Exploring Kangkar Tebrau - 19th Feb 2018

When Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim ruled Johor in the early 1800’s, he needed to change his source of income from a sea-based business (piracy?) to a land-based business. And he did this with the help of Chinese businessmen and migrant Chinese workers. At that time, there were few villages in Johor, and those that did exist were along the coast or the principal rivers in the area. So, he awarded what were known as surat sungai (river permits) which were temporary grants allowing Chinese merchants to open up tracks of land along a river or tributary. The Chinese merchant owning a surat sungai became known as a “Kangchu” or “lord of the river”. The early agricultural activities were based on gambier and pepper plantations, but much of the income for the Kangchu and thus for the Temenggong came from supplying opium to the coolies working this harsh land.

The first surat sungai was awarded in the area around Sungai Tebrau (the Tebrau river) to Tan Kee Soon in 1844. Tan Kee Soon was the leader of the Ngee Heng Kongsi in Singapore. The Ngee Heng was an anti-Qing pro-Ming secret society. When the British imposed land rental charges in the supposedly ‘free port’ of Singapore in 1846, Tan Kee Soon ordered 4,000 members of the Ngee Heng Kongsi to move from Singapore to Johor. Thus, the land around Sungai Tebrau was rapidly populated, and Tan Kee Soon became the leader of the Teochew community here in Johor.

So, Lawrence and I drove to Kangkar Tebrau to see what remained of such an historical place. Afterall, this is the birth place of the Chinese community in Johor Bahru. We had been told that there was an important temple near to the Klinik Desa Kangkar Tebrau, so that is what we looked out for, and here it is!

The area populated by Tan Kee Soon’s follows/workers became known as Tan Chu Kan (Kangar Tebrau). Belonging to the Teochew clan, Tan Kee Soon worshipped Xuan Tian Shang Di (shown below right) and established the first temple for this deity in Johor Bahru, known as the Ling Shan Temple.

There are many small altars in this temple, as it houses deities worshipped by other Chinese clan groups, just as the main Johor Bahru Old Chinese Temple in Jalan Trus.

But the most important altar is the one below, housing the Spirit Tablet for Tan Kee Soon himself.

And, just outside the temple is this well which yielded the only clear water for miles around and was the source of drinking water for the 5,000 inhabitants of Tan Chu Kang (Kangkar Tebrau) at its peak.

Crossing the road from the main entrance to the Ling Shan Temple (shown left above), you will find another newer temple closer to the Tebrau River. This is where boats would have landed and today you will find fishermen dangling rods into a river full of plastic rubbish. The original settlers would have found crocodiles here, so a temple was built to protect them and Gan Tian Da Di was installed.

There are also many other deities installed in this second temple, which is simply labelled as 'Chinese Temple’ on Google Maps. As a point of interest, you will not find the older temple on Google Maps, you will need to look for Klinik Desa Kangkar Tebrau instead as this is right next door. And, there is no road named after Tan Kee Soon in Johor Bahru; one wonders why not?

Because I cannot read Chinese, I cannot tell you the name of this second temple, or the names of all the deities. But one I recognise straightaway; the monkey king!

We did meet a few Chinese worshippers at the temple, who were able to help us a little in knowing something about these places. Although we knew we should be at the historical site of Tan Kee Soons empire, it was nice to have it confirmed.

Now that I come to write up this visit, I discover that the Hainanese Association building next to the Ling Shan Temple also houses a variety of deities, but that building looked closed when we were there.

What is most striking about these temples is the fact that there are hidden from local history. If you are Chinese and live near by, then these are your natural places of worship, especially during Chinese New Year.  But, there is nothing to indicate their importance in the history of Johor Bahru. Indeed, the whole area is rather rundown and does not encourage one to stop and take a look around.

When Tan Kee Soon was head of the Ngee Heng Kongsi in Johor (1845-1857), it was really a group of political dissidents and both Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim and Temenggong Abu Bakar (later Sultan Abu Bakar) used these men for both their agricultural work and their martial/military capabilities. By the time Tan Hiok Nee became head of the organisation (1864-1887), it was more of a business group used by the Temenggongs to help govern the ever-expanding Chinese community in Johor.

When the then Maharaja Abu Bakar made an agreement with the British to become Sultan of Johor in 1886, he conceeded to having a British Advisor to help govern the State of Johor. He managed to put off this incumbrance for some years, but by 1916 the British officials were in a strong enough position to ban the Ngee Heng Kongsi. I was amazed to discover that all the records and ritual paraphernalia of the Ngee Heng Kongsi we buried in a Ming-style tomb, near their lodge house here in Johor Bahru. You can find the tomb behind the Tiong Hua Crematorium In Jalan Ulu Air Molek, but do not expect it to be well signposted.

The characters on the tombstone are “Ming Mu” meaning Ming Tomb, and “ancestors” in relation to the monks who died in the burning of the Shaolin Temple and to the survivors aim of restpring the Ming, i.e., the anti-Qing pro-Ming nature of the Ngee Heng. For those of you who can read Chinese, here is a fuller description:

After building the tomb, the remaining funds from the Ngee Heng Kongsi were donated to the Foon Yew School as an endowment fund, granted on condition that the school would perform the bi-annual rituals of ancestor worship at the Ming Tomb. So today, the Ngee Heng Kongsi has left a major contribution to Johor Bahru, not only in helping its economic development in the 19th century, but by funding one of the best Chinese schools in Johor Bahru and becoming the respected Chinese Association of Johor Bahru.

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