In February I visited National Gallery Singapore, a smart new (opened 2015) art museum housed in a pair of colonial-era buildings, the former Supreme Court and the adjacent City Hall.
There was a temporary exhibition happening on Minimalist Art. Now call me an unsophisticated ignoramus but I just don’t get Minimalism. Take a look at this piece for example called ‘Blank Paper’ by Liu Jianhua. The explanation reads: ‘At first glance, Blank Paper resembles three large, empty sheets of paper …. which is in fact white porcelain ……..each monochromatic rectangle is devoid of narrative elements, suggesting a tabula rasa upon which we can project our own meaning.’ I’m sure the artist is having a good laugh at how he can pass off this work as art.
This work is a little better, a one-ton cube of dried Pu’er tea leaves by Ai Weiwei. Other pieces include a room full of blue LED lights representing ‘the radiance of human life’, another room bathed in intense yellow neon light which makes your skin look blotchy, and a thick carpet of porcelain sunflower seeds.
Fortunately the National Gallery has a large collection of more traditional paintings, mostly by Southeast Asian artists, which are more my cup of tea. Here is a selection:
A rare example of living heritage can be found at Sin Hiap Hin, a drinking hole at No.5 Jalan Jawa (Java Lane) in the Kampung Jawa area of Melaka.
I went there recently (Feb 2019) and had a couple of drinks served by the friendly and chatty landlady, Doris Lee, who told me a bit about its history.
This bar has been around for a century and is a hangover (excuse the pun!) from the days when this was a seedy part of town with opium dens, gambling joints and brothels. Indeed, Doris told me that this place used to be an opium den before it became a bar, pointing up the stairs where the opium smokers would puff their way to oblivion.
The area is much quieter now and the bar’s neighbours include an old fashioned barber shop, where you can have a cut-throat shave and your ear wax removed, and a pet shop selling songbirds in elaborate bamboo cages.
This a bar for hardened drinkers. For a start it opens at 9 o’clock in the morning and is often closed by 6pm. The interior is rather Spartan. This is not the place to catch a Premier League match while munching grilled buffalo wings and surfing the web. All there are here are half a dozen wooden stools, an ashtray (remember those?) and a vintage wooden bar which has been polished by countless elbows and beer slops. The shelves you see in the photo are the originals from when the bar opened and contain Chinese herbal liquor, rice wine, Indian whisky, cheap hard spirits and beers.
The bar used to be popular with boatmen working on the Melaka river which is just a stone’s throw away. During colonial times it had many British officials among its clientele. It’s the sort of place that you could imagine Nabby Adams, the boozy policeman in Anthony Burgess’ novel Time for a Tiger, would like to frequent for an early morning beer to quench his insatiable thirst.
Japanese soldiers frequented this bar too during their brief but brutal occupation of Melaka in the 1940s. Swigging rice wine in Sin Hiap Hin’s somewhat dingy atmosphere no doubt brought home nostalgic memories of those tiny bars in cities like Tokyo or Osaka
Since there are no boatmen anymore and the Brits and Japs have long gone, patrons are more likely to be those down on their luck or low income workers tanking up on strong drinks for just a few Ringgit per shot.
Business from local workers is not what it used to be but thanks to blogs like mine, a steady stream of tourists, both local and foreigners, have discovered this place and drop in to soak up the atmosphere of days gone by. A wall calendar serving as a visitors’ book records comments left by tourists from Australia, UK, France, Germany, Poland, Canada and Malaysia, all praising the atmosphere, the local rice wine and the ‘cute aunty’ (Doris).
At Doris’s suggestion I tried a glass of Pandan flavoured Malacca rice wine which she sells for RM 7 per half-peg. It has been made by a local firm in Melaka since 1908 which must make it one of the longest established booze manufacturers in Malaysia, much older than Tiger or Anchor beer for example. The taste is powerful, like Korean soju, with a smoky pandan aroma. The alcohol content is 27%. Doris said you’ll only find this drink at her bar. Other flavours include lychee. You can buy a bottle for only RM 15 which is a nice souvenir to take home.
I’m sure Doris and her husband, who is the great grandson of the founder, would welcome your business if you are in the area.
Captain Francis Light (1740-1794) of the British East India Company (EIC) is widely recognised as the founder of modern Penang in the same way that Raffles gets credit for establishing Singapore.
He died in Penang from malaria on 21 October 1794. The day before his death he executed his last will and testament, a copy of which is on display in the Penang State Museum. It makes interesting reading.
Light Was A Suffolk Boy …
‘I Francis Light of the parish of Dallinghoo in the County of Suffolk Great Britain and now residing on Prince of Wales’s Island in the East Indies do hereby make this my last will and testament …’
Dallinghoo by all accounts is today an unremarkable English village of about 170 residents and a couple of ghosts. It sprang to fame briefly in 2008 when a pair of detectorists unearthed a haul of 840 iron age gold coins worth a considerable sum. Young Francis Light needn’t have travelled half way across the world to find fame and fortune. He could have just dug up his back garden.
I give unto Martina Rozells four of my best Cows and One Bull …
The will continues, bequeathing the bulk of his considerable wealth …
‘unto Martina Rozells who has cohabited with me since the year 1772’.
Who was Martina Rozells? There are various versions of her background but one of the most credible is that he met her while he was stationed in Phuket, an island which was considered by Light to become an EIC trading post as an alternative to Penang. They were probably not legally married. Light’s use of the term ‘cohabits’ seems to confirm this. She was Eurasian (mixed race) and Catholic, possibly with some Portuguese blood (the name Rozells could be another spelling of Rosales) and she also went by the name Tong Di, suggesting perhaps Chinese or Thai parentage.
According to Mr Yusrin Faidz Yusoff, Advocate & Solicitor (1997-present) the above painting entitled ‘Portrait of a Malay Woman’ by Robert Home (1752-1834) is a portrait of Martina Rozells as commissioned by her husband Captain Francis Light, though the Hunterian Museum in London, where the portrait hangs, believes it is of a different woman. Robert Home painted a portrait of William Fairlie and His Family (Fairlie was the executor of Light’s will) so Martina was almost certainly known to Home, adding credence to Mr Yusrin’s theory. You can read more about this argument here.
Interracial liaisons during this period were common among Light’s EIC colleagues in India until the more narrow-minded attitudes in the Victorian-era suppressed the practice from the 1840’s onwards. British author William Dalrymple writes:
‘The wills of East India Company officials, now in the India Office library, clearly show that in the 1780s, more than one-third of the British men in India were leaving all their possessions to one or more Indian wives, or to Anglo-Indian children – a degree of cross-cultural mixing which has never made it into the history books.’
Other legends tell that Martina was the daughter of the Sultan of Kedah or even descended from the King of Siam. We’ll probably never know for sure but such claims were often woven into Eurasian family mythology in order to hide more humble or scandalous origins. (You can read more about her ancestry here.)
Whatever her background, Francis Light clearly cared for her. They had five children together and he left the bulk of his riches to her.
What else did he leave to Martina apart from cows and a bull? …
Considering that he was gravely ill with malaria he itemised his bequeathals in considerable detail including:
. The paddy field situated in Neeboonplain ? and containing one hundred oorlongs (furlongs?) of land
. Implements of husbandry and forty buffaloes
. The Pepper Gardens with my Garden House and all the land by me cleared in that part of this island called Suffolk
. My bungalow in George Town … with one set of Mahogany Tables, two Card tables, two Couches, two Bedsteads large and two small with Bedding etc, a dressing table and 18 chairs, two Silver Candlesticks, one Silver Tea pot, two sugar dishes, twelve table spoons, twelve tea spoons, one soup spoon (Silver) and all the utensils not under the Stewards charge …
He had Slaves ….
Slavery was not abolished in the colonies until 1833 and Light included his slaves among his possessions.
I give and bequeath all my Batta Slaves unto Martina Rozells.
As far as I can make out, Batta slaves may have originated from an island off the west coast of Sumatra, not far from Bencoolen which was a British colony at the time.
I leave all my Caffree Slaves the following choice, either to remain with Martina during her life she being willing to maintain them or each man to pay her fifty dollars and be free.
Caffree slaves came from Madagascar. Caffree sounds like a corruption of the Arabic word ‘Kaffiri’ meaning non-believer. The Arabs were the main slave traders on the east coast of Africa.
I give unto Enneat a female whom I have liberated the sum of two hundred dollars and unto Emai another female slave I give one hundred dollars with her freedom.
He had debt bondage slaves too ……..
I release the following from all further Bondage of Servitude and bequeath each of them ten dollars viz I Boon and his wife I Boon small and Echan his wife and children, I Tong, Tong Dam and his wife and daughter Ton Chan and her Brother, but not Esan she remained with Martina. Seng Pao and Elloi are not Slaves, they may go where they please.
His Friends May Not Have Been So Loyal After All ….
My Gold Gurglet and Bason I bequeath to William Fairlie Esqr. as a token of friendship, My Silver Gurglet and Bason I bequeath to James Scott as a remembrance My Watch I bequeath to Thomas Pigou also the choice of any of my books.
It seems Fairlie and Scott, who were executors of the will, may not have been satisfied with their jugs and washbasins and it appears they cheated Martina out of the bulk of her inheritance including Suffolk House which they sold to another EIC official. Martina sued Fairlie and Scott for breach of trust and misappropriation. She initially won her case but lost the appeal and the rumour was that EIC paid her a pension to hush her up.
His Kids Turned Out OK ….
The residue of his estate he left to his children, whom, in his will, he describes as
the Children of Martina Rozells with whom I have long cohabited whose names are Sarah Light, William Light, Mary Light, Lanoon Light and Lukey Light.
Sarah Light married James Welsh who reached the rank of General in a distinguished career with the Madras Army of the East India Company.
William Light was packed off to England to be educated at the tender age of 6. We wonder what Martina would have thought of this strange English custom of sending their children away, especially as it is unclear whether William ever saw his parents again. Still, he did well in life. He pursued a military career and is famed as the founder of Adelaide, Australia.
Mary died in her nineties in France. She married twice, to George Boyd and Samuel Cornish Truran.
Francis Lanoon Light married Charlotte Arboni and Ann Lukey Light married Dr. Charles Hunter.
Francis Light’s face is quite well known in Penang thanks to his statue at Fort Cornwallis. He even appears on the logo of a chain of coffee shops. Except that the statue was actually modelled on the features of his son William, since by the time the statue was made, 150 years after Francis Light’s death, there were no records or illustrations of how he actually looked.
I purchased this Bill Bryson book at the Big Bad Wolf book sale last month. BBW is an annual event in Kuala Lumpur where publishers dispose of print overruns or remaindered books at heavily discounted prices.
I like Bill Bryson. His writing produces in me many a wry smile, one or two titters and even an occasional guffaw. I hadn’t seen In A Sunburned Country before so I assumed it must be a new title.
As you might have guessed from the cover, it’s about Australia. I’ve just finished reading it and while putting it away in my bookcase I noticed that I had another Bryson book, Down Under. Flicking through the pages I could see that it is exactly the same book, only under a different title.
Two thoughts sprang to mind:
1. It’s a bit sneaky of Mr. Bryson to bring out the same book twice under different titles, tricking suckers like me to part with twelve Ringgit. Perhaps he’ll release the book again in a few years time and call it something like The Parched Continent and I’ll buy it for a third time.
2. More worryingly, why did I have zero recollection of ever having read Down Under? I read all the way to the end of In a Sunburned Country without once having déjà vu, or thinking ‘that seems familiar’. I know I must have read Down Under because I have read all the books in my bookcase, probably about 17 years ago judging by the published date and its tatty, tropicalised condition. Either Bill Bryson’s books, though very entertaining, are not particularly memorable or, more likely, this is a sign that I’m getting old and forgetful.
Looking on the bright side, if my memory is getting frail, there is no need for me to buy books anymore. I can just re-read my old ones, as if for the very first time.
Like many of my generation, I was an avid stamp collector as a boy and I specialised in Commonwealth and British Empire stamps. Through stamps I learned something of Britain’s former possessions and protectorates with exotic names like the Kathiri State of Seiyun, Mafia Island, Stellaland, Poonch and the Cocos Islands (the Cocos were for a time part of the Straits Settlements).
But until I moved to Malaysia I had never heard of Dindings, a strip of Perak territory which was ceded to Britain in 1826 and remained a colony as part of the Straits Settlements until it was returned to Perak in 1935. This may be because Dindings never issued its own stamps, using instead either Straits Settlements or Perak stamps. Stanley Gibbons’ specialised stamp catalogue for Malaysia doesn’t even mention Dindings, possibly an oversight on their part.
Dindings (which was renamed Manjung on 1 January 1982) comprises the island of Pangkor and the towns of Lumut and Sitiawan on the mainland. The districts of Beruas and Pantai Remis also come under modern-day Manjung.
Following the signing of the Anglo Dutch Treaty in 1824 the British stepped up their involvement on the Malay Peninsula and they took control of Pangkor Island in 1826 with the aim of suppressing piracy. They also probably wanted to prevent the Dutch from returning – the Dutch had had a minor presence on Pangkor since 1661 though they abandoned the island for good in 1748.
In 1874 the Pangkor Treaty was signed with the Sultan of Perak under which Pangkor and the strip of mainland containing Lumut and Sitiawan was ceded to Britain and placed under the wing of the British Governor in Penang. Britain demanded this territory as reward for helping to bring peace to Perak between two rival Chinese clans who were feuding over tin mining.
Having obtained the Dindings, Britain did very little with it. The original intention may have been to use it as a gateway to Perak’s booming tin ore trade but it was found more convenient to use Port Weld, which had a harbour and branch railway line, to export tin. No railways were ever built in Dindings and no port was developed. With Penang not far away the Dindings were probably seen as superfluous.
Today there is little to show that Britain was ever there – just a couple of post offices and police stations, one or two schools and churches and a number of colonial-era bungalows and government offices.
In recent years Malaysia has developed Manjung significantly. The Royal Malaysian Navy has its main base at Lumut and the bustling towns of Seri Manjung and Sitiawan sprawl over a wide area. Pangkor has become a major tourist destination but it still retains a relaxed and sleepy feel.
By the way, while revisiting Pangkor last week I made a discovery. The drawing on the famous rock on the island which people have for years been calling Tiger Rock is not a tiger at all. You can read about my revelation on my Malaysia Traveller website.
It’s strange how random facts and occurrences can sometimes link together in a string of weird coincidences.
Over Christmas my daughter was showing me a mobile app. called Twinning by Popsugar which compares your photo with famous celebrities and tells you which ones you most resemble. Apparently I bear a 35% similarity to David Niven. It’s obviously a rubbish app. since I don’t look anything like that suave and debonair British actor who died in 1983.
David Niven starred in a 1975 film called Paper Tiger which was partially filmed in Malaysia.
While in Penang last month I stayed at the Royale Chulan Hotel at Weld Quay which occupies the beautifully refurbished former godown and Penang office of Boustead & Co, a trading, shipping and insurance business established by an Englishman, Edward Boustead, in 1828.
Edward Boustead’s great-grandson was David Niven, though there’s not much family resemblance judging by this photo.
David Niven starred in at least two films about the Philippines, The Real Glory and The Extraordinary Seamen. While filming he would no doubt have learnt about the national hero of the Philippines, José Rizal. During his travels in Europe, Rizal had a relationship with a woman called Nelly Boustead.
Nelly was the daughter of a wealthy Anglo-Filipino called Eduardo Boustead who was the son of the above mentioned Edward Boustead and his Filipina partner with whom he lived as a family when visiting his Manila office. Edward also had an English wife and children and when Edward died, Eduardo travelled to London to claim his considerable inheritance, much to the dismay of his English step-family who were unaware of his existence. Since Eduardo was unable to prove his legitimacy, most of the estate passed to the English family but Eduardo was still comfortably off and he moved to France.
So it would seem that Nelly Boustead was a distant relation of David Niven. Using Nelly’s face on the Popsugar app might it show a resemblance to David Niven? Apparently not. It says she is a 76% match to Prince Edward! Does the British royal family have Filipino ancestors we don’t know about?
Before you rush to try out Twinning by Popsugar there have been reports that they have been leaking users’ photos without permission, so be warned.
We were in Amsterdam in for a couple of days stopover in October. It is still one of my favourite cities although it is suffering from over-tourism like many of the world’s top destinations. When I first went to Amsterdam over 30 years ago it was possible to visit the Ann Frank House museum as a walk-in customer without queuing. Nowadays even the museum’s website gets overcrowded and the server will put you in an online queue just to buy tickets which have to be purchased well in advance in order to secure a slot.
Worse is still to come for tourism hotspots like Amsterdam, Venice, London, Barcelona and Paris. The Chinese, Indians and Indonesians have only just begun to take foreign holidays en-masse. When ten million Asians book a Spring break in Paris it’s going to get a bit crowded around the Eiffel Tower.
Amsterdam is taking steps to prevent it being overrun by tourists, by banning Airbnb rentals in the busiest areas, diverting cruise ships and other measures. For now the city continues to retain its unique charm and culture and long may it last.
My teenage daughter wanted to visit this bench which apparently played an important role in a film popular with her generation called The Fault In Our Stars. It looks like a regular bench apart from a lot of graffiti and a few of those love padlocks which no doubt have to be regularly removed.
Since we couldn’t get to see Ann Frank’s House we went to the Van Gogh Museum, which also requires advance online booking but I managed to get a slot in time. Visitor numbers are strictly controlled but it is still a bit of a melee in front of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings. Photography is banned throughout most of the museum otherwise you wouldn’t be able to move for selfie-sticks.
In the museum I learnt that Van Gogh spent some of his young adulthood in England, firstly in London in 1873 working at the London branch of Goupil, his uncle’s art gallery business, and later in 1876 in Ramsgate and Isleworth where, having had enough of art, he tried his hand at teaching.
In London he stayed in various boarding houses including this one at 87 Hackford Road, Brixton (the one with the blue plaque), the house of a teacher called Ursula Loyer. Van Gogh fell for Ursula’s daughter Eugenie and it is believed he proposed to her, unaware that she was already spoken for. This rejection seemingly weighed heavily on young Van Gogh, aged just 20, and he became reserved and withdrawn and may have prompted the beginning of his religious phase.
After a spell at the Paris branch of Goupil, he returned to England at age 23 where he found an assistant teacher position at a boarding school in Ramsgate. The school, run by Mr William Stokes, was at 6 Royal Road within site of the harbour. It was a bit of a Dickensian dump with rotting floors and windows and Stokes sent his pupils to bed without supper if they were noisy. He didn’t pay Van Gogh a salary but just paid for his board and lodging.
Van Gogh taught here in 1876. This is how it looks today. If you pan around you can see the same view that Vincent sketched here:
He lived in an attic room just a few doors away at 11 Spencer Square, Ramsgate, then a dilapidated block which also housed a few of the boarders. Looks better nowadays:
Soon after Van Gogh’s arrival Stokes moved the school to Isleworth, a suburb of London. Van Gogh was offered an extension of his contract but since he was not being paid anyway Van Gogh moved to a paid position in a better school, also in Isleworth, run by Rev Thomas Slade-Jones school. This is how the building looks today:
He was allowed to give sermons at a local church and run Sunday school lessons which was more in line with his passion for the Bible but his family were concerned that he was becoming too pious and after a visit to the family in Holland in December 1876 he did not return to England.
Van Gogh often illustrated his letters to his brother Theo with sketches in the margins such as this one showing nearby churches at Turnham Green and Petersham. I believe neither of these buildings survives today.
Luckily for art lovers Van Gogh was not a great success at either teaching or preaching and after his return from England he focussed on his drawing and painting career to leave us with pieces like this.