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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.
 
 
 
 
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