Terengganu, situated on the east coast of Malaysia, is well known as the cultural state of Malaysia, rich in practising traditions, a seafaring history and platefuls of delicious cuisine.
In the state capital of Kuala Terengganu, a riverside city facing the South China Sea, you will find a village community that lives among a maze of inlets and islands such as the one at Pulau Duyung.
Pulau Duyung – literally, Mermaid Island – is not short of wonders as its name suggests. The small village surrounded by rivers is just a 10-minute drive from the city of Kuala Terengganu. In this calm oasis of shady trees and labyrinth of narrow lanes, ordinary village folk, fishermen, event artists and talented craftsmen call it home and welcome visitors into its sanctum.
Accessible by road or by boat, the area is well known for its boat-making heritage. At least three main boatmakers remain much sought after on the island, namely, Pak Lah, Pok Awi and Hassan Ali. The craftsmanship of these fine carpenters is much in demand not only among Marang fishermen, but also by boatmen from around the world including Italy, Denmark, Australia and Algeria.
Touted as a vanishing legacy, the result of modernisation, vanishing forests and lack of interest by the younger generation to learn the trade, boatmaking is very much alive in their hearts. It is believed that there are only three boatbuilding yards on this island when just a few years ago, there were a thriving 38!
Working without any physical plans, these craftsmen rely only on their decades-long experience and skills taught to them by their forefathers. Traditional methods and local materials, such as the tree bark of the gelam tree for caulking and water-proofing the vessel, are used. Throughout the year, domestic and international tourists seek out these artisans in their boatyards to admire how they turn sturdy cengal timber into fine handmade boats that cut through the rough South China Sea effortlessly.
Today, these old hands still take in orders to build entire 40-foot boats by hand. You may want to book a handmade yacht once you see their skillful handwork, but mind you, the waiting list is a few years long, and the price is not for ordinary sailors!
Art for the times
Art lovers will be enthralled with the existence of the relatively new Pulau Duyung Gallery in the area, which is as much a cultural commune as it is an art gallery.
Modest in size but not short of talents, the jetty-front gallery organises exhibitions and conducts art workshops, as well as houses many works by local artists.
One of their core successes was in organising the Duyung Art Festival from 2015 to 2017. The festival has since been regarded as the force that connects and welcomes people through culture and arts.
Their previous exhibition entitled “Postcards to Duyung” in 2017 attracted participants from Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Australia, France and Sweden to exhibit about 800 postcards made from original art works. The upcoming one held until January 2019, “Duyung: Kenangan Lalu Mengusik Jiwa” (“Memories of Old Duyung”) is a nostalgic look at Duyung Island in the 1990s and earlier through photographs, artworks and oral expressions.
Built to Last
Among the collection of wooden houses in the area, one building stands out for its unique architecture, the Duyung Old Fort.
Built originally in the 1920’s by the owner and local leader Dato’ Biji Sura, the building curiously combines Malay traditional wooden architecture with European influences. Marvel at the sturdy pillars with Greek and Egyptian influences, the tendrils of Islamic motifs cut into the wooden lattices on the verandah, and the thick walls surrounding the building, believed to have been constructed of bricks and cemented with a concoction of fine sand, lime, honey and egg white.
Within the wall is a complex of houses interconnected in various styles of the Terengganu architecture such as the gabled roof, the five ridge roof, and the Dutch roof. Elements such as rain-water harvesting through ingeniously simple architectural planning, and how the morning light casts shadows through the woodcarvings, are just some of the admirable features to be admired.
In 1986, though, a big flood destroyed much of the house but the Terengganu State government took the effort to restore it to its original glory and opened it as a heritage museum under the auspices of the Terengganu State Museum.
The entrance is free, but do not expect a full-fledged museum as you enter. The display is modest, but enough to give you a glimpse into the lifestyle back in theolden days.
Note: Pulau Duyung is accessible either by the water taxi, car or the Heritage City bus. The water taxi departs from Shahbandar Jetty with the crossing taking less than 10 minutes.
Duyong Art Gallery
Venue: GP 5, Pulau Duyung Kecil, 20100 Terengganu
Tel: +6019 6340214
Entrance fee: Free
Duyung Old Fort
Open: Every day except Friday
Time: 9.00 am to 5.00 pm
Address: Pulau Duyung Kecil, 20100 Terengganu
Contact: National State Museum
Tel: +609-622 1444