The mysterious peaks we sing of in “Di Tanjong Katong”

26 12 2017

The tune “Di Tanjong Katong”, a National song, is one we are most familiar with in Singapore. The lyrics of the song contain this rather peculiar verse:

Pulau Pandan jauh ke tengah,
Gunung Daik bercabang tiga;
Hancur badan dikandung tanah,
Budi yang baik dikenang jua.

While the lines of the verse, which seem to have little to do with Tanjong Katong and with Singapore, are borrowed from an age-old Malay pantun or poem, they seem to want to invoke an unexplained longing for the places that are named.

Tanjong Katong

Di Tanjong Katong.

Singapore’s obsession with its recent past has allowed an amnesia for the time when Singapore’s place was in the Malay world has set in, a time when singing of three peaks of Daik (the line “Gunung Daik bercabang tiga” translates into “Mount Daik has three peaks”) might not at all have sounded odd. The distinctive summit of Daik is a most and recognisable of features on Pulau Lingga, an island that is thought of by some as the Malay world’s motherland1. Lingga is spoken of as a heartland of the Malay culture and language and it is on Lingga, where Malay is spoken in one of its purest forms.

Gunung Daik bercabang tiga.

Pulau Lingga took its place in the old Johor empire of the 16th to 19th centuries as an outpost the sultans could find a retreat in being located at the southern reaches of the widely spread sultanate. Positioned along an ancient maritime trade route to Palembang and Jambi, principal centres in the days of Srivijaya, and there are suggestions that it may have already come to prominence well before it served as a Johor outpost.  Paul Michel Munoz, in his 2006 book “Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and Malay Peninsula”, opines that the island kingdom identified by Marco Polo as “Malaiur” in accounts of his return voyage to Europe could quite possibly have been Lingga – based on estimates provided of distances travelled [Malaiur is a name that was also associated with a Malay kingdom centred around Jambi in Sumatra, which was at one time also part of the Srivijaya empire].

Pulau Lingga also took its place as the seat of Johor’s royal court on two occasions; in 1618, when the capital was moved there as the Acehnese threatened, only for the capital to be sacked by the Portuguese in 1625. Old Johor’s last sultan, also moved to Lingga in 1787, in an attempt to isolate his court from the Bugis, whose increasing influence meant that they were effectively running the sultanate from its capital in the Riau. The turning point for Lingga came with its breakup, a point at which the Dutch and the British were extending their influence. Singapore, in which old Johor could trace its roots to once again prospered when the British East India Company set up its trading post while Lingga was left to the remnants of a sultanate that had lost its clout.

Lingga (Lingen) in relation to Singapore (Pulo Panjang) in an 18th century Hydrographic Chart seen in the National Archives of Singapore’s online site. (http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/maps_building_plans/record-details/755f2349-a18d-11e6-9af5-0050568939ad).

The advances of the modern world has not made it much easier to get to Lingga and the group of islands around it that takes its name. The islands, now also part of the Lingga Regency within the Riau Islands province, are served by ferry services from Batam or Bintan. Even with the fast ferry, it involves a four-hour journey. This I had the chance to find out for myself when I made the same journey to attend the four-day Festival Gunung Daik, at the kind invitation of the Lingga Regency. With invitations extended to groups outside of Indonesia for the first time, the festival, which was held from 19 to 22 November, attracted an invasion of several hundreds.

On the road to Dabo on Pulau Singkep.

Dabo, on the more populated island of Pulau Singkep, was best equipped to absorb this influx. A 45-minute road journey from Singkep’s northern maritime gateway at Jago, Dabo wears the look of an town which has left its best days behind. It was indeed the case. The town grew out of the riches the extraction of Singkep’s sizeable deposits of tin had provided, until some two decades ago when the last of the mines closed. The extraction of a deposit, found in the darkened interiors of the narrow and windowless structures that now dot Dabo’s urban landscape, seems to be a new but less lucrative gold. The dark spaces mimic the caves in which swiftlets nest and the nests, which the birds make with deposits of their saliva and nesting material, are much valued by the Chinese for their purported medicinal properties.

A disused mining pool that scars Pulau Singkep’s landscape.

The sleepy town’s main draw, at least for the Singaporeans I was with, was an old coffeeshop named Bintang Timur. Time seems to have stood completely still in this Chinese owned coffee shop and the Eastern Star is very much reminiscent of the kopitiams of the Singapore of decades past. If not for the lack of time, it would quite easy for me to waste a morning away over a cup or two of the kopitiam’s strong aromatic brew, made just as it was in the coffeeshops of old Singapore.

Time stands still at the Kedai Kopi Bintang Timur.

The town has culinary offerings that may also delight the Singaporean. Fried kway teow, seemingly prepared exclusively by Chinese men with well weathered faces from roadside pushcarts, is a local favourite. So is laske (or laksa), prepared and served in a manner that will explain the many ways a dish of laksa is served across the region.In Dabo, its base is a noodle made from coils of sago starch. The dish is served fried or as we are used to in Singapore, with a delicious spicy gravy poured over.

A char kway teow seller in Dabo.

In the evenings, a more substantial meal can be obtained from the town’s ikan bakar or grilled fish stalls, which are probably the town’s real treat. In addition to having fresh catch from the sea grilled over a fire, there also is the opportunity to savour it served in the more sweet than sour version of asam pedas gravy popular in these parts.

A popular ikan bakar stall.

The guidebooks point to Dabo’s religious buildings as its tourist sights. The town’s mosque is impressive, as is a large Chinese temple. The temple, the Klenteng Cetiya Dharma Ratna, and a large building in the vicinity in which the local Chinese association is housed, suggests that there is a substantial immigrant Chinese community in Dabo. Some in the community apparently have ties with Singapore. As with much of the Nanyang, the community’s forefathers arrived as part of the diaspora of southern Chinese to the region in the 19th century. In Dabo’s case the tin mines provided work. Today the Chinese run many of the local businesses. Beside being involved in the birds’ nest trade, there also are a number of  food and beverage outlets and sundry shops owned by the Chinese. Chinese vendors can also be found in the town’s pair of markets. The markets, one for the sale of fish and the other for vegetables are both worth a look at.

Klenteng Cetiya Dharma Ratna.

A vegetable seller at Dabo’s Vegetable Market.

Chinese labourers working at the Singkep Tin Company eating a meal (photo: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures via Wikipedia Commons). Many Chinese came over to Singkep to work in the tin mines.

The townsfolk’s favourite spots lie further afield. These include a waterfall, several beaches, a hot spring bath, and an oddity of an attraction in the form of an awkwardly positioned cannon. The artillery piece, the meriam tegak, is found at the edge of a beach southeast of Dabo. Buried with only its upwardly aligned muzzle exposed, the locals offer several explanations for the odd alignment. One thing that the differing accounts agree on is that the contributing factor for the cannon’s position is the wrath of a woman!

Meriam Tegak.

The cannon is close to Dabo’s favourite beach, Pantai Batu Berdaun. A popular spot for swimming and a picnic, the beach is named after a rock on which a tree is perched – the “leafy rock” or “batu berdaun“. A house with a curious collection of animals in its compound near the rock was however the centre of attention. It turned out that the house was some kind of animal shelter. The animals, all of which were abandoned, had been taken in and cared for by the house’s kind owner.

Pantai Batu Berdaun.

An animal shelter near Pantai Batu Berdaun.

The waterfall and the hot spring bath will take a little more effort in getting to. The 3km long unmetalled road to the spring bath provides more than a bumpy ride. The path it takes is interesting as it is line with the large waterlogged scars that the extraction of tin has left on the landscape. The baths, which are especially popular with the local folk, seemed much less appealing in the tropical heat as compared to the cool waters found in the pools at the waterfall at Batu Ampar.

Batu Ampar Waterfalls.

The hot spring baths.

The less populated Pulau Lingga with its three projections does have a lot more mystery about it. Lingga, which lies on the Equator just north of Singkep, actually derives its name from the tallest and largest of the three high points. The projection, also named Daik, was thought in the old days to resemble a linggam – Sanskrit for phallus.

A view towards Lingga and its three pronged peak of Mount Daik from Jago on Pulau Singkep.

Penarik near Daik.

Among Lingga’s main attractions is the Resun Falls – the largest waterfall in the Province of the Riau Islands. There are also several  sites that will provide some understanding of Lingga’s colourful past. One, the Museum Linggam Cahaya, has an interesting collection of artefacts. Some show the external links the island had, and a sense of the position it held. Pottery on display, recovered from the depths, include pieces that are thought to date to Song dynasty China. The museum’s most noticeable and popular exhibit is however from a more modern event and is a skeleton of a curious and yet to be identified creature from the deep, named locally as a “Gajah Mina” or Sea Elephant. The bones are from one that was found on the shores of Lingga and one of two similar carcasses that washed up in the Riau Islands in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

Museum Linggam Cahaya.

The island’s historical sites provide links to the Lingga of the last days of the Johor Empire and to the Lingga of the post Johor days when it was the seat of the Riau-Lingga sultanate. One is the ruins of Istana Damnah, a 19th century palace built in Daik by during the reign of Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam II (1857-1883), which lies close to the museum. An adjacent site contains a 2002 interpretation of the palace and its main hall, the Balairung Seri. Left abandoned after the Dutch took positive control of Lingga in 1911 and with Riau-Lingga’s last sultan, Abdul Rahman II, having fled to Singapore, the original wooden palace was left to fall into ruin.

Ruins of Istana Damnah.

Another view of the site of Istana Damnah.

The replica Istana Damnah as seen from the replica Balairung Seri.

The site of the Lubuk Papan baths is also nearby. A bathing spot used by those in the palace, the baths were located at a bend in the Tanda River. Today, concrete sides and gazebos placed around it have altered the charm the baths would have had. A natural stretch does exist upstream and this may provide some sense of the attraction as a bathing spot that the entire bend may have had.

Finding peace upstream from the Lubuk Papan baths.

A former fort at Benteng Bukit Cening, and the graves of several of Lingga’s rulers, pre and post break-up are some of Daik’s other royal sites.  Old Johor’s last sultan, Mahmud Shah III, is buried at Daik’s Masjid Jami’ Sultan Lingga. The remains of his son, the half-brother of Hussein of Singapore and Johor and the Riau-Lingga’s sultanate’s first ruler, Abdul Rahman I, can be found on Bukit Cengkeh.

The concretised Lubuk Papan baths at Daik.


Getting there:

There are fast ferry services (daily I believe) from either Tanjung Punggur on Batam or Tanjung Pinang on Bintan to Jago in the north of Pulau Singkep and it typically involves a 4 hour journey. Jago in the north of Singkep is a 45 minute drive to its main town, Dabo.  There also are ferry services between Jago and Tanjung Buton on Pulau Lingga. Getting around seems quite challenging and recommendations range from hiring ojeks (motorcycle taxis) or renting motorcycles. It would be best to inquire locally.

For travel products such as ferry tickets, hotels booking and, local tours and transfers in the Riau (primarily Batam and Bintan), do visit Wow Getaways.  More information on the Riau Islands can be found at https://discover.wowgetaways.com/.

Jago, one of the maritime entry points into Pulau Singkep.


Note:

1 One who feels strongly about this is Ahmad Dahlan, Batam’s mayor from 2006 to 2016 and a student of Malay history. In his 2014 book “Sejarah Melayu”, he speaks of the move Sultan Mahmud Shah III’s court to Daik in 1787, even if it was in an effort to isolate himself, as a return to the the mother’s lap.


Lingga and Singkep in photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/47093227@N03/albums/72157690104466625
https://www.flickr.com/photos/47093227@N03/albums/72157689803316854


 

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Christmas came early

23 12 2017

An early Christmas present – the wonderful combination of colours that painted this morning’s sky, taken at 6.47 am from the Beaulieu Jetty at Sembawang Park. The view is of the Tebrau Strait towards Pasir Gudang in Johor on the left of the photograph and the former Kampong Wak Hassan on the right – where the silhouettes of two tower cranes can be seen. The area of the former seaside kampung is where luxury homes are currently being built.

Colours of the morning, 23 Dec 2017, 6.47 am.

 





Finding joy in a space in which Joy was bottled

21 12 2017

The photographs of the site of the former National Aerated Water Co. used in this post were taken during a private visit organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for invited guests and have been used with the kind permission of the site’s current owner. Do note that the site is not opened to the public.


Disused spaces bring great joy, even as in the case of the former National Aerated Water Co’s bottling plant at 3MS Serangoon Road, the paraphernalia associated its use has long been removed. There is much to learn from the spaces, especially those that were conceived with little in way of frills in an age of greater simplicity. The disused plant, fronted by an art-deco-esque tw0-strorey structure placed along a thoroughfare that would have been hard to miss, last saw use some two decades ago. Associated with the bottling of two popular soft-drink labels, Sinalco and the joy in a green bottle that was the comic strip inspired Kickapoo Joy Juice,  there are many now who look back fondly at the now empty building that is one of few constants in an area that has seen much change.

The art-deco front of the former factory is a rare constant in an area that has seen much change.

The good news we heard just last week was that a portion of the former plant – its front – is being conserved. Selangor Dredging purchased the site for residential redevelopment just last year and has over the year been working with the URA on the conservation of the former plant’s most recognisable feature and its face – the art-deco main building.

The disused factory offers us a window into the past.

The factory, of a 1954 vintage, last saw operations some two decades ago. Built at a time of increasing demand for soft drinks, the home-grown company’s new plant found immediate success. The investment in the state-of-the-art factory and bottling equipment on the company’s 25th Anniversary was motivated by Sinalco’s 1952 award of exclusive bottling and distribution rights. An interesting nugget of information was shared by the URA about the rather peculiar name of the German drink was that it was derived from the words “sine alcohol” or without (in Latin) alcohol. More on the plant and the company can be found in a previous post: Losing its fizz: the third milestone without the former National Aerated Water plant.

Writings on the wall: soft drinks bottled at the plant … plus a secret formula perhaps.

The L-shaped building being conserved was where the company was run from. Offices and a mixing room were located on the upper floor and a reception, the storage area and distribution spaces on the lower level. The conserved building has several interesting features. These include a purpose designed “signage tower” on which the Sinalco logo was emblazoned, a tapering balcony at the front with a fair-faced brick parapet facing the road on which the company’s name is mounted, and a built-in sun shade projecting out from the building’s side that spirals out of a circular window (see: Conserved features of the building at “Former National Aerated Water Factory building to be gazetted for conservation” identified by URA). Parts of the building will have to be rebuilt. This includes the southeast corner, which will have to be knocked-down to permit vehicular entry to the site for construction.

A sun shade or concrete, spiraling out of a circular window.

The signage tower.

Office space on the upper floor.

Redevelopment will take place on the site just to the rear of the conserved building and this will see several structures removed, including the wide-span steel truss supported roof structure under which the main shopfloor of the plant was sited. This roof construction, topped with corrugated roofing sheets, has ample window covered openings built in to it to maxmise the entry of light and ventilation. An auxiliary building, that would have contained service spaces including toilets that can still be seen, can be found close to the rear perimeter of the site.

The shopfloor and the roof structure through which light into the factory was maximised.

The building at the rear of the site.


A look around …

A last reflection. The reception area at the southeast side of the building.

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The fair-faced brick parapet.

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Windows from the past into the present.

The main staircase.

The tapered front facing balcony.

The rear of the office space – which overlooked the shopfloor. Part of the roof structure can be seen.

Timber doors and matching ventilation grilles above are seen on the outward facing boundaries of the main building.

A view from the former shopfloor towards the main building. The right portion of the building was where crates of soft drinks were stored and dispatched.

The southwest side of the building.

The part of the building that will be reconstructed.

The office space on the upper floor.

The mixing room.

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Joyful switches.

A view out the back of the office space towards the roof and the shopfloor below.

A close-up of the corrugated roofing sheets.

Frosted or textured glass is in evidence throughout to filter light that would otherwise have been too harsh.

Close-up of a textured glass panel.

Up on the roof.

A view over the top.

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Textured glass windows.

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A ventilation house?

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Dead slow ahead. The part of the factory that will be demolished as seen from the driveway.

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The pump at the driveway, which is visible from the outside.

Comfort facilities at the rear.


 





Yay! The former National Aerated Water Co. plant is being conserved!

15 12 2017

Notices in the back pages of the press can sometimes bring joy.

An notice that gave me a sense of happiness appeared in today’s edition of the Straits Times, which contained a list of proposed amendments to the Master Plan being made by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). One is the re-designation of part of a certain Lot 05052P, Mukim 17 at Serangoon Road as a Conservation Area, which OneMap identifies as the site of the former National Aerated Water Company’s bottling plant. The possibility of its conservation was actually discussed a year back after the site was purchased by property developer Selangor Dredging. The developer intends to redevelop the site for residential use, which interestingly appears as the “Jui Residences” – a play I suppose on the Hokkien word for water Jui or 水, on OneMap. What is now left to be seen is how much of the former factory can be retained.*

More on the plant, the social memories connected with it, and its history can be found in this post: Losing its fizz: the third milestone without the former National Aerated Water plant.

The notice on page C16 of today’s Straits Times and the lot as identified on OneMap.

The former National Aerated Water plant by the Kallang River.


*A press release issued by the URA indicates that the conservation will be of the two-storey L-shaped main building facing Serangoon Road. Part of the conserved building (I suppose the corner where the road access now is) will however have to be demolished and reconstructed to allow vehicular access to the rear of the site.

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The corner of the building that would have to be reconstructed.


More photos previously taken of the plant

(see also: https://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/losing-its-fizz-the-third-milestone-without-the-former-national-aerated-water-plant/):


Update 15 Dec 2017, 11.30 am

URA Press Release (link):
Former National Aerated Water Factory building to be gazetted for conservation

Published Date: 15 Dec 2017

The main building of the former National Aerated Water Factory at 1177 Serangoon Road will be gazetted for conservation by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

Recognising the building’s heritage value, its role as a landmark in the area and the social memories it holds for the community, the building owner, Selangor Dredging Berhad (SDB) is supportive of the conservation efforts and is working closely with URA to keep the building as part of our national history.

Ms Teh Lip Kim, Managing Director of SDB said, “As the building owner and a responsible community stakeholder, Selangor Dredging Berhad is pleased to support the conservation effort on the former National Aerated Water Factory, a well-known heritage landmark in the Serangoon area. We are glad to partner URA on this conservation journey to retain the building and integrate it as part of the new development. The building will be transformed into a unique and lively commercial area located next to a park connector, adjacent to the Kallang River. We are keen to contribute to sustainable projects where we can, and will put in our best effort to make these projects distinctive.”

Contributing to the heritage of Kallang River

Completed in 1954, this Art Deco Style building is a well-known local landmark along Serangoon Road. It was the bottling factory that produced popular soft drinks such as Sinalco, Kickapoo Joy Juice and Royal Crown Cola.  It is also one of the last few remaining structures along the stretch of Kallang River that reflect the area’s rich industrial past, and contribute to the heritage of the Kallang River.

Mr Lim Eng Hwee, Chief Executive Officer of URA said, “This building is not only historically significant as a familiar landmark along the Kallang River, it also holds fond memories for Singaporeans for the popular soft drinks it produced from 1950s to 1990s. We are heartened that Selangor Dredging Berhad sees the significance of the building and supports its conservation. The conservation of this heritage-rich building would not have been possible without the support from the owner and recognition of the building’s significance from the community.”

Conserved features of the building

The two-storey L-shaped main building facing Serangoon Road will be conserved. This includes the signage tower, a representative feature that many will be familiar with.  Other significant features are the balcony with fair faced brick parapets, the Art Deco timber transom panels and the concrete sun shading ledge that spirals out of a circular window.

Retaining heritage while meeting Singapore’s development needs in land-scarce Singapore requires a delicate balance. The conserved building will be integrated into a new residential development, allowing the story of the building to be brought to life through adaptive re-use. The conserved building will be kept fenceless along the main road and the river, giving the public a chance to get up close and personal with this heritage gem from Singapore’s past.

To facilitate adaptive re-use of the conserved building and allow vehicular access to the rear of the site, reconstruction of a corner of the building and the internal floors will be required. URA will work closely with the building owner to guide the reconstruction when the residential development is completed.

As part of its efforts to celebrate Singapore’s built heritage, URA works with owners of developments, stakeholders and the larger community to tell stories of days gone by involving our built heritage, such as for this National Aerated Water Factory building. Members of the public who wish to be our partners in promoting the heritage of this building or share their memories of this building can write to us at URA_Cons_Portal@ura.gov.sg.






Dakota at the crossroads

12 12 2017

It is good to hear that some of Old Kallang Airport Estate, Dakota Crescent as it is now commonly referred to, is being retained. The estate is the last of those built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in the 1950s in which the first attempts were made to introduce high-rise public housing. The preservation of a section of six blocks, four of which are arranged around a courtyard that with its playground, is also being retained, follows on calls made for the estate’s preservation in part or in whole by Save Dakota Crescent group and members of the public to which the Member of Parliament for the area Mr Lim Biow Chuan has lent his voice.

Dakota at the crossroads.

Built at the end of the 1950s, a chunk of the original estate has already been lost to redevelopment. What remains features four block typologies arranged mainly around two spacious courtyards with a Khor Ean Ghee designed playground that was introduced in the 1970s. The blocks were designed to contain a mix of units intended for residential, commercial and artisanal use – a feature of the SIT estates of the era.

Window from the past out to one that is more recent – Singapore’s last dove (playground).

It would have been nice to see a more complete estate being kept as an example of the pre-HDB efforts at public housing. Developmental pressures have however meant that only the central cluster, in which all four block typologies are represented, could be kept with the remaining site given to public housing. The blocks being retained will be repurposed for uses such as student housing or  for suitable social and community uses and will be integrated with the future public housing development.

Three-storey and seven-storey blocks.


More:


More Photographs:

A vacant unit.

The kitchen.

An empty hall.

Some of the units feature built-in storage.

A neighbourhood cat.

The kitchen of an upper floor unit.

The upper floor verandah of the two-storey block.

Another vacant unit.

A final dance with the Dove.

The dove from above.

The provision shop, before it became a hipster cafe.

The last song bird.

Ventilation openings.





Laksa’s origins will surprise you

28 11 2017

I’ve always enjoyed a bowl of laksa. The dish, which has an amazing range of equally delectable localised variations, brings great comfort and joy to many in Malaysia, parts of Indonesia and Singapore. There is perhaps no other dish that can so strongly be identified with a locality. In its very basic form, laksa is a vermicelli like noodle in a broth.  While it can be said that it is in the countless variations of this broth, tempered by the influences of over a century, that has provided the various forms of the dish with its local flavour; its origins as a dish, how it morphed into what we see of it today, and even its rather strange sounding name, is a source of great puzzlement.

Singapore Laksa

One suggestion of how laksa got its name that has gained popularity is that it was derived from a similar sounding Sanskrit word for a hundred thousand. This, it is said, is an allusion perhaps to the multitude of ingredients that go into making the various forms of its broth the celebration of flavours that they are. I am however inclined to take the side of the suggestion that the wonderful encyclopedia of the world’s culinary delights, the Oxford Companion to Food, offers. That has the word laksa being Persian in origin. Lakhsha meaning “slippery” in old Persian, was apparently also used to describe noodles, which the book also credits the Persians with the invention of.

Sarawak Laksa

That latter suggestion will no doubt spark endless debate. There seems however to be evidence to support the assertion such as in the many noodle type dishes that are found spread across the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe – all with names that all sound very much like lakhsha. Examples of this are the Russian lapsha, the Uyghur laghman, the Jewish lokshen, the Afghan lakhchak, the Lithunian Lakštiniai, and the Ukrainian lokshina. The Italian sheet pasta dish, Lasagne, also sounds uncannily similar to old Persian for noodles.

Lokshen (photo: Danny Nicholson on Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0).

As with the variants of the Near East, Lakhsha seems to have become a similiar sounding laksa in this part of the world. Early Malay-English dictionaries, such as one published by R. J. Wilkinson in 1901, have laksa both as the word for ten thousand, as well as for a “vermicelli” – ascribing the latter’s origins to the same Persian word.  The use of the word as such is seen in several of the news articles of the day. One report, in the Malayan Saturday Post of 29 December 1928, shows how “Chinese Laksa” was then made, through a series of four photographs. As a word to describe a type of noodles, laksa is in fact very much still in use in places such as the Riau Archipelago. There, “lakse” or “laksa”, is taken as a noodle of a similar appearance to the laksa we find here made from the staple of the islands, sago.

R. J. Wilkinson’s “A Malay-English Dictionary” describes the word “laksa” both as a word for ten-thousand as well as for a kind of vermicelli.

Uyghur laghman noodles (Nate Gray on Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

There also are early descriptions of how that laksa may have been prepared in the press. One, found in a 1912 report on hawker fare in The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, describes what seems to be quite a different dish from the one we are now familiar with:

A familiar dish with the Chinese coolie and Straits school-boy is “laksa”. The vendor of this compound, vermicelli, “rats’ ears” (mush-rooms), and other things in a kind of soup, shouts out every now and then “Laksa a wun!” and many who taste it declare that it is A1.

Lakse or laksa, describes these noodles made from sago in Pulau Singkep in the Lingga group of islands in the Riau Archipelago.

One of the many ways in which laksa is served on Pulau Singkep is with a fish broth and sambal.

poem, penned in 1931 by a prominent personality Mr. Seow Poh Leng – a Municipal Commissioner and a champion of hawkers’ rights – provides an idea of how the dish had by the 1930s, started to evolve. An attempt to draw attention to the difficulties street hawkers faced, the verse also describes how a dough of ground rice became “lumps of tiny snow-white coils” when boiled and which was then “served with tasty gravy and a pinch of fragrant spice”. Published in the Malayan Saturday Post of 16 May 1931, the piece was the writer’s response to the death of a laksa vendor. The vendor had taken his own life after several run ins with the Municipal authorities that deprived him of his livelihood.

Laska Siam, served at another popular Penang laksa stall, this one at Balik Pulau.

By the 1950s, laksa as a dish, seemed to have already taken on several distinct styles. A 1951 article in The Singapore Free Press, “Let’s talk about food”, mentions two types of “Siamese” laksa: one sweet and one hot and sour, along with a “Nonya” laksa. The two variants of “Siamese” laksa are again mentioned in a 1953 Singapore Free Press article on food in Penang. The sour type “Siamese” laksa identified is perhaps the predecessor to the Penang or asam (or assam) laksa dish of today as another 1951 report, this time in The Straits Times on Penang, seems to confirm. The article draws attention to one of Penang’s attractions, Ayer Itam (now spelled Air Itam), to which the young and old would walk six miles or brave a ride on a crowded bus to. Ayer Itam, is identified as “the village with the famous Kek Lok Si”, and (a seemingly already popular) “Siamese” laksa (Air Itam is a location many in Penang flock to today for asam laksa).

A bowl of Penang or Asam Laksa.

Another version of Asam Laksa from Madras Lane in Kuala Lumpur.

What we can perhaps surmise from all of this information is that despite its shared name, laksa in its many variations are really different dishes. Built on an otherwise tasteless base of rice or sago vermicelli or a noodle substitute, how its various forms of laksa have been flavoured to excite the palate, says much about the invention and the creativity of the region’s pioneering food vendors.

Variation on a theme, Laksa Goreng (Fried Laksa), Peranakan style.

Lakse Goreng topped with crushed ikan bilis from Pulau Singkep.


A Hawker’s Lament
by Seow Poh Leng
(Malayan Saturday Post, 16 May 1931, Page 18)
We came from far Cathay, the land of old renown,
A livelihood to seek in this far-famed town.
My parents they are old but still must toil each day
My father selling bean-curds, my mother selling “kway”.
We left our home and kin to this far distant shore;
And promised to return to see them all once more,
To share with them and theirs what little we have made
By dint of patient toil, by means of honest trade.
By four o’clock each morning when you are all abed
The ‘laksa’ I’m preparing that people may be fed
I grind some rice to powder and knead it to a dough
Then press it through a sieve to a boiling pot below.
This stringy mass of flour which hardens as it boils
Is made up into lumps of tiny snow-white coils;
Then served with tasty gravy and a pinch of fragrant spice
My ‘laksa’ finds more favour than the ordinary rice.
In woven bamboo basket made up in several tiers
Are placed my tooth-some wares and the necessary gears.
In a gourd-shaped earthen vessel the ‘laksa’ simmers low,
All day aboiling gently on charcoal burning slow.
From street to street I wander, my pace a steady trot,
And bear my loaded basket as well as the steaming pot.
The noon day trade I seek and may with luck—oh rare !
Avoid the stern police who ask a certain share.
These guardians of the law with lynx eyes watch for me,
And more than do their duty unless I pay a ” fee.”
They see that I comply with what the by-laws state;
That is, whatever happens, I must itinerate.
Sometimes from sheer fatigue I pause some breath to take,
To dry my streaming sweat, to ease the limbs that ache;
And then the “Mata-mata” finds me resting there,
And forthwith to the Court I must with him repair.
And once – alas the thought! – in prison cell I lay.
The fine imposed on me was more than I could pay.
What use is there for me this arduous life to lead?
My humble cries for mercy receive but scanty heed.
By ceaseless toil I tried an honest life to lead.
If I the “tips” forget, the traffic I impede.
And for such bogus crime there is no other way –
Before the Court I’m brought and straightway made to pay.
I’ve plied my trade from childhood, the profits have been small,
Yet I would quit right gladly for any work at all,
Seek work at any distance – if only work there be
Without the constant harass and the unofficial fee.
A rickshaw puller – aye the “totee’s” job I’ll do.
I’ll go to Malacca, I’ll go to Trengganu.
Alack! my quest is vain, my faintest hope is gone;
My limbs they are weary, my heart with sorrow torn.
Good-bye the M.H.O., my last farewell to thee!
Good-bye to all M.C.’s, good-bye the I.G.P.!
You wish me back to China, you want me off the street;
Posterity shall know I die your wish to meet!
Not satisfied with fines the Magistrates impose
The dreary prison cell must add to hawkers’ woes.
My goods and property you wish to confiscate?
But here you will not win—the law will come too late!
Good-bye my parents dear, good-bye my kith and kin!
Think not the step I take a very grievous sin.
Right well I am aware of honour due to you;
And thank you from my heart for lessons wise and true.
To comfort your old age my level best I’ve tried.
My efforts seem in vain, the cruel fates decide.
I cannot stoop to crime and slur the family name,
So drink this portion dark, preferring death to shame.

A Malay laksa vendor in Penang, c. 1930s (http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline | Mrs J A Bennett Collection/National Archives of Singapore).


 





The haunted island in Northwest Singapore and its laird

17 11 2017

Pulau Sarimbun, a little known island tucked away in the northwest corner of the Johor or Tebrau Strait, has quite an interesting chapter in its history. Now forlorn and isolated due to the area’s heightened security, it was once a picnic spot and later a place of retirement for a Boer War veteran turned planter, tin miner and waterworks engineer, Mr W A Bates Goodall.

1932 Malaya, Jahore Straits, Pulau Serimban near Lim Chu Kang

Mr Goodall’s bungalow on Pulau Sarimbun in 1932 (photo courtesy of Mr Stephen Downes-Martin).

Mr Goodall arrived at our shores as part of his deployment when he was in the service with the Manchester Regiment in the early 1900s but left soon after as “soldiering in the east did not appeal to me”.  He visited the island regularly for picnics from 1923 to 1932 and as the “Robinson Crusoe life” appealed to him, decided to live in a bungalow perched on a cliff on the island upon his retirement after 13 years in the waterworks department in 1932. Mr Goodall was sometimes also referred to as the Laird of Sarimbun Island and “ruled” over four “subjects”: a Cambridge educated Chinese clerk, a Malay boatman and two Chinese servants and rented the island for some $35 annually. Mr Goodall lived on the island until his passing in October 1941 – just a few months before the Japanese invaded.

Pulau Sarimbun as seen on a 1938 map.

Interestingly, Mr Goodall wasn’t the island’s first inhabitant. There was apparently a mysterious Russian who lived in a hut on the island, who paid  a rent of “three peppercorns” annually at the end of the 1800s. Sarimbun Island was described in a The Straits Times 15 March 1936 article as “sunny, shady and delightful a spot as can be imagined” and commanding a view “embracing the Jalan Scudai waterfront of Johore, and the Pulai, and Plentong Hills”. The same articles also explains that its name means “shady island” in Malay*, which the people of the strait thought was haunted. A rare indigenous fossil fern thought to have been extinct in Singapore, the Dipteris, was found on the island in 2003.


Mr Max Bevilacqua Bell and the attempt to cross breed Friesian cows with Indian cows in Lim Chu Kang 

It is hard to imagine that Singapore had an agricultural past. The northwest corner, while we know was given to rubber (see also: A Lost World in Lim Chu Kang), was apparently also where cattle was reared.

The very rare photograph of Pulau Sarimbun was sent to me by Mr Stephen Downes-Martin in October 2015. Mr Downes-Martin, who lived in Singapore as a child in 1959, 1960, and then again in 1970, was the stepson of Mr Max Bevilacqua Bell,  a businessman whose association with Singapore began from the early 1920s and lasted until the 1970s. Among Mr Bell’s ventures in Singapore was in cattle rearing. Mr Bell had a farm in Lim Chu Kang on which he attempted to cross breed Friesian cows with Indian cows but the war put a halt to that venture. A photograph of Mr Bell’s house in Lim Chu Kang also came in the same email.

Mr Bell’s farm in Lim Chu Kang in the 1930s (photo courtesy of Mr Stephen Downes-Martin).


* Sarimbun probably follows the naming convention adopted for Singapore’s islands by the Orang Laut, which have a prefix sa- or se-. Rimbun in Malay translates to “lush” from a perspective of vegetation – which well describes the island.

 








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