It was a twenty minute walk to my destination in George Town, on the Malaysian island of Penang. I walked out of the hotel, turned right along Jalan Penang (Jalan is the Malay word for road), and walked past a Chinese seafood restaurant and the Indian eatery where I had a really good curry last night. Then across the intersection with Campbell and Hutton streets, and past the Hare Krishna temple. A right turn down Jalan Burma past the Chinese Buddhist temple. I had an unscheduled stop here, as an Indian man greeted me, shook me by the hand, and asked me where I was from. He encouraged me to go inside the Chinese temple to look around. “But then you must also go to the Hindu temple, just a short walk from here,” he said.
But I had another destination I wanted to visit first. According to the information I had, I needed to turn left on Jalan Zainal Abidin (formerly Jalan Yahud, “Jewish street”), and on my left I should find it, surrounded by a three meter high wall. Sure enough, there it was. Right across the road from the street vendor selling Thai food. Penang’s Jewish cemetery.
In a sense my short walk this morning told the story of the island of Penang, and more generally of the Strait of Malacca, the strategically important shipping lane at whose northern end Penang lies. The Strait has for most of the past millennium been the most important route for sea traffic between East and Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean. As a consequence, the ports along its length have become some of the most culturally diverse places in Southeast Asia.
For centuries, Arab and Southeast Asian traders plied this strait as part of the maritime trade link between the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia and the markets of the Middle East and Europe. The famed Chinese naval admiral Zheng He reputedly dropped anchor at Penang during one of his 15th century voyages to the Indian Ocean and East Africa.
In 1511, little more than a decade after first rounding the southern tip of Africa, the Portuguese set up a base at Melaka (Malacca,) a port some 400 km southeast of Penang, at the narrowest point on the Strait. At that time, this was a bustling port, and an important transshipment point. Malay traders would bring spices from what is now Indonesia to Malacca, where there would sell them to Arab and Indian sailors who would carry them to their ultimate markets in the Middle East and Europe.
“No trading port as large as Malacca is known, nor anywhere else do they deal in such fine and highly priced merchandise. Goods from all over the world are sold here. It is at the end of the monsoons that you find what you want, and sometimes more than you are looking for.”
With such commercial importance, it is no wonder that town and Strait of Malacca were seen a strategically vital by the big powers of the day. There was more than a grain of truth in the pronouncement by a 16th century Portuguese writer that “Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.”
With the decline of Portuguese power in Southeast Asia and the rise of the the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) control of Malacca passed to the Dutch. Soon after the demise of the VOC at the end of the 18th century, Britain took over as the colonial power.
A few years earlier, in 1786, the British had established their first presence on the island of Penang. At the site of what later became Fort Cornwallis, Captain Francis Light hoisted the British flag, and so began more than 170 years of British rule.
Under British rule, Malacca formed part of the Straits Settlements, comprising the three strategic ports along the Strait of Malacca: Penang, Malacca, and Singapore. This was the period during which all three Settlements acquired the multicultural character that to this day distinguishes them from the rest of the region. Overseas Chinese had been in Southeast Asia before the arrival of the British, but it was during the colonial period that their numbers increased dramatically, particularly in the Straits Settlements. Today, people of Chinese ancestry make up the majority of the population of Singapore, and in Penang their numbers are about equal to those of indigenous Malays. (In Malaysia as a whole, ethnic Malays account for just over half the population, and Chinese for about a quarter.)
It was during the British period that a significant number of Indians also came to the area, many to work as indentured workers on plantations. Today, their descendants are a significant part of the cultural tapestry of Singapore and Penang. Their influence and tastes are evident in the number of Indian restaurants and food stalls near my hotel, the Indian ancestry of several members of the hotel staff, and the posters advertising Bollywood productions at the movie theater near my hotel.
Although the main cultural influences here are Chinese, Indian, and Malay, they are by no means the only groups to have inhabited or helped shape this area. The colonial imprint remains strong and several layers deep. In Penang, the British were the only colonial power (aside from a brief period of Japanese occupation during World War II.) Colonial architecture abounds, and many of the street and town names remain English (I am now in George Town, the capital of the province of Penang. The second largest city in the province is Butterworth.) A clock tower commemorating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria still stands in a street near the waterfront.
In Malacca, the colonial cultural imprint is more varied. At the center of the town’s historic area are the remains of an old Catholic Church, dating back to the time of Portuguese control. Much of the architecture of the Dutch period remains, including the old Stadhuis (town hall.) Perusal of the names of pastors serving at Christ Church over the past two centuries reveals Portuguese, Dutch, English, and Chinese names.
Several smaller cultural influences are also evident in the landscape of Penang. This brings me back to my morning walk to the Jewish Cemetery, the only such cemetery in Malaysia. It is not large, containing only some 160 graves, but its presence is evidence of the cosmopolitan population that has lived in this part of the world. It appears that many of Penang’s Jews came originally from Baghdad, part of an exodus prompted by persecution in the early 1800s. The oldest grave in the Penang cemetery is dated 1835. The Jewish community here seems to have peaked at about 170 at the end of the nineteenth century, most of them being involved in trade of various kinds. During the Second World War, and particularly during the Japanese occupation of Penang, most members of the Jewish community fled. The most recent burial in the cemetery was in 1978.
Narrow, important seaways are almost always contested places with interesting histories. Gibraltar, Aden, the Bosporous and Dardanelles, Panama, and the Strait of Malacca have all been fought over because of their strategic importance. Most of them have also become important trading centers, attracting sailors, settlers, traders, and fortune-seekers from all over the world. And, as my visit to Penang has reminded me, they are ideal places to come to be reminded of the importance of the simplest of geographic adages: location matters.
Update: I visited Penang again in 2013 and, at the request of a reader who contacted me of reading this post, I visited the Jewish cemetery again (he wanted to know if I could locate the grave of his sister, who was buried here in the 1940s. This time I photographed most of the graves in the cemetery, and also made a short video of the cemetery.
The short documentary Affirmative Action on Malaysia, from the Al Jazeera program 101 East, focuses on political tensions between Malaysia’s ethnic groups, focusing particularly on Penang.
For more on Jewish history of Penang, see Raimy Ché-Ross’s 2002 paper A Penang Kaddish: The Jewish Cemetery in Georgetown (pdf.)
In writing this blog, I also drew on Milton Osbourne’s brief and very readable Exploring Southeast Asia: A travelers history of the region (Allen and Unwin, 2002.)
The map I use to locate Penang and Malacca comes from Goode’s World Atlas, 21st edition (Rand McNally, 2007.)