What do Miracle-Workers and Chendol Have in Common? A New Look at Old Debates in Maritime Southeast Asia (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia)

Esmond Soh, Contributor & Writer, Cogito Collective
M.A. (History) Candidate, Nanyang Technological University
B.A. (History) (Hons), Nanyang Technological University

Note: The first half of this essay was partially inspired by a group documentation project that I have submitted as a part of the course HH3039 Maritime Asia in the Longue Dureé under Dr. Koh Keng We in 2017. Discussions with Dr. Els Van Dongen, Sung Chang Da and Nicholas Lim have also been especially helpful in organising the second part of this paper. I am also thankful to the comments of Nicholas Lua, who proofread an earlier copy of this manuscript.

Identifying as a historian in contemporary Singapore is problematic. Every few years, as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia lock horns over some aspect of shared heritage, be it over batik, food or silat, the historian is asked to present the answer to these longstanding and pressing questions at family gatherings: When, where, and who first invented these belief systems/objects/practices? The myths underpinning these questions reveal a lot about its askers:

Firstly, that there is a specific time and location in human history where these concepts can be confidently traced to. Secondly, these ideas were deliberately ‘invented’ by a specific personality, who could be credited with the much sought-after title of being the progenitor of a particular idea or practice. Both perspectives are attractive to our human-nature of seeking ‘correct’ knowledge, but historically speaking, they are moot.

Rather than waste ink over arguing where a particular shared idea or practice first originated in Southeast Asia, I choose to approach the same controversies through the lens of world history. Instead of trying to pinpoint a particular location and date of ‘invention,’ I am preoccupied with the broader socio-cultural flows of people, ideas and material culture that made these developments possible. I examine the circulation and transformation of beliefs, ideas and practices through the lenses of two phenomena: keramat worship and cuisine in maritime Southeast Asia. I will show how these questions about ‘ownership’ over jointly-held beliefs, traditions and craftsmanship in maritime Southeast Asia remain a fruitless endeavour that obfuscates more than it illuminates. Fighting over the ownership of a particular practice, object, or craft only serves to entrench historic myopia, while stripping away the depth of appreciation for cultural intercourse.

Graves, Stones and Sacred Sites: Keramat Worship in 20th Century Singapore

The cult of the keramat takes us all the way back to pre-modern Southeast Asia, where a blend of Hindu-Buddhist beliefs existed alongside animism. In animism, natural phenomena and animals were attributed with supernatural powers, and thus propitiated and worshipped accordingly. A ‘keramat’ is thus an umbrella term used to designate such sacred objects, and both living keramats (such as crocodiles) and non-living keramats (such as the graves of pious men and unusually high termite hills) were worshipped. 

1. Unnamed keramats in Changi, Singapore, December 2019.
Photographs by the author.
2. Unnamed keramats in Changi, Singapore, December 2019.
Photographs by the author.

The diffusion of Islam through maritime Southeast Asia’s sea ports by Arab-Muslim traders since the 14th century and beyond invested some of these non-living and living keramats with Islamic affiliations. Graves associated with holy Muslim men eventually became sites of worship and pilgrimage by devotees seeking supernatural assistance. Visiting tombs of the deceased royalty, which were not necessarily ‘keramats’ themselves, was also undertaken by Malay leaders who travelled throughout their dominions while European colonialism encroached in the 19th century. 

3. Keramat of Habib Nuh, Palmer Road, Singapore, December 2019. Photographs by the author.
4. Keramat of Habib Nuh, Palmer Road, Singapore, December 2019. Photographs by the author.

Throughout the 19th century, as Southeast Asia became increasingly interwoven into the global circuits of labour, capital and commodities, keramats became sites of pilgrimage and worship by travellers. Uncoincidentally, these keramats gained renown, believed to have enabled the miracles of safe passage so crucial to seafarers and oceanic trade. Although the oceans of Southeast Asia were home to a plethora of indigenous deities known for their nurturing properties, these keramats – in the form of living men or scared gravesites – served as meeting points between a global Islam with locally-renowned holy men. In this capacity, they “harked back to an age wherein seafaring was determined by the intermediation of keramats.” The case of the Sufi keramat Habib Nuh (1799-1866 CE) – who was entombed in Palmer Road, Singapore after his death – was a case in point. Teren Sevea explained how some of Habib Nuh’s hagiographical traditions praised Nuh for having:

“…sheltered urban labourers, fisherman, and syces within the British port city (of Singapore), which was plagued by class polarisation, poverty, crime and the lack of access to medical services and basic amenities… (Elsewhere,) Nuh regularly teleported himself to spirit-infested junctures of the Bay of Bengal to help seafaring captains (nakhoda), merchants, lascars and fishermen alike, by transmitting the esoteric sciences (ilmu) of the Indian Ocean and of mastering vessels.”

Although maritime Southeast Asia was already home to commercial and socio-cultural exchange from as early as the 14th century, the increased traffic of inter-oceanic voyages throughout the 19th and early-20th centuries pushed these keramats to the forefront of oceangoers’ eyes. Despite the fantastical nature of these testimonies, the corpus of traditions that grew around Habib Nuh testified to the roles that keramats played in facilitating inter-regional exchange between different peoples. Nuh’s activities also reflected the darker side of commercial trade in the region, where those from the lower rungs of society suffered from exploitation and disregard. Nuh’s cult of devotion – which appealed to the needy across the spectrum of socio-economic classes in maritime and colonial Singapore – was probably only a single node within a larger network of miracle-working keramats. By the 19th century, it was clear that keramat worship was a transoceanic project that was conditioned by the exchange of Islamic religious beliefs, commercial interests and the circulation of devotees across the ocean. 

5. Entrance to the temple of the Grand Uncle at Palmer Road, Singapore, December 2019. Photograph by the author.

Interestingly, but not altogether surprising given that Singapore was the proverbial hub to the wheel of Chinese migration into Southeast Asia in the 19th century, some of the most renowned keramats in Singapore developed alongside Chinese temples devoted to a ubiquitous tutelary deity known as Tua Pek Kong (literally: The Grand Uncle). Nuh’s keramat at Palmer road is situated a stone’s throw away from a historic Grand Uncle temple staffed by Chinese Hakkas since 1844. As Sevea had pointed out, Muslim hagiographies of Habib Nuh chose to omit Nuh’s benign interaction with the temple, even though “hagiographers conceded, in interviews, that the keramat (Nuh) had conferred his few remaining possessions to the Hakka temple before his physiological death.”

6. Plaques in three different languages built into the Kusu Island keramat. Photographs from the author’s collection, November 2017.
7. Plaques in three different languages built into the Kusu Island keramat. Photographs from the author’s collection, November 2017.

8. Plaques in three different languages built into the Kusu Island keramat. Photographs from the author’s collection, November 2017.

The situation of keramats to the side of cult centers of the Grand Uncle could also be observed in Kusu Island. When the businessman Wang Shuidou (d. 1924) sponsored the reconstruction of a shrine devoted to the Grand Uncle on Kusu Island in 1927, he concurrently supported the refurbishment of three keramats on an adjoining island. A plaque (dated to 1921) commemorating Wang’s effort – in Jawi, Chinese and English remains – remains embedded in the keramat’s interior. Up till today, Kusu Island is thronged by devotees who come from as far as Thailand to worship the Grand Uncle throughout the ninth lunar month. After the Grand Uncle was propitated, devotees would climb the 152 steps up the hill of Kusu Island, where the three keramats rest. Just as Nuh brought together merchants, devotees and needy petitioners who travelled to Singapore in the 19th century, the keramats and Grand Uncle temple on Kusu Island does the same today.

9. Note how different ethnicities and their constituent communities were ‘assigned’ specific plots of land. These pigeonholing and classificatory tendencies by the British, of course, did not always hold in reality. 

The exchanges described certainly mirrored the diversity of peoples and belief systems present in the British Straits Settlements (Malacca, Penang and Singapore) and its respective port cities. While interacting and living within their own ethnic and religious communities, the ossifying divisions imposed upon these sojourners by the British were less tangible than we are made to believe. Despite Singapore’s Chinatown being ‘Chinese,’ (or how Kampong Glam remains conceptualised as ‘Malay’) as characterised by the 1822 Jackson Plan, reality paints a different picture, where the so-called ‘Chinatown’ remains home to two Hindu temples and two mosques

In this regard, the adjacent situation of these nominally Malay-Muslim keramats alongside temples devoted to the Grand Uncle were probably uncoincidental. Just as the Grand Uncle was the earthly adjutant within a hierarchical celestial bureaucracy, it is likely that these keramats – which Sumit Mandal described as “intermediaries…(who) interceded between the temporal and spiritual worlds” – were conceptualised along similar lines, hence the co-existence of two different, albeit similar cults. Mandal also noted that keramats indigenous to Southeast Asia “drew people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds,” and it is thus unsurprising that these parallel belief systems operated in the vicinity of each other. Port cities in maritime Southeast Asia, as sites of inter-communal interaction, commercial and religious exchange, would have made these encounters at home with one another. Keramat worship is thus the product – and beneficiary – of a fluid Southeast Asian world that was home to transoceanic and transcultural exchanges, a development that is conveniently ‘forgotten’ when we adopt the nation-state as our parochial basis of analysis.

Chinese interaction with keramats, to be sure, took a life of its own in maritime Southeast Asia after the twentieth century. Although frowned upon by stauncher Muslims, keramat worship continued until the late-twentieth century, until reformist movements advocated for the abandonment of keramats. Interestingly, this development did not kill off the cult of the keramat completely. Instead, keramats – and as we shall see, the cult of the Datok –eventually became adopted by Chinese religious practitioners, partially because keramats, once worshipped, cannot go unpropitiated lest the worshipped divinity turns on its community. 

10 Roadside shrine devoted to a resident Datok Gong tree spirit, Bedok, Singapore, December 2019. Photograph by the author.
11 Sacred stone and mound representing ‘The Datok of Punggol’ in a roadside shrine, Punggol, Singapore, October 2017. Note the similarities between keramat worship, where natural phenomena were invested with supernatural properties by its (largely) Chinese worshippers. Photograph by the author.

By the second-half of the twentieth century, keramat worship birthed the cult of the Datok Gong. Cheu Hock Tong suggests that the cult of the Datok Gong grew out of the keramat cult. In the face of Islamisation in Malaysia, the cult of the Datok Gong “served as an internal defence-mechanism against…(the) ideologies of ‘Malay nationalism’ and ‘Malay national-culturism.’” Rather than submit to a growing Malay-Muslim presence, the cult of the Datok Gong in the Malay world provides a safety valve for Chinese religious practitioners to co-opt and engage with hostile socio-political pressures on the Chinese’s own terms. Pork, being a key culinary differentiator between the immigrant Chinese and the Malay-Muslims indigenous to maritime Southeast Asia, remains a taboo offering in both keramat and Datok Gong worship. Both cults host similar assumptions, such as the divinity’s Malay-Muslim identity. Pertinent differences exist, however. Unlike the keramat, which is usually represented as a sacred mound, a Datok Gong, being the hybridised product of Chinese religion’s encounter in a Malay-Muslim world, usually (but not necessarily) takes the form of anthropomorphised image of a Malay-Muslim man. 

12 Image of an anthropomorphised Datok Gong in Toa Payoh, Singapore. November 2017. Photograph in the author’s collection.

Nevertheless, we should not run away with the idea that this attempt at syncretism amounts to an idealised form of inter-ethnic or religious harmony. Quite the contrary, in fact. Because the cult of the Datok “tends to use Islamic symbols” which can be interpreted as an “affront to Islam,” Cheu warns that Datok worship “can also pose a threat to harmonious ethnic relations.” Still, this coping mechanism informs us about the fluid worlds that govern the circulation of ideas – religious, cultural, social and ethnic – throughout the region of maritime Southeast Asia. Keramat worship – and its subsequent Datok Gong offshoot – was an activity facilitated by the circulation of peoples and beliefs throughout the entire region as a whole. However, unlike the case of street food, no one has seriously contested the regionality of keramat worship, even though both phenomena developed along very similar lines and within similar contexts. It is here that I turn my attention to an ethnography of food in Singapore, and its relationship with the region.

Feasting and Fighting: Food Wars in Contemporary Southeast Asia

Who could forget the recent ‘Chendol War’ that CNN had unintentionally unleashed when it was announced that Singapore’s chendol had made it into its list of 50 best desserts around the world? Predictably, these comments whipped up a frenzy of rebuttals and counter-rebuttals in cyberspace, where the authenticity of hawker food in Singapore was (and still is) being challenged by alternatives in Malaysia and Indonesia. Whatever the case, and going beyond the cliché that taste is a subjective matter, I believe that most netizens throughout the region miss the broader socio-cultural and historical context that made these gastronomic innovations possible.

Chendol. This sweet and cold desert of shaved ice had left Southeast Asian netizens fuming in 2019.

The foods that are consumed in this region – despite their ‘Southeast Asian’ label – are in fact transnational products of continuous hybridisation, re-invention and re-interpretation. In other words, claims that these dishes are indigenous to a particular post-independence nation-state or ethnic community are debatable at best. Although it is difficult to trace the exact use of these ingredients, many dishes that are simplistically classified as ‘Malay’ or ‘Chinese’ ignores the inter-regional and inter-communal exchange of cooking technologies involved. The descriptions of Mee Rebus, despite its Malay-sounding name and associated preparation by Malay-Muslim food stalls, conceal as much as they reveal:

“…It means boiled noodles…the boiled yellow noodles are soaked in a gravy made with potato starch, seafood stock, dried shrimps and spices.”

Mee Rebus. Note the use of yellow wheat noodles as the staple of this dish.

If we assume uncritically that the dish is one of ‘Malay’ or ‘Indonesian’ origins, then the closest that we get to this dish’s ‘indigenous’ character lies in its savoury sauce. However, the yellow wheat noodles that form this dish’s staple betrays its Chinese borrowings. Similarly, when we think of stir-fried foods that are typically ‘Malay’ in name, such as Nasi Goreng, the uncritical acceptance of these over-generalising tendencies mean that diners forget that stir-frying is itself a Chinese technology

By exploring the fairly-recent history of a dish known as chili noodles in Singapore, one can also see how the debt that Southeast Asian ‘Chinese’ cuisine owes to the region goes both ways:

“These Teochew folks who originally hailed from Sarawak, Malaysia, entered the business by chance. They used to sell spices in a provision shop and many locals bought a combination of spices for their chili sauce… They recalled and experimented on the spices the Sarawkians bought for their chili sauce and plonked on noodles. The rest is history.”

Chili peppers – This vegetable – now ubiquitous in Southeast Asian cuisine – was first domesticated in South America.

It is clear that simply insisting that chilli noodles is ‘Chinese’ or ‘Singaporean’ just because it was developed within the borders of the nation-state fails to give credit to the Sarawakians who indirectly-inspired the recipe’s spice blend. Pushing the timeframe of the dish’s origins even further, it can also be argued that the dish’s genesis was only made possible by the Mesoamericans, who were the first communities to domesticate and consume chilli peppers in South America. For chilis to feature as an ingredient, it was necessary for the administrative and geographical entities that we now identify as ‘Indonesia’ and ‘Singapore’ today to participate in the Columbian exchange of food and plant products. Clearly, the notion of the nation-state as we take for granted today, such as ‘Singapore,’ ‘Malaysia’ and ‘Indonesia,’ were all anachronistic concepts that remained unsubstantiated in the then-public’s consciousness. To simply lay claim to them on the basis of where a particular dish was prepared is to ignore the historical context that made this process possible – namely, the movement of people, foodstuffs and fluid boundaries – throughout maritime Southeast Asia.  

Tapioca. Because of its fast-growing properties, tapioca became a staple during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942-1945).

Colonial legacies also shaped the foodways and recipes of Southeast Asia, and cannot be discounted from the picture. While colonialism saw the tightening of travel restrictions in some dimensions, it concurrently spawned movements for the exchange, modification and localisation of once-foreign recipes. Consider ‘Western’ food in the region: Most ‘Western’ food chains familiar to Singaporeans were the brainchild of Hainanese cooks who once worked in the service of the British. Pork chops slathered in tomato sauce and steak in brown sauces are all instances of fusion cuisine devised by these Hainanese chefs. Names that are taken for granted as ‘Western’ establishments in Singapore – such as Jack’s Place and Han’s – were all descended from Hainanese chefs who interpreted ‘Western’ food on their own terms. Soft-boiled eggs and grilled toast, a staple of any Hainanese inspired coffeeshop breakfast in Singapore and Malaysia finds its predecessor in the British breakfast of soldiers dipped in eggs. Likewise, who could forget the lean times associated with the Japanese Occupation (circa. 1942-1945) in the region, where food rationing necessitated (and popularised_ the consumption of tapioca related products, such as ondeh-ondeh and tapioca cake? 

Roti John on a grill.

By surfacing the difficulty of pinpointing human agency in accounting for the origins of Southeast Asian cuisine, I show how the modern nation-state is an inadequate way of interpreting foodscapes and its associated historical context. The processes that underpinned these foods’ creation were thus far from well-planned and deliberately intentioned ‘inventions.’ Instead, they better resembled the products of cultural hybridisation, differentiation and personal ingenuity exercised by Southeast Asian chefs. I offer the origins of the somewhat racist-sounding ‘Roti John’ as a final example: 

“A Singaporean creation of onions and eggs spread on a split French loaf and pan-grilled…Invented in the 1970s by a hawker called Shukor, whose foreign clientele always requested for an onion omelette which they ate with bread, so he did a two-in-one and dipped the breads in eggs before frying it. And he called this dish ‘Roti John’ as Caucasians were colloquially addressed as ‘John’ in those days.”

The history of Roti John is somewhat exceptional because it is one of the very few instances of street food whose origins were relatively well documented. However, even if we accept this account, the original stimulus behind the genesis of ‘Roti John’ remains disputed: is the dish foreign in origin, given that a Caucasian indirectly inspired the dish through his requests in Singapore? Or should it be attributed to the chef that first prepared it? These questions all miss the point, for they ignore the region’s postcolonial engagement with different peoples and culinary habits. Roti John is clearly a hybrid product whose creation was catalysed by the coincidence of two very different worldviews in a common place. Too often have observers fallen prey to simple heuristics when pigeonholing a particular food into the boundaries of the nation-state or postcolonial ethnic categories, such as Malay, Chinese, Indian or European. Thus, attempts to confine Roti John to the narrow-minded category of ‘Singaporean’ or ‘Indian-Muslim’ food defeats the impetus that inspired its birth. 

I am not here is not to nit-pick at the history of the specific ingredients that are necessary in the preparation of Southeast Asian dishes. No one will deny that they were products of human ingenuity in the region, but to call these foodstuffs a by-product of ‘invention’ is to show a gross under-appreciation of the socio-cultural environment dominant then. The lack of a luxurious access to ingredients meant that Southeast Asians were open to innovation and borrowing from one another when contingency knocks on the doors of its chefs. Moreover, it is clear that no two recipes for similarly named foods are the same: The ‘Laksa wars’ that occurred within Singapore in the late 1990s is a case in point. Although it is tempting for Singaporeans, Malaysians and Indonesians to appeal to notions of ‘traditionalism’ to justify their nationalistic stake upon a particular dish or foodstuff, the free-floating nature of street food means that it is impossible to establish any failproof claim on any one dish, let alone agreed upon recipe. Rather than fighting over a debate that could not be satisfactorily resolved, it is time for maritime Southeast Asians to take a step back from online vitriol, and appreciate the historical and regional contexts that birthed the respective cuisines that won their hearts and mouths.

Conclusion: Where Do We Go from Here?

Then again, if the countries that make up maritime Asia today owe their gastronomic debt to the flows of peoples, ideas and ingredients throughout the region, why do debates and arguments about ‘national’ dishes in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia still gain so much ground and furore? Because I lack hard data about this issue thus far, I further two observations that border on inferences. I first refer to Jinn Winn Chong’s observation that these “quarrels over ostensibly petty issues are often symptomatic of protracted undercurrents of political conflict between states.” In other words, because political tensions were not resolved amicably, they bubbled over and reincarnated through claims over different aspects of society and culture. 

Although Chong focussed upon Indonesia and Malaysia, I believe his remarks can be generalised to the conflicts that erupted over an authentic or place-of-origin for food in the region. Food became a site for proxy conflicts to take place, particularly when the region’s – rather than specific nation-state’s – contribution to its genesis is conveniently overlooked. I offer the cult of the keramat as a counter-example: Although all three contemporary maritime nation-states were historically intertwined with keramat worship, keramats no longer formed an important part of all three post-independence identities. Keramats – and their Datok Gong counterparts – are still worshipped, but the processes of secularisation and Islamisation in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia suffocated the significance of keramat worship as a marker of one’s cultural affiliation, let alone national identity. Conversely, food, given its continued power in arousing the senses in a psycho-physical manner, remains the bone of contention between these three nation-states. When the identity of food is concerned, historical continuities and networks are discarded in the favour of parochial classificatory systems viz. ‘Singapore,’ ‘Malaysia,’ ‘Indonesia,’ ‘Chinese-Malay-Indian-European’ as discussed earlier.

The Breguet desk clock no. 3142 is lot 139 in Christie’s New York watch auction taking place on December 12, 2019. It includes the original box and archive extract, and has an estimate of US$200,000-400,000.

Abraham-Louis Breguet is rightly regarded as one of the most important watchmakers in history, whose inventions range from the natural escapement to the tourbillon, while being commercially savvy enough to become a leading watchmaker to the Ottoman Empire.

Philippe René Jaccard was a watchmaker-engineer whose inventions were a clock movement with a 30-day power reserve and constant force escapement, which he patented in 1929.

Beyond its unusual movement and rarity, this Breguet clock is also notable for having been sold to a Mr Solvay in 1938, according to the Breguet archive extract that accompanies the clock.
According to Christie’s, the buyer was probably Ernest-John Solvay, grandson of noted Belgian chemist and entrepreneur Ernest Solvay. The family is perhaps best known for having founded the Solvay Conference, a symposium on chemistry and physics that takes place every three years or so.

Source: SJX Watches

If you have come to the end of this essay, you may be convinced by my assertion that the nation-state is an artificial division that blinds maritime Southeast Asians to the social and cultural intercourse that binds the region together. On the other hand, you may still believe that my approach is nonsensical, and that – historically verified or otherwise – that chendol is a dish that is indisputably ‘Singaporean’, ‘Malaysian’ or ‘Indonesian’. That is completely fine for me, but I ask that the unconvinced look at the time of his/her clock on hand. Staring back at the reader is a device whose timekeeping properties were first recognised in ancient Sumer and Egypt. The Chinese Su Song (1020-1101 CE) developed the blueprints for one of humankind’s earliest mechanical water clocks in 1088 CE. Every five minutes on your clocks’ face is separated by a Hindu-Arabic numeral. The Standard International unit system that accepted the second as a basis for measuring time was conceived of in France. In this regard, where does your clock belong to? Is it Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Arabic or French? 

About the author:

Esmond Soh is a student of Chinese religion in Southeast Asia. His other research interests include human-environment interactions and historical anthropology in general.

References can be requested at cogitocollective@gmail.com

Featured image: Poet on a Mountain Top by Shen Zhou
Source: China Online Museum

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