Review of ‘The Chulia in Penang:Patronage and Place-Making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque 1786–1957’ by Barbara W. Andaya

The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque 1786–1957.

Khoo Salma Nasution

Penang: Areca Books, 2014, 560 pages, 200+ maps, photographs and illustrations,
ISBN 978-967-5719-15-8. RM$135.00

It is very hard in this short review to do justice to the years of meticulous research and the personal commitment that will make The Chulia in Penang required reading not only for Penang specialists but for those working on Malaysia, British imperialism, and Indian diasporas more generally.  Anchored by the history of the Kapitan Kling Mosque, the narrative traces the fortunes of Penang’s Tamil Muslim community in over 500 richly-illustrated pages, from 1786 until the declaration of Malaya’s independence in 1957. The material is organized in six parts, each subdivided into chapters. Part One discusses the long-standing role of the Chulias in maritime trade, their position as Muslims in India, and early Chulia settlement in Penang, introducing readers to the Kapitan Kling mosque and the Chulia ‘captain’, Cauder Mohuddeen.  The second part concentrates on the first half of the nineteenth century, using case studies to track the evolution of a new ‘Jawi Pekan’ identity as Chulia men married local women. Part Three begins with the British Government’s assumption of authority over former East India Company possessions in 1867. The management of Muslim endowments – buildings, lands and institutions – became progressively more subject to British oversight, with inevitable controversies and compromises. The fourth part highlights to Chulia involvement in Islamic reformist movements and the Muhammadan Advisory Board, while the outbreak of World War and associated anti-colonialism drew some Chulia towards Pan-Islam and Indian nationalism.  Part Five focuses on Chulia business activities, especially in relation to trade and shipping, where Tamil Muslim specialization was everywhere evident. A final section deals with the Penang experience during in the Second World War. The book concludes with a discussion of the new questions faced by Chulia descendants, initially uneasily positioned between the demands of their Indian heritage and their allegiance to independent Malaya in 1957, but for the most part successfully adjusting to the new order.

Testifying to years of committed digging, the detail presented here could only have been amassed by a true Penangite who knows where to look for sources, for maps, for photographs, for paintings, for informants, and who has the tenacity to follow up every possible lead. It has also opened up avenues for further research, especially for those who can read Tamil, such as Chulia relations with the Nattukottai Chettiar, the powerful Indian financier caste. Of course, organizing this wide-ranging body information posed challenges, and the chapter divisions in some of the six parts cohere better than others. A degree of overlap was probably inevitable, so that there is some repetition of names of locations, events and individuals, but the index is a useful tool for researchers tracking a particular topic. The text is clear and eminently accessible, carefully referenced, with all the necessary explanatory notes. The illustrations, from private collections, archives and family albums, represent an unparalleled depository of visual sources on Penang, with captions that help identify people and places. Urban renewal in the 1920s and early 1930s transformed much of the waqf areas, as old areas were razed and communities displaced, while the destruction of buildings by Allied bombs during the Second World War makes the photographs of buildings that are no longer extant all the more valuable. The thoughtful foreword by Professor Rajeswary Ampalavanar Brown combines scholarship and readability, setting the tone for the entire book. Produced with the assistance of Think City, the price is extremely reasonable for such an encyclopedic volume, and Areca Books should be congratulated for a superb production overall.

One of the ‘take-aways’ from this book is obviously the Chulia contribution to Penang’s economy and its cosmopolitan culture.  Their connections with India and the surrounding region helped make Penang a global pathway, the crossroads for incoming ideas, especially in regard to Islam, but also in many other aspects, from mamak cuisine to popular entertainment like the Boria or Bangsawan, At the same time, the Chulia community developed a strong sense of local identity, much of which can be attributed to Cauder Mohudeen, his descendants and their families.  The Chulia and ‘Jawi Pekan’community was held together through what Pierre Nora has called ‘sites of memory’ – mosques, shrines, cemeteries, and waqf sites. It was in these spaces that Muslims were joined together by their faith, the tolerance that has always been associated with Penang demonstrated in the arrangements for the alternating attendance between the Melayu and the Kapitan Kling mosques.

Yet kinship links and a shared faith did not necessarily mean consensus, and court cases provide detailed evidence of disputes over the management of wills, estates and endowments.  Loyalty to a particular mosque or religious leader could spark tension, and disputes could arise over such as questions as whether the mihrab in the Kapitan Kling mosque was correctly oriented towards Mecca and more seriously, the tensions between reformist and ‘traditionalist’ interpretations of Islam. The evolution of a colonial legal order based on British interpretations also affected the interpretation of how Muslim endowments could be used; even the Indo-Saracenic architectural style employed in renovating the Kapitan Kling Mosque reflected European preferences. Indian Muslims, especially the Jawi Pekan, faced other questions in the early twentieth century: was their primary loyalty to the British Empire or to a world-wide ummah?  How should they respond to calls for the restoration of the Caliphate or alternatively,  to Indian nationalism?  As Muslims, could they be incorporated within the boundaries of ‘Malayness’? Issues of allegiance and cultural affiliation resurfaced with a renewed intensity after the Second World War, as Malaya moved closer to independence, but among Penangites strong sense of shared Muslim identity was retained. It was this common religion, combined with their education as “Malay boys” that helped Penang Indians (many of whom joined UMNO) adjust to the expectations of an independent Malaya.

The Chulia in Penang will be an dispensable source of information for those interested specifically in Penang history, but it should also be a standard citation in bibliographies dealing with many other topics, from Indian migration and Muslim cultures to regional trade and colonial town planning. Recording and preserving a historical record that might otherwise be lost forever, The Chulia in Penang has set a benchmark for future explorations of communal pasts in Malaysia, and has provided a background to issues of identity that are still pertinent today.

Barbara Watson Andaya

University of Hawai‛i