Admiral Cheng Ho : Man in the past,divinity in the present
by Kelvin Liew Peng Chuan
(Tanjong Tokong, Penang, Malaysia)
Admiral Cheng Ho,locally known as the Sam Poh Kong who grants safety to fisherfolks
Ask any fisher folk living around Batu Maung area who's Admiral Cheng Ho, none would know..but if you ask who's Sam Poh Kong, they've got a lot to tell you...a great man in the past, a divinity in the present.
Sam Poh Kong is none other than the great voyager, Admiral Cheng Ho as the local oral narrations of Sam Poh Kong's life bear so much resemblance to the documented history of Admiral Cheng Ho. Now that he's a divinity in the area, there are many more extraordinary phenomenon attributed to him which is of course off record in the historical documents.
As the local narrations go, Sam Poh Kong sailed around the world from China, during the heydays of Chinese technology. His feat is something to the Chinese Empire, adding to the supreme attributes of the Middle Kingdom. Among the local fisher folks, it was believed that among the places that he landed was Penang.
A great man he was, not only carving a name for himself for being among the greatest voyagers but also endowed with extraordinary inner strength from his practice of martial arts. It was said that he left his left foot print on a rock at Batu Maung, Penang as a testimony of his setting foot on Penang. Today, a beautiful shrine was built over the foot print.
Of course, being a newcomer to the island, he wanted so much to explore. During his time, there was no Georgetown, nor Balik Pulau - Bagan Jermal coastal road. All he had was just his crew and his pet bird, the burung bayan.
They went on foot, as the local narration goes, and half way through, he had to answer nature's call. A refined man as he, he defecated on a cloth and hung it high above a tree so that it will not soil any passing man or animal. The tale did not stop there you see, lo and behold! That tree later bore fruits. Guess what? The fruits turned out to be durians!!! As any Mat Salleh would exclaim 'Smells like shit'! No wonder!!!..as if they had a hint of the tale...haha! Due to that too, until today, Penang Chinese would use any fruits but durians for prayer offerings.
As our hero went further, one of his crew members accidentally opened the bird cage and out flew Sam Poh Kong's pet bayan. Henceforth, the area was named Bayan Lepaih, which means 'the place where the bayan bird escaped'. As the bird escaped, it hit Sam Poh Kong's hair, which was tied back in a bun, called the sanggoi in local Malay.The spot where Sam Poh Kong stood shocked when the bird hit his sanggoi was thence named Gertak Sanggoi, meaning 'the place where the bun shook'.
The tale ended abruptly, and nobody knows where he went thereafter..that added more mystery to his supernatural attributes.
The local Chinese seem ignorant or know little about his Muslim background. The fact that they built a shrine for him is objectable in the strict Muslim sense, what more of making an image and making offerings in his name for blessings. Yet, it was this syncretism that Sam Poh Kong himself practised. Known in the text book as a Muslim, he too had built shrines for Ma Chor, the Sea Goddess for blessing him and his crew a safe abundant journey. Puritan logic has got no say in this beautiful tale.
Before they leave home, Batu Maung fisher folks would clasp their hands in prayer facing the shrine for protection, a sign of unwavering faith in a safe return with this great voyager's blessing.Let tales of healings and blessings bury the puritanical technicalities. The local fisher folks need him in this syncretic form more than any engagement in orthodox arguments.