Martha Argerich

In 2013 I wrote a blog entitled I have fallen in love, with a lady, about Maria João Pires , a Portuguese pianist. Here is a blog about another pianist, Martha Argerich , seen by many as the greatest pianist of our time. Have I fallen in love with another lady? No, but I got intrigued by her, while I was working on my blog Toccatas. The last few weeks I have listened to numerous YouTube recordings of her concerts and also watched interviews and documentaries about her. In this blog I will concentrate on her musical achievements, but I will intersperse it with some information about her personal life. A very informative article about her was published in 2016 in the Washington Post. Another source of useful information is a blog, The Enigmatic & Extraordinary World of Martha Argerich.

Martha Argerich will be 80 this year and is still going strong. Here she is playing at the Lausitz Festival in Germany, a few months ago. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic there is no audience, no applause, she is just alone in the huge hall. Kind of weird. Click on the caption to watch the recording.

The oldest recordings date back to 1957, when she won two prestigious awards within three weeks time, the first prize in the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition in Bolzano and the first prize in the Geneva International Music Competition. She was sixteen year old!

After these successes, Deutsche Grammophon wanted to make a recording with her. Reluctantly she agreed. In 1962 she went to New York, hoping but failing to meet her idol Vladimir Horovitz.

She became depressed, thought about leaving music, got pregnant by a friend and went back to Europe where in 1964 her oldest daughter Lyda was born. It was pianist and pedagogue Stefan Askenase who convinced her to go back to music. In 1965 she won convincingly the first prize at the VII International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.

That was the real start of her international career. Here are two recordings from 1969. Ravel’s piano concerto in G, in Rome and Grieg’s piano concerto in A minor, in Buenos Aires.

In the same year 1969 she married the Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit and in 1970 she had with him a second child, Annie. In 1972 they were interviewed by the Swiss RTS. A candid spontaneous happening, notice how she is almost continuously smoking, even while playing!

Their marriage doesn’t last, they divorce in 1973, but remain close friends. And they give concerts together like here in 1975 in Genève where she plays Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1.

In the same year her third daughter Stéphanie is born from a relationship with pianist Stephen Kovacevitch. They still perform together, but from that period I could find only one recording, a piece for two pianos composed by Debussy.

In 1980 the X International Chopin Piano Competition is held in Warsaw and she is now a member of the jury (after winning the first prize herself in 1965). One of the contestants is Ivo Pogorelich. He is eliminated in the third round, Martha Argerich considers him a genius and is so upset that she resigns from the jury in protest. The left video is a documentary about the “scandal”.

A Japanese fan has created a website Martha Argerich Recordings . It is an amazing, huge collection and interesting to see who her favourite composers are, and if any popular piano concertos are missing from her repertoire. For example, here is a recording of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no 3, but the even more popular no 2 is missing. By the way, the no 3 concerto has the reputation of being one of the most technically challenging piano concertos.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G is clearly one of het favourites, she has played it more than fifty times. Here is a recording with Dutoit as conductor. Nice to see how he hugs her after the concert 🙂

She has played the first Beethoven Concertos, but never recorded no 4 and 5. Watch this amusing discussion between Pires and Argerich.

Here is a recording of Beethoven’s Piano concerto no 2. As an encore she plays Scarlatti’s sonata 141 (Toccata). Watch at 29:25 one of her trademarks: she sits down and immediately starts playing.

Only a few of the many Mozart concertos have been recorded by her . KV 466 is my favourite and if you want to know how my fascination with Maria João Pires started, have a look at this video: Maria Joao Pires expecting to play another concerto.

Chopin wrote two piano concertos, she has played both, the first one in E minor more often. Here are two recordings, with three decades in between them. Notice how she has become an “eminence grise”. In 2010 she was again a jury member of the XVI International Chopin Piano Competition. No scandal this time although many were unhappy that Daniil Trifonov only got a third prize.

The piano concerto no 3 of Prokofiev is another favourite of her, here is a recording from December 2020. Her first recording, according to the Japanese site, was in 1959, 60 years earlier. Because of the Covid pandemic there is no audience, the members of the orchestra are sitting far apart, the strings are wearing face masks. After the concert the orchestra applauds and Martha thanks the concertmaster with an elbow salute.

In 2012 Stephanie Argerich, Martha’s youngest daughter, created a fascinating movie about Martha Argerich and her relationship with her daughters. More than 1.5 hour, really worth watching.



In 2016 Martha Argerich went to New York, reluctantly, to receive a Kennedy Centre Honors award.

Her three daughters were also there. From left to right Anne Dutoit, Lyda Chen, Martha and Stephanie Argerich

And finally here are Maria João Peres and Martha Argerich together, playing the beginning of Grieg’s first Peer Gynt suite.

With all the respect I have for Martha Argerich, Maria João Pires is still my favourite 😉 .

Toccatas

A few days ago I came across a YouTube video where Yuja Wang plays the Toccata in D minor Opus 11 of Prokofiev. A spectacular and virtuoso performance, played by her as an encore after a piano concerto with the orchestra. New for me.

Wiktionary gives this definition of a toccata: A piece of music (usually for a keyboard instrument) designed to emphasise the dexterity of the performer.

On YouTube you can find many recordings of this Toccata. Here are a few: Alexander Malofeev, Tiffany Poon, Martha Argerich , Haochen Zhang, Yeol Eum Son. I like the last one very much, not superfast, but very expressive. As you may know, Alexander Malofeev is a favourite of mine, I wrote a separate blog about him. In this 2019 recording he is 17 year old, can you believe that he already recorded this piece when he was 12 year old 😉 ? Quite amazing, watch here.

Here is the score of the Prokofiev Toccata:

The Wikipedia article Toccata gives more information about the history of toccatas. The form originated in Italy in the 16th century. In the Baroque it became quite popular, here is a well-know toccata by (Domenico) Scarlatti, played by Martha Argerich.

After the Baroque toccatas became less frequent. Schumann wrote a Toccata that is considered to be one of the technically most difficult works in the piano repertoire. Could that be the reason that so many recordings exist? Here is a YouTube search for Schumann’s Toccata, I lost count. Which one to choose for this blog? I decided for George Cziffra, an “old” recording (1960s?), because of his superior ease of playing.

In the 20th century Ravel wrote a toccata as part of his Tombeau de Couperin. It is a favourite encore ( Mariangela Vacatello, Rachel Cheung) . For this blog I chose a recording by 12 year old Ryota Yamazaki . If you want to compare recordings by different pianists (including Ravel himself), then this is a suitable YouTube : 12 Great Pianists in Comparison .

And here is a Toccata written by another French composer, Claude Debussy, as part 3 of his Pour le Piano. I have selected this YouTube because I find it fascinating to watch the ten fingers of the (unknown) pianist moving almost independently 🙂 .

All these toccatas were written for piano (or harpsichord), but there is another keyboard instrument, the organ. The 19th century French composer Widor wrote a number of symphonies for organ and the Toccata from the 5th symphony (1879) has made him famous. Here is a recording by the Dutch organist Gert van Hoef , 19 year old. Notice that not only ten fingers but also two feet are needed to play this toccata 😉 .

When you ask lovers of classical music if they know a Toccata, they will probably mention Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. After you have heard the opening bars of this famous work for organ, you will never forget it. Click on the score to listen to the first three bars.

Looking for a suitable YouTube video, I came back again to Gert van Hoef. Not only does he play very well, but it is also interesting to see how he has helpers to change the organ stops, when necessary. Team work. The Toccata takes the first three minutes, at 3:22 the Fugue starts.

Wikipedia writes about “the most famous organ work in existence”, that in its rise to fame it was helped by various arrangements, including bombastic piano settings (Busoni) , versions for full symphonic orchestra (Stokowski) etc.

Not surprisingly there are a few recordings where the Toccata and Fugue are played on accordion. After all you could say that an accordion is a kind of miniature pipe organ. Here is a recording by Sergei Teleshev.

I don’t like the Stokowski transcription for orchestra, but this recording by the United States Marine Band (!) is beautiful and hardly a transcription. You could say that the organ pipes have been replaced by wind instruments 😉

Isabella Bird & Taiping

In several earlier posts I have mentioned Isabella Bird, who visited Taiping in 1879. In this post I will describe in somewhat more detail the visit of this intrepid English traveller.

Isabella Bird was born in 1831. Already at a young age she was bitten by the travel bug. During her travels she wrote letters to her sister Henrietta in Edinburgh and these letters have been published in a number of books.

In 1878 she visits Japan (resulting in her book Unbeaten Tracks in Japan) and on her way back to England she spends a few weeks in Hong Kong. On 10 January 1879 she has a lunch with Chief Justice Snowden. In a letter to her sister she writes :

” .. he urges me to go to Malacca on my way home. I had never dreamed of the “Golden Chersonese;” but I am much inspired by his descriptions of the neighborhood of the Equator, and as he has lent me Newbold’s Malacca for the voyage, and has given me letters to the Governor and Colonial Secretary of the Straits Settlements, you will next hear from me from Singapore! “

On 18 January she arrives in Singapore where she is the guest of Cecil Smith, the Colonial Secretary of the Straits Settlements. She writes:

“I wonder how this unexpected and hastily planned expedition into the Malay States will turn out? It is so unlikely that the different arrangements will fit in. It seemed an event in the dim future; but yesterday my host sent up a “chit” from his office to say that a Chinese steamer is to sail for Malacca in a day or two, and would I like to go?”

She has only 5 minutes to decide. And of course she goes, always eager to escape from civilisation 😉 .

The two quotes above are from her book The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither , published in 1883. Left the original edition, right my own copy, a reprint from 2000. You can also read it online or download it to your tablet.

The Golden Chersonese is the ancient name for the Malay Peninsula. The book contains 23 letters, in the first seven chapters/letters she describes her visits to Hong Kong, Canton, Saigon and Singapore (the Way Thither).

I have read her book with admiration and fascination. What a remarkable lady.

Before I write about her travels, first a short description of the (political) situation in the Malay Peninsula during the seventies of the 19th century.

There were the Straits Settlements, a British Crown Colony consisting of Penang, Melaka ,Singapore ( and after 1874 the Dindings), and many independent Malay states. Several of them were in turmoil, for a variety of reasons, the Larut wars (1861-1874) in Perak , the Klang War (1867-1874) in Selangor, a Civil War (1873) in Sungei Ujong {present day Seremban). The result of the Pangkor Treaty (1874) was that Perak accepted a British Resident and soon Selangor and Sungei Ujong followed. The first Resident of Perak , J.W.W Birch, was murdered in November 1875, resulting in the Perak War (1875-1875) . Turbulent times.

And to give you an impression how unknown the peninsula was in those days, from 1875 until 1882 D.D. Daly, Superintendent of Public Works and Surveys, Selangor, surveyed the Malay peninsula with this map as one of the results. His report, presented to the Royal Geographic Society in 1882, is very readable.

On 19 January Isabella Bird leaves Singapore with the SS Rainbow. A small screw steamer with an interesting history. First owned by Rajah Brooke of Sarawak, later sold to the Government of the Straits Settlements and finally to Chinese merchants. Overloaded with about 150 people, she being the only “white man and Christian”, she lands the next day in Melaka “.. after a most pleasant voyage in a steamer one would have thought too bad to voyage in”.

Melaka was part of the Straits Settlement, a sleepy town ” .. the narrow stream and bridge, and the quaint red-tiled roofs of the town, is very charming and harmonious; yet I often think, if these dreamy days went on into months, that I should welcome an earthquake shock, or tornado .. ” She stays in the Stadthuys.

From Melaka she makes an adventurous trip to Sg Ujong, first with a steam launch to the mouth of the Linggi river, then in a perahu. Her description in letter XI is so fascinating that, many years ago, I followed by car, as close as possible, the Linggi river with a friend, from the river mouth to Seremban: Linggi adventure, 15-7-2008. Here I am standing near the river, no crocodiles or tigers anymore.

Isabella’s next destination is Selangor. On 1 February she arrives in Klang (“a most mistriven, decayed, dejected, miserable-looking place “). She stays in the Residency, makes a trip to Jugra to visit the Sultan and is clearly less happy then in Sg Ujong.

A few days later she sails to Penang aboard the Abdulsamad, the yacht of the Sultan, visiting Kuala Selangor and Sabba (Sabak Bernam) on the Bernam river on their way. She spends one night in the Hotel de l’Europe (nowadays part of the E&O hotel) and 10 February she crosses over to Province Wellesley, where in the evening the steamer Kinta arrives with W. E. Maxwell, the Assistant Resident of Perak. In his company two nice Malay boys, the sons of the exiled Sultan Abdullah who will go to Melaka for their education. This is the Kinta.

They leave at night and the next morning at 7 am they reach Teluk Kertang, in those days the main port of Taiping , (“.. with a pier, a long shed, two or three huts, and some officialism, white and partly white, all in a “dismal swamp”) Nowadays Teluk Kertang is a quiet kampong with several shipyards and charcoal kilns.

In gharries (horse-drawn carriages) they drive to the residency. In Permatang they pass “ … two very large two-storied Malay houses in some disrepair, in which the wife of the banished Mĕntri of Larut lives, with a number of slaves.  ” That must have been Kota Ngah Ibrahim. Of course it looks very different now.

It was here that in 1876 the trial of Birch’s murderers took place, resulting in the conviction and hanging of two Malay noblemen and the banishment of Sultan Abdullah and Ngah Ibrahim to the Seychelles. The Kota is now a museum, on the first floor you can see scenes of the trial.

They continue to Taiping: “From this point we drove along an excellent road toward the mountains …. and near noon entered this important Chinese town, with a street about a mile long, with large bazaars and shops making a fine appearance, … and on the top of a steep, isolated terraced hill, the British Residency“.  The green line in this Google Earth screenshot, is probably how she went from Teluk Kertang to the Residency.

Maxwell resided in what nowadays is the District Officer’s Residence, originally built by Captain Speedy.

It must have looked very different when Isabella Bird stayed there. In her description: “The Residency is large and lofty, and thoroughly draughty, a high commendation so near the equator. It consists of a room about thirty feet wide by sixty long, and about twenty feet high at its highest part, open at both ends, the front end a great bow window without glass opening on an immense veranda.

She stays a couple of days in the Residency and enjoys it very much. “The house on my side has a magnificent view of the beautiful Hijan hills, down which a waterfall tumbles in a broad sheet of foam only half a mile off, and which breed a rampageous fresh breeze for a great part of the day”. Here is the waterfall, a bit further away than she thought, one and a half mile away from the Residency.

She continues her description: “The front veranda looks down on Taipeng and other Chinese villages, on neat and prolific Chinese vegetable gardens, on pits, formerly tin mines, now full of muddy, stagnant water, on narrow, muddy rivulets bearing the wash of the tin mines to the Larut river”. Taiping as seen from the Residency may have looked like this. One year later, in 1880, the town was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in brick.

The food is simple and Maxwell is working all the time “There are two simple meals daily, with tea and bananas at 7 A.M., and afternoon tea at 5 P.M. Mr. Maxwell is most abstemious, and is energetically at work from an early hour in the morning

She is alone a lot , visits the town and enjoys the company of the two boys. “Those boys of Sultan Abdullah’s are the most amusing children I ever saw. They are nine and twelve years old, with monkey-like, irrepressible faces. They have no ballast. They talk ceaselessly, and are very playful and witty, but though a large sum is being paid for their education at Malacca, they speak atrocious “pidjun,” and never use Malayan, in my hearing at least”. Interesting detail, the two boys, Raja Chulan and Rajah Ngah Mansur were later involved in the creation of the Perak State Anthem.

During her stay she also visits a tin mine in Kamunting. She gives a detailed description of how a mine is working and is treated well by the Chinese owner of the mine who “..  had conveyed champagne, sherry, and bitter beer! His look of incredulity when we said that we preferred tea, was most amusing; but on our persisting, he produced delicious tea with Chinese sweetmeats, and Huntley and Palmer’s cocoa-nut biscuits” She must have loved food, mentions it often in her book!

She also wants to meet Hugh Low, the British Resident, who is residing in Kuala Kangsar, the royal capital of Perak. Kuala Kangsar is less than 25 km from Taiping, as the crow flies, But there are hills and mountains in
between . Have a look at this enlarged details of the 1882 map. The only connection between Kuala Kangsar and Taiping was via the pass at Bukit Berapit, and there was no real road yet. The plan was that Isabella Bird would travel to Kuala Kangsar by elephant and a telegram had been sent that elephants should come to Taiping and meet her.

In the early morning of 14 February: “We had bananas and chocolate, and just at daybreak walked down the hill, where I got into a little trap drawn by a fiery little Sumatra pony, and driven by Mr. Gibbons, a worthy Australian miner who is here road-making, and was taken five miles to a place where the road becomes a quagmire not to be crossed”. This place must have been Changkat Jering, via Air Kuning about 6 miles from the Residency.

But the telegraph line was broken, and Maxwell who had accompanied her, was unable to find other elephants. “There was nothing for it but to walk, and we tramped for four miles. I could not have done the half of it had I not had my “mountain dress” on, the identical mud-colored tweed, in which I waded through the mud of Northern Japan. ” Actually she enjoys this walk tremendously, giving a vivid description of all the flowers, shrubs and trees she finds on her path.

Finally “After walking for four miles we came upon a glorious sight at a turn of the road, a small lake behind which the mountains rise forest-covered, with a slope at their feet on which stand the cocoa-nut groves, and the beautiful Malay house of the exiled Mĕntri of Larut” Nowadays the house and the lake don’t exist anymore, only the tombs of Long Jaafar, the father of Ngah Ibrahim.

Here she waits for the elephants to arrive, while being offered cocoa-nuts, buffalo milk and lotus seeds. She writes: “Beyond is the picturesque kampong of Matang, with many good houses and a mosque. Passing through a gateway with brick posts, we entered a large walled enclosure …. “ She makes a mistake here, it is not Matang but Bukit Gantang! There is still a mosque, a porch and remains of an enclosure. Of course not necessarily the same as mentioned by her 🙂

Finally her elephant arrives. The ways she describes the animal (a hideous beast) , the mounting ( I dropped into one of these baskets from the porch ), the driver ( a gossiping, careless fellow ), the riding (This mode of riding is not comfortable ), the unmounting ( letting myself down by a rattan rope upon the driver, who made a step of his back ) is so vivid and often hilarious, that I decided to combine all the passages about her elephant ride into a separate document, The first elephant ride of Isabella Bird

Although the ride is not comfortable, she enjoys the scenery (The pass of Bukit Berapit, seen in solitude on a glorious morning, is almost worth a journey round the world ) and the hospitality ( I clambered into a Malay dwelling of the poorer class, and was courteously received and regaled with bananas and buffalo milk) . Because the elephant is “unruly”, she walks the last few miles and has her first encounter with leeches (surprised to find that my boots were filled with blood, and on looking for the cause I found five small brown leeches, beautifully striped with yellow, firmly attached to my ankles. )

After ten hours of traveling she reaches Kuala Kangsar. “When the sun was low I looked down upon a broad and beautiful river, with hills and mountains on its farther side, a village on the shores of a promontory, and above that a grassy hill with a bungalow under cocoa-palms at its top, which I knew must be the Residency, from the scarlet uniforms at the door”.

Here is how she traveled from Taiping to Kuala Kangsar. Air Kuning and Changkat Jering are not mentioned in her book, but this seems to me the most probable route. In red the part she had to walk. The Perak river in blue

Here is her description of the Residency: …at the top of a steep slope the bungalow, which has a long flight of stairs under a latticed porch, leading to a broad and comfortably furnished veranda used as the Resident’s office and sitting-room, the centre part, which has a bed-room on each side of it and runs to the back of the house, serving for the eating-place. It is as unpretending a dwelling as can be. It keeps out the sun and rain, and gives all the comfort which is needed in this climate, but nothing more. Even simpler than the Residency in Taiping.

The Residency as described by Isabella is no more there. In 1885 Hugh Low rebuilt the Residency , there exists a picture of it. The right picture gives a view of Kuala Kangsar in the 1870s,

In 1905 the Residence was demolished to make place for the King’s Pavilion, accommodation for the British High Commissioner to the Federated Malay States . Now it houses a school.

When she arrives in the Residency, she finds out that “Mr. Low, the Resident, has not returned, and I am not only alone in his bungalow in the heart of the jungle, but so far as I can learn I am the only European in the region“. She is received by the butler, has a nice bath, unfortunately her valise has not yet arrived, so she is obliged to re-dress in her mud-splashed tweed dress. She is annoyed when she sees that dinner is prepared for three, as she is not in the mood for social conversation. But it turns out that the other two guests are Mahmoud and Eblis, the two pet apes of Hugh Low!

She is fascinated by these apes and writes so often about them in her letters that I have collected these passages in a separate document Isabella Bird and the apes of Hugh Low .

On the night of her arrival, the Sinhalese clark of Hugh Low suggests that she could make a trip the following day, this time riding the Royal elephant of the Sultan. “He is such a height (they say ten feet!) that, though he lay down to be mounted, a good-sized ladder was needed for the climb upon his back”. They ride in the jungle for seven hours on the left bank of the Perak river, passing several Malay kampongs. She enjoys everything, almost intoxicated by the beauty of the flowers, the butterflies, the majestic trees. After several hours they arrive at a kampong where they dismount for lunch,  “looking out from deep shadow down upon the beautiful river lying in the glory of the noonday sun, its banks bright with birds and butterflies”.

The locals tell her guide that it is possible to ford the Perak river. “The mahout said that the elephant was a “diver,” and would probably dive, but that there was no danger to us except of getting very wet” She likes the idea of crossing the river to the other side and doesn’t mind getting wet. So they go: “the elephant gently dropped down and was entirely submerged, moving majestically along, with not a bit of his huge bulk visible, the end of his proboscis far ahead, writhing and coiling like a water snake every now and then.”

After crossing the Perak river (and getting wet), Low’s clark says “”I’m going to take you to Koto-lamah; no European has been there since the war. I’ve never been there, nor the Resident either.”

The war he is talking about is the Perak war and it was in Kota Lama that the decisive battle between the British army and the warriors of Maharaja Lela took place: The Battle of Kota Lama Kanan. That was on 4 January 1876, just three years before Isabella’s visit! While crossing the river, her guide says “A few months ago they would have been firing at us from both sides of the river “

I have visited Kota Lama Kanan recently . Very peaceful and rural, difficult to imagine that a battle took place here. But at the mosque we found a cannon, the caretaker told us that it is one of the two cannons used in the battle. From the mosque you can walk down to the river. It doesn’t look very fordable here.

The reception of Isabella in Kota Lama Kanan is not unfriendly, although many men are armed with parangs, spears and even muskets and one of the woman she meets is the widow of Maharaja Lela! “However, though as a Briton I could not have been a welcome visitor, they sent a monkey for two cocoa-nuts, and gave me their delicious milk; and when I came away they took the entrance ladder from one of the houses to help me to mount the elephant.”

They ride back on an overgrown elephant track, passing several lairs and tiger tracks until they reach Kuala Kangsar, where they have to cross the Perak river again, this time in a dugout. Here are two illustrations from her book, a dugout and a street in Kuala Kangsar.

When Hugh Low hears about this adventure, he is at first displeased, saying that the clerk was ignorant and foolish, but later he admits that it has been useful to show that the region was pacified now. “..but, he added, it would appear somewhat odd that the first European to test the disposition of the Koto-lamah people should be a lady

Her stay in Kuala Kangsar is full of variety. She meets Malay Royalty, Raja Yusuf (regent of Perak), Raja Idris (the future sultan) , the two sons of Abdullah, goes bird-shooting with Captain Walker and of course there are the apes.

So it is reluctantly that she leaves Kuala Kangsar. Hugh Low likes her company,. “Mr. Low kindly expresses regret at my going, and says he has got quite used to my being here, and added: “You never speak at the wrong time. When men are visiting me they never know when to be quiet, but bother one in the middle of business.”

Her trip back to Taiping is uneventful and much faster than when she came by elephant, one week earlier. I rode a capital pony, on Mr. Low’s English saddle, a Malay orderly on horseback escorting me, and the royal elephant carried my luggage.

She stays a few more days in Taiping before leaving for Penang, from where she sails back to England on the 25th of February.

I have concentrated in this blog on her travel adventures. The book contains a lot more, there are separate, quite informative, chapters about the states she has visited. Of course she is still a product of the Victorian era, fully convinced of the superiority of the Brits. She can be quite blunt in her opinion about the Malays and especially about the Chinese.

Taiping, October 2020

Wow, are you going to Taiping again, my friends asked me, your last visit was in August, only six weeks ago! What could I say, I was just missing my 2nd hometown. So on Thursday 1 October I took the ETS again. I was a bit shocked, especially in the train, by the lack of social distancing, but fortunately I was sitting next to a friendly lady, who was on her way back from visiting her grandchildren in KL. A retired teacher like me, we had a nice chat.

In Taiping, my friend Lay Chun, fetched me from the station. First we had lunch in 3939, a popular hawker center. I had prawn mee.

One of the reasons that I wanted to come back to Taiping so soon, was to see with my own eyes the pillars of the former Residency. In 2013 I wrote a blog Shame on Taiping! about the deplorable condition of several heritage buildings in Taiping. The Pillars and the ruins of the State Rest house/ Casuarina Inn on Residency Hill were one of them. After that report I visited the hill almost every time I was in Taiping.

This picture is from September 2014. I have marked two pillars in this and the following pictures with red crosses.

August 2020. During my last visit we took drone pictures (left). The two pillars have become invisible, completely overgrown (right).

On 19 September a gotong royong (cleaning operation) was organised by the Taiping Heritage Society and many other NGO’s, with a follow-up the next week. I was eager to see the result, so I asked Lay Chun to drive to Residency Hill before dropping me at hotel Furama.

I was really amazed at the effect of the cleaning operation. What a wonderful job had been done, with the support of the Taiping Municipal Council (MPT). All the pillars had been cleaned and were visible again.

Also a start had been made with the cleaning of the State Rest House. This relatively new building was built around 1970, to replace the Rajah Rest House and the Town Rest House. To make space for it, the former British Residency was demolished, with only the pillars left standing.

When I was there, I chatted a bit with Encik Hasmi from the Heritage Unit of the MPT, who was showing the place to a group of interested visitors. I really hope this initiative will result in a new lease of life for the pillars and the Residency Hill.

After taking a rest in my hotel, I walked to the Lake Gardens. Dinner that night with my friend George , who also happened to be In Taiping. Again in Pusat Makanan 3939.

It has become a tradition to visit Mrs Long, the sister of my Singapore friend ST Lee, during my Taiping visits This time I had breakfast with her and her friend Ms Chong in a nearby Indian shop.

She is a well-known and beloved person in Taiping, it was nice to see how happy people were to meet her.

Although she is 90 year old now, she is still full of energy, we walked around quite a bit . The two pictures below epitomise for me the charm of Taiping, a mixture of beauty and decay. Not all Taipingites will agree with me, but personally I wouldn’t mind if the town remained like this forever 😉

Ms Chong is living in a beautiful house on Station Road. One of my favorites, every time I passed it, I admired the architecture and wondered how it would look inside. So when she asked if I would like to come in for a while, I accepted her invitation with pleasure.

After our walk we went to Ansari for cendol and pasembor.

The owner of Ansari was visiting India and can’t come back (yet), as Malaysia has closed its borders because of Covid-19. Therefore his two sons temporarily manage this famous landmark of Taiping.

It was a very pleasant meeting, very nice to see how lovingly Ms Chong was taking care of her friend.

I had rented a bicycle in Furama, very convenient in Taiping. In the afternoon I used it to ride to the Residency of the OBJ. Toh Puan Nori , his wife, had organised a meeting with senior Taiping citizens, to talk about Taiping’s history.

I had prepared a selection of slides. It was an animated discussion, especially about the Pillars and the New State Rest House. I wrote a separate blog about it: A Meeting of Old-Timers .

The next day, Saturday, there was a new round of gotong royong at the Residency Hill. When I arrived there, on my bike, there were already many people from various NGO’s. Here is a video.

To be honest, I didn’t really take part in the actual cleaning, I mainly took photographs (and was photographed). And I had my breakfast, the catering was well organised.

At around 11am the gotong royong was finished. Time for a real adventure! With friends I visited Menggelunchor, a water slide near Kuala Kangsar that was popular in the early 20th century. Here we are standing in front of it, from left to right Syafiqi who guided us to the slide, my THS friend Halim, me and Pak Yang , an outdoor enthusiast. For a detailed report click here.

There was time enough for more. First we visited the Green Stone Camp, a project of Pak Yang, on the banks of the Kangsar river. Remote location and clear water, still under construction, a place to keep in mind.

Then it was time for lunch. We had assam laksa in the well-known Laksa Buyong stall in Bukit Gantang. I had told the others that I would pay for the lunch and was surprised that I only had to fork out RM 6.50 ! It turned out that Aifa, the owner, didn’t charge us for the laksa, as a reward for a useful discussion with Syafiqi and Halim about business! I only had to pay for the drinks. Malaysia boleh!

Our last destination for the day was a disused railway tunnel near Bukit Gantang. Two years ago I had visited other tunnels near Bukit Berapit, but never this one. Access was a bit difficult 🙂 .

This is the tunnel, the last one before you reached Taiping in the past. It’s a pity that also here the rails and sleepers have been removed.

Recently Pak Yang and his friends have found and cleaned the platform of the Bukit Gantang station (right picture). In the left picture we are walking to the station, following the former railroad.

Via these steps, the passengers climbed up to the railroad tracks to board the train.

It was a wonderful day. Here are the GPS tracks of the trip.

The next morning I had breakfast with George, Chee Cheong Fun at Mr Tong’s stall.

As I had no commitments that morning, I decided to take my bicycle and just ride around, taking pictures here and there. Beautiful buildings, buildings that needed repair, or even had vanished completely. The first one near the Esplanade, the other three on Swettenham Road. As I mentioned above, it’s this mixture that I find attractive.

Even the former Perak Railway Buildings have their charm, although it is of course a shame that the authorities have let it go down the drain, without any fencing, so squatters and drug addicts can use it freely. One year ago I wrote a blog about it: Taiping Bandar Warisan .

A good location for another gotong royong?

During my last visit to Taiping, I had a look at an apartment in Crystal Creek and reported: “ The view from the balcony is spectacular, but we found the general atmosphere of Crystal Creek disappointing. Many condo’s are for sale, or used for AirBnb. A bit of a failed project, despite its own waterfall?

I got a friendly comment on this report by Grahame, living himself in Crystal Creek: “I cannot argue that the finish to the public areas and the recreational facilities is very disappointing. But, and it is a big but, our condo and life in this location is fantastic!! “

We got in contact via e-mail and whatsapp and decided to meet. Here we are having lunch in Double Tap, after our first choice, Doli, had a long queue. Very nice Western style, food.

After lunch Grahame and Safina invited me for tea in their condo. And I agree with them, the view from their balcony is fantastic, and the condo itself very comfortable.

Another view of the Lake Gardens.

I had invited Yeap and Halim for dinner that evening, stipulating that I would be the host. Nice Thai food in the West Joy Cafe. Pleasant company, but when it came to paying the bill, Yeap wanted to pay. Sometimes Malaysian hospitality can be a bit overwhelming 🙂

The last morning I had breakfast at Lian Thong for another favorite of mine Roti Goyang. eggs on toast.

My train would leave at 2pm, so I had a few hours left to work on another “project” of mine. The main river of Taiping is Sg Larut, which splits in several tributaries. With the help of Google Earth I have sketched many of these tributaries here.

Using my bike again, I cycled around town , looking for sign boards where roads were crossing tributaries, expecting that one of them would still be named Sg Larut. Here are a few, none of them is Sg Larut.

Google Maps names the tributary below Sg Larut, but that is wrong, it is Sg Batu Tegoh

For Taipingites, can you identify which tributary this is 🙂 ?

The advantage of cycling is that you reach places that are a bit too far for walking. Here are two buildings I had not yet photographed before. Left the Masjid India (1969) and right the Buddhist Chan Shan temple (1953)

On my way back to my hotel, I passed this interesting villa, near the OBJ Residency. Built in 1940 in late Art Deco style. Pity that it has been neglected.

That was the end of another rewarding visit. Fortunately on my way back to KL, social distancing was no problem. both in the ETS and the MRT.

Menggelunchor


On the Internet recently I found a book called An Illustrated Guide to the Federated Malay States, published in 1910. You can read it online, or download it in a variety of formats. It makes fascinating reading, a real travel guide, full of interesting details and practical travel tips.

Of course it describes Taiping (“The town itself is one of the most picturesque in Malaya“) and even Bukit Gantang ( “… has always been a great place for tigers“).

Before reaching Kuala Kangsar (“The town of Kuala Kangsar lies on the right bank of the Perak river , at the point where the Kangsar debouches“) a few pages are devoted to the water slide of Mengelunchor, a popular attraction in those days.

There is even a photo in the guidebook where people climb up steps besides the waterfall and then slide down.

Menggelunchor? I had never heard about it and was intrigued. I Googled for it and found a few historical references. Apparently it was a popular tourist attraction in the early 1900s . Here is a description from the book The Malay States by Philip Coote, published in 1923.

From the description above, the water slide should be in the region of Padang Rengas and on the slopes of Gunung Bubu. I gave the photo to my Taiping friend Halim, asking him if he could find more info. He had never heard about Menggelunchor himself, but after asking around, told me that one of his friends had recognised the fall and was willing to take us there. That was exciting news.

On Saturday 3 October we met Syafiqi, who would take us to the waterfall. Actually we were Facebook friends because of our shared passion for waterfalls, but we had never met 😉 . We were joined by Puan Kamariah, Suhaina and Pak Yang.

Between Padang Rengas and Kuala Kangsar, a narrow unmarked road took us under the North-South Highway through nice countryside with orchards and scattered bungalows. After about 3 km the tar road ended. We parked our cars and followed the clear trail for a few hundred meters.

Soon we arrived at a waterfall. Syafiqi told me that the river is Sg Dal, a tributary of the Sg Kangsar and that the name of the waterfall is now Lata Bubu. Quite an attractive waterfall .

Here is a short video of Lata Bubu.

A short flight of steps leads the top of the waterfall. The steps look old, could they date back to the early 1900s? At the top there are remains of an old lock, maybe to create a shallow pool at the bottom of the water slide?

Here is the Menggelunchor water slide. Comparison with the old photo shows that there was not enough water this time to slide down. The small steps next to the slide have gone, could they have been on the white rock where I have tentatively marked some red stripes?

Here are the intrepid explorers 😉 . From left to right Syafiqi, Halim, Me and Pak Yang. Mission accomplished (picture by Syafiqi)

Syafiqi told us that at the top of the slide there were remains of a swimming pool. Of course we climbed up to have a look. And indeed, it must have been a swimming pool, a bit similar to the New Club swimming pool in Taiping.

After this successful exploration, we climbed down the steps again and walked back to the car.

Here is a Google Earth map of the region. I have marked the location of the Sg Kangsar.

Syafiqi told me that YouTube had several videos of Lata Bubu and I found a few interesting ones. This one shows the Menggelunchor and was taken in 2016, only four years ago. Try to imagine how one century ago, adults came here on elephants to enjoy the fun (and have a nice picnic afterwards).

This video is from the same year 2016 and shows the swimming pool above the slide in full action.

Back home I searched for more historical information. I found the first reference to Menggelunchor in the book About Perak by Swettenham, published in 1883. The link is to the online version. On page 62 and following he describes the Menggelunchor , “Though of ancient origin, it is not well known, even here“. Here is a part of his description, making it clear that he, the British Resident of Selangor, also enjoyed the fun tremendously.

Finally I show here three newspaper clippings, found in the Singapore Newspaper archive. When you search for Menggelunchor, you will get dozens of hits. The left one (13-4-1926) is about a visit of “Mr George Windsor” to Perak. Mr George Windsor is actually Prince George, Duke of Kent , 23 year old during this visit. The right one is about a European party that got lost (20-5-1930) after visitng the Menggelunchor.

The Sultan of Perak regularly invited VIP guests for a visit to the water slide and a lunch. In this case the King of Siam, 3 October 1924. Did they also slide down the Menggelunchor, like Swettenham did?

It was a fascinating excursion and a pleasure to write this blog.

A Meeting of Old-Timers

Knowing of my interest in the history of Taiping, Toh Puan Nori, the wife of the OBJ Larut Matang & Selama, suggested that she could invite a group of senior Taiping citizens for a discussion about Taiping’s “recent” history. Of course I accepted her suggestion gratefully and on Friday 2 October I went to the OBJ residency, where I met a small group of old-timers, most of them members of the Kelab Cinta Taiping. I had prepared a selection of slides and Wan Amril had prepared a projector.

It became an animated discussion with input from many. As several attendees were interested to have copies of my slides, I promised them to put my selection online. Here they are, with some comments.

I started with two Google Earth screenshots of the Residency Hill, resp. 2007 and 2019 imagery (click to enlarge). In 2007 the Casuarina Inn is still intact and the pillars of the former Residency are clearly visible. In the 2019 image they are overgrown and the Inn has become a ruin.

In December 2004 I have been staying one night in the Casuarina Inn. It was a bit rundown, but still acceptable. Huge rooms.

During a Taiping visit in 2017, I spent a few hours at Residency Hill, marking the location of all pillars, 34 in total.

Here is the condition of the pillars and the Casuarina Inn a few months ago.

A few weeks ago the Taiping Heritage Society and many other NGO’s took the initiative for a gotong royong (cleaning operation), supported by the MPT (Taiping Town Council).

During our meeting we discussed a lot about the buildings on Residency Hill. Wan Amril had found an article published in Berita Harian, 29 June 1969, that was very helpful. The Residency had been demolished already and behind it the new State Town House would be built. After completion the Town Rest House and the Rajah Rest House would be closed. Teoh KL told us that his father was the first contractor who had leased the State Town House in 1972. And Toh Puan Nori remembered that when she visited the Residency building in 1961, it was no longer occupied.

According to this 1949 article in the Straits Times about Taiping in the 19th century, it was Hugh Low who in 1887 became the first British Resident to live in the Taiping Residence (before that year he resided in Kuala Kangsar). Swettenham, Treacher and many others followed. Slowly Taiping declined, Ipoh took over and in 1937 became the capital of Perak. The Berita Harian article mentions that part of the Residence became the Land Surveyor’s office. Where there other occupants and when became it unoccupied? We could not find answers to these questions.

One more remark about the pillars. I think that there have been more pillars, but that some (10) of them have been removed to create space for the driveway to the State Rest House. Here is my educated guess :-).

In this 1928 Map of Taiping, the building is still marked as Residency (1). I have also marked he locations of the Rajah Rest House (2) and the Town Rest House (3). The map consists of four parts, very interesting, here is the link.

I could not find many photo’s of the Rajah Rest House. On this photo you see that it was quite a big place. Many attendees at the meeting had good memories about this place. We could not find out when exactly it was destroyed (to make place for a parking lot!)

Here is part of a hilarious article about The Inns of Malaya (1930). Both Taiping Rest Houses are very bad, the Town Rest House is noisy and dusty and should be “abolished”, the Rajah Rest House should change its furniture as it harbours unpleasant insects. So at least in 1930 the Rajah RH was already there.

Here are two Google Earth screenshots of the Town Rest House and the Perak Railway Building.

Around 2005, I also have been staying a night in the Town Rest House, then renamed Lagenda Hotel. After a couple of years it closed.

Although it is now a ruin, Taiping, bandar warisan(!) , still includes it in the list of heritage attractions.

Next to it there are the ruins of what originally was the Perak Railway Building. Here is a page from Anuar Isa’s report Taiping’s Many First

Actually two buildings the wooden building is from 1885, the brick building slightly newer. Many memories, the brick building was occupied by several departments. When readers know more about it, please comment.

Nowadays it is so ruined, that it is beyond repair in my opinion.

I have been following the fate of these buildings for many years, here is a report Taiping Bandar Warisan (2019). And here is an older report Shame on Taiping (2013), also about the Residency hill. When I wrote this report, I didn’t know much yet about Taiping’s history, so the report contains errors. I confused the Residency with the Residence of the Assistant Resident, a common mistake that is prevalent until today, for example in this recent STAR article !

Two more GE screenshots of the Taiping Aerodrome and the Port Weld Railway line. I was interested to know if any of the attendees had memories about either of them. But we had not enough time to discuss.

About the railway line, the orange line is the present track. The green one is the original Port Weld line, ending at what now is KE VII school. The yellow “bend” is a later modification of the Port Weld line, so it would join smoothly to the Ipoh-Butterworth line.

Present situation of the Aerodrome. Left an aerial view, taken by a drone. Right the remains of the control tower and the arrival hall.

Another part of the 1928 Taiping map. I have marked two locations, the Kempe Club (1) and a Ruined Bungalow (2) along King Edward Road (now Jln Sultan Jaafar)

Compare the map with two GE screenshots, 2005 and 2019 imagery. The Playground and the Tennis Courts have completely disappeared, it’s jungle now. Many attendees had memories about the play ground, it was a popular place for sports.

Here is the Kempe Club, founded in 1922. It’s a bit strange that it is not in the 1928 map, possibly the data used for the map are older. When I visited the club, I was invited inside. The interior has know better days, but the building is still in good condition. Interesting detail, when the Taiping Rotary Club restarted after the war, in 1956, they had their weekly lunches in this club.

The ruined bungalow along King Edward Road is one of my favourite ruins. I was hoping to get information about the people who have been living here. I was told that more of these bungalows existed, but many of them have already disappeared.

I had included a few slides about Maxwell Hill, but there was no time to talk about it. This is what is left over from Hugh Low’s bungalow, located between the Nest and Speedy’s. It was quite an expedition , with Law Siak Hong (Perak Heritage Society), to “rediscover it. I would have liked to know if any of the old-timers had visited this bungalow.

And finally two photo’s of Speedy’s bungalow. Left my 60th birthday party in 2004, when Guna was the excellent caretaker. Later it was transformed in a Biodiversity Center, in itself a good idea but it failed in my opinion because of the difficulty of (jeep) transport and insufficient promotion.

It was a very rewarding meeting, there are enough topics for a follow-up. Toh Puan Nori had provided food and drinks, thanks a lot for her hospitality.

From left to right Teoh Kok Liang, who had come specially from KL to attend the meeting, the OBJ, Toh Puan Nori, me and Wan Amril. Thanks everybody.

I was so busy talking and explaining, that I forgot to take notes. If any of the attendees, or other interested Taipingites, have additional information, please comment.

Taiping, August 2020

After our trip to the Cameron Highlands had shown us that traveling in Malaysia was possible again after the lockdown, a visit to Taping was of course my first priority. I booked four nights in my favourite hotel Furama, we drove to Taping on Thursday 13 August, Aric went back to KL on Saturday, I stayed two more nights and went back home on Monday by ETS. Here is a report.

My friend George was also in Taiping and suggested that we could have lunch in a Tupai food court, Sin Wong Kok, where they had the best popiah in town, according to him. When we arrived , my friends were already waiting for us, George and Jenny, and also Suet Fun and Peter. A nice start of our trip and the popiah were delicious indeed.

Of course we took off our face masks during the lunch, but in public we were good citizens.

After checking in at Furama and taking some rest, we went out in the evening and drove to Simpang for the famous char koay teow prepared over charcoal fire. Char koay teow is a favourite of mine, I had visited this stall before, but for Aric it was a first. The shop has been operating since 1972, nowadays the son has taken over from the father. The char koay teow was perfect, we also had very nice stingray.

On our way back we stopped for a while at the Lake Gardens and had a look at the Chinese Pagoda bridge. That the bridge is illuminated is in itself not a bad idea, but the gaudy and continuous change of colors is ugly, IMHO. Judge for yourself.

The next morning we had chee cheong fun for breakfast at Tong’s stall in the small food court in front of the Novotel hotel. That has become a routine for me when I am in Taiping 😉 .

Back in our hotel, we noticed a group of monkeys in the huge tree opposite the hotel. Spectacled Langurs, we were quite surprised to see them there, and were wondering how they would go back to the Lake Gardens, where they probably came from.

Our first stop this day was in Barrack Road where we visited Mrs Long, the sister of our Singapore friend ST Lee. Another tradition. During my last visit I had promised her a photobook with pictures of Taiping.

Our next destination was the Taiping Aerodrome. There was some activity at the entrance, friends told me later that they were preparing for a skydiving event on Merdeka Day.

I had asked Aric to bring his drone, here is the first result. The former runway is clearly visible.

I am working on a blog about Isabella Bird in Taiping and one of the targets for this trip was to visit places related to her visit in February 1879. AFter crossing the Straits from Penang and entering the Sg Larut, she landed in Teluk Kertang, from where she continued to Taiping. In those days this was the main port to ship tin to Penang!

Now it is a romantic stream, with quite a few shipyards and charcoal kilns on the opposite bank of the river

We continued to Port Weld (Kuala Sepetang), the successor of Teluk Kertang, where we had the famous curry mee for lunch.

On our way back to Taiping we stopped at Kota Ngah Ibrahim, mentioned by Isabella Bird in her book The Golden Chersonese. Next to the fort is Speedy’s bungalow.

The fort is now an interesting small museum, free of charge and worth a visit. The centerpiece on the ground floor is a statue of an elephant . According to legend this elephant came back from the jungle in the 1840’s with tin mud on its legs, starting the tin mining in the Taiping region. The first floor tells the history of the court case against the murderers of J.W.W Birch, the first British Resident of Perak, who was killed in 1875. The trial took place in this fort.

The Kota has also been used as a school, a teacher training college and it was the HQ of the Japanese army during the war. Because of his involvement in the murder plot, Ngah Ibrahim was exiled and died in Singapore. His remains were brought back to the fort in 2006 .

A drone picture of the complex.

Our next stop was at the pillars in front of the ruined Casuarina Inn. The Taiping Heritage Society (THS) is planning a gotong royong (cleaning) operation of the pillars. The bungalow still existed in 1961 and has been used as accommodation for visiting Residents and Governors. Some of the (34) pillars are completely overgrown, cleaning them will be a formidable job.

A drone picture of the hill with the pillars and the ruins of the Casuarina Inn (originally the Taiping State Rest House).

From the same location the drone took a nice picture of the Lake Gardens. Just visible in the bottom right corner is the former Residence of the Assistant Resident, now the DO’s bungalow. Speedy started building it, Maxwell lived there and received Isabella Bird as his guest in 1879. Of course in those days it was only a simple bungalow, as described in her book.

We decided to have dinner in Yat Sun, one of Taiping’s landmark restaurants. It has now two branches, both in Jalan Pasar. The original establishment was closed that day, so we went to the new one. A bit lacking in atmosphere, but the Hainanese chicken chop was still very good.

After our meal we were looking for coffee and cake. We tried Yinn’s but found it closed. The owner told me later that they close earlier these days because of the covid19 crisis. So not everything is back to normal yet. The beautiful illumination of the facade (the former town house of the Hai San leader Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee) deserves a picture.

During my last visit to Taiping in February I had a look at a bungalow in Tupai, near my hotel, which had been overgrown for years, but recently cleaned. The building intrigued me and with the help of a friend I found out who the owner/caretaker was. Yeap, the president of the THS contacted this Dalbir Singh, who was willing to give us a tour of the inside.

Here is the bungalow, looking glorious in the bright morning sun.

The bungalow is in good condition. The house has not been inhabited for a long time, but it looks like the last residents moved out just recently.

Hopefully this house, built in the 1930’s, will get a new lease of life. I would not mind living there 😉 .

Next we visited Crystal Creek. A larger contrast is hardly thinkable. We wanted to have a look to see if apartments here could be a good investment.

We had a look at a penthouse, apparently never inhabited yet, so a massive “renovation” would be needed. The view from the balcony is spectacular, but we found the general atmosphere of Crystal Creek disappointing. Many condo’s are for sale, or used for AirBnb. A bit of a failed project, despite its own waterfall?

We had lunch in the Peace Hotel, char koay teow again. Notice the nice decorations on the pillars. Built it 1928, it is one of the many decorative buildings in Taiping.

After lunch Aric drove back to KL and I took some rest. These days I am a volunteer gardener at the TTDI edible garden, so I was interested when my friend Lay Chun told me that she had started a garden behind her house a few months ago. She showed me around, I was surprised how much she had achieved already in such a short time.

Taiping is called “Rain Town”, but during this visit there was not the usual afternoon rain. It was a Saturday, many people were at the Lake Gardens, boating, walking or just relaxing in the grass. Taiping, my 2nd hometown 😉

When I visit the Lake Gardens, I always have a look at my favourite cannonball trees. For those Taipingites who don’t know the location, here are the coordinates: N 4° 51.05′ E 100° 45.10′

One problem I have in Taiping, is paying the bill after a dinner with friends. They are hospitable and generally faster. This time I was the host at Restoran Yes and I found a trick, by warning the waitress halfway the dinner that the bill was for me. It worked.

We had pig trotter, fish curry, sotong, tofu and veggie. Total bill RM 119.80 for six pax. Amazing 🙂

Halim had told me that he was free for a trip on Sunday, did I have an idea? I suggested that we could explore Kuala Kangsar and surroundings and he agreed.

Actually I wanted to visit two places related to Isabella Bird. In February 1879 she travelled (by elephant!) to Kuala Kangsar to meet the Resident Hugh Low. She stayed a few days in his Residence, a simple bungalow on a hill top. This bungalow was demolished in 1904 to make way for the King’s Pavilion, designed by  Arthur Benison Hubback in 1906, and meant as a residence for visiting Governors of the FMS. Now it is a school.

Nearby is one of Hubback masterpieces, the Ubudiah Mosque, completed in 1917, in my opinion the most beautiful mosque of Malaysia.

Next to the mosque is the Royal Mausoleum of Perak, built in the same period. The two tombs in the right picture finally gave the answer to a question I have often asked (in vain) my Muslim friends :-). Graves have either two round tombstones or two flat ones. What is the difference? The answer is, the round tombstones are for males, the flat ones are for females.

After Kuala Kangsar we went to Kota Lama Kanan. Ever heard about it? After Birch was killed in 1875, the Brits retaliated of course with the Perak War as result. The decisive battle of Kota Lama Kanan was fought against Maharaja Lela and his army on 4 January 1876.

Nowadays Kota Lama Kanan is a peaceful rural district. We went to the mosque and were pleasantly surprised to find there a cannon, according to the caretaker dating back to the battle.

Why was I interested to visit this place? Because Isabella Bird also went there on 16 February 1879. Riding an elephant and crossing the Perak River on it. At that time, three years after the battle, the region was still a “black area”. Detailed story in my forthcoming blog about Isabella in Taiping.

From the mosque you can walk down to the mighty Perak river. It looks impossible to cross this river on the back of an elephant.

We were intrigued by the mention of a Batu Peringatan (memorial stone) on the signboard, looked around for a while, but could not find anything. Finally we asked the caretaker of the mosque who told us that the memorial stone was actually inside the mosque. He allowed me to enter the mosque, after washing hands and feet. A very nice guy.

Mansur Shah I was the 2nd sultan of Perak (1549-1577), he had his residence in Kota Lama Kanan, and in 1577, during Friday prayers in the mosque, he disappeared without leaving a trace. This memorial stone (round and only one!) has been placed in the mosque in 1916. Probably the sultan was kidnapped by the Acehnese. Interesting story.

Our last destination had nothing to do with Isabella Bird. I wanted to show Halim the Suka Suka Lake Retreat of my friends Aziz and Asiah, because I was sure he would love the place. I had stayed in this peaceful resort five times between 2010 and 2014, and it was nice to visit Aziz and Asiah again after a long time. Aziz buys old Malay houses, disassembles them and then rebuilds them on his resort. Halim liked the place very much and I think he will come back soon.

It was a wonderful day, full of variety, really grateful to Halim, hope we can do something similar during my future Taiping visits.

The next day I took the train back to KL, but in the morning I still had meetings with friends. First breakfast and an interesting chat with Anand in Lian Thong. Later, after checking out at Furama, my friend Bok Kin picked me up for lunch, again at Lian Thong. Bomb Mee this time.

After lunch she dropped me at the station. It was a wonderful visit, looking forward to go back soon.

Very convenient way of traveling with the ETS, and no problem with social distancing 🙂

Here is a short video taken by the drone. It shows the Taiping Aerodrome, the Kota Ngah Ibrahim and the Casuarina Inn with the the pillars.

An opera and some history

Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757) is nowadays mainly known for his 555 keyboard sonatas. Click here for a nice collection. His father Alessandro specialised in operas (114!) and that may have been a reason that young Domenico wrote one himself, in 1703 when he was 18 years old.

Here is the opera L’Ottavia restituita al Trono (Octavia returned to the throne).

Pleasing music, fresh and youthful. It is a concertante recording, seven singers, no stage, no choir.

I listened several times to the recording, trying to understand the “plot”with the help of the (French) subtitles.

The main characters are Nero, Octavia and Poppaea. Nero, Emperor of Rome is sung by a countertenor. Octavia, his divorced wife and Poppaea, his future bride , are both sung by sopranos.

Floro is a Prince of Epirus and Rosilda his wife/bride. They were shipwrecked and got separated. Both are sung by sopranos (Floro in travesti)

Two supporting roles. Dorillo is a young servant of Floro, sung by a sopranist (a male soprano). And Belisa, an elderly female, is sung by a tenor!

So the three male parts, Nero, Floro and Dorillo, are performed by a countertenor, a soprano and a sopranist, whereas the female role of Belisa is sung by a tenor. No wonder that at first hearing I was confused.

The first performance of the opera took place in November 1703 in Naples. Apparently the work received a favorable reception, but later it has fallen into complete oblivion until recently. The original libretto has been preserved, but the music was thought to be lost, until copies of almost all arias were found in the library of the Naples Conservatory. Based on this material, two Italian musicologists, Antonio Florio and Alessandro Ciccolini, have made a reconstruction of the opera. It was performed in 2007, with Antonio Florio himself conducting.

Before giving a summary of the opera , here is some historical background.

Nero, Octavia and Poppaea are historical characters during the Roman empire. Nero was born in 37 AD and married Claudia Octavia in 53 AD when he was 16 years old and she 14. One year later , at the age of 17, he became Emperor of the Roman Empire. Octavia became Empress and was widely respected by the Roman citizen body. But their marriage was unhappy and Nero soon got mistresses. One of them was Poppaea Sabina, seven years his senior, and an ambitious schemer. When she became pregnant in AD 62 he divorced Octavia and almost immediately married Poppaea. Octavia was banned to the island of Pandateria. The citizens of Rome protested so strongly that Nero almost remarried Octavia, but instead he decided, supported (urged?) by Poppaea, that she should be killed. She was 23 years old and, according to the historian Tacitus, she was decapitated. In this painting (Giovanni Muzzioli – 1876 ) Poppaea presents Octavia’s head to Nero.

From the title “Octavia returned to the throne” , you may guess already that the content of Scarlatti’s opera is not historically accurate. The opera consist of three acts, although in the recording there is no interval between them.

———————————————–
Act I

Octavia is back in Rome, disguised as a shepherdess and planning revenge against Poppaea. Nero is going to get married to Poppaea, but also charmed by every nice lady he meets. And Poppaea loves Nero, but she is concerned about the negative reaction of the Roman people and willing to give up her position as empress.
Floro tells Nero about his shipwreck and is appointed as captain of the army. Belisa introduces Rosilda to Nero who is charmed by her beauty, much to Poppaea’s concern. Floro recognises Rosilda and is worried too about Nero’s avances. He decides to hide his identity to Rosilda and “become” Clearque . The act ends with a hilarious duet between Belisa and Dorillo. Belisa fancies Dorillo, who is not interested. Click on the picture to hear the duet.

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Act II

Nero and Clearque meet a shepherdess, not realising it is Octavia. She tells Nero her sad fate and that she is looking for revenge. Nero is charmed by her beauty and tells Clearque that it is no problem to love more than one. He tells the same to Poppaea, who is furious about his interest in Rosilda. When Nero meets Rosilda, he tries to flirt with her. She resists and asks Clearque to help her.
Octavia is ready to take her revenge on Poppaea, who is complaining and sad about what is happening. When she falls asleep, Octavia prepares to kill her, but Nero arrives in time to prevent it. Octavia flees and Poppaea blames Nero, who promises to find and punish the shepherdess.
Clearque finds Octavia and after he discovers that they both have a grudge against Nero, he decides to help her. This act ends with another funny duet between Dorillo and Belisa. Click on the picture for the duet.

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Act III

Octavia tells Clearque who she is and tells him that he can help her by raising the anger of the people and tell Nero that the only solution is to take back Octavia. Later she meets Belisa, who is looking for Dorillo, and also tells her who she is, asking Belisa for help. Belisa advises Octavia to hide in a garden where Poppaea and Nero will meet.

In the garden Octavia attacks Poppaea, Poppaea defends herself, and again Nero arrives in time. Clearque tells Nero that the people are revolting and want his death unless he takes back Octavia back on the throne. Nero laments that, still loving Poppaea, he has to give her up. Poppaea says that she will give up her position.

Clearque is finally convinced of Rosilda’s faithfulness and reveals to her that he is actually Floro. Both are happy. Nero asks Floro to call Octavia, he apologises to her for his behaviour. She suggest that he go back to Poppaea, but Floro says again that the people want her back. Then she accepts to come back to Nero, for the love of the country , although he is not worth it. Poppaea is not jealous and Octavia forgives her. Finally all (including Poppaea !) sing about the triumph of the God of Love.

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When you have read the above summary of the opera, I think you will agree with me that there is hardly anything in it that is historically correct. Yes, the fear of Nero for a revolt of the people. What I found surprising is that Poppaea, considered by most historians as an ambitious, ruthless schemer , is here portrayed as being considerate, genuinely in love with Nero, whereas it is Octavia who , by hook and by crook, wants to get back her position as empress. Nero comes across as a womanizer who is ultimately only interested in his own survival.

A few more comments

  1. The (infamous) Nero period of the Roman Empire must have fascinated composers. In 1643, Monteverdi wrote the opera L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppaea), based more or less on the historical events. This opera is performed regularly, here is a beautiful recording by the Monteverdi Choir. And in 1704 Handel wrote the opera Nero, the music of which has been lost, only the libretto survived.
  2. Bach, Handel and Scarlatti were all three born in 1685. Bach never wrote an opera, Scarlatti only a few, Handel about fifty! In 1709 he wrote the opera Agrippina about Nero’s mother. Here is a brilliant modern recording by an American ensemble Ars Lyrica Houston
  3. Almost no information exists on the Internet about Scarlatti’s opera. Finally I found this useful link: OTTAVIA, 300 anni fa… It is written in Italian, I needed Google Translate 😉 As far as I know only one recording of the opera exists on YouTube, I found two arias, not related to this recording, a duet between Poppaea and Nero and an aria by Belisa That’s all.
  4. A bit more history. Nero murdered Agrippina in 59 AD. And in 65 AD, in a fit of rage, he trampled on the belly of pregnant Poppaea, killing her. Nero went in deep mourning and two years later married the boy Sporus, who resembled Poppaea, after having him castrated. Nero committed suicide in 68 AD , 31 year old.

It was a real pleasure, although time consuming, to find out more about this delightful “little” opera. Hopefully it will be performed more often.

Musical Nostalgia

Followers of my blog know that I love Western classical music. My blog category Music has 16 posts about Bach, Mozart, Chopin and others. But that doesn’t mean I am not interested in other kinds of music 😉 .

My interest in “pop music” started in the late sixties when I was studying in Amsterdam. Those were exciting years, there was an atmosphere of optimism that a new era had arrived. Flower Power, Hippies, May 68, Woodstock

It influenced me. Although I remained basically a “nerd”, I did grow my hair, took part in anti Vietnam war demonstrations, wore a ban-the-bomb necklace and watched the Maagdenhuis riots (from a safe distance haha). Here are two photos , illustrating how I changed 🙂

Soft drugs were getting popular in those days, I was too shy to experiment with them, but I liked the relaxed atmosphere of Melkweg and Paradiso, where regularly concerts were given by underground bands, playing psychedelic music. Often liquid light shows were given during a concert, on a huge screen above the stage. This YouTube clip gives an impression.

In those days I started to buy LP records of bands and singers I liked and I still have them. Most of them are not really playable anymore, but nowadays you can listen to most of these albums on YouTube.

I have taken pictures of a number of these LP-covers and present them here with some information. Clicking on the album title links to the full album on YouTube, and when you click on the cover , a song from that album will be played .

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Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan (debut album) (1962)

The times, they are a-changin’ (1964)

Bringing it all back home (1965)

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The Mamas & The Papas

The Mamas & The Papas Deliver (1967)

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Country Joe and The Fish

I feel like I’m fixin’ to die (1967)

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Jefferson Airplane

Surrealistic Pillow (1967)

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Pearls Before Swine

One Nation Underground (1967)

Balaklava (1968)

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Pink Floyd

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

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Van Morrison

Astral Weeks (1968)

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Dr John the Nighttripper

Gris Gris (1968)

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The Flying Burrito Brothers

The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969)

The Flying Burrito Bros (1971)

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Crosby, Stills & Nash

Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)

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The Soft Machine

Volume Two (1969)

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Neil Young

Everybody knows this is nowhere (1969)

After the Gold Rush 1970

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Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Déja Vu (1970)

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The Band

Stage Fright (1970)

Cahoots (1971)

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David Bowie

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

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The Cure

Boys don’t cry (1980)

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Japan

Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980)

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Talking Heads

Remain in Light (1980)

Naked (1986)

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Joe Jackson

Night and Day (1982)

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UB40

More UB40 Music (1983) compilation

Rat in the Kitchen (1986)

Most of the LP records (18) are from the period 1967 -1972. I still think back with nostalgia to that period of my life. Here is a video from the Woodstock festival in 1969, with Country Joe singing I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die . It gives a good impression of the atmosphere in those years.

In 1969 I was doing research for my thesis, but also I went on holidays to Morocco, my first “exotic” destination, an unforgettable experience. One year later , in Rotterdam the Kralingse Bos festival was held, with the Jefferson Airplane, Soft Machine, Country Joe, Pink Floyd and many others. Did I go? No, because I thought I might not fit in.

Maybe I was right, but until this day I regret that I didn’t go.

Langkawi, Christmas 2019

A few months ago, Aei Yong, one of Aric’s sisters, came with the idea to celebrate Christmas with the family in Langkawi! She asked Aric to plan the trip, as she knows that he is a good organiser. He booked an Airbnb in Kuah, 23-25 December.

It turned out that not everybody was available, so finally we went with the two sisters and their family, ten people in total. The ferry to Langkawi leaves Kuala Perlis at 1 pm and it is about a 6-7 hour drive from KL, so he decided that we would leave one day earlier and stay overnight in Kangar on the 22nd.

We went in two cars and met in Tanjung Malim for breakfast. I had my favourite eggs on toast, creatively prepared 🙂

Chinese names are not easy for me to memorise 😉 . Left Aric’s nephews
Zhen Ee and Chun Yee. , right his two sisters Aei Ling and Aei Yong and in the middle a Kwai Loh, my nickname.

Around 4 pm we arrived in Kangar, the capital of Perlis, where Aric had booked comfortable rooms in Federal Hotel Kangar.

After a short rest we went to Kuala Perlis for our dinner in the Hai Thien seafood restaurant. Aric and I had been here a few times before and we liked the (Thai style) food very much. It was crowded, we had to wait a bit for a free table.

The food was delicious as usual. The advantage of eating with a larger group is that you can order many different dishes!

The next morning we had time to explore Kuala Perlis. There is not much to see, but there is a nice pedestrian bridge, crossing the Perlis river, with good views of the surroundings.

The Al Hussain mosque is quite attractive, and sometimes nicknamed Floating Mosque.

The ferry is relatively small, it was interesting to see how the experienced crew managed to fit so many cars and lorries.

The crossing to Langkawi takes a few hours. The weather was perfect and there was a small canteen where you could buy drinks and snacks.

Around 4 pm we arrived at our Airbnb, a nice, modern house, located in the outskirts of Kuah.

Spacious, many rooms to accommodate our group.

Usually we decorate our condo in Damansara Perdana during Christmas and this time we had taken all the Xmas stuff with us.

The plan was to have our Christmas Eve dinner in Western style. There are not that many restaurants in Kuah that serve Western food, but Aric had found one, the ARTS Cafe. He called them to make a reservation and they asked us to come over already to select what we would like to eat the next day.

After we had made our choice, we looked for a suitable restaurant for our dinner. Our original choice , the Wonderland Food Store , was too crowded, we found a good alternative in seafood restaurant TEO.

Another elaborate selection of tasty food

The next day, after our breakfast we first visited the Durian Perangin waterfall on the slopes of Gunung Raya, Langkai’s highest mountain. I had visited this waterfall in September 2007. Now there was a lot less water, but still enough to enjoy a nice bath.

I took a lot of pictures. It was a good place to frolic around.

The waterfall was a very suitable background for modelling photos 🙂

After spending almost two hours at the fall, we drove to the top of the Gunung Raya, at 881 m the highest point of Langkawi. There is a view tower from where you are supposed to have a 360° view of the island. We were also expecting a cafe there for lunch. But everything was closed, already since February 2018!

Next we drove to Cenang Beach for KFC(!) lunch and the tax-free shopping malls. After that back to our Airbnb for a short rest.

Before we left for our Christmas Eve dinner, there was time to take an official family picture.

The ARTS cafe had prepared all the food we had ordered, I forgot to take pictures of all dishes, some people had ordered pasta, others pie, grilled salmon, lamb shank, fish and chips, etc. Nice food.

Many paintings on the walls of this cafe, another occasion for some more modelling photography.

Back home, it was time to wish each other a Merry Christmas.

On Christmas day we visited the Langkawi Sky Bridge and of course we were not the only ones. First we had to use the Cable Car. Well organised, we had to stand ready for the gondola, which doesn’t stop, not much time to jump in 🙂

The cable car has a station halfway, where you get out and can view the surroundings. In the picture you can see behind us the summit station and the sky bridge.

Another gondola brings you to the top.

There is a viewing platform, from where you have a good view of the sky bridge. Notice that the sky bridge is quite a bit lower than the cable car station. It is possible to use the so-called Sky Glide, a short funicular railway, but you have to buy tickets separately for it and there was a long queue. Here is a negative comment of a visitor: Don’t use the SkyGlide.

We decided to walk down, in about 20 minutes. A much better option, although it was rather hot :-). Walking on the sky bridge was a worthwhile experience, for me the first time, because during an earlier visit it was closed for maintenance.

We spent considerable time at this major tourist attraction, so it was almost 5 pm when we arrived at the second destination for the day, the beach at Tanjung Rhu. Crystal clear water, a sandy beach, casuarina trees for some shade, a nice place to relax and take a sea bath.

We had read that at low tide it was possible to walk from the beach to one of the rocky islands (the middle one in the picture below). It was low tide and indeed, you could walk quite far out, as you can see, and on the Internet I have seen pictures that there was even a dry “sand road”, leading far out. But when we were there this was impossible.

We could walk quite far, shallow water, swimming was not easy.

Almost sunset. A romantic beach. This picture was taken at 6:30 pm

Aric had planned our last dinner at Laman Padi Langkawi , a Malay restaurant, surrounded by rice fields. We arrived a bit too late, it was dark already, but we could still see the nice surroundings.

The next day we took the ferry back to Kuala Perlis.

From Kuala Perlis it was a long drive back, we stopped in Bukit Mertajam for lunch in the Sentosa Corner, a very popular eatery, famous for its yam rice.

A relative of the family was living nearby, we paid the couple a short visit.

It was a very successful, but also exhausting trip 🙂