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Intimate Interactions: Eurasian family histories in colonial Penang*


Intimate interactions across ethnic and cultural lines were integral to the archive of memory within Eurasian families in colonial Penang. Through histories of their European and Asian ancestors, Eurasian families inherited a sense of travel and geographical mobility, and complex forms of cultural exchange often shaped their everyday lives. Eurasian family histories provide access to the messy, lived interactions which formed their social and domestic worlds, but they also hint at their limits. The idea of ‘Eurasian’ in colonial Malaya was a contentious one, a site for debate, as it was experienced by different people in different ways. During the interwar period, members of Penang's Eurasian elite attempted to define and discipline the divided Eurasian communities of Malaya, by purifying Eurasian family histories of their unruly diversity. In exploring the Eurasian social world of colonial Penang, this paper aims to delineate the fragility of such processes of interaction and exchange.

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1 Stoler Ann, ‘Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers: European Identities and the Cultural Politics of Exclusion in Colonial Southeast Asia’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 34, 1992, p. 514.

2 Examples include Caplan Lionel, ‘Creole World, Purist Rhetoric: Anglo-Indian Cultural Debates in Colonial and Contemporary Madras’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1, 1995, pp. 743–62; Firpo Christina E., ‘Lost Boys: “Abandoned” Eurasian children and the Management of the Racial Topography in Colonial Indochina, 1938–1945’, French Colonial History, 8, 2007, pp. 203–21; Pomfret David M., ‘Raising Eurasia: Race, Class, and Age in French and British Colonies’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 51, 2009, pp. 314–43.

3 See, for example, Ridley H. N., ‘The Eurasian Problem’, in Ridley H. N. (ed.) Noctes Orientales: Being a Selection of Essays Read Before the Straits Philosophical Society Between the Years 1893 and 1910 (Singapore: Kelly & Walsh, 1913); and Park R., ‘Human Migration and the Marginal Man’, American Journal of Sociology, 33, 1928, pp. 881–93.

4 See Blunt Alison, ‘“Land of our Mothers”: Home, Identity, and Nationality for Anglo-Indians in British India, 1919–1947’, History Workshop Journal, 54, 2002, pp. 4972.

5 See Sarkissian Margaret, D'Albuquerque's Children: Performing Tradition in Malaysia's Portuguese Settlement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); and McGilvray Dennis B., ‘Dutch Burghers and Portuguese Mechanics: Eurasian Ethnicity in Sri Lanka’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 24, 1982, pp. 235–63.

6 See Ghosh Durba, Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); and Mallampalli Chandra, ‘Meet the Abrahams: Colonial Law and a Mixed Race Family from Bellary, South India, 1810–63’, Modern Asian Studies, 42, 2008, pp. 929–70.

7 Taylor Jean Gelman, The Social World of Batavia: Europeans and Eurasians in Colonial Indonesia, 2nd edition (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).

8 Bosma Ulbe and Raben Remco, Being ‘Dutch’ in the Indies: A History of Creolisation and Empire, 1500–1920 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008), p. 80.

9 Reid Anthony, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680. Vol. 1: The Lands Below the Winds (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988), pp. 155–56.

10 This emerged in part from the 14-year conflict over the redevelopment of a predominantly Portuguese-Eurasian village in Pulau Tikus. See Lan Goh Beng, Modern Dreams: An Inquiry into Power, Cultural Production, and the Cityscape in Contemporary Urban Penang, Malaysia (Ithaca, New York: Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2002), pp. 123–43.

11 See, for example, Fernandis G., ‘The Portuguese Community at the Periphery: A Minority Report on the Portuguese Quest for Bumiputera Status’, Kajian Malaysia, 21, 2003, pp. 285301.

12 Nordin Hussin has estimated that up to 99 per cent of the population of Penang was made up of immigrants soon after it was established as a British port in 1786. For a discussion of the geography of and early trade in Penang, see Hussin Nordin, Trade and Society in the Straits of Melaka: Dutch Melaka and English Penang, 1780–1830 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2007), pp. 69104.

13 Ee Tan Liok, ‘Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History’, in Guan Yeoh Seng, Leng Loh Wei, Nasution Khoo Salma and Khor Neil (eds) Penang and its Region: The Story of an Asian Entrepôt (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), pp. 729.

14 See Clodd H. P., Malaya's First British Pioneer: The Life of Francis Light (London: Luzac and Company Ltd., 1948), pp. 2628.

15 David Brown came to Penang to join James Scott, Francis Light's former trading partner, in business. He went on to become a large landholder in Penang. See Helen Margaret Brown, ‘A Hundred Years of the Brown Family 1750–1850’. Unpublished manuscript, 1935, p. 3, Penang State Library.

16 Fujimoto Helen, The South Indian Muslim Community and the Evolution of the Jawi Peranakan in Penang up to 1948 (Toyko: Tokyo Gaikokugo Daigaku, 1988), p. 45.

17 Nin Khoo Su, Streets of George Town, Penang: An Illustrated Guide to Penang's City Streets and Historic Attractions, 4th> edition (Penang: Areca Books, 2007), p. 35.

18 On the Straits Chinese, see Ee Khoo Joo, The Straits Chinese: A Cultural History (Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur: The Pepin Press, 1996); and on the Jawi Peranakan, see Fujimoto, The South Indian Muslim Community.

19 Figures based on a population count of the town of Penang in 1788. See Hussin, Trade and Society, p. 185. The origins of the Thai-Portuguese community in Phuket have been traced to the mid-sixteenth century when the Portuguese founded a factory there to trade in elephants, tin, and other produce. After they captured Malacca from the Portuguese in 1641, the Dutch established a settlement there in 1656. It lasted only four years as the island then reverted to the Portuguese settlers who, with their descendants, were established on the island and the mainland opposite. See Souza George Bryan, The Survival of Empire: Portuguese Trade and Society in China and the South China Sea 1630–1754 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

20 Teixeira Fr. Manuel, The Portuguese Missions in Malacca and Singapore (1511–1958) (Singapore and Lisboa: Agencia Geral Do, 1963), Vol. III, pp. 328–29.

21 Argus Lane and Love Lane in George Town, and the land between College Lane and Leandro's Lane, which formed kampong serani in Pulau Tikus, are areas that have become associated with Penang's Eurasian families. See Khoo Su Nin, Streets of George Town, pp. 30, 57, 118.

22 Doran Christine, ‘“Oddly hybrid”: Childbearing and Childrearing practices in Colonial Penang, 1850–1875’, Women's History Review, 6, 1997, p. 31.

23 Bastin John, The British in West Sumatra (1685–1825) (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1965), p. 177.

24 Augustin James F., Bygone Eurasia (Kuala Lumpur: Rajiv Printers, 1981), p. 9.

25 Evidence can be found in the diary of Dr Francis King, stationed in Penang between 1857 and 1865. See Ross E. A., ‘Victorian Medicine in Penang’, Malaysia in History, 23, 1980, p. 89.

26 The term ‘Eurasian’ first appeared officially in the 1871 census of the Straits Settlements, but it had begun to appear in European travel writing on Malaya in the 1860s. The British had introduced the term ‘Eurasian’ in India in the 1820s, and from the 1870s it was commonly used, from Burma to Hong Kong, to describe people of European and Asian descent. See Hawes Christopher, Poor Relations: The Making of a Eurasian Community in British India, 1773–1833 (Richmond: Curzon Press, 1996), pp. 8990.

27 Re Khoo Thean Tek's Settlements, Straits Settlements Law Reports (1928), pp. 178–87.

28 Butcher John, The British in Malaya 1880–1941: The Social History of a European Community in Colonial South-East Asia (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 107.

29 See, for example, Bilainkin George, Hail Penang! Being the Narrative of Comedies and Tragedies in a Tropical Outpost, Among Europeans, Chinese, Malays, and Indians (London: Samson Low, 1932), p. 16.

30 Vlieland C. A., British Malaya: A Report on the 1931 Census and on Certain Problems of ‘Vital Statistics’ (London: Crown Agents for the Colonies, 1932), p. 120.

31 On Malacca and Singapore, see Sarkissian Margaret, ‘Cultural Chameleons: Portuguese Eurasian Strategies for Survival in Post-Colonial Malaysia’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 28, 1997, pp. 249–62; and Braga-Blake Myrna, ‘Please Pass the Salt: Class within the Eurasian Community’, in Braga-Blake M. and Oehlers A. (eds) Singapore Eurasians: Memories and Hopes (Singapore: Times Editions for the Eurasian Association Singapore, 1992). See also McGilvray, ‘Dutch Burghers’, pp. 235–63.

32 Liddhoff D., ‘What is wrong with us?’, Eurasian Review, 2 (4), December 1936; and Editor, ‘A Heart to Heart Talk’, Eurasian Review, 2 (4), December 1936.

33 Choo Christine, Carrier Antoinette, Choo Clarissa and Choo Simon, ‘Being Eurasian’, in Perkins Maureen (ed.), Visibly Different: Face, Place and Race in Australia (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007), pp. 103–25.

34 Choo et al., ‘Being Eurasian’, p. 104.

35 Goodman Jordan, Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 211.

36 Pelzer Karl Josef, Planter and Peasant: Colonial Policy and the Agrarian Struggle in East Sumatra 1863–1947 ('s-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978), p. 135.

37 Stoler Ann, ‘Perceptions of Protest: Defining the Dangerous in Colonial Sumatra’, American Ethnologist, 12, 1985, pp. 644.

38 Reid Anthony, ‘The French in Sumatra and the Malay World’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 129, 1973, pp. 223–26.

39 Stoler Ann, ‘Rethinking Colonial Categories: European Communities and the Boundaries of Rule’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 31, 1989, p. 141.

40 Stoler, ‘Rethinking Colonial Categories’, p. 143.

41 Choo et al., ‘Being Eurasian’, p. 104.

42 Choo et al., ‘Being Eurasian’, p. 107.

43 Choo et al., ‘Being Eurasian’, p. 106.

44 Choo et al., ‘Being Eurasian’, p. 104.

45 Choo et al., ‘Being Eurasian’, p. 107.

46 Reid, ‘The French in Sumatra’, p. 205.

47 Stoler, ‘Perceptions of Protest’, p. 645.

48 Sarkissian, D'Albuquerque's Children, p. 185.

49 Straits Times, 14 April 1937, p. 19.

50 Straits Times, 10 January 1916, p. 8.

51 Choo et al., ‘Being Eurasian’, p. 108.

52 Choo et al., ‘Being Eurasian’, p. 110.

53 Choo et al., ‘Being Eurasian’, pp. 110–11.

54 ‘The Oldest European in Malaya’, The Pinang Gazette, Centenary Edition, 1933, pp. 54, 56.

55 On the Volunteers, see Winsley T. M., A History of the Singapore Volunteer Corps, 1854–1937 (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1938), p. 19.

56 On the development of the police force in Perak, see Morrah Patrick, The History of the Malayan Police (Singapore: Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1968), pp. 6266.

57 See Francis Ric and Ganley Colin, Penang Trams, Trolleybuses and Railways: Municipal Transport History 1880s–1963 (Penang: Areca Books, 2006), p. 14.

58 ‘The Oldest European in Malaya’, p. 56.

59 Commissioner of Police, Federated Malay States, to Secretary to the Resident, Selangor, 17 June 1904, 1957/0116804, Arkib Negara Malaysia.

60 Information obtained from the private genealogical website, ‘Serani Sembang’ at <>, [accessed 19 December 2011].

61 Reproduced with permission from Jean and Terrence Scully.

62 Straits Times, 18 June 1884, p. 1; 30 July 1902, p. 5; and 29 December 1904, p. 8.

63 Straits Times, 4 June 1918, p. 6.

64 Straits Times, 30 June 1902, p. 5.

65 Straits Times, 29 March 1933, p. 13.

66 Straits Times, 20 July 1925, p. 8.

67 Straits Times, 28 October 1908, p. 6.

68 In 1927, Patricia Foley (pictured on her father's lap in Figure 1) was killed in a car crash in Penang. See Straits Times, 28 March 1927, p. 11; and 27 April 1927, p. 10.

69 Straits Times, 26 April 1900, p. 2; and 20 September 1915, p. 8.

70 Email conversations with Avril Pasqual, January 2008.

71 Straits Times, 30 April 1909, p. 6. On the Carriers, see Choo Christine, ‘Eurasians: Celebrating Survival’, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 28, 2007, p. 133.

72 ‘Serani Sembang’.

73 Auditor, Audit Office, to British Resident, Selangor, 18 July 1888, 1957/0011788, Arkib Negara Malaysia.

74 Joseph Pasqual to Acting Collector and Magistrate, Ulu Langat, 18 November 1889, 1957/0017687, Arkib Negara Malaysia.

75 Middlebrook Stanley Musgrave, Yap Ah Loy, 1837–1885 (Kuala Lumpur: Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1983), p. 126. See also ‘A Model Coffee Planter’, Straits Observer, 23 July 1897, p. 3; and Petition from Towkay's Ah Yeok Lok Chen, Ah Peng and J. C. Pasqual, 27 July 1892, 1957/0032174, Arkib Negara Malaysia.

76 Straits Times, 18 December 1902, p. 4.

77 Gullick J. M., A History of Selangor (1766–1939) (Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1998), pp. 150–53. See also Ken Wong Lin, The Malayan Tin Industry to 1914 (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1965).

78 Straits Times, 30 November 1952, p. 4.

79 His writings include ‘One Hundred Years of Penang’, The Pinang Gazette, Centenary Edition, 1933, pp. 9–10, 73; ‘Chinese Tin Mining in Selangor’, Selangor Journal, 4, 1896, pp. 25–29; ‘The Limestone Caves of Perlis’, Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 30 August 1921, p. 1; ‘A Trip to Patani’, Straits Times, 2 August 1923, p. 10; ‘The Mayong Play’, Straits Times, 16 May 1937, p. 10.

80 Straits Times, 19 June 1913, p. 11; and 2 August 1923, p. 10.

81 Email conversations with Avril Pasqual. On the familial and commercial connections between southern Thailand and Malaya, see Cushman Jennifer, Family and State: The Formation of a Sino-Thai Tin-Mining Dynasty, 1797–1932 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 14.

82 Kiong Tong Chee and Bun Chan Kwok, Alternate Identities: The Chinese of Contemporary Thailand (Leiden: Brill, 2001), pp. 149–50; and Skinner G. William, Chinese Society in Thailand: An Analytical History (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1957), pp. 178–79.

83 Baker Christopher John and Phongpaichit Pasuk, A History of Thailand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 9596.

84 Email conversations with Avril Pasqual.

85 Email conversations with Avril Pasqual.

86 Email conversations with Avril Pasqual.

87 Reproduced with permission from Avril Pasqual.

88 See, for example, Pasqual J. C., ‘Chinese Tin Mining in Selangor’, Selangor Journal, 4, 1895, pp. 2529.

89 Straits Times, 16 May 1937, p. 10.

90 Email conversations with Avril Pasqual.

91 ‘Serani Sembang’.

92 Memorandum from O i/c V.F.R.O., Peel Avenue, Penang to O.C., CRO, VFRO (Malaya), Kuala Lumpur, 8 July 1947, 1957/0472465, Arkib Negara Malaysia.

93 See Roff William, The Origins of Malay Nationalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), pp. 178247; Tan Diana, ‘Some Activities of the Straits Chinese British Association in Penang, 1920–1939’, Peninjau Sejarah, 2, 1967, pp. 3040; Kim Khoo Kay, ‘The “Indian Association Movement” in Peninsular Malaysia: The Early Years’, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 65, 1992, pp. 324.

94 Fujimoto, South Indian Muslim Community, pp. 144–52.

95 Straits Times, 5 November 1919, p. 8.

96 Straits Times, 19 January 1946, p. 3.

97 Chapman R. V., ‘What's in a Name?’, Eurasian Review, 1 (1), July 1934.

98 Chapman, ‘What's in a Name?’.

99 Smith J. E., ‘President's Message’, Eurasian Review, 1 (1), July 1934.

100 Augustin James F., ‘Eurasian Education’, Eurasian Review, 2 (1), March 1936.

101 Augustin James F., ‘Eurasian Education Part I – The Home’, Eurasian Review, 1 (5), September 1935.

102 Scrutator, ‘Eurasian Weddings’, Eurasian Review, 1 (2), October 1934.

103 Jill, ‘The Colour Question’, Eurasian Review, 2 (1), March 1936, p. 2.

104 Poco, ‘Be a Credit!’, Eurasian Review, 1 (4), May 1935.

105 Centurion, ‘Race Prejudice’, Eurasian Review, 1 (3), January 1935.

106 ‘Cry Loyalty’, Eurasian Review, 1 (2), October 1934.

107 ‘Anglo-Malayan or Eurasian? A Symposium’, Eurasian Review, 1 (2), October 1934.

108 Estimate based on statistics from C. A. Vlieland, British Malaya: A Report on the 1931 Census and on Certain Problems of ‘Vital Statistics’ (London: Crown Agents for the Colonies 1932) p. 236–37; and ‘Penang Eurasian Association – The Annual Report’, Eurasian Review, 1 (3), January, 1935.

109 Liddhoff D., ‘What is Wrong With Us?Eurasian Review, 2 (4), December 1936.

110 The Editor, ‘A Heart to Heart Talk’, Eurasian Review, 2 (4), December 1936.

111 Straits Times, 1 March 1939, p. 10; and 4 March 1939, p. 14.

112 Certificate of Eurasian Identity, Logbook for the Eurasian Community for the Period December 1941 to March 1942, Microfilm, Perpustakaan Universiti Sains Malaysia.

113 Straits Times, 18 January 1946, p. 3; and 7 February 1946.

114 Straits Times, 29 January 1946, p. 3.

115 Straits Times, 21 June 1946, p. 4.

116 Malaya Tribune, 28 November 1947.

117 Choo et al., ‘Being Eurasian’, p. 113.

* I would like to thank Tim Harper, Sunil Amrith, and Emma Rothschild for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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