Article by Sunil S. Amrith
Every weekend in 1979, Ooi Cheng Ghee took his Leica camera out to the docks of Penang, an island off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. Mr. Ooi, a local physician of Chinese descent, roamed the working-class district of Georgetown to document life in the harbor. By year’s end, he had taken 4,000 portraits, mostly of first-and second-generation migrants from India.
Penang is also known as Pulau Pinang, the Malay word for betel nut. Workers weighing sacks of the nuts outside a Little India warehouse. Ooi Cheng Ghee
The photographs chronicle a vanishing world. You can see it in the sad but defiant eyes of an old man hauling jute sacks of betel nuts, an ancient trade that was fading away. By then, Mr. Ooi said, the Indian enclave of Penang “gave off a feeling of having been abandoned.” Modernization had eclipsed the commercial and social patterns of earlier waves of globalization.
Many coastal cities across Southeast Asia gained prominence in the 15th century, as power ebbed from ancient upland capitals like Angkor and Bagan, which had become riven by conflict and were weakened by the collapse of agricultural production. Ports developed as ocean trade grew. Textiles from Gujarat and the Coromandel Coast of India were exchanged for staple goods like rice or spices and medicinal products from across Southeast Asia. The Chinese market was the most lucrative of all.
A peddler who sold food and drink from his bicycle near the docks of old Penang. Ooi Cheng Ghee
Malacca, situated at the junction of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, emerged in the 1400s as the greatest trading emporium in the region, perhaps even the world. Many smaller ports also thrived, including Aceh, Banten and Manila.
Most were small principalities ruled by Muslim families, but their populations were multiethnic. The important political office of harbormaster was often occupied by foreigners, often Indians. Alongside Chinese, Indian and Arab merchants, the port towns relied on a workforce of local peoples and slaves from South and Southeast Asia. When the Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511, the apothecary Tomé Pires claimed to hear 84 languages spoken in its marketplace.
After the Portuguese, it was the Dutch who came, then the British and the French, setting up coastal footholds around the Indian Ocean. A British colony was founded in Penang, a strategic location on the Strait of Malacca, by the East India Company in 1786 as a trading and military base. As the British expanded into Malaya in the 1870s and established plantations, Penang prospered. By the early 20th century, Malaya was the world’s largest producer of rubber and Penang among the most culturally diverse cities on earth.
Some migrants moved in search of fortune; others were forced to relocate by colonial authorities, labor recruiters or difficult circumstances at home. The Chinese went to all parts of Southeast Asia; Indians stayed mostly within the British Empire, concentrating in the Malay Peninsula, Sri Lanka and the area then known as Burma.
But the ports’ fortunes were always precarious, contingent on the fluctuations of global trade. The Great Depression hit them hard, forcing many migrant workers to head back home. Singapore and Malaysia introduced immigration controls for the first time.
World War II severed already-strained trading links. After decolonization in the late 1940s and 1950s, newly independent governments favored industrialization over the export of basic goods, and the old port cities suffered. India’s drive for self-sufficiency in food — supplemented as necessary by aid from the United States and bilateral deals — brought a decline in the Bay of Bengal’s traditional free trade in rice.
By the second half of the 20th century, nearly all of the old ports of the eastern Indian Ocean had been eclipsed by investment in new facilities as part of national development plans: Penang lost out to Port Klang, closer to Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur; Calcutta gave way to Visakhapatnam. Singapore is the great exception. With few natural resources and, after independence from Malaysia in 1965, a limited domestic market, it adapted by investing in a state-of-the-art container port. The old docks at Collyer Quay and Clarke Quay have long since been turned into commercial and entertainment districts.
Even the new ports that are built on very old sites — Hambantota in Sri Lanka was visited by Arab dhows centuries ago — are unmistakably modern creations: huge industrial facilities that are self-contained and divorced from their surroundings. Inhuman in size, these mega-harbors are built for an economy of scale.
If the harbors of the past were set up to make the most of a site’s natural advantages — like the sheltering shape of a bay — the new ports remake coastlines according to their own needs, dredging waters and reclaiming land. Fishing communities are relocated. Beaches disappear. Erosion accelerates. There is one plan to spend $60 billion by 2020 in order to build a port every 32 kilometers or so along the coast of India.
In comparison, the old port cities are a picture of quaint cosmopolitanism; no wonder they are now looked upon with nostalgia. In 2008, Unesco declared Penang’s Georgetown area a World Heritage Site for bearing “testimony to a living multicultural heritage and tradition of Asia, where many religions and cultures met and coexisted.”
The designation has brought a heritage boom. Chinese shophouses have been converted into boutique hotels, with the attendant coffee shops and art festivals. Thanks to this trend, a book of Mr. Ooi’s photographs was published in 2011, after his work drew little attention for many years.
It’s a revivalism mostly for tourist consumption, but it has also spawned an unprecedented interest in family history among locals. Small community-led museums have opened in Penang, Singapore and elsewhere in the region, and more are planned. They tap memories long kept dormant because the assertion of ethnic identities, particularly migrant origins, raises uncomfortable questions about relations between peoples, and entitlements such as citizenship.
But even these restoration efforts can produce a romanticized rendering of the past; they airbrush the ugly realities of Asia’s earlier globalization. The old port cities boomed on the back of an underclass with few rights, poorly paid migrants who worked desperately to improve their lot.
Mr. Ooi points out that in his photographs of Penang, “There were no curtains on any of the windows” — a sign, in his view, that people “knew they weren’t staying.” These societies were multiethnic because they had to be; their cacophony of languages and competing gods made them messy, sometimes violent, places of rough-and-ready compromise.
Such hardships endure today. The dormitory settlements of South Asian migrant workers who toil from Dubai to Singapore are often out of view and far from the container ports they service. By dint of the size of these harbors, the connections between the jobs and their human cost are perhaps less immediate than they were centuries ago or even when Mr. Ooi photographed the docks of Penang. But they are no less real.
And we know it. That’s why we recoil at these mammoth creations and look back on the past with longing. And that’s why when we see in the past the origins of the modern behemoths, we look away again.
Sunil S. Amrith teaches history at Birkbeck College, London. He is the author of “Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants.”
Article originally featured in The New York Times, 10 January 2014.
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