The last Siamese village of Penang

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Inhabitants of the Siamese village in Pulau Tikus live in anxiety, awaiting the impending demolishment of their homes. Penang Monthly talks to village patriarch Noo Wan Aroonratana.

The sun sets on the Siamese village. The golden pagoda of Wat Chayamangkalaram nearby glimmers in the fading light, its multi-tiered tower dwarfed by the surrounding condominiums. A hundred years ago, it was probably the tallest building around. “This area used to be a swamp,” says 91-year-old Noo Wan Aroonratana. He is sitting inside his house within the small village, which is located in the heart of Pulau Tikus. In other words, it sits on prime land.

The village, at the time of writing, is under threat. The land, which was granted to the Siamese and Burmese communities by Queen Victoria on May 30, 1845, has been sold o to a real estate developer, and in 1996, it was rezoned from a cultural and religious zone to a commercial one1.

As the villagers protest against eviction, I meet up with Noo Wan and his two sons, Win Yar and Boon Leua, for a chat on a balmy October evening. e place is quiet, noise from the traffic along Jalan Burma ltered away by the wooden walls of his house. “Pulau Tikus has changed a lot,” says Noo Wan, speaking in Hokkien. At certain points, his son interjects in Thai to translate for him. “My father is very tired,” explains Boon Leua, 56. “Reporters and common folk have been in and out daily to talk to him about the heritage of this place.”

Passing over the opportunity to rest, Noo Wan continues to entertain me – Thai courtesy perhaps. I look at his grey- rimmed eyes and smile; he reminds me of my grandfather. He continues to speak fondly of Pulau Tikus: “It used to be less lively, and there used to be less people,” he says. “Back then, it was more peaceful. But I guess you have to follow the times.”

His nostalgia for the past is evident from his walls, which are adorned with old photos of himself and his family. Boon Leua proudly shows me the photo of him receiving an award – the Pingat Jasa Masyarakat – from the governor of Penang. There is also a photo of a young Noo Wan, dressed smartly in traditional ai clothes. It is in black and white.

Noo Wan Aroonratana.

“If we are forced to move out, I have nowhere to go,” says Noo Wan. “I have lived here my entire life. It’s easy to move around and I can find everything I need here. This place is my home.”

Noo Wan was born on Jalan Cantonment, just two streets away. He had inherited his house – and the house next to it – from his father, who had migrated along with his entire family to Penang circa 1914-1916 from Songkhla, in southern ailand. And with them came Thai traditions, such as the Menora dance – a shamanistic ritual usually performed to appease the spirits of the area. It is sometimes also performed during weddings and ceremonial occasions in temples, but it is mainly done to honour the spirits in the se lement. Noo Wan has managed to pass on the tradition to his cousin’s daughter, but the dance is hardly seen in Penang anymore these days.

Despite this, other aspects of Thai culture are still very much alive and strong within the family. Noo Wan’s father was a healer – a trade that Noo Wan continued when the old man passed away in 1949. Noo Wan treats patients addicted with either physical or spiritual illnesses, his faith in Buddhism evident from the statues and religious paraphernalia kept behind a glass case. Noo Wan is Thai-educated; his “school” was just a stone’s throw away, at the Dhammikarama temple right opposite Wat Chayamangkalaram. His sons had a more mainstream education in the form of St Xavier’s Institution. Nonetheless, everyone in his family is able to speak Thai, down to his grandchildren. They celebrate Thai festivals, such as Songkran and Loy Kratong, and return to Songkhla almost every other month to pay respects to their deceased mother, who came from there.

Dusk in the Siamese village. Wat Chayamangkalaram is all lighted up in the near background.

“It is without doubt that we have Siamese identity,” says Boon Leua, “but we are Malaysians. Our family lived and died here. If you go to the back,” he says, pointing at the fenced up area adjacent to his house, “you will see the graves of my grandfather, uncles, aunts. My father can speak Thai, Hokkien and Malay. Of course we Siamese are not as numerous here as compared to the other races, but if Malacca can have a Portuguese se lement (for its minority Kristang population), why not a Thai settlement in Penang?” he asks. “All kinds of people who come here, locals and foreigners alike, are amazed to see Thai-speaking locals. Even students from Mahidol University in Thailand have dropped by to interview my father. There is so much heritage value here; it would be a waste for it to disappear.”

Indeed, to anyone who grew up around the area, the Siamese village is as familiar as a thumb or a foreinger. To see it demolished and replaced with a commercial edifice – as is the case with the Eurasian village, also in Pulau Tikus – would be devastating. And unlike the heritage buildings along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah or Jalan Macalister, it would be almost impossible to incorporate the simple wooden buildings into the architecture of a spanking new development. Once the village is gone, not only will the Pulau Tikus landscape be shockingly altered, but its legacy irretrievably erased.

(From left to right) Win Yar, Boon Leua and Noo Wan.

“This is the last Thai settlement in Penang,” says Boon Leua. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Extinct. Our culture, customs and traditions will vanish. There is an urgent need to preserve this.”

His father laments about another issue that is equally pressing. “If we are forced to move out, I have nowhere to go,” says Noo Wan. “I have lived here my entire life. It’s easy to move around and I can nd everything I need here. This place is my home.” Indeed, it is a nightmare to wake up one morning and discover that not only is the land you live on classed as a commercial area, but you have been served with an eviction notice and a paltry RM30,000 compensation offer.

For the residents of Kampung Siam, this is the reality, and while petitions to preserve the century-old village are being carried out to garner public support, Boon Leua urges all and sundry to visit them – to come and see for themselves the living heritage of the Siamese community. “We welcome all, everyone. At the end of the day, we are all Malaysians.” Same same but different.

1 www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/ article/penang-to-moot-heritage-status-for- endangered-siamese-village

 

Julia "Bubba" Tan is assistant editor for Penang Monthly. She lives a stone's throw away from Kampung Siam.



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