Thursday, May 25, 2017

Bagan Tengkorak's ominous name

This river has a scary past
I WAS introduced to Kampung Bagan Sungai Tengkorak many years ago when a friend took me to a little known seafood restaurant there.
  At the time, I did not think much about Bagan Sungai Tengkorak and had forgotten about the restaurant was or how to get there, let alone how the fishing village's ominous name came about.
  In fact, I had earlier thought that the fishermen's enclave, seven kilometres north of Tanjung Karang, was probably a pirates' hideout, hence the name.
  Recently, while heading for Sekinchan to look for scenery to paint, I passed Kampung Bagan Sungai Tengkorak, better known as Bagan Tengkorak, again.
  This time, a sign by the road that read Jalan Jepun (Japanese road) caught my curiosity, which took me on a detour into the village.
  Jalan Jepun, which ran parallel to Jalan Bagan Tengkorak, looked more like an orchard or plantation of sorts, with traditional houses spread out far apart amid patches of oil palm, tapioca and banana trees.
  The 1.5km tarred stretch was just enough for two cars to pass each other. The only indication of the road's identity was that lone signboard I spotted earlier beside the Kuala Selangor trunk road, plus a couple of address signboards just outside some houses.
  I drove all the way into the village amid more oil palm holdings to find myself in a small settlement of houses on stilts along an almost hidden river bank. Most of the folks here were Chinese families. The houses along the riverbanks, which were built on stilts, were linked with a timber boardwalk that also led to a few jetties.
  I spotted a Johor-registered fishing boat that was moored nearby. Curious, I asked a man who had just returned from sea at the jetty. The man, who was in his 40s, told me that the fishing boat was brought from Johor and is currently undergoing maintenance work.
  I asked for the man's permission to paint the boat set against estuarine scene from the jetty. The man, who introduced himself as Chia, said I was welcomed since the jetty was not busy as big waves had prevented the fishermen from going out to sea.
  As I was working on this scenery, a few locals came to watch. One of them was a Malay man about 70 years old.
  Having struck up a conversation, I asked if he knew why the river received its fearsome name.
  According to him, his grandfather told him that the name came from the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during its occupation of Malaya between 1941 and 1945.
  Prisoners were beheaded along the river and their heads were spiked on stakes to be displayed there.
  For years, before electricity arrived, he said, people claimed to have seen apparitions of soldiers marching to the river during the wee hours of the morning.
This village is mostly inhabited by
  Jalan Jepun, he added, was called such because it was there that most of the Japanese soldiers were located.
  Later, when I spoke to the headman of Bagan Tengkorak, Heng Seng Soo, a different story was unveiled.
  Heng said that the village had been almost a century old. According to his story, the name Sungai Tengkorak was given by the early settlers in the area, which comprised the Malays and Chinese.
  Those days, the only way to get to the village was by boat and according to a story, he said, when the boatmen were about to enter the estuary, they saw skulls along the beachfront.
  "Because of that, the river was nicknamed Sungai Tengkorak and the village, Bagan Sungai Tengkorak, and bagan meant "quay" in English.
  Kampung Bagan Tengkorak is today occupied by about 40 Chinese families, with most of them living along the river banks near the jetty. About 95 per cent of them are from the Chia clan," he said.
  "Unlike the old days, however, only a few families remained as fishermen today. The fishing fleet, which was much bigger many years ago, only has six fishing boats now."
  Despite its ominous name, Bagan Tengkorak has over the years become is a very popular destination for weekenders looking for some quiet.
  Seafood lovers also flock to the only restaurant here on weekends.
  Just a short distance away from the restaurant is a Chinese temple which comes alive during the resident deity's festival.
  A cockle grading factory is also a stone's throw away from the restaurant but unfortunately, when I was there, it was closed.
  Sungai Tengkorak also attracts anglers, particularly prawn hunters. Within the river are lairs of giant freshwater prawns or udang galah that will make heads turn, so I was told.
  Some of the more enterprising fishermen, instead of depending entirely on fishing, also organise fishing charters to take the fishing enthusiasts out to sea.
  Between November and January annually, the mangroves of Sungai Tengkorak becomes temporary homes to visitors of the feathered kind.
  Migratory birds such as sea eagles, herons and other sea birds make their stopover in the swamps to meet and mate.
A mudskipper takes a suntan
  ACCORDING to a story some years back, the Japanese army, during its invasion of Malaya, chose to set up camp at Bagan Sungai Tengkorak because they had mistakenly believed that the area had abundant food supply after noticing areca palms growing wild in great numbers there.
  Thinking that the fruits of the areca palm were edible, the soldiers forced villagers to gather the areca nuts (pinang) for them. However, when they found out that the nuts were not only hard but also bitter and could not be eaten, raw or cooked, they punished the collectors.
  A story has it that the prisoners were stripped naked and tied to areca palm trunks. Fire ants' (kerengga) nests were thrown at them, unleashing the fury of the ants. Some of them, who did not die from the ordeal, were beheaded and their skulls thrown into the river.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Ayer Salak's historical past

 This is Ayer Salak's St Mary's church that was built some 130 years ago 
I CAME to know about Kampung Ayer Salak from a fellow traveller heading south during a recent trip to Melaka. He told me of a very old church that was built some 130 years ago in a predominantly Chinese-Catholic village. Guided by Waze, I was brought right to the grounds of the St Mary's Church in the village.
  Although the morning sun had cast wonderful shadows on the main premises, the old church building on the western end of the field was more interesting as a painting subject.
  This old church has two spires, each with a cross at the apex. It is a small but sturdy building constructed of rust-coloured laterite rocks similar to those found in old forts that I had seen, such as the A' Famosa and Fort Supai in Kuala Linggi.
  Kampung Ayer Salak lies about 30km off the North-South highway from the Simpang Ampat exit.
  The village was a jungle in the mid-1800s, according to a story in a magazine published by the Church of St Francis Xavier, Melaka.
  The 1995 publication mentioned of a French missionary named Pierre Henri Borie who built a settlement here in the late 1850s.
  When Borie went home to France in 1867 because of ill-health, another missionary Ludovic Julil Galmel carried on his work. The latter built this old church and two schools in 1886. When Galmel died in August 1899, he was buried here and a tombstone was carved by villagers to remember his contribution to the village.
  The population of Ayer Salak was given a boost in the 1920s when Chinese Catholics (mainly Teochew) from China migrated to this village to escape war and natural disasters in their homeland.
  Joining the original settlers, they worked their farms and tapped rubber for a living.
  Today, there are about 200 households in this quiet enclave in Melaka. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the state's tourist belt, many of the houses here are still in their almost-pristine condition, built with timber and had large front yards. There are also quite a few brick houses.
  Places like the old church and an old fort-like house - dubbed by visitors as "red stone house" - just opposite the church offers a glimpse into the Ayer Salak's past.
The red-stone house 
  The "red stone" house was believed to be have been built about the same time as the old church and was used to house the church's caretakers. It is now closed for repairs.
  When I was there, I noticed a fundraising banner announcing efforts to raise money to refurbish the old church, as well as the red stone house.
  A short distance from the church, half a kilometre up an incline into the heart of the village, lies the St Mary's Gloriette which was built by villagers in 2007. Religious services are held here on Tuesday and Friday evenings.
  Down the road from here is the compound of what used to be the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Primary school until the late 1990s. It is now the Montfort Youth Centre which offers vocational training to poor and underprivileged youths.
Rare find at Cheong Huat's
  Not far from the St Mary's Gloriette, by the road junction, is an old sundry shop operating from a single-storey timber shophouse.
  This family business, I was informed, is being run by a fourth generation member. Owner Woon Boon Siang, 75, inherited the business from his grandfather and he has since passed the baton to his 50-something son.
  Stepping into the shop, which was named Cheong Huat, is like stepping back into time. Goods from a forgotten era such as the China-made Eagle brand shavers, Ve-Tsin food flavouring and Gold Coin brand face powder cakes can still be found here.
  Speaking to Kampung Ayer Salak village headman Lim Khen Hong, 54, I understand that plans are afoot to promote the village's tourism potential.
  One of the efforts undertaken recently was to beautify this very clean village and illuminate the main road into Air Salak using decorative lanterns during major festivals.
Some of the villagers still farm
  Wandering around the neighbourhood, I come upon several vegetable farms, orchards and even a fish farm that rears giant snakeheads (toman) that will be sold to restaurants. All of these, including the quiet charm of the village, are yet-to-be discovered tourism products.
  "In the past, most of the villagers operated small-scale farms and tapped rubber," Lim tells me.
  "Today, most of the younger generation prefer to work in factories nearby the Bukit Rambai area. There are some who still work on their farms and oil palm plantations but these are mostly the older generation. The younger generation prefers to work in bigger towns that offer better pay.

  KAMPUNG Ayer Salak is probably the only village in the country populated entirely by Chinese Catholics. It owes its origins to French missionary Pierre Henri Borie who set up a mission station named Dusun Maria in Rumbia (Rembia) in 1848, according to the Herald Online.
  In 1857, its Rumbia settlement of 23 newly baptised indigenous people (known as Orang Mantras) had grown to almost 400.
  That year, the British (who were the authorities of the day) wanted the land to be turned into a plantation and Borie was forced to look for an alternative settlement, large enough to accommodate his community.
  In February 1858, Borie found a piece of land in Ayer Salak. Seven months later, Borie and his community moved to their new home which he renamed Maria Pindah.
  Two years later, he obtained 202 hectares of land from the Governor of Singapore and this became the permanent location for Maria Pindah, the foundation on which the modern village was built. Borie returned to France in 1867 and died four years later of malaria, at the age of 91.
  Without a priest, Borie's congregation began to leave in stages over the following decade. In 1885, another French missionary Ludovic Julil Galmel arrived in Ayer Salak. Failing to gather those who left, Galmel turned the settlement into a model farm, with Chinese workers and the remaining Orang Mantra forming the village community.