Quest for info on Johor's Sultanah Fatimah

It all started when Lim Mei Fen, a graduate of Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA), visited the Malaysia Chinese Heritage Museum in Wisma Huazong in Kuala Lumpur and discovered the rich history of the Johor Sultanate.

With Lim Mei Fen [Right] at the Tan Hiok Nee
Heritage Walk, Johor Baru
[I was in Wisma Huazong for an event in 2018 but it was late 2019 when I finally visited this museum and shared my experience in, Johor Heritage in Malaysian Chinese Museum, published in the February 2020 issue of The Iskandarian.]

Mei Fen, better known as Mei, confessed that she made three visits to the Museum and she concluded that two things compelled her to pursue her project in seeking more information on Sultanah Fatimah, the third consort of Sultan Abu Bakar.

Firstly, she was curious about Sultanah Fatimah who was ethnic Chinese, and secondly, a July 2019 newspaper report she read, discussed the Chinese heritage of Her Majesty, Raja Permaisuri Agong, Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah.

Relentless in her search for more information on Sultanah Fatimah, Mei consulted the curator of the Malaysia Chinese Heritage Museum and her lecturers in ASWARA, all of whom encouraged her to go to Johor to verify the information she had garnered from the museum and her online research.

Info on Sultanah Fatimah from the
Malaysian Chinese Museum, KL
Then someone, who is familiar with My Johor Stories, told Mei to get in touch with me in Johor Baru.

It was Saturday morning when I read a private message from Mei posted in Facebook and this started our conversation about the reasons why she was in JB. This set me thinking about how I could connect her with the resources here.

As an introduction, Mei showed me a copy of the event programme for a theatre production entitled, Tanah Ahkhirku, that was staged in 2018 at the prestigious Istana Budaya theatre in Kuala Lumpur for her Third Year Project.

Mei, who was the show’s producer and lead actress in the role of a Chinese migrant worker, said that the story came from a script she worked on for her final year exams at ASWARA.

By the way, ASWARA is the only institute of higher learning in performing arts which is fully supported by the Malaysian Government under the Ministry of Unity, Culture, Art and Heritage.

Event programme for Tanah Akhirku, a
theatre production staged in 2018
The show’s title, Tanah Akhirku, loosely translated means The Last Land for Us, for a story about multi-racial harmony from a Chinese perspective, about settling down and becoming part of the community here.

As she was already in JB, I decided to meet her and get a better understanding of her proposed project on Sultanah Fatimah.

I asked Mei, “What are you doing tomorrow?” and continued, “Shall we meet at the JB Chinese Heritage Museum?”

Her reply was spontaneous, “Yes, can.”

It was cloudy and drizzling when I headed into JB’s heritage quarter and in the lobby of the JB Chinese Heritage Museum, I saw a young lady who resembled the photograph featured in the flyer and obviously was Mei.

She was accompanied by Gary Goh, a friend who (I later found out!) initially planned to drop her off at the museum to meet me but he decided to stay on for our time together.

With Mei [Left] and Gary Goh [Right] at the JB Chinese
Heritage Museum, Johor Baru
Mei and Gary had tickets to visit the museum, so I shared with them an overview of the Chinese community in Johor with various highlights, based on the chronology of events posted on the wall in the lobby.

Incidentally, both Mei and Gary are from Penang, a state with a wealth of culture and heritage so they could easily relate to how Johor is carefully preserving its culture and heritage in galleries, museums, heritage foundations and documents.

In fact, Mei was already in touch with the authorities in the Royal Abu Bakar Museum – which is currently closed – who said they will help to arrange an appointment with Dato Abdul Rahim Ramli, President of the Johor Royal Court Council and author of several books on Johor culture, heritage and Johor royalty.

Mei with Cheng Chee Tong [Right] at the
JB Kwong Siew Gallery
Mei had also arranged to track down references that document relevant portions of Johor history from the Documentation Division of Yayasan Warisan Johor or the Johor Heritage Foundation.

Aware that Sultanah Fatimah was a Chinese of Cantonese origin, I set up an appointment for Mei to meet with Cheng Chee Tong, of the Johor Cantonese association and who is also the curator of the JB Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery.

Ahead of her visit there, I shared with Mei, relevant details of the Wong family in JB and their link with Johor pioneer, Wong Ah Fook.

Armed with this knowledge, Mei met with Cheng at the JB Kwong Siew Gallery the next day, where I later learnt, she had a most interesting and informative experience, learning more about the Wong family and the Cantonese community in JB.

Dato Abdul Rahim Ramli providing comprehensive
replies to Mei's questions
Generous with his time and info, Cheng even arranged for Mei to meet with the traditional goldsmiths at Jalan Trus, Kwong Lee Soon Kee, who shared with her their recollections of doing business with the Johor royal family.

Earlier on, I had informed Dato Rahim about Mei and her quest for more info on Sultanah Fatimah because I know that he is the most reliable source to verify all her queries about the history of the Johor royal family.

I could only hope that he had time to meet with Mei on such short notice because his input will provide the solid details for her to craft her script that will eventually be used to stage a theatre production or produce a film project.

Dato Rahim is a fountain of information!
A few days later I received Dato’s polite query, “Is she in JB?”

When I replied, “Yes, she is here this whole week,” Dato promptly gave us an appointment to meet him at his office in Bangunan Sultan Ibrahim, Bukit Timbalan.

When I told Mei about this appointment, her response of, “Wow! Great, great!” expressed how thrilled and thankful she was for this opportunity to meet with Dato.

On that appointed afternoon, we spent a most profitable time together at Dato’s office, getting facts verified by Dato, an authority on Johor culture and heritage who is well respected for his knowledge and experience with Johor royal protocol as he had served under three Johor rulers.

One for the album: I'm with Mei and Dato Rahim
When Dato understood what Mei proposed to do in her project, I was all ears as Dato explained in meticulous detail, all that Mei needed to know.

He opened by saying that in Johor, Maharajah Abu Bakar invited other ethnic groups like the Chinese, Indians, Punjabi and Arabs to settle here and these newcomers were not considered as immigrants but were in fact, welcomed guests.

As Dato discussed how Abu Bakar encouraged the newcomers to practice their own religions and traditions, my thoughts flashed to our Street of Harmony in the heart of JB where churches, temples and mosques were literally located on the same street, all still standing proudly as a legacy from him!

Books authored by Dato Abdul Rahim Ramli
Established by Abu Bakar, this concept of accepting each other’s differences and living in racial harmony, was the principle that undergirds the development of a united community in Johor which is uniquely dubbed as, Bangsa Johor.

Dato explained that this concept remains very much alive today because the clarion call of the Johor royal family continues with, “Muafakat membawa bakat!” which translated means, “Consensus or Concord brings blessings!”

To strengthen the bond between the Malay community and the other communities, Abu Bakar encouraged inter-marriages and the Maharajah married Wong Ah Gew, a Chinese woman from a wealthy family in Rengit, as his third consort.

While Wong shared the same surname as Johor pioneer, Wong Ah Fook, they were not related by blood but were members of the Wong clan with a common surname.

Wong Ah Gew took the name, Fatimah Abdullah, and when she was married to Abu Bakar in Singapore, in December 1885, her title was, Enche’ Puan Fatimah Abdullah.

Mei had an enjoyable and profitable time with Dato Rahim
After the Jementah War, the Muar district was created after Abu Bakar was offered ownership of the Kesang area by the followers of Sultan Ali in 1876.

Abu Bakar honoured the district by naming its capital, Bandar Maharani or Queen’s Town, after his consort Maharani Fatimah.

When Abu Bakar was crowned the Sultan of Johor in 1886, she was conferred the title, Sultanah Fatimah.

As Dato answered the queries from Mei, I absorbed everything, learning a great deal about Sultanah Fatimah, details of which merits a separate story…

In response to Mei’s query about the Chinese heritage in the Johor royal family, Dato opened the pages of the books he authored and pointed to relevant portions that clearly clarified and thoroughly satisfied the curiosity of both Mei and myself.

Interestingly, the royal family’s Chinese heritage was not from Sultanah Fatimah!

Dato pointed to the lines on the page which recorded that the second consort of Abu Bakar, Enche’ Puan Zubaidah Abdullah nee Cecilia Catherine Lange, was of mixed parentage: her father was a Dane while her mother was Chinese.

Dato Rahim pointing to the record in his book on the
consorts of Sultan Abu Bakar
It was indeed an amazing revelation that the Chinese heritage in the Johor royal family was in fact, attributed to Enche’ Puan Zubaidah Abdullah, the mother of Sultan Sir Ibrahim, and not Sultanah Fatimah.

After the meeting, I followed up with a message to Dato, to express our gratitude and his reply, “My pleasure, Peggy. Glad to be of assistance,” rang aloud with an attitude of gracious generosity, a response which I deeply appreciated.

I know that the enriching discoveries from our meeting with Dato and other sources in Johor will go a long way to guide Mei when she works with her team to write the script for the proposed project.

Thanks Mei, for your passionate pursuit of more info on Sultanah Fatimah of Johor, a royal family member who worked behind the scenes to support Sultan Abu Bakar, the Father of Modern Johor.

While your project may still be at the research stage, I wish you the best for every success and give you full marks for your tenacity in seeking out all the essential details to build the base of something that will certainly wow us someday. All the best, Mei!

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Amazing insight. Had to privilege to meet up with Mei in Beijing when she went visiting and the privilege to catch up again in KL now that we are stuck here since CNY. Been to Johor so many times because of work when I was still working in Malaysia but never knew of such history. Now, you made me want to visit Johor all over again. Definitely, something every Johorean can be proud of.