Of Indian food, Chinese temples, and Jewish graves… in Malaysia

May 18, 2010

Gazing at the Malaysian mainland from the island of Penang

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.

Penang's Jewish Cemetery

Penang's Jewish Cemetery

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.

Statue of St. Francis Xavier in Malacca, with the Strait in the background

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.

Location of Penang, Malacca, and the Strait of Malacca

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.

A 16th century visitor to Malacca marveled

“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.

Statue of Captain Francis Light

Statue of Captain Francis Light, Penang.

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.

Bollywood comes to Penang

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.


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.)

For more of my photographs of Penang, see my Picasa album. And if you are interested in reading about another interesting Jewish cemetery I have visited in my travels, see this blog entry.

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17 Responses to Of Indian food, Chinese temples, and Jewish graves… in Malaysia

  1. Debi Zylbermann on July 26, 2010 at 8:49 am

    I was wondering whether you actually managed to get into the Jewish cemetery in Penang? We are visiting from Israel, and would like to get access, to see the gravestones.

  2. dnrallis on July 28, 2010 at 7:58 am

    There is a caretaker who lives in the cemetery grounds, and she unlocked the gate, let me in, and showed me around. I hope you manage to visit; it is a very interesting place.

  3. Howard Reigleman on August 21, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    I really like the theme on your site, I run a WordPress blog as well, and I would love to use this theme. Would you mind telling me what the name of it is?

  4. dnrallis on August 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    The theme is called Calotropis

  5. Michelle Cole on November 6, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    I never would have thought that there would be Jews living in Malaysia. I suppose I should learn more about human geography. For some reason that would have never occured to me. Not necessarily Indian and Chinese, they’re in that sphere of the world and had great influence over that region. However, your summary made it make sense to me-that the Strait of Malacca is an important waterway of geographical, economical, and political importance. People of a wide variety of cultures would have gathered there whenever they were able to find the transportation necessary to reach it.

  6. agnese tognarini on November 9, 2010 at 1:03 am

    I think that is a really good example for clarifying and explaining the concept of location matter

  7. […] http://regionalgeography.org/101blog/?p=947 This entry was posted in Dr. Rallis' Blog, Reading Response. Bookmark the permalink. ← Rallis Article: Pyramids in the Middle East […]

  8. Ab Cohen on April 3, 2012 at 12:09 am

    I am trying to get some information about my sister who was buried in the Penang Jewish Cemetery probably in 1945. Can anyone help.

  9. Ab Cohen on April 3, 2012 at 12:10 am

    am trying to get some information about my sister who was buried in the Penang Jewish Cemetery probably in 1945. Can anyone help.

  10. Donald Rallis on April 3, 2012 at 7:28 am

    Ab – As I recall, most of the headstones in the cemetery were inscribed, in Hebrew. If you like, I can send you all of the photographs I took at the cemetery, and with luck you might find your sister’s name there.

    The International Jewish Cemetery Project has a page for the Penang cemetery, but there are no entries on it. Since there is a lot of information on the headstones, it would be great if someone who reads Hebrew could visit the cemetery and compile a record of those buried there.

    Would you mind telling me what your sister was doing in Penang? Did she live there? What took her to the island? As you gather from the blog, I was fascinated by the place, and in particular by its cultural diversity. I am very interested to know how members of the various groups came to be there.

    Donald Rallis

  11. Paola Fuentelsaz on July 11, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    The cultural diversity must play an important role in Malaysia and it probably makes it a very unique place but at the same time I wonder how much tension there is between all the (very) different ethnicity groups. Do they learn to embrace their differences or do they defend their race as being better than the others? I think racism will always exist but some learn to coexist with each other and others refuse to. I will try to find the documentary “Affirmative Action on Malaysia” and watch it to hopefully get a better understanding on this subject! :)

  12. Melissa S. on July 14, 2013 at 12:06 am

    I had no idea that the country had so many diverse cultures. It would be hard to live all together in the same are with the Indians, Chinese, and Jews. Do they all live in the same areas or are they separated out by their cultures. It would be interesting to visit and see how all the different cultures live and interact with one another.

  13. Alicia L. on July 14, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    I did not know that there was so many diverse cultures in Malaysia, especially Jews. I have read that the Penang’s Jewish cemetery was beautiful and had a lot of history with it.

  14. Jessica Kamvar on July 19, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    I think it’s great that so many religions and cultures can peacefully coexist in the same city. Reading on the Middle East they could certainly take a lesson or two from Malaysia (a gross over simplification of course)

  15. Brianna D'Agata on July 24, 2013 at 11:18 pm

    I thought this blog was really interesting and learned a lot. I didn’t know that Malaysia was a home to many Jewish people at one time. The culturally diverse place is interesting to read about, especially because the people get along and live in harmony. With so many cultures it was also interesting reading about Malaysia only having one cemetery!

  16. D.K. Smith on December 16, 2013 at 10:38 am

    I am doing some research about the Jewish people in Malaya post British rule and after Malaysian federation is being formed for educational purpose, do you have any idea where should I begin?.

    I notice that the early Jewish in Malaysia is from Armenian, Iraq, India and Russians. Is there any book wrote about the any of these groups of Jews in Malaysia? Please let me know

  17. Brittni F on July 16, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    The strait of Malacca is an important geological hotspot whose history can be seen by all the different powers that have controlled it throughout the past. Its placement shows the historical importance that has allowed many different cultures to spread ideas and knowledge. Its ability to easily pass ideas from all the different people who come in contact with this area seem to share similarities with the trading center we learned about early in the semester in the city of Petra.

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