Jawi Peranakan of Penang
by Shafinaz Ahmad Shaharir
Jawi Peranakan, or previously known as Jawi Pekan, refers to a community that originated from social amalgamation and assimilation – a product of intermarriage between local Malay women and Muslim men from Southern India. Although this community has long existed especially in Kedah, Melaka and Perak, it is believed that the Jawi Peranakan in Penang grew in number when Captain Francis Light established Penang in 1786, which attracted numerous merchants and migrants from the Malay Archipelago, China, India, Arabia and Europe. The merchants and migrants from India and Arabia established a new society in Penang known as Jawi Pekan. Many of the merchants established their businesses in George Town and settled down; some of them married local women, others brought their wives, and the sojourners eventually turned into settlers.
Back then, the term Jawi Pekan referred to the interracial marriage between Malay women and Arabians, Tamils, Bengalis, Punjabis, Gujaratis, or Afghans, leading to assimilation with Malay culture. Additionally, the term was also used for Muslim people not of local Malay descent. However, in 1871, the term Jawi Pekan was dropped by the British in the Census of Straits Settlements and replaced with Jawi Peranakan; the reason being the said term was not specific and did not use the term ‘Peranakan, which supposedly referred to locally born people with mixed local and foreign ancestries.
At first, the intermarriages only took place between wealthy merchants and aristocratic Malay women. However, a change happened in Penang when intermarriages also began to involve non-aristocrats Indian Muslims and local Malay women. This was because many Indian Muslims migrated to Penang under the British and with the opening of Georgetown as a port of call under the East India Company (EIC). Apart from mixed marriages with Indian Muslims, Malay women in Penang also married Jawi Peranakan from Kedah who migrated to Penang. In addition, the Indian Muslim migrants married local Malay women since they shared the Islamic faith. It is believed that because of the shared religious belief system, it enabled the affluent Indian Muslim tradesmen and merchants to be accepted among the locals, and this resulted in the intermarriages. The long process of amalgamation and assimilation of Malay culture experienced by this society over the years had caused most of the new generation of Jawi Peranakan to adopt many Malay customs and traditions, and no longer maintain their cultures from South India. They were also fluent in speaking the Malay dialect of Penang (Tanjong), while also being able to converse fluently in both English and Tamil languages.
Jawi Peranakan was an elite group during the early decades of Penang’s establishment; they were highly educated and wealthy as well as successful merchants. They also published the first Malay newspaper in Malaysia known as Jawi Peranakkan. In fact, it is reported that Malay journalism history started in 1876 with the publication of the Jawi Peranakkan newspaper in Singapore. The newspaper was founded by Muhammad Said Dada Muhyiddin, who was of Jawi Peranakan descent. When he passed away in 1888, the management together with the printing press passed to his widow. However, the newspaper eventually ceased publication in 1895. During the time when the weekly newspaper was still in print, it was published every Monday and initially sold for 30 cents per copy. It was written in Jawi, covering local and foreign news. Jawi is derived from the Arabic script and it was used widely by the Malays before the Rumi (Romanized) alphabet was introduced.
In conclusion, the Jawi Peranakan in Penang is a unique society with a rich culture and heritage that reflect the vast diversity of ethnic groups in Malaysia. In fact, the people of Jawi Peranakan are now largely identified as Malay due to the social amalgamation and assimilation with Malay cultures since a long time ago. They have adopted a plethora of Malay cultures such as food, dress, rite of passage ceremonies such as wedding, and they also use the Malay language. The communal strength of this community is that they are a hybrid of Malay and Indian identities, which make them special and different from the rest of Malay community in Penang and Malaysia as a whole.
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