Cakes And Gods Across Historic Waterways
By Tan Wee Cheng
Straits of Singapore, 1404. A Chinese fleet of three hundred and seventeen huge ships, many of which had nine masts and were manned by as many as 500 men, crossed this narrow body of water between the island of Singapore at the tip of the Asian continent and the Indonesian island of Bintan on the southern side. The largest ship was over 440 feet long and 186 feet wide, and could carry a thousand men. Led by Admiral Zhenghe, China's renowned Muslim sailor, this was at that time the greatest fleet the world had ever seen.
Zhenghe would lead many more expeditions of this scale fifty years before Columbus's voyage to the Americas in boats merely one quarter the size of the Chinese ships. The Treasure Boats, as the fleet was called, were on a grand mission across the trading routes of Maritime Asia, which ran through Southeast Asia, past the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East and eventually reached what is today Somalia. Everywhere they went, they traded extensively, exchanged gifts with local rulers, spread news of the might of the new Chinese emperor and occasionally interfered in local politics, though they never set up any colonies nor military outposts as later European invaders would.
Some historians believe that Zhenghe's real mission was to look for Emperor's Yongle's missing brother, the rightful owner of the throne usurped by Yongle. Whatever the case, this sparked off the first organised exchange between China and Southeast Asia, a sweet-and-sour affair which has persisted till today.
To the north of the Straits is the island of Singapore. In 1404, the island was known as the site of the recently abandoned kingdom of Temasek, whose ruler had been murdered a few years before by a refugee prince from the Indonesian island of Sumatra named Parameswara. Parameswara had been given refuge in Temasek, but he soon killed his benefactor to make himself ruler. The overlord of Temasek, Siam (today Thailand), sent a fleet to punish Parameswara. Parameswara escaped northwards to Melaka, in present-day Malaysia, where he founded a new kingdom. The Chinese fleet of Zhenghe was to be grandly received by Parameswara in Melaka, which marked the beginning of a Chinese-Malay alliance that enhanced the status of Melaka as an international trading port.
South of the straits is the island of Bintan. Then, it was a sleepy island of mangroves and fishing villages populated by water gypsies; it was also soon to be the home of immigrant fishermen and traders from Fujian, China, who followed Zhenghe's fleet. Much later, after the capture of Melaka by the Portuguese, the small island of Pulau Penyengat off Bintan became the capital of the Johor-Riau Empire and centre of the Malay world.
One Saturday morning, I hopped onto a catamaran in Singapore heading for Tanjung Pinang, capital of Bintan. It is a two-hour boat ride across the Straits of Singapore to what is now a weekend leisure hangout for Singaporeans. The Straits is one of the busiest waterways in the world - I saw ships across the horizon in this crowded body of water, whose narrowest stretch is only 25km. 50,000 ships, equivalent to more than half of the global merchant fleet tonnage, passes through every year, together with most of the petroleum tankers of Japan and China – shipping about 10.3 million barrels per day. The traffic is second only to the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance of the Persian Gulf.
I looked across the misty green hills on the islands to the south, and wondered where exactly Long Yamen - The Dragon's Tooth Gate, the steep cliffside landmark reported in ancient Chinese maritime chronicles – had been. Historical records say that the Mongol court once sent emissaries here in search of elephants. Some say Long Yamen had been located at Keppel Straits in Singapore while other historians argue that it was on Lingga Island in Riau, Indonesia. In either case, the notion of elephant hunting in either Singapore or Riau sounds faintly ridiculous today.
"Mister! Mister, listen to me!" the Indonesian touts swarmed over us the moment we walked out of the jetty complex. Offering anything from "beachside" hotel accommodation in inland locations to deep fried fish chips, these touts were a sudden reminder that we were no longer in First World Singapore but in a vast country with fifty times the population yet one-eighth the GDP per capita.
We did the standard thing - avoid eye contact, for it might imply interest, and push our way through the crowds, saying no, no and no. One of the more persistent ones refused to give up and followed us across the car park onto the open streets of Tanjung Pinang. Let's call him Ali.
"Hey friend, stop, stop, listen to me. I'm a local here. Tell me where you want to stay. I can recommend cheap hotels at good rates. Try the Hotel Tanjung Pinang on the beachside."
I am always wary of such offers. "Thank you. We know where we are going. Good Bye." We were to discover later, while on a stroll, that his so-called beachside hotel was a run-down 1960's building nowhere near any beach.
Ali changed his tactic. "C'mon, friend. This is my island. You don't know the situation here. It is not safe for you. Let me bring you to some safe places. And are you Singaporeans?"
"Please go away! We want to be alone." We walked further and further away from the jetty. But Ali would not give up. Why should he when there was little he could do to make a living here? He would be better off taking a punt with tourists.
Official unemployment in this country is 43 million out of a population of 200 million. Indonesia's workforce increases by 2.5 million a year but the 4% economic growth last year only provided new jobs for 1.2 million people. Worse, the economic prospects of Indonesia are still uncertain. With increased labour union militancy and NGO rights agitation, political instability and corruption, Indonesia has become an unattractive place to do business. Why produce jeans in Indonesia when you can produce them in China, with its higher productivity, zero interference from unions and labour rights activists, and relative absence of corrupt local officials?
We walked into a ramshackle restaurant, mostly in the hope of shaking off Ali, though we were slightly hungry as well. To our surprise, Ali walked in too. We had an overpriced lunch while Ali had a beer and most calmly asked the restaurant's Chinese owner to inform us that US$1 would persuade him to abandon his quest. We did not want to pay him for doing nothing, so we devised a plan - I would walk out of the restaurant, leaving Vernon to deal with him, and find a hotel as quickly as possible. As I stood and walked away, Ali stared at us with a puzzled look. It began to drizzle and Ali stayed where he was. He must have reckoned that I would not go far and decided to try his luck with Vernon instead.
I checked out two hotels 20 metres away. I didn't really like them but was a little tired and on the verge of accepting the offer from one of them. At this moment, Ali appeared suddenly at the hotel doorway, speaking loudly in Indonesian to the hotel receptionist. I realized he was trying to get a "commission" by claiming credit for my presence, and this commission would be translated into a higher price for me. Irritated, I opened my umbrella, and walked out of the hotel, into the rain, now pouring madly. As I left, I gave him a nasty stare. This time round, Ali did not follow. He might have realized that would not lead to anything and it wasn't worth getting wet for the effort.
Tanjung Pinang is a sleepy small town. It's full of narrow, dirty potholed streets and zillions of motor-bikes anxious to mow you down at any moment. Most buildings aren't very tall, apart from a few worn-out looking hotels and government buildings built with very poor notion of modern aesthetics. Along the waterfront are ugly shacks with corrugated aluminum rooftops and huge metal spikes and poles lying everywhere. The whole place looks dirty, messy and simply evil.
We walked on the streets, looking for the pier for boats to Pulau Penyengat and asking for directions from the local Chinese, many of whom were able to speak Mandarin. As in many other parts of Indonesia, the local Chinese run the local retail scene. The Chinese owners guard the cash till while their Indonesian employees man the goods. The Chinese have been in Indonesia for more than a thousand years. There were already established Chinese trading communities as well as farming and fishing settlements when Admiral Zhenghe arrived in these islands in the 15th century. Although they account only for 3% of the population, it was often reported that they own a large portion of the wealth of this country - with some estimates running as high as 70%. Through emphasis on education and hard work, the Chinese of Indonesia have on the whole built successful commercial networks and prospered over the centuries despite political persecution and discrimination.
However, academic studies have revealed that only a small number of Chinese-Indonesians can truly be described as wealthy. The remainder consists of a Chinese middle class in Indonesian cities, small shop-owners in poverty-stricken remote villages selling essential provisions, and even poor Hokkien and Hakka miners, farmers and fishermen in the outer islands of the archipelago.
Yet, the fables of Jakarta's Chinese billionaires feed an ongoing history of racial antagonism.
If Tanjung Pinang is an irredeemable pot of dirt and chaos, historic Pulau Penyengat is a pristine island of order and peace. This was the birthplace of modern Malay culture and language. It was here that the Johor royal family, descendants of the Melaka sultans, eventually settled after the Portuguese capture of Melaka. They had set up base in what is today the southern Malaysian state of Johor to continue their fight against the Portuguese but in 1512, their capital, Johor Lama, was destroyed by the Portuguese fleet. They then set up court in Pulau Penyengat and built a prosperous trading centre, which drew traders from all over the islands of Indonesia, as well as Siam, India and China.
This new capital of what became known as the Johor-Riau Sultanate grew wealthy and cosmopolitan. The Malay language, indigenous to these islands, soon became the lingua franca of the region. From these origins, pasar Malay, or market Malay, evolved into the modern national languages of Malaysia (Bahasa Malaysia) and Indonesia (Bahasa Indonesia). Even today, the people of Riau claim that their Malay tongue is the purest and most original of the entire archipelago.
How things have changed! Once the British and Dutch divided this region into a meshwork of colonies and protectorates, the Johor-Riau sultanate split apart after a series of civil wars and rebellions. Trade diverted to new centres, in Singapore and Batavia, capital of the old Dutch East Indian Empire and present-day Jakarta. Bintan and Penyengat fell into obscurity, remembered only by historians and visited by Singaporeans looking for a quiet weekend break.
Today Penyengat is a green island of quaint neat houses and vegetable gardens, dotted by ruins of palaces and tombs of forgotten sultans. We walked around this 2.5km by 0.75km island. No touts, no shops, no traffic. What was once a vibrant cosmopolitan trading city, centre of Islamic scholarship and capital of a maritime empire is today a sleepy village.
Friendly boys on the football pitch waved to us. Smiling girls walked the streets in their weekend best, in colourful traditional tudung and robes, going to a wedding. An elderly Malay man read the Quran on the steps of the Royal Mosque, with strange green-yellow minarets rising from the building like fantasy spires. We walked to the other side of the island, where a party was taking place, with thumping beats of hip-hop and Caribbean rap. Afro pop meets Nasi Padang. Depending on your viewpoint, this could either be a boon or a bane of globalization in the 21st century.
I bought a huge kueh lapis at a supermarket. The kueh lapis is a cake common not only in Indonesia but also Singapore and Malaysia. It was first made by the Peranakan people of Batavia, a people of mixed Chinese and Malay descent, who picked up cake-baking from the Dutch colonizers and then created this cake.
Kueh lapis means “cake of multiple layers”. The Chinese similarly call it qiānchénggāo, cake of a thousand layers. As the name implies, it comprises of layers of beaten butter and eggs, plus some dosage of vanilla, condensed milk and granulated sugar and only a bit of flour.
The making of a kueh lapis is a long, painstaking process. Each thin layer of golden richness is lovingly mixed and battered, evenly spread across the previous baked layer, and then the whole thing is baked in the oven. The process is repeated, until the top layer is baked. The end result is a wonderful cake whose multiple layers give subtly different flavours although they are all made from the same ingredients.
The peoples and cultures of Indonesia are somewhat akin to a kueh lapis. The first peoples of the archipelago were lesser known tribes related to the Australian Aborigines, who were quickly followed by the Malay-Polynesian peoples who came over from Yunnan, southern China. These sailors went further many of them settling in the faraway isles of the Pacific, and today make up the natives of Hawaii, Tahiti and Easter Island. The Indian sailors trading with the peoples of the Archipelago converted many, and left the exuberant temples of Prambanan, Java, and the exotic dances of Bali. Then came Buddhism, whose followers built the monumental Borobodur. Islam came, followed by Chinese settlers and European colonizers.
Each of these visitors or settlers brought their own culture, which became as a component of this multiple layered admixture that is Indonesia. Yet, none of the newcomers wiped out the earlier cultures. Like a kueh lapis, each layer of new cultural influence sometimes merged with the earlier layer, but more often, they created a new layer on top of the older one. The observer needs only to peel each layer and savour the amazing diversity that is Indonesia.
When you next visit Southeast Asia, look out for the kueh lapis.
We had dinner at a huge, half-empty seafood restaurant. To start with, the menu was dubious. No price was stated, so we made verbal enquiries. Not for the first time, Bintan proved to be an expensive place. Prices were quoted in Singapore Dollars and the two of us spent the equivalent of US$25 for some vegetables, fried rice and prawns that were mediocre at best. We could pay less in Singapore, a country where the cost of living was much higher, for better.
Because of such experiences, Malaysia, which is also next door to Singapore, is our real weekend paradise. Restaurants abound, providing good food at reasonable prices. Unfortunately, Indonesia doesn't understand the dynamics at work in the tourism industry and continues its slide down the economic ladder.
The next morning, we took a boat to Senggarang, a fishing village of wooden and congregated aluminum sheets on stilts. This is the biggest Chinese village on Bintan. Most of the Chinese moved here in the 1740s and 1750s from Fujian, southern China. Many of them were invited by the then Bugis ruler of Bintan to develop gambier plantations on Bintan.
Like most Chinese villages in Malaysia and Singapore, Senggarang is dotted with Chinese shrines and temples, some of which are devoted to the deity Tuabehgong. The worship of Tuabehgong is a phenomenon restricted to Singapore, Malaysia and parts of Indonesia. He is the combination of the southern Chinese deity, Tudigong (God of the Land) and pre-Islamic Malay deities.
The early Chinese migrants to these islands, apart from bringing their religious beliefs, also acquired new ones, and merged them together. The Malay people may appear to be staunchly Islamic today but many had only converted to Islam between the 15th and 18th centuries, which coincided with the arrival of the Chinese settlers. These settlers encountered a Malay people who were flirting not only with Islam but also a variety of Hindu gods and local animist beliefs.
The polytheistic and pragmatic Chinese probably decided that the way to safety and prosperity in a foreign land lay in adopting local deities as their own, hence the creation of a new deity. The Tuabehgong is today one of the most commonly worshipped deities among Chinese in these regions, and a unique example of the marriage of religions.
One of the most-visited temples in Seranggang is a rather small temple built into the gigantic roots of a banyan tree more than a hundred years old. Legends say an old man once lived here and, after his death, a sacred banyan tree grew around it. People who pray here have reputedly had their wishes granted, hence the beginning of a cult around the banyan-tree temple. Here I saw gifts of furniture and urns carved with the names of their Singapore donors. I stuffed S$5 into the donation box and made a prayer. Let's see if I win the lottery in the next year.
The skies were merciless in their intermittent rain. Once again we were drenched as we walked to the ferry terminal. Perhaps this was a blessing of sorts, as it kept away the touts. The border customs were easy enough and we didn't encounter the corrupt Indonesian border officials we had heard so much about. The catamaran ride itself wasn't easy, for the seas were extremely choppy. At times, I felt as though the boat would overturn, or I would throw up.
I thought the ride was analogous to the Indonesia of today - a land of constant instability and uncertainty. It is often easy for the rest of the world to forget Indonesia, for the country speaks with a soft voice and hardly makes any impact on the global economy. But it is a nation with 200 million people, the most populous Islamic country in the world and one that straddles some of the most vital waterways of the world. For that reason, we should hope that Indonesia finds peaceful waters before too long.