A cross­roads of cul­tures

Pearl of the Ori­ent is home to a unique mot­ley mix of her­itage

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Malaysia Day - By ARNOLD LOH arnold.loh@th­es­tar.com.my

YOU must take a look from high up to know why Malaysia stands out in the world.

The move­ment of ships, viewed from above, tes­tify to the Strait of Malacca’s sta­tus as the long­est and busiest nat­u­ral wa­ter­way in the world.

More than 80,000 ships cross the straits ev­ery year to­day and avoid­ing it means a long de­tour of sev­eral thou­sand kilo­me­tres for ships, across the stormy In­dian Ocean off the west of Su­ma­tra.

The straits is a cru­cial route since an­tiq­uity, and it has deeply in­flu­enced Malaysia’s cul­tural her­itage.

For thou­sands of years, Ro­mans and other Euro­peans were told fan­tas­ti­cal tales of pep­per, cloves, gin­ger, nut­meg, silk and other valu­able com­modi­ties.

Arab, Per­sian and In­dian mer­chants told them fibs such as that silk was the downy hair of crea­tures that fed on clouds, pep­per trees were guarded by fierce an­i­mals that breathed fire and that gin­ger and cin­na­mon grew on a moun­tain in­fested with snakes.

It was their teas­ing way of pro­tect­ing the true sources of ex­otic Asian goods that Western coun­tries craved.

Even when their buy­ers did not be­lieve a word of the bizarre sto­ries, there was just no way to dis­prove them be­cause then, it was im­pos­si­ble for Euro­peans to sail to Asia within a sea­son.

Though there were over­land routes such as the 6,500km Silk Road, th­ese were treach­er­ous jour­neys that took years. Sea routes were the only vi­able way for mer­chants, but the winds got in the way.

Trade winds, which re­verse roughly ev­ery six months, dic­tated how far mariners could hu­manly travel on sail­ing ships.

This lim­i­ta­tion made the Malaysian penin­sula the cru­cial mid­way point in an­cient world trade be­tween the Arabs, Per­sians and In­di­ans with the Malay Ar­chi­pel­ago and China.

Me­laka reached global fame in the 1400s, to the point of be­ing in­vaded by many for­eign pow­ers be­gin­ning in 1511 with the Por­tuguese, who were the first Euro­peans to up­set the mo­nop­oly of the Mid­dle East in the Spice Trade.

But Pe­nang’s birth in 1786 as the re­gion’s youngest en­tre­pot saw it en­joy peace­ful de­vel­op­ment. By this time, Spain, Por­tu­gal, Hol­land and Eng­land — the dom­i­nant global pow­ers then — had en­tered into a treaty that ended armed con­quests and es­tab­lished each other’s ter­ri­to­ries.

The peace, cou­pled with the lack of prior cul­tures on Pe­nang is­land, made it eas­ier for new ar­rivals to set­tle in with­out the has­sle of deal­ing with es­tab­lished so­cio-po­lit­i­cal hin­drances.

Traders who stayed back when the mon­soon changed could trade di­rectly with those ar­riv­ing from other re­gions. Trad­ing com­pa­nies who left per­ma­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Pe­nang were even more suc­cess­ful.

This turned Pe­nang into a home for a mot­ley mix of cul­tures, more var­ied than the ubiq­ui­tous Malay, Chi­nese and In­dian com­bi­na­tion that comes to mind when think­ing of Malaysia.


Only a few dozen Ar­me­ni­ans set­tled down in Pe­nang, but what they lacked in num­bers, they made up for in in­flu­ence.

Le­buh Armenian, within Ge­orge Town’s Unesco World Her­itage Site, had been their en­clave.

The ma­jes­tic East­ern and Ori­en­tal Ho­tel in Le­buh Far­quhar was built in 1884 by the three Sarkies brothers — Ti­gram, Ar­shak, and Martin — who were Armenian. They were con­sid­ered the fore­most hote­liers then. Trader and planter Ar­ra­toon An­thony had a road named af­ter him: Jalan Ar­ra­toon, off Jalan Burma. The com­pany he founded ex­ists to this day as the se­cu­ri­ties firm A.A. An­thony.

The Ar­me­ni­ans, from their small na­tion sand­wiched be­tween the Mid­dle East in the south and the Mediter­ranean in the north, were con­sid­ered world ex­perts in in­ter­na­tional trad­ing.

But their cul­ture in Pe­nang was short-lived. Pe­nang his­to­rian Khoo Salma Na­su­tion said the Armenian race had faded from Pe­nang to­day.

“De­scen­dants of the orig­i­nal fam­i­lies can no longer be traced. Some in­di­vid­u­als may still be around but they no longer form a tight-knit com­mu­nity,” she said.


Bagh­dadi Jews set­tled down in Pe­nang from the 1800s, start­ing their own sy­n­a­gogue in Jalan Nagore and the Pe­nang Jewish Ceme­tery in Jalan Zainal Abidin, com­plete with tomb­stones in­scribed in He­brew.

Es­tab­lished in 1805, it is con­sid­ered the old­est Jewish ceme­tery in South-East Asia in ex­is­tence to­day.

Lit­tle is recorded of the Pe­nang Jewish com­mu­nity, ex­cept that they never num­bered more than 172, based on cen­sus records of the Bri­tish, and they dealt in dyes, tex­tiles, med­i­ca­tions, per­fumes, pre­cious stones and me­tals.

Re­port­edly, the Pe­nang Jews fled to Sin­ga­pore at the start of World War II.


It was recorded that im­me­di­ately af­ter Pe­nang’s founder Cap­tain Fran­cis Light hoisted the Union Jack on Pe­nang is­land, he sent his ship back to Kuala Kedah to bring the re­main­ing Eurasians over. His own com­mon-law wife, Martina Rozells, was Eurasian.

But un­like Me­laka’s Kris­tang folk, Pe­nang’s Eurasian com­mu­nity re­mained small and did not have a strong eco­nomic im­pact like the other races.

Baba Ny­onya

Sto­ries of romance and tragedy sur­round the ori­gins of this sub-cul­ture, which still thrive to­day in Pe­nang, Me­laka and Sin­ga­pore.

They are es­sen­tially a blend of Chi­nese and Malay, although some his­to­ri­ans take the view that their ma­ter­nal blood was Indo-Malay from Su­ma­tran slave-wives taken by Chi­nese mer­chants when they were sold in Me­laka in the 1600s by the Dutch.

Though the Bri­tish even­tu­ally classed them as Straits Chi­nese to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them from Chi­nese mi­grants who came much later, his­to­ri­ans con­trast the Pe­nang Baba Ny­onya from their Me­lakan coun­ter­parts.

In the 1400s, stiff com­pe­ti­tion forced Chi­nese mer­chants to stay back in Me­laka af­ter the mon­soon changed and wait for the Arabs and In­di­ans to ar­rive to trade di­rectly with them.

The long wait led them to marry ei­ther lo­cal Malay women or In­done­sian slave-wives. Be­cause they were still sea-far­ing mer­chants, they did not play strong pa­ter­nal roles and their wives han­dled the house­holds.

This cre­ated, among the Me­lakan Baba Ny­onya, a cul­ture that in­cludes a pid­gin Malay di­alect unique to them.

Till to­day, there are still many Me­lakan Baba-Ny­onya old folks who speak the slang and not a word of any Chi­nese di­alect.

The mother-tongue of Pe­nang Baba Ny­onya, how­ever, is still chiefly Hokkien.

Pe­nang his­tor­i­cal writer Ti­mothy Tye wrote that they were Hokkien sea­far­ers who ar­rived and set­tled around Kedah and Thai­land some­time dur­ing the reign of China’s Manchu Dy­nasty in the 1600s.

“Many of them were against the Manchu gov­ern­ment, which they did not con­sider le­git­i­mate. When the Manchus crushed their re­bel­lion in south­ern China, they fled here.”

When Cap­tain Fran­cis Light opened Pe­nang in 1786, they came in droves.

Tye said the fore­fa­thers of Pe­nang Baba Ny­onya had no mo­ti­va­tion to re­turn to China; they had come in search of a new home.

Their Hokkien, he said, be­came filled with Malay slang such as “jali” (fin­gers), “loti” (bread) and “jam­ban” (toi­let).

The wom­en­folk em­braced Malay fash­ion too, turn­ing the sarong and ke­baya into tra­di­tional Ny­onya garb.

When a new wave of Chi­nese mi­grants ar­rived from the mid1800s, Pe­nang Baba Ny­onya folks point­edly la­belled them “sinkeh” (new guests) and en­forced their so­cial po­si­tions as “pun tay lang” (lo­cals).

While mod­ern-day laws now pre­vent ships drop­ping an­chor where they will, the Strait of Malacca is still busier than ever.

It re­mains a vi­tal wa­ter­way and of global eco­nomic im­por­tance, made even more cru­cial by China’s Belt and Road ini­tia­tive, and it will take Malaysia yet again to greater heights.

Pe­nang’s ma­jes­tic East­ern and Ori­en­tal Ho­tel on Le­buh Far­quhar is a tes­ta­ment to the is­land’s Armenian her­itage. (In­set) The ho­tel as it looked in 1985.

Women in tra­di­tional Pe­nang Baba Ny­onya cos­tumes per­form­ing dur­ing Chi­nese New Year this year. — filepic

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