Why Penang YWCA is Such a Landmark

loading Malayan YWCA Conference Penang at Tanjung Bungah in 1938.

Founded in 1909, this organisation has helped generations of despairing women and needy children.

The Penang Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) was formed during a time when girls suffered from fewer options, limited access to education and exploitation1 to tackle the problem across ethnic and religious lines. Although its role was later taken over by the Welfare Department and other women’s organisations, the YWCA still retains its legacy as one of the oldest women’s organisations in Penang, having served as an important platform for women for over a century.

Humble Roots and Pre-war Beginnings

The Penang YWCA owes its conception in 1909 to the generosity of Miss Fairburn, a British missionary who opened the doors of her home along Dato Keramat to young women in need. Soon, Christian-inspired activities such as Bible readings and prayer groups were conducted, and Miss Fairburn devoted herself to the roles of president, secretary and treasurer.2 On her departure, Mrs Dewar, the mayor’s wife, took over. By then, the YWCA was already an active social centre, even knitting for soldiers during the First World War.

The Association enjoyed extensive cross-regional cooperation with other YWCAs throughout Malaya under the umbrella of the Malayan Branch YWCA,3 the highest authority in coordinating activities and training. Back then, the YWCA in Malaya consisted of branches in Penang, Singapore, KL, Malacca, Ipoh and Taiping.4 Meetings were held at least once a year, when global issues advocated by the World YWCA were raised and deliberated under local conditions. However, the Association faced numerous infrastructural challenges. In 1924 it had a rest room opposite Victoria Pier for working women to rest during their break hours. There was a great demand for rooms, and it received a total of 2,197 women visitors from February to August 1931.5 Monthly tiffins were also popularly held there, at least until the building was pulled down6. A hostel known as the “The Tower” was obtained in 1927 but its success was short-lived owing to poor conditions and high rent. Another house was acquired along Logan Road before that was also closed down in 1938 due to financial trouble.

While its creche at Patani Road for the children of municipal labourers survived, the Great Depression slowed down numerous projects.7 The occupation of Penang by the Japanese in December 1941 exacerbated existing difficulties, and the destruction of the clubhouse brought everything to a standstill.

YWCA Parade.

Post-war Reorganisation & Social Welfare

It was only in October 1946 that the Penang YWCA was reorganised under the guidance of Gertrude Owen, the then district secretary of the Malayan Branch YWCA. Its first post-war committee meeting was convened at the Anglo-Chinese School along Pykett Avenue under the chairmanship of the first local president, Cheah Inn Kiong, who also served as the first appointed woman councillor on the Penang Advisory Board of the Straits Settlements in 1946.8 The vibrant Committee then comprised of locals, Eurasians and Europeans, with Ivy Sabapathy as secretary; Mrs Khoo Gek Tuan as treasurer; and Mrs Goh Heng Chong, Mrs J.S Appudoray, Elsa Youngdahl and Iris Pengelly as committee members. Meetings were often held at Cheah’s home at 37 Peel Avenue.

Given the urgent need for social aid, the Penang YWCA raised funds, organised cooking classes, arranged services for the needy and garments for the children of estate workers under the Wayfarer’s Group formed in 1947.

Work equally extended to pressing issues like tuberculosis, which had been a serious threat in Malaya since the 1920s9 with nearly 10,000 tuberculosis cases were recorded in Penang by 194910. Mrs Cheah herself served on the Anti-Tuberculosis Committee.11 Under her leadership, the Penang YWCA emerged as a platform of support for tuberculosis cases, with two teams under the established sub-committee assisting in clinical works in schools, conducting house visits and case investigations, and even arranging for patients to be taken to hospitals.12

Home Away from Home

By August 6, 1949, the Association rented a clubroom at 27 Anson Road under the leadership of Mrs A.V. Aston, the resident commissioner’s wife. While the room alleviated the need for a permanent meeting place, it relied on the generosity of members to pay its rent of $50 per month. This was covered by Miss D. Rogers, its ballet instructor. Nonetheless, as all YWCAs were noted for their hostels, the dream of owning a clubhouse of its own and a hostel for young women of all races remained and Aston herself took the lead in appealing for funds.

Members of the general committee with Lady Templer.

Children playing games.

In May 1953 a clubhouse at 15 Peel Avenue was acquired, thanks to the generosity of the Settlement government and the late philanthropist, Heah Joo Seang, who contributed what was then a huge sum of $5,000. Graced by Lady Templer, patron of YWCA Singapore and Malaya,13 activities like cooking, sewing, ballet, violin recitals and food fairs boosted its popularity.

The Association was well defined by the formation of various committees and support groups for women; for instance, the Social Leadership Group was formed in 1950 to train youths in leadership and social responsibility. Patronised by Mrs Aston herself, its sub-members visited the children’s ward once a week and hosted first-aid classes, home nursing and toy-making for children in hospitals. The Four Corners Club was also founded by Mrs Violet Coomarasamy, who later became the general secretary of YWCA Malaya, with social meetings involving people of all nationalities and races coming together to forge friendship, tolerance and mutual understanding. Membership boomed and the Association also engaged its first professional secretary, Miss Fang Chooi Ling, to be in charge of its programmes.14

YWCA building along Green Lane.

Plans for a hostel were revisited in March 1954 owing to increasing demands by outstation students. An all-out appeal for funds were made with the resident commissioner’s wife Mrs R.P Bingham herself writing to Radio Malaya for a “Dollar for Discs” Programme and Mrs Lim Thiam Hon approaching the Shaw Brothers for a charity cinema show at the Rex. The Free Association Committee was also approached by Mrs Bhupalan for a donation.15

A momentous campaign for funds was launched by the Penang YWCA’s finance appeal committee under Mrs Goh Heng Chong in July16 with a letter written to the Settlement Secretary highlighting the urgent need for a women’s hostel in Penang. The Association soon received the Settlement government’s blessings and was granted one acre of Crown land at the Heah Swee Lee Estate along Green Lane by the end of the year, with a 33-year lease to construct a hostel.

Meanwhile, the Penang YWCA also began to champion education for the underprivileged through support services such as day care and pre-school education. It was in such a light that the Association set up its own kindergarten where children from all walks of life could prepare for primary education. Its first class commenced with eight children aged between five and six, under the guidance of Mrs L. Robinson, who was succeeded by Mrs Mooi Nelligan the following year.17

While the dream of a hostel was about to materialise, the challenge of raising a sum of $60,000 to commence construction of the building which would be able to house 30 women and girls remained, and the Penang YWCA spared no effort in meeting the target via various activities and fundraising events, including a dinner and dance at the E&O Hotel in July 1955 under the patronage of Mr Cunyngham-Brown, the then acting resident commissioner of Penang.18

Miss Catto looks at pictures of YWCA in 1909 shown by Mrs A. Samuel who joined the Association that year.

Bearing the slogan of “Half a House, will you complete it?”, an Appeals Week was launched and following a loan of $45,000 from the YWCA of America, the dream of a hostel was about to come true.19 Notwithstanding these arrangements, the girls of Penang YWCA participated in the Coronation Youth Parade in June 1956 in conjunction with the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II and even participated at the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit in October the same year.20

In a fairly conservative era when women often assumed a secondary role in society, the women of Penang YWCA were unconventionally fierce in their fundraising. While the YWCA Penang hostel officially opened its doors on August 20, 1958, the women aggressively sought to raise money jointly and in their individual capacity towards the repayment of debt upon completion. Fundraising initiatives continued under the leadership of Miss Neliya Moreira where the second phase of the hostel – inclusive of kindergarten classrooms, an office and a hall – was planned and completed in 1969.21

Tunku's visit along with Dr Lim Chong Eu.

The new structure – the permanent headquarters of the Penang YWCA – brought increasing members and activities, with the formation of the Fortnightly Club, which serviced women travellers, and the youth-based Young Adults Club. With the completion of its third phase in 1977 under Datin E. Devaraj, the dream of a “Home Away from Home” finally materialised.

An Unforgettable Legacy

In March 2013 the Association reached yet another milestone when it received its long-awaited land title from the state government after arduous fundraising with donations from churches, friends, NGOs and other YWCAs – along with some interest-free loans under the current leadership of Datuk Marina David.22

The Penang YWCA continues to empower women from all walks of life through networks with other women’s organisations like the Women’s Welfare Council, Women’s Centre for Change and the Penang Family Health Development Association. The Penang YWCA is also an active member of the National Council of Women’s Organisation with the collective aim of safeguarding the rights of all women with regards to social, economic and political equality. On top of that, the Penang YWCA continues to educate the underprivileged through its kindergarten, aided by the state government, and to empower women regardless of religion and ethnicity.

The writers would like to convey their gratitude and heartfelt thanks to Datuk Dr Marina David and her committee at the Penang YWCA for the help rendered towards the completion of this article.

1 Neil Khor Jin Keong, Khoo Keat Siew, “The Penang Po Leung Kuk: Chinese Women, Prostitution and a Welfare Organisation”, Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Kuala Lumpur (2004), pp.72-73
2 Penang YWCA 100th Anniversary Special Centenary Edition 1909-2009
3 The Malayan Branch YWCA was formed in 1921.
4 “Malayan Y.W.C.A. Conference”, Malaya Tribune, 17 October 1932
5 “The Y.W.C.A. Malayan Conference,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, August 10, 1931
6 Penang YWCA 100th Anniversary Special Centenary Edition 1909-2009
7 “Malayan Y.W.C.A. Conference,” Malaya Tribune, October 17, 1932
8 “Penang’s Council,” Malaya Tribune, April 8, 1946
9 J. Norman Parmer, “Health and Health Services in British Malaya in the 1920s”, Modern Asian Studies 23, No. 1 (1989), p.49
10 “Penang Has 10,000 Cases of T.B.,” The Singapore Free Press, April 2, 1949
11 Minutes of Meeting, Penang Settlement Council for 1949, Federal Secretariat 13700/1949, p.19
12 Penang YWCA 100th Anniversary Special Centenary Edition 1909-2009
13 Penang YWCA 100th Anniversary Special Centenary Edition 1909-2009
14 Ibid
15 Ibid
16 Malayan YWCA Blue Triangle News, Issues: March, April 1954
17 Penang YWCA 100th Anniversary Special Centenary Edition 1909-2009
18 Report of Annual General Meeting of YWCA Penang, 1955
19 Malayan YWCA Blue Triangle News, Issues: July, September 1956
20 Penang YWCA 100th Anniversary Special Centenary Edition 1909-2009
21 Ibid
22 The land lease started in 1956 expired after 33 years. In 1990, the lease was approved with a hefty sum of premium.

Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst with the History section of Penang Institute who writes to inspire and takes pride in introducing herself as a writer rather than a lawyer.
Pan Yi Chieh is a research analyst at Penang Institute. She graduated from Taiwan National Tsing Hua University in Anthropology. She loves to explore the hidden history of Penang through documents and interviews.

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