A crossroads of cultures

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

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

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.

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.
Penang’s majestic Eastern and Oriental Hotel on Lebuh Farquhar is a testament to the island’s Armenian heritage.  

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 mid-1800s, 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.

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Metro , Malaysia Day Supplement , Penang


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