[Published in The Gombak Review, Vol. 4, n° 1 (International Islamic University Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur), 1999, pp. 101-121.]




                  Sha'er[1] of the late Sultan Abu Bakar[2]


                                 [Syair of the late Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor[3]]




                                                  Na Tian Piet[4]


                        Composed in 1895/6 in Malay and published by the author in Singapore.

                                                  Translated by T.Wignesan ©  1994



            This is to notify [all readers] that this sha'er is my creation: the signature,

             together with the stamp [chop], are also mine. If this is not the case [that is, if

             the manuscript does not display my signature and stamp], if others try to sell

            this work, may it be known that they have stolen my property. In which case, I

             will sue the offending party for having distorted and imitated my poem.


                                                                              Singapore, 1 Sept. 1896

                                                     My signature


                                                                    Na Tian Piet


            [ Stamp with the author's name in roman letters and Chinese characters]



                                              A note on the translation



     The oft-touted maxim, Translations, too, are like women: never very faithful when very beautiful, and never very beautiful when very faithful[5], that is, a structurally faithful reproduction of a poem in a target language betrays the sense or meaning of the original text is not necessarily true: even very beautiful women can be faithful! For a translation to be basically valid, it is enough that the source language grammar, lexis, and phonology be replaced consequentially by equivalent target language substitutions[6], without deliberately concealing the infelicities of the original nor blowing out of recognition its intrinsic subtleties, but the translator also has to strive to convey the tone and flavour of the source material’s genre specifics; in other words, attempt the total translation. A re-created poem, such as, A.K.Ramanujan’s translations from the classical Tamil Cankam poetry[7], can only serve to conceal the complexities and intricacies of other forms, conventions, and styles. 


      In the present case, since we are dealing with the narrative syair/sha’er from the nineteenth century [cf. footnotes for definitions; biographical data of the poet and Sultan Abu Bakar, and others], the closest one may come to adjusting the tone and the ring of the original in English is to summon up the lilt of the literary ballad, without however, of course, adhering strictly to its prosody, that is, to the rhyme scheme or length and stress of the metrical line which in the age-old syair proves to be as equally banally constricting and monotonous.


      I’m not saying that the often infinitely shorter ballad with its alternating tetrametre and trimetre four-line stanza with its abcb or abab end rhymes is the equivalent of the syair despite the length of the syair metre (in mostly four pleremes of eight to twelve syllabic lines) and the aaaa or its variant rhyme scheme. The best one can do is to trust in an approximate beat without displacing the line structure or distorting the sense. To do this, to communicate some of the archaic flavour of the ballad, certain poetical devices, such as, inversions may have to be resorted to, without however making it the norm throughout. The latter device both helps to lay emphasis on certain words and phrases while helping along the rhythm by the declamatory opening of a line on the upbeat.       


      The selection of this passage can be justified on several planes. Firstly, that it is in this continuous passage we are regaled to certain rare autobiographical details of the poet, himself, especially with regard to his early peripatetic movements in the archipelago: Acheh, Deli, Serdang, Riau, Singapore, and Johor. Secondly, of particular interest to the region, Na’s description of the festivities accompanying the royal wedding in Johor at Sultan Abu Bakar’s istana (palace), and thirdly, of particular aesthetico-poietic interest, Na’s revelations of his compositional technique with the syair, even if they might sound sometimes quite ingenuous.


      In addition to the above reasons, this passage also discloses some of the drawbacks inherent in such a relatively monumental undertaking:1480-odd quatrains. At the outset, Na appears to proffer nothing but excuses for attempting to compose his sha’er, but quickly, though perhaps not in great earnestness, reverses his attitude: My poem in the hands of the mean,/Would suffer the fate of uninformed critics:/In character and intelligence far from perfect,/ People who are lacking in wisdom.//  The passage also reveals his difficulty in handling disparate material, and the transitions he makes are rather forced and abrupt. In one instance, he plainly fails to check his own information: Sultan Abu Bakar is allowed to recognize his presence - for the first time - on two successive occasions. Yet, on another plane, this passage also highlights his curious sense of humility between his avowed Christian faith and the profusions of heaving supplications to Allah as the supreme guide of his pen.   




In the name of God, let his word begin:

Praise be to God, let praises clear ring;

May our Lord, Jesus Christ's[8] blessings

Guide my pen through these poetizings!  


This sha'er is an entirely new composition

Composed by myself, no fear of imitation.

It's Allah's name, I will keep calling out

While creating this poem to avoid confusion.


This story I'm relating at the present moment

I copy not, nor is it by other hands wrought;

Nothing whatsoever is here laid out

That hereunder is not clearly put forth.        


Not that I am able to create with much ease,

To all that's to come I'm yet not accustomed;

Why, this sha'er at this time is being composed

Only to console my heart which is heavily laden.


I'm a peranakan[9], of Chinese origin,

Hardly perfect in character and mind;

I find much that I can not comprehend,

I'm not a man given to much wisdom.


Na Tian Piet[10] is what I go by name

I have in the past composed stories and poems;

Even when explained to - most stupid I remain

The more I keep talking the less I understand.


I was born in times gone by

In the country known as Bencoolen[11];

Indeed, I am more than stupid:

Ashamed am I composing this lay.


Twenty-four years have gone by

Since I moved to the island of Singapore;

My wife and children accompanied me

To Singapore, a most lovely country.


I stayed in Riau[12] for some time

Together with my wife and children;

Two full years in Riau territory,

Back to Singapore my legs carried me.


At the time when Acheh[13] was waging war

I went there with goods to trade,

I managed to sell them at exhorbitant prices:

Great indeed were the profits I made.


Stricken sick in Acheh were a great many

And those who succumbed were far from few;

As for me I was taken with an infection

In that jungle country hills indeed were legion.


Back to Singapore I retraced my steps

On account of my being felled by illness;

How I was ill! there was no way of telling!

Great was my expenditure! Great my torture!


Once cured, for Acheh again I set sail:

No way for profits, loss was all I got.

Throngs of merchants converged there;

What the Lord wished: bad luck my lot.


Then to the island of Deli[14] set I sail,

There did I abide for a lengthy while;

There too I got to know His Majesty:

Blue-blooded Sultan, the Ruler of Deli!


At that time the ruling Sultan on the throne

Was His Highness Mamun Alrasyid Perkasa[15];

Within his kingdom by far the most mighty:

Of truely gentle and well-mannered integrity.


I also got to know another ruler well,

The ruling Sultan who reigns in Serdang;

His Royal Highness was extremely young:

Of gentle character, of joyous disposition.


The reigning Sultan at that time there

Was His Highness Saleiman Sariful[16],

Within Serdang's kingdom, the most mighty:

In feelings considerate, in thoughts bright.


Both Their Highnesses I got to know well,

Wining and dining we rubbed shoulders;

I owe much to their generous natures,

As long as I live I shan't forget them.


While I was still a resident at Deli,

His Highness threw a gala feast;

Inviting friends he carefully picked,

All of whom he knew best already.


For the marriage of his royal sister

To the Sultan of the kingdom of Serdang,

His Royal Highness summoned me

To present myself at the ceremony.


I addressed my congratulations at the feast:

Indeed most able was I in the use of speech;

Mightily pleased was His Highness himself,

While cheers showered on me from all the guests.


With pleasure His Majesty deigned to tell me

That my wishes were most gratifying,

That only in schools could I have gained

The knowledge to express myself in such a way.


His Highness' joy knew no bounds

He thanked me over and over again;

The rejoicing went on in full throttle,

Only after dusk homeward were we bound.


Both their majesties I came to know well,

Endowed were they of the finest manners:

Courteous of word, gentle in speech,

As long as I live, never will I forget them.


To Allah in high heaven I raised my voice:

Preserve Thee, O Lord, their highnesses' health,

Bestow on them the grace of long life

And protect them from all danger.


During these three years gone by

I have lived in the kingdom of Deli;

Then to Singapore I made tracks:

Oh! what a most lovely country!


Now I'm well grounded in Singapore,

Land of the English Company[17]

Where burgeons bustling activity;

Where every thing may be bought cheap.


Here thrive I in my own flowering cloister

In peace and restful leisure all to myself;

I have sprung deep roots in this island

And at writing day by day I try my hand.


Right at this moment I'm composing a sha'er,

Wherever errors occur I crave your indulgence;

If you find my language[18] rightly wanting,

Know that I'm yet to acquire the necessary flair.


My poem's by a man who needs assistance,

Those adept at poetizing are certainly rare;

I'll own up to my faults wherever they appear:

I do sincerely hope a curse hangs not over me!


I can’t make much of the art of poetizing;

One's a great deal more free in one's heart;

When on the day I shall be pronounced dead,

This sha'er will have replaced me in good stead.


This sha'er I'm composing at my own leisure

For I haven't acquired the necessary skill;

If I'm caught making unforgiveable mistakes,

I hope I'll not be made the object of ridicule.


My poem in the hands of the mean

Would suffer the fate of uninformed critics:

In character and intelligence far from perfect,

People who are lacking in wisdom.


What I'm creating is a narrative poem,

Most dull it would be once the plot's obvious;

If my diction leaves much to be desired,

I hope I shan't become the target of abuse!


Composing a sha'er is not an easy task,

For the right idea, one must look high and low;

The tension mounts in one's own chest

Just looking for the word that's best.


With God as a cause, I compose this poem,

This is not an intention which invites mistakes;

If in the making of this poem faults abound,

Forgive me! Dear Reader! I'll recite them all.


Creating this poem relieves my anxiety,

A poem that I fashion, friendless, all alone;

If defects arise, let God acknowledge them,

Forgive me! Oh Lord! Noble art Thou!


I compose this lay at the present moment,

I suffer not that it be other than just right;

I do not commit errors to earn others' scorn:

Whatever I compose, from a clear vision's born.


I sit composing my poem day after day,

With diligence I look for words that are right;

Let me assure you, it's me alone who writes,

There's no one else who speaks in my stead.


In daylight I compose day by day,

Looking for ideas all within myself,

To all I'm open, no deaf ear I turn,

In order to obtain whatever I seek.


I'm labouring at this poem at this moment,

Thanks be to God Almighty's assistance:

Might my task be light and without hindrance

In looking for words in the Malay parlance!


Hardworking am I in my literary endeavour

As always from the beginning to the present;

If ever it appears there looms excess or less,

To my less than clear thoughts blame the mess.


Composing a sha'er is no easy undertaking:

Thoughts get entangled like loose thread;

Always look for ideas while remaining calm

In order that you may find them for easy recall.


The art of writing upon me came,

Its four reaches appear the same;

Do not just put anything down on paper gratis,

Keep looking you must however long it takes.


Most difficult it is to take pen to paper.

Would that it were easy to think clearly!

You may not consign just anything in mind,

For if you miss the mark, blame is your fate.


In writing there develops an art

In order to make reading pleasant,

Searching its poesy till it's found

In order to praise it in our name.


Don't be like a person struck with latah[19]

Unable to understand a word or utterance;

Our name being reduced to utter shambles

In the eyes of all those readers yet to come.


Writing this poem like one in full faith,

Wise, intelligent and sensible as well,

Thoughts so resigned as to right the senses,

So that one may be hailed to the end of time.


Oh God! Lend a ear to my story:

I got to know this King of old lineage

As a result of composing this poem:

Through a newspaper I got to know him.


Herebelow I shall make clear

In order that people may read,

Important to say right from the start,

His Majesty already knew about me.


In this sha'er woven with panegyric

See how the plot of the story unravels:

Of how to the King I came to be known,

Sultan Abubakar was his regal name.


Enthroned was he in the state of Johor:

Wise, intelligent and learned a Sultan,

Most difficult would it be to find a peer,

Great indeed was the fame of his name.


I give praise to his Highness in my poem:

His palace in Singapore, verily a gem,

Chock-full of possessions of all sorts;

I know 'cause I've seen it all myself.


Tijersall was the name of his palace

Where everything was in perfect shape,

Things from Europe, Japan and China,

Of all sorts and of varied colours.


The Tijersall Palace to be found in Singapore

Its beauteous appearance was beyond measure,

Nothing of its kind was anywhere to be seen,

Its internal furnishings were far from cheap.


Compared to other palaces in Johor

Its appearance remains indescribable;

Difficult it would be to find one similar,

So deftly conceived, this Sultan's castle.


My writings began to appear in newspapers;

I reported on everything, on every topic:

My pseudonym: Pen of the Sky in great fame,

My articles displaying much discipline and patience.


In the paper called Betawi Pembrita

Appeared indeed my writings;

Most long in news and reports,

That was why the King rejoiced.


I praised His Majesty at great length,

In, not base, but highly refined terms

Like gold being subject to the precious test:

The name of His Highness was held aloft.


The praises I offered were most fetching

And all of them were heard by the King;

All his vizirs too, as many as there were,

Old and young took most kindly to them.


There was also a Minister to the King,

Mohamad Saleh was his singular name:

A man of great sensibility and wisdom,

Received the honour of Datu' Bintara Luar.


It was this chieftain who read the report

And my eulogy of the monarch revealed

To His Majesty and his Vizir at once;

Having heard it, both of them felt great joy.


Great thanks His Highness addressed me:

Through this chieftain the king got to know me:

Sweet of character, with a joyous disposition,

As long as I live, never will I forget him.


Hope I, the Almighty his life prolong,

His wife and children's together too

So that he may rise ever higher in rank

And live in comfort in a life made long.


This the most true-hearted chieftain

Many the writings he has made clear

From China, Japan and the Whites,

Most good is he in nature and disposition.


Dare you to find one equally clever,

Difficult indeed even in a thousand;

Malays in the land of the Indies:

There are the rich and the poor.


All is most true that I praise in him

Like gold being put to the test;

Most loyal is he when he gives his word,

Gentle of utterance, shorn of all evil.


Most loved is he by the Chinese race,

A minister of much sense and wisdom,

In intelligence and character most perfect,

His fame has spread far and wide.


How the King first got to know me

Was through seeing my writing in ink.

How the Monarch liked what he read

And upon me his liking entrusted.


In the newspapers I explained

If ever any one went in search

Of my person and of my self,

To my children his questions address.


The result: my name in that paper

Appears in there as Celestial Plume;

It is because of this fact I say so,

So that people will rightly know.


You can enquire after me from my son,

Na Kim Liong is the name he goes by,

Ditoko Robinson & Co employs him,

Becoming in the process their clerk.


In the year 1894, on the 23rd of May,

Received a letter from the hand of a minister;

An epistle from Datu' Bintang Luar himself:

A royal behest to appear before him.


In the letter it was thus laid down:

To Johore the King requested I go,

The Princess' nuptial ceremony to attend;

To entertain the guests a sumptuous dinner.


Most anxious was I in within myself

That in the letter it was thus laid out;

Never have been invited by the King,

Not until this day such an invitation.


Oh to Allah up high I gave my thanks

For His Majesty's desire to befriend me,

While at the same time I set about

Preparing a complete set of fineries.


When the hour for setting forth arrived,

I undid my slippers and put on my shoes:

I felt all heated up at that very moment,

And then through the door I strode out.


It was by carriage I set out on my journey,

Past through level jungle and plain;

My pleasure then knew no bounds:

The King choosing to show me favour.


Throughout the drive I kept reflecting

On how I should address my greetings,

All those listening must of needs like them:

Praiseworthy they must be, this was clear.


At the time of my arrival in Johor territory,

It was a country of widespread renown;

I arrived in the place on the dot at noon:

The harbour though was not quite deep.


The King's five steamships rode at anchor,

A great many flags flapped from their masts;

One thing was true, I had arrived in Johor:

I saw a great many horses-and-carriages.


Flags by thousands fluttered all the way,

In colours: black, white, yellow and red;

Throngs of people, countless to the eye,

Lived within the borders of this state.


There were four Chinese theatre-houses,

And two Malay wayang[20] halls as well,

Several female ronggeng[21] and joget[22] joints,

Melodious voices streamed far out from there.


The Chinese were gambling much away,

A great many of them milling in the fortress;

Most brave were they, throwing away things,

Hardly showing the slightest remorse.


In Johore State, there were many Chinese,

Tens of thousands inhabited the country,

By far the men outnumbered the women:

Once having come, they sprung roots there.


As soon as the day turned into night,

Most clear, as by fire, one could see:

Thousands of Japanese lamps turned on

Plunged the palace surroundings in daylight!


Not only the immediate palace grounds,

All along the thoroughfares everywhere,

The fire of Japanese lamps brightened

And exposed the flags in varied colours.


Chock-full of people before the wayang stages

Watched under lights that were most clear:

Surely no less than ten thousand spectators

Came and gathered in front of the wayang stages.


All the sounds of rejoicing were most acute:

The Chinese theatre was located apart

From those of the Malay wayang and joget;

Great the rejoicings, nothing like it I've seen.


Great too the rejoicings of the gamblers there,

Numerous the gambling dens, here and there;

Of those gambling, many were Chinese,

Hailing from areas spread far and wide.


Great indeed the food, of all sorts of colours

That were being sold, right where they gambled;

A good part of the food that the Chinese cooked

Were taken and hawked from place to place.


Such then were the Princess' wedding celebrations

Given in marriage to the King's own royal nephew;

Splendorous the rejoicings, verily indescribable:

Lasting full fifteen days and full fifteen nights.


Her Highness the Princess, daughter of the King

Was about to be married to the princely son

Of His Highness Abdul Rahman, the deceased:

The name of the bridegroom was Prince Ahmad.


Drawn into the audience hall for the dinner,

Exactly at seven o'clock in the evening

Were two hundred and forty of the invitees:

Some were peranakan, most local Chinese.


There were thirty tables for the Chinese,

At each table were seated eight invitees;

Chinese themselves prepared their food

And all those present sat themselves down.


Only I still remained all alone standing.

His Royal Highness bade me approach him:

Me, the towkay[23], to the King was drawn.

Why was I standing all alone by myself?


So I replied with as pleasant a face:

Might Your Highness lay wrath aside,

Your Humble Servant doesn't like Chinese fare,

Your Humble Servant stands satiated right now.


His Royal Highness smiled and said:

I am helping myself to Malay cuisine.

If Your Highness wishes to bid me eat,

Humble Servant most delightfully will.


All the Chinese guests had finished eating,

Only I among the Chinese was still waiting;

All those who had dined most surely departed,

All of them making their way out in turns.


They went to watch the Chinese wayang.

Some indeed took to gambling right there;

Yes, all those who had dined turned up there

To watch the men and women in the wayang.


I was the only Chinese left all to myself,

Close to the presence of His Highness;

And all of a sudden the King espied me,

As being one of his guests at the palace.


Present too the Sultan of Pahang with his heirs,

Even as His Royal Highness the Sultan of Riau;

Many indeed were the princes and princesses

From Riau, Pahang, Trengganu and Kedah.


There at the very same moment of time

Were three Englishmen and three Arabs as well;

Of the Chinese, there was no one but me left,

Amidst thirty Malays, right at that moment.


There too could be seen the orang besar[24],

From their breasts dangled starry medals;

Their attire was of exceptional elegance.

All the viziers and ministers were present too.


Almost similar to costumes worn in Turkey

Were those worn by viziers and ministers,

The highborn Sultan's accoutred clothes

Shone resplendent like a polished diamond.


Even when everyone had wined and dined,

There was no-one to offer a vote of thanks;

At the moment when the clock chimed ten,

All the invited guests held their breath.


Just then the Raja entered his private apartments

To demand of his royal daughter the use of henna[25];

Everybody sought the Princess' fingernails to see:

His Highness' daughter, the bride and bridegroom.


According to the Malay Raja's custom

Sixteen gun salute was duely rendered;

As a sign of respect he wore henna

While music sounded in accompaniment.


Great the animation in the private apartments:

Among the wives of the viziers and ministers,

And among the wives of the orang besar

When the prince was being adorned with henna.


In the private quarters there was much activity,

People were drinking, eating and moving about;

The bridal couple were inured to the use of henna:

The hustle and bustle was beyond description.


The palace apartments shone wholly bright,

People just turned on hundreds of lights:

More or less there were fifty lamps,

The four-branched kroon lamps.


The carpet on the floor twinkled like stars,

So numerous, impossible to say how many;

So lovely, so beautiful were they to watch,

The bride and bridegroom together on the dais.


It was beyond description, such the hectic rejoicing:

A good many wayang and joget to dance at;

By the thousands people stood tirelessly watching,

Verily chock-full wherever you cared to look.


The time it took, it was fifteen full days:

Lighted torches by the hundreds of thousands,

Wayang and joget were compelled to perform,

And all who watched felt happily at ease.


The masts of ships were festooned with lights,

The edge of the ocean seemed just at the side,

The Japanese lamps lay hung up like hats,

All along the pathways nothing looked deserted.


Moreover from the houses of the common folk

Lights went up on account of the festivities,

Hundreds of boxes of candles were used in that night

Together with hundreds of petrol lamps to be right!


Again from one good deed it's amply clear

How ten thousand Japanese lamps, no less

Shone out brilliantly from three palaces:

Thousands of lamps were lit by their inmates.


What's more even at home people enjoyed wayang,

Great was the rejoicing during the day and the night,

All had become infused with hightening spirits,

And many indeed even forgot the hour of prayer.


Most elated was everybody, both old and young,

All kinds of fare, all of it was there to be found:

Different sorts of cakes together with sweetmeats,

All indeed most delicious to the touch of the tongue.





1. sha'er: also written thus: syair or sha'ir. This poetic form is the equivalent of the ballad in English.  Essentially, it narrates an event(s) or, as in this case, undertakes the biography of an individual. As a narrative poem in Malay, it may even assume the proportions of an epic poem, such as, Sha'ir Ken Tambuhan. The structure of the sha'er is quite formal and inflexible: the narration is undertaken in quatrains whose end rhymes are identical: AAAA, or its variant, and as such may prove to be monotonous and even, quite often, forced and jarring to the ear. The line of verse may habitually contain - as with the pantun - anything from eight to twelve syllables or slightly more, each line being thus - given the frequence of bi-syllabic words in Malay - limited to a minimum of four words (nouns/pronouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs). Often the lines of the quatrain are linked by internal rhyme: both assonance and consonance. Each line is normally self-contained syntactically and/or semantically, though now and then enjambement may occur: the latter are however limited to a couplet.


2.Sultan Abu Bakar: b. 1831 in Singapore, d. 4 June 1895 in London. Sultan of Johore State. When the Malacca sultanate disintegrated under the assault of European colonialism, its legitimate heirs fanned out to Singapore/Johore, Perak and Pahang principally, founding as it were other lineages which are still the "ruling houses" in these states. Abu Bakar was the son of the bendahara (princely court official ranking immediately after the heir apparent or crown prince in Malay royal succession) who acceded to the Johor throne after the death of the sultan who ceded Singapore to Sir Stamford Raffles.


3.Na Tian Piet : b. 1836, a Chinese peranakan  [cf.note 5] in Bencoolen, Sumatra. The date of his demise in Singapore is yet to be determined, though, according to Claudine Salmon, it is certain that he died before Song Ong Siang began the writing of his book: One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore in 1923. Biographical details of the author may be gleaned from the poem itself [cf. Salmon, C., ed., "Le moment 'sino-malais' de la littérature indonésienne, pp. 9-42, CAHIER d'ARCHIPEL, 19 (Paris), 1992]. He was a peripatetic trader in his youth, voyaging between Singapore and Sumatra (as far as Enggano island in the Indian Ocean) in order to trade in spices and small goods before contributing to ephemeral journals and newspapers in Singapore, where he settled in later life after having sojourned for periods of years at a time in Riau and Deli. It is evident that he was a respected member of his community in Singapore. He had a son, Na Kim Liong who served with Robinson & Co., and a daughter who married a Chinese from Palembang, both settling in Singapore themselves. Residences: 1872-Singapore; 1874-Riaui; 1876-Singapore; 1880s-Deli; 1894-Singapore, at a house in in Thomson Road; 1900-tour of Dutch East Indies (Sumatra, Java, Bali, Celebes, Lombok). Before Claudine Salmon undertook research for her article on him [cf. the Introduction], he was practically unknown to contemporary researchers in the field.


4. Although Na evokes Allah frequently in his text, this is one rare occasion when Jesus Christ replaces the former. Na was both a Protestant Christian and a lay-preacher.


5. peranakan: offspring of non-Malay and Malay unions. In Na's case, his father was Chinese.


6. Na Tian Piet: the first name: "Tian Piet" means Heavenly Plume.


7. Bencoolen: Bengkulu, town on the southwest coast of Sumatra. (3.48S-102.16E)


8. Riau: group of islands to the south of Singapore. (1.00N-102.00E)


9. Aceh: on the northeast coast of Sumatra. (4.00N-97.00E)


10. Deli: island south of the south-western coast of Java. (7.00S-105.32E)


11. Mamun Alrasjid Perkasa Alamsjah: Maakmun Alrasyid Perkasa Alamsyah, Sultan of Deli (1857-1924), reigned from 1875.


12. Saleimun Sariful Alamsjah: Sultan Sulaiman Syariful Alamsyah (1862-1946), reigned in Serdang from 1881 onwards.


13. English Company: East India Company which bought the island of Tumasik (former name of Singapore) from the Sultan of Johor for a stipend of five thousand dollars, payable annually.


14. Malay: the Malay used by Na, especially in his prose, appears to have been the spoken form of many in Singapore and the west-coast Malayan towns, right up to the postwar period.


15. latah: kind of hysteria, according to dictionaries, but Frank A.Swettenham in his Malay Sketches (1896) has this to say on the subject: (cf.p.72)


   "The lâtah man or woman usually met with, if suddenly startled, by a touch, a noise, or the sight of something unexpected, will not only show all the signs of a very nervous person but almost invariably will fire off a volley of expressions more or less obscene, having no reference at all to the circumstance which has suddenly aroused attention. Asa rule it is necessary to startle these people before they will say or do anything to show that they are differently constituted to their neighbours, and when they have betrayed themselves either by word or deed their instinct is to get away as quickly as possible."


[16] Saleimun Sariful Alamsjah: Sultan Sulaiman Syariful Alamsyah (1862-1946), reigned in Serdang from 1881 onwards.


[17] English Company: East India Company which bought the island of Tumasik (former name of Singapore) from the Sultan of Johor for a stipend of five thousand dollars, payable annually.


[18] Malay: the Malay used by Na, especially in his prose, appears to have been the spoken form of many in Singapore and the west-coast Malayan towns, right up to the postwar period.


[19] latah: kind of hysteria, according to dictionaries, but Frank A.Swettenham in his Malay Sketches (1896) has this to say on the subject: (cf.p.72)


   "The lâtah man or woman usually met with, if suddenly startled, by a touch, a noise, or the sight of something unexpected, will not only show all the signs of a very nervous person but almost invariably will fire off a volley of expressions more or less obscene, having no reference at all to the circumstance which has suddenly aroused attention. As a rule it is necessary to startle these people before they will say or do anything to show that they are differently constituted to their neighbours, and when they have betrayed themselves either by word or deed their instinct is to get away as quickly as possible."


[20] the Malay word for theatrical shows in general, but also serves as an adjective, as for example: wayang gambar means cinema, or wayang kulit means shadow play.

[21] A traditional popular Malay dance, performed in public at amusement parks where taxi-girls dance for a fee with (mostly) men without effecting any form of bodily contact; the participants sway back and forth to the accompaniment of the rebab (a violin with three chords) and the gendang (a two-faced drum). The participants also indulge in casual conversation or in a bout of repeating or composing  pantun (the traditional Malay form of poetry known to be perfected in the Malay world only). 

[22] A dancing-girl for hire or the dance-hall where such taxi-girls dance the ronggeng (cf. note xvii) or other modern dances like the rumba or samba with their paying partners.

[23] Corrupted spelling of a word of Chinese origin and referring generally to a Chinese businessman or man of wealth in Malaysia or Singapore.

[24] Malay composite word for the aristocracy; orang means human being, man or woman, and besar literally big, large or great while together they mean big man or aristocrat.

[25] A red dye obtained from the inai shrub in Malaysia and used for colouring the finger and toe nails; according to Malay custom, the bride has to ceremoniously colour her finger and toe nails on the eve of her wedding ceremony and known as malam berinai.


© T.Wignesan 1994-1999 Paris, France