A Short History of Penang’s Malay Publishing Industry

loading The Jelutong Press.

The Malay printed word in Penang had its beginnings in the late nineteenth century, peaking just before the Second World War.

In a dusty shop on the second floor of Chowrasta Market, yellowing cardboard- bound books lie tied up with cord. Many of these are printed in Tamil and Jawi, and some in romanised Malay. These are the remains of Penang’s early Malay publishing industry which once dominated northern Malaya. These are books written, printed, bound and sold in Penang – a self-sustaining trade that extended to journals and newspapers, once almost comparable to the products of London’s Paternoster Row.

Printing in Penang began in 1806, when the London Missionary Press established a Mission that employed wooden blocks of typeset Jawi held in place by a wine screw press. This was the first press to be established in the peninsula.

Since the press was operated by the Mission, the ethos of Malay publishing could perhaps not be said to have begun. However, it was the beginning for the printed Malay word in Penang. Reverend Thomas Beighton was the most prolific printer of the period. In 1832 he printed his first work in Malay, a grammar book titled Ibarat Perkataan. This was the first Malay book printed in Penang, albeit by an Englishman1. With Beighton’s death in 1844, the presses fell silent and very little work was produced on the island until the advent of the lithographic press in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

The Lithographic Era

The Malay word for printing is cap, which literally means to print a die over a surface such as batik textile. This lithography was the preferred method of printing among the Muslims for over 50 years. In the Malay Peninsula, lithography started in Singapore with Munshi Abdullah Kadir. Having learnt the techniques of lithography from Reverend Benjamin Keasberry, Munshi Abdullah used it to print many books including his autobiography, Hikayat Abdullah. Many early lithographed Malay books throughout the Nusantara credited him as the “teacher” of printing in the colophon2. But what of Penang?

Malay lithography in Penang was centred in Acheen Street. It began as a cottage industry in small shophouses, producing only a few pages daily due to the slow, laborious process used. In many cases such as Ahmad b. Ibrahim’s Muhammadiah Press, the actual printing was done by Chinese-owned lithographic presses, like the Kim Seck Hean Press of 78, Penang Road3. Its Chinese proprietor, Khor Teow Han, produced many Malay works of literature such as Haji Sulaiman’s Khasasol Anbia (1897), a little book of Arabian history; Datuk Saudagar Putih’s Hikayat Sultan Bustamama (1900), a translation of a popular Hindi work; and even a Jawi-Malay newspaper.

These books were lithographed and often heavily decorated and ornate – as well as expensive. Many of them were texts on Islam but there was also a good number of historical Malay epics. Penang was bestowed with a role mirroring that of Aceh for the Dutch East Indies, commonly called the “Doorstep to Mecca”. Muslims from across Malaya gathered around the Acheen Street mosque to prepare for the steamer to Jeddah to perform the Haj, and shops there sold items required for the trip such as tasbih beads, robes and religious books. The Malay book trade in Penang thus became commercially viable in this vibrant context.

A noted printer then was Haji Putih b. Syaikh Abu Basyir, a Jawi-Peranakan bookseller. He translated, published and sold popular fiction as well as historical epics in Malay. His books were printed at the Muhammadiah Press at first, then at the aforesaid Kim Seck Hean Press, and finally at his very own Freeman Press. The lithographic age saw a few strange trends in Penang: for one, these Malay “publishers” did not always do the printing. They would commission a lithographic press to do the printing before distributing the finished work to a network of agents across the peninsula – at least until the emergence of the cap timah.

Karen Lai

Hikayat Faridah Hanom.

The Letterpress Era

The cap timah, or letterpress typography, came to replace the lithographic press. In Singapore, the Jawi Peranakan newspaper owned the only modern European-style movable typeset press to be found on the peninsula for nearly 20 years4. In Penang, the Penang & Straits Press Co. of 42, Beach Street produced the Miftah al-Bayan, a collection that gave fasting advice during Ramadan, by Syaikh Abdullah b. Muhammad Salih Patani, as early as 1890 in typeset Jawi. This hailed the beginning of the typeset age in Penang.

Interestingly, the Penang and & Straits Press Co. had yet to produce any notable books apart from Fatwas and Akidats. It was not until 1911 that the Salasilah Kedah by Wan Yahya b. Wan Muhammad Taib was produced. Prior to that, in 1900 Lim Seng Hooi’s Criterion Press also introduced the Bintang Timor, later renamed Cahaya Pulau Pinang in typeset Jawi.

Malay lithography died a quiet death with no works after this date – not even by the venerable Kim Seck Hean Press which wheezed out a lithographed Jawi newspaper called the Pemimpin Warita sporadically from 1895 to circa 18995 before losing out to its competitors. The Cahaya continued the age-old tradition of using a Chinese printer with ownership and management being held by Malays, who in this case was Abdul Ghani b. Mohd. Kassim.

Typesetting in Penang spoiled the Malay reader with a choice between Jawi or romanised Malay publications. Up till that point, romanised Malay publications were only popular among Baba Chinese, who were not taught much Jawi. Baba Malay literature marked a very small niche in the early twentieth century with more than half of all works coming from one man: Chan Kim Boon.

Born on Muntri Street, Chan’s Baba-Malay translation of the Chinese classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms became a publishing sensation. This work, titled Chrita dahulu-kala, namanya Sam Kok, atau, Tiga negri ber-prang: Siok, Gwi, sama Gor di jaman Han Teow came out in serials between 1892 to 1896. Printed by Singapore’s Kim Seck Chye Press, it sold wherever a substantial Baba population could be found. In Penang, the booksellers Thean Chee & Co. (Chop Loon Hong) of Beach Street became mobbed with customers. Chan soon emerged as a prolific author of Baba Malay, from 1889 to 1913.

The Modern Malay Novel and Radical Literature

By the mid-1920s, letterpress publishing was rife in Penang. The Persama Press, founded by Haji Sulaiman Rawa in Acheen Street, became one of the most industrious of all Malay presses. By 1930, it alone produced almost 13.2% of all books while its greatest rival, Dabab bin haji Muhammad Salleh’s United Press at Dato Keramat, produced 7.3% of the grand total. Together, they formed a partnership that would dominate the mainstream Malay publishing industry6, focusing on religious treatises such as the highly venerated and popular yellow book, Kitab Kuning; educational Malay texts; and Tafsirs printed cheaply on yellow pulp paper to appeal to the Muslim on the street.

Al-Ikhwan magazine.

Al-Imam magazine.


Outside the Persama-United Empire, fringe presses flourished7. One such was Syed Sheikh Syed Ahmad Al-Hadi’s Jelutong Press. Al-Hadi was born in Malacca in 1867 to Yemeni-Arab parents. He studied in the royal court of the Sultan of Riau under the eminent Malay historian Raja Ali Haji, and later travelled across the Middle East with the Riau Princes, under a plethora of rationalist Islamic scholars in Cairo, Mecca and Beirut.

In Cairo, he was mentored by the modernist cleric, Syeikh Mohammad Abduh at Al- Azhar University, and became influenced by Abduh’s progressive and anti-superstitious interpretation of scripture. He brought the reformist spirit of theology home to Malaya and tried to set up a reformist madrasah and magazine in Singapore in 1906 but was met with resentment and failure8. He attempted the same in Malacca in 1915, but was also pressured to leave.

The Ottoman Empire's participation in the Great War on the side of the Central Powers against Great Britain and its allies was alarming for the British since many Muslims in their colonies considered the Ottoman Caliph the ruler of the Islamic ummah. As such, Muslim intellectual activity with hints of rebellion or reformation was faced with immediate clampdown even after the War was over. Thus, Al-Hadi had no choice but to make his way to Penang where press control was less rigid9.

He founded the Madrasah Al-Masyhur in 1919, and set about writing a book that would electrify a generation of Malays. In 1925, he published Hikayat Setia Asyik kepada Masyuknya atau Syafik Afandi dengan Faridah Hanom. It was the first Malay novel the Nusantara had ever seen. His idea was to channel into Malay society a version of the “Modern Girl” based on the teachings of the Prophet. The “Modern Girl” was a hot topic in the 1920s: in the West, Amelia Earhart flew aeroplanes and Marlene Dietrich smoked cigarettes; in the East Junichiro Tanazaki wrote Naomi about a westernised young girl who controlled her husband using her sexuality.

Al-Hadi wanted to create the model of a modern, liberated Muslimah who was educated, strong, devout and independent. Faridah Hanom tells the story of a young Egyptian woman who is forced into an arranged marriage with a rich alcoholic by her conservative parents. Being strong and independent, she seeks out a love of her own in a young army officer and impresses him with her intellect. Here, Al-Hadi uses their dialogue to carry his message of Islamic reforms to the reader and argues that forced marriages are not acceptable in Islam and to deny women education is a sin.10

The book was a success and the Al- Aminiyyah Press, which printed the book, could not keep up with the demand. The proceeds were so tremendous that it enabled Al-Hadi to set up his own printing press in Jelutong. The popularity of Jelutong Press soon overtook that of the Persama-United and it would later become the biggest Malay publishing house in Malaya.11It soon entered mainstream publishing and printed many Islamic texts and periodicals besides fiction. One of these periodicals was Saudara, which Al-Hadi’s son Syed Alwi Al-Hadi managed.

Interestingly, one of Saudara’s editors, Abdul Rahim Kajai, emerged into prominence by perfecting the modern form of the Malay short story, or “cerpen”. His stories were left-leaning and poked fun at the upper classes. After Al-Hadi’s death, Kajai went so far as to satirise the merchant class mixed- blood Malays such as his master, who were perceived at the time as rich capitalists who only pursued the worldly, or duniawi. This made him a subject of controversy; some called him a racist, others a nationalist. After cutting his teeth on Saudara, he left Penang and became the first editor of the Utusan Melayu newspaper in 1939 before co-founding a monthly magazine called Mastika, in 1941.12

Al-Hadi died at home in Jelutong Road in 1934. The Jelutong Press continued his work after his death, until 1944. The premises of his cherished press were sold off and many of its equipment ended up in the Sinaran Brothers Press on Chulia Street. In a way, Al-Hadi’s legacy remains alive today in George Town.

The Publishing Industry Today

The Malay book trade has changed. It is claimed that the book trade has moved to KL. Even Singapore’s paper-and-ink road, Cecil Street, has seen an exodus of presses to KL after the island republic’s disenchantment with the Malay language following independence. In Penang, the acrid smell of fresh ink and greased machinery no longer emanates from the low brick houses along Acheen Street. In Jelutong, Al-Hadi’s revolutionary press is now the Hurp Seng Hong Paint Shop. In 78, Penang Road, Kim Seck Hean is now The Penang Rubber Stamp & Printing Press.

In a modern shop lot on Church Street, Phoenix Press hums away all day though. Phoenix Press also prints for Areca Books, a publishing company founded in 2005 promoting scholarly works on the multicultural fabric of Penang, Malaysia and South-East Asia. Books are printed and published in English, Malay and Chinese.

In essence, the Malay publishing industry in Penang is not completely dead but has merely taken another form.


1 O'Sullivan, L. 1984, “The London Missionary Society: a written record of missionaries and printing presses in the Straits Settlement 1815-1847”, in Journal of the Malaysian Branch, Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 57, p.90
2 Van der Putten, Jan. “Printing in Riau: Two Steps Toward Modernity.” Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde 153.4 (1997): 717-36. Web. P.21
3 Early Malay printed books: A provisional account of materials published in the Singapore-Malaysia area up to 1920 noting holdings in major public collections, I. Proudfoot, Academy of Malay Studies and the Library, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur 1993, p.48
4 A Nineteenth Century Malay Bookseller’s Catalogue, Ian Proudfoot, Kekal Abadi 6(4) 1987, p.5
5 Masyarakat Melayu Pulau Pinang Dalam Arus Sejarah(Penerbit USM), Muhammad Haji Salleh, Mahani Musa, Publisher: USM 2016
6 Mahani Musa, ‘Muslim mercantile activities in George Town before the Second World War’ [2016] (issue 0216) The Penang Monthly.
7 These presses were not satisfied with merely putting out Islamic texts, schoolbooks and historical epics.
8 Manasseh Manoharan, ‘Penang, Home of the Malay Novel’ [1992] 3(2), Pulau Pinang, p. 9
9 Chinese Leadership and Power in Colonial Singapore, C.F. Yong, Times Academic Press, Singapore, 1992, p.308
10 Lost Times and Untold Tales from the Malay World, Edit. Jan Van Der Putten, NUS Press, 2009, p.266

11 Roff, Origins of Malay Nationalism, p.83
12 Zainudin Maidin, Di Depan Api di Belakang Duri: Kisah Sejarah Utusan Melayu, Utusan Publications & Distributors Sdn Bhd, 2013, p. 33

Caleb Goh Hern-Ee studied Law at the Multimedia University in Malacca. He recently completed a two month internship at Penang Institute. He hopes to travel around the world some day with his clarinet and an unlimited supply of Zapple.

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