“WHAT‘S in that box?“ the words come tumbling out as I spot some old newspapers and magazines sticking out from a faded cardboard box. I‘ve been helping Steven Chin, a helpful contractor friend, unload a toilet cistern from the back of his truck. “Oh...it‘s nothing. The owner of the house I‘m renovating in Taman Perkasa asked me to help dispose of it after I finished my job there earlier,“ explains Chin, while picking up his toolbox from the front passenger seat.
My request to check out the contents of the box surprises him. “Go ahead but make sure you put everything back once you‘re done. My van is already in a mess as it is,“ says Chin before heading indoors to fix the flushing mechanism on my broken toilet.
At a glance the contents do not look anything out of the ordinary. The first few things taken out are newspaper cuttings from the early 1960s pertaining to government pension schemes and gratuity payments. These are followed by correspondences addressed to a certain Puteh bin Haji Din. Things start to get interesting when I fish out a large tan-coloured Manila envelope. The penciled inscriptions “Barang Haji“ (Haj-related items) sends my heart racing. Gingerly, I remove the contents of the A4-sized envelope and place them on a clean plastic bag. Two orange-coloured booklets with the words PASS FOR MECCA clearly emblazoned on the front cover catch my attention. Upon close inspection, I realise that these passes were used by Puteh and his wife, Meriam binti Haji Awang when they performed their Haj pilgrimage back in 1949. Both being British Protected subjects at that time paid a $2 fee each to have these passes issued.
Holding the thin booklets in my hands, my mind starts to wander back in time to exactly 100 years before Puteh and Meriam embarked on their once in a life time pilgrimage. Historical records show that the earliest Haj undertakings started in Singapore at around 1849. Singapore at that time was a major port where pilgrims from the Malay states and Indonesia converged. Some had to stay for months while waiting for their ship to Jeddah. During that time, they had to contend with various problems that included overcrowding, unhygienic surroundings and malnutrition.
Conditions became so cramped that all the Haj agents or Syeikh Haji houses were filled to the brim. Even the five foot ways and roads fronting these lodgings were turned into places to sleep at night. In the wee hours of the morning when the roads were totally devoid of traffic, sleeping mats were spread in the middle of roads in Kampung Glam and Kampung Jawa like Arab Street and Bussorah Street.
The lack of a proper sewage system and supply of clean water in those days worsened the condition of the pilgrims and this often led to the proliferation of infectious diseases like cholera, smallpox and dysentery.
Things didn‘t get any better for the pilgrims onboard their ships. The exhaustion experienced during the long voyage, compounded by contagious disease and overcrowding, had devastating effects on them, many of whom were of advanced age. In 1849, 83 pilgrims died en route from Jeddah to Singapore. They were on board a 290-tonne ship that was carrying a total of 520 pilgrims back from the Holy Land.
Concealed between the pages of one of the booklets is a colourful picture postcard and several black and white photographs. The postcard features a Kapal Haji (Pilgrim Ship) belonging to the Blue Funnel Line while most of the photographs feature people boarding ocean liners. I try to pick out Puteh and Meriam from the crowd based on their images in their Mecca passes but fail.
PASSAGE OVER WATER
By the late 1860s, Penang became the focus for pilgrim ships from Singapore and Indonesia. This coincided with the opening of the Suez Canal on Nov 16, 1869. Pilgrim ships no longer had to circumnavigate the Cape of Good Hope and the duration of travel to Jeddah was dramatically reduced from three months to only two weeks! Steamer traffic from Europe to Asia through the Red Sea increased considerably then on, making it easier for Muslims from the Malay-Indonesian archipelago to reach the Holy Land.
It‘s little surprise to find the post card among Puteh and Meriam‘s personal effects as steamers belonging to the Blue Funnel Line carried most of the pilgrims from Malaya. It‘s likely that the Kedah couple went on the Haj via Penang. At the start of their journey, Puteh and his wife could have stayed at a pilgrims‘ halfway house at Limbong Kapal in Alor Star before heading down south to Penang.
Arriving at the Pearl of the Orient, Puteh and Meriam would have headed to the Haj ticketing agency in Acheen Street to book their passage to Jeddah. This agency was first started by Haji Pa‘wan Abdul Kadir Marican who‘s the eldest grandson of Captain Kling and the nadzir (superintendent) of the Kapitan Kling Mosque in George Town. By Puteh and Meriam‘s time in 1949, the management of the agency was in the hands of Sayyid Ahmad Almashoor.
A total of five Blue Funnel Line steamers left Penang Harbour in 1949. Puteh and Meriam must have boarded one called Agamemnon as the steamer‘s name is clearly stamped on the front cover of their Mecca passes.
On the day of their departure, Puteh and Meriam would have joined tens of thousands of people at the Penang wharf area. A vast majority of those present were relatives, friends and family members who wanted to bid their loved ones farewell and wish them a safe journey to and back from the Holy Land.
BUSINESS OF HAJ
Pilgrims travelling to Jeddah after the Second World War were more fortunate than their earlier counterparts. Passenger-only pilgrim ships in the late 1940s were far more comfortable compared to the earlier ones where passengers and cargoes vied for precious space.
Steamers like the Agamemnon sailed north from Singapore and called at Port Swettenham and Penang before heading across the Andaman Sea towards Colombo and finally onwards to Jeddah. Puteh and his wife would have needed 13 days to reach Jeddah.
The Haj business in Penang reached its zenith in the 1950s. This was due to the influx of Kelantanese pilgrims who arrived by the busloads with their relatives. While waiting for departure, the local tourists would shop, change currency and seek spiritual preparedness. This greatly benefitted the Acheen Street community. Business reached such an accelerated pace that the place became known as “The Second Jeddah“.
Some pilgrims stayed for several days while others up to three weeks. In the past, each Haj season saw practically every residence on Acheen Street rented out to pilgrims. The street then was transformed into a temporary Haj village. Those who couldn‘t find or afford lodgings would put up at the nearby Acheen Street mosque. At the height of each Haj season, the mosque would be filled with thousands of people.
The setting up of the Pilgrim Management Fund Lembaga Urusan Tabung Haji (LUTH) and the introduction of competitive air travel in the late 1960s rang the death knell for the pilgrim shipping industry and businesses related to the Haj industry in Acheen Street. The last Haj ticketing agency in Penang closed in 1975.
“Want to go for lunch? I‘m craving for ikan bakar (grilled fish). There‘s a nice place near the airport,“ Chin‘s invitation cuts into my thoughts. I‘d been so busy reminiscing about the past that I didn‘t realise that he‘d completed his task.After accepting his invitation, I ask whether I could keep the box which he was planning to throw away. A cynical look on his face, he eventually mutters: “You can have it if you want but I think there‘s nothing worth keeping there.“ Thanking him profusely for his generosity, I ask him to wait as I put the box and its precious contents safely in my house.
Approaching our destination at Kepala Batas, I notice an express bus pulling into the spanking new five star Tabung Haji Hotel. Coincidentally, it‘s the Haj season now and I presume the bus is there to pick up pilgrims who‘ve stayed the night there. From there, the bus will make a short trip to the nearby Kepala Batas Airport where a specially chartered plane will be waiting to whisk the pilgrims directly to the Holy Land. Their flight time to Jeddah will take less than 10 hours, a vast improvement from the arduous sea travel of the past.
Suffice to say, Haj pilgrims today have never had it so good. Unlike their fellow pilgrims in the past, the modern day traveller gets to travel in style, safety and comfort where their every need is taken care of fully by LUTH. Makes one marvel at just how far things have come.
Pictures courtesy of Alan Teh Leam Seng