Church of the Immaculate Conception.
Known to locals as “Serani” – a contraction of the Malay word “nasrani”, meaning Christians – a Eurasian is generally anyone who is a fusion of European and Asian blood. The term was originally coined by the British in the nineteenth century to refer to an individual of mixed British and Indian descent.
In the early days of Penang, Eurasians turned the wheels of administration for the new settlement. They arrived in Penang with Captain Francis Light and witnessed the first hoisting of the Union Jack on the island on August 11, 1786 as Light took formal possession, naming the place Prince of Wales Island. A free and neutral port city at that time, Penang saw traders all over the world flocking to do business and being welcomed with open arms. Settlers from various parts of Europe, including the British, Dutch, French, German and Portuguese, also began congregating at the island to reap a piece of the fortune.
The Eurasian population in Penang began to grow as the Westerners wed the indigenous people, but was meagre in comparison to the fast-increasing Chinese and Indian populations. In a town where less than 10% of the population was literate, the Eurasians were well-versed in the English language, literate and Catholic; and they held pertinent jobs in the administration, largely shaping the island’s history and growth. For instance, for the women, it was about becoming nurses and secretaries, while for the men, it was engineering, water works, administration and municipal duties.
Tracing back, two significant Eurasian population clusters can be identified – the first occupying an area in George Town, and the other in Pulau Tikus. Interestingly, the George Town Eurasians lived in a more urban setting and felt superior in a sense to the more rural Eurasians of Pulau Tikus.
On taking possession of Penang, Light sent one of his ships, the Speedwell, to ferry Eurasians out of Kedah; the Eurasians had fled there from Phuket to escape religious persecution by the Siamese. Their arrival in Penang on August 15, 1786 coincided with the Catholic Feast of the Assumption; thus, it was the name given to the Church of the Assumption.
The Eurasians occupied a piece of land bounded by Church Street, Pitt Street, Bishop Street and King Street today, but moved inward in 1802 to a solid and swamp-free part of George Town – around Farquhar Street, Love Lane, Argus Lane, Stewart Lane and Muntri Street. This area soon came to be known as Kampong Serani by the locals – not to be confused with the Kampong Serani restaurant of today which serves delectable Eurasian cuisine at Malay Street. Presently, only one Eurasian family remains on Argus Lane.
The other community took root in the area between College Lane, Burma Road, Leandros Lane and Kelawai Road, and had approximately 150 residents.
Eurasian family names.
In 1811 the remnants of the Portuguese Catholic community that remained in Phuket despite the massacre were forced to flee when the Siamese once again persecuted Christians. Led by their parish priest, Father John Baptist Pascual, they made their way to Penang, arriving 25 years after the first batch of Portuguese Eurasians who came with Light, and resided in Pulau Tikus. What this entailed was the establishment of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, and the Pulau Tikus Kampong Serani.
Pulau Tikus Kampong Serani housed two lots, one bigger than the other. Even though the legal owner was the Titular Roman Catholic Bishop of Penang, the Eurasians resided on the property for generations and considered the houses to be part of their heritage, assuming that the land was religious charity land held in trust by the Church for the Catholic poor. They were presumptuous in thinking that it would never be sold.
Things took a sour turn when residents received eviction notices from the Bishop’s lawyers in January 1980 in the name of development, leading to a 14-year struggle by the inhabitants to retain their homes. Disputes ensued and the following years saw a string of events taking place between the developers and the residents, where residents were coerced into settlement despite their valiant efforts.
By the end of 1994, every resident had vacated the land and Pulau Tikus Kampong Serani ceased to exist. Developments proceeded, and a row of commercial office units known as Belissa Row, along with a high-cost condominium, Belissa Court, stands on what was once a bustling Eurasian village.
Of Music, Festivals, Weddings and Food
Traditionally, the top tier of the wedding cake would be kept for a year to signify a long-lasting marriage.
From physical appearances to cultural practices, one Eurasian differs from another depending on how far their blood mixture has stretched. However, there are some cultural values and traditions which are quite commonly shared among them.
For instance, music. Eurasians have always had a knack for music, singing and dancing, and they take great pride in it. One personality who stands out is composer and jazz musician, Jimmy Boyle.
With most Eurasians being Roman Catholics, notable festivities celebrated by the Eurasians include Lent, Easter Sunday and Christmas. Lent signals the beginning of a 40- day period of fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline in preparation for Easter to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christmas, on the other hand is a momentous festival to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ – a favourite especially among kids. The day is filled with gift exchanges, food and Christmas carols.
Come weddings, the process is simple. It kicks off with a church service where the couple exchange vows and rings, and the priest unionises them as husband and wife. The celebration progresses into a party and guests will be treated to a spread of enticing traditional Eurasian delicacies accompanied by a free flow of drinks and live band performance. The centrepiece would usually be a multi-tiered wedding cake with royal icing coating prepared by the bride’s family; in most cases, it would be sugee cake – a traditional Eurasian desert with a coarse and slightly crunchy sensation. In the past, the top tier would be kept for a year to signify a long-lasting marriage. Finally, the couple opens the dance floor with a graceful waltz and the crowd joins in to let their hair down until the sun sets.1
Similar to most cultures, an essential element that bands communities together is food. An authentic Eurasian cuisine is produced when scarce ingredients required for the preparation of a European dish are substituted with other easily obtainable local ingredients such as chillis, galangal and lemongrass. Known for its strong flavours, the devil curry for instance, Eurasian cuisine is a culmination of sweet, sour and spicy. In the same vein, Eurasians would munch on curry puffs and nasi lemak during tea breaks, unlike Westerners who prefer scones and sandwiches. However, piping hot tea is a must for both.
The commercial Belissa Row and residential Belissa Court, where Pulau Tikus Kampong Serani once stood.
Much of the Eurasian socio-geographical landscape in Penang has changed. Roman Catholics of Eurasian descendant who used to flock to the Church of the Assumption in numbers have now diverged to other churches. The number of parishioners has dwindled, and in 2003 the church lost its status as the Cathedral for the Diocese of Penang. In addition, Eurasian communities on the isle scattered, no longer dominating any particular public or private profession.
Today, the division between the Town Eurasians and Pulau Tikus Eurasians is no more, but much can be said about their culture. With generations of unions between locals and Eurasians, cultures can only grow more diverse.
A large sum of this article was adapted from Datuk Eustace Anthony Nonis’ book, The Eurasians: A Founding Community of Penang. He is currently patron at the Penang Eurasian Association, after serving as its president years back.
Alexander Fernandez is a USM graduate with a degree in English for Professionals. While most people eat to live, he lives to eat instead.
1George Town World Heritage Incorporated’s Penang Heritage Celebrations 2019 Booklet.