Straits Settlement, British Colony, Global Hub: Intra- and Trans-Imperial Networks in Colonial Penang, 1826-1942

Straat in Penang met koetsen en riksja's [Street in Penang with carriages and rickshaws], anonymous, 1899-1901, gelatin silver print, Rijksmuseum (RP-F-F00827).

Straits Settlement, British Colony, Global Hub: Intra- and Trans-Imperial Networks in Colonial Penang, 1826-1942
01 March 2022

By Bernard Z. Keo (Assistant Lecturer, School of Philosophical, Historical, and International Studies, Monash University, Australia)

Within the extant scholarship on port cities during the age of empire, smaller entrepôts like Penang have largely been overlooked in favour of more prominent counterparts like Singapore, Batavia, Hong Kong, and Manila. Yet, as an innovative new wave of scholarship of under-examined port-cities has demonstrated, if we look underneath the surface of ostensibly ‘regional’ centres of trade like Penang, we oftentimes find more complex stories about how the margins of empire were enmeshed in global circulations of goods, capital, people, and ideas.

Following the establishment of an English East India Company (EIC) garrison under the command of Captain Francis Light in 1786, Penang underwent extraordinary growth as an urban settlement. As a free port on the interstices of the quadrangular trade route between Europe, India, Southeast Asia, and China, the new city proved attractive to traders from the region and beyond. By the beginning of the 19th century, Penang had become home to a polyglot, multi-ethnic society of settlers and sojourners from Europe, East Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and beyond. Traditional accounts tend to argue that the founding of another, more strategically-located EIC outpost in Singapore in 1819 marked Penang’s relegation to peripheral importance as a regional trading centre. My work problematises these interpretations, demonstrating how Penang – and by extension, other overlooked colonial port cities like it – were not simply minor characters in the story of European imperial expansion but active agents in the construction, expansion, and appropriation of connections within and between empires. Applying both an urban history and global history lens to the study of Penang reveals how the city’s cosmopolitan population was part of intricate and intersecting networks of commerce, culture, and knowledge. The development of a plural society under the auspices of British settlement expanded these connections to a global scale as the people that flocked to Penang helped to create, maintain, and expand trans-, intra-, and extra-imperial networks that connected the city to the world.

In the first instance, Penang was a classic entrepôt that handled the transhipment of commodities like tin, rubber, pepper, and other natural products from Southeast Asia in exchange for opium from India and piece goods from China, Europe, and Japan. In addition to the circulation of commodities and manufactured products, Penang also acted as a magnet for the movement of people. The bulk of those flowing in and out of the city were traders and labourers consisting of sub-ethnic groups from across the Malay World; varying Chinese topolect groups; Indians from different castes and religions; Europeans like the British, French, Dutch, German, and Spanish; groups from other parts of Asia (e.g., Burmese, Siamese, and Japanese); Arabs; and many others. Alongside this, Penang was also enmeshed in global religious communities, acting as a base of operations for Christian missionaries looking to proselytise across the region as well as serving as a departure point for Muslim pilgrims from Indonesia, Malaya, and Thailand seeking to undertake the hajj (annual pilgrimage to Mecca). Like other colonial port cities in Southeast Asia and beyond, Penang also emerged as a vibrant locale for a range of print cultures with a kaleidoscope of presses: the English-language Straits Echo and Pinang Gazette; the Malay-language Chahyah Pulau Penang, Bintang Timor, and Saudara; the Chinese-language Penang Sin Poe and Kwong Wah Yit Poh; and the Indian-language Tamil Nesan, Janopakari, and Chahyah Pulau Penang. All of these disseminated local, regional, and global news, and they also reported on emerging intellectual discourses on identity and belonging.

Penang’s entanglements are clearly seen in the histories of the Peranakan Chinese (hereafter Peranakan), a creolised overseas Chinese community who trace their origins to the intermarriage of Chinese traders and indigenous women from the Malay World in the 15th century, who later adopted British customs and practices, and who came to occupy an important yet ambivalent role as colonial intermediaries. In the case of Penang, the Peranakan were able to build and leverage networks within and between the British, Dutch, and Japanese empires alongside their own historical links to the Malay World and China. As important colonial intermediaries, Peranakan traders were particularly well-positioned to take advantage of circuits of global trade. For example, the ‘grand old man’ of the Penang Peranakan, Yeap Chor Ee, levied a professional connection – which ultimately became familial through a marriage alliance between their children – with the ‘Sugar King’ of Batavia, Oei Tiong Ham, to benefit from global circulations of commerce. In addition to supplying British trading companies in Penang, Yeap also sold commodities like rubber, kapok, coffee, and tapioca to the East Indies, which were then redistributed across the Dutch Empire. Beyond the commercial, Peranakan elites were also enmeshed in educational networks with children from prominent families receiving their education in Rangoon, Hong Kong, Australia, and Britain. Nancy Yeap, granddaughter of Yeap Chor Ee and a leading figure in her own right, studied law at the University of Cambridge and was admitted to the Inner Temple in London in 1947. She became the second woman to be called to the bar in Malaya in 1951. Thus, Nancy benefitted from imperial networks of knowledge, and she was also enmeshed within the global phenomenon of the ‘Modern Girl.’ As a young woman living and working in cosmopolitan Penang, she was an active participant in this new vision of female independence and modernity. Nancy challenged traditional gender roles by gaining an education, taking up a profession, and engaging in conspicuous consumption as part of her involvement in Penang’s vibrant social life.

The application of global and urban history approaches to the study of overlooked colonial port cities like Penang highlights the ways in which intra-, trans-, and extra-imperial networks intersect within cosmopolitan sites of encounter. Beyond the study of these networks themselves, it is also critical to examine the ways in which colonial subjects like the Peranakan built, leveraged, and appropriated these networks for their own purposes.

Bernard Z. Keo (Monash University, Australia)