Uwern Jong tells the story of his family’s immigration to Penang and why he feels firmly rooted in its heritage.
All the best stories involve intrigue – and my own certainly does – worthy of the Chinese TV period dramas that my grandmother is glued to. I have very fond memories of sitting next to her, pretending to watch these soaps as fervently as she did, but without truly understanding the fascination with such tales of Chinese traders and their ever conspiratorial wives. As a grown-up, I learnt that my own family’s heritage was just as tempestuous; that it was just one of the many likewise stories of Chinese migrants that came to this once British colonial, now Malaysian, island.
My tale starts with my great-grandfather, his name was Heng. He was born in Southern China, in the district of Taishan, Guandong. Formerly British-run Canton, this was the springboard for millions of Chinese economic and war-struck migrants in the 19th century to venture out into the British colonies.
His parents were industrious ‘agriculturati’, owning swathes of farmland. As it was back in the day, Heng was betrothed from birth – his father and a friend had made a pact that they would someday be family and that their first male and female offspring respectively, were to marry. In the first Sino-Japanese war of the late 1800s, Heng was recruited as an apprentice by a British engineer, to assist him in the then lucrative trade of coconut milling in British-occupied Burma. Being the entrepreneurial young man that he was, and having heard tales of great riches to be made in the new world, he took up the offer against the wishes of his family. While in Burma, he fell in love with a young, but widowed seamstress, Nooi Sen, of another Chinese clan. As she had been married once, they weren’t allowed to wed, but still they lived together in Rangoon as man and wife. When Penang exploded as a strategic British port at the turn of the century, he like many other ambitious Chinese migrants decided to move his new, young family south to the island.
Penang has attracted global interest since the 1400s, when the Chinese cartographer Admiral Cheng Ho, on his great voyage, mapped out “Ping-lang-yu”, the island of the betel nut. The name stuck and until this day in the Malay language, it is known as “Pulau Pinang”, a literal translation. Originally part of a long-established Malay sultanate, Penang was ceded to the British East India Company, made a free port and renamed “Prince of Wales Island” in 1786 in exchange for military protection from the marauding Siamese. Penang’s location at the Northern opening of the Straits of Malacca made it a perfect natural harbour and gave the British dominance in the area (as they also held Singapore at the Southern opening) over their fiercely competitive Dutch trading company counterparts. In the ultimate move to Anglicise the island, its capital was crowned Georgetown, after the then sovereign King George III.
Meanwhile – back in China – Heng’s originally betrothed bride, Song Hoaw, had turned 18. Word had spread of his growing success in business, and he was pressurised to return to China to honour the marriage pact, by his clan elders at the Taishan clan house in Penang. Clan houses are among some of the most opulent and beautiful buildings you’ll see in Georgetown today. They once housed, and in some cases still house the headquarters of co-op societies where members of the same Chinese clan could network, run trade and seek success together. They also acted as investment banks for the rich, loan-sharks for the poor, temples for the devout and gambling dens and opium houses for those far less religious. Most importantly, the clan house was the crucial link that migrants had with their families and friends back in China and the all-powerful elders had a lot of clout and influence when it came to the ‘integrity’ of its members. The British also actively encouraged this clan-brotherhood, as a form of societal control and centre for tax collection.
“Penang’s location at the Northern opening of the Straits of Malacca made it a perfect natural harbour and gave the British dominance in the area.”
Considering himself happily married, he refused to return to China; but in an act to save the family’s face, his enraged father ordered a ritual marriage to be carried out in the village, with Heng being represented by a cockerel. Song Hoaw ceremoniously became part of the clan and lived with Heng’s family on their land. Before long, she started to get friendly with a farm-hand and the family started to panic – back then under Chinese law, convicted adulteresses were sentenced to drowning and the family land would be seized by the government for ‘gross family misconduct’. This news quickly reached the clan house and Heng had no choice but to return to China and bring the wife he’d not seen since childhood, to Penang. To some degree, he had his cake and ate it too – polygamy and having many sons to ensure the future of the clan was considered a status symbol in Penang high society and raised his status in the clan. And before Song Hoaw left China, in a feat of ultimate intrigue, she adopted a young boy from the village as her own, having heard that my great-grandmother, Nooi Sen had already bore a son and heir.
Penang was becoming overcrowded with migrants from all over the world – so the British started capping newcomers. Heng officially married his new bride in Canton to gain her British papers to enter to the island, but at the same time, singlehandedly usurped my Nooi Sen’s position in the household and the eyes of the law – rendering her a concubine with a low status in society. Song Hoaw was instantly promoted in stature and together with her ‘son’, the now heir, ruled the family home. She also gained the support of her clan elders – she was, after all, one of ‘them’ and in their eyes, kept the clan pure.
Clan purity was important in the complex hierarchical system of the day. The Chinese had been in Penang for over a century now and the new generations – Straits-born people known as “Baba-Nyonya” – had started to intermix and showed far less loyalty to their clans. In fact, they adopted a very unique, local way of living – and even their own vernacular, dress, culture and cuisine became a hodgepodge of Chinese, Malay and other global cultures present on the multicultural island at the time.