik. This period is also an important time for bonding, as the elders will tell the children folk tales. The children are taught that every member of the family is important.

This is a photograph of Mr Di. He is holding a blowpipe and he carries a canister of darts around his neck. The blowpipe is an important asset to the Batek and they keep their blowpipe from cradle to grave. It is the most important of their material possessions. Batek people are egalitarian in that they consider both genders as equals. Women can also hunt and forage food and men can take care of children. This equal partnership relationship is now changing as they are forced to stay in one place and men are forced to do work requiring hard labour. Hence, the women stay at home to look after their kids. We can see the damage that this has done to their community. Modern civilisation is forcing our ideas and our “modern” ways of life on them and they have no other choice but to follow.

This is a photograph of Mr Di’s son. In general, the Orang Asli are depicted negatively in the media. We often see them when there is negative news e.g. protest against deforestation. The way these articles are written are so negative towards the Orang Asli that many think that “they have not caught up with our modern world”. Mahen made sure that his photographs show that the Batek as dignified and empowered. Some Orang Asli groups have traditional costumes and they wear these with pride. However, they have been directed to wear the costumes for the sake of tourism and that is not a good practice. Just in case you are wondering, the Batek do not have a traditional costume.

This is an important photograph as it shows the burial site of a deceased Batek. They will choose the highest tree that they can climb and they will build a simple structure. They will then start a fire to keep animals away. The Batek believe that the soul will fly to heaven. This location is kept a secret, as they do not want outside disturbance. It was reported in the news recently that the Kelantan government exhumed the body of a Batek, did a post mortem and then buried the body according to Islamic rites!

The Batek gather and share stories whilst hunting e.g., “I saw a herd of elephants next to the river”. This allows them to form a shared mental map of the area. They have a ground view of the land and whenever people share stories, they can imagine what else is happening on their land. The Batek use trees that really stand out as waypoints to navigate the terrain.

This photograph shows some Orang Asli children going to school. Most of them have trouble getting to school due to transportation. Some Orang Asli kids travel 12 hours per day to receive an education and so it takes amazing determination and grit. The cost is another challenge, as their parents cannot afford shoes and uniforms. They are sometimes discriminated against by teachers and hence they do not find school enjoyable. After a while, they feel so discouraged they prefer to stay at home and help their parents. Mahen met many bright Batek kids. Some quit school before the age of 14 due to these challenges. The statistics show that out of 100 who attend primary school, only six are expected to finish Form 5.

This photograph shows the Orang Asli children happily bathing in the river. Most of us will find it difficult to swim in these rivers due to the currents.

This final photograph depicts Mr Di against the backdrop of construction and development. It encourages us to reflect on the Batek way of life versus our way of life. We can still live as Malaysians and go back home and practise our traditional way of life. So why is it that we force Batek people to change and adapt to our way of life? According to the statistics, there are only 1500 Batek people left. It is only fair that we acknowledge their customary rights to their land. The Batek are well versed in the medicinal values of forest plants but if you are a researcher, it may not be in the Batek people’s best interest to publish these secrets in journals. We can assume that greedy pharmaceutical companies will come and grab the knowledge and then patent this knowledge for their commercial benefit. When that happens, there is little else left for the Batek to survive on.

Nam Hooi Wooi Koon – a Cantonese Clan Association

by Ong Li Ling

Several site excursions were organised as part of the Georgetown Heritage Celebrations 2019. I was fortunate enough to join the tour of the Nam Hooi Wooi Koon Cantonese Clan Association. Mr Adrian Pak (President of the Association) and Mr Johnny Yee (Honorary Secretary) led the informative tour and also provided the background information for this blog piece.

Our guides explained to us that Nanhai District is located in Foshan City China and has a history of 2,000 years. In 214 BC this place in Guangdong China was known as Nanhai County and, in 1992 it was renamed Nanhai District. The Nam Hooi Wooi Koon is a Cantonese Clan Association with members comprising of immigrants from Nanhai. It has been estimated that there are around 400,000 Nanhai Chinese living outside China and they are scattered around the world.

Some famous Nanhai figures that you may have heard of are revolutionary leader Kang Youwei, reformer Kang Tongbi, martial artist Wong FeiHung, martial artist Ip Man, actor Leung Ka-Fei and father of Engineering Zhan Tianyou. During the 1890s, Nanhai immigrants, Chen Yuqin and Zhou Xingyang, controlled the Penang opium market. They were the founding members of the Kwangtung Association, Nam Wah Ee Hospital, Chinese Town Hall and the Ng Fook Tong School in Penang.

Nam Hooi Wooi Koon was established in 1828, which means it will celebrate its 192nd anniversary come October 2019. Nam Hooi Wooi Koon is the oldest Overseas Establishment certified by the Nanhai Association in China. Within 77 years after its establishment, Nam Hooi Wooi Koon occupied its own building and it also operated 4 other shop houses and a funeral parlour. Coincidentally, the 1st (Bai Yupei), 11th (Bai Yuzhan), and the 21st President who is also the sitting President (BaiYubin) are from the Bai (Pak) family.

To make it easier for members to stay informed, Nam Hooi Wooi Koon started a Facebook Page and an official website in 2002. They also established a brotherhood Association with 2 other clan associations namely the PunYue (Panyu District) and Soon Tuck (Shunde, District).

Georgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with more than 5000 buildings of interest. Nam Hooi Wooi Koon is one of 82 Category 1 buildings, reflecting the authenticity of its cultural landscape. The length of this building is 200 feet, which is rare in Penang. The front faces Chulia Street and the back faces Kampung Malabar.

We started our tour at the front door. The words Nam Hooi Wooi Koon (in Cantonese) is solidly moulded on a concrete style signboard above the door. Instead of using gold coloured paint, “gold leaves” were stuck onto the letterings to make the words stand out. You can see with a pair of 7 lettered Chinese couplets on either side of the door. It reads Nan Yu De Zhi Peng Cheng Yuan  and Hai Guo Tong Xin Yan Hui Zhang. This phrase was composed by Lingnan calligrapher Lin Qihan in 1904. The roofing and engraving on the exterior beams has a unique wooden flowery architectural design and showcases the expert craftsmanship of the artisan.

Once you enter the front door, you will see a Tai Pak Kong (Fu De Zheng Shen) on your left. It is also known as Tudi Gong (Diety of the Earth). Everything except the deity was repainted in early 2019. A specialist was hired to do the repainting and lacquering and he replicated the same colouring style as indicated in the archived photos. You will notice that this is the typical style adopted from Southern China. Tudi Gong is the Main Protector of the Community and Land.

Moving on, we were shown the United Nam Hoi Association Affiliates plaque on the left wall. This initiative was launched in Oct 2017. Members can establish trade with China via the Malaysia Nam Hoi Commercial Division.

We noticed the black tablets behind the counter on the right. In the 30th Year of Emperor Guangxu many enthusiastic members donated to the building fund, and their names were engraved in white lettering against a black background stone tablet. Carving a list of names onto a stone is a common practice in clan houses and kongsi. If you look carefully you may find the names of your great-great-grandfathers, great grandfathers or grandfathers engraved on the tablets. Members contributed not more than a few ringgit but it meant a lot to the association, as the value of money was big back then.

We looked up to admire the Golden Congratulatory Plaque. The previous plaque which was put up in 1905 collapsed in 2000  due to termites  and a replica was put in its place .The board is engraved with the 4 letters of ‘Wei An Le Guo’.

There are lots of rosewood Ching Dynasty and Guangxu era antique furniture in the Hall. Rose wood is strong and free of termites. The more you sit on the chairs the more it shines and it will also cool you down when ambient temperatures are high.

There used to be 2 large Qing Dynasty vases on the stage. Unfortunately these priceless artefacts were stolen. The Association has since installed a CCTV to prevent future occurrence of theft.

We were brought to the inside section of the building where we admired the 2nd air well. As this air well has not been sealed, rainwater pours in when it rains.

Netting has been installed to prevent bats and swallows from coming in.

We looked up and noticed 5 red plaques hanging from the ceiling. These plaques are the pride of Association as they are given only to outstanding Chinese Scholars. These 5 pieces were originally from Nan Hai and they were bestowed to Nan Hai children who got into the Honorary List after sitting for the Qinghai Imperial Examination (example The Champion Zhuangyuan and The Flower Tanhua). These Scholars were eventually promoted to senior positions such as Ministers in the Imperial Palace.

At the end of the inner hall, there stood a high Chinese-style altar with numerous ancestral tablets. These tablets commemorate the dead. Their families often come to this alter during the Cheng Beng Festival instead of visiting the tomb.

The altar is more than 2 stories high. It is rare to find wooden structures of that height especially after the Communist rule in China. On the altar, we admired exquisite carvings of deities that told of Chinese folk tales. We also saw flowers, fishes and others of wooden frameworks with golden leaves stuck on. This altar is one of the prominent antique pieces in Nam Hooi Wooi Koon. Nanhai was famous for porcelain making and the vases at the front of the altar were imported many years ago to decorate the altar. The vases are made of single porcelain pieces and are deemed as priceless antiques.

Visitors can go to the praying area at the back of the building to ask for their blessings. There is a stone altar with the Sheji Zhi Shen (God of Society) and Bai Hu Ye (White Tiger God). If you make an offering to the God of Society/Community, you will be blessed with good weather and a good millet harvest. The White Tiger God is a Protector God. If you feel you are experiencing a bout of bad luck, you can pray to the White Tiger God for a smooth sailing year ahead. This God is said to open its mouth during certain times of the year. Devotees rub the mouth of the Tiger with a piece of lard for good luck.

This stone altar is visited by many Penangites and is open to the public throughout the year. There is no entrance fee and all are welcome to visit and pray for good luck. Many come at the start of the Chinese New Year. The Cantonese come in droves to ‘Ta Siew Yan’ (Da Xiao Ren) i.e. “Beat up the Villain”. Those who hinder your progress and growth, those who oppose you and are obstacles to your progress are deemed as ‘siew yan’ villains.

Some visitors will engage the services of the Resident Lady who is well versed in chanting poetic mantras, which get rid of bad luck. She will hit a red paper cutting representing the human shape of the villain. The ‘villain’ will be beaten up using a Chinese wooden clog while she chants the Mantras. An angpow can be given to the Lady as an appreciation for her services. You can also present an offering to the Tiger God.

We admired the side of building from the outside; 200 feet is considered long for a Penang building. The Association would like to commission a mural on this wall to depict Nanhai history and culture sometime in the near future.

We then walked upstairs to the 1st floor and admired the red staircase which is over 100 years old.

On the upper level, we saw 2 more altars with ancestral tablets. These tablets are exclusive to the Nan Hai people and they can purchase a tablet for nominal amount.

From the upper level, we can see a big ball on the rooftop, which represents a Pearl. This pearl radiates light in all directions. Next to the pearl are fishes, which symbolise abundance to fengshui believers.

Ceiling is old style
This sink has been in use since British colonial days. The tap is the original tap and it is still in good working condition.
Old Chinese musical instruments, now museum-quality pieces. Members can participate in the Chinese Opera Group, which uses newer musical instruments.

We were then brought to the air-conditioned karaoke room, which is location at the back portion of the upper level. Initiated by the Association’s Past President, Mr. Lee GH, karaoke is an effective way to engage teachers and members alike. A competition is organised once a year to showcase budding talents.

The third altar located upstairs.

We were treated to yummy Cantonese snacks whilst we enjoyed the Chinese opera karaoke performed on stage. Big thanks to Mr Adrian Yap, Mr Johnny Yee and the association members for the educational tour and warm hospitality.

Cultivation and use of Opium before the 16th century

by Stuart Wakefield

Opium is derived from the seeds of the papaver somniferum plant, which is related to the common cabbage. Fossilised poppy seeds have been found that date back over 30,000 years to Neanderthal man. The first written record of poppies was written on Sumerian clay tablets that have been dated at around 5,000 BCE. These referred to opium as hul gil, the ‘joy plant’ that was used to produce opium in Mesopotamia.[i] As opium gained in popularity, it was first traded westwards to Assyria and Egypt before spreading along established land trade routes, (which subsequently became known as Silk Roads).[ii] An early Egyptian medicinal text, the Ebers Papyrus, dated around 1,550 BCE, records opium being mixed to produce a children’s sedative, and was specifically used as a remedy for infant teething problems. It has been suggested that mother’s offered their nipple to suckling babies smeared with poppy juice to stop them crying, and this practice spread over time to both Europe and India. Whilst its pleasurable effects were known, it was also used to overcome bowel disorders, and was even claimed to be an antidote for poison. By the fourteenth century, maritime trade dominated due to a lack of political control along the land route, which increased opium availability in South East Asia.

A page from the Ebers Papyrus scroll, which was an encyclopedia of medicine in ancient Egypt. Photo taken from http://www.ancientpages.com/2016/02/03/the-ebers-papyrus-most-famous-plant-medicine-encyclopedia-of-ancient-egypt/

Opium was undoubtedly a valued trade good, and being easy to grow with a relatively low cost of production, extensive cultivation resulted in many regions. Poppy plants take approximately three months to produce opium and thrive in warm climatic conditions that are common in the Middle East, though they can be grown in a wide variety of locations. One acre of poppies can produce from three to five kg of raw opium, although both quality and yield deteriorate in less than ideal growing conditions. The flowers are normally coloured red or orange, although the colour may vary from white to purple, and the four petals are initially hidden within two outer sepals.[iii] The calyx is thrown off as the flower develops, and, following fertilization, the petals drop away to reveal from five to eight poppy capsules, which have the appearance of miniature pomegranates.[iv] The capsules are lightly lanced a few times to avoid damaging the interior cavities. The puncturing causes the milky latex to ooze out, which is then scraped off and then air dried when it turns dark brown.[v]

The historical significance of the opium trade is open to debate, with some claiming that it played a key role in major historical events including wars fought by Alexander the Great, The Huns and the Mongols.[vi] The first contact between the west and China occurred when a Greek expedition came to Kashgar around 200 BCE.[vii] It is apparent that opium use in Asia had been well established by the fifteenth century as a consequence of trade from the Middle East and India. However, after the fifteenth century, Asian trade and use of opium increased dramatically under the influence of European Charter Companies such as the Dutch VOC (Vereenigde Oost-indische Compagnie) and the English East India Company.

Some historians suggest that opium may have been introduced into China by returning sailors or Tibetan Buddhist priests from Africa or India as the early as the first century BCE. However, it is generally accepted that Arabic merchants brought opium first to India and subsequently to China between 400 and 900 BCE.[viii] Opium was produced by some ethnic minorities in southern China to raise money to pay tributes to the Han Chinese Emperors.  Chinese traders also introduced opium growing to South East Asian minority cultures.

Opium smoking in China in the 19th century. Photo taken from
https://dissolve.com/stock-photo/Opium-smoking-China-19th-century-After-19th-century-rights-managed-image/102-D869-77-835

Some sources suggest that opium was primarily used by the lower classes, although it is quite possible that its wide availability and broad based appeal as a medicine led to its widespread use. An Indian folktale relating to opium suggests that recreational users will become ‘[…] as mischievous as a mouse, as fond of milk as a cat, as quarrelsome as a dog, as unclean as a monkey, as savage as a boar, as strong as an elephant and, as spirited as a queen!’ A 10th century CE Chinese poem advised of the opium poppy being made into a drink “fit for Buddha”. The 1916 China Year Book stated that ‘The poppy has been known in China for 12 centuries, and its medicinal use for nine centuries,’ and was introduced by Arab traders.[ix] Textual evidence in an eight century Chinese Pharmacopoeia manual suggests that ‘[…] Muslim traders were carrying opium from West to East Asia […] the medicine was prescribed for diarrhoea […] and for that frequent complaint in traditional medical lore, male impotence.”[x] Some historians have drawn parallels between the trades in opium to China and in tea from China. Both were regarded as desirable and worthy of consumption, with the Dutch Physician Cornelis Bontekoe making extravagant claims for the medicinal properties of tea and recommending consumption of up to fifty cups a day. However, unlike opium, tea joined tobacco, coffee and cocoa as luxury products in a lucrative but limited European market.[xi]

Historians have pointed out that smoking was unknown before Columbus returned from the New World with tobacco, and conclude that, prior to the sixteenth century, opium had always been taken orally.[xii] Whilst not being contradictory, other sources point out that opium smoking was well established in Java by 1690.[xiii] Others suggest that a smoking culture appeared in China during the seventeenth century, although the Chinese initially considered the practice to be barbaric.


Opium Den by Vincent G. Stiepevich. Photo taken from
http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/2012/03/03/opium-dens/

[i] Dr. Anil Aggrawal, Narcotic Drugs, The Story of opium, Ch 2, (New Delhi, 1995); <https://www.opioids.com/narcotic-drugs/chapter-2.html&gt;, [accessed 6 June 2017].

[ii] Drug Enforcement Administration, Museum & Visitor Centre; <https://www.deamuseum.org/ccp/opium/history.html&gt;,

[iii] Study, Flower Sepals; <http://study.com/academy/lesson/flower-sepals-function-definition-quiz.html&gt;,

[iv] Study, Calyx in flowers; <http://study.com/academy/lesson/calyx-in-flowers-definition-form-quiz.html&gt;,

[v] Frontline, <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/heroin/etc/history.html>, [accessed 12 June 2017]

[vi] All Empires History Forum, Ancient Opium Trade Routes; <http://www.allempires.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=23558 >, [accessed 7 June 2017].

[vii] British Museum, Chinese Trade; <http://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/Chinese_trade.pdf >,

[viii] Facts and Details; Opium in China; <http://factsanddetails.com/china/cat11/sub74/item139.html&gt;, [accessed 11 June 2017].

[ix] Ellen La Motte, Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, The Opium Monopoly, XV The History of the Opium Trade in China; <http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/history/om/om15.htm&gt;, [accessed 6 June 2017].

[x] Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952, Part III, Drugs Taxes and Chinese Capitalism in SE Asia, edited by Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, University of California Press, 2000.

[xi] Frank Dikötter, Lars P. Laamann, Zhou Xun ‘Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China’ Hurst, London, 2004, 11

[xii] CBS News

[xiii] Englebert Kaempfer

Becoming a Museum Volunteer

by Eric Lim

I was reading a local daily when I was attracted by something at the corner of my eye – “Want to be a Museum Volunteer”. It was December 2016 and I was recently made redundant in the workforce and the saying “the grass is always greener on the other side” may not ring true this time. I may have reached the end of the lawn.

Then drawing inspiration from the late John F. Kennedy who once said “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, it was time for my humble self to make a little contribution to my beloved country by becoming a Museum Volunteer. A total of 30 newbies registered for the training programme that was conducted from February to June of 2017. Right after, to continue the learning development, we were put through the mentorship programme. Another few more months went by and l finally completed the programme in November 2017.

Graduation Day

I can still remember vividly that at the end of my last tour with my mentor, I said “With that, I have come to the end of the tour” and my mentor immediately replied “ With that, you have completed the mentorship programme”. Yes, I have completed the full programme and now eagerly looking forward to taking my first tour.

The day of reckoning came soon enough, it was on Tuesday 19 December 2017. I had arrived early and managed to assemble a small group of visitors for the tour. And at exactly 10.00 am, I started my maiden tour. In keeping with the time limit, I had brought the group to the end of Gallery D and it was time for my signature line “With that, it’s the end of the tour”. I was very satisfied with the result and truly happy seeing the smiling faces as they head toward the exit. I took another three tours the very same month to wrap up for the year 2017.

For 2018, I had planned to take in more tours to coincide with my motto in life. When the Portuguese captured Melaka, it can be summed up in 3G – Glory, Gold and God. For me, it is 3D – Determination, Dedication and Discipline, plus the expression “the harder you practice, the luckier you get”.

School Visit on Tues 28/8/18 – University Malaya, Centre for Continuing Education, 25 pax
The group showed up unexpectedly and requested for guides. Since no tourists showed up, Josianne together with Eric helped to guide this group. The actual group was more than 40, but we only took on 25.

So the numbers just added up. I recall taking the morning and afternoon tours on a Thursday; and numerous occasions where I took tours on consecutive days. For the record, I took a total of 55 tours in 2018. And for that, I was recently awarded by JMM for my outstanding service as a Museum Volunteer. Also, getting compliments from the TripAdvisor website really made it all worthwhile and special.

Moving forward to 2019, the figures for the first quarter are still very much intact, averaging one tour per week. Here’s looking forward to my next tour tomorrow, wanna join my tour?

Eunos Abdullah – An Early Malay Nationalist

by Hani Kamal

Mohammad Eunos Abdullah (1876-1933) was a campaigner for the Malay cause in Singapore. He was also known as the father of modern Malay journalism. Eunos fought hard for Malay rights especially in education. He died at the age of 57; he was a journalist, a politician and founder of the Singapura Malay Union (Kesatuan Melayu Singapura,KMS). His passion in championing Malay rights in Singapore went on to inspire future Malay nationalists in Malaya.

Eunos was born in Singapore to a successful Minangkabau trader from Sumatera, Indonesia. He had his early education in a Malay school in Kampong Glam and he was among the very few Malays who studied at Raffles Institution. Upon graduation, he joined the government service. His early career in Singapore was that of an attendant at the Harbour Master’s office; he was later promoted as Harbour Master in Muar, Johore.

A portrait of Mohammad Eunos Abdullah. Photograph from the display boards of National Museum of Singapore

In the early 19th century, Munshi Abdullah, the father of modern Malay literature, was also a renowned Islamic scholar with his modernistic interpretation of Islam in the region. Eunos was inspired by his writings. At the age of 31, Eunos was offered a job as an Editor for the Utusan Malayu, a Malay language version of the English newspaper in Singapore. Thus, was the beginning of his opinionated voice on racial nationalism of “bumiputra” son of the soil issues. He also spoke up against the Muslim Arab descendants who were monopolizing the social and economic environment in Singapore. From literary work, he instantly became a political activist representing the Malay voice during the colonial era.

In 1922, he was appointed as Justice of Peace and subsequently appointed as a member to the municipal commission. He was the first Malay given this position in Singapore. Following the British’s administration policy to increase local representation in the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlement, Eunos was made a Legislative Councillor in 1924. He was the first Malay councillor. In his first public appearance, Eunos stood up to condemn the government’s education policy that side lined the Malay youth. Eunos concluded:

“Being unable to swim, he sinks and is lost in the swelling sea of unemployment. Surely, Sir, this is not a thing to be desired among the original son of the soil? I am confident, Sir, ways and means can be found which will enhance the prospects of boys of the soil and remove forever the penalization which oust them from their own markets simply because they happen to be the imperfect products of an imperfect system of education”.

The minutes of this Legislative Council’s proceedings recorded that there was an immediate applause from his friends and Asian councillors in the audience.

Empress Place. Meetings of the Legislative Council were held here. Eunos Abdullah became an unofficial member of the Council on 14 April 1924 and delivered his first speech at the following meeting on 30 June. Photograph from the display boards of National Museum of Singapore

In 1926, Eunos and his associates formed the Kesatuan Melayu Singapura (KMS) or the Singapore Malay Union; he was made its President. KMS was the first political organisation set up to champion Malay rights such as increasing Malay representation in the government service, upholding Malay interests, and promoting higher education for the Malays. 

A letter from Eunos Abdullah to The Straits Times. During the legislative meetings, Eunos Abdullah also pushed for Malay children to be taught English from a younger age so they would not be handicapped when transiting from vernacular to English schools. From The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 7 November 1924, Page 6.

He wanted a strong sense of Malay nationalism and called for the preservation of its culture or roots to be known and recognised. Eunos pushed to increase the education budget so that Malays could enter into the medical college and attend Malay vernacular or trade schools. He also advocated for better living conditions and sanitation for the Malay community. He proposed to build a settlement of Kampung Melayu to uphold the Malay values. Eunos was eventually given a grant to purchase and build the settlement. It was named Kampung Melayu or Kampung Eunos. In 1981, the settlement paved way for the construction of Pan Island Expressway and development of housing estates. To commemorate Eunos’s legacy, one of the local residential districts near Kampung Eunos was named EUNOS.

A procession at Jalan Eunos Malay Settlement in the 1930s. Photograph from the display boards of National Museum of Singapore

Eunos retired in early 1933 and passed away in December 1933. He was laid to rest in the Bidadari Cemetery, Singapore.

References:

  1. eresources.nib.gov.sg
  2. National Museum Singapore- Board Captions
  3. Marx Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow (2009) Singapore: A Biography, Singapore: EDM & National Museum of Singapore