Penang and Singapore in 1929

April 7 2015

As we sighted the north-western tip of Sumatra, steaming eastwards from Colombo towards Penang, we ran into a flotilla of drift-wood moving, to all appearance, as steadily and as purposefully as our ship, but towards some western goal. As I leaned over the rail, looking at the fleecy clouds banked up against the Sumatran mountains and watching these logs sail by, I thought of the famous drift-wood which assured Columbus that he was approaching a new world. That evening we berthed at Penang in the dark, and I found my new world when I went on shore in the daylight next morning [October 4 1929]. My new world was China – a world on the move in every sense of the words.

The traveller heading for China runs into China coming out to meet him long before he finds himself on what is officially Chinese soil. If he is travelling from North America, I suppose he encounters the vanguard of the Chinese hosts at San Francisco or Vancouver. If he is travelling from Russia, I suppose he encounters them as soon as he has rounded the southern end of Lake Baikal. Travelling from Europe or from India in a P. and O. boat, he runs into China at Penang.

This is on the outbound section of a journey to Japan and back (taking in China, whence the title of the book) between July 23 1929 and January 29 1930. Toynbee had never before been east of Anatolia.

As you land at Penang, your eye is caught by the Chinese characters on the notice-boards. The British Colonial Government, scrupulously endeavouring to hold the scales even, posts up its notices in four scripts and languages, corresponding to the four peoples of Malaya: the Chinese script for the Chinese, an Indian script for the Tamils, the Latin alphabet for the British, and the Arabic for the Malays. To the traveller coming from the West, the Latin and Arabic letters give a touch of familiarity to these polyglot inscriptions (though there is already something strange about those Arabic letters with their mysterious modifications – presumably invented by Malays in order to convey sounds unknown in Arabic, Persian or Turkish). But even on these four-fold notices the flamboyant Chinese characters – sure in touch and confident in gesture – put all the rest into the shade. Later, on the trams, you come across bilingual notices in Chinese and English only (the Malay language seems to be the first to drop out in its native land). Finally, you come to streets of little shops in which nothing but Chinese inscriptions are to be seen. So it is, not only in the British Settlements at Penang and Singapore, but in the capital of the Malay State of Johore. I wonder if it is the same all through Malaya.

Certainly, in the two small corners of Malaya which I visited, I received the impression that the Chinese – by their industry and their energy – are legitimately making the country their own. The shops, the factories, the timber businesses, the rubber plantations, the trading establishments – almost all appear to be in Chinese hands. And it is a country worth acquiring; for, apart from the United States, Malaya is the most prosperous and well-appointed part of the world that I have come across on any journey that I have made since the War. This prosperity, I imagine, is the product of three factors: Chinese industry, British administration, and the bounty of Nature. The Chinese workers have to thank the British empire-builders for giving them this opportunity of which they have taken advantage with such signal success; and, as far as I can learn, the Straits Chinese are duly grateful. They are reported to make loyal and law-abiding and public-spirited citizens of this new Malayan community that is rapidly growing in wealth and numbers under the British flag. And well they may; for they have only to continue steadily on this course in order to become the leading partners in the Malayan firm.

Of the four peoples which are at present co-operating in the development of Malaya, there are only two which can conceivably play the leading part: the Chinese and the British. And while the present and the past belong to the British, I fancy that the Chinese hold the future of Malaya in their hands. It is noteworthy that both these peoples are strangers in Malaya. The native Malays seem to be allowing themselves to be effaced; and the immigrant Tamils, though they share with the Malays the advantage of being at home in a tropical climate, seem destined in Malaya to remain hewers of wood and drawers of water. The race for primacy in Malaya will be run between the British and the Chinese; and the prize will fall to whichever of these two peoples succeeds the better in adapting itself to the tropical environment. I have little doubt that in this peaceful contest the Chinese will be the victors.

As our ship cautiously sidled up to the quay at Singapore [October 5], I studied the faces of the British who had come down to the docks to meet their friends and relations on board. They were melancholy countenances; and, if I read them right, their owners were feeling very little elation at seeing their friends again. They were feeling, I fancy, that it was sad for anybody to be coming back to the Tropics from England. They were feeling that it would be much better if, instead of being there to receive their friends on land, they were going on board themselves in order to sail away home – husbands and wives and children – and never come near the Tropics again in their lives. When at last the gangway was ready, they filed on board; but how slow their movements were, how lifeless their greetings! You would have thought that you were looking on at a parting and not at a reunion. It was all in a minor key.

Then I went ashore myself and prowled for half a day about the city and saw the Chinese; and their cheerful, lively countenances seemed to tell me that for them life in Singapore was full of zest and enjoyment. Cynics will observe that even an Englishman might think Singapore quite a nice place to live in if the only alternative known to him were life in Canton or Amoy in times of revolution. And probably it is true that, whereas the Englishman thinks of home as a paradise compared with Malaya, the Chinese thinks of Malaya as a paradise compared with home. It should also be observed that these better conditions which the Chinese enjoys in Malaya are a gift from the British Empire, which there provides him with a security for his person and his property such as he could never hope to receive at home from the present rulers of his native province. In Kwangtung or Fukien or Chekiang, the laborious Chinese gathers honey in order to be squeezed [squeeze meant extortion] by some tupan or tuchün. In Malaya, under the British ægis, he reaps where he has sown. Is there not a “Protector of Chinese” among the high officials of the British administration? When the gangway went down at Singapore, a uniformed Chinese member of the Protector’s staff was one of the first persons to come on board.

All the same, I do not think that the difference which I saw in the countenances of the British and the Chinese at Singapore is to be explained wholly, or even principally, by the difference between the social environments out of which they have respectively come. For the Chinese in Singapore do not look simply glad to be out of China. They look positively happy to be living in Malaya. The children look happy in the streets, the shopkeepers look happy in their shops. The rich Chinese looks happy as he bowls along in his big new car; and the poor Chinese look happy as they rattle along, crowded together, in their second-hand “tin Lizzie.” And the Chinese houses, whether they are millionaires’ palaces or workmen’s dwellings, look like permanent homes in which the owners look forward to living out their lives and bringing up their children. I believe the Chinese will make themselves at home in Malaya, while the British will never be more than pilgrims and sojourners in the land. In fact, the chief monument of the British Empire there may be the creation of a nineteenth Chinese province – and a very creditable monument it would be.

.               .               .               .               .               .

On the fourth morning [October 10] after we sailed from Singapore I woke up with a most unexpected feeling of exhilaration. For a fortnight I had been enduring the sunless, clammy heat of the Tropics; and though I had managed to resist it by taking the offensive (in the form of repeated singles of deck tennis), I knew very well that if I were condemned to live and work in that climate perpetually, I should gradually come to look and feel like my poor compatriots on the quay at Singapore. In this rainy season in the Tropics, there is all the gloom of a wet grey day in England, with the damp heat added. In fact, one feels very much as though one were sweating in a hothouse under an English sky, only with the hothouse fantastically enlarged until its glass canopy has receded to the firmament. But on this blessed morning I felt as if I had been miraculously translated into the place where I always long to be; and, sure enough, when I ran up on deck, I found myself in – the Mediterranean.

The sun was shining above my head (I had not fairly seen his face since he had set in his glory on the evening when I took the train from Ahmedabad to Bombay). From the sun to the horizon, on every side, there was a cloudless blue sky. A fresh, dry, north-easterly breeze was blowing in my face; and on either hand were jagged islands rising from the sea with the lineaments of the Isles of Greece. We were approaching the south coast of China; and for the third time on my journey from London (the first time had been on the southern descent from the Shipka Pass [link to here], and the second time in the vale of the Orontes) I felt that I was in the Classical World. That feeling has remained with me since: when I was watching the sun set over the same islands, on the evening of the same day, from the peak of Hong-Kong; when I wandered, next morning, among the pines and macchia on the hills behind Kowloon; and when I watched the sun set again to-night over the tangled approaches to Bias Bay. Yes, this southern coast of China is fashioned in the Classical style, yet with a certain fantastic touch which is all its own. On that first bright morning, as we steamed through the islets towards Hong-Kong, ribbons of terra-cotta-coloured fish-spawn trailed across the dark blue sea, transfiguring its Mediterranean surface into the likeness of the interior of a Turkish mosque when it is faced with Kiutahiya tiles. White waterfalls spouted from the grey-green flanks of the islands. And the outlines of the stunted pine-trees against the sky reminded one of Chinese drawings on silk still more than of the figures on Attic lecythi.

So this was the world from which the Straits Chinese had come – a world every bit as different from Singapore as England itself. And yet they are making themselves at home in the Tropics; and other millions of Chinese are making themselves at home in Manchuria, which has the climate of Canada. As I pick up a Shanghai newspaper, already several days old, I read that, in Manchuria, a severe frost has set in. A wonderful nation. They have been expanding – North and South and East and West – for three thousand years. How far will they go?

The archive of a Czech zoologist Jiří Baum and his wife has photographs of Penang and Singapore in 1929. Copyright: used here with permission.

Singapore, the third picture showing Japan Street:

23056-Singapur,_pristav,_1929-1

23084-Singapur,_pristav,_15.III.1929

23094-Singapur,_Japan_Street,_25.VII.1929

23059-Singapur,_Boarding_House,_obyvany_Dr._Baumem,_1.II...

23068-Singapur,_doprava_prasat_na_Singapore_River,_13.II...

23074-Singapur,_partie_s_palmou_a_mraky,_25.II.1929

A Journey to China, or Things Which Are Seen, Constable, 1931

Before that, probably, The Nation and Athenaeum

2 Responses to “Penang and Singapore in 1929”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    “A world every bit as different from Singapore as England itself.”

    Lee Kuan Yew, quoted in his Independent obituary:

    “In 1965 he told an Australian newsman: ‘I am not in fact Chinese. I am Malaysian. I am by race Chinese. I am no more Chinese than you are an Englishman.’ Later he claimed he was ‘no more Chinese than President Kennedy was an Irishman’.”

  2. davidderrick Says:

    The final picture, of the palm, could only be 1929.


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