The Call of the Kelong
"Visit a kelong when in Malaysia," urges writer Jeremy Josephs, who took time out in this ‘remote fishing outpost’.
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"Feed at Raffles when in Singapore". It is highly unlikely that you could escape from Singapore’s famous Raffles Hotel without becoming aware that Rudyard Kipling had once uttered this famous edict to fellow travellers. I certainly did not. But had Kipling continued his travels northwards, he might well have gone on to instruct the more adventurous to "visit a kelong when in Malaysia." I certainly did.
Not that the Raffles Hotel and a kelong have anything in common- and there really is no English translation for the Malay word kelong. Or Japanese for that matter. The nearest that experts have been able to come up with is "remote fishing outpost". The truth - but only part of the truth, alas.
A kelong looks something like a mini oil-rig - but there the similarity ends. The main structure is composed entirely from wooden posts driven some 20 feet into the seabed. The posts, though, are almost 70 feet in length, so it is hardly surprising that the entire edifice is more than a little rickety, the posts to and fro as and when the wind blows. First timers such as myself were thus more than a little alarmed to learn that a kelong is kept together without the help of even a solitary nail. Of course the rattan (cane) binding which holds the wooden stakes together is both stronger and more flexible. At least that’s what I was told. So the only way to be certain of remaining upon your feet, once on board, is to be plod along like a duck, with legs turned out in a fashion of which any ballet mistress could be justly proud.
No master’s degree in geography was required to realise that kelongs are in the middle of nowhere, although I somehow managed to find my way to that address all the same. Most are a two-hour boat ride away into the Straits of Malacca, the narrowest straits in the world. The only battle ever to have been fought on a kelong is the one fought daily with the nature. Only occasionally will the sea triumph. Evidence of this is provided by the grisly sight of a group of lonely wooden stakes protruding from the ocean bed - obviously once home to a group of fishermen - which greets you upon arrival to the main kelong area. The kelong is not for the squeamish or faint-hearted. Which is why I began to wonder if I oughtn’t perhaps to be saying so long to my kelong.
To take a trip to a kelong is to take a trip back in time. There is no electricity or sophisticated radar system with which to summon help if an emergency crops up. And until recently women were not permitted to step on board. This derived from a superstition that a female would be likely to have an adverse effect on the fishing. Only recently was this remedied, I was assured, when a prosperous Ipoh lawyer - clearly a man of progressive mind - decreed that not only would women now be allowed, but that they would be positively welcomed too. His daughter certainly was warmly welcomed by the kelong workers - the fact that she happened to be a former Miss Malaysia apparently helping a great deal. The immediate impact of this ruling was not to erase any lurking chauvinism of the workers out at sea. Rather it was, for the best reasons of chivalry - the construction of a loo. In practical terms, nothing at all has changed, the sea remaining the unwitting recipient of all contributions.
When the nets are hoisted up from some 40 feet below sea-level, the kelong fishermen anxiously scan the catch for squid, whitebait and prawn. Jellyfish and a variety of others are thrown back into the sea. The lowering and raising of the nets coincide with the tides and currents which guide the fish to their fate. This work is repeated 4 or 5 times a day. The rest of the time is spent drying, boiling or salting earlier catches. It will perhaps come as no surprise to discover that food on board has a distinctly fishy flavour. For kelong workers it is boiled fish for breakfast; fried fish for lunch; followed by fish (fried or boiled) for dinner in the evening.
It now costs approximately M$ 8,000 a month to run a kelong. Not that labour is expensive. A worker can expect to earn only M$ 800 for a 10 day stint out at sea. Then he is obliged to return to the coast for 5 "shore days" during which time the tide is dead. 10 days on, 5 days off - and so on. Two maintenance workers keep an eye on the fragile construction during the 5 day periods and what they do to pass the time of day is anybody’s guess. But for the owner, 58 year old Mr. Yeoh, running the kelong is little more than an expensive recreation. He knows that it does not pay. His rewards come from the solace and natural beauty of the kelong’s setting: "I love to meditate in the night and into the early hours. No phones ringing, no hassles, nothing. For me, it is worth everything ringgit."
Mr. Ah Kow, the foreman, vividly tells me of the night when a powerful storm, sparked off by the early arrival of the Monsoon season, capsized his ‘home’ and hurtled him into the sea. Four workers spent an entire night clinging on to the few stakes which by some miracle refused to buckle in spite of the wrath coming from the heavens above. "The God of the Sea must have been with us - for we all survived", he recounts. These men have allowed the spirit of the sea to enter their souls, as I come to realise that there’s no business like fish business.
But with kelongs daily becoming more antiquated, and with the arrival of big business into the Malaysian fishing industry, the biggest threat to the survival of the kelong comes not from exposure to the elements but exposure to the harsh realities of the free market economy. So when in Malaysia do as Kipling might have urged those with a taste for adventure. Visit a kelong. Before it is too late.
The main Web site of freelance writer Jeremy Josephs is atwww.jeremyjosephs.com Please check there if you might be interested in engaging him as a writer.
Many of his articles are available online. Please check thesitemap for a complete list.