The Evolution of the Jawi Peranakan 4 December 2018 – Posted in: Book Excerpts

The origin of the ‘Jawi’ identity is still obscure but probably has its origins in Kedah and the so-called Siamese Malay States. While this term was initially associated with people from Kedah with foreign ancestry prior to their settling in Penang, the category came to be inclusive of all Muslims with any trace of foreign ancestry. In an era when foreign men came to Malaya without their wives and womenfolk, many formed unions with locally born Jawi Pekan and Malay women from Penang, Kedah or other Malay kingdoms, or other local and indigenous women such as the orang asli, sea gypsies, Siamese, Burmese as well as Batak, Javanese or Balinese slaves who were being sold in Penang. Traders, soldiers and mariners might source wives and partners from the hinterland populations, if not from among the women dependants and slaves found in Penang. Men from the Indian subcontinent could ignore caste or class restrictions to pair with women from backgrounds dissimilar to their own. As the emigration of Chinese women was restricted in the nineteenth century, Chinese men also took non-Chinese women as wives. J.D. Vaughan observed in 1858 that

The mixed races, namely the offspring of Kling, Bengali and Chinese fathers and Malay mothers, adopt portions of the costume worn by both parents so that a description of the dress worn by all natives in the Straits Settlements that are classified as Malays would be a description of the apparel of Klings, Bengalis and Chinese.1

In addition, due to the relatively good living conditions found in Penang, the offspring from intermarriages or cohabitations in other ports were often brought back to Penang to be raised.

As a cosmopolitan port town, nineteenth-century Penang society was ‘oddly hybrid’, as much intermingling and intermarriage took place among the diaspora populations. Although officially a British settlement, interethnic unions were common even among the so-called ‘European’ society.2 Like the Straits Chinese or Baba Nyonya, the Jawi Peranakan evolved into a fabulously rich culture with its own patois, kinship terms, cuisine, dress, jewellery and other expressions.3

It is important to remember that the composition and identity of the Jawi Pekan and Jawi Peranakan varied over time. In certain periods, Tamil Muslims historically formed the majority of the Muslim population in Penang island, so a high percentage of Jawi Peranakans, Jawi Pekans, and subsequently Penang Malays were likely to have some Tamil ancestry. While some children, especially the eldest sons, might be taken back to India by their fathers for education, the majority would be educated locally; indeed, in some cases, the fathers might be forced by financial circumstances to abandon their Malayan families, leaving their children to grow up with the local wives’ families. These ‘left behind’ offspring were likely to assume a Malay identity.4 They were gradually assimilated into the ‘Penang Malay’ population to the extent that second and third generation migrants would identify themselves for all practical purposes as Malays. This shift of identity, which happened under certain historical circumstances, is extensively discussed in Helen Fujimoto’s seminal work, The South Indian Muslim Community and the Evolution of the Jawi Peranakan in Penang up to 1948.5 However, a short overview will be provided here.

Since the time when Francis Light recruited Long Fakir Kandu into his team in the late eighteenth century, it appears that the Jawi Pekan continued to play a role in the Penang administration. In 1836 James Low first described the ‘Jawi Pakan’ as ‘the offspring of a man of Hindostan and a Malayan woman’. He offered a condescending description of a racial stereotype but testified that the East India Company government found the Jawi Pekan to be indispensable in local administration and dealings with the Malays:

When under strict management, the Jawi Pakans are undoubtedly a very useful class in the Straits; and might not conveniently be dispensed with. They are acute accountants, expert, but not very liberal merchants; good assistants in public offices, and the only natives here who are acquainted with land-measuring. They are often smart interpreters of two or more languages, wily diplomatic agents, and generally respectable in the outward man.6

As seen earlier, the early permanent settlers among the Chulias amassed landed property and married among themselves in order to consolidate their wealth. J.R. Logan wrote in 1868 that the oldest Jawi Pekan families were closely related to each other and to the royal house of Kedah in an arrangement probably harking back to the days of the saudagar raja:

The class of these men in the public offices are mostly related by blood or marriage. The progenitors were Jawi-pakans of Kedah, but while some of the present ist and 2nd cousins are not distinguishable from Malays, others are hardly distinguishable in person from Klings. The paid Police Penghulus, the collectors of Government rents and Municipal rates, the land measurers, the shroffs, Malay Writers and Interpreters have always largely belonged to this family alliance, which also includes several leading men of the jumahas, many of the principal Malay and Kling (Pinang born) merchants, and maintain a hereditary connection with the Kedah Courts. Members of it are often employed by the Raja of Kedah as kranis and land-measurers.7

Indeed, Logan quoted Light’s characterization of the ‘king’s merchant’ Jamal — who, as the Sultan of Kedah’s wily courtier, sycophant-cum-gatekeeper, effectively controlled the Kedah administration — and cynically remarked that the very same description ‘would serve as an account of the administration of justice in the Malay States at the present day’. Fitting Logan’s description of ‘land measurer’ was one Loong Mohamed Ally who surveyed the site of the Burmese and Siamese temples in Pulau Tikus, granted by the Penang government in 1845; ‘Loong’ in this case is a variant spelling of the Siamese title ’Luang’.8

From the 1830s to the 1860s, Jawi Pekans were described by James Low and J.R. Logan as being conspicuous among the agricultural populations in Province Wellesley. By virtue of their linguistic and entrepreneurial skills, the Jawi Pekan acted as interlocutors between the Siamese, Malays, Chinese and British. After the Siamese invasion of 1821, thousands of Kedah refugees started a new life in Province Wellesley by planting and clearing land, surviving the transition with loans secured against the titles taken out on their land. This burgeoning population opened up a new economic frontier for the enterprising Jawi Pekan. Although usury is prohibited to Muslims, Low remarked that the Jawi Pekan, as well as some Chinese and Hindus, lent money on interest to the ‘natives’ and often took advantage of their ignorance and ‘careless habits of business’ to foreclose on their mortgages. In this way, the Jawi Pekan moneylenders, probably in cahoots with Jawi Pekan land measurers and kranis, managed to acquire much land in Province Wellesley.9 John Turnbull Thomson, a young surveyor in Province Wellesley in 1839, described one such entrepreneur, Kader Mastan, in action:

He was a Jawee Pakan (an Arab Kling), who had settled for many years amongst the Malays for the purpose of paddy-planting, trading, and making his fortune. By his intelligence and industry, he had amassed some wealth, which was principally invested in rice-fields, coconut-groves, opium, cloths, nails, and tobacco, houses, slaves, and concubines… Kader Mustan had extensive dealings with both races. He bought sugar, pepper, and indigo from the Chinese, and furnished them in return with opium, cloths, and hardware. He bought rattans, gharu, and simamboo10 from the Malays, whom he fed with rice, and clothed with sarongs; and, when they ran in debt — which was frequently the case — he took their women in pawn, and disposed of them when they could not pay the debts.11

As there was a lack of marriageable women in that milieu, Kader Mastan happily ventured into marriage brokering. He offered the slaves and concubines of hi5 household in marriage to those Chinese who would at least nominally convert to Islam, expecting from these converts only a minimal observance of the faith such as abstinence from pork and liquor. As Thomson coolly observed, ‘it was generally by this plain, easy, and business-like process, that proselytes were increased’. By playing this unusual dual role as Islamic proselytizer and wifebroker, Kader Mastan increased his wealth and status among both the Muslim and Chinese and gained Islamic merit by procuring conversions.

In 1858 J.D. Vaughan,12 police superintendent in Penang, writing of the Malays of Penang and Province Wellesley, confirmed that Jawi Pekan identity applied to children of Chinese-Malay/Muslim marriages, and offered his own take on the term ‘Jawi Pekan’:

the offspring of Malay mothers and Kling or Bengali fathers [are called] Jawi bukans [Jawi Pekans], Jawi pukans, and Jadi bukans indiscriminately, the last term is most commonly used in Pinang. The children of Chinese by Malays come under the same designation when they adopt the mother’s nation, but those that follow their father’s are termed Babas… Jawi bukan appears to be the right term and no doubt was originally used by the Malays to distinguish the half breeds from themselves; ‘Jawi pakan’ might also have been early used to distinguish the inhabitants of the towns from those of the country; and the last term appears to be a corruption of either, it is however the usual name given to all half breeds except those that adopt the Chinese customs.13

While it was relatively common for Muslim men to marry or cohabit with non-Muslim women and for their offspring to be accepted into the Muslim community, the converse could be deemed unacceptable to both sides. The following report about an unfortunate woman indicates what happened when certain communal boundaries were transgressed: 

A serious quarrel arose on Monday night between the Hindus and Mahomedans on account of one Katijah Bee, a Mahomedan woman from India, who it would appear lived with a Kling syce, and had borne him three children, and who on the night of the 5th instant died in childbirth. Her remains were not allowed to be interred in the Mahomedan cemetery, nor were they allowed a place in the Hindoos’. She was, therefore, buried without any ceremony in the Rifle practice ground, late in the evening of Saturday. Party feeling on this account became aroused to settle the question of the meum and tuum [‘mine or yours’] of the corpse, hence the riot.14

Ibrahim Munshi, son of Munshi Abdullah, who visited Penang in 1872, noted the diversity of the Penang Muslim population.15 He observed that the majority of coolies working on the waterfront were Tamils (Kling). The ‘local-born Tamils’ (peranakkan Keling) involved in trade were ‘the sons of the Jawi Pekan’ (anak-anak Jawi Pekan), whereas the ‘local-born Malays’ (peranakkan Melayu) sailed and traded, or worked as cobblers and other occupations in Acheen Street.16 Chulia Street was the gathering place of the South Indian and Jawi Pekan races (bangsa-bangsa Keling serta Jawi Pekan).

After British intervention into the peninsula in 1874, the colonial government, in its role as a ‘protector’ of the Malay States, started to groom the Malays of those states to play a role in the local administration the ‘Malays’ now included ‘foreign Malays’, referring to recent migrants from the archipelago such as the Sumatrans or Banjarese. European members of the Malayan civil service were required to be fluent in the Malay language; among them were amateur ethnographers who essentialised ‘the Malays’ in their descriptions. While in the early and mid-nineteenth century, the original Jawi Pekan were grudgingly appreciated for their clerical and interpretive skills, now ‘real Malays’ were preferred for government jobs. By this time, later generations of Jawi Pekan started to give the term a negative connotation, associating it with the working class and marginal elements of society. In Penang’s newspapers, the ‘Jawi Pekan’ often appeared in association with petty crimes and skirmishes around the time of Muharram. On the other hand, the Jawi Peranakkan, a Malay paper in Jawi script that was published in Singapore, popularised and dignified the term ‘Jawi Peranakan’. The paper drew its readership from the more affluent town Muslims of mixed ancestry in Penang, and helped to create an ‘imagined community’ among them. The newspaper’s closure in 1895 coincided with the beginning of the decline of the Jawi Peranakan identity. 

The Jawi Pekan and other examples of hybridity were not considered anomalous, until the introduction of the census forced people to state their ‘ethnicity’. The census was a prerequisite to the structuring of ethnically-based policies. The Jawi Pekan were enumerated in the first official census of the Straits Settlements in 1871. In 1881 Jawi Pekans numbered 5,462 out of 91,977 ‘Malays and other Natives of the Archipelago’. The Jawi Pekan population in Penang peaked in 1891 at 8,599 Iawi Pekans out of 106,756 ‘Malays and other Natives of the Archipelago’, which included Acehnese, Boyanese, Bugis, Dyaks, Javanese, Jawi Pekans, Malays and Manilamen. The same census recorded 25,173 Tamils out of 27,239 ‘Tamils and other Natives of India’. This indicates that local-born Tamil Muslims were probably quickly absorbed into the ‘Malay’ population.17 The 1911 census reported a 41 percent decrease from the 1901 census, explaining that the decline in the numbers of Jawi Pekans is probably incorrect ‘due to these people being returned as Malays’. As a result, the Jawi Pekans were not enumerated in further censuses.18

In the Malay Reservation Enactment of 1913, which was passed to safeguard the ownership of Malay lands, a ‘Malay’ person was defined as ‘a person belonging to any Malayan race who habitually speaks the Malay language or any Malayan language and professes the Moslem religion’.19 Versions of this definition were later adopted in other enactments, censuses and administrative policies. From then on, the advantages of Jawi Pekans registering themselves as Malays were too obvious to be ignored.

At the same time, the existence of Indian Muslims as a permanent community in the Straits Settlements was hardly recognised by the colonial authorities. When the first complete census was taken in 1891, the Indian Muslims were in no way differentiated from the other Indians. The 1901 census only enumerated ‘634 Mahomedan Tamils’ in Penang, although it was admitted that the survey was probably unsatisfactory.20


1. Vaughan, ‘Notes on the Malays of Pinang and Province Wellesley’, 151-52.
2. Christine Doran, ‘”Oddly Hybrid”: childbearing and childrearing practices in colonial Penang, 1850-1875’, Women’s History Review 6, no. 1 (1997).
3. For a list of kinship terms, see Omar bin Yusoff, ‘Kaum “Jawi Peranakan” di Pulau Pinang’, 131. For a general background, see Fujimoto, The South Indian Muslim Community, and Wazir Jahan Karim, ed., Straits Muslims: Diasporas of the Northern Passage of the Straits of Malacca (Penang: Straits G.T., 2009).
4. In the case of the Hadhramis, A.W. Aljelany wrote to The Straits Times: ‘How then can we account for the twelve thousand Malaya-born Hadramis who are left to be assimilated. Well, their fathers have been forced by circumstances to abandon them. They would indubitably have taken them to Hadramaut had they had any choice in the matter.’ Similarly, many children of Indian Muslim fathers grew up with their mothers’ families and assimilated into the local Jawi Pekan or Penang Malay culture. The Straits Times, 16 June 1935, 10.
5. See Fujimoto, The South Indian Muslim Community.
6. Low, The British Settlement of Penang, 250-51.
7. J.R. Logan, ‘Plan for a Volunteer Police’, 198.
8. The site survey of the Burmese and Siamese temples was ‘certified under the Hand of Loongh Mohamed Ally. Land Measurer’. [Nai Deng Sararaks], ‘Souvenir in commemoration of the inauguration ceremony of the New Buddha Image Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram (Pulau Tikus Siamese Tempie)’ (c. 1948): 4.
9. Low, The British Settlement of Penang, 139-40.
10. Gaharu is agarwood. Semambu (Calamus scipionum) is a type of rattan used for making cane furniture and walking sticks.
11. Thomson, Some Glimpses into Life in the Far East, 2nd ed (London: Richardson & Company, 1865), 84.86. The Chinese who took up sugar and pepper planting in Province Wellesley were of the Teochew (Chaozhou) dialect group.
12. J.D. Vaughan (1825-91) was a seaman with the East India Company who participated in the capture of Brunei. He was superintendent of police in Penang in the early 18505. He served as Assistant Resident Councillor of Singapore in 1861 and eventually became a prominent lawyer.
13. Vaughan, ‘Notes on the Malays of Pinang and Province Wellesley’, 137.
14. Straits Times Weekly Issue, 17 September 1884, 1.
15. Amin Sweeney and Nigel Phillips, trans., The Voyages of Mohamed Ibrahim Munshi (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1975), 101; Mohd Fadzil Othman, ed. and annot., Kisah Pelayaran Muhammad Ibrahim Munsyi (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1980), 114-15. Mohamed Ibrahim (1840-1904) was born in Malacca, grew up in Singapore and studied at the Keasberry mission school, where one of his classmates was the future Maharaja of Johor. Ibrahim was a teacher (munshi) to several Europeans, including Alan Skinner, who became Inspector of Schools. Ibrahim Munshi taught at the Telok Blangah Malay School and later became the State Secretary and finally the Menteri Besar of Johor.
16. See Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, ‘The Legacy of Sumatran Trade’, 67-96.
17. E.M. Merewether, ‘Report on the Census of the Straits Settlements taken on 5 April 1891’ (Singapore: Singapore Government Printing Press, 1892), 95-96.
18. Fujimoto, The South Indian Muslim Community, 40, 194-95.
19. Federated Malay States Enactment No. 15, 1913.
20. J.R. Innes, ‘Report on the Census of the Straits Settlements taken on the lst March 1901’ (Singapore: Singapore Government Printing Press, 1902); H. Marriot, ’Report on the Census of the Straits Settlements taken on 10 March 1911’ (Singapore: Singapore Government Printing Press, 1912). The superintendent of the census remarked on the composition of the Indian community and suggested that the ‘Indian Races’ could be classified as ‘North Indian Mohamedans, North Indian Hindus, South Indian Mohamedans and South Indian Hindus’. He also advised on making a special return on ‘Straits-born Indians’.

Excerpt Source

“Chapter 8: The Jawi Peranakan.” The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making Around the Kapitan Kling Mosque, 1786–1957. By Khoo S. Nasution. 1st ed. Penang: Areca Books, 2014. 121-27. Print.

About The Author

KHOO SALMA NASUTION is a fifth generation Penang peranakan and an author, publisher and heritage advocate. She have written or co-written more than a dozen books on Penang and Perak, on the subjects of social history, cultural heritage and sustainable development. Some of them are published under her publishing house, Areca Books. She was president of Penang Heritage Trust and am currently custodian of the Sun Yat Sen Museum, Penang, at 120 Armenian Street. She have been involved in sustainability initiatives, cultural entrepreneurship and capacity building for heritage networks in Southeast Asia.

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