Term 'ang moh' in use as early as 1600s in Ming Dynasty map

Published 7 hours ago

Melody Zaccheus

Singaporeans commonly use the term "ang moh" to refer to a Caucasian.

One of the term's earliest written references, from the 1600s, appears in a rare map now on display at the National Library in Victoria Street.

The words "ang moh", meaning red hair, are written in Chinese script on the map in an area depicting the Maluku Islands - an archipelago in eastern Indonesia.

The term likely refers to the Dutch, who had a presence there, said map consultant Mok Ly Yng.

"The map, which was very likely created by a Hokkien merchant, is meant to be read in the dialect.

"Hokkiens probably referred to the Dutch as such because of their auburn hair. The term could also refer to them being light or bright haired."

The map - the final addition to the National Library Board's ongoing On Paper exhibition - also depicts the area around the Singapore Strait as a very busy waterway. Multiple merchant routes, in the form of thin black lines, run along the island.

National Library director Tan Huism said that the map, which arrived here on Nov 6, provides rich visual evidence that supplements written accounts about Singapore's early history.

She said that the map highlights a place called Ujung Tanah, which means "land's end" in Malay, at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. This could refer to Singapore or Johor.

Ms Tan added: "Based on the sailing routes detailed in the map, the Strait of Singapore was an important waterway."

The map depicts the area around the Singapore Strait as a very busy waterway. The words "ang moh" are written in Chinese script on the map in an area depicting the Maluku Islands. The term likely refers to the Dutch, who had a presence there.

Called the Selden Map, the cartographic record was rediscovered in 2008 by a scholar after it had been forgotten and buried in the archives for centuries. It is the only Ming Dynasty map of this size and scale that covers South-east Asia.

It is special for it does away with depicting China as the centre of the world. Instead, South-east Asia is its focus.

Ms Tan added: "The map depicts a vast network of sailing routes that stretched as far north as Nagasaki, in Japan, to Timor in the south-east.

"Without this map, we would not be able to see the extent of trade as early as the 17th century, because we could rely on only written sources, which mentioned instances of trade but did not show its extent."

It also depicts Tioman, a once popular beach getaway for Singaporeans, as a favoured pit stop for merchants and seafarers of the 1500s and 1600s. Five sea routes are shown converging at the island.

Seamen would stop there to restock freshwater and supplies before continuing on what would have been a rather perilous journey with rough waters ahead, said Mr Mok.

A conservator from the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford arrived with the showstopper earlier last month.

He oversaw its installation at the National Library, where it is on loan - secure in an acrylic case equipped with an alarm system.

The map was named after John Selden, a London lawyer, and gifted to the Bodleian Libraries through his estate in 1659.

Even on a rainy Wednesday afternoon when The Straits Times visited the exhibition, curious members of the public at the National Library could not help but stop to peer at the expansive map.

Drawn in the style of a Chinese painting, its landscape is overlaid with symbols which each have a story to tell.

It boasts colourful depictions of flora, moving from one region to another.

For instance, its creator had delicately painted palm, banana and bamboo trees in tropical areas such as Java at the bottom of the map and temperate plants such as pines and elms in the area of China.

Visitors might be able to pick out the Great Wall of China, which is also included in the map.

Keen observers might also spot a hexagonal marker outside the wall's boundary, symbolising a Chinese military encampment.

Mr Mok said the encampment was a base dedicated to fending off enemies and "barbarians", including Mongols and Turkic tribesmen.

Ms Tan said: "The Selden Map brings to life the now widespread understanding that Singapore was an active port long before 1819."

Encouraging members of the public to visit the showcase, she added: "There are also many interesting features in every nook and cranny of the map."

The On Paper: Singapore Before 1867 exhibition opened on Sept 27 and will end on March 22.

Exhibition highlights

A spat between a Hokkien shopkeeper and a Teochew buyer over the price of rice sparked a riot so big in 1854 that police and soldiers had to be activated from far and wide.

Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim of Johor loaned Singapore 200 troops and Royal Marines, who were in Singapore as part of the preparations for the Crimean War. They were ordered to leave their ships in the harbour to combat the troublemakers.

By Day 3 of the commotion, rioters had spread out across the island using its four main roads - Bukit Timah, Serangoon, Changi and Thomson - noted map expert Mok Ly Yng.

He added: "It was an activation of police and military power never before seen in Singapore until World War II."

These details are depicted in a map that shows the British strategy and disposition of forces.

The map was discovered by Mr Mok 13 years ago and is on display for the first time at the National Library Board's On Paper exhibition, alongside around 150 paper-based artefacts. The map also indicates that fighting took place along Changi Road. This is corroborated by newspaper reports which state that rioters fled the area when troops arrived - scattering their bowls of food and dispersing into forested areas.

Another highlight is an inventory of the goods and effects of a man named Tam Ah Chong, who died in 1855. His personal effects included an abacus, tobacco, silk clothing and shoes, as well as a Chinese weighing scale.

The inventory was produced by the government of the day which assessed his estate and auctioned off his valuables in the absence of family in Singapore.

Another artefact on display is a drawing of a diverse group of people squatting and watching what could have been a Thaipusam procession in 1857. The artist was German ethnologist, naturalist, explorer and photographer Andreas Fedor Jagor, who visited Asia in the 19th century.

The National Library Board noted that the audience he depicted, mainly Malay, Indian and Chinese people, were squatting with a flexibility that would be difficult for Europeans to achieve.

Melody Zaccheus