The Feisty History of Penang SCBA

Old photos of SCBA.

During British Malaya, the creolised Chinese in Penang, Melaka and Singapore (conjoined to form the Straits Settlements in 1826) were known as the Straits Chinese. Being elite locals who enjoyed the patronage of the Empire, the Straits Chinese proudly distinguished themselves as the King’s or Queen’s Chinese.

Despite their privileged identity, an organised platform to safeguard their rights as British subjects remained non-existent apart from the more commercially inclined Chinese Town Hall and Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

It was not until the formation of the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA) of Singapore in 1900 that a formal channel for the aspirations of the Straits Chinese was secured in the colonial setting; Melaka’s SCBA was established later the same year.

The Penang branch was not formed until 1920. At a meeting held at the Chinese Town Hall on November 16 that year, all Straits Chinese British subjects were urged to consider the formation of a Penang SCBA.

In the presence of 50 attendees, its establishment was deliberated at length in response to the ongoing reform of the Legislative Council to include more unofficial members. A Penang SCBA branch was therefore perceived as a fresh body that would make representation to the Commission of Enquiry. The matter was secured nine days later at the premises of the Penang Mutual Improvement Association, where SCBA Penang came into being, and its first office-bearers were elected.1

The three Lims who formed the backbone of Penang SCBA were prominent Baba merchants. Its president, Lim Eu Toh, was a merchant and senior partner of Tiang Lee & Co., reputably the first Chinese firm organised along Western lines.

He was also a municipal commissioner in 1905 and 1908, and also in 1920 and 1921.2

The elected honorary secretary was Lim Eow Thoon, the third son of accomplished rice miller, rubber planter and manufacturer, Lim Leng Cheak. Later, Eow Thoon also served as municipal commissioner in 1927.3

Lim Seng Hooi, the second-generation owner of Criterion Press (the publisher of the first Chinese daily, Penang Sin Poe in 1895, and later a Malay weekly called Chahaya Pulau Pinang), was elected honorary treasurer. A well-known public figure, Seng Hooi played an important social role during the bubonic plague in 1896 and the influenza outbreak in 1918.4

Vanguards

Penang SCBA was in active agitation for reforms in the Legislative Council and Malayan Civil Service, and in December 1922 it passed a resolution stating that “…it was desirable that the SCBA approach the Governor to ask him to allow Chinese British subjects of Penang to submit the name of a representative on the Legislative Council…”5 This was done in cooperation with its counterparts in Melaka and Singapore. Later, its president, Lim Cheng Ean, was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1929, and raised the question on the exclusion of Asiatics from the Malayan Civil Service. 6

Michael Cheah's family collection.

Datuk Tan Gin Soon, president of Penang SCBA; and Michael Cheah, curator of Penang SCBA's Baba Nyonya Galleria.

In September 1931 the three SCBAs of the Straits combined their efforts to submit a memorandum to the government, challenging the colour bar, followed by a letter to the colonial secretary in protest against the prevailing discrimination. Although the government remained unprepared to grant the SCBAs the privilege of electing their own members to the council, the governor himself, Sir Cecil Clementi, assured reforms in the civil service in response to the agitation. In March 1933 the Straits Settlements Civil Service announced a list of posts to which Straits-born Asiatics might be considered.7

Apart from administrative reforms, Penang SCBA also concerned itself with various social issues. In October 1925 an extraordinary general meeting was held at the Chinese Town Hall to discuss the registration of Chinese marriages. Here, Cheng Ean also advocated the Monogamous Marriage Bill and free vernacular education at the Council.8

It was not until the end of the Second World War and the agreement over the Federation of Malaya that the SCBAs deliberated on political issues and emerged as a semi-political organisation. Together with its counterparts, the Penang SCBA became a player in the Penang secession movement, and voted for Penang and Melaka’s secession from the Federation to rejoin Singapore, thus reviving the Straits Settlements.

Although the movement failed, Penang SCBA’s advocacy in safeguarding the interests of the Straits Chinese marked an unprecedented move during Malaya’s nation-building era.9

Future

Negotiations for independence witnessed the rise of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), such that its political role superseded that of Penang SCBA, especially with the identity of the Straits Chinese being absorbed into mainstream Chinese community. By 1967 Penang SCBA had become known as the State Chinese (Penang) Association.10 At present, the association has nearly 500 members.

While its political functions have gradually diminished throughout the years, Penang SCBA plays an active cultural role today and strives to preserve the legacy of the Babas and Nyonyas through its programmes and activities.

The establishment of the Baba Nyonya Galleria marks one of its most recent efforts in that direction. Opening its doors this month, the gallery aims to bring the value and knowledge of the Baba Nyonya culture to a wider spectrum of the public, especially the young. Most of the gallery’s collection comes from the curator, Michael Cheah, who is a fifth-generation Baba.

Alongside the gallery, Penang SCBA also plans to play a more active role in the cultural heritage circle by running a series of educational programmes via interactive workshops to raise appreciation of Baba Nyonya culture. Baba Nyonya wedding packages are also offered by Penang SCBA.

The association continues to be an integral symbol of Penang’s colonial past, and an advocate of Baba Nyonya cultural heritage in the twenty-first century.

Koay Su Lyn reads and writes of the past to make sense of the present. She is a research analyst in the History and Heritage Programme of Penang Institute.
Pan Yi Chieh is a research analyst at Penang Institute who was born in Taiwan but now lives in Penang. She is proud to be nurtured by the two beautiful islands she regards as home.

1Tan (Ooi), Diana. “The Penang Straits Chinese British Association.” Malaysia in History, vol. 21, no.2, 1978, p.45-46.
2Ibid.
3Goh Leng Hoon, “Lim Eow Thoon”, in Loh Wei Leng et al. (eds.). Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities in Penang, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Think City & MBRAS, 2013, p.116.
4Goh Leng Hoon, op cit, p.121-122.
5Tan (Ooi), Diana. “The Penang Straits Chinese British Association.” Malaysia in History, vol. 21, no.2, 1978, p.49.
6“Toying with The Subject.” Malaya Tribune, 13 December 1929, p.9.
7Diana Tan (Ooi), op cit, p.51.
8Khoo Keat Siew. “The Founding and Development of Straits Chinese Penang Association.” Penang Peranakan Chinese and Chinese Muslims: An Historical and Cultural Journey, Persatuan Karyawan Pulau Pinang, 2010, p.41.
9Koay Su Lyn. “Penang: The Rebel State (Part One).” Penang Monthly, September 2016.
10Minutes of the 6th SCBA Committee Meeting held at the Association’s premises on 15 January, 1967.



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