On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Hui Hui And Other People

One day in our afternoon religious class, my friend L surprised me by saying that he'd been enjoying some Chinese New Year cake that his family had received from mainland China. L was a pretty ordinary chap, fair of skin and voluble in his Trengganuspeak. In our daily dalliance, he was very much like one of us, but it was when he started to talk of his yearly bite of his exotic cake that I realised that he was one of us and more. He was from the al-Yunani clan, a prominent Chinese Muslim family in Kuala Trengganu.

The al-Yunani family of Trengganu were not strictly from the Yunnan, but were the Hui-Hui people from the Guangdong province in China. Members of L's family who were early settlers in Kuala Trengganu adpted the family name al-Yunani (of the Yunnan) to signal to the local Malays and to the Chinese community that they were Muslim people, though they were not themselves from there.

The Hui Huis were generally Han Chinese, but in later classification of the Muslim community in China, the name was used to embrace other Muslim ethnic groups too, including the Turkic Muslims and even the former Nestorian Christians who converted to Islam many, many years ago. But the al-Yunani Hui Huis of Kuala Trengganu were Guangdong people who shared the same ethnicity as their non-Muslim cousins in Kampung China.

The journey of L's al-Yunani family to Trengganu started in 1903 when Haji Ali bin idris (later to be known as Pak Ali Yunan), his wife Hajjah Halimah, and his mother-in-law left Palembang where they'd been settled, for Singapore.There they found another person, whose name was to become famous in Kuala Trengganu, Abdullah bin Sulaiman, or Pak Lah Yunan, and another man from Guangdong named Musa (Pak Musa). From there they looked for another place to go to, and finally decided on Trengganu, a state once visited by Cheng Ho (Zheng He). And so, joined by Pak Lah's wife Khadijah (Pak Musa' niece who joined them from Guangdong) and another man, Daud, they settled in Kuala Trengganu.

Pak Musa became an itinerant medicine peddler, Pak Daud became a general trader in Jalan Kedai Payang, while Pak Lah went to prospect for gold in Hulu Trengganu. While he was away, his wife and daughter opened a laundry shop in Kuala Trengganu, called Kedai Abdullah al-Yunani. When Pak Lah came back from the sticks, having failed to find much gold in the Hulu, he began to spend his days in the laundry shop, adding other items to its inventory, religious books on the shelves, and rice bags on the shop floor. Soon, in an act of trimming down, he stopped taking in dirty linen, and stopped the trade in rice entirely. He concentrated on the book-trade, and for a long time Abdullah al-Yunani became the most famous bookshop in Jalan Kedai Payang, in Kuala Trengganu.

In the records of the al-Yunani family of Trengganu, they have 7 pioneers who came down to Trengganu from China, the first five under the reign of Sultan Zainal Abidin III (1881 -1918)— Musa Li, Ali Zhang bin Idris, Abdullah Dong bin Sulaiman, Daud Dong and Hassan Liu bin Salleh. Then two more under the reign of Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah (1921- 1942) — Muhammad Yusuf Xiao bin salleh, and Haji Ibrahim Fu bin Muhammad.

Now, although almost completely absorbed into the Malay community of Trengganu, the al-Yunanis still look back to their roots in China if only to remind themselves how far they've travelled to be there.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Trengganu On The Mind

Pak Lah Tut came from Seberang Takir, across the river, every morning; wielding a stout staff and a heavy burden. And all he did when he arrived was to walk his few paces, then he'd freeze his footsteps in between, before twirling his alarming twirl while mouthing some wild incantations. And so he did every minute of his time, until the shutters were closed, and the shoppers were gone. He was a regular man of the marketplace, distinguishable from the milling crowd by his white beard and tatty headband, and a look that told little of him or what he was on, except that somewhere along the line, perhaps when he was very young, he'd veered off the centre of his mind.

There was a man called Haji Chik, who wrapped himself in a batik sarong above the one that he was wearing. He was scribe from an unhinged place that was somewhere removed from the hubub of our town. He scarwled and scrawled in his fine Jawi hand, and then he'd stick his daily despatches to telegraph poles or the walls of his house near a Surau a short distance from where he was found. It was a sad story I heard of Haji Chik, that into wealth he was born. And then everything went, and with that, I'm afraid, his fragile mind.

There was Encik Omar, who daubed walls with his pronunciations that he dished out from a bucket of whitewash and his sign-painting brush, of where? and what? and why? and when? He was, I heard, a court interpreter when he was an altogether man, but in the manner of things, a part of his thinking bits snapped, and he was taken from his daily grind. And so he went, throughout most of my childhood, to the walls of Kuala Trengganu, where he expressed the agony that was besetting his mind. For a while he lived in a grand, empty house that looked down on Jalan Tanjong, an old family home that had seen happier times but was now left abandoned. He lived in there with his lady companion who was known to us as Cik Puan, and together they inhabited the crumbling place, and a world that was indicated by most with a shake of the head, that translated into the mileage of how far it was behind the back of beyond. That said, Encik Omar, a Chinese man by birth, was an amiable person who nodded his head whenever you hailed him in the street, but there was little glimmer in his eyes, and his mind was obesssed by many, many things, and then some. He'd emerge from inside the cavernous house to paint a few words of daily despatches from the inner world of his troubled mind. But try as I did in these last days to recall anything from all that Encik Omar ever wrote, I could remember nothing at all.

But midawy between then and now I drifted briefly into journalism, and learnt as Encik Omar already knew, of the whos, and whys and hows and when. And some say it marked the beginning of the day when I too — like Encik Omar — was beginning to be gone.

And while Encik Omar was busily scripting those messages on the murals of his home, and walking the streets with his bucket of white paint and a brush, his consort Cik Puan was quietly roaming the streets of Kuala Trengganu, with some other burdens in her head. Sometimes I saw them meet in the corner of a street like two ships about to keel in the night. Sometimes I even saw Cik Puan nag him some, before Encik Omar continued with his burdensome words on to a wall, or a plank, or a fence. Who? What? Why? When?

Those were dark days for troubled men, and women too, I dare say, though we didn't see them often. There was a fenced off part of the General Hospital in Kuala Trengganu where they had a concrete out-house with bars like a prison. There they kept people of disturbed minds who'd shown some tendencies towards violence. On good days they were let out to wander in the little space they had that was surrounded by the tall fence of thick, woven metal strands. I walked past it one day and saw a very disturbing sight of people looking out to the world, while the world that passed by leered at them. I saw one man I knew who ran a shop in normal times near the Pasar Payang, and I felt a great deal of pain for him as he stood in there looking troubled and forlorn. I saw another man too who, one afternoon, while the Imam at the Masjid 'Abidin was giving one of his afternoon talks, produced a stack of ten ringgit notes, and tore them all to shreds there and then.

In the Masjid itself were a few man who, while not stark raving, as they say, were certainly very strange. These were days when eccentricities were tolerated by people in power who gave them no mind, and they lived and propped themselves in dark corners of the mosque that had become their permanent home. One was an Indian man we knew as Dol, who'd sit leaning against the wall in the back of the mosque, near its side entrance. He'd sit there, throwing smiles at odd moments, and said nothing to anyone. Five times a day he'd join in in prayers, then he'd retreat to his little mat in the background. I heard that he was once in the British army in Singapura, then left them for a life of quiet seclusion.

There was another called Encik Yusuf, who must've been afflicted early in life by a fastidiousness about personal hygiene. Encik Yusuf was a slim man who lived with his family, close to us, who spent his between-prayer hours scouring the beaches of Tanjong. He'd take home sitcks and bits of driftwood which he held well away from his person, then he'd bathe and change to his mosque-going clothes and join the daily crowd at prayer times. In his mind he must've had a strict notion of cleanliness and cross-infection, compelling him not to touch anyone, or stand too close to them. At prayer times, when the people were each standing close to the other person, he'd place himslef so that he'd be well out of touch with anyone. Even when the time came for them to sit down he'd be very careful to fold his legs so that the sole of his feet wouldn't brush against his sarong.

Needless to say, he shook no hands, giving instead a quiet nod of suspicion.

One day, when he was in his beachcomber gear of tatty sarong and worn out T-shirt, and with a coil of wrap around his head, I saw him talking to my elder brother across our fence. He turned out to be knowledgable on many things. When I got near them I heard him asking about so and so, this person and that in our family who were in other places or states or had been long gone (to the other side, I hasten to say, not to the backs of their minds). As I walked past, giving him a wide berth, he gave me a polite nod, and I thought no more of that.

The evening after that, in the Masjid 'Abidin, he walked to me after prayers, and, to my surprise, shook my hand.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

A Short History of Tun Long

For a long time we had a short, bony man with black-rimmed spectacles, come to our house for our dirty linen. I remember him for being long in the tooth (though he couldn't have been more than fifty five then) and his distinctly oldy-worldy ways that came with a ready smile. His work-house was in Kuala Trengganu, but his speech belonged twenty-five miles away, in Kuala Brang, the ancient capital. His name, Tun Long, was one that stood out even in a tangle of laundry, because with it came an old title.

The history of the rulers of Trengganu is one that I've been looking at for some while through my less than perfect pair of binoculars. As I twirl the focusing ring left and right, the vision alternates between definition and blurry moments, but I keep reminding myself that I'm looking at things far away, and long ago. I have long held to the belief that the Datuk Bendahara Padang Saujana, Tun Habib Abdul Majid, had arrived in Kuala Trengganu in the 18th century and clambered up the Bukit Putri. But I have yet to come across a concrete source to show that this was true. On the contrary, most records I turn to seem to state that the old Bendahara never actually went there, although he intervened directly in its affairs from Johor.

As we've seen, in 1725 his son Zainal Abidin I became the founder of the present lineage in Trengganu, taking a circuitous route through Patani to Kuala Brang (Tanjung Baru), Langgar, Pulau Manis, and Cabang Tiga, before finally settling in Bukit Nangka (Bukit Keledang), a place now known as Kota Lama (the Old Fort).

Before Zainal Abidin came down from Patani to be installed Sultan, Tun Habib was already deciding the fate of the state by remote control. He sent three men out there — Paduka Laksamana, Paduka Seri Rama, and Paduka Raja. But things didn't work out too well with them, feuding followed, and Paduka Seri Rama became the sole ruler. The Bendahara Tun Habib then sent another man, Bendahara Hassan, to hold the fort in Trengganu, then, after him, came four more to continue this line of control — Tun Zain Indera, and his three sons, Tun Yuan, Tun Sulaiman (aka Tok Raja Kilat), and Tun Ismail. The centre of power was then in Kuala Brang, although, at the time of Zainal Abidin's arrival, the Tuhfat al-Nafis (written by the Bugis Raja Ali Haji) reported that Tok Raja Kilat (Tun Sulaiman) was in control at the mouth of the Trengganu river.

Our man Tun Long could have been a descendant of any one of these Tuns of the 16th century, or, I shudder to think, from even earlier, from the blood of the Tun Telanai people who once ruled Trengganu.

There are names still in Trengganu that show history coursing through the veins of its people. Megat Panji Alam
The three Padukas were sent out by the Tun Habib to wrest power from the Megats, who were not really Sultans as we now know, but chieftians who had local control. The Megats had an anomalous pedigree: some say they were born of royal fathers and commoner mothers, the morganatic marriages of their day. Some say they were commoners with remarkable powers. There are Megats still in Trengganu who perhaps still look at the moon and wonder if it had not, once in the remote past, shone on their most famous ancestor, Megat Panji Alam, as he and his entourage of a few thousand men, marched towards Pahang to take back Tun Teja, the woman he was affianced to, from the men of Melaka. The Megat was killed there, unfortunately, stabbed in the back, as we've been telling young Trengganuers then and now.

The Megats were not royals as we understand them now, so who were they? Panji Alam's father was the local strongman in Trengganu at the turn of the 16th century, and there may be some hints of their provenance when we learn that Megat Panji Alam learned his fighting skills in Perak, under another famous man, Megat Terawis. Panji Alam, it was said, was especially skilled in the art of the lembing (the spear). (The depiction of Megat Panji Alam you see above is from the imagination of my talented young friend Adzakael.)

Before that — in the 15th century — Trengganu was said to have been ruled by a man called the Telanai. We are uncertain if the Telanai was his name or his tilte, but most probably the latter. The Telanai was a very old title, some say dating back to well before the 8th century, to the early rulers of Palembang. But the Trengganu Telanai could have come from Bentan, where the Telanais married into the family of the most famous Bendahara of Melaka, Tun Perak.

The Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals) shed some interesting light on the Telanai and gave him a fix in history. The poor man was murdered by one Seri Akar Raja, sent to Trengganu by the then ruler of Pahang Muhammad Shah as punishment for by-passing him and going to Melaka to seek protection from Sultan Ala'uddin Riayat Shah. Ala'uddin, the fourth Sultan of Melaka, was another unfortunate soul who departed this earth prematurely — probably poisoned — in Pagoh (on the Muar river), in 1488, after only a year on the throne. Interestingly, all the Telanai's children who fled to Melaka when their father died (and Trengganu ruled by Seri Akar Raja) were Megats — Megat Sulaiman, Megat Hamzah, Megat Umar.

The past beyond that is hazier still, though some may have been etched in stone. The Batu Bersurat (Inscribed Stone) had names on it, of Raja Mandalika, and Seri Paduka Tuan, who, I expect, were one and the same person, as Mandalika (i.e. district) was not a name but a job description, so perhaps he was Lord of the Manor. And the Stone had a date on it in the Muslim year, 702, and this was AD 1303.

Drawing of Megat Panji Alam of Trengganu, as imagined by Adzakael. With thanks.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Growing Up In Trengganu #312,728

Ayah Wang was slight and wheezy, a fragile, stooped man in his white T-shirt made in China by the Pagoda people, and he wore his batik sarong as a matter of faith. On normal days he'd make kerepok, on other days he was man of brass.

I saw him often, huffing and puffing, in the compound of his house. Then, when his asthma subsided, he'd walk the paces to his work house. It was a shed, smaller than a badminton court, of four stout trunks supporting a roof of thatch; on one end of the hut, behind a screen, was a pole that stood in a wooden tube sunk into the ground, that curved again a few feet below to run parallel with the top soil. It ended in an opening at the base of a fiery furnace. Just outside this shed, was another pole leant on a fulcrum, before it jutted out into the air. It had enough give to snap back like a lash when pulled downwards. This was the stick that powered the pole that had rags and old jute bags wrapped around its below ground end, as it stood in the wooden cylinder. As the pole was pushed down — by Ayah Wang's son — it whooshed air to the furnace, breathing life into the embers. Then it was pulled out again by the reclining stick to which it was attached, then pushed down again by the son, with a whoosh, then it sprang back again, only to be whooshed down again, then up then down, and so it went until the embers were glowing hot, and Ayah Wang, scratching his head, was set to go.

This was the morning of the mengembus, from hembus a word that means, evocatively, to blow with a whoosh — the rod pushing down the cylinder pushing the rush of air that kept the coals aglow. It was another activity in our little corner, past the surau and the community well, through the weather-beaten grey timber that held the gap in Ayah Wang's fencing of woven bamboo, that stood twice the height of a little child.

This was hot work that clung the shirts to the body in a glue of sweat, but when the temperature reached that height, Ayah Wang would pull off his white top and issued directions dressed only in his batik sarong. He'd have slung on his shoulder, by then, a long strip of East Coast regulatory wear, the batik lepas, of hand-painted local cloth that made a head gear, or body wrap on a rainy day, or simply just a handy bit of material. They were mostly orangey with patterns of local flowers, or off yellow, but like many things of the recent past, you don't see them hanging around much any more.

The mengembus was preparatory to the menuang which would have kept Ayah Wang busy the whole of the month before. He'd have started with the menarik, which was another activity born of fire. Wooden moulds, of trays, pans and pots, were dipped into a brass pot placed over a wood fire, a witch's cauldron of bubbling wax that stuck tenaciously to the wooden moulds, taking their shapes and their contours. Then Ayah Wang set them all aside, to dry them out for another day.

Then when he wasn't too pressured by his kerepok work, and his asthma safely at bay, he'd trim the coated wax on his moulds one by one on a foot-pedalled spindle. As it spun, he'd expertly move his trimming blade into the wax, to shave out thin slivers of excess material. This he'd do with increasing precision, until a heap of wax shavings lay around his feet, and in his hand, the unmistakable, hard-edged shape of a tray, or a candle-stick, or a dish that'd gleam out at someone's nuptials.

Then Ayah Wang would retire for an early night, to rest his hands for the following day when he'd be dipping them in clay. The exposed surface of the wax, say of a tray, he'd coat in clay; and when that was done, he'd carefully peel it off the wooden mould, to coat the other, unexposed side. Then he'd shape a little spout that'd make a little funnel to the wax, before putting it aside to dry for maybe a week or two.

Now this little funnel was the basis of the menuang that gave shape to Ayah Wang's craftwork in metal. With the coals in glow, and his son diligently pumping the fire, Ayah Wang would produce his little crucibles; and he'd fill them up with scraps of brass, and bullet casings that came by the sackful from scrap dealers. He'd place the curcibles gently with a caliper into the furnace, until the scraps melted and glowed like liquid fire.

Menuang is the carrying out of the word tuang, that is, to pour. It gave the name to this work, of pouring out red-hot metal into those clay spout to cast them into pre-moulded shapes. This was dangerous work for steady hands, with the batik lepas coiled tightly around the head to absorb rivulets of sweat. And when the glowing stream of brass poured out of Ayah Wang's crucible into the spout, it rolled down and hit the first bit of wax and consumed it instantly. So Ayah Wang kept his steady hand and muttered another Bismillah till the fiery contents all went down the spout and replaced the waxen shape completely within its casing of clay. This was wax-replacement much like in batik art, but on a far more dangerous scale.
The Genta Bell of Trengganu. Made by the brassworkers of Tanjong.
The Genta Bell of Kuala Trengganu.

And what Ayah Wang got for all that work was the coarse beginning of his brassware, a tray, a dish, or a spitoon maybe. And there followed again from there, days of work on the foot-worked spindle, to trim the thing into shape, to polish the surface to a glitter.

Ayah Wang's art had a long history, and I often wonder if it's still done now. It was from this heart of our community that was born the genta, the great bell that clanged from atop Bukit Putri overlooking the harbour, to mark the beginning of the month of Ramadhan, or the festival of 'Eid or Hari Raya. In olden days, the brass bell clanged too when an amok was on the rampage, and people would all rush back indoors.

The present genta on Bukit Putri was made by these people, but not, I think, Ayah Wang's forefathers. It was not cast in Tanjong, the brass-crafting base of Kuala Trengganu, but in the grounds of the Istana Maziah, at the foot of the hill. And contrary to what I'd heard recently, no virgins were involved in it at all.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The East Was Red

Living as we did, by the shore, we were sometimes submerged by the rising tides. We'd wake up of a morning to see tell-tale tidal marks on our fence, on the shop houses, and the rats lying dead, drowned perhaps in their slumber. There were rats so big under those shophouses that even cats were loath to walk unaccompanied in the night. But still, we were a joyful community, maulids in the surau by our South Indian shopkeepers, community bathing at the well with the huge, hefty timba tembaga, levered on a tall fulcrum and counterweighted by a huge piece of lumber. And there were folk going hither and thither in the morning pasar, and goods coming ashore from the interior.

There were three pasars in Kuala Trengganu according to one Capt Labe who came ashore in 1769. There was one for Malays, one for the Siamese people, and one for the Chinese community. And the one for the Chinese community was the biggest of all. When Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munshi visited Trengganu in 1836, he visited the Pasar Kampung Laut which was near us, and which he disapproved of for its roaming cows. He probably preferred the Kandang Kerbau of his native Singapura.
Flood in Kedai Payang, 1970s
Flood in Kedai Payang, 1970s

But cows notwithstanding, our community was 'washed' many times a year by the air pasang, the tidal water, not the air bah of the floods from an oveflowing river and unending rainfall. We had rainfall aplenty in Kuala Trengganu, but the muddy air ulu — water from upstream — just swelled the mouth of the river and flowed out to sea. Further up, in Kedai Payang, the water could've stayed awhile and submerged the thoroughfares, but that's something that I remember only vaguely, perhaps it was from an old photo that I saw.

There was a big flood though in Kuala Trengganu in 1926, known as the bah merah, and the town was submerged for three days, causing havoc in the community, with people running to the hills seeking shelter in Chabang Tiga. The sky remained dark for five days as the water rose, as the populace left home for higher ground:
"Lima hari limanya malam,
cahaya langit bertambah kelam
air makin bertambah dalam
susah sekelian rakyat dan alam."

"For five days and nights past
The sky remained so very overcast
the water came and rose so fast
the people and earth suffering the blast."
The picture painted of these refugees from the flood was one of chaos as they clambered to the top of a small hill, and the ensuing noise like the din in a bazaar ("Bukit kecil bukannya besar/riuh laksana dalam pasar").

This poetic picture was penned by Tengku Dalam Khazaki in his Syair Zainal Abidin Yang Ketiga Trengganu published in Singapura in 1936.

It was like the day of judgment, the poet said, with peals of thunder under a darkened sky, and the people exposed to the elements: the water, the wind, the cold.
People scrambling for high ground during the Red Flood - Bah Merah - in Trengganu
Taking refuge on a hill during the Bah Merah in Trengganu, 1926.
"Di atas bukit orang berumah
ada berpondok setengah berkhemah
ada yang segar ada yang lemah
sejuk tak boleh nasi dimamah"
They were all there in makeshift huts and beneath tents, the able-bodied and the sick, teeth chattering so badly in the cold that they couldn't even chew their food (rice) properly.

As they looked down they'd have seen their belonging drifting in the flood, boxes and trunks that they left behind: Harta benda jangan dikata....tong dan peti...merata-rata.

Rumours had it that a hill, called Gajah Terum, upstream of the river Trengganu, was washed away by the flood. Tens of hills, the poet said — perhaps exercising poetic licence here — were washed away, their red earth bodies torn asunder and washed to the rivermouth in Kuala Trengganu:
"Hingga ke laut di luar Kuala
semuanya merah rupa terhala
beberapa bulan kubilang pula
tiada hilang merah segala..."
And so it was, the Red Flood, and how it came to be.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Man At the Istana

In my blog, Dah Nak Wak Guane, last Thursday, I mentioned that a man from the Parti Negara had moved into the Istana Kolam. In his comment on the blog, fellow blogger Pok Ku says that not only does he know the man's name, but he also had family connections with the Istana. I am thankful for that because from Pok Ku I now know that the Istana Kolam had connections with the Trengganu Gamelan, and the Tengku Ampuan Mariam (who had a girls' school named after her in Paya Bunga). And of course, I've blogged before on that wonderful man Pak Mat Nobat, who not only revived the Trengganu Gamelan ensemble and played in the royal nobat group, but also made delicious beluda and nasi minyak from his home in Tanjung. Thank you Pok Ku, for your bit of memory. Here is what I remember of Gharieb Rauf, the man who stopped at the Istana:

From the Istana into our midst came the man from the Parti Negara. He was loud, with the gruff voice of a would-be party leader, and a cocksure attitude that must have endeared him to many and sent a few away with myriad anxieties. I saw him a few times in the street, dressed in the Malay baju, with a group of followers in tow.

The house he moved into belonged to my father's nodding mate in our little community. He was a good man who smoked a pipe and collected stamps in a serious way. I'd seen him and father nodding at each other in polite acknowledgment, but I never saw them speaking or discussing affairs of the day. Later, when he and his family moved to Dungun, my parents began to visit them, and I knew then that whilst not actually bosom pals, they appreciated and acknowledged the presence of each other, and kept their places in our little community. When they parted, they each must've sensed the gap they'd left behind, and began to look each other up for lost camaraderie.

The man from the Parti Negara — Gharieb Rauf his name was — began setting up his business for the party in the house near us. This was the year after Dato' Onn Jaafar had died, and this newcomer man, I think, was setting out to fill the vacuum left by the former leader. The Parti Negara was a funny band of people who found life in its last throes of being in our neck of wood, when Dato' Onn Jaafar was returned to the Dewan Rakyat in Kuala Lumpur on behalf of us, the folk in the south of Kuala Trengganu.

I remember then as political rallies were big days for us as the Padang Malaya suddenly came to life. I didn't understand party politics but I took note of what transpired, and words and exchanges plucked from those booming voices that drifted over the harbour. We, the children of Kuala Trengganu South, were busily chasing each other under the rude palm tree known as the pinang gatal, with red berry-like fruit that produced a mighty itch if rubbed onto the back of the neck, your friend's, preferably. We had a rollicking, itching time when the politicians were indulging in their banter.

I remember on the eve of election day, Dato' Onn urged them to vote for the Parti Negara (that adopted a sheaf of padi as political emblem). The party was too impoverished to provide transportation for its voters, the Perikatan (the Alliance party – the Barisan Nasional as was) wouldn't give them transport so let us walk, Dato' Onn said, to the polling stations while singing our song, the "Semerah Padi". And the crowd roared and cheered, and the next day they sent him to Parliament with a thumping majority.

When the man who'd stopped at the Istana Kolam finally settled in our midst, he did what he thought he had to do. He played out recordings of Dato Onn's speeches from a mighty speaker placed on the verendah of the house of my father's friend. So daily we heard this well-considered, moving, low key speech of a veteran politician of a man in his sunset years. Dato' Onn, without even having to raise his voice, moved the fishermen and the farmers, the fish vendors and street people into heights of ecstasy. I could hear their roar of approval drifting in the wind to our house from the Saturday afternoon rallies; I can hear the voice of Dato' Onn now when my mind is still and poised towards Kuala Trengganu.

Gahrieb Rauf did not stay for long in our little town. For reasons that I didn't know, he was soon out of the house, and Dato' Onn's voice became even ghostlier still by being silenced by the packers and the removal people who took Gharieb Rauf and his entourage away from us.

The house that was once the hub of our small stamp-collecting group in my part of town became quiet for a long while. Then strangers and drifters moved in then out again from its portals, and soon we too had to do the same once we'd packed our things and sent them out ahead of us in a Jabatan Telekom Lorry to Kuala Lumpur.

I remember Gharieb Rauf because of his younger brother who came to our house most Friday mornings. He was well ahead of me in years, and seemed detached from his politician brother. He looked to me like a drifter and a writer-to-be, and I remember his coming to the house one morning with a sheet of paper torn out from the Berita Harian of the previous day. For some reason he thought that I too, a boy in early days in Secondary school, was, like him, a writer-to-be, so he handed me the piece of paper and urged me to read it then and there. It was a moving short story written by Awang Had Salleh, called Biola dan Air Mata ("Violin and Tears").

I never saw this man again after we'd moved out of Kuala Trengganu, though not long after that I heard that he'd crossed the river to Pulau Duyung and settled down with a lady there.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Dah Nak Wak Guane...

A man from Johor came on behalf of the then Parti Negara to Kuala Trengganu and stayed briefly in the Istana Kolam; a towkay peddling assorted wares, came to Kuala Trengganu and lived in Istana Kolam awhile. The Istana Kolam was an istana with a chequered career.

It was a fascinating place, with carvings and royal regalia, laid out over a wide space near the bend in the road with the mighty tree. The tamarind, if I remember, because, beneath it lived a woman we knew as Mok Nab, and her husband, Mang...well, Mang not-so-clever, for some reason, he was called. I saw the istana almost every day, on my way to the Masjid Abidin, on my journey home from school, in the trishaw (our teksi) pedalled by Pok Mat. It looked mournful, distant, haunted even, but unfussy. It had a wide, low, audience hall, and it sprawled a bit more perhaps, to the back of nowhere. It was not known to us because few dared to venture into the grounds of the istana, and I had no reason anyway, to be there.

The Istana Kolam has probably since died of neglect, which is a shame, because, of the old istanas in Trengganu that were still there for me to see, this one looked quite special. I am reminded now of the day when a friend and I ventured to the innards of Jugra to look for the old istana of Sultan Abdul Samad, a man who, more than others, was synonymous with Selangor. And oh yes, the old istana was there still 3 years ago, in ruins, in the cluster of undergrowth and trees, in the grey light of the ending day. And looking out from behind its walls were two or three wretched vandals, hacking away at the carvings, bringing further ruin to an already ruined old treasure. When approached, they explained sheepishly how valuable those bits and parts were. And they stayed on when we withdrew in disgust and despair.

The Istana Kolam — which I hope is now reclaimed — sat in Kampung Petani, an historic area in the story of how Kuala Trengganu fell into place. Its denizens were many wandering souls, I'm sure, and I wonder, even now, about the people who lived there, and how it fell by the wayside, into desuetude and disrepair.

I've had many feedbacks from what I've written on istanas and Bukit Putri, some pointing out my errors. I'm grateful to Pok Ku for placing the Kota Lama in its proper place, in Bukit Keledang, which is further inland from Bukit Putri. I write mostly from memory and am prone to error, so I appreciate your coming back to illuminate even more (and better) on what I've said. My brother has corrected my mistake about the Trengganu artist Chew Teng Beng, who is now, he says, a Professor. Professor Chew, when in Kuala Trengganu, is of Cherung Lanjut (old spelling, old spell), not Kampung China. But I'm sure there are many artists living (lived) in Kampung China.

There is another istana,— the Istana Timur — that I meant to say in passing but my finger slipped and it came out as Istana Tengah in an earlier blog. My friend 'Abidin has very kindly located for us this latter istana and to him I am grateful; but does anyone know about the Istana Timur? I produce an old photo below:
Istana Timur. Kuala Trengganu.

And Penyu Mutasi (welcome back, sir!) has brought an interesting memory of Bukit Putri (see comments, below), that it was connected with an 'alim (i.e. scholar, pl. ulama) from Hadhramaut. This could have been our Tun Habib whom I mentioned below. As I said, he was a Hadhrami, probably of the al-'Eidrus clan, and he was the founder of the present Trengganu royal House in the 17th century when he arrrived from Johor and made his base on Bukit Putri. His family, I believe, was also connected to the House of Pahang. When he arrived, the Tun Habib bore the title of Bendahara. As usual, I appeal to my readers for more.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

To Each A Quarter

Yesterday, while browsing through Trengganu items stored in the system at the British Library, I was astonished to learn that among records, books and manuscripts kept there are the annual magazines of the Sultan Sulaiman Secondary School. I suddenly remembered the lament of a sickly old codger: If I knew I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself. In my brief days at the SSS School I managed to pen a few thoughts for the School Annual, and to paraphrase the Old Codger, if I knew it was going to end up in such a place I'd have given them greater care. But to spare myself the embarrassment, I shall say no more.

I had a friend then, in my schooldays, who lived in Lorong Jjamil, which started life as Lorong Haji Jamil, but matured on the lips of Trengganuspeakers as Lorong Jjamil, with a shaddah on the 'j' for no reasons that I know. As I've noted before, the shaddah is used in Trengganuspeak to denote a verb, to attach a preposition to a noun (as in Ddungung, for di Dungun), or to make a word more manageable and shorter (e.g. buah ppisang for a fruit that must've started life as buah mempisang, or buah pisang-pisang). But the only reason for the shaddah in Jjamil of the Lorong that I can think of is that it leaps out better from the Trengganu tongue than the inert Jamil, or perhaps it sounds better to our ear. Which reinforces another thing that I have against strict grammar: that language starts as words and rhythm, and grammar follows thereafter. Often, rhythm overrides grammar. Who would be silly enough to say 'five items or fewer' (even if it's grammatical) when 'five items or less' sounds much better?

So back to Jjamil and my friend who lived there. He was a talented artist who composed a picture of a Malay warrior with a lady waving form behind him by merely sticking tiny coloured squares onto a piece of paper. The work was published in the school magazine, and I thought of him yesterday when I saw that his work had been given a safe haven in the Library.

After his display of talent I began to see my friend's part of town as the artists' quarter in the Kuala Trengganu of my day, Lorong Jjamil. In doing so I wasn't just making up a place for him in the wild, for, not far from there, in Kampung China, came another artist by the name of Chew Teng Beng, who, after Sultan Sulaiman Secondary School, became a painter of national calibre. And that in fact, was how early Kuala Trengganu was laid out, into different quarters for different people.

Just a few days ago, in response to my query, my brother charted out the various sectors of Kuala Trengganu according to how it was peopled. There was Kampung Keling near the Pasar Kedai Payang (now Pasar Payang) at the foot of a familiar hill, Bukit Putri. The Kelings were people from Kalinga, in India, so they must've settled there quite early in Trengganu's history. And it made a lot of sense too, as the Kampung was near the harbour, so convenient for them to jump off ship straight to shore, then a piping hot roti canai among their own people. Cheek by jowl with Kampung Keling was the Kampung Datuk, reserved for the family of the Datuk Amar, a prominent player in the Court of Trengganu. Kampung China, further up, explains itself, and the history of the Chinese in Trengganu is something that I'd like to look into later.

The royal quarter in Kuala Trengganu started from the gates of the Majid Abidin down to the shore of the harbour, taking in the Istana Maziah, the Bukit Putri and the Padang Malaya (Padang Maziah). In this quarter were the Kota Lama (the old Fort), just opposite the Masjid, and an area known as Dalam Kota (Inside the Fortress) continued from there. The royals actually moved down there from higher up, on Bukit Putri, as the hill was said to have been cleared for a base by Tun Habib Abdul Majid Bendahara Padang Saujana (d.1679) when he arrived in Kuala Trengganu to father the present dynasty. He was, I think, of the al-'Eidrus clan, of good Hadhrami pedigree.

With the arrival of those who became the royalty of Trengganu came hangers on and other people: the Patani group, for instance, settled in Kampung Patani, through which ran a road once called Jalan Kampung Patani, but now known as Jalan Isaac, after the man who started The Grammar School on a hill about a mile from there. The people of Daik were in Kampung Daik, but of the followers of the Sheikh Abdul Kadir of Patani, some were placed in Pulau Duyung Kechil, and some on the mainland in Kampung Tanjung Pasar where there is still a surau or madrasah that bears his name. I don't know how or when the Sheikh arrived in Trengganu, but there were a few men of his ilk who settled in various quarters: in Chabang Tiga, in Paloh and in Pulau Manis — all great centres of scholarly and pious people.

And then there was Kampung Hangus in the town centre, perhaps someone will tell me what happened there.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Tigers of Trengganu

By some major fluke Stamp depicting Malaysian Tigerwhen I was at primary school in Kuala Trengganu, I was given a book prize for something that I've forgotten now. But the book was "The Tigers of Trengganu", by Col A.E.Locke (and if you're reading this Mr Ravindran Nair, thank you, thank you). Locke was the man they sent out to do the shoot, after many complaints from the orang darat, of tigers roaming wild. The tigers were interfering with their livelihood, so this chap Locke shot down quite a few — the tigers I mean, not the orang darats we all loved and knew.

But still a shame it was as tigers are such magical ceratures with eyes so bright, burning in the forests in the night. I think even Locke had to admit, with grudging respect, that it was a pity to have to shoot them all.

There was a Chinese circus that came to town in those years, that had elephants, snakes, monkeys and tigers sitting pathetically in their little cage. I hate circuses even then and never knew what they were for, until a neighbour married a man for the Circo Brasil (Circus Brazil) that came to town, and then I began to take notice of them, but only in a scatological way. As for the tigers, I actually saw one of them in a cage with a tamer who kept waving a long stick at it that was painted red at the tip. I was told that that was to remind the tiger of how they got their compliant ways, via a red hot poker. I hoped then — as now — that it wasn't true.

There weren't many tigers in Stamp depicting Malaysian tiger.Kuala Trengganu when I was there, though rumours were rife of striped stalkers. The Malays have a healthy respect for tigers, or Tok Belang as they're called, even now. The title Tok is reserved for a revered elder, and generally for someone of deep learning and remarkable skill, such as our renowned anti-colonial folk heroes, Tok Bahaman and Tok Peramu. In the early seventies a myesterious old man surfaced in Pahang who identified himself only as Tok Peramu, and said no more. There was an old exponent of silat then in Kuala Trengganu, by the name of Che Wan Muhammad, who learnt his art in the Pahang of old. When the elderly Che Wan saw the Tok Peramu looking sanguine in those newspaper pictures, he sat up and said: "This is Tok Bahaman, you know!" But the Tok Bahaman is another story.

Back now to the tiger Toks of the jungle.

One bright Trengganu day when I had a little bike, a couple of friends suggested that we went for a ride around town, but unbeknown to me, we ended up on the road to the interior, to Kuala Brang, about 25 miles away in old measure. I remember passing through Wakaf Tapai, and a muddy place called Atas Tol, which my father once translated into Arabic as 'Ala Tul in his punning way, to mean both Atas Tol and the Arabic expression, "go straight ahead", 'ala tuuuuul, as they would say. (Father sometimes took us along strange linguistic by-ways, once he regaled us with tales of the Japanese Momo Taro..) But what I remember most distinctly about this cycling trip was when we reached a stretch of road that was flanked by some wild trees. As one of the friends suddenly put his finger to his lips at this juncture, we cycled and cycled for perhaps another mile without saying a word to each other. When we saw houses again, the friend said that that was the stretch frequented by the Tok Belang, and the Tok Belangdidn't like people who did too much blabber, and to mention his name was strictly taboo. I was pleased when we decided to cycle home by a longer way.

Outside of captivity I saw the tiger only once, and that must've been the last tiger of Trengganu. It was during the school holidays when I was siiitng with my mother in a packed bus that was lumbering down the road towards Jerteh, on our way to Kampung Raja in Besut, when the bus suddenly braked and everyone kept very quiet and still. In front of the bus was a solitary tiger, crossing the road to the other side of the jungle. We muttered not a word until we reached Kampung Buluh just a few minutes from there. That was the kind of spell that tigers had on us ordinary people.

There must've been many tigersStamp depicting Malaysian tiger in the jungles of Trengganu perhaps not too long ago, maybe until the early second half of the last century. In or about 1809, the Sultan of Trengganu Sultan Ahmad Shah I sent a Trengganu tiger to Brunei as a royal present to their then ruler Sultan Muhammad Kanzul Alam (1807-1826). The gift provided more than amusement to the people of Brunei, as not long after that, the tiger escaped, but was recaptured by a man named Pengiran Muhammad Daud, who, by all accounts, was a fierce warrior. The Pengiran, who was given the title Pengiran Pemancha after another act of heroism involving some Spaniards who visited Brunei, single-handedly brought home the Trengganu tiger.

I never saw tigers again outside captivity after my bus-ride near Kampung Buluh, but there were things laid out on the cloistered pedestrian walkways (the kaki lima) of the shop houses in Kuala Trengganu that reminded me again and again of those mighty beasts and the spell they had on the lives of many people. They were strange pieces of dried meat, coiled like rattan bits, sitting in front of bored looking Nepali Gurkhas. There were other bits and bobs too that they laid out for sale: Buddhist amulets, semi-precious stones, and jungle herbs of unknown powers. Those coily bits were things that we took notice of but seldom mentioned by polite people, as they were, reputedly, tigers' pudenda. I never saw anyone picking up or taking home those tiger bits plucked out — and God knows how — by those intrepid gurkha people, but I guessed that by some powers of sympathetic magic, they would have been sought after by men who wanted to be, well, like the mighty tiger.

In a moment of great curiosity I once asked an elder who told me what he thought with a loud guffaw. It was then that I began to take an interest in the male dogs of Kuala Trengganu, to see if they'd had things taken from them, by intrepid Gurkhas, all in the name of...the magical Tiger.

Stamp notes: The tiger is often depicted on the stamps of Malaysia, then and now. Two stamps above are from the Federated Malay States, showing tigers of the 'Indochina' species that were also found in Trengganu. Unknown to those tigers, Trengganu was not part of the Federated Malay States.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Photographer Royal

Istana Maziah. Interior.

Istana Maziah. Interior.

The above photo of the interior of the Istana Maziah was taken by almarhum Tuanku Ismail Nasiruddin Shah, the 14th Sultan of Trengganu. He later became the fourth Yang di Pertuan Agong of Malaysia, the country's Paramount Ruler. He passed away on 20th September 1979, May Allah rest his soul.

Tuanku Ismail acceded to the Trengganu throne in 1945, succeeding his nephew, Sultan Ali Shah ibni al-Marhum Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah, who was put on the throne by the Japanese, and deposed when the Occupation ended. Tuanku Ismail was brother to Tuanku Sulaiman who became Sultan in 1920. Both were children of Sultan Zainal Abidin III Muadzam Shah ibni al-Marhum Sultan Ahmad Muadzam Shah (1881-1918), also known as Marhum Haji, a man noted for piety and father to three sultans of Trengganu — Sultans Muhammad II, Sulaiman, and Ismail — from three different mothers.

I think the portrait seen hanging on the left in the Istana Maziah interior (above) is that of Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah. Tuanku Ismail took this photo circa 1949.

Tuanku Ismail was a skilled photographer and printer with a well-equipped darkroom in the Istana Badariah in Kuala Ibai. He won many prizes in photo competitions in Malaya (as was) in the 1950s, entering under the name of "Sir Ismail Nasiruddin Shah, Kuala Trengganu". The above photo is now on display with many others at website. Please go there to view more exquisite photos of Trengganu (and a few of Penang and Kuala Lumpur) by this royal photographer. (Click on the clock at the bottom of the page)

Thanks to for making the photos available to us, and to Joninho, who asked about them. (see, comments, below.).

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Eyes On The Istana

In the anjung, the front part of our house in Kuala Trengganu, was a portrait of a man, of serious mien, in full Trengganu regalia, and he looked very distant from us all.

We looked up to him — literally — and said no more. Sometimes, in his conversations with friends, father would mention his title, Datuk Mmata, a strange name for a child to grapple. For a long time I bore the notion that he must've been precious, as mmata was Trengganuspeak for permata, precious jewels. Then one day a quack practitioner came to the house and spoke of his prowess with diseases of the eye. For testimonial, he pointed to the portrait of our man: "The Datuk had problems with his eyes." Then the shyster man continued: "One day he had it so bad his eye plopped out." When he'd gone with his bundle of herbs and geegaws, and a safe distance from us, father could not contain his glee, and my elder brother, whose biology lessons at school had already reached the level of the eyes, made a meal of the man's knowledge of human anatomy.

But it struck a chord with me, mmata was close to mata, Trengganuspeak and Standardspeak for eye. Maybe there was something in it after all. So for a long time afterwards, I began to look closely at the protrait, and I examined especially the poor, sad, faraway look in those eyes.

And then I thought no more of him until I began to travel away from town to my school in Kuala Ibai. On the bus I'd often look out to a palatial-looking building en route that housed the new Sekolah Sultan Zainal Abidin, the premier Arabic school in Kuala Trengganu (that was later to transform into a college with the outlandish acronym of Kusza.) It was a strange building set amid the wooden houses of Kuala Trengganu; it looked grand and old to a Trengganu child, and possibly contained many stories; and then I was told that it was the only house in Trengganu that had a cellar. And when someone told me that it was probably the former residence of Datuk Mmata, it was like "wow!"

I came across Datuk Mmata again recently when looking through the history of the Istana Maziah, at the foot of Bukit Putri. The istana, to me, was a mournful place that stood only on ceremony, whilst at most times it looked forlorn and empty, with shutters closed, and so removed from our daily activity. The Istana Hijau of Kuala Trengganu. Destroyed by fire.Yet at festival times, when thatch-roofed platforms were placed over barrels on what used to be known as Padang Malaya, folk came milling in from the outer reaches of Kuala Trengganu for the rodat show, or the bangsawan opera. The Istana Maziah took another shape, flooded as it was in lights and decked with twinkling bulbs of many colours. The Istana that stared at us mutely in our workaday lives had suddenly come aglow. And so it'd done in Trengganu history, it had been looking and absorbing all — the ceremonies of mandi safat for pre-nuptial royals, the sweet voice of the opera starlet Ruhani B, and voices of politicians that bellowed their cause on platforms in Padang Malaya, including the late lamented Datuk Onn Jaafar who, towards the end of his life, became the voice of Kuala Trengganu South in the People's Chamber (Dewan Rakyat) in Kuala Lumpur.

Datuk Mmata was not permata or mata, but Mata-Mata. The name perhaps described his role, for the mata-mata were the seeing eyes, of policemen, or people who played the reconnoitring role. So Datuk Mata-Mata was probably the man in charge of state security; and he was connected with the Istana Maziah that now looks across the harbour of Kuala Trengganu.

The Istana was built in 1897 — though some sources say 1895 — during the reign of Sultan Zainal Abidin III (1881-1918). What's beyond dispute is that it was built on the site of the old Istana Hijau (Green Palace) that was built by Sultan Baginda Omar in 1870 (see, Folks Who Lived On the Hill), and later destroyed by fire, some say in the heat of battle when the Japanese came to Kuala Trengganu.This latter claim is patently untrue, as the Japanese did not arrive in the town until 1941, while the Istana Maziah was built at the end of the previous century.
The original Istana Maziah. Source:
The original Istana Maziah, built c1897.

For this new palace, the sultan entrusted the role of planner and supervisor to his brother in law, Tengku Chik Abu Bakar bin Tengku Abdul Jalil. There were other men involved in it too, and among them, in charge of its design and interior decor, was our Datuk Mata-Mata. Wood for the construction came from Dungun, under the supervision of Tengku Panglima Besar Tengku Muda Kechik, and students of building construction material will be interested to know that it was built from a mixture of lime, clay, sand, egg white and palm sugar. (In building his fortress on Bukit Putri — seen in the background in the picture of Istana Hijau — the Sultan Omar did one better, he mixed his mortar with honey.)

The old Istana Hijau, was a grand palace from a different era, and the old Istana Maziah too had understated beauty, influenced, no doubt, by European architecture. Both were grand buildings, so more's the shame then that the Istana Hijau was destroyed by fire, and its replacement Istana Maziah is now disfigured by planners that have little notion of the purity of memory.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Growing Up in Trengganu #374,298

Our neighbour Pak Anjang was a lanky man in a sarong pelikat held up by a wide belt. For his top he had what my parents called a kaciperat shirt made of silky material, round-necked and buttoned halfway down the front. He smoked a cigar, and made sauces hot and mild for his rojak. At the gloaming of each day he lit up his carbide lamps, put them in the corners of his specially made pedicab, and then he plied his trade along the streets of Kuala Trengganu.

Pak Anjang had glass cases that he placed on either side of his kitchen cum vehicle, in them he had heaps of noodle, assorted greens, hard-boiled eggs placed in a pyramidical heap, and fried lungs of buffaloes and tofu and things thingamagical. In the middle of his carriage he had a stout frame on which he placed a huge pot that was kept bubbling by a glowing coal fire. In the front he had a wok, sitting ready to fry his mee.He must've tasted his sauces too many times before making his daily trips on the road, probably the hot one more than the other, as for all those times that I saw him pedal past on our roads, Pak Anjang he never smiled.

He had many assistants, young boys on whom he constantly spat his bile, or ladies who appeared suddenly one day and disappeared another. They all, when they were there, helped him to chop up leaves, stir the pot, or simply sat as targets of his bad temper. I used to watch all these goings-on from the back of our house, through the leaves of a tall henna tree. But we were never, at any time, tempted by the culinary prodcuts of Pak Anjang as our Mother had already then divided this world into two types of people, the mmayik and the tak mmayik — the yeses and the noes — and Pak Anjang fell smack into the latter.

So and so's not mmayik mother would say, so we avoided a particular make of nasi lemak or apam balik or tepung pelita. Mother was a strict categorizer from whom there was no appeal, and everything moved on her every say-so, so we shopped for our food selectively. But as for Pak Anjang we were all in the know as he was a close neighbour in the back of our house, and I'd seen too many goings on behind that henna tree. A person who didn't have mother's certificate of mmayik was unable to distinguish between clean and dirty. It was a very complicated word for mother to know and use in those days, for, in later years, I discovered that it had come to Trengganu via the Arabic mumaiyyiz, which meant, in fact, puberty. The idea being that a person who'd come of age would've been able to distinguish between hygienic acceptability and the no-no.

Pak Anjang, when we knew him, must've been close to fifty, a man who kept much to himself, and never spoke to anybody other than his kitchen people. He left the house soon as the sun had set, and came back late at night, spreading brightness in the kampung with the carbide-powered lamps on his rojak vehicle. He spat a bit and grumbled a little, and then all went quiet as Pak Anjang dozed off to sleep dreaming of all his rojak-eating customers.

One day father pointed out to us Pak Anjang's new interest in horticulture which he practised in a very strange way. For all that wide expanse of ground he had in front of his house, Pak Anjang had literally gone through the roof with his potted flowers. So from our house, looking at Pak Anjang's roof, I could see strange leaves sticking out here and there. It was not until the local police arrived and took Pak Anjang and his plants away in a car that father told me the truth: that Pak Anjang had been smoking his home-grown leaves, or maybe he'd been scattering bits of them too in those sauces hot and mild for the exultation of his rojak-eating people.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Folks Who Lived On The Hill

On a day when the rain was lashing down in heavy torrents, I was looking out through our window to the distant light blinking through the haze on Bukit Putri. It was probably early afternoon, but the dim light in a town enveloped by the heavy downpour raised uneasy feelings about the tuk-wah, for that's what my uncle named it, that distant beacon flashing and dimming, flashing and dimming, incessantly. Unknown to me then, it was merely his spur of the moment onomatopoeia word for that light on the hill, tuk for when it dimmed, and wah! when it came on again to view. Not surprisingly, in my first year at school at the Sekolah Melayu Ladang, as we were discussing the landmarks of Kuala Trengganu, our teacher, when he heard my contribution, began to look very puzzled. "Tuk wah?" he asked. "Tuk wah tu apende?" ("What is it?")

The tuk wah was one of the wonders of Bukit Putri that commanded the harbour of Kuala Trengganu. It was a beacon on a tall platform that winked out to the outer reaches, to boats coming ashore, to fishermen back from the sea. It looked down on the harbour, from its place on the edge of the hill; and connected with its keeper by a steep ladder that rose up high, though we were never tempted to go up there.

There were two ways to go up Bukit Putri in those days: via the foot path that was beaten into the hill side that faced the sea, or the proper way, up the steps that started at the foot of the hill by the Istana. Heavy Metal:Cannon on Bukit Putri. Source: these steps to the count of a hundred and a half, maybe more, you're confronted with the edge of mystery, of bushes, and tall trees, and old graves that had lain there silently since the beginning of memory. To our left, just before the graves, I remember, half buried in the ancient earth, a heavy piece of time-worn cast iron known as bedil beranak, a mother cannon that gave birth to another. Beside it, resting in peace, was another, much smaller, presumably the by-product of this parturition in heavy metal. Many a time I must've stood there wondering how the mother — known as Sri Buih — could have raised such a baby-boomer.

The Malays had a thing about the cannon and its surrounding aura, giving it near-mystical qualities and inexplicable power. I remember being told, when researching some aspects of the state of Selangor, of a mysterious cannon whose appearance was foretold in the dreams of a royal pawang or shaman, and then making its actual appearance as an omen for the state at the appointed time in the mouth of the Selangor river. This mystical cannon is now on a hill in Kuala Selangor, wrapped in yellow, the royal colour. The Trengganu cannons weren't draped in such regalia, but I wonder if they're still there now, mother and grown-up child.

My mother used to tell me stories of Bukit Putri, of the Princess who lived up there who looked favourably on folks below by lending them her crockeries for their banquets or nuptials — some say they were silverware, others say they were just ordinary china. The Princess or Putri who gave the name to the hill was the fabled orang bunian of Malay folk lore who had one foot on this ordinary earth and another in the spirit world. But one day some careless borrower failed to return her silver or chinaware, which made her take flight in anger, never to come back to Kuala Trengganu.

This story that Mother told me must have been handed down to her by her own mother, and God knows how or when it first began in folk memory. When mother passed on, she was laid to rest not far from an older grave that seemed to have been given special care. My brother told me recently that it belonged to an old Sultan of Trengganu, Mansur II, of whom he knew very little. When I began to look further, I made the familiar yet still surprising discovery: how we live in our past shadows, how linked we are to one another.

I had to go back to Bukit Putri.

It was there, on the Hill, that a battle was fought between two rival factions for the throne of Trengganu in the first half of the 19th century. Baginda Omar, a claimant to the throne, had built a fort there to stake his claim against Tengku Mansur, whose base was in Balik Bukit. After early negotiations, Tengku Mansur took the Trengganu throne in 1831, as Sultan Mansur II, while Tengku Omar became the Yang di Pertuan Besar. But that didn't settle the matter. In the Trengganu civil war that followed, Tengku Omar lost his positon yet again and had to leave his fortification in Bukit Putri (said to have been built by him from bricks held together by a mixture of lime and honey), fleeing first to Besut, then to Daik in Riau.

Sultan Mansur II died in 1836, to be succeeded by his son Sultan Muhammad I who used Bukit Putri as his base. Three years later Tengku Omar came back with his men and drove the incumbent away to Dungun after a pitched battle on the Hill. Tengku Omar was once again back on Bukit Putri. A few months later the unfortunate Muhammad made an attempt on the Bukit, this time aided by Tengku Hitam of Dungun, but failed. Sultan Omar Baginda Shah sat on the throne of Trengganu from 1839-1876.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

From Ptolemy To Here

It's no easy task peering back into the mists of time for the many uncertainties — a figure lurks there but who is she or he? What is that shape behind the haze? What areas are we looking at?

But the marvel is that we can look there at all. There're mysteries galore in the past where we came from, there're remnants today of what happened long ago. Looking back into the history of Trengganu, Taring Anu, Terang Ganu, or Terangan Nu, there's certainly a wide gap between knowledge, history and mystery. The last name mentioned is interesting as it actually gives the spot on the river where Trengganu actually originated, where the rivers Terengan and Kerbat met. The villagers, soon tiring of this distinction between the Terengan and Kerbat, began to indicate them by just saying Terengan ni (this Terengan) or Terengan nu (that Terengan), the latter developing, in its own right, into Trengganu that we've come to know.
Inscriptions on the Trengganu Stone
But if we need to go further back in time, there's always Ptolemy (Alexandria, AD 87- 150) who included in his map of the world, the ports of Primula and Kole, believed to be the rivermouth of the river Trengganu and Kuala Kemaman respectively. That certainly does go way back in time. In fact, from archaeological evidence found in the Bewah Cave in Ulu Trengganu, there was habitation there 4000 years ago.

In 1225, the Chinese trader Chao Ju Kua in Chu Fan Chi recorded that Trengganu (Tong Ya Nong) was part of Palembang. Trengganu was conquered by the rulers of Majapahit, according to the Javanese epic poem Negarakartagama, written by Mpu Prapanca in 1365. Interestingly, the Negarakartagama also mentioned Paka and Dungun, also under Majapahit rule.

From responses to questions I've raised about Megat Panji Alam, I'm pleased to know that there are many out there also asking the same questions. The Trengganu Stone — Batu Bersurat — bore the year of inscription AD 1303/702 AH, stating out the rules of Shariah and also mentioning the name of Raja Mandalika. This must be the earliest ruler of Trengganu that we know. From other sources we have, later, two other names, Megat Panji Alam and Tun Telanai. I'm inclined now to believe that our Megat had control over Trengganu in the earlier part of the 16th century, but as for Tun Telanai, well, maybe someone may be able to help me there.
Inscriptions on the Trengganu Stone
After them Trengganu came under the influence of Johor, two of whose men, Laksamana and Paduka Megat Seri Rama, were sent to rule. Of the names that followed were Bendahara Hassan and Tun Zain Indera. Tun Zain's children, Tun Sulaiman, became Sultan (based in Balik Bukit), while his siblings Tun Yuan became the Bendahara, and Tun Ismail, minister in Tersat.

The first Sultan of Trengganu was the son of Tuan Habib Abdul Majid, the Bendahara of Johor. He became Sultan Zainal Abidin in Kampung Tanjung Baru in Ulu Trengganu in 1725 before moving to Kampung Langgar (in Pulau Manis) and then finally to Kuala Trengganu, in Kota Lama (the Old Fort).

The origin of the Batu Bersurat is still shrouded in mystery. It was found in Padang Tara, Kuala Brang, where it was used as a stepping stone to the Tok Abdul Rashid mosque. In 1887 a trader named Syed Husin bin Ghulam al-Bukhari (probably originally from Bokhara) realised that it bore interesting inscriptions. The jury is still out as to the origins of the stone, or who carved the writing in, but it was Malay written in the Arabic script, and in it was mentioned the name Trenkanu.
Inscriptions on the Trengganu Stone
Stories that I've heard claim that the Trengganu Stone was inscribed at the behest of a Hadhrami Yemeni preacher, one of many who came to the archipelago area. One version attributed mystical powers to this man who inscribed the dictates of the Islamic Shariah on to the stone with the movement of his finger. Unfortunately I've forgotten his name. I'm inclined to believe that it was the Yemenis who brought Islam to Trengganu, and they did come in great numbers, through India, Champa, then Patani and Malaysia down to the Indonesian islands.

These preachers-traders-travellers mingled with the elites in each port of call, marrying and staying for a generation maybe, before moving on to another. Many became members of ruling houses, for instance in Champa, parts of India, in Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. The famous Wali Songo (nine saints) of Java were descendants of Yemenis, and it's rare not to find Hadhrami blood in the genealogy of prominent families in Indonesia, Singapura or Malaysia. In Trengganu, the Tok Kus were men of Yemeni origin, Tok Ku Paloh, Tok Ku Syed Sagar (al-Saqqaf), and so on. These were remarkable men, of learning and power.
Inscriptions on the Trengganu Stone
In the 16th century there was a Sharif Muhammad al-Baghdadi (probably originally from Baghdad, as his family name implies) in Kuala Brang whose grave is now in a place called Batu Belah. His descendant, Abdul Malik bin Abdullah, was better known as Tok Pulau Manis, Waliullah, (d.1736), a man of learning who returned to Kuala Brang circa 1690 after years of sojourn in Makkah and Madinah.

Photos: Written in stone: the Trengganu Stone, AD 1303.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Taring of Anu

Who killed Megat Panji Alam? And who was he?

I've been asking myself this question ever since a talented cartoonist in Australia wrote in asking if I knew anything about this fearsome warrior, and of course I knew little beyond what's already passed into folk memory. That he was a brave warrior of Trengganu who was killed by Hang Tuah, that old stalwart from Melaka, is widely known. But let's leave that aside for a while and turn back to Trengganu. What's surprising is that I was told by this correspondent that there's now a tomb, supposedly of Megat Panji Alam — "with a draconian motif" — in Kuala Trengganu,"in front of Hotel Sri Malaysia."

What puzzles me about Megat Panji Alam is not how he got to be in front of the hotel, but when he went out at all. The story has it that he was killed in Pahang in the cause of Tun Teja, full name, Tun Teja Ratna Benggala, to whom, by all accounts, he was betrothed. Now the plot thickens, but at least we have a rough idea of when our Megat walked this earth. If the Tun Teja of Inderapura (now Pahang) was the same person whose grave is now in Kampung Sempang, Merlimau in Melaka, then she was married to the last Sultan Mahmud of Melaka. She, with husband Sultan Mahmud and his entourage, were fleeing the Portuguese, but she fell ill in Kampung Sempang in Melaka where she died and was buried.

This would have been 1511,Grave of Tun Teja in Kampung Sempang, Melaka. much too late in the day for Hang Tuah to be gallivanting around, as the Hikayat Hang Tuah claims. The Sultan Mansur, whom Hang Tuah served, came to the throne of Melaka in 1458 and died in 1477. There could well have been another Tun Teja, as even acccounts of her status varied. One said that she was betrothed to the Yang di Pertuan of Pahang, others, to Megat Panji Alam of Trengganu.

The Trengganu version that I've heard is in consonant with the Hikayat version, stating that it was Tuah and gang who took on the Megat, eventually managing to ambush him and stabbing him in the back. But the Sejarah Melayu placed the incident later in time, during the time of Sultan Mahmud, and the person who went to seek Tun Teja was Hang Nadim, Tuah's son. And then form there, another mystery: having died in Pahang, how or why was the Megat's body taken back to Trengganu?

The Trengganu Sultanate as we now know it started in 1717, well after the death of Tun Teja or the fall of Melaka, when Zainal Abidin, the younger brother of Johor's Sultan Abdul Jalil Ri'ayat Shah established his rule there under the title of Maharajah. History records that the Johor house — said to be descended from one Sayyid 'Aidarus of Aceh, scion of a long line of Sayyids from Hadramaut — spread itself to Pahang and Trengganu. I'll have to go back to the Tuhfat an-Nafis (that Bugis-centric work)for further clues on what went on there when the Sayyids and Megat Panji Alam held sway and how, from Perak, where he learnt his art under Megat Terawis, he drifted to Taring Anu.

Or, perhaps someone more knowledgable will enlighten me a little...

Photo: Grave in Kampung Sempang, Melaka, said to be that of Tun Teja.