Mission Raquez Final Dispatch

Don’t miss the thrilling conclusion to Alfred Raquez’s adventure through Laos in 1905 in the final dispatch posted to our Mission Raquez blogsite!

Interview in The Serangoon Times

I’m very pleased to have been invited to interview in The Serangoon Times, an independent magazine that serves the Tamil community in Singapore, about my recent work on Karikal Mahal [read more about that here.]

The interview is in Tamil, a language I don’t speak, so I’ve cut and pasted the original English interview as text below the pages.

Dr. William L. Gibson Interview – The Serangoon Times
 1.       Could you briefly share with us about your education, profession and research interests?
My PhD is in literature, which I earned at the University of Leeds in the UK. I have taught courses in literature and media studies at universities and private colleges in New York, Singapore and Jakarta. My current research interests are in the historical representations of the Exotic in Southeast Asia.
2.       How did your research interests turn towards Southeast Asia?
I first moved to Singapore in 2005 and became very interested in local history and culture as well as the intersections between these and the colonial representation of them. I have recently published two critical translations of the travel narratives of the French journalist Alfred Raquez and my biography of Raquez is forthcoming from Routledge this spring. After living in Indonesia for many years, my family has returned to Singapore and I’m focusing my research closer to home.
3.       You have published a trilogy historical fiction set in 19th century Singapore, namely Singapore Black, Singapore Yellow and Singapore Red. In about 1000 pages combined, what was the ratio between history and fiction? What was your motivation to set the plot particularly in that period?
I did a lot of historical research into the time period of the books, the 1890s, so almost all the factual information in the books is accurate and true to life (though I did make a couple of mistakes I’ll correct if there are any reprints). The 1890s is an intriguing time because it is modern enough that we recognize it as something like our own lives, but it was also long ago and the world has changed in many ways. I try to capture that tension in my novels.
4.       Your recent publication in BibilioAsia entitled ‘Karikal Mahal: The Lost Palace of a Fallen Cattle King’ attracted my attention. Who is this Cattle King Moona Kader Sultan?
As I explain the article, Moona Kader Sultan came to Singapore from Karikal, part of so-called “French India” in modern Tamil Nadu, toward the end of 19th century when he was a young man. By the First World War, he had established himself as the “Cattle King” of Singapore, the biggest importer of livestock in the colony. The livestock trade had been dominated by Tamil Muslims for many years, and Moona Kader Sutlan managed to work his way to the top. But the royal title was short-lived. By the 1930s, his business empire had collapsed and he passed away an old man back in Karikal. It’s a fascinating story and yet there is still much to be learned. I am currently researching his life more closely to see what I can discover.
5.       Do we know how – in the midst of established Tamil Muslims in late 19th century – a teenage Kader Sultan eventually figured his way up to become Cattle King?
There are not many details in the public record from this period of his life, so it is a bit of a mystery.
6.       Kader Sultan’s glorious rise and steep fall has happened in the two decades of interwar period in Singapore. Is this coincidental or the choice of his cattle business led his way?
There were several factors, including the stock market collapse in 1927 as well as differences in the way business was conducted more generally. The older business models were changing and Moona Kader Sultan was growing old and couldn’t keep up with the new “business landscape,” as we say today.
7.       We understand that you are continuing further research about ‘Karikal Mahal’. What is so unique about ‘Karikal Mahal’?

Good question. The houses present a fascinating reflection of Singapore’s history. From the time before MKS acquired and developed the land in the late 1910s up to the present day, the site is a microcosm of the changes Singapore has undergone throughout it’s colonial and post-colonial history.
8.       Your research has also talked about a short-lived publication ‘Karikal Chronicle’. How did European prisoners ended up publishing a ‘chronicle’ in Singapore carrying the name of a French controlled territory which is in Tamilnadu (India)?  
This name comes from World War Two, when the European civilians were rounded up and placed in a holding camp in Karikal Mahal prior to being transferred to the more infamous prison at Changi. A couple of journalists were also held there and came up with the idea of printing a typed broadsheet for the other prisoners to read. The took the name from the buildings and added the word ‘Chronicle’ almost as an ironic title to the publication, which was hand typed then mimeographed before being distributed.
9.       Where is ‘Karikal Mahal’ now?
As I detail in the article, during the 1970s, Still Road was extended as the land reclamation works that formed East Coast Park were underway. The extension of Still Road meant that the original site was cut in half. One building was demolished but two remained (now on either side of Still Road between East Coast Road and Marine Parade). These were turned into a hotel called the Grand Hotel. When that shuttered in the year 2000, the buildings stood empty for ten years until being converted into kindergartens.
10.    Had there ever been an impetus in history to preserve ‘Karikal Mahal’? Do you think generally conservation is in conflict with economic development hence become a luxury for land scarce cities such as Singapore?
The two remaining buildings have both been designated as historically important by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) so can’t be torn down, though the owner can modify them. The question of conservation versus development is thorny one not only because of land scarcity but also because of land prices. What is left of Karikal Mahal sits on ‘freehold’ land that is valued well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s a hefty sum for some old buildings that can’t be torn down!
11.    Are there any significant physical traces still left in Singapore to remind us about Moona Kader Sultan or his ‘Karikal’ passion?
Not much. The rather grand building where his business—the Straits Trading Cattle Company—was located at 22 Sungei Road was demolished many years ago. His initials used to stand on the pediment above one of the building on Still Road, but they were removed during the most recent renovation. There is a Karikal Lane near this building, and that is probably the closest thing we have to a trace of the original owner’s name and heritage.
12.    How much of Moona Kader Sultan’s history we know about is likely objective and impartial?
There is very little about him in the public record. I have relied mostly on newspaper articles in English for information. There were several obituaries that briefly outlined his life as well as an extended ‘interview’ with a police superintendent that was published ten years after his death, but that source is dubious for reasons I point out in my article.
These days, there’s lots of blog and websites online that mention him in connection to Karikal Mahal, because people are naturally curious about these old and beautiful buildings, but these blogs are often poorly researched and inaccurate.
There is more information about MKS to be found in Tamil-language sources, and I have a research assistant, a former student, helping me to search these sources because I understand very little of your beautiful language. Happily, she’s already found some very interesting material.
I’m hoping through my own research to learn much more about this fascinating figure and to restore his place in the story of Singapore’s growth.

Dispatch Twenty-six is here!

Join Raquez as he returns to Luang Prabang in 1905 and explains the difficulties in transporting goods across the Laotian frontier…


Dispatch Twenty-Four is online

Join Alfred Raquez in his amazing adventure through Laos in 1905! In this dispatch, he’s in northern Laos en route to the salt wells of Boten, near the border with China.


Dispatch Twenty-Three

The twenty-third dispatch from Alfred Raquez’s mission through Laos in 1905 is now online.

Join the adventure today!


Dispatch Twenty-One is online!

Join Alfred Raquez on his adventure through northern Laos in 1905!


Karikal Mahal: New article in BiblioAsia

Check out my latest publication, a deep dive into the history of a micro-site, Karikal Mahal on Singapore’s east coast. The site’s history is fascinating and the good folks at BiblioAsia, the magazine of the National Library Board, did an amazing job…the article looks great!

Read the online version here: https://biblioasia.nlb.gov.sg/vol-16/issue-3/oct-dec-2020/karikal

Or download the entire issue of the magazine here (Vol 16, Issue 3, Oct-Dec 2020): https://www.nlb.gov.sg/browse/biblioasia.aspx

Meanwhile, here’s some historical images, some of which were used in the article, many of which were not for reasons of copyright.

The original owner of the site, Moona Kadir Sultan, along with the French Consul Andre Danjou when MKS was his awarded the Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur at Karikal Mahal in 1925. Behind them is building 24. A similar image appeared in L’Illustration, Issue 4286, 25 April 1925, p. 414. The speaker is Shaik Dawood, a prominent physician. The round pavilion behind them surrounded a fishpond with a fountain, as can be seen in the later shots of the Grand Hotel.

Below are two views of the site after it became the Grand Hotel, c.1958, from an unidentified serviceman at RAF Changi. Building 26 (now Pat’s Schoolhouse) had a three-story tower that sadly is no more.

Advertisements for the hotel from The Straits Times in 1961. The first of building 26, the second of building 25.

In 1967, Lee Kip Yin took images of each of the buildings, not long before the road was widened and the site permanently altered.

The first is of building 24, which was demolished (this is the only photograph of the building I’ve been able to locate).

This is building 25 (now the Odyssey Preschool). The crest on the pediment was emblazoned with the initials MKS, for Moona Kadir Sultan. It was removed during recent renovations.

This is building 26, now Pat’s Schoolhouse. The tower visible in 1958 and 1961 appears to have been taken down by 1967.

Another shot by Lee Kip Yin, this time from 1970, of building 26 after the land reclamation works has begun. He was standing in what is now the center of Marine Parade and what previously would have been the surf line.

Number 26 today, from across Marine Parade.

Building 25 in 1981 (again by Lee Kip Yin).

And today…


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