The making of ‘The Hidden History of Johor Lama’ (May 2019)

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In early 2018, Lawrence and I made a 25 minute documentary called “The Hidden History of Johor Bahru” (see link here). It tells the story of the founding of Johor Bahru, or New Johor, and describes the relationship between the Sultans of Johor and the Chinese immigrants. As a result of this project, we decided to make the prequel about Johor Lama, or Old Johor. Visiting the remains of a fort at Johor Lama makes for an interesting day out from Johor Bahru, as it sits on the banks of the vast Johor River. In its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries, this was the centre of the universe as far as the Johor Sultans were concerned.

But, on pouring over books and historical documents we quickly discovered the scale of the task we had set ourselves. For to understand the history of the Johor Sultans one has to learn about the great Malacca Sultanate, and then one has to ultimately start in Singapore with the arrival of a prince from Sumatra. And, well that’s 1,000 years of history! So now I knew how I was going to spend my retirement!  So, I thought I would write about this filming process and give some information on new sites in Malaysia which we visited for this project. For a brief summary of the History of Johor, please click here or take a look at the links from my main page on 'The Culture and History of Johor Bahru’.

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After combining our research and sorting out a timeline for the story we wanted to tell, Lawrence started to write the script (he is an award-winning script writer after all!) and I worked on the fillers (animated maps) and the filming schedule. Since we are just a two-person team, we could not do any re-enactment scenes of the historical battles. Instead I made my version of shadow puppets and in the evenings we squeezed together behind the make-shift screen and brought the old Sultans to life! Our favourite scenes involved the war elephants; the last defense of Malacca against the Portuguese in 1511 was in part lost by the elephants. Sultan Mahmud Shah fell off his war elephant causing much confusion amonst his followers and an opportunity for the Portuguese to take the city. Thus ended the great Malaccan Sultanate!

We already knew that filming in Malaysia would be difficult due to the risk of heat stroke and rain storms. But there was no putting it off any longer and on 1st May we had our first day of shooting in and around Kota Tinggi. Lawrence would be the presenter and I would be the cameraman. We filmed in many of the places described in my blog ‘Exploring the Old Johor Sultanate’ and I got extreme sunburn on my hands while Lawrence’s face and arms turned progressively browner. I do not tan well and had covered everything in clothing except my hands as I could not control the camera with gloves on. As a result, I had to bandage my hands for protection until I found a pair of fingerless long-sleeved gloves in the Jonker Night Market (Melaka). That first day told us we really had to avoid shooting all day unless it was absolutely necessary, and that we should treat this filming as a holiday and reward ourselves with somewhere nice to stay, if at all possible.

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On 3rd May we drove up to Port Dickson and stayed at the Lexis Hibiscus Port Dickson, wanting to be near our filming destination of Tanjung Tuan. It was supposed to rain the next day so we went exploring instead and came across the Pengkalan Kempas historical complex where you can see megalithic stones thought to be of the 2nd or 3rd century.

Today was one of many examples of wrong weather forecasts! Although rain was also threatened for the next day, we had no choice but to trek out to the Tanjung Tuan Recreational park. We started early and were surprised by the number of other people already in the park. 

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First we walked up a tarmac road to the Cape Ricardo lighthouse and chatted with some locals wondering what we were doing! We found a great spot behind the lighthouse, looking over the sea with monkeys playing in the trees. But then other people arrived and although they were out of shot, they were great talkers. You can see why film makers prefer to work in studios! The grave of Iskandar Shah, the first ruler of Malacca, is supposed to be somewhere around here, but we could not find it. I thought there might be a signpost to the more well known site of Hang Tuah’s footprint, but no. We walked up and down steep slopes, carrying all our equipment, to no avail. One aspect of Malaysia which must irritate historians is that so much of its history has been allowed to disintegrate, and there seems to be a positive disinterest in certain parts of their history. Perhaps it does not fit the official government line? Anyway, if you are near Port Dickson I would definitely recommend a visit to the Tanjung Tuan area.

On 6th May we left Port Dickson and drove south towards Melaka, stopping to film at the Masjid Cina. We did not have time to look inside but this was a stunning looking mosque which looked more like a Chinese temple.

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We stayed at the Casa del Rio Melaka as we could walk from there to most of the filming locations in town. I must say we had a lovely room but we were very disappointed by the food. Indeed on our all travels in Malaysia for this project, we were rarely able to eat or drink our first choice from the menu, even in these good hotels.

Because we had arrived in good time, we managed to film around Hang Tuah’s museum and Hang Tuahs well in the afternoon. The next day we had an early drive to Hang Tuahs grave which was as pretty as last time and with the sound of chirping birds. By now we had got used to the often interfering sound of motor bikes, but here in the countryside was another sound problem; one of motorised grass cutters. Next it was off to the Masjid Tengkerah and then to the Li Po (or Poh San Teng) temple. 

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The Li Po temple is at the base of Bukit Cina where many of the original Chinese inhabitants of Melaka are buried. It houses an important fresh water well which was part of the reason for settlers to chose this area. On this day it was full of Chinese tourists and is heavily promoted for its association with their most famous Muslim export, Admiral Cheng He.

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Next we drove back to the hotel to rest and avoid more of the midday sun. Our next new destination was the Melaka Straits mosque and we’d hoped we might get a sunset shot from there. The sight you see on arriving is quite spectacular, unlike any other mosque I have seen.

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We walked around to the coastal side of the mosque and did our filming, then sat and enjoyed people-watching for a while. The sun set in the wrong place for us but the following photos will show you the effect of ‘golden hour’ on photography. The Malaysian sun is too harsh for most photographers, so they prefer to shoot in the early morning and just before sunset. We tried to do the same, for golden hour (just after sunrise and just before sunset) produces a lovely rich colour; very flattering on faces.

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Melaka was a good place for filming because one could always find somewhere to grab a cold drink. You could sit outside with a watermelon (the flesh is crushed up inside to be eaten with a spoon), or indulge in a tasty ice-cold coffee and deliciously rich salted egg croissant in The Stolen Cup coffee shop (thoroughly recommend this cafe in Jalan Hang Jebat). I seem to crave sugary drinks in the tropics.

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On 8th, 9th and 10th May it was time to shoot in the heart of Melaka and try to avoid the hoards of mainland Chinese tourists being herded around for photo-stops! I felt very sorry for these visitors. They were out in the heat and expected to pose and sing their company song in front of yet another 'Instagram-worthy sight’. Then they were marched off to another location and I doubt any could hear what the guide was telling them. We were in Melaka on the right days for the Jonker Street Night Market, but we had to do some filming there and could not really explore the market too much. I think if you are planning a visit to Melaka, it is good to be there for the weekend to get this experience. 

The best meals we had in Melaka were the cheapest and the most expensive! After filming near the replica of the Portuguese galleon (the Melaka Maritime museum), we came across a street stall near the river boat stop selling typical Malaysian food. So we sat outside by the river and ate a tasty dish of fried noodles and chicken. On a later day after filming in Jonker St, we ate at a Spanish restuarant which I highly recommend (Salud Tapas on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock). It was very busy so we only just got seats at the bar area, so better book ahead here.

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As we were ahead of schedule, we drove off on 11th May to Kampung Tasek to look for a spot on the River Kesang where we could film. This is the dividing line between Melaka and Johor and the site of an important battle in the Jementah Civil War in 1879 (you’ll have to watch our documentary to find out more about this!). There’s a small airfield here with a rusting prawn display sign nearby, but I cannot find my photo of this.

The next couple of days were spent in Muar at locations we had previously visited, so no new photos for here. My last photo here is the relief shown on Lawrence’s face when he returns to the car with an intact drone. He lost his first drone in the sea off Penyabong and has been nervous of losing this one as well. But drone shots really do help show the full landscape and you can see why the sultans of old used the rivers and the sea to get around their territory. Be careful of the Malaysian sun though! One two occasions Lawrence momentarily lost control of his drone and we think this resulted from over-heating. Afterall, there is no shade when you film above the trees!

We chose to drive south from Muar to Johor Bahru along Route 5, rather than use the boring expressway. It turned out to be a lovely drive for the most part. When you start to think about the history of this area, it is mostly the mosques and the Chinese temples which dominate the landscape. The older mosques in Melaka  (e.g. Masjid Tengkerah) have a distinct style which I was told is Sumatran in influence. As we drove out of Muar we saw many similar mosques until gradually they changed in style to the more familiar dome-topped shape. And every so often there were conspicious displays of Chineseness with very large and highly decorated temples just back from the roadside. The Indian temples along the road tended to be less obvious, but they were there. If I have time, I’d love to go back and record the architecture of these buildings as they change along the journey; it is another way to gauge the history of the region.

Driving into Batu Pahat took us along a very pretty tree-lined stretch of road and it felt reminiscent of an English country road. But Batu Pahat itself was a bit of a messy town. It was the source of much of the hard red stone from which Melaka was built but today it looked like so many other forgotten Malaysian towns. 

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We finally arrived home on 14th May after a productive but exhausting trip and after a week to recover we headed off to Singapore for more filming. Dodging the rain became an issue here as we cannot film in the rain as our equipment is not waterproof. But this weather also produces some lovely skies. If you plan to visit the Merlion, try and do so in early evening as the light there is gorgeous.

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While filming during Ramadan meant fewer people on the streets (advantage), we found it a distinct disadvantage in Singapore. We had planned to film near the main entrance to the Sultan’s Mosque in Kampung Glam but this was covered in hoardings for the Ramadan Bazaar and not at all picturesque. Such a shame but I think our alternative locations will do fine. At the end of May we spent a couple of days filming in Johor Lama and almost all the filming is complete now. Lawrence needs to do some of this project on a boat travelling on the Johor River and the camerman (me!) gets too seasick to complete that task. So while we are sorting the logistics of that final piece of the puzzle, we are slowly syncing up the sound recordings with the visuals and editing the huge amount of material gathered over the last month. Lawrence’s editing computer scrambled the last few week’s of editing, so he is currently trying to rescue all that work and not pull his hair out! 

I do not know when we will get this documentary ready for showing, but it has been a great experience so far. We have learnt so much from the history of Johor which helps explain and makes sense of the current political situation here in Malaysia. I just wish that more Malaysians were aware of their own history. There are many interesting books to read on the subject, and the best general introduction I can recommend is ‘Crossroads. A popular history of Malaysia and Singapore’ by Jim Baker. 3rd Ed published by Marshall Cavendish, 2014.

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© Helen Gray 2020