Purg­ing the stigma

A doc­u­men­tary fo­cus­ing on the night soil work­ers’ ef­forts and con­tri­bu­tions to Pe­nang’s pub­lic san­i­ta­tion sys­tem.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Art - By JEREMY TAN star2@thes­tar.com.my

WHAT hap­pens to hu­man waste af­ter one pushes the flush but­ton or lever fol­low­ing the com­ple­tion of their busi­ness in the toilet is not some­thing most Malaysians would think about.

With the ready avail­abil­ity of mod­ern sewage sys­tems to quicky chan­nel the icky stuff out of sight and out of mind, we don’t re­ally have to think about it. But it is hard to imag­ine a so­ci­ety and daily life be­ing able to carry on with­out it.

But­goonit­did,aslo­cal­sofa cer­tain vin­tage would at­test to.

For in places like Ge­orge Town, Pe­nang, ded­i­cated sewage treat­ment sys­tems only came into wide­spread use around the 1960s and 1970s.

Prior to that, the masses mostly utilised a man­ual bucket or pit la­trine sys­tem – where they would defe­cate or uri­nate di­rectly into con­tain­ers, which were then col­lected by work­ers to be dis­posed of in a va­ri­ety of ways.

But de­spite their con­tri­bu­tions to pub­lic san­i­ta­tion, th­ese hard-work­ing labour­ers – also known as night soil work­ers in ref­er­ence to the waste of­ten be­ing col­lected at night – have long had to put up with so­cial stigma due to the na­ture of their job.

A new project, ti­tled Purge: Doc­u­ment­ing The Labours of Pe­nang’s Night Soil Work­ers, seeks to change that, and also laud the un­sung he­roes’ ef­forts that al­lowed Ge­orge Town and its peo­ple to thrive and grow over the decades.

Spon­sored by the Pe­nang State Gov­ern­ment, Think City and the ser­vice cen­tres of Tan­jong MP Ng Wei Aik and Kom­tar as­sem­bly­man Teh Lai Heng, it in­cludes the pro­duc­tion of a 45-minute doc­u­men­tary.

This will have two pub­lic screen­ings – the Ware­house of Hin Bus Art De­pot on Aug 12, 8pm, and at No.13 Jalan Jeti Lama on Aug 13, start­ing 7pm.

There are also 1,000 DVDs con­tain­ing the doc­u­men­tary, which the pub­lic can get their hands on via a do­na­tion at the screen­ings, as well as a web­site with all re­lated in­for­ma­tion and pho­tos of arte­facts.

Pro­ducer Lee Cheah Ni says the ma­jor­ity of in­for­ma­tion was gleaned through in­ter­views done from 2014 to 2016 with former night soil work­ers who lived at the now-de­mol­ished Teoh Heng Kongsi at Jalan SP Chel­liah.

The kongsi was built by the Bri­tish in the 1930s as a hos­tel for night soil work­ers, who were mostly Chi­nese mi­grants from the Teochew clan in Guang­dong Huilai.

De­spite the night soil ser­vice end­ing around the 1970s, many con­tin­ued to live in the build­ing’s com­mu­nal spa­ces un­til it was de­mol­ished in late 2015 to make way for new devel­op­ment.

“We wanted to tell their story and raise aware­ness on their con­tri­bu­tions. Their jobs may not be glam­orous, but they are the ones who kept the city func­tion­ing,” says Lee at a re­cent press con­fer­ence at the Hin Bus De­pot to an­nounce the up­com­ing screen­ings.

“Through the project, we’ve built up a good re­la­tion­ship with them. But some are still re­luc­tant to be pho­tographed. Oth­ers have hid what they did from their own chil­dren. We hope this will change so­ci­ety’s per­cep­tion,” she adds.

Be­sides giv­ing the work­ers a voice, she says the project also seeks to doc­u­ment the his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance of Ge­orge Town’s man­ual bucket la­trine or night soil sys­tem, which came into use in the early 1900s.

The Purge re­search team was spear­headed by Lim Sok Swan, a re­searcher with a her­itage of­fice in Pe­nang, and aca­demic con­sul­tant Datuk Dr An­war Fazal, who is also Think City chair­per­son.

In a his­tor­i­cal over­view of Ge­orge Town’s han­dling of sewage on the Purge web­site, it is noted that due to the city be­ing es­tab­lished on swamp land, there was no proper sys­tem in place in the early years – and it was dis­posed off via tra­di­tional meth­ods like dump­ing into the sea or sent to ru­ral ar­eas as com­post.

In 1934, sys­tem­atic fae­ces treat­ment be­came avail­able, but due to pro­hib­i­tive costs, less than a thou­sand house­holds re­ceived it. It slowly de­vel­oped, and in 1945, it had 48 miles (77km) of pipe­line, nine pump sta­tions, 500 sep­tic tanks to cover 9,915 homes.

But most still used the bucket or pail la­trine sys­tem that had to be man­u­ally emp­tied, or over-hang­ing la­trines where a hole is opened and waste is dis­posed di­rectly into the sea be­neath houses – some­thing still present in the Clan Jet­ties.

The Purge team also high­lighted that by the 1960s, with Pe­nang tran­si­tion­ing from an agri­cul­ture to in­dus­trial-based econ­omy and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a pop­u­la­tion boom, more pro­gres­sive sewage sys­tems like wa­ter-flush­ing toi­lets and in­di­vid­ual sep­tic tanks be­came more com­mon.

In the 1970s, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment of­fi­cially took con­trol of waste­water man­age­ment, bring­ing in bet­ter meth­ods like ox­i­da­tion­pond­san­daer­ated la­goon sys­tems, fol­lowed by bi­o­log­i­cal fil­tra­tion and ac­ti­vated sludge pro­cesses in the 1980s and 90s to meet more mod­ern de­mands. One­man­who re­mem­bers the changes well is Teoh Heng Kongsi sec­re­tary Tan Chin Keat. A fac­tory man­ager in­volved in R&D, he is a de­scen­dant of a night soil worker.

“My father was do­ing it till the mid 1970s. At the time he re­tired, he was paid a salary of only around RM100 a month. The job re­quired them to do the col­lect­ing from 6am to noon, two to three days a week, in the Ge­orge Town area.

“At other times, they would col­lect from homes on a free­lance ba­sis to earn ex­tra money. Of­ten times, it was dan­ger­ous work as they had to walk down back lanes and nar­row places where the trucks couldn’t reach.

“But he, like the oth­ers, didn’t com­plain much. As the pop­u­la­tion grew, they saw their role as vi­tal to the city. Be­cause you can­not stop hu­mans mak­ing waste, ev­ery­thing that goes in must come out.

“They went around in their shorts and sin­glets, and of­ten had a cap on to avoid peo­ple recog­nis­ing them. Once the waste was col­lected, they would trans­fer it onto a truck that would then take it to the main col­lec­tion cen­tre, to be pumped into the sea.

“Imag­ine that with­out them, ev­ery­thing would col­lect and peo­ple would fall sick. This was com­pounded where there were floods,” adds Tan.

Pe­nang Is­land City coun­cil­lor Wong Yuee Harng, rep­re­sent­ing Ng, de­scribed the night soil work­ers as he­roes of the com­mu­nity. And it was time their con­tri­bu­tions were recog­nised.

“Those born in the 1980s on­wards would have prob­a­bly heard only sto­ries of this sys­tem. Those who fol­lowed in the 1990s are likely to not know about it at all.

“This project is im­por­tant to bring greater aware­ness about how life was in the past,” says Wong.

For more in­for­ma­tion, visit the Purge Face­book at “Pe­nangNightSoilWork­ers” or the web­site at pg­night­soil­work­ers.wixsite.com/purge.

— Purge

Af­ter col­lect­ing the exc­reta from in­di­vid­ual homes, night soil work­ers would de­posit it into a 36-door truck, which would then carry it back to the main col­lec­tion cen­tre.


Pro­ducer Lee Cheah Ni says the ob­jec­tive of the Purge: Doc­u­ment­ing The Labours of Pe­nang’s Night Soil Work­ers project is to tell the story and raise aware­ness on the con­tri­bu­tions of the work­ers, whose jobs may not be glam­orous but was vi­tal in en­sur­ing the city func­tioned.

— Purge

A tra­di­tional pail la­trine sys­tem toilet, which most homes used be­fore proper sewage sys­tems were in­tro­duced.

— Purge

A sketch of a typ­i­cal night soil worker.

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