What’s in a Kampung Name?
By Beh May TingMay 2022 FEATURE
EVER WONDERED WHY certain kampungs are so named? Maybe they were named after their founders or an upstanding community member? Or perhaps, they got their names from plantation crops, or the hills and rivers in their immediate environs?
Some do have rather straightforward monikers, but there are those too whose names hint at interesting local histories:
Kampung Seronok in Bayan Lepas translates as “Joyous Village” in English. It was initially called Kampung Haji Muhammad before it was renamed in 1946 at the suggestion of D.W. Grehan, a British engineer who had on several occasions shared in the joy and merry-making of the kampung folk in the days shortly after the Japanese surrendered.
The origin of Kampung Seronok, however, is marred by a dark history. The village was the outset of Malaysia’s oldest cult, the Taslim teaching, in the 1880s. Its cult leader Syed Muhammad Syafie earned a living making fishing lines and being the village shaman. He was said to have cured illnesses and praised for his ability to retrieve lost items. As a curbside medicine man, he preached a teaching which supposedly healed anxiety and restlessness.
Syed Muhammad Syafie also went by the moniker, Syed Muhammad Matahari, inspired by his bets with British officers in predicting sunsets. Some accounts described how the sun shook when he threw a ball of thread at it, while still holding on to one end of the thread. As news of his supernatural abilities spread, the villagers grew convinced of his powers and appointed Syed as the village community leader. With his newfound influence, he exhorted the Taslim teaching which Syed claimed stemmed from Islam (Abd. Manaf, n.d.).
Taslim promoted the surrender of Self, family and properties to Syed, who believed himself to be the Prophet Muhammad’s successor. Only those who had met with Syed Muhammad Matahari in Kampung Seronok were accepted as true Muslims. The teachings also advocated illicit sexual relations and rejected the Muslim concepts of Heaven, Hell and Judgement Day. In the early 1900s, doubts were raised about the teachings, leading to a dialogue between the cult leader and Islamic scholars at the Penang High Court; this resulted in the banning of Taslim as a deviant teaching (JAKIM, 2010).
Today, Kampung Seronok is most recognisable for its mosque, Masjid Kampung Seronok, which stands prominently at the entrance to the kampung.
With a name like Kampung Kolam, one would assume the existence of a fairly sizeable pond within the village grounds. But that is not the case. Kampung Kolam actually refers to a large square granite tank found in Cauder Mohuddeen’s residence, the leader of the Tamil Muslim community who founded the Kapitan Keling Mosque at the tail end of the 18th century. He also went by the name Cauder Mydin Merican and was responsible for managing and looking after the interests of the Tamil Muslim community in Penang (Musa & Haji Salleh, 2013).
Old maps, such as the 1893 Kelly Maps Collection, show a stepwell (kolam) that supplied water for the poor in the area in front of the Ma’Amah Mausoleum, where Cauder and his family’s graves are housed, on the grounds of Cauder Mydin Merican’s private endowment (waqaf) property. The supply of water was possibly also used for ablution.
Kampung Kolam and the adjacent Kampung Kaka were Tamil Muslim settlement villages which have now given way to brick buildings. While the dilapidated Ma’Amah Mausoleum and its surrounding tombs are still visible, in the area now stands the Ar-Raudhah Suites and Hotel as well as the Penang City Council Public Housing, where the Penang Family Health Development Association is now based.
Kampung Gajah, or Elephant Village, is located along the coastline of Butterworth. As its name suggests, this was where elephants were once commonly sighted, transporting goods and timber between Kedah, Singgora (Songkhla, Thailand) and Penang between 1880 and 1920.
The goods would then be loaded onto trading boats for passage across the Penang Channel to Penang Island via the once bustling port, Jeti Lama (Old Jetty) at Butterworth (Fazil, 2017). In between these trips, the elephants would cool off and rest in the nearby swamp (Fazil 2015).
As an entrepot state, Penang’s maritime links are often discussed. However, overland linkages connecting Penang to the southeastern provinces of Thailand too have long been of importance (King, 2009). John Crawfurd, a British colonial administrator who served as the second and last Resident of Singapore in the 1820s, was quoted to have said the following of Penang’s trans-peninsular portage routes:
From Quedah to Sungora, the nearest Siamese province to the Malays, on the side of the Gulf of Siam, he [Crawfurd’s informant] says that merchandise is carried on elephants in five days. This last route is so safe and expeditious, that a great deal of merchandise is sent by it; and it is not uncommon for native vessels from Siam, to send back half of their returns in this direction, as well for expedition as to divide the risk.
At present, Kampung Gajah is a major thoroughfare running parallel to the Butterworth Outer Ring Road. While the last century saw the village acting as a centre for the transportation of goods by elephants, it still serves as a hub today for servicing means of transportation, albeit of a different nature. Jalan Kampung Gajah is now occupied by secondhand car dealers, suppliers of car accessories and spare parts, as well as car repair workshops.
Most kampungs in Malaysia have Malay names. But not Kampung Valdor in Seberang Perai Selatan. This one has a French name instead. Valdor or Val d'Or refers to the valley of gold, named for the Valdor Estates when it was managed by the first French planters to settle in the area in the early 1840s.
Joseph Donnadieu, one of the first Frenchmen to arrive in Penang in 1841, saw the agricultural potential of the place. He acquired the Jawi Estate, which he renamed Valdor Estates (The Embassy of France in Malaysia, n.d.) and recruited coolies to start a sugar cane plantation. Nine years later, 25-year-old Bordeaux native, Leopold Chasseriau joined Donnadieu. Unfortunately, shortly after Chasseriau’s arrival, Donnadieu was assassinated while on his way back to the Estate.
Chasseriau soon set up his own plantation, the Ara Rendang Sugar Estate, but later renamed it Malakoff. He also built a factory to refine sugar with machinery brought over from France. In the early 1870s, Chasseriau relocated to Singapore and led an illustrious career there managing the region’s largest tapioca plantation, which became an exemplar for the entire southern Malay Peninsula (Pilon & Weiler, 2011).
Kampung Valdor today is known for its livestock farms. The village has progressed from an agricultural site to an industrial township, and has a high percentage of Teochew Chinese in its population.
 For detailed sociological and historical descriptions of the Tamil Muslim community in Penang, refer to The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque, 1786-1957 by Khoo Salma Nasution (2014).
 Crawfurd, 1915 as quoted in King, 2009.
- Abd Manaf, A.(n.d.). Ajaran Taslim: Manifestasi Krisis Kepercayaan Masyarakat Melayu. Eprints USM.
- Crawfurd, J. (1915). The Crawfurd Papers. Bangkok: Vajiranana National Library.
- Fazil, D. (2015, 6 August). Sejarah Warisan Seberang Perai dan Pulau Pinang. (Blog entry).
- Fazil, D. (2017, 29 March). Sejarah Bagan. Syarahan CenPRIS Dato’ Jenaton.
- JAKIM. (2010, 9 December). Fatwa Ajaran Taslim atau Ajaran Haji Ahmad/ Muhammad Matahari.
- King, P. (2009). Penang to Songkhla, Penang to Patani: Two Roads, Past and Present. In Yeoh, S.G., Loh, W. L., Khoo, S.N., and Khor, N. (Eds.). Penang and Its Region: The Story of an Asian Entrepot (pp. 131-149). Singapore: NUS Press.
- Musa, M. & Haji Salleh, B. (2013). Muslim Merchants and Traders in Penang, 1860s-1970s. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 86 (2), 33-58.
- Pilon, M. & Weiler, D. (2011). The French in Singapore: An Illustrated History (1819-today). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet Books.
- The Embassy of France in Malaysia (n.d.). French Heritage Trail (Booklet).
Beh May Ting
Dr Beh May Ting is an urban anthropologist and a senior analyst in Penang Institute. She draws professional and personal inspirations from the finer things in life.