Masjid Asy-Syakirin – KLCC

Kate at KLCC Sep 2012

When William and Kate visited Malaysia in September they were taken to see the Masjid Asy-Syakirin. Presumably the central location of this mosque next to Kuala Lumpur’s twin towers fitted in well with other engagements on their itinerary. It also gave the royal couple the chance to do a quick walkabout in KLCC park (from where I took this photo) and allowed the waiting public the opportunity to catch a glimpse of them.

I went along to KLCC yesterday to take a look at this mosque whose name comes from the Arabic for ‘The Thankful’.

Masjid Asy Syakirin

The mosque was built in the 1990s with a colour scheme that matches the surrounding buildings.

The design of the pillars reminded me of the old Dubai airport terminal of the 1970s.

Old Dubai Airport 1970s

Under the canopy of the mosque there are vast expanses of marble tiling and a number of people were sitting on the floor and enjoying this cool and calm oasis.

 

The glass skylights have been cleverly designed to create the illusion of an Islamic horseshoe arch.

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Trees, Tigers and Too Many Kids–One Is Enough

The famous author Agnes Newton Keith, who wrote Land Below the Wind and other books about her life in Sandakan, was married to Harry Keith, Conservator of Forests for North Borneo (now Sabah, Malaysia).

A huge log being placed on a railroad car at B...
A huge log being placed on a railroad car at Batottan, British North Borneo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Harry was a dedicated official and passionate about the need to sustainably manage North Borneo’s forest reserves. The British North Borneo (Chartered) Company, which was running the territory at the time, derived the bulk of its income from the sale of logging permits. No doubt Borneo’s vast forestry reserves seemed inexhaustible but even as early as the 1940s, Harry could see that continued rampant logging activity was not sustainable.

Despite his best efforts however you would have to conclude that he and his successors ultimately failed in their role as conservators of forests because Sabah today is pretty much logged-out.

How can that be you might ask? Isn’t it true that 48.8% of Sabah’s total land area (7,362,000 ha) is classified as Forest Reserve? That is true but of that total, only 342,216 ha (4.6% of Sabah’s total land area) is classed as Protection Area in which logging is not permitted. A further 90,386 ha (1.22%) is considered as Virgin Jungle Forest where logging is strictly prohibited but in practice illegal logging has taken place.  The majority of the Forest Reserve is categorized as Production Forest and can be, and has been,  ‘selectively logged’ under licence.

This WWF graphic illustrates what is happening all over Borneo. (Sabah is in the top right corner.)

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When Harry Keith retired in 1950, North Borneo’s forest cover was still fairly intact but by the 1980s logging was at its peak and Sabah was exporting 12 million cubic metres of timber per year, much of it to Japan to be turned into plywood and disposable chopsticks. Presumably  the remains are now lying rotting in Japanese landfills. An ignoble end to once mighty trees!

Some trees have fared better. It is said that logs from Sandakan were used in the construction of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

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By the early 2000s, Sabah’s timber exports had dwindled significantly mainly due to depletion of forests and Japanese and other lumber trading firms had moved on to new sources like Papua New Guinea.

I do not wish to sound too gloomy. Forests can recover. If all humans left Sabah tomorrow the jungle would return to its former glory in 250 years or so. But that is too long a time horizon for businesses to consider and as for politicians, they know that future generations do not have a vote so who cares if their world is wrecked?

As for the future of wild animals, I’m afraid I am very pessimistic. They are doomed. Already they are virtually extinct outside of zoos and wildlife parks, not just in Borneo but all over the developing world. The only creatures which can thrive in today’s overcrowded world are rats, cockroaches, flies and ants.

WWF Logo

Organizations like WWF are wasting their time. The battle for pandas, tigers, elephants, rhinos and the like is lost. Instead WWF should turn its attention to tackling the source of this and so many other problems, and that is global over-population. This is a glaring issue but no governments, apart from China’s, seem willing to do anything about it. On the contrary, many countries are actively encouraging their citizens to have more children.

In my view the United Nations should set a target to half the world’s population over the next 100 years or so. Every country should adopt a One is Enough child policy and use a combination of incentives and deterrents to achieve it such as:

  • removal of child benefits
  • free or subsidised schooling for first child only
  • lower income tax for those couples with only one child or no children

Ok, I admit I am being hypocritical here as I have three children but I have only recently become convinced that having a smaller world population would solve so many of the problems facing the planet. I’ll encourage my children to have one or less kids.

Extreme Cleaner

While cycling near Perdana Putra (the Prime Minister’s office) in Putrajaya this morning I noticed a speck on the green dome of the building.

On closer inspection it turned out to be a person who appeared to be cleaning the dome while suspended precariously in an abseiling position.

You missed a bit over on the left.

This extreme cleaner was certainly earning his salary today.

Burial of KL654/R Flight Crew at Cheras Road Cemetery

The remains of eight crew members of RAF flight KL654-R were permanently laid to rest on 18 October 2012 in a burial service with full military honours at the Cheras Road Cemetery, Kuala Lumpur, some 67 years after their B-24 Liberator crashed on 23rd August 1945.

The crew had taken off from their base at Brown’s West Island airstrip in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean around 1,000 km south of Sumatra along with four other B-24s from Squadron 356. Sadly KL654 never returned and is believed to have clipped a tree before crashing into dense jungle on Gunung Telapak Buruk (a 1193m high mountain in Negeri Sembilan, Malaya) with no survivors.

The War had officially ended eight days earlier and their mission had been to drop supplies of food and medicine for Allied POWs, still imprisoned and in poor health, in a camp at Kampung Langkap not far from the crash site. They may also have been dropping leaflets announcing the end of the war because although Emperor Hirohito had, on 15th August, instructed his forces to lay down their arms, surrender in Malaya did not occur until 13th September. This was mainly because there were no allied troops on the ground to surrender to, apart from the tiny numbers of special forces in Force 136 who were emerging from their jungle hideouts along with units of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army.

It is thought that the crash site was first discovered in the 1950s by orang asli tribesmen who reported it to the British Army. However no action was taken at the time as the Malayan Emergency was in full swing and the army feared a trap by communist insurgents.

Later efforts to search for the wreck were thwarted by lack of funding and initial reluctance by the UK Ministry of Defence to support recovery of the remains.

In 2006 the Malaya Historical Group, following two expeditions to the wreck site, positively identified it as belonging to KL654. In 2007 MHG organized another trip with involvement of the Malaysian Army and two British participants, former Apache pilot and author Ed Macy and police detective Clayton Ford, and found various personal belongings of the crew such as rings, a gold bracelet, dagger, dog tag, coins, a tiny doll, spectacles and a water canteen. Some 80 bone fragments were recovered over the following years which have since been DNA tested to confirm their identities.

The remains of the 8 crew members were buried in one coffin but have individual headstones. Their names are:

Flying Officer J.T. Bromfield, 166369 from Cheam, Surrey (20 years old)
Flight Sergeant A. Turner, 1621393 from Dewsbury, Yorkshire (21 years old)

Flight Sergeant William Ross, 2213814 from Gateshead, Durham (20 years old)
Flight Sergeant Jack Blakey, 1582692, from Boston, Lincolnshire (30 years old)

Flight Sergeant Raymond Arthur Towell, 1624252, from Wellingborough, Northants(21 years old)

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Flight Lieutenant John Selwyn Watts, 158017, from Crofton, Yorkshire (24 years old)
Flying Officer Edward Donald Mason, 166082 from Sheffield, Yorkshire (22 years old)
Flying Officer William Kenneth Dovey, 166352 from Ludlow, Salop (20 years old).

The commemorative service,  conducted by The Reverend (Wing Commander) Jonathan Beach RAF, was dignified and respectful. There were readings from the British Defence Adviser in Malaysia, Captain Kenneth Taylor RN, Wing Commander John Dunne RAF and Warrant Officer ClassII Paul Cross. Pall bearers were from the RAF Regiment and a Gurkha bugler provided the Last Post and the Reveille. Members of the Malaysian Armed Forces and the British High Commissioner were also present.  Around twenty relatives of the deceased had been flown out from UK for the occasion at the expense of the Government (making up for the MOD’s earlier reluctance to search for the remains).  The closest relations in attendance I believe were the younger brothers of Flying Officer Dovey, now of course well advanced in years. It was clear that all the family members found the service moving and beautiful and an appropriate honour for the valour and sacrifice made by their relatives’ generation.

Manju Suddhi Buddhist Organization

When I was driving on a highway near Kajang recently I noticed a large Chinese temple on a hilltop. I had driven on this road a number of times but somehow had never spotted it before. Perhaps it has recently been extended. I thought I would drive up to take a closer look.

From the sign outside I could see that it is called Pertubuhan Budhis Manju Suddhi which translates as Manju Suddhi Buddhist Organization. It is located in Kampung Sungai Chua on the outskirts of Kajang, Selangor.

The complex comprises two large buildings, pagodas, gardens, courtyards and a recycling centre.

Three sided Guanyin Statue

There is a large three-sided Guan Yin statue and a Maitreya Buddha statue.

Maitreya Boddhisatva

The organization’s website is all in Chinese which does not translate well on Google Translate but from what I could make out the temple’s activities include prayer/meditation, weddings and funerals, education, charity and welfare, recycling,  and celebrations of all the big Chinese and Buddhist holidays.

Three Sided Guan Yin

Leech Beauty Treatment

I noticed this poster in the window of a women’s beauty parlour not far from where I live in Malaysia. It shows four leeches enjoying a meal on this woman’s face.

Leech Beauty Treatment

The use of leeches for medicinal purposes is well known and has been around since the ancient Egyptians. The saliva of leeches contains an anti-blood clotting agent which encourages blood to flow freely. The use of leeches is thought to be beneficial for people with circulation disorders and even to restore blood flow to surgically re-attached body parts.

But now their usage seems to have extended to beauty therapy. It is claimed that they can treat acne and remove ‘toxins’ from the body. What are toxins anyway? Do they really exist or are they just an invention of the alternative therapy industry?

The American actress Demi Moore is said to have tried leech therapy. I don’t know if she applied them to her face.

A few thoughts spring to mind:

  • Why would anybody in Malaysia pay for leech treatment (RM120 per session) when they they can get it for free just by walking on any jungle trail?
  • Leech bites tend to itch and excessive scratching can lead to nasty infections.
  • Whose blood did the leeches last suck before you? Could they transfer diseases?
  • What happens if they disappear up the customer’s nostril while the attendant is not paying attention?
  • How does the shop feed the leeches when they don’t have any customers? Do the staff have to let the leeches feed on them?

It seems that Malaysians are happy to be eaten alive in the quest for beauty. First it was the fish spa (where tiny fish nibble hard skin from the feet and toes) and now it’s leech therapy. What next? Snake massage perhaps. In Israel there is a spa offering this treatment where customers try to relax while a colourful bunch of lethal-looking snakes writhes about over their bodies. (Just Google snake massage if you want to see the scary photos). There is no shortage of snakes in Malaysia if anyone wants to open a serpent spa. They tend to be rather poisonous though.

Sandakan Brothel No. 8

When I told my wife that was I going to Sandakan to look for a brothel I thought she might get upset. Luckily she had already seen me reading a dusty old book called Sandakan Brothel No.8 so she assumed, correctly, that I was just planning another one of my whacky historical travel quests.

Sandakan Brothel No. 8

This book (which has also been made into a film) shines a light into the largely forgotten world of the karayuki-san, poor rural Japanese women sold into overseas prostitution between the 1860s and the 1930s. During that period thousands of young Japanese women and girls were shipped off to Siberia, Korea, China and South East Asian towns like Rangoon, Singapore, Batavia and Sandakan.

 

Map picture

  The majority of these girls were from one tiny corner of Japan, the Amakusa Islands and Shimabara Peninsula district (not far from the city of Nagasaki) which was a particularly impoverished area at that time.

 

 

 

The author Yamazaki Tomoko, in the hope of finding someone with first hand knowledge of the times, travelled to Amakusa in 1968 and, by chance, she met and befriended a poor old woman named Osaki who used to work as a karayuki-san. Over the course of many months she earns the trust of Osaki and eventually gets her to tell her moving life story.

She was born around 1900 and her father died shortly after. Her mother struggled to feed  three children and she remarried, to her brother-in-law. The mother,who was not a kind woman, moved in with her new husband and his six children and left her own children to fend for themselves. The eldest kid, Osaki’s brother, sold Osaki to a procurer for 300 Yen. Osaki was ten at the time but she was willing to go to earn money for her brother so that he could get married. She agreed to go to Sandakan provided her best friend went along too. Osaki’s older sister was also working in Rangoon. Although Osaki sent all her earnings to her older brother , he and the rest of her family (and even her son) rejected and shunned her when she returned to Japan due to the social stigma of her profession.

Osaki initially worked as a cleaner in the brothel on Lebuh Tiga in Sandakan until she turned 13 when she was forced to take customers.

There were 9 Japanese brothels on that street at that time and a further 15 Chinese brothels which seems a high number for such a small place.

How Sandakan would have looked in Osaki's time.

Sandakan was completely destroyed in the War. Today Lebuh Tiga looks like this, a respectable street with no brothels anymore. Where Brothel No. 8 once stood is now Borneo Dispensary.

Lebuh Tiga, Sandakan

Osaki moved to Brothel No. 8 because it was, unusually, run by a woman and she treated her girls well.  This elderly owner was called Kinoshita Okuni and known as “Okuni of Sandakan,” a famous and well respected personality of the town. Okuni had been the live-in-mistress of an Englishman in Yokohama but when he left Japan forever she moved to Sandakan and opened a general store and brothel.

Osaki said this about Okuni;

There are probably very few people alive today who know this, but Okuni had a Japanese graveyard built to pray for the souls of those Japanese who died in Sandakan. … It must have been when Okuni was several years past sixty, but she had gravestones ordered from Japan and built  her own grave at the very top of the hill, in a place that had the best view. It was an impressive grave, so big and white. She planted bamboo grass, and there was even a gate that led to the site. If she hadn’t planned all along to turn to dirt in Sandakan, never to return to Amakusa, she wouldn’t have built such a fine grave.

By 1917 there were a hundred graves there, almost all women, presumably many karayuki-san among them dying from an unhealthy occupation in a disease ridden climate.

I wanted to see if I could find Okuni’s grave. At first I could not even locate the Japanese graveyard but eventually found this sign and I could recognise the characters for Nihonjin.

Entrance to Japanese graveyard, Sandakan.

I think this must be the grave of Kinoshita Okuni but I could be wrong as my Kanji is so rusty these days.

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Osaki worked for about seven years in the ‘flower and willow’ quarters of Sandakan before becoming the concubine (live-in-mistress) of an Englishman who worked with the Dalby Company in Sandakan. She stayed in his relatively palatial house for six years. He had a wife and children back in England. She called him Mister Home and said that he was carrying on with another married Englishwoman in Sandakan and he only kept Osaki so that this woman’s husband would not be suspicious. Mister Home would no doubt have been horrified to find all his dirty washing aired in a book but I guess he never found out.

If you can find a copy of this book, I would definitely recommend it.

Sandakan–Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

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On my recent trip to Sandakan I spent a pleasant half day at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary.

Due to limited time, it was a toss up between this place and the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary which is also close to Sandakan. Since I had already seen an orang utan reserve in another part of Borneo, I opted for the proboscises.

Proboscis monkeys are native to Borneo. They were once widespread in the mangrove forests along the coast and on river banks of this massive island but due to rampant deforestation and destruction of their natural habitat they are now highly endangered with only a few thousand left in the wild. Even at Labuk Bay, the monkeys’ domain has been reduced to a narrow strip of coastal mangrove, surrounded by oil palm plantations.

The biggest nose in the troop

At the sanctuary, a few dozen monkeys, divided into two or three family groups*, emerge from the trees at feeding time and sit down on platforms to enjoy a meal of fruits and vegetables handed out by the park rangers and watched by tourists. Their natural diet includes tough, chewy mangrove leaves and they are equipped with a second stomach, like a cow’s, to help them digest the leaves.

Young bachelor

The strongest and most dominant of the big-nosed male monkeys has a harem of wives and lots of babies. Smaller or younger males form a bachelor group, sitting around in bored frustration and flirting with the wives when the boss is not looking – but he always is looking. One day, when the boss gets old and weak,  one of them will take over the harem.

Loving mother and child 

The longer I spent looking at these curious creatures, the more like humans they seemed. They have the same human frailties; lust, greed, anger but they also like to play, tease, and cuddle as this mother’s seemingly smiling face shows.

I had always wanted to see these close cousins of ours in the wild ever since I was a kid after reading the Tintin adventure, Flight 714. Here is the relevant extract:

Herge's Adventures of Tintin - Flight 714

At Labuk Bay, I also kept thinking that these monkeys reminded of somebody and then I realised it was Van Gogh (I suppose it’s the hat):

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Let’s hope that the countries which share the island of Borneo (Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei) can set aside much larger areas for the proboscis monkeys and other endangered species to ensure their long term survival.

*Fans of It’s Not the Nine O’clock News who can remember the gorilla sketch (flange of baboons, whoop of gorillas) might be curious to know if there is a colourful collective noun for proboscis monkeys – like ‘hooter’. Apparently not. Troop of monkeys is the usual collective.

Kampung Pantai–Scenic Village in Negeri Sembilan

Traditional Minangkabau style house in Pantai

Last year I wrote about Kampung Endah, a village in Selangor which was recognised as the Most Beautiful Village in Malaysia for several years running back in the 1990s.

I think I have now found another village which could compete for that title. Kampung Pantai and its surrounding hamlets contain many fine traditional houses, some of which have the Minangkabau ‘buffalo-horn’ style rooflines, like the example above, which are unique to Negeri Sembilan state.

Pantai is about ten kilometres outside of Seremban on Highway 86 headed towards Jelebu. On the way you pass the Rubber Conveyor Belt Factory.

Rubber Conveyor Belt Factory.

I wonder where the conveyor belts used to make conveyor belts are made?

Next the road passes Kampung Bukit Kubot where there is a large modern house with a spectacular roof. Not sure if it is a private residence or if it serves some other purpose.

Buffalo horn roof at Kampung Bukit Kubot. 

Close by, at Kg. Jerlang, is an old wooden mosque of a sort seldom found these days. The protruding mihrab (alcove) marks it out as a mosque otherwise you might think it is just a house.

Wooden mosque at Kg. Jerlang, Pantai, Seremban

Approaching Kg. Pantai itself you will see an extraordinary building, rising multiple layers like some kind of Malay fantasy castle. It is private property so I guess it is an institution of some kind.

Kg. Pantai

Pantai has a few old shops, some food stalls, a mosque, a police station and a clinic. Being on a busy main road, the tranquillity is spoilt somewhat by traffic noise but as soon as you step into any of the back lanes you are enveloped by the relaxing atmosphere of rustic kampung life with roosters foraging for scraps and the smells of burning charcoal and grilled fish.

Here are some of the quaint and charming homes in the village (and apologies if I have taken a photo of your house without permission but it is only out of admiration):

Kampung Pantai, Seremban, Negeri Sembilan

Kampung Pantai, Seremban, Negeri Sembilan

Kampung Pantai, Seremban, Negeri Sembilan

Kampung Pantai, Seremban, Negeri Sembilan

Kampung Pantai, Seremban, Negeri Sembilan

Kampung Pantai, Seremban, Negeri Sembilan

Kampung Pantai, Seremban, Negeri Sembilan

Kampung Pantai, Seremban, Negeri Sembilan

Kampung Pantai, Seremban, Negeri Sembilan

Kampung Pantai, Seremban, Negeri Sembilan

Kampung Pantai, Seremban, Negeri Sembilan

There is a homestay in Kampung Bemban if you want to experience village life for yourself. I did not see the place myself but you could call the numbers on this billboard if you are interested. They also have a page on the internet which you can find by Googling homestay kampung bemban.

Kampung Pantai, Seremban, Negeri Sembilan

If you know of a village in Malaysia which you feel is even more beautiful than Kampung Pantai I would be pleased to hear from you.

Kampung Pantai, Seremban, Negeri Sembilan

Highland Towers Tragedy

Highland Towers was a development of three blocks at the foot of a hill in Taman Hillview on the eastern edge of Kuala Lumpur.

In the early afternoon of 11 December 1993, after a couple of weeks of unusually heavy rain, the retaining wall behind Block 1 gave way, unleashing a landslip of thousands of tons of mud and rubble, toppling over the 12 storey block and killing 48 of its residents. Only 3 people were pulled out of the ruin alive, one of whom died subsequently died of her injuries.

This is the photo from the front page of The Star newspaper at the time.

The Star newspaper photo of the Highland Towers Tragedy. KENNETH TOO/AIR PORTFOLIO

I drove up to the site today and parked my car next to the white house at the lower centre of the photo.

Highland Towers in Sep 2012

The two remaining towers still stand abandoned and derelict. They were evacuated immediately after the tragedy and deemed unsafe for occupation.

Jungle is reclaiming the Highland Towers site.

Where Block 1 once stood is now dense with vegetation as the jungle has gradually reclaimed the site.

Highland Towers block awaiting demolition

Blocks 2 and 3, stripped of anything of value, are slowly decaying as they await demolition. Given the unstable condition of the hillside you would have thought they should have been demolished long ago for the safety of those living in the houses nearby.

This house had a narrow escape.

This house is the one in the bottom centre of the top photo which just escaped being crushed by the toppled tower block.  Now it is abandoned by its occupants and who can blame them?

My son’s university buddies tell him that Highland Towers is the most haunted place in Malaysia. I don’t know about that but the deserted blocks do have an eerie feel to them.

I noticed that some workmen appeared to be preparing a site for construction very close to the Highland Towers development. I hope the builders have learned the lessons of the tragedy and do not repeat the same construction errors.