A Quaint History of the Mystical Islet We Call “Pulau Tikus”

By Eugene Quah

May 2022 FEATURE
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An interpretive sketch of Pulau Tikus around the 1900s, with its shrine structure and harbour mark obelisk. The sketch is a reconstruction of an actual photo from the Singapore National Archives: Slide S22264.
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IT IS SAID that Francis Light, after negotiations with the Sultan of Kedah to take possession of Penang, anchored his three ships off the islet, Pulau Tikus, and then spent the next two days onboard surveying the harbour and anchorages.[1]

Pulau Tikus’ location on the North Channel, at the entrance to the Penang Straits, is unmissable to anyone sailing into Penang harbour. Back then, it was described by some as the equivalent of New York Harbor’s Liberty Island – a welcome sight for sea voyagers ending a long journey, or perhaps for arriving settlers, the start of a new life.

Today, Pulau Tikus, with its diminutive lighthouse, still stands visible off Penang’s coast; and among older Penangites at least, the Islet is replete with stories of rodents and powerful spirits, variegated prohibitions and a revered shrine.

Pulau Tikus as seen from the headland of Tanjung Bungah at low tide with Kedah Peak (Gunung Jerai) in the background. The Islet is an unmissable sight for ships entering the port via the North Channel. Photo by: Lee Chye Lim.

"Rats" in the Name

The simplest and perhaps the most common explanation for the Islet’s moniker is that its profile resembles a rat (tikus).[2] Since the Malay language does not differentiate between rats and mice, Pulau Tikus can mean “Mouse Island” or “Rat Island”. According to surveys conducted of the Islet in the 19th century by zoologists Theodore Cantor and Stanley Flower, found neither mice nor rats there, but bats and skinks instead.[3]

Other accounts claim the inspiration for the Islet’s name came from the ridges of the intertidal mud banks that once stretched from Tanjung Tokong all the way to the North Beach, which “appeared like the back of rats”.[4]

Read also: Around the Rocky Isle of Pulau Tikus

Oral accounts passed down from the Thai-Portuguese Catholics (also known as the Seranis), who fled the Burmese-Siamese war (1809-1812) in Thalang, Phuket, detailed how they anchored off Pulau Tikus at low tide and trekked, via the extensive mud banks, all the way to North Beach (present day Kelawai) and settled in the area. These settlers named their village Pulau Tikus after the Islet where they made landfall.[5] Today, that village is an affluent suburb, encompassing Gurney Drive. Amusingly, the decision to name the settlement after the Islet[6] continues to baffle visitors to Penang, as the road signs seem to suggest having to go through the “island” Pulau Tikus to reach Gurney Drive.

Hakka Chinese escaping political persecution in China was another group of early settlers. The Hai Choo Su Tua Pek Kong Temple (海珠嶼大伯公廟) at Tanjung Tokong (Temple Cape), built in 1799, is the oldest Chinese temple in Penang. It is dedicated to Chang Li (Zhang Li, 张理), a Hakka scholar and political refugee[7] who fled Chaozhou (潮州)[8] during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor to settle in Penang. Upon his death, he became venerated and worshipped as the Tua Pek Kong deity by the Overseas Chinese.

The Islet with its light-coloured granite boulders (left) may have inspired the name of Penang’s oldest Chinese temple, the Hai Choo Su Tua Pek Kong Temple, built in 1799 at Tanjong Tokong (right). Photos by: Amirudin Dean (left) and Author's own postcard collection (right).

Hai Choo Su (Sea Pearl Islet) would have been a strange name for a temple that is assuredly not situated on an islet if not for the presence of Pulau Tikus nearby. Hai Choo Su is indeed named for Pulau Tikus,[9] [10] which in Hokkien is called Pek Su (White Islet)[11], perhaps due to its distinctive light-coloured boulders. The grand Thai Pak Koong (Ng Suk) Temple at Lebuh King is actually a branch of the Sea Pearl Islet Temple.[12]

Then there are those who suggest that the name Pulau Tikus was originally Pulo Kechil (Small Island), as inscribed on a stone tablet erected on the Islet by the Penang mercantile community. However, government records since the late 18th century[13] have invariably referred to the Islet as Pulau Tikus, albeit with different spellings. Writers in the early 20th century sometimes referred to the Islet as Pulo Tikus Kechi,[14] but also within the same piece, used the names Pulo Tikus and Pulo Kechil interchangeably. Pulo Kechil thus appears to be a contraction of the Islet’s full name. Tikus Kechil can either refer to the Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans) or the short-tail gymnure (Hylomys suillus maxi). [15]

The Folkloric Keramat and the Poor Man’s Casino

Visitors to Pulau Tikus, on disembarking at the stone jetty, cannot help but notice a flight of steps leading up to a pavilion and onwards, to a well-kept Muslim shrine at the highest point of the Islet. This is the shrine of Seyad Abdul Mohamed Kuddoos Oliyullah (henceforth Seyad Kuddoos for brevity).

The saint’s name is the Tamil-Arabic (Arwi) rendering of the Arabic name Sayyid Abdul Muhammad Quddus Waliullah. Sayyid is a title of respect given to males believed to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), though Abdul Mohamed Kuddoos is a typical male name of Indian Muslim origin. Oliyullah is the Tamil-Arabic variant of the Arabic title Waliullah (Friend of God).[16]

Folklore tells the story of a pious man who lost his life at sea on his way to Mecca. His spirit then appeared to a friend in a dream requesting a tomb be built for him on the Islet. The friend complied and was rewarded with good fortune thereafter.

The Tamil Muslim community in Penang (the Chulias) are known to build shrines to commemorate Sufi saints. One prime example is the well-known Nagore Dargah Sheriff at Lebuh Chulia, dedicated to a Sufi mystic who died in Tamil Nadu, but it does not entomb any bodily remains.[17] This could likewise be so for the Islet’s shrine; there is no evidence yet of a historical Seyad Kuddoos either in Penang or India.

Before the mid-20th century, boatloads of pilgrims from Penang would throng the keramat (shrine) on weekends to ask for blessings and favours from the saint. Some Malays still refer to the Islet as Pulau Keramat. British author Katharine Sim who wrote extensively about Malaya, succinctly described the keramat’s multicultural appeal as follows: “Of the four other Haji’s tombs, the best-known is Pulau Tikus. Again, in the same heterogenous way of Penang, this shrine seems to be holy to Indians, Chinese and Malays alike.”[18] Non-Muslim Chinese pilgrims, who were adherents of the Na Tuk Gong folk religion, believed the saint to be a Datuk Kong guardian spirit and worshipped him as such.

In the past, on every February 23, Malays and Chinese would hold a kenduri (feast) in honour of the saint. Following one such occasion in 1908, the Muslim Society President, H.M. Quasim Sahib Ali Sailam, made a speech bemoaning the “dilapidated condition of the water-tank” built in 1855 for use by visitors to the shrine.[19] This would mean that the shrine is at least 167 years old today.

An overview of the points of interest on Pulau Tikus. The shrine is aligned towards the direction of Mecca (Qibla) as would a typical Muslim tomb. The light beacon can be seen from 10 nautical miles out by ships. Photo by: Amirudin Dean.

The doyen of the Penang Chinese, Khoo Sian Ewe, in 1937, successfully raised $1,607 (a substantial amount back then) from mostly Chinese businessmen to repair, extend and renovate the shrine.[20] The prominent Indian-Muslim Sultan Alaudin and Rawther families, together with a lone European hotelier, Trevor Vyner Templeton, also contributed.[21] Templeton, who owned the popular Mount Pleasure resort nearby, probably had a vested interest to improve the facilities as his guests enjoyed day trips to the Islet.[22]

Pulau Tikus was adored by the Europeans of the Penang Swimming Club which was located directly opposite it. Reports of swimming and boat races to the Islet, together with letters from members waxing lyrical about its rustic charms, abound in the local newspapers of early 20th century.[23] In 1916, a European planter from Johor, J. St. Clair Saunders, decided to visit the Islet and never returned; he took his own life with a gun in the shed facing the shrine.[24]

Read also: Around the Rocky Isle of Pulau Tikus

Pre-war, Pulau Tikus was also a makeshift outdoor casino for gamblers who, on studiously ignoring the notice “Gambling strictly prohibited”,[25] would first stop by the shrine for luck, before proceeding to the small sliver of beach accessible only at low tide. “In the shade of gigantic rocks", they would squat to play “high stakes games” that inevitably led to brawls.

During the Japanese Occupation, few dared to venture to the Islet, and soon, the shrine fell into neglect.[26]

Present Day

Pulau Tikus marks the north-western limit of Penang Harbour. By 1874,[27] a harbour mark obelisk (also called a white pillar) had been erected on the Islet and could be seen by ships from many miles out to aid navigation. It was later replaced by a Swedish-made automated light in 1922.[28] [29] According to the Marine Department, the current lighthouse, more correctly called an automated light beacon, is solar-powered and still in active use.

Visits to the shrine have become infrequent; Muslim pilgrims no longer come to ask for favours, now that the practice is frowned upon as superstition. But it remains well looked after; it was renovated as recently as in 1997 by a local jeweller. By late 2016, the decayed lower part of the pavilion had been demolished, and a new jetty was built in its place.[30] These days, Pulau Tikus is a weekend haunt for anglers and day-trippers on kayaks.

The Chulias (Tamil Muslims) from South India, brought along the practice of commemorating revered religious figures by building a dargah (shrine) over their real or symbolic graves. They built the famed Nagore Dargah Sheriff at Lebuh Chulia and most likely the Pulau Tikus shrine too. Photo by: Penang State Museum.

Footnotes:

[1] Allan Maclean Skinner (1895), "Memoir of Captain Francis Light", Journal of the Straits

Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. Volume 28, pg. 2

[2] S. Durai Raja Singam (1980), “Place-names in Peninsular Malaysia”, pg.115

[3] Stanley Smyth Flower (1900), "Mammals of Siam and the Malay Peninsula", Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1900, pg. 349

[4] Anthony Ernest Sibert (2002), "History of the Penang Eurasians"; paper presented at the Fourth Colloquium of the Penang Story Project, Session : Penang’s Historical Minorities, 21–24 April 2002, George Town, Penang.

[5] Timothy Tye Yat Kwong (2010), "How Pulau Tikus Got Its Name", Based on a personal

conversation with A.E. Sibert in 2010. Accessed 11th Feb 2022 : https://www.penang-traveltips.com/how-pulau-tikus-got-its-name.htm

[6] Nicholas Belfield Dennys (1894), “The Descriptive Dictionary of British Malaya”, pg. 231-232

[7] Jean Elizabeth DeBernardi (2009), “Penang: Rites of Belonging in a Malaysian Chinese Community”, pg. 83

[8] Lee Leong Sze (2012), “A Retrospect on the Dust-laden History: The Past and Present of Tekong Island in Singapore”, pg. 40

[9] Kuang Guoxiang (1958), “Bing Cheng Sanji (Anecdotal History of Penang)”, Hong Kong, Shijie Book Store, pg. 55-58.

[10] Thai Pak Koong (Ng Suk) Temple Board of Directors and Delegates (2016), “图话大伯公Thai Pak Koong : A Story in Pictures”, pg. 27

[11] Lo Man Yuk (1900), “Chinese Names of Streets in Penang”, JMBRAS No.33-34 1900, pg. 238

[12] Interview with Mr. Lio Chee Yeong (former President and current Vice-President, Thai Pak Koong (Ng Suk) Temple Board of Directors, Conducted on 30th January 2022.

[13] Pulau Tikus first appeared in a 1763 map by Captain Walter Alves,[13] but only entered written historical records on July 14, 1786.

[14] Richard Olaf Winstedt (1924), "Karamat : sacred places and persons in Malaya”, pg. 269

[15] Gerrit S. Miller, Jr (1942), “Zoological Results of the George Vanderbilt Sumatran Expedition, 1936-1939. Part V.”, Proceedings of The Academy of Natural Sciences (Vol. XCIV, 1942), pg. 111

[16] Merin Shobhana Xavier (2015), “Masjids, Ashrams and Mazars: Transnational Sufifism and the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship”, pg. 191

[17] The Academy of Socio-Economic Research and Analysis (ASERA) (2013), “Muslim Heritage in George Town – Malay, Jawi Peranakan, Arab Peranakan and Indian Muslim Enclaves”, Pamphlet published by George Town World Heritage Inc. (GTWHI)

[18] Katharine Sim (1949), “Some Kramats of Penang”, The Straits Times, 19 May 1949, pg. 8

[19] “Letters to the Editor” (24th February 1908),  Straits Echo, 26th February 1908, Page 5

[20] Khoo Sian Ewe (1937), “Pulo Kechil Pavilion”, Inscriptions on a stone tablet erected on Pulau Tikus on November 1937 to commemorate the completion of renovation of the shrine.

[21] Loh Wei Leng, Badriyah Haji Salleh, Mahani Musa, Wong Yee Tuan & Marcus Langdon (2013), “Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities of Penang”, pg. 148-150

[22] “Here’s a ‘Resort’ You Should Not Miss” ( 22 February 1957), The Singapore Free Press , pg. 14

[23] “The Swimming Club's Water Carnival” (11th  May 1908), Straits Echo, pg. 4

[24] “A Planter’s Suicide” (2nd November 1916), Straits Echo, pg. 5

[25] William Fish (1955), “No gambling isle is home for the lonely spirit”, The Straits Times, 24 April 1955, pg. 4

[26] Chia K.S. (1949), “Kramat Isle”, The Straits Times, 2nd January 1949, pg. 4

[27] Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty (1874), “Penang or Prince of Wales Island”, Map.

[28] Government of the Straits Settlements (1923), “Blue Book for the Year 1922”, Section 8 pg. 28

[29] Government of the Colony of Hong Kong (1922), “The Hong Kong Government Gazette, Supplements, Malacca Straits. – Pulo Tikus Island”, pg.193

[30] Google Earth Pro 7.3.4.8248, (2nd March 2016, 29th December 2016), Pulau Tikus.  5°28'33.19" N 100°17'52.18" E, Eye Altitude 348m, Maxar Technologies 2021, Archive satellite imagery. Accessed 23rd February 2022

Eugene Quah

is an independent researcher who is working on a book about Tanjung Bungah and Tanjung Tokong. He rediscovered the joys of writing after moving back to Penang from abroad while on a hiatus from designing software.


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