Muzium Negara has, in its collection, around 500 wayang kulit (shadow play) puppets and 200 of these are currently on display at an exhibition titled ‘Symbolism Behind the Screen’. There are also puppets on loan from Fusion Wayang Kulit that depict characters from comics and science fiction. Do take the time to visit the exhibition which runs until 28 February 2017 at Muzium Negara.
In a wayang kulit performance, the puppeteer (known as Tok Dalang) manipulates the puppets in a raised hut which has a white screen stretched across the front hiding him and the puppets from view of the audience. A lamp behind the puppets casts shadows on the screen and this is the basis of the performance.
The wayang kulit is considered a microcosm of the universe while the Tok Dalang, manipulating the puppets, is taken as symbolising God. Dalang means ‘priest’ in Sanskrit; the Tok Dalang was also trained in magic rituals and many dalang functioned as bomoh or practitioners of Malay magic. In fact, in days gone by, the Wayang Kulit was not just a performance art but was also used in spirit exorcism ceremonies. In the wayang kulit universe, the sun is represented by the lamp while banana trunks, used as a resting place for the puppets, represent the earth. Humans perceive the universe through the screen.
Perhaps the most important prop is the pohon beringin (tree of life) which represents all life in the universe. This tree, seen both at the start and end of the story, symbolises the start of the universe and the end of the world. The tree is divided into three parts: the top represents the sky and includes motifs of birds, the middle represents earth and includes animals, while the bottom represents the supernatural world.
A touch-screen kiosk at the exhibition provides substantial information on the symbolism behind the rituals conducted before, during, and after a performance. For example, a feast is held during the ‘theatre opening ceremony’ in order to ensure the performance goes well. During this time, the musical instruments are blessed so that they will succeed in attracting and holding the attention of spectators. An offering consisting of 25 items placed on a large tray is also made.
Apart from the conventional wayang kulit characters, i.e. Sita Dewi, Sri Rama, Hanuman, and Ravana, the exhibition also displays a host of other puppets including demonic and animal characters as well as the Punakawan (e.g. Semar) that provide comic relief. Wayang Kulit’s foray into science fiction started with the the production of the ‘Peperangan Bintang’ performance inspired by the Star Wars movies. Its success spurred a new line of puppets including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Flash. These are also on display.
The beautiful, traditional Malay house adorning the grounds of Muzium Negara is Istana Satu, a palace belonging to the Terengganu royalty, which was acquired in 1972 by the Federation of Museums. Its reconstruction on the grounds of Muzium Negara was completed in April 1974.
Built high on pillars, it conforms to the long roofed, 12-pillared architectural style of Terengganu. Traditional houses in Terengganu are generally 6-pillared or 12-pillared, a reference to the number of pillars holding the roof structure. These tall pillars, which can raise the floor of the house as high as eight feet, not only protected the house from wild animals and floods but also warded off ground dampness prevalent in our humid climate.
Seven steps lead to the verandah of the palace. This number is intentionally odd as, according to Malay superstitious practice, a person should leave the house with his/her right foot first. With an odd number of steps, the journey away from the house will again start with the right foot.
A traditional 12-pillared Terengganu house has three sections – the serambi (verandah where guests are also received and entertained), Rumah Ibu (Mother’s house, comprising the living and sleeping areas), and Dapor (kitchen, which also includes the dining area). Rumah Ibu, the main section of the house, is named as such as the mother occupies an important position in Malay culture.
Istana Satu originally comprised two units: the Federation of Museums only acquired one unit while the other unit was purchased by a private individual. In the original palace, the Rumah Ibu would have been a structure separate from the Dapor but linked with it.
The Sultan’s palace in Kuala Terengganu has traditionally been located at the foot of Bukit Puteri. Sultan Baginda Omar (r. 1831, 1839-1876), wresting control of Terengganu in 1839, initially stayed in a fort on Bukit Puteri but later moved down the hill to this traditional site. He built a timber palace, Istana Hijau, on this site but it was gutted in 1882 by a fire that also destroyed 1600 other houses. This incident occurred during the reign of Sultan Zainal Abidin III (r. 1881-1918) who then built Istana Satu (First Palace) enclosed in a large compound known as Kota (fort). Other buildings were added within Kota and in 1895, the imposing Istana Maziah became the official residence of the Sultan.
Do saunter into Istana Satu the next time you visit the museum, leaving your shoes at the base of the steps.
by Maganjeet Kaur (with a special thank-you to Lim Tze Tshen for a tour of the museum)
The distance may seem daunting but, housing a collection that dates to the early 1900s and showcasing Malaysia’s rich biodiversity, the Natural History Museum is well worth the drive to Putrajaya.
Malaysia is listed as one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world, i.e countries that have a high percentage of the Earth’s plant and animal species as well as a high percentage of species endemic to the country. Although only a fraction of this diversity is captured in the museum, the museum does provide some interesting representations in the various animal categories.
The seas are no less vibrant and 77 molluscs are displayed providing an easy reference guide for cataloging.
The on-going exhibition on skeletons is especially interesting as it provides an insight into how skeletons of different groups of animals evolved and adapted to their different functions. Flight requires a strong but light-weight structure. To achieve this, the skeleton in birds was adapted with a strong chest bone to hold the flight muscles. In addition, some bones were eliminated and the remaining ones hollowed out. The front limbs saw a reduction in digits and development of feathers. However, it is believed that the development of feathers was an exaptation; their original purpose could have been to regulate heat and it was only later that they were adapted for flight.
To live in trees, arboreal creatures (e.g. primates and koalas) developed strong chest and hip bones while a prehensile tail provided stability to navigate the canopy. The opposable thumb evolved allowing primates to grasp tree branches; this same opposable thumb would later give flexibility to hominids to fashion tools and weapons from stone and other materials. Did Darwin get it right when he said it was the need to free the hands to handle tools and weapons that gave rise to bipedalism? The earliest known stone tools date to 2.6 million years ago while hominids started walking upright 6 million years ago making it unlikely it was the need to handle tools that caused bipedalism. Many other theories abound; one that is gaining popularity specifies that wading in shallow water to forage for edibles necessitated walking on two legs. In addition, water cushioned the joints from pressure in an upright position allowing hominids to walk on two legs for longer periods.
It is said that it was the use of technology that shaped us into who we are, that pushed us onto a very different evolutionary track from the other primates. Performing complex tasks increased our brain capacity to the 1,300 ml average of today. Compare this to the 400 ml of the extant Australopithecus and the same amount of the chimpanzee today. This increased brain capacity has enabled our march to the stars.
For the fourth time, the French MV`s of Jakarta, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur met for a cultural gathering. This time, we were four from Kuala Lumpur and 18 altogether. We had the opportunity to visit Borobodur, Prambanan and a part of old Yogyakarta with all the information we could have dreamed about, thanks to the hard work of the Jakarta French team.
After half a dozen loops above the airport due to a malfunction of the control tower, we landed and were welcomed by the president of the IHS (initiator of these cultural meetings) and Laurence, both former Kuala Lumpur MVs. We were met by a few other Jakarta guides and went directly to visit Candi Mendut and sank into the Buddhist culture. Candi Mendut is one of the three buildings erected aligned with Borobodur in the 9th century. It was restored beginning of the twentieth century using the anastylose method, a technique developed by the “French School of Oriental Art” (yeah!!).
Then we proceeded to the Manohara Hotel, very conveniently situated, right at the foot of Borobodur. From there, our guides brought us to a wonder for tea time, the Aman Jiwo hotel. Modelled on a stupa, the lobby is facing Borobodur valley with the rooms spread in half concentric circles of smaller stupas, just like Borobodur itself. We had the opportunity to visit the rooms but for the asking price, we decided to come back only for the tea with our respective husbands! After a long delay and also a few rounds in the sky of Yogyakarta, the Singapore guides arrived and could enjoy the breath taking site seeing.
Back to the hotel, we met the last of the Jakarta guides (no tea in wonderland for them, sadly!). Then the serious work began: a cultural “apero” was waiting for us at the library. Most of “foreign” guides had bought a bottle of wine at the duty free and after the welcome word and batik gift from our president, we shared the firsts of them while listening to Colette presenting the highlight of the trip: Borobodur. We learned it was built in the 9th century by kings of the Sailendra dynasty. It is a mountain temple made of 4 square terraces and 3 round ones, each one smaller than the preceding one and topped by the main empty stupa. Each square terrace comprises two walls facing each other and displaying a strip depicting the life of Buddha, the legend of his previous lives and the everyday life of common people of the time. The first terrace walls being higher than the other three, accommodate two strips per wall. The pilgrims had (and again since the 90’s only and after a long oblivion) worshiped, by doing as many tours of the galleries as there are strips; altogether, they have to walk 5km before reaching the circular terraces where 72 stupas containing a Buddha are their reward. On the last terrace a large empty stupa shows the vacuity of life. Here the pilgrim can make a wish and tour the stupa with an uneven number of paces and in silence to get it granted.
Then it was dinner again for us in the nice Plataran hotel. The Mongolian barbecue was delicious!
After a short night for most of the MVs, they woke up at 4:15 am to go and discover Borobodur at sunrise. Too early for me! But it was said to be very nice in the mist. After a well-earned breakfast (for them…), we all went to the foot of Borobodur for further talks on central Java history and Buddhism. That is when we discovered the difference between enlightenment and awakening, vacuity and emptiness. I cannot say I understood everything but, well, I was enlightened! At long last, we began the climb of the sacred mountain and received more information about the nicest and most famous bas-relief. There we discovered the famous 4 boats which are not from Majapahit, as they were carved too early to be from that kingdom’s time, but plain Javanese boats.
We did only one tour of each gallery. When we arrived at the main stupa, all of us tried the wish trick (even though the silent part was difficult for us!). Let`s see if our wishes will be fulfilled!
We climbed down the temple and up again a hill facing Borobodur for a last presentation of the restoration of Borobodur before a well-earned nasi or mee goreng back at the hotel.
Then it was the much expected visit of the …. unexpected: the “gereja ayam”. After yet another straining climb, a kind of pillbox in the shape of a hen was awaiting us. Our guides told us it was a prayer room built by a man who had a vision; God told him to build a prayer room in the shape of a dove in the middle of the jungle and here it was, very unexpected indeed! Even though, it was not completed due to lack of funds and looking more like a hen (ayam) rather than a dove.
Back to the bus, we went to the last of the three buildings built aligned with, and at the same time of, Borobodur, Candi Prawon. It is a shrine (probably the shrine of a King), not a temple. Then it was back to Yogyakarta, where a 2 hours rest was most welcome. Then, we learned about the story of Yogyakarta, one of the only two provinces with a sultan only since 1755, the other one being Solo. We also had our first encounter with Hinduism, in a presentation of Prambanan. Prambanan was built at the same time as Borobodur. It is a cluster of temples. The main one is dedicated to Shiva (Agastya, Ganesh and Durga), between one to Brahma and one to Vishnu; each god’s temple is fronted by atemple dedicated to his own vehicle, respectively Nandi, Hamsa and Garuda.
In front of these 6 temples were 254 or 249 (we cannot remember!) small temples which are now just piles of stones anyway and whose function has yet to be determined.
During the diner at a French restaurant that followed, we emptied a few more bottles and were happy to have a good night sleep after!
Wednesday morning we met our local French speaking guide for a visit of old Yogyakarta. He showed us a wet market and we took nice pictures of the group at the Sultan’s Bath. None of us were sent a flower to go and swim at his private swimming pool!
From there we went and visited the underground mosque. I was there when Wahida called about the university visits on the 9th December and 12th January, relayed by Sylvia to KL MVs; by the way, we still need help for the visit on the 12th January at 4:00 p.m. !!
We finished the morning in a “wayang kulit” workshop where we learned the symbols belonging to the Javanese philosophy in the carvings of the puppets. The ones I remember:
They have a long nose because they look for knowledge in the West.
They have big feet and short legs to stand firmly on Earth.
The lower part of their bodies is round like the Earth with carvings representing Fire, Water and Air.
The tree of life is full of symbols as well. The base is a Yoni, then there are several animals: the bull (strength), the tiger (cleverness), the snake and some monkeys.
After tasting some of the preferred courses of the sultans, we reached Prambanan. During the visit, Colette described each divinity but, unfortunately for the 4 of us, it was soon time to go and catch our plane back home and we could not attend the end of the lecture. The Jakarta guides left one hour after us and the Singapore MVs had a plane only the next morning at 6:00 am! But at least, they could finish the bottles Wednesday night. I do not know in which state they were in the morning!
As you can see it was a very busy, interesting, enriching trip, well washed down (not only with wine, but rain as well!); I want to thank the Jakarta team for all their hard preparatory work.
You are interested in this kind of trip? I`ll tell you two secrets, Jamil asked me the contact of the “Singapore Friends of Museums” to organise a similar treat with them. And Karen is considering a field trip to Borobodur.
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.
The on-going exhibition at Muzium Negara, titled “Songket: The Queen of Fabrics – 1Family 1Heritage”, showcases songket pieces from around ASEAN countries. Do try to catch this very interesting exhibition before it ends on 31st December 2016.
Songket is brocade and its designs are usually inspired by nature where the weavers turn into art their impressions of the environment, as well as of the flora and fauna around them. However, the songket pieces on display also include some unique expressions such as the piece below which describes the contents of Noah’s ark.
Other interesting pieces include a shoulder cloth whose pattern is taken from the Durga stone statue at Singasari and a songket piece which combines Minangkabau and Bugis patterns.
The cotton material weaved by the Rungus community in Kudat, Sabah incorporate designs found on Dongson drums (bronze drums that originated in Northern Vietnam). To date, remains of only one Dongson drum have been unearthed in Sabah and, hence, the designs on the Rungus material provides an important means of elucidating the designs on these drum.
Apart from songket pieces (sarong, samping, selendang, and tengkolok), there are also a number of looms on display showcasing production techniques.
Raja Abdullah and Yap Ah Loy have been pushed centre-stage to battle it out as founders of Kuala Lumpur, relegating to the background the two entrepreneurs who had developed a trading post at the confluence of Klang and Gombak Rivers, a trading post that would grow to become Kuala Lumpur. No street names laud their contributions but Hiu Siew was the first Kapitan Cina (Chinese Captain) of Kuala Lumpur and Ah Sze could have been either the second or third Kapitan had he wanted the job.
Their story starts in Lukut where they were joint owners of a tin-mine. It was here that they contracted a friendship with Sutan Puasa, a Mandailing trader servicing the Ampang tin mines, on whose advice they moved to the future Kuala Lumpur. Lukut was, until the border treaty of 1878, a part of Selangor and under the control of Raja Jumaat, an enterprising and capable leader. In 1857, Raja Abdullah, brother of Raja Jumaat, took 87 Chinese miners from Lukut and they started mining activities at Ampang, about five kilometres inland from the confluence. Raja Abdullah’s men were by no means the first miners at Ampang; this honour belongs to the Sumatrans who were probably there from as early as the 1820s. However, the increased activity brought about by Raja Abdullah’s team saw traders from Lukut moving to Ampang where they supplied the miners with food, essential items, opium, and spirits.
Goods bound to and from Ampang were loaded/unloaded at the confluence and, in all likelihood, a settlement existed there from an early period. However, the trading post had to be expanded rapidly in order to keep pace with the increased activity at Ampang and Sutan Puasa succeeded in persuading Hiu Siew and Ah Sze to relocate there. He also paved the way for them by introducing them to the local Malays and their acceptance by the Malay community saw Hiu Siew being appointed as the first Kapitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur.
The exact location of this trading centre has not been identified. However, it is said that when Yap Ah Loy became the third Kapitan, he appropriated the property of Liu Ngim Kong, the second Kapitan, who had himself appropriated the property of Hiu Siew. We know that Yap Ah Loy’s house was located near the river, at the present site of the Pacific Express Hotel, and it is possible that Hiu Siew’s property was at this same location and that Yap Ah Loy’s ‘market’ was originally Hiu Siew’s.
The head panglima (commander) to Hiu Siew was Liu Ngim Kong. Liu had previously been panglima to the Kapitan Cina of Sungei Ujong and Yap Ah Loy had acted as his assistant during that time. When Hiu Siew passed away in 1861/62, Liu took over his role as Kapitan Cina as well as, purportedly, his private property. Liu invited Yap Ah Loy, who was Kapitan Cina at Sungei Ujong, to join him in Kuala Lumpur. The wealth of Kuala Lumpur induced Yap Ah Loy to move and he took over the position of Kapitan Cina after Liu’s death in 1868.
Ah Sze, in the meantime, had become among the wealthiest traders in Selangor. He also had mining concerns in Kanching which, together with Ampang (and Kuala Lumpur), were the only Chinese enclaves in Selangor north of Lukut at the time. Ah Sze was kingmaker. He had twice rejected offers to be Kapitan Cina: first after the death of Hiu Siew and again after the death of Liu. However, the selection of Liu Ngim Kong and Yap Ah Loy as the second and third Kapitans respectively were made in consultation with Ah Sze. The relatives of Liu Ngim Kong were unhappy with the ascension of Yap Ah Loy to the position of Kapitan and his appropriation of Liu’s property. Their attempt to redress the situation saw the murder of Ah Sze, seen as a powerful ally of Yap Ah Loy. This was done in order to weaken Yap’s position.
Kuala Lumpur was already a rich and flourishing settlement before Yap Ah Loy moved there. This was in large part due to the efforts of Hiu Siew, Ah Sze, and Liu Ngim Kong who come across as very capable leaders. However, information on them is scarce as they have largely been ignored in historical writings. One possible explanation for this is that the bulk of historical records come from the British whose official involvement in the Selangor state starts only after the treaty of 1874. They had involved interactions with Yap Ah Loy but only cursory dealings, if any, with the other three.