Penang and Its Networks of Knowledge brings together the work of eleven distinguished scholars in efforts to recover and preserve cultural-historical knowledge embedded in the fabric of the city of Georgetown and articulate the significance and reach of the global connections created in Penang’s island capital.
The essays contained within this volume explore a diverse range of cultural intersections of knowledge and ideas, from the broad geographical scope of Penang’s newspapers, to the dissemination of religious ideology, to the modern iterations of waqf. Eschewing a more traditional, nationally oriented framework of history, each tells the story of Penang through an outward-looking lens — an approach more suited to a cosmopolitan port city with far-reaching links to the world. Through this lens, Penang’s role as a nexus of both networks of knowledge and trading diasporas becomes abundantly clear.
Penang and Its Networks of Knowledge paints a vibrant portrait of a city in constant flux, where linguistic, cultural, and perceptual worlds intersected at a dizzying pace, creating new and vibrant connections that continue to inform the island’s outlook into the contemporary era. As such, the collection is a valuable addition to the growing movement to document Penang’s history.
Every chapter in Penang and Its Networks of Knowledge details cases of cross-cultural encounters resulting in cross-group relations that have often contributed to outcomes greater than the sum of each individual part, with something very ‘Penang’ as perhaps a defining characteristic. The networks of knowledge at work in the realization of both longstanding cultural traditions and their synthesis into something new has more often than not been both productive and creative — with stories of conflicts commonly ending peacefully if not necessarily to everyone’s satisfaction.
The title ‘Networks of Knowledge’ comes from the chapter by Anthony Reid, who brilliantly weaves together a specific case study of what he calls Penang’s greatest single contribution to Asian ‘networks of knowledge’ — the Collége Général for the training of Catholic priests — together with theories and problematics regarding the nature and roles of both networks themselves and the regions and scales in which they play out. As other chapters show, Penang had key roles to play in other networks, events and activities that were, and are, not just Christian but equivalently ambitious, ideologically and geographically, in extension and scope.
Reid notes that East Asia itself is a region that has ‘suffered more than most’ from ‘mutual incomprehension that stems from differences of language, civilization, history, and memory.’ Penang has long seen such tensions both stoked and assuaged. This is a place where all such differences came together on the same city streets, with mixed but largely amenable results, some of which remain conflicted, others harmonious, but never, it seems, by relying on any overly simple or unsustainable solution, such as segregation, cultural isolation, or refusal to respect and ultimately comprehend.
With this concept of ‘networks of knowledge’ its centerpiece, the narratives presented in this book tell stories that extend both earlier and later than Reid’s time frame; they concern not just the movement and dissemination of knowledge, b0th to and from Penang, and its religious and cultural diversity, but also science, style, and modernity itself. There is also some discussion of the relevance of these issues to the present and to the future and not just in or for Penang.