Royal fever in Johor

The Johor sultan's crown printed in the official
souvenir programme for the coronation of Sultan Ismail
Ready or not, I’m swept along with the rakyat of Johor in an infectious surge of Royal Fever.  All over the city, an increasing number of billboards, banners and buntings are put up with the official coronation logo to send well-wishes to His Royal Highness Sultan Ibrahim on his coronation.  

Since last week, rows upon rows of Johor state flags strung across the roads are furiously flapping in the breeze like a waving canopy over passing cars.  In the last few days, many road users are taking detours to get to their destinations as several roads in the city are closed to facilitate rehearsals.

The official Johor crest for the
coronation of HRH Sultan Ibrahim in March 2015

All eyes will be trained on Johor for the coronation of HRH Sultan Ibrahim on March 23 as the fifth sultan in the history of modern Johor.  The city is doing everything to spruce up public places while the relevant authorities – in the palaces and throughout the city – are on their toes to ensure that all plans will go smoothly and securely.  Local and foreign guests are descending on our beloved city and nothing should go amiss as we roll out the proverbial red carpet to welcome them.

The Johor sultan’s coronation is a historic day that’s unique to Johor as it combines Islamic, Malay and Western culture and rituals that are exclusive and based on Johor royal traditions.  Sultan Abu Bakar – the Father of Modern Johor (1862 to 1895) – adopted the English tradition of pledging the oath of loyalty to the monarchs, the royal regalia and exchanged the traditional Malay head-dress for a crown that was made by royal jeweler, J W Benson of London.  

Sultan Abu Bakar in his coronation outfit
complete with flowing robes; Note the
Sultan's crown on table [Left]
For weeks, I’ve been immersed in “sultan stories” as I read history books on early Johor, did online research and looked up old photos.  This exercise is both inspiring and informative as I discover the stories and people behind the names of roads and kampungs, as well as the palaces and hills in Johor Baru.  I’m literally saturated by a great deal of information but it’s good to know who’s who, what’s where in and around JB and which buildings no longer exist in our fast developing city. 

Then I get a call from a friend telling me about someone who wants to show me souvenirs in his family’s collection from the last sultan’s coronation 55 years ago.  I’m glad I arranged to meet him because he is proof that I’m not alone in this bout of royal fever! He is probably having a more serious “attack” because he is witnessing the sultan’s coronation for the second time in his lifetime!

When I left Eh He, the place where our meeting was held, I spotted my friends, the Liew brothers in front of their shop, Johor Heng Photo Studio situated at the corner of Jalan Trus and Jalan Ibrahim.  Their father, Liew Wee Peng, started as an employee with the studio when he moved to JB in 1946 and at the demise of the owner, Heng Kok Wee, he took over the business and retained the studio’s established reputation.  The senior Liew also took over the role as a royal photographer and a number of his old photographs of Sultan Ibrahim Almarhum Sultan Abu Bakar are still displayed in the upstairs studio. 

The Sultan and his consort's crowns featured in an
article in the Chinese newspapers
The brothers, Liew Ah Lek (a k a Alex) and Liew Kok Choy, invited me in for a chat and the topic inevitably went to the sultan’s coronation because even Sin Chew Jit Poh, the Chinese newspapers they read, featured the sultan’s crown in an article.  Kok Choy turns to that page and points the article out to me but I can only admire the photos because I don’t read Chinese.  He looked at me, hesitated a moment and then started to read the article again line by line, translating it into English for me.
I listened carefully and was glad the detailed description he translated tallies with what I already know about the sultan’s crown and the smaller crown for his consort.  I can hear a tinge of awe and admiration in his voice as he read out that Johor is the only state in the nation where the sultan wears a crown and has a coronation ceremony.  I’m sure he is familiar with the sultan’s coronation because we are in their old studio surrounded by priceless photos of several members of the Johor royal family.

Check out the priceless photos here!
As I look around, my eyes are riveted to shots of Sultan Ibrahim and Lady Marcella, and other photos with a young Princess Mariam.  I remember being fascinated by Princess Mariam when she visited our school with Lady Marcella and how my classmates and I were so thrilled to meet a stylish princess.  I can never forget her chic elegance with her long hair tied in a pony tail, her simple but smart outfit and those fashionable shades!

While looking through my collection of photos, I discover a shot I took for my story on the Raffles Hotel Museum, Singapore.   It was of an exhibit of a pair of shoes with matching evening bag made of gold fabric and a vintage-looking blouse designed by Doris Geddes Singapore Couture that belonged to Lady Marcella.  Displayed alongside was a newspaper cutting from the Straits Times headlined, “Sultanah crowned in day of splendour” and “The gown: East and West,” that described how the design and fabrics were influenced by Asian and Western culture.

A newspaper cutting dated October 1955 seen in the
Raffles Hotel Museum, Singapore
From photos I’ve seen of Lady Marcella, I can imagine how stunning she must have looked in the coronation gown designed in pink and silver, as illustrated in the newspaper report with details of the gown and accessories described in the copy.  

It’s exciting that the Geddes couture collection was housed in The Little Shoppe, Raffles Hotel Singapore since 1947 and her designs are still in demand among vintage clothes collectors.  With this beautiful outfit in mind, I can’t wait to see Her Highness Raja Zarith Sofiah in all her finery as she was personally involved in the design of her coronation attire.

In keeping with royal family traditions, on the day before his coronation, HRH Sultan Ibrahim will pay his respects and offer prayers to his ancestors interred at the Royal Mausoleum at Bukit Mahmoodiah and at Telok Belanga in Singapore.  

A section of the Kembara Mahkota exhibit
in the Kota Tinggi History Museum
This trip to Singapore clearly reflects the connection the Johor royal family has with Telok Belanga, the place where Temenggong Abu Bakar Sri Maharaja lived when he succeeded his father to the Johor throne.  This style of the traditional costume preferred by His Highness was widely worn in Johor in the 19th century and its popularity flourished during his reign.  In 1862 this uniquely Johor style was recognised as the baju kurung Teluk Belanga

For the sultan’s coronation, at least nine different but related events started from March 16 in a grand 3-month long celebration for the rakyat to enjoy not just in the capital city but also in the districts.  This tradition was probably put in place from the era of Sultan Ismail who had a good rapport with the rakyat and visited the districts regularly.  This might have been the earliest form of the annual Kembara Mahkota that continued to be practiced by Sultan Iskandar and now HRH Sultan Ibrahim and members of the Johor royal family.  With all these activities lined up throughout the state, it looks like the effects of the royal fever are set to linger for some time now.


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