A Malaysian friend tells me that, as a young boy, when he walked with his grandmother, she would say to him “Don’t pee on the tree, Datuk Kong lives there.” This advice reflects a deeply rooted, human inclination to entertain ideas about, and respect for, spirits residing all around us. In Malaysia, (where folklore of local spirits abounds) specific forces of history and geography created our very own Datuk Kong. It is an intriguing web of mingled beliefs. The concept of Datuk Kong is as wide-ranging as the imaginations of generations of Malaysians. In this exceptional cultural landscape we begin our story at the confluence.
The worship of Datuk Kong is very place-specific. The Datuk deity exists only in the purlieu of Malaysia, Singapore and Sumatra. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, almost a million Chinese arrived in the Malayan peninsula in search of opportunities in the tin mines and rubber plantations. Here they encountered an agrarian, Islamic Malay population with deep connections to their land. The Chinese newcomers respectfully adapted their traditional practices of ancestor worship to local Malay beliefs in guardian spirits and keramat customs. It was from this unique encounter that Datuk Kong emerged.
Cheryl Hoffmann is a global freelance photographer, an historical geographer and a friend of Malaysia . “Jalan-jalan cari Datuk” is her personal twist on the very Malaysian pastime of going out to eat, which she enjoys almost as much as encountering the Datuk. She has exhibited her images in Malaysia and Canada, including OF THIS PLACE as part of George Town Festival 2017. Her work can be seen at: www.cheryljhoffmann.com.