Day 1 of the Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020 | Travels with my wife

Travels With My Wife

Still talking after all these years!

Day 1 of the Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020

We were supposed to be moving to the UK, but then the Plague came and we decided to stay where it was safe: MALAYSIA!

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After having written two drama series with Mediacorp in Singapore, directed a feature film in Hong Kong, and been round and round in circles with Hollywood, my PTSD sets in the moment I start thinking about working with producers and actors again. So I took to making documentaries with Helen, my wife. She always thought my existence was rather cushy compared to hers at Hong Kong's Chinese University. Whereas I merely struggled with oblivion, she battled the Patriarchy, a Cantonese world that gave the old Colonials no quarter, and finally Mainlandification, which basically means everyone's fates depend upon mysterious invisible powers north of the Shenzhen border. On retirement, instead of settling into a part-time teaching role in a Hong Kong poised to start hurling petrol bombs, she threw her lot in with me and we went off to Malaysia to embark upon something completely different. And here she has discovered the delights of film production, where she stands in the broiling sun steadying the camera until I remember my lines and manage to walk to the right spot.

Her interests in photography and mine in history, as well as hamming it up in front of the camera, combined to produce a couple of documentaries on the history of Johor Bahru and Johor Lama. Look them up on at
https://vimeo.com/ondemand/sultans and https://vimeo.com/ondemand/hiddenhistory and give us a few dollars for the effort! We showed these around town, that is, Johor Bahru, and had some nice reactions. So we thought we should really do some more history documentaries, especially if there were some interesting places to shoot in.

I was rather keen on following up on the Ancient History of Malaysia, especially as Sinbad The Sailor mentions now lost cities in Kedah. The angle would be how close to some of the fictional and mythical ideas agree with what is now known. So we thought we would go off to Kedah and the Bujang Valley to take a look.

But there were also other stories to tell. I did wonder if I could trace the Sword of Sang Nila Utama, and give Perak's history the sort of once over I did for Johor. Perak was founded by the elder brother of the man who founded the Johor sultanate, so it would be a companion piece. Thus Perak would have to be included in our journey.

And then there were the Larut Wars! During the colonial period, battling Chinese brotherhoods heralded the British takeover. The story of Captain Speedy and Ngah Ibraham looked like an interesting piece of history that rarely crosses the threshold of consciousness, despite the repeated occurrence of disputes of a similar nature that take place today, though thankfully are fought out in the courts and not on the streets. So we had to go to Taiping.

Pretty soon it was obvious that we should drive around the country and hunt down as many stories as possible. One thing I have learnt is that most histories get a different spin on them when one consults local historians and actually goes to the places where the events happened. Also, I know that what I fantasise about as an interesting story, can often, on closer inspection provide little to photograph, and even less of a story when one discovers that half of what one has read about, is actually fiction!

This journey was thus an all encompassing recce. We found out a few new stories. We delved into museums and archeological sites. We toured various regions seeking out scenic spots. As ever we blundered about dipping in here and there, struggling with the pronunciation of newly discovered characters' names, and garbling factoids picked up from googling and museum posters.

We were impressed by some museums, though not by how they were advertised, and sadly not that surprised by the indifferent nature of others. We were impressed by the manner in which The Virus, has been dealt with, and how the social distancing protocols often made visiting various venues much better! It has been a great incentive to improve the signage. Though we were a little alarmed at the crowds at various markets and just told ourselves that the closed borders, rather than masks, had made Malaysia very safe.

Every day we published a video of the day's journey on Facebook. This was not easy, especially with the pathetic upload speeds of most hotel WIFI. The history I give in each piece barely touches the surface of the stories. And as they are made on the fly, like all diaries, they start off with one intention and morph over time into something else. Whether we will make some longer and more detailed documentaries about some of the stories all depends upon whether we can get a budget to make them. And so, now we are putting our travels on to YouTube, hoping that we'll get the thousand subscribers and four thousand hours of watch time necessary for Monetization! So please SUBSCRIBE! And please SHARE!

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The first day video takes us to Pekan. Roughly speaking the history of the place starts off six thousand years ago with neolithic hunter gatherers, then it morphs into a bronze age that demands lots of tin, which begins the maritime trade that most of the Malay states are based on. With the tin mines there was also gold and that made the peninsular famous as far a field as Alexandria in Egypt.

By the second century AD, we find the Pahang area is tributary to Funan, a SE Asian kingdom that covers parts of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. And by the sixth century the power of Funan has wained in favour of Langasuka and Kedah, which were both Buddhist and Hindu. And by the 8th Century the area comes under Srivajayan influence. Srivajaya was based in Sumatra.

In the eleventh century Chola kings from the East of India began raiding around the region and Srivajaya melted away and this area then became part of Ligor, a tributary state of Siam. The Siamese in various forms vied for power in the Peninsular and it was not until the twentieth century that they moved to the present borders, when the British pushed them out and created the unfederated states of Malaya.

Like Melaka, in the fifteenth century, we find Admiral Zheng He turning up and a strong Chinese presence. Though most of the present Chinese you find in Pekan came in during the colonial period. Before the Portuguese pushed the Melakan Sultans out of Melaka, Melaka pushed the Siamese out of Pahang and became the power in the region. When the Portuguese did push the Sultan out of Melaka, he fled to Pahang first and well, did not quite get the reception he had hoped for. Having just lost his power, the local rulers must have felt that perhaps they could easily kill him and rob him. He did not hang around long enough to let them put any of their plans into action.

Pahang eventually became a close ally of Johor and Perak, but the dynastic ties fell apart in the 18th Century when one finds the Bugis running rampant throughout the region. The present community still has a strong Sulawesi contingent. In 1857 we get a typical if rather un-civil war between competing brothers. Sultanic families seem very prone to violent succession squabbles. That dispute was inflamed further by Temenggong Abu Bakar, later the Sultan of Johor, hiring Bugis mercenaries to back his preferred choice. But the death from natural causes of one of the brothers settled the rather bloody and chaotic dispute.

As that dispute settled down, the battles between warring Chinese factions over mining rights throughout the peninsula made the British think the whole place needed civilising. They arrived in Pekan in 1881, not the least to stop one of the Maharajas from indulging in the habit of sitting on the riverside shooting at any passing boat he disapproved of. In a dispute with a British administrator, a certain Mr W C Mitchell, over a property deal, the said Maharajah shot him dead. And then the British hunted him down and shot him dead in return.

British colonials then lived a somewhat precarious existence in the region, looking over their shoulders at the possibility of a Malay going Amok: and many of them had good reason to! As the British did a deal with the Sultan, where he got a ten percent rake off of profits from mining and other projects, he sold off vast tracts of ill defined land to conglomerations of Chinese and European companies, often sidelining or forgetting the local Maharajah's who had their own business operations in situ on land sold from under them. Throw into that the British removing their traditional rights to tax in their local fiefdoms, and you have a recipe for producing a lot of angry people with a tradition of resolving intractable disputes with their kris!

So impossible did Pekan become that after three years in the place, the British moved their administration to Lipis, which proved horribly unappealing, so they then decided to move the administration to Kuantan. And after near sixty years of not unusual colonial administrative dithering, the British finally moved to Kuantan in 1953!

As one travels around the peninsular one begins to see a pattern. There are reminders that whereas Britain brought in railways and other civil engineering projects, it was designed less to make life better for the local population and far more to make it easier to extract the money and take it elsewhere, which in those days basically meant a British bank and share holders spending their dividends in the UK. A tradition that ruling classes seem to like even nowadays, though perhaps the banks and shareholders are concentrated less in London than they used to be. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Here is DAY ONE of our Road Trip around Malaysia…