Siamese Ties in Need of Preservation

loading Wat Chaiyamangalaram.

Wallapa Buranawijarn.

Penang has always had a sizeable Siamese community, and this relationship stretches back to the nineteenth century.

On May 30, 1845, a piece of land was granted to the Siamese and Burmese communities by the East India Company on behalf of Queen Victoria. Today, Kampung Siam still stands on this land, replete with families that have been living there for generations. The golden pagoda of Wat Chaiyamangalaram gleams over the village; a large statue of a sleeping Buddha within the temple attracts devotees and tourists alike.

“As a British colony, Penang was the first place to have a consul for Siam at the time,” says Wallapa Buranawijarn, a Thai who has been living in Penang for almost 20 years and who has been teaching Thai as a foreign language at Universiti Sains Malaysia for the past decade. So close was Penang to Thailand that King Rama V even visited in December 1871 with a large entourage.1

During the British colonial period, several English schools were established in Penang. This attracted some Thai elite families to send their children to be educated here. “It began during the reign of King Rama VI. Due to its close proximity to Thailand, Penang was seen as a favourable option,” says Wallapa.

The Sararaksh

Near the temple, there is a house with a banner that reads, “The oldest traditional Siamese home in Malaysia”. Built in 1928 almost entirely out of wood, it has strong Thai influences and décor that have unfortunately eroded over the years – thanks to termites and to wear and tear from the tropical sun. A decorative feature of the house, designed in the shape of a Phuang Malai (a Thai floral garland) and scallops, have been lost. It is very difficult to restore the design, says Nai Boonphrom Sararaksh (or Phrom), whose family and him own the house.

Phrom's grandfather, Nai Deng, standing in front of their house.

According to him, parts of the house are over a century old. His great-grandmother, Meh Somboon, built the present structure over their older attap house. Getting experts to restore the building is expensive, so Phrom has mostly been doing it himself over the past few years. It is an uphill task, but an endearing one nonetheless.

Phrom is trying to ascertain whether or not the house is the oldest Siamese traditional house in Penang, and even Malaysia. “Our family is one of the older families in Kampung Siam,” he says. His great-grandparents migrated from Thailand in the late nineteenth century – by elephant, no less – to Penang.

“My grandfather, Nai Deng, was conferred the surname ‘Sararaksh’ by the Thai government in the year 2,458 of the Buddhist Era calendar (AD 1915) when he was 19 years old. My father, Ninn Sararaksh, was the second generation to carry the surname, while my children are the fourth,” Phrom explains. “Presently, we are the largest Sararaksh family in Malaysia.”

His grandfather Nai Deng and his two sisters remained in Malaysia while the rest returned to Bangkok and Songkhla. Today, their descendants are all over Thailand.

Phrom and son.

Phrom’s grandmother, Teh Saw Guat, was a certified midwife, while his grandfather was in accounting. “He stopped working and took up priesthood, and became a bomoh to help the community,” says Phrom.

Born in the house in 1976, Phrom grew up with fond memories of village and city life. He attended Thai classes when he was young at Wat Chaiyamangalaram.

A St. Xavier’s Institution boy, Phrom speaks Hokkien as well. His father is Siamese while his mother is Hokkien: “Hence, our mother tongue is Hokkien,” he says. His children are educated in Chinese vernacular schools, and speak Mandarin. Phrom regrets that his children do not have more Thai-speaking friends to converse with. He is taking the task to heart to help them in the language.

As a Malaysian Siamese, Phrom points out that the cultural practices here are almost similar with Thailand. Festivities such as Loy Kratong and Songkran, or water festival – the Thai New Year celebration – are celebrated.

While in the past the celebrations used to be held on a community-level scale, the reach is much wider now. “Today, Wat Chaiyamangalaram is one of the main temples in the northern region. If you come here during Songkran, you will see lorries loaded with water barrels parked nearby, ready for the festivities,” says Phrom. Most of the revellers are tourists or migrant workers, with a smattering of local Thais.

(Left to right) Boon Leua and Noo Wan @ Wan Dee Aroonratana.

“I see myself as Malaysian,” says Phrom. “We were born here and our Thai is not as good as we hope. We try to maintain our heritage – we love our traditional ties and heritage, but Malaysia is our home.”

The Aroonratanas

In the inner part of the Kampung Siam enclave, there is an old family – the Aroonratanas. Noo Wan @ Wan Dee Aroonratana, at 94, is the patriarch. He has been living in the village his entire life. He is also a shaman. His father, Pa’chandee, migrated from Songkhla to Penang between 1914 and 1916. Noo Wan learned the menora dance from his father, who was a menora performer and shaman from 1920 to 1940. His menora troupe was very well known, and they were often invited to perform at temple events all over Penang.

If someone mentions ‘Thai’, people might think that we are from Thailand; in fact, we stay here; we are Malaysians, so we prefer to be called ‘Siamese’.

Menora, or manora, is usually shortened to “nora” in the southern Thai dialect. Its origins can be traced back to the southern Thai provinces of Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phatthalung, Songkhla and Trang. Menora is a song-and-dance spiritual show that is followed by a play performed to express appreciation for the fulfilment of vows.

Noo Wan started learning menora when he was 14. When his father passed away in 1949, he took over as a leading menora performer. He gave his last performance in 2002, at 80, at Wat Chaiyamangalaram.

In 2007 Noo Wan was recognised as one of the “Living Heritage Treasures of Penang” by the Penang Heritage Trust. Although he has retired from performing menora, Noo Wan continues to give advice and training to those who want to learn. His children are not interested in taking up menora, so he has passed on the tradition to a cousin living in Bagan Ajam.

The headgear that is worn when performing menora.

Noo Wan has 11 children, 24 grandchildren and 20 greatgrandchildren. His son, Boon Leua Aroonratana, was born and raised in Kampung Siam. At 60, Boon Leua is the chairman of the Penang Siamese Association, which represents the Siamese community in Penang and plays a vital role in keeping the community together by organizing functions and religious ceremonies such as Wesak, Kathina (robe-offering ceremony) and Khao Phansa (Buddhist Lent) at Thai temples in Penang.

The association also gives alms to the monks in Penang’s Thai temples during religious festivals, donating rice, vegetables, new robes and other requisites. Typically, on festival days, devotees will go to the temple, offer food to the monks, listen to Dharma talks and distribute food to the poor to make merit, an act known as tham boon in Thai.

An old menora headgear.

The association currently has over 80 registered members who are Malaysians of Siamese heritage. Boon Leua points out that to be Siamese and to be Thai are two different concepts: “In the olden days, they were called Siamese; then, they started to use the word ‘Thai’ to link to Thailand. We are from the older generation, so we are called ‘Siamese’. If someone mentions ‘Thai’, people might think that we are from Thailand; in fact, we stay here; we are Malaysians, so we prefer to be called ‘Siamese’,” he says.

Both Boon Leua’s parents are Siamese, and that was how Boon Leua learned Thai. “When studying in school, we spoke English and Malay,” says the St. Xavier’s boy, “but at home, we speak Thai. Our identity as Siamese is very important.” Boon Leua’s 18-year-old son is able to speak English, Thai, Chinese and Malay.

There are presently five families of Siamese backgrounds still living in Kampung Siam. However, the village is slated to be demolished to make way for a commercial development, “If this happens, our heritage will be gone forever,” Boon Leua laments, carefully showing us documents by the East India Company regarding the land ownership of the village. “Kampung Siam is the only one on the island. We hope that it can be preserved for its heritage, the land gazetted.”

Noo Wan agrees: “Cultural heritage should always be anurak (to conserve, preserve and guard). It is a part of a community’s identity. If one does not preserve one’s culture, later generations will not know about the uniqueness of their ancestors.”

Johnson Lee Chong Fatt is a dedicated tutor who teaches Mandarin and Thai. He loves travelling and often leads tours to find inspiration.
Tan Lii Inn graduated with a Master’s Degree from Korea University. He is currently an analyst at Penang Institute.
1Khoo Salma Nasution. (2012). Exploring Shared History, Preserving Shared Heritage: Penang’s Links to a Siamese Past in Journal of Siamese Society, Vol. 100, pg. 311. Obtained from www.siamese-heritage.org/jsspdf/2011/JSS_100_0s_Khoo_ExploringSharedHistoryPreservingSharedHeritagePenangsLinksToASiamesePast.pdf



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