In Search Of Wallace – Part 4: Palembang, Sumatra


Alfred Russel Wallace visited Sumatra only once and stayed a relatively short time, from November 1861 to January 1862, which is perhaps surprising given that the island is massive (more than double the area of Great Britain) with, at that time, vast swathes of barely explored rain forest.

Wallace's Route from Batavia to Palembang

This is how he described his journey to Palembang:

“The mail steamer from Batavia to Singapore took me to Muntok (or as on English maps, “Minto”), the chief town and port of Banca. Here I stayed a day or two, until I could obtain a boat to take me across the straits, and all the river to Palembang.”

The tin mining island of Bangka was for a time annexed by the British and it was Stamford Raffles, in a blatant act of sycophancy, who renamed Muntok after his East India Company boss Lord Minto, Governor General of India. When the Dutch resumed control of Bangka the name Minto was quietly dropped.

On his voyage, Wallace would have passed by the island of Billiton (now Belitung), another former tin mining centre whose name lives on in the giant mining company BHP Billiton.


The Musi River at Palembang.

“A good-sized open sailing-boat took me across to the mouth of the Palembang river where, at a fishing village, a rowing-boat was hired to take me up to Palembang–a distance of nearly a hundred miles by water.”

That’s a long way in a rowing boat!


Map of Palembang in 1885.

“The city is a large one, extending for three or four miles along a fine curve of the river, which is as wide as the Thames at Greenwich. The stream is, however, much narrowed by the houses which project into it upon piles.”


Palembang is a much bigger city now with an area of 142 square miles and a population of over 1.7 million. The Musi River is still the life blood of the city and its banks are lined with houses, mosques and shops on stilts.

“Palembang is built on a patch of elevated ground, a few miles in extent, on the north bank of the river. At a spot about three miles from the town this turns into a little hill, the top of which is held sacred by the natives, shaded by some fine trees,and inhabited by a colony of squirrels which have become half-tame.”


Wallace may have been referring to Bukit Siguntang, an archaeological site and the highest point in the city (just 37 metres above sea level). Didn’t see any squirrels though.

Wallace found little to collect in the vicinity of Palembang and went further inland for 50 miles or more to the south west on the road towards Bencoolen. He spent time near the villages of Lorok, Moera-dua (Muara Dua), Lobo Raman (Lubuk Raman) in search of specimens.

I decided not to try to replicate Wallace’s journey to these villages since I thought it would be irksome for little reward. Instead I flew on to Bencoolen (Bengkulu) which I’ll write about in a later blog.  However you can read the account of someone who did make the journey to Lobo Raman in 2012 here:

While staying in the interior Wallace found time to write a letter to Charles Darwin expressing his frustration with the poor collecting conditions:

Sumatra, 100 miles E. of Bencoolen

Here I have had to come 100 miles inland (by Palembang) and even here in the very centre of E. Sumatra the forest is only in patches and it is the height of the rains so I get nothing – a longicorn is a rarity and I suppose I shall not get as many species in 2 months as I have in 4 days in a good place. I am however getting some sweet little Lycaenidae (gossamer winged butterflies) which is the only thing that keeps my spirits up.

long- tailed parroquet

Long Tailed Parroquet. Source: Gould, John, 1804-1881

While in Lorok he obtained a parroquet:

“The only bird new to me which I obtained at Lorok was the fine long- tailed parroquet (Palaeornis longicauda)”


These dried mounted Papilio Memnon butterflies at Putrajaya Natural History Museum appear to have lost their ashy blue markings.

“During a month’s collecting, I added only three or four new species to my list of birds.In butterflies I was rather more successful, obtaining several fine species quite new to me, and a considerable number of very rare and beautiful insects. The first is the handsome Papilio memnon, a splendid butterfly of a deep black colour, dotted over with lines and groups of scales of a clear ashy blue.”

Leaf Butterfly

Leaf Butterfly Kallima Paralekta. Photo: D. Gordon E Robertson

He was amazed by the leaf butterfly:

“In its position of repose it so closely resembled a dead leaf attached to a twig as almost certainly to deceive the eye even when gazing full upon it. I captured several specimens on the wing, and was able fully to understand the way in which this wonderful resemblance is produced.”


CHIEF’S HOUSE AND RICE SHED IN A SUMATRAN VILLAGE. Illustration from The Malay Archipelago

Wallace described the decorative Sumatran village houses.

“The houses are raised about six feet on posts, the best being entirely built of planks, others of bamboo. The former are always more or less ornamented with carving and have high-pitched roofs and overhanging eaves. The gable ends and all the chief posts and beams are sometimes covered with exceedingly tasteful carved work, and this is still more the case in the district of Menangkabo, further west.”


Minangkabau Style architecture at Bukit Tinggi, West Sumatra

I didn’t see any of this type of building in Palembang but here is one I photographed in Bukit Tinggi near Padang in 2013.

“In all these Sumatran villages I found considerable difficulty in getting anything to eat…. fruit was reduced to one of the poorest kinds of banana. The natives (during the wet season at least) live exclusively on rice. A pot of rice cooked very dry and eaten with salt and red peppers, twice a day, forms their entire food during a large part of the year.”


Happily things have improved and there is a wide variety of fruits on sale nowadays, at least in Palembang. And there’s always Pizza Hut.

The Siamang. Engraving from J G Wood's Illustrated Natural History (c 1850).

The Siamang. Engraving from J G Wood’s Illustrated Natural History (c 1850).

“A very curious ape, the Siamang, was also rather abundant. I purchased a small one, which had been caught by the natives and tied up so tightly as to hurt it. It was rather savage at first, and tried to bite; but when we had released it and given it two poles under the verandah to hang upon, securing it by a short cord, running along the pole with a ring so that it could move easily, it became more contented, and would swing itself about with great rapidity. It ate almost any kind of fruit and rice, and I was in hopes to have brought it to England, but it died just before I started. It took a dislike to me at first, which I tried to get over by feeding it constantly myself. One day, however, it bit me so sharply while giving it food, that I lost patience and gave it rather a severe beating, which I regretted afterwards, as from that time it disliked me more than ever.”


In recent years here have been sightings of Siamangs on sale at Palembang’s main market Pasar 16 (sold illegally for meat/brains) but thankfully I did not see any.

“Another curious animal, which I had met with in Singapore and in Borneo, but which was more abundant here, is the Galeopithecus, or flying lemur. This creature has a broad membrane extending all around its body to the extremities of the toes, and to the point of the rather long tail. This enables it to pass obliquely through the air from one tree to another.”


This stuffed Flying Lemur specimen is on display at Putrajaya Natural History Museum.

I would have to conclude that Palembang is not the best place to go in search of Wallace. There is little sense of him in this built-up city with few green spaces but there are a few tourist attractions in Palembang and I will write about these in my next post.

Posted in Alfred Russel Wallace, Indonesia, Palembang | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Ins & Outs of Asian Beverages

I’ve been sampling a few strange drinks lately.


Whisbih Beer

In Taipei I spotted this Whisbih Beer which, according to the only English words on the can, appears to contain ‘beer plus whisky’. That is not a great combination in my view but I tried one for research purposes. The whisky content, if any, is not evident from the flavour although it has a little kick (5.2% alcohol). I don’t think I would make a habit of drinking this.

Much more healthy is white bitter gourd juice which seems to be a popular craze in Taiwan. The white gourd is much less bitter than the green variety and is said to have amazing health benefits. It tastes quite refreshing too. A spoonful of honey is usually added.


Non Alcoholic Guinness – It’s An Acquired Taste.

Yesterday in Palembang, Indonesia I found this can of Guinness Zero ABV, a non-alcoholic version of Guinness. The Indonesian government banned the sale of beer in convenience stores in April 2015 which made a big dent in the sales of Guinness and other brewers.In response, Guinness concocted this brew especially for the Indonesian market. It is made in Dublin and shipped half way round the world and still retails for just Rp. 8,700, or around 50 pence sterling.

The ingredients include sucrose, caramel, roasted malt, barley and roasted coffee by-products. It has a sweet, coffee, malty taste. I found it too sweet but it is actually not a bad soft drink as long as you not expecting anything like real Guinness.

I doubt if it will catch on in Ireland though.


Toilet Did Not Borrow.

All this drinking had its natural consequences. In Shifen, Taiwan I was unable to borrow the toilet.


No Thanks!

When I paid to use the gents in Palembang Square Shopping Mall I was given a ticket for their ‘Toilet Lucky Dip’. I declined their kind offer!

Posted in Indonesia, Taiwan | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Taipei’s Japanese Era Buildings


Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945 and the capital area including Taipei was renamed Taihoku.

The fifty year colonial experience was a mere blip in Taiwan’s long history but long enough to leave a lasting influence on the island’s complex identity. The Japanese brought industrialisation and built many western style buildings in an attempt to impress their Taiwanese subjects with the modernity and superiority of Japanese rule.

Many of these Japanese-era buildings still survive and here are some that I spotted during my stay in Taipei.


Presidential Office Building

This grand red brick structure was completed in 1919 to house the Office of the Governor-General of Taiwan. It suffered heavy damage during an Allied bombing raid in May 1945. After repair and restoration it became the Office of the President of the Republic of China in 1950. It still serves as the Presidential Office. Visitors can take a tour inside.


National Taiwan Museum

Construction of this museum was completed in 1915 when it was called the Taiwan Viceroy’s Office Museum. It was built in classical style with a Greek temple facade, Corinthian columns and an impressive coloured glass ceiling above the main entrance hall.


Land Bank Exhibition Hall

This building was originally the Taipei branch of Nippon Kangyo Bank which opened in 1923. It is now an annexe of the National Taiwan Museum which is located across the street. There are two main exhibitions going on inside. Firstly there is a bank history section inside the main vault with displays of cash, silver  ingots and gold bars (all fake), a reproduction of the original teller counters and even the Chief Manager’s actual coat and hat stand. The old banking hall is now a display space with an exhibition of dinosaurs and other creatures.


Taipei Guest House

Originally built in 1901, the Taipei Guest House suffered a major termite attack and had to be rebuilt and remodelled in 1912. This European style building was used as the Japanese Governor’s official residence but also used to receive important visitors and to host banquets. It continues to serve as the Taiwanese Government’s guest house for entertaining visiting dignitaries.


Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation Building

This building was constructed in 1913 by the Kobe Group to house the Monopoly Bureau of the Taiwan Governor’s Office during Japanese rule.


Nanmon-Cho 323

This Japanese tea-house with attractive Zen garden sits in a tranquil corner of the Taipei Botanical Garden. It was built in the 1930s and has served multiple purposes but was dilapidated for a long term until a recent restoration.


Bo-Pi-Liao Historic Block

This busy commercial district dates back to the reign of Emperor Jiaqing but was remodelled during the Japanese era to include rows of shophouses similar to those found in Malaysia and Singapore. They even have the equivalent of the ‘five-foot-way’  – a covered walkway to protect pedestrians from the sun and rain.


Taiwan Railways Museum Exhibition Hall

This building was the former Railways Administration Headquarters, Transportation Bureau of Taiwan Viceroy’s Office. It was built in 1919 from red brick and hinoki and fir wood and is the largest Tudor-style building in Taiwan. A major restoration is nearing completion and it should open later this year as a major railways museum.


Taipei Post Office

Taiwan’s main post office building was completed in 1930. The top floor was added later. There used to be a colonnaded portico where the grey marble entrance now stands. It has been classified as a national historic site to protect it from further alterations or demolition.


Futai Street Mansion

This distinctive Mansard style house was built in 1910 by Japanese construction company Takaishi as their headquarters. In 1930 it became an office and shop for Okura, a saké company. It is now home to the Taipei Photography Centre.


Zhongshan Hall

To commemorate the ascension of Japanese Emperor Hirohito in 1928 the Japanese commenced the Taipei Assembly Hall as a venue for cultural performances. It was completed in 1936. The notice outside says that the design features ‘Arabic arch windows and Taiwanese ceramic tiles reflecting the Japanese military government’s imperialist view of itself as leader of the Far East.’


The Red House

This historic market building dates from 1908.  Designed by Kindo Jyuro, it features a unique octagonal entrance and a cruciform shaped market. It has now been ‘gentrified’ and is used as a market for artists and designers, theatre and creative space.


Taiwan Cooperative Bank

This branch of the Taiwan Cooperative bank was built in 1927 for the Taipei Credit Union.


Bank of Taiwan

Formed in 1897, Bank of Taiwan served as the central bank during Japanese rule. This building dates from 1939.


National Taiwan University Hospital

This wing of the hospital was built in 1912.


Beitou Hot Spring Museum

When built in 1913, this was East Asia’s largest hot-spring public bath and intended to encourage people to bathe more. Now it is a museum for onsen related relics.


Taiwan Folk Arts Museum (Beitou Museum)

High on a hill overlooking the spa town of Beitou is this traditional Japanese wooden and black tile structure built in 1921. It was a Japanese officers’ club and during WWII it housed a squadron of kamikaze pilots. No doubt the club manager asked them to settle their mess bills in full before going on a mission! It now serves as a museum.

Posted in Taipei's Japanese Era Buildings | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Lizard at Large

We have a few pineapple plants in our garden. Just when I think the fruits are looking ripe enough to pick they have a habit of disappearing and I find small shreds of chewed up pineapple on the ground. This monitor lizard could be responsible. About a metre long, this is a mid-sized reptile by Malaysian standards.


Today my dog chased him (or her) up a tree. He stayed up there for at least half an hour  until he was sure the coast was clear. I suppose he was just ‘monitoring’ the situation.

Posted in Malaysia | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Tamsui’s Black Bearded Barbarian


Vintage postcard of Tamsui showing Mt. Guanyin on the opposite bank of the river.

Tamsui is a charming riverside town near the mouth of the Tamsui River about 25 km north of Taipei.

It was one of the four ports in Taiwan opened up to foreign trade by the Qing government in the 1860s and became home to a small but influential foreign community.


A statue of Reverend Dr. George Leslie Mackay in the centre of Tamsui town. The sculptor seems to have made Mackay more Chinese-looking than in real life.

One foreigner in particular played an important role in the town’s development and is still fondly remembered today by the local inhabitants. His name was George Leslie Mackay, a Canadian of Scottish ancestry, who arrived in Tamsui in 1872 as a missionary for the Canadian Presbyterian Church. Apart from two periods of home leave, he remained in Tamsui until his death 30 years later, while dedicating his life to building an indigenous church led by local preachers.


A statue at the waterfront marks the spot where Mackay is thought to have come ashore.

From the outset, he concentrated on learning Taiwanese Hokkien in order to be able to preach in the local language. He memorised 100 Chinese characters a day (that’s impressive – I struggled with 10 when I was studying Japanese kanji characters!).


Dr. Mackay posing with his wife, son and daughters. The son, George William Mackay, oversaw the construction of the Danshuei Church in 1932/33.

He remained aloof from the foreign community in town, seeing his mission as converting the ‘heathen natives’ rather than tending to the spiritual needs of his fellow westerners. They probably shunned him too, especially after he married a local girl, something which was not the done thing in those stuffy and discriminatory late-Victorian days.


The elder daughter was Ma-Lien (Mary) and the younger was I-Li (Bella).

His marriage to the seventeen year old Tiu Chhang Mia (or Minnie as she became known) not only provided him with a loving family with two daughters and a son, but also helped to spread his message to the local female community.


Mackay may have preferred the company of Taiwanese but he lived comfortably in a typical colonial bungalow of the era. The building on the left is the ‘Residence of Misses’ and was built after he died to accommodate unmarried female missionaries.

Still he found it hard going in the early days to make converts among the Taiwanese who nicknamed him the black bearded barbarian and regarded him with suspicion and his religion with hostility.


This was the first western style hospital in northern Taiwan (1879). and was designed by Mackay himself. It is now a mini museum and cafe.

Good results were finally achieved through his perseverance and tactic of providing free medical and dental treatment to the locals. His medical qualifications may have been limited but he could still do better than the local quacks.


Artwork on display in the Tamsui Customs Officer’s Residence (Little White House).

Education was his other entrée into the local community and he established the Tamsui Girls’ School and another school, ‘Oxford College’ made possible with contributions from the people of his hometown in Oxford County in Upper Canada.


Built in 1882, this school was pioneering in its comprehensive subjects and teaching method. Now part of Aletheia University, the building is a Mackay-related museum.

By means of this three-in-one evangelistic method: preaching, education and medical work, he successfully founded sixty churches with thousands of converts by the time of his death in 1901.


This cemetery is divided into four sections by an X-shaped path: the east end is for Protestants, the south end for Catholics. the west end for merchants and the north end for officials.

Even in death he remained segregated from the other foreigners in town by specifying in his will to be buried in land separated from the Tamsui Foreign Cemetery by a wall. Other family members and former students have since been buried next to him in what is now called the Mackay Family Cemetery.


Tamsui is easy to reach from Taipei being the final station on the red Tamsui-Xinyi MRT line and there is a lot more to see besides Mackay’s legacy.

Posted in Tamsui's Black Bearded Barbarian | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jiufen – Inspiration for Spirited Away?

Houtong & Jinzihpi Ancient Footpath

After leaving Shifen (see previous post) I took the train to Houtong, another former coal mining settlement which now markets itself as Houtong Cat Village to draw in cat-loving tourists from around the world.


Shop at Houtong Cat Village

There were a number of cat-themed shops and cafes but I did not see many real cats. Perhaps, as it was a hot afternoon, they were all off somewhere having a shady siesta.

My main reason for coming here was because I had read that there is an ancient trail linking Houtong to Jiufen which was my ultimate destination for the day. What I didn’t realise is that there are a number of ancient trails traversing this hilly forested terrain and not all of them go where I wanted to go.


The trail goes to the top of this hill.

I finally came across a sign for Jinzihpi Ancient Footpath (also spelt Chintzupei) and luckily this trail took me in roughly the right direction.


It was a well made path with even stone steps and took me up to the top of the hill in about an hour or so.


According to a plaque, this poem was written by Liu Ming-teng, commander-in-chief of military forces in Taiwan while touring the area in 1867.

I was lucky with the weather, mild and sunny, and from the highest point of the trail I could just make out Taipei 101 (the world’s tallest building until overtaken by Burj Khalifa in Dubai) some 35 km away.


I could just make out Taipei 101 in the distance.

The trail then emerged onto a road which I walked along for a few more kilometres before reaching a point overlooking the town of Jiufen.


Follow this road for another hour or so to reach Jiufen.


Jiufen is down there.


Some years ago on this blog I wrote about the Japanese animated film, Spirited Away (see post here).

Apparently the film’s producer, Hayao Miyazaki, took inspiration from Jiufen when creating some of the scenes in his film. Amei’s teahouse in particular is considered to be similar to the bathhouse in Spirited Away (can’t see the resemblance myself). Others however doubt this claim and some say there is no evidence he even visited Jiufen.

Whatever the truth, the story has done wonders for the town’s tourist trade and the narrow lanes around Jiufen Old Street are heaving with visitors, including many from Japan.

Definitely worth a visit when you are next in Taiwan.

Posted in Jiufen - Inspiration for Spirited Away | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shifen Station & Waterfall

Shifen is a small town in north east Taiwan, about an hour’s journey by train from Taipei. It was once a coal mining area but has in recent years transformed itself into a popular tourist attraction.

Pingxi Branch Line Train

The brightly painted trains of the Pingxi Railway chug their way along the Keelung Valley between Ruifang and Jingtong, stopping at various historical and scenic spots on the way, including Shifen.

When I went last week it was just an ordinary working Monday but still the train was jam packed with tourists, mostly local Taiwanese, Mainland Chinese, Japanese and Koreans (Asians make up 90% of all foreign tourists to Taiwan with China and Hong Kong residents totalling about 50%).

The railway line forms the main street at Shifen.

The town consists of a main street with the railway track running down the middle, and a few side streets. Shops either side sell touristy stuff, snacks and souvenirs.

Romantic couples like to release sky lanterns at Shifen.

Romantic couples like to write messages and wishes on sky lanterns, inspired by a famous film (not that I’ve seen it) called You Are the Apple of My Eye which was shot partly in this area. These lanterns are released into the sky, lifted by flaming burners which, I would have thought, must be responsible for a number of forest fires.

A pedestrian suspension bridge crosses the Keelung River at Shifen.

The main attraction in the area is the Shifen Waterfall which can be reached on foot in about 20 minutes.

Taiwan's largest cascade waterfall.

This is Taiwan’s largest cascade fall. A sign nearby describes it as the Nicaragua Waterfall of Taiwan, presumably a typo for Niagara, with a similar horseshoe shape. Here is a short video clip:

After enjoying Shifen town and waterfall, most visitors jump back on the train and visit another place along the line, which is what I did as I’ll share in my next post.


Post Card by Taiwan Railway Company.

Posted in Shifen Station & Waterfall, Taiwan | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment