by Elena Shim & Mona Tan
It was a rainy morning. Armed with raincoats and umbrellas, we gathered at the national museum around 7.45 am. All twenty who had registered for the trip, turned up despite the wet morning.
Sekinchan is a small town located in the state of Selangor in Malaysia, about 102km north of Kuala Lumpur and 28km from Kuala Selangor. In fact, Sekinchan is in the middle of the main rice-bowl area of Selangor, in Sabak Bernam district. It is one of the major rice producing areas in Malaysia.
The bus left around 8.30am. I was excited to see the much talked about paddy fields at Sekinchan. I had looked forward to going out of the city, soaking in the fresh air, and feasting my eyes on the acres of paddy fields. On the bus, Mona and Alvin, who put this trip together, told us what we could expect. We would be visiting the paddy gallery with a guided tour, then a mango orchard where we could purchase sweet juicy mangoes, have lunch, and then visit the Sekinchan Wishing Tree and a beach called Pantai Redang.
Highland Rice Fields of Ifugao (Philippines) – a UNESCO World Heritage Site
We were fortunate to learn more about our staple food as Steven Lim, a UNESCO qualified guide, shared his knowledge with us in the bus.
For more than 2,000 years, the highland rice fields of Ifugao have been planted on the contours of the mountains. The knowledge handed down from one generation to the next, the expression of sacred traditions, and a delicate social balance, have helped to create a landscape of great beauty that expresses the harmony between humankind and the environment.
The Ifugao Rice Terraces are the priceless contribution of Philippine ancestors to humanity, representing an enduring illustration of an ancient civilization that surmounted various challenges and setbacks posed by modernization.
Closer to home, is the unique adan rice or pade dari, popularly known as Bario Rice, found in the highlands of Ba’Kelalan, Long Semadoh, and Bario. It is one of the finest and best rice produced in the highlands of Sarawak. The rice has a soft texture with fine and elongated grains and produces a mild aroma and fantastic taste.
Commentary on Sekinchan by Mona Tan
Sekinchan in Chinese mean “village suitable for plantation” as the land and weather are suitable for farming of rice, fruits, and oil palm trees.
The birthplace of Sekinchan was actually at the main fishing area called Bagan back in the 1920s. The early inhabitants were almost all Teow Chew who were also fishermen. Sekinchan gradually grew in size due to population migration into this fertile land and it eventually developed into today’s scale.
In the year of 1953, in order to segregate the villagers from the Malayan Communist Party insurgents, villages were isolated, and hence formed the Site A, B, C, and Bagan. Sekinchan has a unique geographical environment; it is not only famous as a coastal rice planting area, it is also blessed with plenty of fishes. Hence, people named it “Land of Plenty”.
During the British colonial era, the Teow Chew villagers of coastal area called Sekinchan “Ang Mo Gang” as many British stayed there. The total population today is about 20,000 with 60% Chinese, 30% Malay, and 10% made up of other races. The main economic activities are agriculture and fishing. The total farming land for paddy and fruits is about 4,700 acres and this popular fishing village has more than 300 fishing trawlers!
Interesting research by Alvin Woon
All of us have been using USB flash drive or pendrive to store data or transfer information not realising that Pua Khein-Seng, who is from Sekinchan, is regarded locally as the “father of pendrive”, arguably one of the inventors of this USB flash drive. The multi-chip pendrive was first invented by M-Systems, an Israeli company, with a patent lodged in 1999. Pua’s claim rests on his being the first to incorporate the single-chip flash controller onto the USB.
Born and bred in Sekinchan, Pua received his undergraduate education in electrical control engineering at the National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan and has since then resided in Taiwan.
Sekinchan’s economy today is based on agriculture, where mechanised farming methods have been introduced to enable high yield of rice; tropical fruits especially mangoes; swiftlet farming; and manufacturing. A number of trendy hotels dot the town offering thematic experience with a touch of ‘zen’ or simply living in a comfort of a ‘container’ and B&B for the budget conscious!
We saw an endless horizon of green paddy fields; truly a sight to behold and no words could describe the breath-taking scenery! There are many inter-connecting roads even from the heart of the paddy fields, connecting small villages to the town. Along the way, you may stumble upon a water path or aqueduct, little bridges, and of course the paddy fields themselves. Sekinchan is also famed for migratory birds watching. Just to name a few, Peaceful Dove, Shorebirds, and the White-breasted Wood Swallow can be spotted here.
This place is also famous for its many fruit orchards with mangoes being one of the favourites. Sekinchan also upholds its reputation as a town with swiftlets nests or more commonly known in the food industry as birds’ nests. Chinese believe that birds’ nests are luxurious food that contains many health benefits. Many customised building structures, home of the swiftlets, sprouted up in the middle of paddy fields as this is a new thriving industry.
Paddy Gallery updates by Elena Shim
We arrived at the paddy gallery around 10am and started the gallery tour around 10.30am. We bought our entry tickets for Rm5.00 and it came with a complimentary packet of rice from the factory. We were brought into a presentation room where our guide, Miss Moon explained how Sekinchan paddy came about. There are four types of rice: glutinous, long grain, short grain, and fragrant rice. Their paddy seeds came from FELCRA and MARDI, both Government agriculture agencies.
There are two plantings in a year, namely February and August. Transplanting is done by machine and this takes 2.5 hours. Water is drained out 3 weeks before harvesting. It takes 110 days before the paddy is ready for harvest. This means harvest time is May-June and November-December when the paddy fields turn honey gold.
In the olden days, it took 7 to 8 people to harvest 1.2 hectares of land within 2-3 days. With machine in the 1.2 hectares of land, transplanting takes only 2.5 hours to complete. Each 1.2 hectares of land produces 10 tons of rice before husking. Currently, their company, PLS Marketing (M) Sdn Bhd, only supplies to 99 Speedmart due to supply constraints. There are nine processes before the rice is sold to the market/public.
Step 1: The paddy husk is collected for reuse as the fuel for firing the boiler, to dry the paddy in the drier.
Step 2: Pressure from the heated boiler intensifies the drying process of the paddy.
Step 3: The dried paddy is then stored in the storage for cooling.
Step 4: The rice huller machine then removes the husk from the paddy through wind force to get the grain rice.
Step 5: The shelled paddy is then directed to the paddy separator, which will separate the unshelled paddy and the rice. The unshelled paddy will roll back into the rice huller machine again.
Step 6: The grain rice will be polished by the rice polisher machine where the rice kernel is also removed from the rice.
Step 7: With the application of the inconsistency principle, the rice-grading machine separates the whole and the broken rice.
Step 8: With the application of wind force, the destones machine then vibrate the rice where stones and broken rice are completely removed from the product.
Step 9: Once that is done, photo electronic technology is used to detect and then remove the black and immature rice completely to make it superior in quality.
After the paddy gallery, we visited a mango orchard called Mango King where huge sweet and juicy mangoes are sold. Almost everyone bought at least a bag home. They also sell prawn crackers & banana chips and we went back into the bus not empty handed. We stopped by a souvenir shop called ‘Ah Ma House’. It was a wooden house next to the paddy fields. Ah Ma House is a specialty cake and biscuit store in Sekinchan. The main product is Ah Ma Cake which sells traditional biscuit such as pineapple tarts, ‘kuih bangkit’, and ‘kuih kapit’ (Chinese love letters). This establishment received royal patronage on 22nd May 2017.
Bagan Fishing Village
Later, we went to have a hearty seafood lunch at Guan Seng Long Restaurant. It was around noon and everyone was famished as we had an early start to the day. After lunch, we headed over to visit the Sekinchan Wishing Tree next to the Datuk Kong Temple.
As we ventured further towards the shoreline at Pantai Redang, we saw many fishing boats berthing by the river near Bagan, a small seaport towards the south-west of the town. It was an interesting sight as many fishing boats still vividly flashes in our mind.
As an aid to fisheries management and safety at sea, fishing vessels are appropriately marked for identification such as nationality of the vessels, irrespective of size and tonnage, to facilitate search and rescue operations if the need arises.
Julie Chang narrated to us the various licenses on the boat. Each vessel is marked according to its appropriate fishing zone usually in white lettering on black round background. Zone A is less than 10km; Zone B less than 25km; Zones C1 & C2 more than 25km and conducts overnight fishing, usually fully equipped with refrigeration facilities and polystyrene boxes.
The fishermen will venture into the seas in the wee hours around 4.00am returning back around 5.00pm with lots of fresh fishes, prawns, squids, crabs, and etc. In the evening, the whole Bagan springs back into a bustle of activities! Fishermen will be busy unloading their catch for the day to be categorized into types and sizes of fish before being sold to the middlemen or nearby seafood restaurants.
Datuk Kong Temple and the Wishing Tree
Pantai Redang Datuk Kong Temple Chinese temple has become popular among Chinese who come to worship the earth spirit, Datuk Kong, and to toss their wish up the adjacent Wishing Tree. This wooden shed temple is said to be over a hundred years old.
In the past few years, it has become a popular tourist destination particularly within the local Chinese community, after it appeared in the Hong Kong TVB drama ‘Outbound Love.’
The Wishing Tree next to the Datuk Kong temple attracts not only local Chinese but tourists from Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan as well. The beach area of Pantai Redang looks like a fiesta going on full swing, with people flying kites and enjoying food in various makeshift stalls.
Similar to the Pont des Arts Bridge in Paris, we have our very own Sekinchan Wishing Tree. It is said when you throw your ribbon high up into the air and it entangles with the tree, it will bring you good luck and your wishes come true. I watch in awe as some of our friends threw their red ribbons up into the air. It brought laughter and giggles. Some went up really high while some missed and caught a lower part of the trees.
We crossed over to the opposite side to walk on the beach. It was hot and we took a group photo near an abandoned fishing boat. We headed back to Kuala Lumpur around 2.30pm and reached the National Museum around 4.00pm.
It was another fun, enjoyable and informative trip to Sekinchan. I was really thankful to the organisers who recce the place prior to the trip and made this a wonderful day trip out of the city.
by Mona Tan Gin Bee
It was a pleasant day to look forward to as fellow Museum Volunteers (MV) had come together for this trip to the National Education Museum, located within the Sultan Idris Education University or UPSI in Tanjong Malim. We arrived an hour before schedule with the JMM bus from Muzium Negara. There were 25 eager participants in this MV Focus visit including 2 teachers who trained at Kirby College in the 1950-1960s – MV Cze Yan’s mother, Choo Thye, and MV Lily Lim. I could feel how happy Madam Choo Thye was when she was at the gallery on Kirby and Brinsford teachers. Truly brought back fond memories of her younger days as a pioneer in the teaching profession!
Since all of us are history buffs, let me narrate a little bit about this historical town.
History of Tanjong Malim
Tanjong Malim is an interesting gateway town located at the south of Perak Darul Ridzuan, bordering Selangor Darul Ehsan as well by having the Titiwangsa Range as its background and the Bernam River to its side. Fellow MVs were punctual as usual and our journey of 84 km up north from the National Museum was an hour-plus smooth drive on the JMM bus.
Tanjong Malim town started from a large cape or a high land formed by river erosion and sticking out into the sea; an early settler was an ‘ulamak’ (a religious man), Tuan Haji Mustafa bin Raja Kemala. Sir List, the representative of the Straits Government, and Raja Itam named the town ‘Tanjong’ in conjunction with the location of its large cape, whereas the word ‘Malim’ (mu’alim) was used to indicate the religious commitment of the people in the area at the time.
Initially, the District and Land Office was in Tanjong Malim. However, the Municipal Office was moved to Slim River after the incident on 25 March 1952 in which communist guerrillas killed Sir Michael Codner (the District Officer) and eleven other men in an ambush while they were repairing a sabotaged water pipeline.
Today, Tanjong Malim is known as ‘Education Town’ as it is the location of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (Sultan Idris Education University) or just UPSI. In fact, this town is also known as Proton City with the construction of Proton’s assembly plant.
Education Museum in its early days
The Suluh Budiman Building, which houses the current Education Museum, was built in August 1919 and its construction was completed in June 1922. This majestic building was designed by Kesteven, a famous architect in the Federated Malay States. It functioned as the famous Sultan Idris Teaching College (SITC) in its early days and had since generated renowned nationalist and intellectuals such as Za’aba, Aminuddin Baki, Ungku Omar, Ungku Abdul Aziz and Tok Kemali; all of them have rendered numerous contributions towards independence and the national education pedagogy.
The design of the building has elements of medieval Dutch-Gothic architecture style and it is obvious that the design of the building resembled the Notre-Dame Church in France and Salisbury in England. As we walked into this magnificent building, we observed that the main hall looks like a church. The knowledgeable in-house guide, Mr. Devan, confirmed this as a chapel that it did not materialise. He said the craftsmen who constructed the building were brought in from Java by the British. Skilled Chinese labourers were also used for its construction.
The upper floor of this building was SITC’s main administration centre, which includes the principal’s office, staff room, meeting room, general office, composing office and library. The ground floor consists of classrooms and a main hall used for the monthly assembly or for official college functions.
The Suluh Budiman Building was gazetted under the National Heritage Act 2005 as a National Heritage Building on February 14, 2009. On August 24 2009, the work of building conservation, gallery construction, and infrastructure installation meeting the requirements of museum practices were performed.
Finally, this floor area of 3,239 square meters was converted into a museum in March 2011. The opening ceremony was held on July 19, 2011, inaugurated by His Majesty the Raja Permaisuri Perak Tuanku Bainun.
Mission, Vision and Objectives
Their mission is to preserve the heritage of national education in the form of tangible and intangible assets through exhibitions, academic activities, research, publications and community service to achieve the country’s vision. This is achieved by maintaining and preserving its history and glory of global changes in the past, present and future through a central source of information, restoring effort through R & D, proliferation of education knowledge through events, seminars, workshops and lectures at home and abroad. Documenting the services of prominent educational figures are commendable and the ability to bring history to live in the form of a time tunnel is poised to create its own unique form of tourist attraction that would ultimately contribute to the country’s tourism industry.
Tour to the Galleries
We really had a good time learning and recalling how our national education had progressed until today. “The museum contains one thematic exhibition space just right at the entrance, now featuring on UPSI’s milestone and another 21 galleries or permanent exhibition spaces within this building,” said Devan. We could not believe our ears as we have only four galleries at the National Museum. Actually, classrooms and training rooms used in the early days were converted into well-curated galleries in both Malay and English language. A number of old artefacts were displayed, some dating to the early 1900s. We saw interesting dioramas of early classrooms, uniforms, teaching aids & materials used those days, science & technology, prominent local figures and many more. Below were the Galleries we visited and it took us more than two hours to complete the tour in this elegant building.
Research, Conservation and Procurement
We were also told that the ‘Research division’ is one of the core areas of this Museum. Research conducted in the museum consists of history, culture, nature, exhibitions and collections research.
In fact, there are 3 types of research conducted here:
i – Research conducted by the National Education Museum staff
ii – Research carried out in collaboration with other parties
iii – Research conducted by outsiders
Furthermore, the Research division serves to strengthen and develop the field of research, documentation and publication to uphold the museum’s function as a disseminator of knowledge in the field of exhibitions, collections, history, culture and education.
The Conservation division performs work on analysis, research, treatment and preservation of museum collections for the purposes of exhibition, storage, education and documentation. This department also carries out damage prevention, restoration of artefacts, monitoring temperature control system, humidity, lighting and pests found in repository and museum galleries.
Finally, the main objective of the Procurement division is to retrieve the national education heritage in the form of artefacts, ecofacts, specimens, and related documents in order to ensure that the collections are saved and available for exhibition.
After a complete walkthrough of the numerous interesting and knowledge enhancing galleries, we had a group photo taken just at the entrance of this magnificent building before we bid farewell and proceeded to lunch, located just in the vicinity, outside this huge Campus.
YIK MUN PAU (Steamed Bread) RESTAURANT
We had a hearty lunch in the ‘Yik Mun Pau Restaurant’, which has been in operations since 1926. The restaurant and some of the food served here retains a nostalgic feel of the Colonial era. Acclaimed as the most famous pau outlet in Tanjong Malim, it is ‘halal’. The restaurant serves soft pau, toast, Hainan noodles; the Hainanese chicken chop, especially, was worth trying. Food served was in large portions and many said to me that it was good. That is why this corner restaurant, painted in red, attracts many patrons from all over Malaysia.
After lunch, we went back to Kuala Lumpur by the JMM bus and reached Muzium Negara at about 2.30pm. It was indeed a memorable Education Museum tour as through its exhibits, we learned to appreciate the importance of education, and how it shapes the Nation!
by Chen Poh Leng
It was music to my ears when I was informed that the planned visit to Istana Alam Shah was finally confirmed with approval given by the palace. This once in a lifetime golden privilege was well worth the hassle for me rearranging my schedule and shopping for a baju kurung just for the occasion. We were advised and reminded to adhere strictly to the dress code.
In order to ensure punctual arrival, we left early in the morning for the Selangor Royal Gallery, also known as Sultan Abdul Aziz Royal Gallery. We were warmly welcomed by Encik Munasar, general manager of the gallery, and his staff. This gallery was commissioned in 2002 by the current Selangor Sultan in honour of his late father, Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah, the eighth Sultan of Selangor and the eleventh King. The gallery displays collections of many photographs and items such as the crown jewels and royal regalia including the state sword. We were brought back in time as En. Munasar told us many fascinating stories as he guided us through the gallery. The collection in the gallery also includes royal state medals, gifts to the Sultan and royal family, the Sultan’s collection of personal items such as beautiful clocks and watches, plus a scaled down model of Istana Mahkota Puri, the old Istana that was torn down to give way to the current Istana Alam Shah.
After taking a group photo at the gallery, we proceeded to the second phase and the highlight of our visit, i.e. Istana Alam Shah. Once again, we were warmly welcomed, this time by the palace staff. After taking our first group photo at the palace, we were ushered into a brightly lit hall where we were served refreshments. This was followed by more group photos and a visit to the royal banquet hall. Along the way, a prominent display of nobat (an ensemble of royal musical instruments) caught my eye. We were briefed on the seating positions of the Sultan and the royal family and their guests. We were also shown how crockery and cutlery were placed on the dining tables. Explanation was given on dining protocols as well.
Our next stop was the guests’ waiting room. This room is furnished with beautiful sofa sets which are extremely comfortable. Of course, certain sofas were designated strictly for the royals but we were allowed to sit in those which are not. High ceilings with lovely patterns and adorned with glistening chandeliers along with the sofas gave a luxurious feel to the room. As we moved through the corridors from one room to another, we saw many photographs and paintings adorning the palace walls. Our attention was drawn to a painting of a famous photograph of the official declaration of independence. The original photograph had the Sultan of Perlis almost totally hidden behind Tunku Abdul Rahman (Malaysia’s Father of Independence) while this painting clearly depicted the Sultan of Perlis.
We were next led into the meeting room of the royal council. In this room, the royal council of advisers would deliberate and advise the Sultan on state matters. Next to this was the pardons room where the pardons board would meet and deliberate. In both of these rooms, banners listing the designations of the members were displayed. Next to the pardons room is where the Sultan’s personal office is located.
After a short walk away, we were ushered into a familiar looking room. Here, we were advised that photos were strictly not allowed to be taken. This is where the official royal installation of important positions including that of the Sultan, the crown prince, etc. takes place. This is also where state titles are officially conferred. The ceremonies include oath taking. The palace staff demonstrated protocols when one’s name is announced to receive recognition and award from the Sultan. We were told of a dedicated area specifically for traditional Malay musicians. It was fascinating to learn that these traditional music instruments have mystical powers and apparently, only selected people can play these instruments.
Following this, we were led upstairs where we discovered many more family photographs and personal possessions and collections displayed. Among these were included beautiful hand crafted pottery, sculptures, figurines, clocks, cabinets, and etc. There was also a collection of rifles, shotguns and pistols.
The mosque in the palace grounds became our next stop. It was not huge but not small either. Apart from the royals, palace staff and their families were allowed to use it. There was a room dedicated for cleaning and preparation of the remains of the deceased near the main prayer hall. This hall was airy and bright with lots of natural light pouring in.
From here, we hopped back on to our bus for a very short drive to our next stop; the Selangor Football museum. It is a small building in which memorabilia including photographs and newspaper articles relating to Selangor Football, past and present, are displayed. This brought me down memory lane as I recollected watching some of the football matches with my dad in my younger days.
We then proceeded to life size models of the old Bukit Timah railway station. An actual old train coach with properly maintained interior was also available for us ‘explore’. This was another nostalgic ‘journey’ back to the early railway days. Nearby, we saw a life size model of the Tanjung Pagar (Singapore) railway station main entrance and right beside this, our eyes feasted on the beautifully landscaped Islam inspired garden, Taman Mahkota.
Our final stop was none other than the Royal Automobile Gallery. This houses the Sultan’s famously vast automobile collection, both vintage and modern, covering brands such as Rolls Royce, Jaguar, Mercedes, Aston Martin, Harley Davidson, and etc. We were shown vehicles used for both official and private functions. Some were personally driven by the Sultan himself. There was even, amongst others, a US army truck and an old British Royal Mail van on display. On the upper floor, we could even see vintage petrol pumps and air pumps. Indeed impressive and a well maintained collection.
What a day! What a privilege! This visit has been most memorable for all of us. We all went away happy, though tired, to have had this wonderful opportunity to see and feel what it is like living as a royal in Selangor – all with the warmth and hospitality of the wonderful palace staff.
by Chen Poh Leng
A healthy lunch with tea as an ingredient in all its dishes was indeed a perfect way to start my journey of knowledge into tea culture and history. As we savoured our lunch, we were informed by Katharine Yip, our fellow MV and event organiser, that Purple Cane, the organisation that was hosting this afternoon’s presentation, was a home grown tea merchant (since 1987) which also incorporated the promotion of tea culture into its marketing strategy.
We were introduced to Ms Hooi, our teacher, and her team of tea art instructors (incidentally all ladies; I wonder why…) who collectively have decades of experience in the world of tea. Ms Hooi proceeded with her story in Mandarin and Katharine acted as our translator.
The recorded history of tea goes all the way back to the 9th century CE during the Tang Dynasty in China. The earliest record was by Lu Yu, writer of the ‘Classic of Tea’. He was attributed as the first person to advocate consuming tea on its own. Before that, tea was taken as a blended infusion with other ingredients, such as ginger, spring onion and peppers used in everyday cooking. Special tea brewing utensils were documented.
In the early days, harvested tea leaves were made into compressed tea cakes for easy storage. During the Tang dynasty, these tea leaves were first crushed then boiled with water before it was drunk. Later, during the Sung dynasty, crushed and ground tea leaf powder were added to boiling water using a whisk; hence, the foamy infusion.
Back then, tea drinking was a pastime for nobles. It was purely for high society. Tea drinking was introduced to the commoners only during the Ming dynasty. Tea preparation was simplified in that the crushing and whisking processes were eliminated. Tea leaves were simply infused as whole leaves in boiling water; a much simpler and practical process.
As the story of tea continued, a process known as fixation was introduced to stop harvest leaves from oxidation that would change their colour, texture and aroma. This could be done by first steaming the leaves then applying heat to stop oxidation; or ‘pan-frying’ the leaves in a big iron wok by stirring them quickly with the hands to prevent the leaves from being burnt.
Tea leaves were commonly used as a trading commodity. Among the earliest tea trading during the Tang dynasty was a unique way of trading known as the Tea-Horse Barter Trade, whereby tea leaves grown in the Southwestern China was barter traded across the Mongolian borders for horses.
Tea spread to Japan as early as the Tang Dynasty, but it was the Zen Buddhist monk Eisai who first introduced the healthy benefits of drinking tea to the Japanese. He brought tea seeds as well as the Chinese tea culture from China back to Japan during the Sung dynasty; over time, this culture subsequently developed into the very unique Cha-no-yu, the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
During the Ming dynasty, another Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, Rikyu, made great strides in Japanese tea culture from which little has changed to this day. He is revered as the greatest master of Japanese tea culture. From here, there was a split into three schools of practices, one of which has been passed down 16 generations to present day.
In Korea, the tea culture was introduced by a Zen Buddhist monk named Cho Ui, who is also the author of the famous tea book, ‘Ode to Eastern Tea’.
Tea reached the West in the 17th Century. Based on written journals, the Portuguese have been identified as the first Westerners who introduced tea to the western world. They brought it home for their own consumption. Later, the Dutch made tea a trading commodity and they were the ones who first distributed tea leaves in Europe. The English soon developed their love for tea. A lady-in-waiting of Queen Victoria by the name of Anna Maria Russell was credited for starting the afternoon tea tradition in the 19th century. It was specifically for the nobles when it was first started, because of the long gap between lunch and late evening meals normally served after 8pm.
From the early 1900s to 1970s, development of the tea culture came to a halt in China for various reasons. This interest was however revived in Taiwan in the 1980s. Publications on tea culture and tea art masters emerged. The use of small tea pots became popular.
In Malaysia, tea consumed by Malaysians fall into 2 main categories, i.e. black tea and Chinese tea. Sources of black tea include those harvested and produced by the 4 tea plantations in Malaysia, the notable ones being Boh tea in Cameron Highlands and Sabah tea. Black tea is used very commonly as teh tarik served at the Mamak food stalls and Malay eateries, as well as in Chinese Kopitiams largely started by the Hainanese in the early days.
The habit of drinking Chinese tea traces its origin to Chinese migrants to Malaya. They brought tea along for making their daily beverage. Decades on, Chinese tea is still being brought in. Consumption of Chinese tea is popular among different communities, and typically, the choice of teas has a lot to do with their clans, villages or towns of origin.
In the past, Chinese tea consumed in Malaysia used to be sourced through Singapore. The Tea Merchant’s Association, Federation of Malaya (now Tea Trade Association of Malaysia) was established in 1955. Nowadays, up to 88% percent of tea leaves are directly imported into Malaysia from China. Much of the import is conducted through tea associations. We were told, globally, black tea is the highest in demand now.
Modern tea culture is characterised by modern day tea houses and new trends such as bubble tea, etc. This was spearheaded by Taiwan back in the 1980’s. Purple Cane, established in 1987, continues to ride on this, actively promoting modern day tea culture as proven with this specially organised activity for the MVs, for which the MVs are truly grateful.
by Chen Poh Leng
As I approached the Royal Selangor Visitor Centre located in the light industrial suburb of Setapak, KL, I thought to myself how nice it would to be in a location with so much greenery all around. The building gave me a good first impression in that it had a pleasant look, had high ceilings, and was very airy and spacious. As I walked in, an elderly lady dressed elegantly in a bright red cheongsam wearing pretty beaded shoes caught my eye from a distance. Katherine, our event organiser, warmly greeted me and immediately introduced me to this lady, Datin Chen, who gave me the sweetest smile. It turns out that she is the director of the fine establishment and the granddaughter of the founder of this establishment. She was to be our gracious host.
The roots of the business goes way back to 1885 when a young man by the name of Yong Koon came all the way from Shantou, China to seek better fortunes. It was tin that attracted him here. He brought with him pewter smith skills which he applied and improvised making beautiful high quality handcrafted items admired by many. Over the years, these skills were taught and passed down to both family and employees. The variety of items also grew exponentially over the years. The history of the country impacted the growth of the business. When the colonial masters were here, their demand for new items was introduced. Over time, customer preferences changed and the business changed accordingly enabling it to thrive despite two world wars and four generations. As with many other family businesses, there were indeed family feuds but the strong and sensible ones pulled through and persevered to make it the fine establishment it is today. The colonial masters and foreign visitors were very impressed with the quality of the beautifully handcrafted items. Their purchases and good testimonials became a major factor in making it a global brand. It was precisely this that earned the business the right to use the word ‘Royal’ for its brand.
The true story has it that during a visit to Perth Australia, the Sultan of Selangor then, the late father of the current Sultan of Selangor, was asked by a sales assistant from where he came. When he said Selangor, the sales assistant in turn asked ‘Selangor’ as in the brand ‘Selangor Pewter’? Yes, the Sultan replied. Of course, the Sultan was impressed that the brand was able to bring fame to his state and, so, he decreed that the business should include word ‘Royal’ in its brand name. With that, the brand value moved up higher.
Royal Selangor is world famous now with retail outlets all over the world. It has built a very strong brand and has contributed much in making Malaysia known globally as well. Every single one of their products is handcrafted and one hundred percent made in Malaysia and this brings us back to our visit.
Datin Chen started our tour by taking us up a ‘walkalator’ that led us up to the first floor of the building where a small museum is housed. She first showed a wall displaying hand imprints of all the staff that had worked there for at least 5 years. New imprints are added to the wall every five years. I thought what a pleasantly creative way to symbolize one’s loyalty. We could see on the walls also, enlarged old photographs of the founder, his family including his descendants, and his employees going about their business in the earlier days. Viewing these photos conjured up nostalgic emotions in me. They reminded me of my own family’s collection of old photos. Both my parents were born and bred in KL. There were also photographs that showed famous visitors including that of American actor, William Holden and Bill Clinton. Other notable visitors included Martha Stewart, Christin Lagarde and of course, the late Sultan of Selangor.
Next, we were introduced to exhibits of the old tools used in the early days. We also got to view items that were made in the earlier days such as incense burners, joss stick and candle holders plus other prayer items on Chinese altars plus everyday items such as teapots. There is also a model of the Petronas Twin Towers constructed entirely with pewter beer mugs about one fiftieth of the actual height of the twin towers.
We were privileged to enter into a glass enclosed area at the museum which is not opened to the public. Datin Chen said only special guests were allowed in. This area exhibits some of the finest silver sterling made under the brand Comyns. Royal Selangor acquired the London silver company Comyns in 1993. Along with this, came thousands of beautiful designs dating back to the 17th century. We were all awed by these lovely European designs.
Just before we entered the place where all the action was, i.e. the factory, we were served cold refreshing isotonic drinks in small pewter mugs. Datin Chen explained pewter properties did a good job keeping cold drinks cold. And for hot drinks, pewter ware is very good at retaining the heat. Having been refreshed, we were then able to witness how some of the work was carried out in the factory. Processes in the factory included casting, filling, scotching, hammering, polishing, buffing, soldering etc, most of which had to be done by hand. Each worker specialised in a specific process. Datin Chen explained that many of the senior workers had been working with the establishment from their teenage years right up to retirement where many had become grandparents.
Following this was the most exciting part of our tour. We entered an enclosed area called the School of Hard Knocks where we all got into action. We were each given an apron, a pewter disc (much like a CD), a hammer and a wooden block which is actually the mould for the pewter bowls which we were to make ourselves. All the noise from the hammering then started. It was fun and exciting making our own bowls engraved with our initials. What a lovely souvenir to bring home. We got to keep the aprons with the words ‘School of Hard Knocks’ too! There is no way I can forget this exceptional experience. As we left, we were informed that visitors could also make their own hand accessories at the Foundry for a fee.
Having used much of our energy knocking hard, we were then brought to the in-house café where we were served delicious refreshments with hot coffee and tea. This café is clean and comfortable. It has a lovely ambience surrounded by lots of greenery. Datin Chen continued to entertain us with interesting stories relating to the business as we ate and drank. I noted that by the time we finished, the coffee and tea which was served with pewter pots, was still very hot. This is proof of what Datin Chen claimed earlier about pewter’s property on heat retention.
With contented tummies, we were then led to our final stage of the visit – retail therapy. There was a huge variety of items on display, all of them of good quality and beautifully crafted. Apart from pewter ware, there was silver sterling (under Comryns brand) plus fine jewellery (under Selberan brand). In 1972, Royal Selangor diversified into the manufacture of European jewellery when they started a joint venture business with a Swiss jeweller Eberhard and an Austrian gem setter, Angelmahr. The diversification into fine jewellery and silver sterling, Datin Chen explained, was the reason why the word pewter was dropped, making it just Royal Selangor today. Personally, I think pewter ware from here makes a perfect gift for foreigners as it is not only 100 percent handcrafted in Malaysia, but of good quality too.
We ended our visit with a group photo with Datin Chen taken with the biggest pewter tankard on earth just outside the visitor centre. Just before we left, we conveyed our deep gratitude to Datin Chen for her courteousness, warmth and generosity (her time, souvenirs from School of Hard Knocks and the refreshments at the café). Now I know we have this gem in my very own backyard, a must visit for any foreign visitor.
(With thanks to Katherine Yip for photos and captions.)