Small Community, Big Legacy

Few in numbers they may have been, but the Eurasians of Penang have contributed greatly to her founding and her growth.

Eustace Nonis.

Economist Eustace Anthony Nonis was born and raised in Penang, and has St. Xavier’s Institution as his alma mater. It was also in Penang that he first entered the workforce: after graduating in 1964 from University of Malaya, he came back to work at the Penang Port Commission (PPC) as an officer at the age of 21. He later joined the Sabah Port Authority, then moved on to Singapore and then to Manila, before finally returning to Penang’s familiar shores.

It has been almost 20 years since his return, during which time he produced his labour of love: The Eurasians – A Founding Community of Penang. This book documents the lives and histories of the state’s small but special community. Nonis chats with Penang Monthly on the lives and times of Penang’s Eurasians.

Let’s begin with how you got involved with the Penang Eurasian Association. For a start, I’m a town Eurasian. (My forebears were part of) the first group that came with Captain Francis Light to Penang in 1786 and settled here in town. I was born in town, at Lorong Selamat, during the Japanese Occupation in 1942.

My grandfather was Portuguese. He married a Nyonya Chinese – she wore the sarong kebaya, chewed sirih and spoke only Malay. On the other side, my mother’s father was a Scot – he was a tea planter in Indonesia, and he married a Japanese.

When I came back to Penang (to retire), I joined an association for Eurasians and almost immediately was appointed as treasurer, with my experience as an economist and in banking. I then became vice president, president, and then trustee. Now, I am a patron of the association. 

There are very strong kinship ties within the Eurasian community – regardless of where they are.

Yes, community ties, as well as the fact that many of us are interrelated. If you trace a Eurasian’s genealogy, you’ll find that this uncle married that aunt, and after two, three generations, you’ll find that the roots are very close. They also have very big families, so when one big family marries another big family, you’ll see the results.

It’s in the way Eurasians behave as well. Eurasians are very well known of course for singing, music, dancing – you play a song and they’ll start to dance already! The social life for Eurasians is very tight – that’s one thing that brings them together.

Food is another thing. We share the same kind of food, such as sugee cake, devil curry, fish curry, Nyonya-style curries like the ones my grandmother used to make, sandwiches, curry puffs, pies…. We love our pies.

There’s sports, too. Many Eurasians are gifted sportspeople – you can find a lot of Eurasians who excel in sports and who did Penang proud. I myself was a Penang champion in tennis, in the mixed doubles.

The original facade of St. Xavier's Institution, before it was destroyed during the Second World War.

If you studied in a convent, or if you studied at St. Xavier’s, you were bound to have a teacher who was Eurasian.

What about jobs – was there a particular field Eurasians specialised in, in the past? 

In Penang, one big area was teaching. If you studied in a convent, or if you studied at St. Xavier’s, you were bound to have a teacher who was Eurasian.

For the women, it was nursing. Many of the nurses were Eurasians actually, earlier on. And many were secretaries for companies, because they spoke English and knew shorthand and typewriting.

For the men, many of them were over at the city council, doing engineering. At one time at the PPC, all the ferries were maintained by Eurasians – five marine engineers, and all five were Eurasians.

There’s been quite a big migration of young Eurasians to KL because of job opportunities. For example, my son lives in KL, and I spend more time in KL now because of him and my grandchildren. The young do gravitate towards progress, while the older ones tend to stay back. We are here in Penang; we have our community.

I recently visited Melaka, and I was at the Portuguese Settlement. This made me aware that unlike the Eurasians’ situation there, Penang no longer has such a space for them – the Eurasian village in Pulau Tikus is long gone.

Yes, long gone. Pulau Tikus was unfortunate – the land belonged to the Eurasians, they gave it to the church, the church demolished it and the Eurasians had nothing (left) except for one clubhouse along Jalan Kelawai.

There used to be two kampung Serani in Penang. The first was in town, along Lorong Argus. When Light came, the first group that came with him were the Eurasians, who helped him to administer the new settlement. And so, they settled in that part of the city: Lorong Argus, Lebuh Lane, Lebuh Muntri – that whole area was a Eurasian settlement.

Terrace houses along Lorong Argus.

Then, some Eurasians from that side left and came towards Pulau Tikus because of their business. They were supplying ships with equipment – ship chandlers, basically. That led to the founding of another kampung Serani in Pulau Tikus.

The one in town is still there, but the Eurasians are scattered all over the place. To me, that’s good – I don’t think it would be ideal if they all stayed in one location.

Again on Melaka – there aren’t all that many similarities between Melakan Eurasians and Penang Eurasians, are there? Apart from religion and the food, of course.

The Eurasians in Melaka are mainly of Portuguese descent – Portuguese Eurasians. In Penang, we like to say we’re different in that while we started off with Portuguese Eurasians, there were also Dutch Eurasians, British Eurasians (because of Light and all the British who came here), and since we were a port, we also had a lot of French Eurasians, German Eurasians, Irish Eurasians… We are more European in that sense – we are not based on one European country, Portugal. That’s the big difference between Penang and Melaka.

In Melaka, they have the Fiesta San Pedro. In Penang, we focus more on Assumption Day because we arrived in Penang on Assumption Day, in August.1 For Penang Eurasians, that’s a big deal, the equivalent of San Pedro.

Our Assumption Day fiestas normally last about two days only. We have it on a weekend, basically – Saturday and Sunday. It goes on until midnight or one in the morning, the singing, dancing, merrymaking… We get a lot of Eurasians from all over Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Thailand, who come back to meet old friends and relatives.

Jimmy Boyle's house on Jalan Kelawai.

It’s quite a young celebration, as recent as six years ago, but it is growing every year. We have been recognised by the state government and the event is included in the George Town Festival. That’s something, at least.

How do you get the young involved?

This is a challenge facing every club and association, I think: How to get youngsters involved. Their interests are often not the same as ours. One thing in common, of course – dancing: every year we organise a very big New Year’s Eve dinner and dance to welcome the New Year.

Christmas is another big thing – we have a Christmas party, a party for the children, for senior citizens… Every now and then we’ll go Christmas carolling as well.

Then there is Easter, Merdeka Day celebrations… We are a very active community. In fact, next year, our association will be a hundred years old. It’s one of the oldest associations in the country.

That’s a huge milestone. Strangely, there has not been much written on Penang Eurasians.

There’s not much written, but our contributions have been far in excess compared to our size. Even the British admitted that the Eurasians formed the wheels of administration. Without the Eurasians, Light and all those who came after him would have had great difficulty running Penang. Municipal councils, services, waterworks… Who were the engineers and technicians? They were Eurasians.

(Points to the cover of his book, which depicts a statue of Light) Can you guess who this is? When they were going to build a statue of Light, there were no photographs of him. So what they did was they got a photograph of his son, William Light2, who founded the city of Adelaide. So this here is William, a Eurasian, whose statue stands at Fort Cornwallis.

My mother used to tell me stories, as did my father, my grandmother… I thought, why don’t we put something on record for future generations – something factual, can’t be disputed? So I wrote the book, and I wrote it from experience. I wrote about people whom I knew personally, like Jimmy Boyle, Father Decroix, Harold Spalding and the E Company… I wrote about the Eurasians who lived in Penang, who contributed to Penang.

We were very active up till the time of the war. When the country was becoming independent, that was when Malaysia became racial. The Malays formed Umno, the Chinese MCA, the Indians MIC. We are a minority; in terms of numbers, we were shrinking, while the other races were growing. We had no party.

The Francis Light Memorial was built in 1886 to commemorate the 100 years founding of Penang.

What happened was, when the country was becoming independent, many Eurasians left. Many went to Perth, Australia. I remember my own family had a discussion about what to do. We were going to be independent and we had no one to represent us. We were quite strong in Penang, but even here we were outnumbered by all the other races. We couldn’t join MCA, MIC, the Alliance. Where do we go?

My grandmother was very firm. She said, “We were born in Malaysia, we will stay in Malaysia. We will contribute, and we will survive.” And we made the decision not to move.

I was born before independence, so I could’ve opted to be a British citizen. But I chose to be Malaysian.

In Penang, we like to say we’re different in that while we started off with Portuguese Eurasians, there were also Dutch Eurasians, British Eurasians (because of Light and all the British who came here), and since we were a port, we also had a lot of French Eurasians, German Eurasians, Irish Eurasians… We are more European in that sense – we are not based on one European country, Portugal. That’s the big difference between Penang and Melaka.

What do you think about the future of Eurasians in Penang?

Are the Eurasians a dying race? Well, it’s in our blood. Our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren – every one of them will always be Eurasian.

1The feast day of the Assumption of Mary celebrates the Christian belief that God assumed the Virgin Mary into Heaven following her death.
2William was the son of Light and Martina Rozells, a Eurasian.

Julia “Bubba” Tan’s grandmother, Rita Peris, was known for her amazing food and her devotion to family, and to love.

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