The Eurasian community of Penang and what’s next for them

Datuk Eustace Anthony Nonis speaks to Malay Mail about his book on the Eurasian community in Penang. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
Datuk Eustace Anthony Nonis speaks to Malay Mail about his book on the Eurasian community in Penang. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

GEORGE TOWN, Aug 5 — For centuries, the Eurasian community formed an integral part of the multi-racial society in Penang, yet little is known about them.

While Eurasian cuisine and music have been extensively covered, their origins have not received as much attention.

The story of how the community first settled in George Town, while another group populated Pulau Tikus, was only recounted in a book titled The Eurasians: A Founding Community of Penang by Datuk Eustace Anthony Nonis.

Nonis, 76, wanted the history of this small community to be preserved, so he did his own research and compiled the small volume on his ancestors’ history several years ago.

“Some of the street names in George Town were due to the Eurasians if you look at Church Street, when the Eurasians came, they built a church there, and that’s why it was called Church Street and the bishop lived on the next street, (and) that’s why it was called Bishop Street,” he pointed out.

The early Eurasian community settled around inner George Town when they arrived together with Captain Francis Light and his common-law wife, Martina Rozells, in 1786.

“The different communities in the early years were living in clusters so the Europeans mostly lived in the north beach area, the Malays along Malay Street, the Chinese along China Street, while the Eurasians were along Bishop Street and Church Street that acted as a buffer group between the European and the non-European communities,” he said.

Nonis said the Eurasian community originally came from Melaka, where the Portuguese had married local women after capturing the state back in 1511.

The word “Eurasian” is a portmanteau of European and Asian, and is used to describe those of both ethnicities.

The Church of Assumption that was established by the Eurasian community in Penang. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
The Church of Assumption that was established by the Eurasian community in Penang. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

After Portuguese control of Melaka ended in 1641, the Eurasian community fled to Phuket, Thailand for a time.

In 1778, the Siamese forced the Catholic Eurasians out of Phuket, and so they went to Kedah.

From there, they followed Light and Rozells to George Town where the Church of the Assumption was established.

“There are still Eurasian communities in Melaka and Phuket, and a very small minority left in Kedah, as most of those in Kedah came to Penang,” he said.

Today, there are only about 6,000 Eurasians still in Penang, and though they are often recognised by their unique surnames such as Rozells, Robless, Gasper, D’Almeda, D’Souza, Boudville, Scully and Pedley, their specific origins are hard to trace.

“There are many different types of Eurasians. Some are from Portuguese descent, some are British, some are French, German, Irish so one family may have culture and traditions that differ from another,” Nonis explained.

In the early days, there were two large Eurasian communities living in Penang: The one in George Town that had moved to Argus Lane from Church Street and Bishop Street after World War II, as well as another in Pulau Tikus, where Kampung Serani (literally Eurasian village) was located before it was torn down.

There is only one Eurasian family living in Argus Lane today and Kampung Serani has been replaced by a commercial complex in Pulau Tikus.

“Now, the Eurasians are spread across Malaysia, with only the Penang Eurasian Association to keep us together,” Nonis said in an interview with Malay Mail recently.

The pre-war houses along Lorong Argus that the Eurasian community in George Town once called home. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
The pre-war houses along Lorong Argus that the Eurasian community in George Town once called home. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

The Penang Eurasian Association will celebrate its centennial next year and Nonis felt it was time to examine where the Eurasians community should be headed.

“We may be the community that came with Light as the founding community of Penang back then, but today, very little is known about us, so I want all Eurasians to think what’s next for us,” he said.

Instead of only asking themselves, Nonis said the Eurasian community should look outwards and ask others what they think should be the next step forward for the Eurasians.

“We will be having a forum titled ‘Penang Eurasians: Where do we go from here?’ with four notable panellists during the Eurasian Fiesta on August 18,” he said.

He said the forum comes just as the Eurasian community has to think about how they want to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their association next year.

The Eurasian Heritage Fiesta will be held on August 18 (1pm-midnight) and 19 (10am-6pm) at the compound of St Xavier’s Institution along Farquhar Street.

Nonis, who is also the association patron, said there will be a Eurasian afternoon tea demonstration and popular Eurasian food such as sugee cake and Devil’s curry.

“We will also have ‘live’ band performances because Eurasians love dancing and music,” he said.

The Eurasian Heritage Fiesta will be held in conjunction with the feast day of the Assumption of Mary as well as George Town Festival 2018.

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