Chemor is also home to the Mandailings, people who originally came from Sumatra and rose to prominence in many fields in their adopted land. IT was not just the Chinese who sought refuge and prosperity in Perak. The Mandailing people fled the 19th century wars of north Sumatra and found greener pastures here too. The palace of their leader Raja Bilah, at Papan (near Ipoh), is renowned, but the community has other cultural treasure troves too, such as the home of Noormiah Mohd Jamil, or Kak Nadimah, 62, at Kampung Batu 9, just outside Chemor.
She also shows us – a group on a heritage tour organised by the Perak Heritage Society – a lovely oil lamp with the inscription “Sherwood’s Birmingham” underneath.
“When my parents married in 1922, they had to get new everything – plates, bed and this lamp.”
When asked about her excellent English, she credits her education at Raja Perempuan English School, Ipoh.
“We would be fined five cents if we spoke anything other than English,” she recalls.
She was born in Chemor but her work in arbitration has taken her to Kuala Lumpur, though she makes it a point to return regularly to maintain the house.
“There were 20-plus Mandailing families here. The young have gone to work elsewhere. The elderly have either passed away or moved to the cities to join their children,” she says.
The grand old homes now have “caretaker” families, including more recent Indonesian arrivals, thus continuing the historical Nusantara migrations.
According to heritage activist Abdur-Razzaq Lubis who is of Mandailing descent (in previous articles in The Star), Mandailing irrigation techniques applied in the Kinta Valley of Perak enabled the community to produce a surplus of rice to feed the ever-growing Chinese mining population. The gold mines techniques of Sumatra were also applied successfully in the state's tin mines.
The Mandailings were embroiled in various 19th century wars in Selangor, Pahang and Perak after they arrived here, acquiring a reputation as rebels and insurgents. When they lost, some chose to conceal their identities by dropping their clan names.
In Perak, Lubis notes that they made a strategic decision to change sides and become British allies and were rewarded with mines, positions as tax collectors and lands (used for rubber and fruit orchard cultivation).
He notes that in both Indonesia and Malaysia, official efforts are being made to “incorporate” the Mandailing identity into the more mainstream Batak and Malay identities respectively. Some Mandailings have also chosen to assimilate themselves as Malays to “make things easier”.
He estimates there are roughly 50,000 Malaysians of Mandailing descent, including nationalist-educationist Aminuddin Baki, former Inspector-General of Police Tun Mohd Hanif Omar and former Supreme Court judge Tan Sri Azmi Kamaruddin.
As for Nadimah, while she is proud to be Malaysian, she is also proud of her roots. Many Mandailings keep detailed family tree records, and Nadimah has hers (going back three centuries, written in Jawi) proudly displayed in her home. After all, she is the great-great-grandniece of Raja Bilah, once the grand ruler of Papan.
Meanwhile, another kind of migration – the suburban sprawl of Ipoh city, whose advance guard is merely 5km away from her kampung – beckons.
For now, the semi-rural setting here still cocoons the home and its antiques, which includes solid wooden cupboards, a four-poster bed as well as teacups and glass jars (collected by her family from around the world).
“There are many offers to buy all these things but I have declined,” she says.
Nadimah prepares a splendid Hari Raya spread for us, including the Mandailing classic of daun ubi tembuk or mashed tapioca leaves, lush with bunga kantan, lemongrass and coconut milk flavours. For dessert, she makes excellent ghee-enriched kuih makmur (prosperous cookies) filled with pineapple jam.
Apart from antiques, it’s to lovely to know that heritage of the culinary kind is alive and well! – ANDREW SIA