Traces of Penang's Role in the Age to Revolution

By William Tham

July 2021 FEATURE
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LEBUH ARMENIAN AND Lebuh Acheh meet at Lebuh Carnarvon. I used to walk along either one of them each day on the way to work, picking the sense of history that permeates the place. The area has witnessed many things over the centuries: from the murder of a Malay diamond merchant which sparked off the Penang Riots,1 to serving the steamship trade and the resulting communities that gathered in Penang. But it was between 1880 and 1920, that things were most exciting. This was the period that Jonah Raskin describes as the "Age of Revolution": the beginning of the dismantling of colonialism and the coming of technology that facilitated the transfer of ideas across the world.2

On these streets today are two notable museums hinting at histories that are deeper than each of them manages to convey. The first is the Hajj Gallery. This documents Penang's past as one of the major hubs along the pilgrimage route. The name of the street tells us that a sizeable Acehnese community once lived and worked here; some of them were refugees from across the Straits, where the Aceh War was fought protractedly until 1904.

The other was the location of the Nanyang headquarters of the Tongmenghui,3 diplomatically disguised as the Penang Philomatic Union. This was where Dr. Sun Yat-sen, then a fugitive, sat and planned some of his abortive uprisings against the Qing Empire.

We usually approach such histories separately, but the close proximity of the diasporas of two collapsing states in little George Town makes it very tempting to think of them in tandem. And one has to wonder if and how these two histories crisscrossed each other.

The World at Large

On "Koli Kallen", a Google Map created to trace the routes of Boria troupes while serving as a study of their ties to history and colonialism, Simon Soon notes that there used to be a bookshop at Cannon Square. No. 52, Lebuh Acheh once housed Kedai Buku Haji Puteh, a distributor of books by a publisher in Singapore. More likely than not, it would have sold syair, hikayat and kitab facilitating a "gradual introduction of new ideas of modernity as well as register attempts of thinkers to negotiate the influx of new knowledge systems."4

The Penang Hajj Gallery along Lebuh Acheh. Photo: Regina Hoo

At this time, much of Southeast Asia was carved into spheres of European influence. But borders and extensive surveillance networks proved insufficient for the colonialists to exercise effective control over the telegraph, the printing press, steamships and railways that spread ideas and fanned anti-colonial sentiments. Major ports did not trade only in goods, but also ideas. Publishing provided room for dissent, and foreign domination and corruption were challenged by protest literature, some has been noted in Muhammad Haji Salleh's research, such as Tuan Simi's "Syair Potong Gaji", now kept at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.5

A House of Glass

There was indeed a surge in literature in Penang in books written in Malay, Arabic or Javanese script. Penang superseded Singapore in this respect, and as Soon notes, "decimation of the publishing industry decentralised Singapore as a hub, and Penang in the early 20th century rose to prominence as a secondary publishing hub for Malay books." Naturally, being part of the Hajj network helped; the ships called at Surabaya, Batavia, Singapore and Penang, en route to Jeddah, along which a world's worth of ideas were transmitted, earning the suspicion and surveillance of the colonial authorities.

In Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Rumah Kaca, the native policeman / bureaucrat Pangemanan, promoted to a position of power, gazes down on society below him, made up of people from Java to Aceh, and from The Philippines to the Arab World. He draws particular attention to the Chinese diaspora in the wake of the 1911 revolution, how ideas had spread a "nationalistic fervor" among Chinese youths in Batavia; and how Dr. Sun, who had travelled the world, "brought under control the international terror network known as the Tong societies."6

As Leon Comber notes, Sun, raising funds for his various failed rebellions, worked closely with Chinese communities in the Nanyang; Southeast Asia was in fact one of the most important bastions of anti-Qing sentiment. The best-known origin story of Nanyang Chinese societies trace their formation to the massacre of the fighting Buddhist monks of the Shao Lin temple, which led to the rallying cry: "Overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming" (反清复明). They were among those who soon dispersed across the seas.

The Sun Yat Sen Museum on Lebuh Armenian. Photo: Regina Hoo

Now, the steamship routes allowed the intelligentsia of China to reach the West easily and to absorb ideas and ideals that had not been passed down from the European metropole. Thus, the dispersed Chinese diaspora became imbued with unexpected political influence by the turn of the 20th century when they were courted by the Qing government.

While men like Cheong Fatt Tze became appointed Chinese Consul, Sun Yat-sen, encouraged increased "re-Sinification" and a commitment to national awareness not many streets away from Cheong's Blue Mansion. His rival, the exiled Kang Youwei, also stopped in Penang, encouraging reform instead of revolution.7 In the end, Sun's supporters proved more successful.

In the introduction, Pramoedya's translator, Max Lane, asks who the real protagonist of the Buru Quartet truly is. Not "Minke", a figure loosely based on Tirto Adhi Soerjo, nor its opponent Pangemanan. It "appears in several forms", the highest of which is "the inexorable march of history itself" (p. xi).8


In the local history syllabus, there remains a tendency towards insularity and ethnonationalism.9 There is still a propensity to overlook the interconnectedness of our region. But things do not, and did not, happen in a vacuum. Perhaps new histories and cross-connections are to be dug up, as a look at the life of Jose Rizal shows. Moving from city to city, he started work on the anarchic El Filibusterismo in Brussels in 1890, "hearing from friends that the cost of living and of book-printing were much lower than in Paris (p. 100)".10

The success of Rizal's works, particularly Noli Me Tangere, was also contingent on its acceptance by a wider literary world – read: addressed to European readers – and it was this that helped cement his place as one of the ilustrados. Rizal sailed the trade routes, including the last voyage to his eventual execution in Manila, refusing entreaties to jump ship to safety. He became a hero, and the Indonesian revolutionary Tan Malaka would write about both Rizal and Andres Bonifacio as heroes of the Indonesian people, drawing inspiration from Rizal's writings.11

Photo: Regina Hoo

Were there ever any connections between the stories of revolution, and knowledge passed between seemingly separate spheres? Men like Sun and Rizal had correspondences across an increasingly interconnected world, the great ports of Asia serving both colonisers and colonised for their cross-purposes. What we do know is that Penang was deeply enmeshed in the colonial trade network, along which political developments and ideologies travelled.

The young Indian revolutionary MN Roy stepped off the Golconda in 1915, staying at the now-ruined Runnymede Hotel, on a failed expedition to Batavia to secure German help for a wartime uprising against the British, a route that allowed him and his companion Phani to meet revolutionaries and plotters.12 In 1924, the Anarchist Federation, spanning Manila to Guangzhou, met at a general meeting in Penang to discuss strategies in the wake of the May 4th Movement of 1919, imperial Japanese aggression and the carving-up of China by warlords – one of the fledgling players that would set the stage for revolutionary action in Malaya.13

  • Yong, Check Yoon. 2010. The 1867 Penang riots. Penang Monthly. August 2010.
  • Raskin, Jonah. 2009 [1971]. The Mythology of Imperialism: A Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age. New York: Monthly Review Press, p. 45
  • It later formed the nucleus of the Chinese Republican Party, the Kuomintang.
  • Soon, Simon. 2019-2020. Koli Kallen: A Country for Grave Diggers and Fowl Thieves. GoogleMymaps
  • Muhammad Haji Salleh, ed. 1994. Syair Tantangan Singapura Abad Kesembilan Belas. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
  • Pramoedya, Ananta Toer. 1997 [1988]. House of Glass. Translated by Max Lane. London: Penguin, p.2.
  • Wang, Gungwu. 1992. Community and Nation: China, Southeast Asia and Australia. St Leonard's, Australia: Allen & Unwin, p. 7;28.
  • Wang, Gungwu. 1992. Community and Nation: China, Southeast Asia and Australia. St Leonard's, Australia: Allen & Unwin, p. 7;28.
  • Anderson, Benedict. 2016 [1983]. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
  • Santhiram Raman. 2021. From Decolonization to Ethno-Nationalism: A Study of Malaysia’s School History Syllabus, 1905-2020. Petaling Jaya: SIRD.
  • Anderson, Benedict. 2005. The Age of Globalization: Anarchists and the Anticolonial Imagination. London: Verso
  • Guillermo, Ramon. 2020. “Andres Bonifacio: Proletarian hero of the Philippines and Indonesia.” In Revisiting Malaya: Uncovering Historical and Political Thought in Nusantara, edited by Show Ying Xin and Ngoi Guat Peng. Petaling Jaya: SIRD.
  • Suchetana Chattopadhyay. 2016. “Being ‘Naren Bhattacharji’”. In Vijay Prashad (ed,), Communist Histories, Volume 1. New Delhi: LeftWord Books, pp.64-5.
  • Yong, Ching Fatt. 1997. The Origins of Malayan Communism. Singapore: South Seas Society, p. 29-31. Although they eventually failed to gain deeper traction, the anarchists laid the groundwork for leftist traditions in Malaya.
William Tham

first novel, Kings of Petaling Street, was shortlisted for the Penang Book Prize in 2017. His second novel, The Last Days, was published in 2020. He is the editor of Paper & Text, a collection of essays on Malaysian literature and the book trade.