Penang and Its Region: The Story of an Asian Entrepôt

Penang and Its Region

Author(s): Yeoh Seng Guan, Loh Wei Leng, Khoo Salma Nasution and Neil Khor (eds)

ISBN: 978-9971-69-423-4

Publisher: NUS Press

Year: 2009

Price: $28.00

Reviewed by Dhara Anjaria, researcher at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London

The island town of Penang (Malay: Pulau Pinang), long attached to Kedah State on the mainland, developed as a port city after Col. Francis Light saw fit to establish a British settlement in 1786; it attracted trade, commerce and settlers not just from the immediate vicinity that was Peninsular Malaysia, but also mainland China, maritime South East Asia and of course, other parts of the sprawling British Empire.  It’s apparent cosmopolitanism yet cocooned a multitude of disparate cultures while functioned as self contained units even as inter-cultural contact spawned new, hybrid models of life, with a uniquely Penangite grounding. Penang and Its Region is one of two books born out of the 2002 conference, The Penang Story, focusing on the historical processes, phenomena and personnel that went into the making of colonial and post-colonial Penang.

Penang and Its Region is a compendium of self-contained essays, yet following a discernible thematic and chronological narrative, with both micro and macro approaches to historiography being well represented.  While the first half of the book deals with holistic themes, the second half looks at individual case studies of a cross section of people who associated themselves with Penang. In keeping with the theme of the book, many of the groups and people studied are emigrants and travellers.

The opening chapters by Loh Wei Leng, Tan Liok Ee and C. M.  Turnbull are one of the strengths of the book, being an introduction to the history of Penang within the context of the larger history of the surrounding area across different timeframes, and thus useful for readers new to the subject at hand.  Chapter 1, a brief historical sketch of Penang, dissects the divers groups inhabiting the city, and explains the circumstances under which they established their presence. It also provides an insight into the social and physical layout of the settlement as it developed, so essential for visualising the events set out in the later chapters.  The next chapter applies this setting to make an in-depth political and social study of colonial Penang, and how its placing within the wider Malay world continued to change and evolve.

More specialist studies of specific aspects of the entrepôt’s socio-economic life commence with Chapter 3, which details Penang-Perak interaction and engagement, largely in terms of the Chinese community. It is also a comparison between the two, and how they simultaneously complemented and rivalled each other as historical circumstances changed.

Chapter 4 discusses trade and shipping and prominent shippers in pre-colonial and colonial Penang, as well as providing a useful overview of source material. It is richly and exceptionally informative as it lists tabular breakdowns of the types of trade, the direction of trade, the ships plying the waters, the articles traded along with information as to their origin and destination, and how many groups had their own special, monopolistic routes and commodities, and how trade opportunities influenced the demographic structure. It manages to explain this with regard to the long term history of Penang, while yet retaining a focus on the mid-nineteenth century.

Chapter 5 elaborates on the main trading communities in Penang, the Chinese and the Europeans, and the different sub-sections that existed in each group. It also explains how changing political landscapes brought about a change in the composition and character of the mercantile community in Penang; this largely meant an increased influx of Western traders, who, while instrumental in cementing Penang’s links to the outer world, perhaps did not possess the skill set necessary to further its growth  as a predominantly ‘Malayan’ port.

While Chapters 4 and 5 discussed Penang’s interaction with the maritime world, Chapters 6 and 7, which also can be read together, turn their gaze inward,  one  (Chapter 6)  exploring Penang’s links with the hinterland,  and thus by implication the land based networks that sustained, and still sustain,  it- and the Thai world, the other (Chapter 7) with the littoral area and the larger Malayan-Indonesian world.  This chapter is especially interesting as it provides an in depth account of one individual’s view of Penang, and is also one of the very few accounts that deal with non-European and non-Chinese impressions of the city. In this chapter, the focus is on Sumatrans crossing the Straits of Malacca take advantage of the opportunities the port of Penang offered. It thus demonstrates very clearly how Penang’s status as a port extended beyond British Malaya, and in fact, transcended British maritime Asia to embrace the areas controlled by other European powers as well.

Chapter 8 is where the focus turns towards detailed studies of the individuals who took advantage of Penang’s status as a thriving port to consolidate their trades, even as they contributed to the growth of the city. The Eu Yan Sang family and their firms across more than one such entrepôt (they had links in Foshan, Penang, and Hong Kong) while ostensibly a case study of this one business dynasty’s ability to master the skills needed to be successful in more than one entrepôt, also offers an opportunity to look at Penang’s links with other regional  ports and centres of commerce and human activity.

In comparison to this, Chapter 9, while also studying wider economic and cultural systems through the medium of one family – in this case the Choong family, with interests in opium farming and rice-milling- is rather more broad based in that, instead of looking at links between well-defined centres, it examines networks across South East Asia.  It looks at the influence states in the immediate neighbourhood exercised in the formation of Penang and in this context also looks at Chinese-Malay relations. The next chapter, while yet elaborating on the theme of Penang’s connections with the wider world, examines these in the context of one commodity of trade – opium.  Koh Seang Tat was one of those who traded opium across the Asia Pacific; it was one area where Penang managed to trump its arch rival Singapore. Opium remained an important source of revenue for the government in Penang.

The last two chapters are highly specialist and perhaps the least integrated in terms of the overall theme of the book; that is not to lessen their value to historiography though, but rather, this illustrates  the sudden, sharp divergences that occur at points in time, marking a clean break with the era just past. Chapter 11 demonstrates the evolving role of (Chinese) secret societies and their links with the Kuomintang as well as the Malaysian Communist Party in the immediate pre and post Independence years. The Ang Bin Hoey, with a largely Hokkien membership, despite being assiduously courted by the MCP, was unable to consolidate the relationship as it probably lacked the structure and organisation needed to make the transition to political struggle as opposed to operating in the manner of a closed guild. Chapter 12, a study of the local branch of the labour party in the turbulent early years of Independence, very much focuses on local politics within a narrow time frame and is very empirical. Its conclusion is very interesting in that it talks about how the exclusion of the cosmopolitan element, which had of course given Penang its distinctive flavour, brought about the decline of the local labour party. This last chapter, thus, while radically different from its predecessors, does help place Penang within the climate of early post colonial Malaysia.

In conclusion the book is a fascinating collection of essays examining the various elements that went into the making of Penang. It is very well arranged, with broad holistic sketches narrowing down to very specialised studies.  It is a useful guide for visualising how this one part of Malaysia looked throughout the more than two hundred year period that spanned the heyday and the decline of the British presence in Malaya and also how it made the transition to serving the needs of an independent nation.