A trip to the historical Perak fishing village of Matang
BY SHARON NG KOOI KIN – 20 OCTOBER 2016 @ 2:02 PM
The quaint fishing village between Taiping and Kuala Sepetang has a rich history. Sharon Ng Kooi Kin finds out more
DURING my school days, decades ago, I used to cycle daily past an old joss sticks shop in Simpang Road, Taiping. I find the giant joss sticks decorated with dragons and other figurines quite fascinating.
Recently I found out that there was a factory in Matang, 9km from Taiping town, producing these dragon joss sticks. So I made arrangements for a group visit to the factory.
Since we’re already there, we take the opportunity to visit the Matang Historical Complex and enjoy a seafood lunch.
So we get to appreciate vintage Matang, an old fishing village between Taiping and Kuala Sepetang (Port Weld). These two towns were the train terminals of the first railway line built in the country in 1885.
The Matang Historical Complex or simply, the Matang Museum, was set up by the Perak Department of Museums and Antiquities in 1987 and housed in the Che Ngah Ibrahim Fort built in the 1870s.
Kota Ngah Ibrahim is the abode of the son of Long Jaafar, the local chieftain who discovered tin ore in Perak in 1848. Legend had it that his pet elephant, Larut, got lost in the jungles of Klian Pau (where the present Taiping Prisons stand). When the animal was found three days later, its legs were covered with mud embedded with silvery tin deposits.
This famous elephant is immortalised in a lifelike statue at the entrance of the museum’s main hall. Free entry to this air-conditioned two-storeyed wooden building brings us back in time to the 19th and early 20th centuries when fishing, agriculture and tin mining were the main economic activities here.
Artefacts, manikin tableaux, posters, drawings, maps, old furniture all help to recreate life in a bygone era.
We have been told countless stories about the four Larut Wars involving rival Chinese clans of the Ghee Hin and Hai San, the assassination of JWW Birch and the resulting court case and sentencing, the Pangkor Treaty, the British intervention and governance, the Japanese Occupation and so on. All these are comprehensively and dramatically depicted in the Matang Museum.
Since we have about an hour before the factory visit, we try the famous seafood congee at the Light House Restaurant. The restaurant, occupying five shop lots is packed with diners, every table loaded with all kinds of seafood enjoyed by appreciative customers. Six of us sat at a round table and wisely ordered congee for only four persons, asking the waiter to put every seafood ingredient in, except crabs.
While waiting for our food we take a look at the large collection of antiques displayed. The huge central bowl of congee served is so full of delicious sea delicacies that its sweetness has to be tasted to be believed. In the rice gruel are chunks of white pomfret, fish balls, big prawns, minced meat balls, mushrooms, squid and cuttlefish.
Our side orders include crispy fried mullet, oyster omelette, stir fried shell fish and sweet potato leaves. We are stuffed by the time we finish eating and have to ask for a doggy bag to take back what we cannot finish.
We can’t possibly leave behind such delectably delicious food! The bill comes up to RM170 for six persons.
DRAGON JOSS STICKS FACTORY
As we drive to the joss sticks factory, we realise that it is just a stone’s throw away from the Matang Museum, about 300m behind the Fort!
Tan, the owner of the factory, beckons us to follow him to the back of the factory where the story begins, as he puts it. In front of him are two large earthen jars and sacks of brown powder.
This special powder is made from ground-up chips and bark of the local tree called kayu teja, wild cinnamon tree or joss stick tree. Presently, raw materials are supplied by a factory in Baling, up north.
When mixed with water, a sticky dough is produced which is fashioned into decorative items for the dragon joss sticks. The dough is first compressed by machines and then stretched through metal rollers to the required thickness.
In the past and in present day small scale cottage industries, all compressions are done by stamping feet and rolled out by hand-held rollers. No other ingredients or perfumes are added.
The dough is then laid on wooden slabs and special shaped metal cutters are used to cut out required shapes like dragon claws, figurines, dragon whiskers, phoenix tails and so on. “It’s like making cookies at home!” says a friend.
We observe how a worker makes numerous dragon claws, impales the cut out dough on sticks and with expertly deft fingers, shapes the toes and claw nails.
Then Tan shows us how dough is plastered and shaped around plywood dragon heads, the end product of which resembles a carved out dragon. Smaller dragon faces are made with moulds, and left to dry for a few days before they are painted and other embellishments added.
Decorating Dragon head Joss Sticks
There is no carving involved. Scores of dragon faces can be made in a day using moulds. For the bigger dragon heads, it is just clever plastering over ingeniously designed wooden structures and frameworks that will all burn up with the joss sticks. Experienced artwork and decorations complete the three dimensional dragons, birds, phoenixes, pineapples and fairy effigies.
The pillared joss sticks themselves are made from 20 per cent saw dust mixed with 80 per cent kayu teja dough. Mounted on long wooden poles, they vary in height from 500cm to 10m and weigh 2kg to 80kg respectively. They are priced between RM14 and RM1,300.
The biggest orders for these joss sticks come during the Hungry Ghost Festival in the seventh lunar month. This year the seventh month began on Aug 3.
The Lunar Chinese New Year is also a favourite period to burn these dragon joss sticks in temples and homes, especially on the ninth day of the first month.
The belief is that these lofty burning joss sticks will take the prayers of the faithful to heaven and their sweet incense smell and smoke will attract the attention of the gods.
It was Tan’s elder sister, Tan Seow Kheng and her husband, who started the joss sticks making factory in Ujong Matang in 1982.
Asked if business is good, he replies: “Okay. Seasonal orders but enough for me to feed my wife and children!”
He is being modest as Tan informs us that they now export to Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak .
Our visit ends with a flourish as Tan leads us outside to view a magnificent joss stick tree and then to a long shed where a grand dragon float sits. He designed it himself and rents it out for festival street processions.
As we leave the factory, I ponder on the laborious production and elaborate decorations of such prayer items that will be reduced to ashes within a few hours.
When Tan and his sister eventually retire, will the younger generations take over their craft? Even with modern machines and automation, can the artistic elements of this traditional craft be reproduced?
Time will tell.
– Source: NST