Sunday February 15, 2009
From pirate to god
By ANDREW SIA
Decades before the current political drama in Perak, its coastal areas were rife with secret societies and sea-borne gangsters. This 'real history' of the state has been captured in two independent movies.
CAN somebody be a brutal pirate in Perak, then escape to Sumatra, get killed, and end up becoming a god with his own temple there? Or can someone "privatise" Perak's coast for two decades and collect "tolls" from businesses there? These are the gutsy, real life stories of Tan Lian Lay and Tan Huan Siea respectively, the two Pirate Kings of Perak.
Yet their stories are not found in "official" versions of history, and it has been left to Lee Eng Kew, 44, Taiping's amateur archaeologist and field historian, to highlight these half-forgotten parts of the state's "alternative" heritage.
This is something that Lee is well placed to undertake, having recorded ordinary people's stories and scrabbled among ancient Chinese tombs around Taiping for the past 30 years.
And thanks to indie filmmaker Khoo Eng Yow, 32, both these stories have been captured in two documentaries. The first in The Pirate and the Emperor's Ship (being shown now around the country), while the second was in Ah Kew the Digger in 2004.
And, strangely, both tough guys hail from Kuala Gula (literally: Sugar Estuary, as sugar was once processed there) in the state's northern coast, a place now better known for its tranquil bird sanctuary... .
Kinship and revenge
The story of Tan Lian Lay began after World War II.
"When the Japanese surrendered, they left many weapons to him and the Ang Men (literally, the Ang clan's door) secret society of coastal Perak," says Khoo in an interview in Petaling Jaya earlier this week.
"This was probably intended to cause problems for the returning British."
With this boost in firepower, Lian Lay could control all of the state's coast from Kuala Gula down to Teluk Intan, robbing passing ships, and extorting money from the many charcoal kiln operators in the mangrove forests.
According to the various ordinary folks interviewed in the movie, he was a brutal man.
When somebody reported him after the war to the British for collaborating with the Japanese, Lian Lay slaughtered not only the squealer but also all 11 of his family members, down to the grandchildren – a chilling example of si kar liao (Hokkien) or ham kar chan(Cantonese), both meaning "whole family die".
When Lian Lay's own henchmen made mistakes, they were asked to have a hearty meal and to smoke extra opium – before being executed.
Once, he wanted to hide a cache of stolen rice in Pulau Pasir Hitam, an island of mangrove mud flats with a fishing village built on stilts (much like Selangor's Pulau Ketam). But the local Ang Men chieftain refused and Lian Lay was then forced to hide it in some nearby mangroves instead. However, when the tide rose, the rice was spoilt, and in revenge, Lian Lay killed the chieftain.
Violence begets violence – sometime in 1946, he was forced to flee to Bagan Siapi Api (Bagan Api) in Sumatra, a predominantly Hokkien Chinese fishing town that is actually just across the Straits of Malacca from Klang in Selangor.
"I have heard about Tan Lian Lay for years from older people," says Lee the historian, during an interview in Taiping over the weekend. "So I thought, why don't we cross over to Sumatra and investigate the colourful stories?
"We chose a time when Bagan Api has a huge barge burning festival," notes Khoo. "Such burnings are also done during the Kie Ong Yea (Nine Emperor Gods) festival in Taiping, Malacca, Singapore, and Taiwan but on a smaller scale. The gods in Bagan Api are different but the motive is the same, so that bad luck will carried away by a ship and burnt off."
The history of Bagan Api began in 1878, about the same time as Taiping. Ang Geok Tin, a resident there, recalls (in the documentary) the legend that when people sailed to Sumatra to escape fighting in Fujian, China, they dreamt that the Kie Ong Yea told them to land at a place with light. And one night, they saw the jungle lit up – with fireflies. And thus Bagan Api was born.
In the documentary, the town looks like a rougher, grittier yet more bustling version of Klang. The culture, says Khoo, is more traditional, and the people speak a more archaic form of Hokkien. And they are actually very friendly.
"It's like Malaysia in the 1960s or 1970s," recalls Lee. "I was welcomed to have free food and lodging at the Lee clan association there. Really likeka kee lang (own people or family). It's not like in Malaysia nowadays where clan ties are influenced by money, bo lui bo Lee (no money, no Lee kinship)."
Yet, when they wanted to ask about Lian Lay, the locals became suspicious.
"People didn't turn up for interviews we had arranged. They thought we might be Tan's relatives who had come to gather information for revenge," says Khoo.
"We found out that people from Bagan Api have been scared for years to go to the northern Perak coast fearing they would get killed there by Lian Lay's gang members," reveals Lee. "Luckily, after three days, the locals believed that we were just doing research for a documentary. "
The people there remember Lian Lay as a colourful character – literally – complete with a golden belt, ashtray, opium pipe, and even teeth! And just like Mafia characters, the bad guys had colourful nicknames like Leprosy, Long Legs, and Coffin Ghee.
Lian Lay embarked on piracy and extortion both on land and at sea. By 1948, he ran into trouble with the local police controlled by the Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist party, which was then fighting a civil war against the communist party in China).
"Yes, Bagan Api was part of (newly independent) Indonesia but it was far from Jakarta. In the late 1940s, the town was actually controlled by the local branch of the Kuomintang," explains Khoo.
Black dogs and gambling
At a big negotiation over turf rights, Lian Lay shot some policemen. When cornered, he tried to surrender but was gunned down by the authorities. When his body was laid out in the streets of Bagan Api, some people went in to pull out his gold teeth.
From such an ugly end, how did he end up becoming a deity?
According to Lee, after Lian Lay died, his spirit spoke, through a medium.
"He wanted to repent for his sins and help people – by giving them lottery numbers!"
In the documentary, we see how the spirit's predictions were so accurate that a popular cult developed and people soon collected funds to build "him" a temple!
However Lian Lay's spirit, in all humility, declined the main altar (where a scary looking black-faced "Bodhidharma" sits instead) and asked to be seated at the temple's rear – where he is still worshipped as a "General" today.
"In fact, 'Lian Lay' was so good at predicting the winning numbers that the lottery boss had to neutralise it with some oor khaw (black dog)," smiles Lee.
"No, not Guinness Stout (which used to have the logo of a black dog on its bottles, hence the drink's Chinese nickname) but the blood of a real black dog. Spiritually, the Chinese believe that this can block things, including kang tau (charms and curses)."
Does Lee think that he is glorifying a pirate?
"I don't regard Lian Lay as a hero," he replies. "Even in Bagan Api, people thought he was a bad guy. But he repented after death."
It may sound strange, but Chinese traditional religion has always turned famous leaders into posthumous subjects of worship, the most obvious example being the Admiral Zheng He, who is still worshipped in temples in Terengganu, Malacca, and Semerang (in Java).
"I guess the thinking is that 'you are my tai kor (big brother)'," says Khoo.
The people's bandit
While Tan Lian Lay met a violent end in 1948, another "Sea King" (Hai Ong in Hokkien or Raja Laut in Malay) was to arise from Kuala Gula. This was Tan Huan Siea who ruled the coast of Perak from 1959 till 1981 despite being on Perak's "Most Wanted" list of criminals.
Once again, this is oral history that Lee has carefully collected from the people of Taiping and nearby coastal areas as told in another documentary, this time, 2004's Ah Kew the Digger.
Huan Siea was not a conventional pirate who attacked ships. Instead, he sort of "privatised" the Perak coastline and established his own exclusive zone of huge shellfish farms, each generating some RM25,000 per month.
With this kind of money, he had potent machine guns and could even outrun enforcement officials with his small and light but high-powered boat. Once, when he was cornered, he simply threw his hoard of cash in the air and fled while the authorities were "distracted" .
But Lee says the true secret of his two decade survival was simply "because people supported him". Huan Siea did not prey on ordinary folk, but instead paid his workers up to RM1,500 per month, a huge sum in the 1970s.
He also donated money regularly for temple festivals, and when he bought things, he always told the locals to keep the change. In that sense, Huan Siea was something of a Robin Hood rather than an outright baddie.
Moreover, he was needed as a peace-keeper – there was lots of fighting among the Beh, Lim and Ong clans as well as between the Red Tiger and Green Dragon secret societies of coastal Perak, and it was often only the Raja Laut who could settle matters.
Such was the popular support for him that when the authorities wanted to capture him, they were forced to relocate a whole fishing village (called Bagan Baru) that was suspected of being his base. Yet Huan Siea was never caught but instead "disappeared" , probably to Thailand.
The stories of these two Pirate Kings may not be in the history textbooks. But they live on in the memories of the people of Perak and Sumatra. And, fortunately, Lee and Khoo have gone the extra mile to document these humble grassroots histories before the older generation passes on.
So who needs the Pirates of the Caribbean, or Blackbeard and Long John Silver? Those Western pirates and their Hollywood dramatisations can move aside, for we have our own sea-borne sam sengs, thank you very much!
THE Pirate and the Emperor's Ship will be shown at these places:
Feb 16, 8pm, entry RM10: Persatuan Heng Ann, Malacca (06-283 3217).
Feb 17, 8pm, entry RM5: Southern College, Johor (07-558 6605 ext 120).
March 10, 8pm, free entry: Taiping, Perak (venue unconfirmed) .
March 11, 8pm, free entry: Han Chiang College, Penang (04-283 1088).
March 20, 8pm, free entry: Papan/Pusing, Perak (017-506 1875).
The DVD can be ordered at shop.dahuangpicture s.com; or call 03-7877 3014. Khoo Eng Yow can be contacted at 012-397 9947.