10 things about: Jawi Peranakan anthropologist Datuk Dr Wazir

Picture by K.E. Ooi
Picture by K.E. Ooi

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GEORGE TOWN, June 26 — Far from being content to just teach, economic anthropologist Datuk Dr Wazir Jahan Karim is one who likes to get involved.

Passionate about women’s issues, engendered poverty, gender equality, and most recently, the preservation of the Jawi Peranakan heritage, Wazir continuously conducts research and writes books about these issues.

Currently she is the executive director and founder of the Academy of Socio-Economic Research and Analysis which is a global think-tank and research collective that focuses on global research and analysis to promote democracy, social equality and justice.

Recently, she founded the Penang Jawi Peranakan Heritage Society to preserve the Jawi Peranakan heritage that she believes is an integral part of Penang’s heritage.

She also wrote a recipe book on Jawi Peranakan cuisine, Feasts of Penang: Muslim Culinary Heritage, and is now working on another book on the history and heritage of the Jawi Peranakan.

Here, Wazir talks about her latest endeavour.

In her own words:

I’m writing two books at the same time now one on Boria and another one on Jawi Peranakan heritage. The Boria book is in its final draft, but I’m looking for a grant. They said these kind of books don’t sell well so I have to look for a grant. Recipe books, it seems, sell very well... some even better than best-selling novels. My recipe book is going into the second edition.

I started writing this book on the Straits Muslims in 2010 but then this was like a general book to show the story of the Muslim heritage here in Penang people were more interested in the food aspect because food is something that excites a lot of people, so I did the book Feasts of Penang. Then that book created this Jawi House Cafe and after that, more people wanted to know about the Jawi Peranakan because they are like the Straits Chinese.

I started doing more research on them, I started interviewing the families. A lot of these families are dying off and the young ones don’t know. This is because the Jawi Peranakan, they are very modernist Muslims. It’s very important to say that. They don’t follow the trend of Islam that you get in Saudi, they are modernist Muslims.

Modernist Muslims are those very comfortable with Western culture, they like to dance, they are more into modern professions, they are exactly like the Straits Chinese but they are Muslims. Actually, they are friends with the Chinese Peranakan or Straits Chinese, they are very close friends, the parents do business together. Like my mother’s friends a lot of them are from St George’s Girls’ School. And another thing, a lot of them send their children to missionary schools because they want them to have English education. The men all will go to Penang Free School, not the Arab schools, they are very different from the Wahhabi trend. They all become professionals.

My mother was the founder of the Women’s Institute and she was the co-founder of Pan- Pacific & South-east Asia Women’s Association, the oldest women’s pacifist association in the world that was formed in 1914 in Hawaii. So, imagine, this kind of tradition is so different from the modern dakwah tradition of today. A lot of times, our children are very cosmopolitan. They are very cultured, they study overseas, they are more into English than into Malay or Arabic but they do speak Malay as well. They are very different from the mamaks, the mamaks speak Tamil at home and the Jawi Peranakan speak Malay and English. Then because I collected so much documents and data, we collected like more than 200 old photos of Jawi Peranakan women and old performances, we are putting all that into the book.

I’m interviewing many Jawi Peranakan families for the book now. The families are family friends, a lot we know through association, there are many professionals from Penang in KL, we did some tracing and they are like descendants from old families here so we will interview them and they will recommend aunties and uncles who are older than them.

We always start off with well-known figures but they are young, they are in their 50s and 60s, so there’s still some older women in their 80s and 90s. I missed quite a few, I was going to interview them, they just died. It’s quite interesting because a lot of them still has the same emphasis on material comfort, material culture, education, modern dressing, modern interpretation of Islam, emphasis on international schools, emphasis on sports, games. You find a lot of these families are Jawi Peranakan.

They are not necessarily elite. Like for example, the traditional Jawi Peranakan woman, she’d be very good in baking and cooking and all that. Then when we order cakes, we find that they are Jawi Peranakan. The Malays are very good in Malay kuih but those who do extra things like pulut kunyit, the curry puffs, the cream puffs or pie, they are Jawi Peranakan. It’s quite interesting. You will see this in Penang. In KL, all the women are good in everything because it’s so competitive there. In Penang, it’s so traditional, you will find the Indian Muslims are good for different things, the Jawi Peranakan are good for different things, the Malays are good for different things. And Penang is one big mosaic.

There are a lot of Jawi Peranakan still around, you can find them at Jalan Sekerat, Transfer Road, Chulia Street. The Muslim history is very old and not well documented. Thousands of the Jawi Peranakan families are still around but they don’t call themselves Jawi Peranakan anymore, they just call themselves Malays. The children are called Malays. Like the Chinese Peranakan, they call themselves Chinese.

A Peranakan woman marries a Chinese man, the children are then Chinese. So where is the Peranakan? It comes through the food, the sambal belacan, the tumbuk-tumbuk tradition. So, a Jawi Peranakan woman marries a Malay, the children are registered as Malay. The Jawi Peranakan are listed as Bumiputras. The Tamil Muslims, a lot of them are classified as others. More than half in Penang are listed as others. That’s why they are reviving the Tamil identity and culture more.

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