Bintan Island, Indonesia: About Cakes And Gods Across Historic Waterways

Bintan Island, Indonesia: About Cakes And Gods Across Historic Waterways

Straits of Singapore, 1404. A Chinese fleet of three hundred and seventeen huge ships, many of which have nine masts and 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, capable of carrying 1000 men. Led by Admiral Zhenghe, China’s great 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, through Southeast Asia, Indian subcontinent, Middle East and eventually to 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, occasionally interfered in local politics though never setting up any colonies nor military outposts like later European invaders would.

Some historians believe that Zhenghe’s real mission was to look for Emperor’s Yongle’s missing brother and rightful owner of the throne, which was usurped by Yongle. Whatever the case, this sparked off the first organised exchange between China and Southeast Asia, a sweet-and-sour affair which persisted till today.

To the north is the island of Singapore, site of the recently abandoned kingdom of Temasek, whose ruler was murdered a few years before by a refugee prince from the Indonesian island of Sumatra named Parameswara. Parameswara, chased out of his kingdom by enemies, was given refuge in Temasek where he soon killed his benefactor to make himself ruler. The overlord of Temasek, Siam (today Thailand), sent a fleet to punish Parameswara for his treacherous deeds.

Parameswara escaped northwards to Melaka in what is today Malaysia where he founded a new kingdom. The Chinese fleet of Zhenghe was to be grandly received by Parameswara in Melaka which marked off the beginning of a Chinese-Malay alliance which enhanced the status of Melaka as an international trading port and its growing stature as a new maritime empire in Southeast Asia.

South of the straits is the island of Bintan, then a sleepy island of mangroves and fishing villages of water gypsies, soon to be home of immigrant fishermen and traders from Fujian, China, who followed in big numbers following Zhenghe’s fleet. Much later, after the capture of Melaka by the Portuguese and the subsequent eviction of Parameswara’s descendants from Johor where they had for some time set up a rival regime, 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’s a 2 hours’ 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 the narrowest stretch of which is only 25km. 50,000 ships, equivalent to more than half of the global merchant fleet tonnage, passes through here in one year, together with most of the petroleum tankers of Japan and China – about 10.3 million barrels per day – second only to the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance of the Persian Gulf.

The Straits of Singapore and the neighbouring Philip Channel are dangerous waterways. Piracy has long been a scourge in Southeast Asia but the 1997 financial crisis in the region has led to immense poverty and political instability in Indonesia, which aggravated piracy. The post September 11 world has led the problem to a new dimension – the possibility of terror attack in the Straits that may block passage in this strategic waterway so vital to the world’s second and third largest economies, that of Japan and China.

More sobering issues aside, I looked across those misty green hills on the islands to the south. I wonder where exactly was Long Yamen – The Dragon’s Tooth Strait – the steep cliffside landmark long reported in ancient Chinese maritime chronicles. Historical records say that the Mongol court once sent emissaries here in search of elephants. Some say Long Yamen was located at Keppel Straits in Singapore while other historians argue that it was on Lingga Island in Riau, Indonesia. Whatever it is, the notion of elephant hunting in either Singapore or Riau sounds somewhat amusing if not downright comical today.


“Mister! Mister, listen to me!” the Indonesian touts swarmed us the moment we walked out of the jetty complex. Offering anything from “beachside” hotel accommodation in inland locations to deep fried fish chips, the aggressiveness and persistence of these touts were a sudden reminder that we were no longer in First World Singapore but now visitors to a vast country with fifty times the population but only one-eighth the GDP per capita.

We did the standard thing – avoid eye contact for it might implied interest and pushed 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 Irritating 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’m always wary of such offers. Of course, the cheap rates would be supplemented with his own commission. “Thank you. We know where we are going. Good Bye.” We were to discover later on a stroll that this so-called beachside hotel was just a run-down 1960’s building nowhere near any beach, that is, if you consider some sea-side corrugated shacks next to huge timber-floats to be funky seaside architecture. Fortunately we had not taken any of these offers.

Not getting any responses, Irritating Ali changed its tactic. “Come’on, 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”

An offer turned veiled threats. I have had enough of this nonsense on my many travels. My fellow citizens have probably also been too easily intimidated by such rascals while in Bintan. If I had said yes, Irritating Ali would think I was an easy prey and intensify his efforts.

“Please go away! We want to be alone.” And we walked further and further away from the jetty. But Irritating Ali would not give up. Why should he when there was little he could do to make a living here? He’s better off taking a punt with tourists than to do nothing at home the whole day.

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 would only provide 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 your jeans in Indonesia when you can produce them in China with higher productivity, zero interference from unions and labour rights activists, and unfriendly and ultra-corrupt local officials? MNCs are pulling out in droves when they are needed most.

We walked into a ramshackle restaurant, mostly in the hope of shaking off Irritating Ali although we were slightly hungry as well. To our surprise, Irritating Ali walked in too. We had an overpriced lunch – yet another of our many complaints about Bintan – while Irritating 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. This was most annoying! Why do we have to pay him for doing nothing?

And so we devised a plan – I would walk out of the restaurant leaving Vernon to deal with him, and find a hotel as soon as possible. As I stood and walked away, Irritating Ali stared with us with a puzzled look. The skies started to drizzle and Irritating Ali stayed where he was. He must have concluded that I would not go far and decided to try his luck with Vernon instead.

I checked out two hotels 20 meters away. Didn’t really like the places but was a little tired and on the verge of accepting the offer from one of them. At this moment, Irritating Ali appeared suddenly at the hotel doorway –speaking loudly in Indonesian to the hotel reception lady. Oh idiot! That’s the standard way bums and touts worldwide attempt to get a “commission” for claiming credit for the customer, and any commission paid this way would be translated into a higher price for the customer. Irritated, I opened my umbrella, and walked out of the hotel, into the rain, now pouring madly. I gave him a nasty stare, “Don’t follow me! I am very angry with you.”

This time round, Irritating Ali did not follow. He might have realized that wasn’t going to 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 that looked anxious to mow you down any moment. Most buildings weren’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 were ugly shacks with corrugated aluminum rooftops and huge metal spikes and poles lying everywhere. The whole place looked dirty, messy and simply evil.

We walked on the streets, looking around for the pier for boats to Pulau Penyengat. Along the way, we asked 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. This is a typical scene across these islands.

The Chinese have been in Indonesia for more than a thousand years and 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 said reported that they own a large portion of the wealth of this country – with some estimates as high as 70%. Such generalizing analysis, so commonly reported that most people deem them as fact, have unfortunately led to bad stereotypes that aggravate ethnic relations in the country.

Through emphasis on education and hard work, as well as leveraging on their mercantile heritage, the Chinese of Indonesia have on the whole built successful commercial network and prospered over the centuries despite political persecution and discrimination.

However, many academic studies have revealed that only a small number of Chinese-Indonesians can truly be described as wealthy. The rest includes not only a Chinese middle class in Indonesian cities; but also those who are small shop-owners in poverty-stricken remote villages selling essential provisions, or poor Hokkien and Hakka miners, farmers and fishermen in the outer islands of the archipelago.

To the Chinese shop-owners of Sulawesi, as well as Chinese farmers and miners of West Kalimantan, the glittering world of Jakarta’s shopping malls and tales of luxury shopping holidays to Singapore or Hong Kong are but lifestyle of the rich and famous. Yet, it is the scandalous fables of the Jakarta’s Chinese billionaires that feed a long tradition of racial antagonism.


If Tanjung Pinang was an irredeemable pot of dirt and chaos, historic Pulau Penyengat was 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 fled 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 fled here where they set up court and 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 became wealthy. Through the interaction with traders from all over the archipelago, they developed a vibrant language and culture. The Malay language, indigenous to these islands, soon became the lingua franca of trade for the region. It was from these origins that 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! The British and Dutch divided this region into a meshwork of colonies and protectorates. The Johor-Riau sultanate itself was split apart after a series of civil wars and rebellions, especially with the arrival of Bugis traders and warriors from the island of Sulawesi, eastern Indonesia. Singapore became a British colony and Johor and territories of the Malay Peninsula became British-protected sultanates. The islands south of the Straits of Singapore, including Bintan, became Dutch. Trade was diverted away to new centers of trade, in Singapore and Batavia, capital of the old Dutch East Indian Empire. (Batavia is now better known as Jakarta, capital of Indonesia.) 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 waving to us. Smiling girls walking around on their weekend best, in colourful traditional tudang and robes, going to a wedding. An elderly Malay man reading the Quran on the steps of the Royal Mosque, with strange green-yellow minarets rising from the building like pseudo-fantasy spires. We walked to the other side of the island, where a party was taking place, with extra-loud beats of hip-hop and Caribbean rap. Afro pop meets Nasi Padang. Depending on your viewpoint, this could either be a wonder, or a horror of, globalization in the 21st century.


I bought a huge kueh lapis at a supermarket. The kueh lapis is a common cake not only in Indonesia but also Singapore and Malaysia. It was first made by the Peranakan people of Batavia. The Peranakans are a people of mixed Chinese and Malay origins, who picked up cake-baking from the Dutch colonizers and then created this cake that has become a favourite of the archipelago.

Kueh lapis means cake of multiple layers. The Chinese sometimes call it qianchenggao, meaning the 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 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 somewhat different taste 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, today forming the natives of Hawaii, Tahiti and Easter Island. The Indian sailors trade with the peoples of the Archipelago, converting many, whose Hindu kingdoms gave the world 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 ended up as a component of this multiple layered admixture that is Indonesia. And yet, none of the new-comers wiped out the earlier one. Like a kueh lapis, each layer of new cultural influence sometimes merged with the earlier layer, but quite often, they created a new layer on top of the older one. And the successive baking process turns each layer into something slightly different from before, like the many cultures of Indonesia undergoing a common historical experience and yet emerging different from what it used to be and also remaining different from each other. 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 but we made verbal enquiries. Not for the first time, Bintan had proved to be an expensive place. Prices were quoted in Singapore Dollars and two of us spent the equivalent of US$25 altogether for some vegetables, fried rice and prawns that was mediocre and meager at best. For that kind of quality, we would spend less in Singapore, a country where the cost of living was much higher.

There were a few local officials having dinner there as well, and I bet they were charged local prices. I had a similar experience on a visit to the nearby island of Batam. That’s why the Riau Islands has attracted so few tourists from nearby Singapore. The lack of transparency and desire to cheat the most from the tourist leaves a bitter after-taste. Not again, many would say. Not only does one gets harassed by touts and conmen, there’s simply no value-for-money in Bintan.

Malaysia, which is also next door to Singapore, is our real weekend paradise. Restaurants abound, providing good food with reasonable prices, and most importantly, tourists feel good when the prices are clearly stated and they pay the same amount as the local. Therefore, Malaysia attracts many more tourists and its citizens prosper from tourist spending and gainful employment. Unfortunately, Indonesia doesn’t understand that 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 is devoted to the deity Tuabehgong. The worship of Tuabehgong is a unique phenomenon in 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 15th and 18th centuries, which coincided with the arrival of the Chinese settlers. In this region, the early Chinese settlers encountered the Malay people who at that time were flirting not only with Islam but also a variety of Hindu gods and local animist beliefs.

The Chinese, being a polytheistic people, probably decided that the only way to guarantee safety and prosperity in a foreign land is to do as the Romans do – adopt local deities as their own, and hence the imaginative combination of the Tudigong, supposedly the god in charged of all day-to-day earthy matters, and local Malay deities. 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 well visited temples in Seranggang is a rather small temple built into the gigantic roots of a banyan tree more than one 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 had their wishes granted and hence the beginning of a cult around the banyan-tree temple, which attracted devotees from Malaysia and Singapore as well. 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 twisted blessing of sorts, as it kept away the touts. The border customs were easy enough and we didn’t encounter any of the corrupt Indonesian border officials that we have 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.

The ride was somewhat analogous to the Indonesia of today – a land of constant instability and uncertainty. The stepping down of the dictator Suharto has not led to improved standard of living or peaceful political development. Instead, the leaders of so-called newly democratic Indonesia have become more corrupt than the old regime, and the country sailed from one political crisis to another.

Economic development has taken a back seat, and many foreign investors are leaving. Nobody wants to operate in an environment where lowly skilled workers, with the encouragement of strike-happy trade unionists and NGOs staffed by feather-headed agitators from rich countries, demand for wages that make them totally uncompetitive. All these make Indonesia, a country with enormous economic potential, no different from countries like Argentina or Congo, where potential seemed to remain mere potential for a long, long time.

It is often easy for the rest of the world to forget Indonesia for the country speaks with a soft voice and hardly make 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 across some of the most vital waterways of the world. And for that reason, we’d better hope that Indonesia the boat would reach its destination safely and peacefully.


Unknown said…
Your article is fascinating; I spent the last vacation at a Bintan beach resort but didn’t know the history of this place. Thanks!