Penang people are more diverse than you think…


Pulau Tikus is known for its Burmese and Siamese communities that settled there almost two centuries ago. But one should not forget its colourful Eurasian community either; it has sadly all but disappeared from the confines of Pulau Tikus. Then, there are those that continue to exist in thriving villages – almost anomalies in a landscape
otherwise peppered with condominiums, shopping malls and offices. Penang Monthly takes a look at the past, present and future of three communities…

Captured for posterity: Dr Sibert's old house built in the Eurasian style.

A community of faith

Among the earliest settlers in Pulau Tikus were the Catholic Portuguese- Eurasians who were fleeing religious persecution in Phuket. They founded the Church of Immaculate Conception along Jalan Burmah, adjacent to Bellisa Row, and soon grew in number, creating a settlement in the area around the church that stretches all the way to Persiaran Gurney, where Gurney Plaza is today, and from Bagan Jermal to Jalan Cantonment.

The community flourished, and the area became known as Kampung Serani.

The village used to be surrounded with greenery – a stark contrast to the modern commercial hub it is today. “It was very serene,” says Datuk Dr Anthony E. Sibert, 76, speaking from his home at Gerbang Midlands. “There were a lot of rambutan, mangosteen and angsana trees. There was a pineapple plantation where Bagan Jermal is now. We could walk or cycle anywhere; when the day got hot, we’d just jump into the sea at Persiaran Gurney; we went camping at Botanic Gardens; we made use of nature.

“This house where I am staying is part of the old Kampung Serani,” reveals Sibert. It has been his home since 1948. “Back then, the Pulau Tikus area had about 1,000 Eurasians, and the church was the heart of the Eurasian community here. Almost all of us served the church; some of us were altar boys while others served in other ways.”

Dr Sibert.

What becomes apparent when Sibert speaks is his strong faith and how, in general, Eurasian culture revolves around religion: “Religion comes first, followed by food, then music,” he says with a smile. “That is why some Eurasians are musicians; music was a form of recreation resulting from countless hours of playing music in church.”

But while religion still plays a big role in the lives of Eurasians, the community has since moved out of the nucleus to other areas in Penang or elsewhere – which is not a bad thing at all, according to Sibert. It was, perhaps, inevitable: “The community has evolved from village life to living in suburbs and cities,” he says. “Through education, most of the Eurasians improved their lives and began to leave the village environs; they moved to other places such as Chee Seng Garden and Mount Erskine. Some have even migrated to Australia.

Dr Sibert still lives in the same house, albeit renovated.

“Even in careers, we evolved. The early Eurasians were traders; they were part of the Portuguese trade route from Thailand to Malacca. Some were fishermen, many were church workers. In current times, because of the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone, many have gone into engineering, IT and technical sales. It was a positive change,” says Sibert.

However, despite his optimism, Sibert does wish that certain elements of the old landscape had been conserved. “This area could have been a Catholic enclave with a church, the St Joseph's training college, a convent and a La Sallian school alongside the village. What should have been retained as the Catholic Eurasian heritage was the College General. Pope John Paul II canonised seven martyrs who were alumni of the college; it’s really sad that we have destroyed it,” Sibert laments.

And for admittedly the last Eurasian living in Pulau Tikus, apart from the shifting landscape, Sibert has also seen changes that are intangible: “The Chinese community started to settle here; the house next door used to be my aunt’s, but now it is occupied by a Chinese family. It was easy for other communities to integrate seamlessly in Pulau Tikus,” Sibert says with a shrug.

The essence of camaraderie

Tucked away on Jalan Gottlieb, a stone’s throw from the Penang Chinese Girls' High School and wedged among the tombstones of the Mount Erskine Hokkien Cemetery is a close-knit community that has existed for half a century. It is simply called Mukim – or district – 18, Mount Erskine, and the area consists of four rows of terrace houses.

Not a big deal to many – until you hear their stories. “I wouldn’t know much about the water carriers – it was way too long ago – but I do know that they built an aqueduct from Waterfall Gardens (now known as Penang Botanic Gardens) all the way to Tanjung,” says M. Ramakrishnan, 74, a long-time resident of the area.

A row of houses at Mukim 18.

Jalan Burmah used to be known locally as Jalan Kereta Ayer, or chia-chui-lor in Hokkien; it was the thoroughfare where fresh water was drawn from waterfalls and springs at Waterfall Gardens and carried to town, prior to the building of an aqueduct from Waterfall Gardens to George Town, via Pulau Tikus, in 18051. “That ditch you saw outside on your way here? That was part of the aqueduct,” Ramakrishnan says.

Ramakrishnan was a gardener with the city council before he retired. He has lived in the community since 1970. “Forty-five years,” Ramakrishnan says proudly. “I still remember when I moved in here: it was April 14, 1970. The row of houses in front of this one wasn’t even built yet. Back then it was just a dirt road; now it’s tarred and the houses are properly fenced. There weren’t any streetlights either, and it was mighty dark at night. It was rather scary,” he admits. “We only had streetlights four or five years later.”

Ramakrishnan and his five-year-old grandson, Shishathan.

He points to the floor: “This here used to be part of the cemetery.” My eyes widened and I lifted my feet slightly. “They’re gone now; when they started building the houses, they moved the graves elsewhere.”

Nothing much has changed around there, he says. Some have moved away, while some have moved in. The cow herders, though, are gone. “There were five to six cows per herder, and they used to live down that way,” Ramakrishnan points to an area a distance from his house. “They used to milk their cows and sell the milk for a living. Now they are gone,” he says, explaining that the cemetery caretakers took to spraying insecticide to get rid of overgrown grass. No grass, no cows.

But one thing that’s certain about the place is the camaraderie among folks living there. “We invite each other over for meals,” he says with a smile. “I am good friends with the neighbours; we are almost like kin.”

Amutha Kanniah, with her mother and grandchild.

Amutha Kanniah, 57, who lives three houses away, confirms the sentiment. “Did you know that we are surrounded by almost 11 temples? There are Indians, Chinese and a few Indian Muslims living here. If there are any functions, we’ll all join in together.”

Not only do they celebrate together, but they rely on each other for help as well. “There’s a Chinese man who runs the sundry shop down the road, supplying goods to the entire community. He took over the business from his parents, who have since passed away. He’s got a good heart; we’re still using the ‘buku tiga lima’ (credit) method and we’ll pay him cash at the end of the month,” says Amutha. “So far we don’t have any safety issues. Also, every year we’ll have a Deepavali or Merdeka event here for the people, organised by the state assemblyperson.”

“Our community was also home to quite a few famous people,” says Merajane Joe Helen, 34, Amutha’s daughter. “There was the Astro Vaanavil Super Star first prize winner, Anbarasan, who has sadly passed away, and also local actress and model Buveni Ann Mayan. Forty years ago this area was considered rough due to fights between gangs and such, but now things are different – people are better educated, and there’s a strong sense of religion.”

Merajane was working in Johor and Singapore for about 10 years before deciding to move back to the village. “Most of the people in this community have been living here for at least 20 or 30 years, so the bond is very strong; we know each other’s faces, families,” says Merajane. “Be it weddings or funerals, our neighbours will come and help out; when it’s Hari Raya, Deepavali or Chinese New Year, everybody will celebrate together; at times we have gotong-royong, and we’ll cook for each other. Life is good here, definitely.”

A signboard welcoming visitors to Kampung Syed.

Enclave for the descendants of the Prophet

The Syeds are believed to be the descendents of Prophet Muhammad, and they wear their names as badges of honour. A popular greeting among the Syeds when they meet each other for the first time is “Al Apa?” Which clan are you from?

The quaint Kampung Syed, situated along Jalan Burmah at one end and Jalan Kelawai at the other, serves as the cornerstone for the Syed community in Penang. History recalls that Syed Abdul Rahman bin Tunku Syed Hussein Idid owned Kampung Syed; he then sold it to Syed Mohamad bin Syed Abdul Rahman Alhabshee, a palace official serving Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Halim Shah II of Kedah, for 500 Spanish Dollars.

Family ties and values bind the community together. Syed Khaled Aljuned, a 35-year-old social media SEPTEMBER 2015 | 27 consultant, reminiscences about his childhood: “Aljuned, Alhabshee, Alsagoff, we all live here. My neighbours and playmates were my uncles, aunt and cousins; everyone in this kampung is my relative.

“It’s different when your group of friends are relatives. We all know each other while growing up and there are so many family events that keep us very close even when we are adults now. In times of sadness such as deaths and in times of happiness such as the birth of a baby, one will get many well wishes from the kampung folks.

“Hari Raya is special to the Syeds and we celebrate it together as a family. On the eve of Hari Raya, we will go for takbir raya from house to house. On the second day of Hari Raya, the Kampung Syed community will organise a trip to visit our relatives all over Penang. We normally rent a bus to accommodate those who want to join.”

Tidy lawns and the well-maintained lane of the village. Cleanliness is important for the Syeds.

As I walk along the neat row of houses, it is hard not to notice the cleanliness of the kampung; the lanes are well-kept with no sight of rubbish, and the lawns are big and manicured. I ask Syed Khaled if the people in the community organise gotong-royong activities to keep the place pristine. “We don't do gotongroyong, but it’s on an individual basis. As the people staying here are all relatives, we keep reminding each other to keep our kampung clean. It has been that way for quite some time. After all, cleanliness is very important for us Muslims,” he says.

Sixty-six-yearold Syed Imran Syed Ahmad, former editor of Bernama news agency and former press secretary to minister in the Prime Minister's Department (legal affairs) Dr Rais Yatim, also hails from Kampung Syed. “It is a peaceful small village clean from any criminal activities. The people are united and respected by neighbouring communities,” says Syed Imran.

According to him, Kampung Syed has produced 12 medical doctors serving in various government hospitals and private practices in several states, at least two engineers, and other professionals such as university lecturers and senior civil servants, while most of the younger generation are university graduates. “Other prominent sons and those with ties to the village are the late Tan Sri Syed Abbas Alhabshee, founding member and president of the Penang Malay Chamber of Commerce; Datuk Seri Syed Danial Syed Ahmad, presently keeper of the ruler’s seal; and Datuk Seri Syed Ali Alhabshee, Cheras Umno division chief,” says Syed Imran.

Syed Imran Syed Ahmad with his family.

Today Kampung Syed consists of 23 houses, exclusively occupied by the Syeds. The land is tanah wakaf (endowment land) created by Syed Mohamad Puteh Alhabshee to ensure that it is not sold, leased or mortgaged and is reserved for family members to stay. It is administered by the Endowment Board of the Penang Islamic Religious Council, as requested by the trustees. This move not only safeguards the beneficiaries of the land, but also ensures the continuity of the Syed community and heritage.

However, as Kampung Syed continues to thrive, Syed Imran laments about other eroding enclaves in Pulau Tikus. “Once upon a time, Jalan Burmah was where you could meet other South-East Asian and Middle Eastern communities. Most of the Eurasians in Kampung Serani have migrated to Australia or settled elsewhere, while the Burmese community in Kampung Awak and the Thai community in Kampung Siam have had to make way for development. The Jewish community has migrated to Australia, leaving behind a cemetery at Jalan Yahudi (renamed as Jalan Zainal Abidin).

“I am glad that Kampung Syed will continue to exist as it is properly safeguarded. Perhaps we can be an example to the other communities who wish to safeguard their heritage,” says Syed Imran.

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Emilia Ismail is a freelance writer. She blogs at www.sundayyellowcardigan.

Julia "Bubba" Tan is assistant editor of Penang Monthly. She is currently working on a zombie apocalypse novel.

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