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Print Culture and the New Maritime Frontier in Rangoon and Penang

Culture de l’imprimé et nouvelle frontière maritime à Rangoon et Penang
Su Lin Lewis
p. 127-144


À compter du milieu du xixe siècle, d’importantes améliorations dans la navigation à vapeur et les technologies des communications ont créé un réseau de villes portuaires dans l’Océan indien et l’Asie maritime. Même si Rangoon et Penang avaient des relations divergentes avec la puissance coloniale, elles participaient d’un type identique comme ports où cohabitaient depuis des siècles des communautés d’ethnies différentes. L’ère victorienne conduisit à de nouvelles divisions sociales et ethniques, mais suscita dans la ville portuaire une nouvelle culture littéraire avec le foisonnement des journaux, des livres et un nouveau lectorat. Les communautés ethniques et linguistiques étaient à la recherche de tribunes pour exprimer leurs intérêts et se tenir informés des affaires du monde, et de leur place dans celui-ci. À Rangoon, les Birmans, ayant retrouvé une fierté culturelle, intégrèrent la vague déferlante d’un nationalisme anticolonialiste qui trouvait un écho à travers le monde. Les habitants de Penang transformaient leur société en utilisant la composante libérale et cosmopolite d’une citoyenneté impériale pour avancer des revendications politiques et culturelles à une société multiethnique. Cette atmosphère vibrante et ouverte de cité portuaire coloniale en tant que nœud d’information et d’échange culturel fit de Penang et de Rangoon des terrains d’élaboration intellectuelle de nouvelles visions du monde.

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Notes de l’auteur

This essay is based on a previously published article by the author, “Print and Colonial port-cultures in the Indian Ocean: Penang and Rangoon”, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 82 (2), December 2009.

Texte intégral


1The sea has had a familiar, connective presence for historians of Southeast Asia. In 1948, George Coedès observed that the sea was a unifying element in the region, despite its hazards, comparing the region to the Mediterranean:

  • 1 Underlined by the author.

De l’autre côté de la barrière naturelle constituée par la Péninsule Malaise et les îles qui la prolongent, c’est une véritable Méditerranée formée par la Mer de Chine, le golfe de Siam et la mer de Java. Cette mer intérieure, malgré ses typhons et ses écueils, a toujours été entre les populations riveraines un trait d’union1 plutôt qu’un obstacle. (Coedès 1948: 16.)

2Anthony Reid’s work on the region’s “age of commerce” from the 15th to the 17th century portrayed a maritime arena characterised by economic and cultural exchanges between its port-cities and with China, India, and the Arab world (Reid 1993). Reid’s thesis has been challenged by Victor Lieberman, who focuses on the domestic sources of dynamism and overland trade in mainland Southeast Asia, namely Burma, yet he notes that the commercial input of the maritime arena continued to play a vital economic function for the centralised state (Lieberman 2003). Jos Gommans, Jacques Leider, Tilman Frasch (2002), and others have recently focused on Lower Burma’s “maritime frontier”, looking at the exchanges and trade routes characterising the world of Pegu and the coast from the thirteenth to the 18th century.

  • 2 See for example: Bose (2006), Frost (2004), and Fawaz, Bayly & Ilbert (2002).

3Historians of Southeast Asia have thus focused on the region’s early modern history as the heyday of intraregional economic and cultural exchange, one that declined by the late 18th century as states lost their hold on indigenous commerce. Yet there has been little study in a Southeast Asian context of how Asian practices of cosmopolitanism, urbanism, and commerce continued despite this loss. Although states had lost their capacity to dictate the terms of maritime commerce, those who lived, moved, and traded within the dynamic culture of the colonial era port-city, still showed a capacity to innovate, adapt, trade and co-exist even in the colonial era. Historians working within the broader, web-like arena of the Indian Ocean world–particularly Sugata Bose and Mark Frost–have noted the ways in which indigenous practices reordered themselves, adjusting, resisting or restructuring themselves in response to colonial empires.2

4At the close of the 19th century, the colonial port-cities of the Indian Ocean stretched from Cape Town and Aden to Bombay and Batavia. Other cities, falling under the sway of a more informal empire developed a worldwide reputation for their cosmopolitanism–from the vibrant, multi-ethnic port of Alexandria to the international settlement of Shanghai. Singapore, the main Indian Ocean gateway between Europe and East Asia, was a vibrant diasporic society that revived older circuits of movements and ideas, a hub for Asian multiculturalism (Harper 1997, Tan 2007). Steamships ferried people, goods, and ideas throughout the cities of this inter-connected maritime world, forging vibrant circuits of cultural exchange and interaction. With a continuous mingling of Europeans and Asian migrants and merchants, they were centers of trade and cultural exchange, producing new platforms for debate through literary or religious activity and acting as nodal points of change (Mcpherson 2002).

5Though well-placed on the Bibby and P&O steamship routes that raced from Europe to Asia after the opening of the Suez Canal, Rangoon and Penang have garnered little attention within this network of port-cities. Histories of both trading posts have been subsumed under nationalist academic frameworks that focus on the making of modern Malaya/Malaysia and Burma within the territorial boundaries of the nation rather than through the porous borders of the city. From the anticolonial perspective entailed by the study of nationalism, Rangoon and Penang could not have been more different. The port of Rangoon was seized by the British during the Second Anglo-Burmese War and made a provincial capital of British India, later replacing the royal court of Mandalay as the administrative center of the Burmese state. The settlement of Penang was negotiated early in the age of free trade liberalism, on a sparsely populated island founded to attract Asian immigrants to one of the first free ports in the world. As a result, whereas many Penangites were often heavily Anglophile, embracing British citizenship and the cosmopolitan ideals of empire, the Burmese in Rangoon took part in one of the strongest anticolonial nationalist movements in Asia.

  • 3 See Anderson (1998). The point has been made in Amrith (2009) and Lewis (2006: 234).

6Yet an examination of Penang and Rangoon as vibrant, multi-ethnic port-cities lends itself to untold connections and comparisons to each other as well as with other Asian cities to which they were linked. Both cities were born out of a lineage of inter-Asian trade–Chinese, Indian, and Arab immigrants that flocked to the cities in the colonial era had also built temples and mosques in the coastal vicinity of each city at an earlier time. The print and communication technologies that connected and infiltrated these cities from the late 19th century enabled the rise of a number of “imagined communities” that contested colonial culture in different ways. Benedict Anderson’s thesis on the creation of a single, “imagined community” of the nation through print-literature has been contested in recent work on the diasporic and multiple communities imagined through print in colonial Malaya.3 English education and newspapers gave rise to new understanding of society. By the 1930s, when modern nationalisms reverberated across the globe, the multi-ethnic world of the colonial port was in crisis–whereas Penangites, secure in their status as cosmopolitan islanders, celebrated multiculturalism, Burmese intellectuals bred in Rangoon fought against it, reviving older loyalties to claim the lineage of a culturally homogeneous nation. But it was within the dynamic framework of the colonial port-city that Asians in both Penang and Rangoon found a voice, contesting colonialism through the press and ideas circulating throughout an inter-connected world.

Colonial Foundations

7The circumstances in which Penang and Rangoon were founded as British colonial port-cities would shape the nature of the cultural dynamics of the ports by the 1920s and 1930s. The settlement of Penang was leased in 1786 to Francis Light by the Sultan of Kedah under false promises of British protection against Siamese invasion. Light, an independent country trader, made a case to the East India Company that by founding a free port in Penang, the English could circumvent the Dutch monopolies in the archipelago by drawing away the Asian trade from Malacca. As such, “Malay, Buggises [sic] and Chines [sic] will come to reside here, it will become the Exchange of the East if not loaded with impositions and restriction.” (Light 1767: 53.) Within a decade, ten thousand merchants from Malacca, Batavia, South China and the Bay of Bengal flocked to Penang’s shores, escaping the old Dutch monopolies for the attraction of trade without duties or licenses, protected by a British flag. In 1801, Governor Sir George Leith said about the settlement, “There is not, probably, any part of the world where, in so small a space, so many different people are assembled together or so great a variety of languages spoken.” (Leith 1804: 25.)

  • 4 Though the name of Rangoon in Burmese is now and was “Yangon” before the arrival of the British–nam (...)
  • 5 Symes as qu. in Pearn (1939: 74).

8Rangoon, though built on an existing site of pilgrimage and trade, was never a political center for the Burmese, whose kings consolidated their kingdoms via square, fortress cities in the interior of the country–Ava, Toungoo, Shwebo, Amanpura, and Mandalay–apart from interludes in Pegu, traditionally a Mon stronghold and located closer to the coast.4 In 1752, decades before the founding of Penang, the Burmese king Alaungpaya made Rangoon (then “Yangon”) his chief southern port, opening it up to foreign traders, or, in the words of the British official Michael Symes, “fugitives from all countries of the East, and of all complexions… Malabars, Moguls, Persians, Parsees, Armenians, Portugueze [sic], French, and English.”5 European merchants in Rangoon were seen by officials as “undesirables” who had defected from the English East India Company and married local women. Looking to Penang and the ports of British India, these merchants complained to Colombo that Burma’s arbitrary restrictions and monopolistic practices inhibited the free trade of goods (Pollack 1978: 490). The port stagnated after the First Anglo-Burmese war, while Moulmein rose as a flourishing commercial center and the first British capital in Burma. Chinese merchants forged new links between Moulmein and Penang through Tenasserim’s incorporation into the Straits Settlements.

  • 6 This description of Rangoon is taken from a memoir by a Rangoon Gazette editor. See Grant (1940).

9British territorial and economic expansion entailed the piecemeal takeover of the Burmese state through a series of three wars. Unlike George Town–Penang’s urban core, which grew haphazardly since the 18th century with the arrival of new groups of traders–Rangoon, seized in 1852, was planned by a surgeon, Dr William Montgomerie, from Singapore who rationalised the multi-ethnic nature of the cosmopolitan port into a narrow, checkerboard grid resembling the numbered streets of downtown Manhattan. When the royal city of Mandalay was destroyed in 1885, Rangoon became the chief port of all of Burma, putting an end to almost a thousand years of dynastic rule and a rich courtly culture. In place of Mandalay rose a new seat of British colonial power–a multi-ethnic port city that “opened its arms to the world,” becoming the third biggest port in British India by 1920.6

10By the end of the 19th century, the coming of Europeans and Americans lent new, visible differences to the Asian port-city. Rangoon and Penang were pulled into an imperial landscape of colonial port-cities, their commercial wealth visibly present in foreign-owned banks and commercial firms lining the waterfronts from Shanghai to Calcutta. New, Western-style institutions–law courts, police, hospitals, schools–emerged alongside clan houses, guilds, and places of worship of diverse Asian communities, who retained older traditions while adapting to changing circumstances of a cosmopolitan port. The presence of foreign Asian elites and commercial firms was particularly visible in Southeast Asian port-cities. Opportunities for capitalist entrepreneurship in the port-city and its hinterland were seized most rapidly by the same immigrant groups who had flocked to its harbors for centuries. Wealthy Chinese business communities were now established groups in each city–from the chao sua in Bangkok, the Straits-Chinese in Singapore and Penang, and the huaqiao merchants of colonial Burma. Anglo-Indian, Jewish, Armenian, Persian and Arab merchant families and entrepreneurs made their presence felt in multi-ethnic commercial districts and wealthy residential neighborhoods.

11As the Victorian era cast its shadow, the society of the colonial port-city became more hierarchical as the contest over commodities and capital grew. Victorian attitudes segregating race, class, and gender, influenced by ideas of Social Darwinism, manifested themselves not only in England but in colonial societies all over the world. The rational order and technological progress of Western civilizations was placed in an evolutionary scale ahead of “backward” Orientals. Class divisions intensified after the opening of the Suez Canal, which boosted the economy of the region and created wealthy teak, tin, and oil barons in Burma and Malaya. Europeans brought their wives and settled further into the Malayan hinterland in plantation and industries. Expatriates engaged in exclusive social clubs, drinking gin tonics, playing billiards and sports among members of their own race. They were emulated by affluent Asians who strengthened their own communal bonds by forming their own associations. The Penang and Burma Chambers of Commerce (est. 1837 and 1887) were originally formed to protect the interests of European business communities–by the 1920s they had been followed by the Penang Chinese, Penang Indian, and Penang Muslim Chambers of Commerce, and the Burmese and Burma Indian Chamber of Commerce in Rangoon. The Orient Club was formed in Rangoon for Asian elites who were barred from entry into the white-dominated Gymkhana and Pegu Clubs, and restricted membership to whites. Apart from a minority of affluent Malays (of mixed Malay and Tamil Muslim origin) and a small but growing number of Western-educated Burmese working in firms and government administration, there was a notable absence of indigenous Malays or Burmans at the top of the colonial state’s economic hierarchy–later leading to sentiments of anticolonial nationalism and resentment towards migrants on the part of indigenous communities.

  • 7 See U Thaw Kaung & Daw Win (2003) and for example the Lim family in Thein (1997).
  • 8 U Hla Sein and Dr Ohn Gaing (Myanmar Historical Commission). Interview by author, 27 July, 2008, Ya (...)
  • 9 For more on the role of the nonya as an object of “cultural capital” see Khor (2007).

12The British occupation of Rangoon in 1852 had intensified Straits-Burmese trading links, particularly among the Chinese. Whereas Indian merchants engaged in bilateral trade between the Coromandel coast and either Rangoon or Penang, Chinese merchants set up businesses between Rangoon, Penang, Singapore, and southern Chinese ports, acting as interlocutors between British and local communities or furthering their own business ventures. The children of these early Indian and Chinese migrants to Malacca, Penang and Singapore were peranakan jawi and peranakan cina–literally, the children of Jawi-speakers and Chinese-speakers, who formed partnerships with local Malay women. Nyonya, or Straits-Chinese, women from the Straits appeared in Rangoon in the early 20th century, marrying single men from Guandong and Fukien who had come to Burma to find their fortune.7 They brought their modes of dress to Rangoon, wearing batik sarongs, collared blouses, embroidered jackets, and hair pins–instead of revealing their real names, they asked to be addressed as “Daw Nonya.”8 In Penang, Nyonya women were often cloistered in the home as objects of chastity and Victorian domesticity, married to rich Chinese merchant families. Yet Peranakan men–both Chinese and Jawi–took on public roles, moving among the diverse cultural worlds of the Straits.9 With roots in the region and parents involved in the trade and culture of the Straits, they were sent to English schools but retained a sense of their ancestral identity. Particularly in the Straits, many were some of the first local inhabitants to seize the opportunities provided by a new Anglophone world of letters to enact political and social change.

Media and the port-city

13The opening of Suez in 1867 had transformed maritime communications so that the tools of empire–steam shipping, submarine telegraphy, and an improved imperial post–became integral parts of a new information order in the Indian Ocean world, creating an accelerated demand for knowledge by both Europeans and Asians alike (Harper 2001, Frost 2004). Port-cities were key nodes in these new webs of information, absorbing and generating new ideas, exchanged across cultures. Mark Frost refers to the growth of an integrated, colonial public sphere throughout the Indian Ocean world, via the intensification of colonial-era maritime networks from 1840 to 1920–including increases in shipping, the movements of settlers, frequent and more extensive mail services, and the establishment of newspapers (Frost 2004). From the late-19th century, with a worldwide network of British-owned undersea cables in place, the British news service Reuters gained a monopoly throughout the empire for instant providers of news from Cairo to Shanghai. By the early 20th century, both English and vernacular papers throughout the British empire subscribed to Reuters for their source of up-to-date foreign news (Read 1999).

14As the first ports of arrival for religious reformers, political exiles, and literati of various backgrounds, Penang and Rangoon were hubs for circuits of information and a conduit for new ideas in British Malaya and Burma. Missionaries were the first to use the printing press for proselytisation. Newspapers–providing news from abroad, shipping timetables, new colonial regulations and advertisements for merchant wares–were central to the imperial machine of global capitalism. Early European media entrepreneurs had founded newspapers to target Western business communities in the new colonies, publishing local news, shipping and passenger lists as well as crime and price reports–The Prince of Wales Gazette (1805) and The Rangoon Times (1854) were the first papers to appear in Penang and Rangoon. Michael Charney has recently pointed to a new information order of newspapers spreading through Lower Burma in the mid-19th century–their power recognised by the royal court–but later focused primarily in Rangoon (Charney 2006).

  • 10 On port-cities as “agents of change” see McPherson (2002: 90).
  • 11 For an excellent account of the complex loyalties evoked in print by Malaya’s Tamil community, see (...)
  • 12 Seminal accounts of the origins of cultural nationalism via the Malay press are in Roff (1967) and (...)

15Within these multi-ethnic cities, new forms of print communications were harnessed by indigenous and migrant communities as a platform to voice their concerns and publish news relevant to their own communities in Burmese, Jawi, Tamil, Chinese, and Arabic. Via the growth of press culture in various languages, Singapore, Penang and Rangoon became “agents of change”, accelerating the flow of ideas within the urban domain of the port-city, and also to the hinterland and the rest of the region.10 As noted above, newspapers formed a sense of communal identity, creating multiple “imagined communities” between speakers of a common language. For Chinese and Indians in Burma and the Straits, papers published in Mandarin and Tamil helped maintain a diasporic link to their homelands, while addressing local concerns and complex claims to citizenship.11 For local Burmese and Malays, newspapers were central in developing and articulating their own political claims, particularly against the perceived “encroachment” of migrant communities.12 The mushrooming of newspapers throughout coastal Asia in a number of shared vernaculars facilitated the growth of communities that were “informed” as much as “imagined”. Literate Asians emerged as new, modern subjects, as “informed communities” within the kaleidoscopic world of the colonial port-city, given a myriad of choices for their sources of news, ideas, and the varied modes of belonging available to them.

16Able to negotiate various cultural worlds, hybrid or peranakan communities were central to the growth of the local press in the Straits. William Roff has credited the Jawi Peranakan–the children of Tamil-Muslims and Malay women–in Singapore and Penang for stirring a Malay-Muslim consciousness with the publication of Jawi Peranakan in 1876, the first Malay newspaper of the region. Free from authoritarian religious institutions in the peninsula, Singapore and Penang became staging points for a new, Malay-Muslim reform movement (Roff 1967: 81). Singapore had the paramount role for publishing in the Malay-Muslim world from the late 19th century, but as censorship and state control grew in the colony, the role was assumed by Penang in the 1920s. The Jelutong press, spearheaded by the efforts of Sayyid Shayk Al-Hadi, became the largest Malay publishing house in Malaya and a focus of reformist publishing activities, notably the monthly journal Al-Ikhwan (est. 1926) and the daily newspaper Saudara (est. 1928) (ibid.: 83). The Criterion Press, the family business of Lim Seng Hooi, was the first locally owned printing press in Penang, operating a machine type for English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil characters. Merchants by trade, the Lims–a prominent Straits-Chinese family–saw the commercial value of the press in publishing shipping timetables, advertisements and producing local, Penang-based news rather than relying on the Singapore press. In 1894, they launched a Chinese daily paper called the Penang Sin Poe, and four years later (in 1898) founded a Malay weekly, the Chahyah Pulau Pinang. These were the only Chinese and Malay newspapers in Penang at the time, but by the early 20th century, Kuomintang support networks helped establish a “radical” Chinese press throughout various Southeast Asian port-cities, providing syndication networks for the transmission of local news to a regional audience. The Tongmenghui, the secret society formed by Sun Yat Sen in Toyko in 1905, planned to publish the Kwong Wah Yit Poh (“Glorious Chinese newspaper”) on a visit to Penang in 1907, but received no financial backing due to the drop in tin prices. Meanwhile, the Rangoon Tongmenghui took up the idea and started the Yan Kon Kwang Haw Pao, soon banned by the British colonial government due to its radical content (Khoo 2008: 59). Penang historian Salma Khoo notes that when the Rangoon Tongmenhui leader Zhuang Yin-an came to Penang, a committee was formed to establish the Kwong Wah Yit Poh as a daily paper in 1911. Twenty years later, it was documented to have the largest circulation (3000) of any newspaper in Penang (Straits Settlements 1931: 156). Via such publications, Penang became a hotbed of radical Malay Muslim and Chinese intellectual activity by the 1920s.

17In the Indian Ocean littoral, as in other parts of the British Empire, education–particularly English education–was the key means by which Asians in the colonial port-city could move above their class, joining rich commercial firms or entering government service. Both Jawi Peranakan and Peranakan Cina in the Straits were the first to grasp such opportunities. In Burma, inhabitants of Arakan and Tenasserim were exposed to English educational early on, with some such as the Arakanese intellectual U May Oung rising quickly in Rangoon’s public sphere. Both Penang and Rangoon had long histories of missionary education in English, independent institutions that existed apart from the state. Penang’s history of English education began with the founding of the Penang Free School in 1816–by the early 1900s, its reputation as a prestigious center for English education attracted well-to-do Asian from around the region, particularly Siamese. St. Paul’s High School was founded by Roman Catholic Priests in 1861, while University College, founded in 1874, was amalgamated with the Baptists’ Judson college in 1920 as the new Rangoon University. Classes were taught in English (with literature courses in Burmese, Pali, Hindi and Sanskrit) creating a highly intellectual class of English-educated elite in Rangoon. By drawing in students from the rest of the colony, English-medium schools created a shared educational experience between multiple ethnic groups and facilitated the emergence of a supra-ethnic national consciousness.

  • 13 Straits Echo, 12 June 1903.

18The English press also opened up a world of multi-ethnic interaction between Asians within the port-city. In 1903, the Criterion Press in Penang published the first issue of the English-language Straits Echo. The paper served reformist as well as commercial purposes, seeking to compete with the long-established Penang Gazette. The Echo was the first Asian-run English paper in the Straits to provide a source of news and a plat-form for opinion, from the beginning of the century up until the Second World War. Though based in Penang, its sheets traveled to Siam, Java, India, Sumatra, China, and even to a sole subscriber in Leningrad (Bilainkin 1932: 50). It became known as “the People’s Paper”, its stated purpose being to “defend the weak against the strong, and the right against the wrong, regardless of nationality, race, or creed.”13 Through its correspondence columns, the Echo provided a venue for debate between the multi-ethnic communities of Penang on issues ranging from language education, the modern woman, local and diaspora politics. Using the model of the unsubsidized British press (in particular the Manchester Guardian), it upheld British ideals of justice and “fair play” as a mirror to the British colonial administration.

19In the same way that Malay had been an early modern lingua franca–a second language for commerce and diplomacy for the mobile inhabitants of maritime Southeast Asia–English allowed multi-ethnic Asian elites to speak to and read about each other across the Indian Ocean and beyond, absorbing new forms of thought and drawing on each other’s models of political articulation. Knowledge of English as an international language allowed increased interaction with the rest of the globe, even while it marginalised older, regional connections and textual geographies, such as Pali. World-renown religious figures, politicians, literati, and other pundits made their way through the port-city, many speaking to multi-ethnic audiences in English. The Burma Research Society (est. 1910) provided a bilingual venue for a renaissance of Burmese intellectual culture, bringing together European and Burmese scholars to debate with each other and disseminate their scholarship to a wider intellectual world via its journal. Libraries brought in new English books and periodicals. In Rangoon, English books made their way into the port-city via initiatives such as the Burma Book Club (est. 1924) and Nagani Book Club (est. 1937), the latter modeled on England’s Left Book Club. Bilingual Burmese translated texts and promoted literacy to a wider public via these clubs as well as the Burma Education Extension (est. 1928).

  • 14 See, for instance, Harper (1997: 276-282), Frost (2004: 21), Doran (1997: 95), and Bayly (2007).

20Singapore’s Lim Boon Keng, the founder of the Straits Chinese Magazine in Singapore, has been recovered recently as one the most interesting hybrid figures of the modern Asian literary and philosophical renaissance that began in the late 19th century–in his Wiles lectures on liberal thought in Asia in the Victorian age, Chris Bayly has made comparisons between Lim and the early Indian intellectual and reformer Rammohan Roy.14 Taw Sein Ko (1864-1930), educated in Calcutta, is an equally fascinating figure to consider within this wider Asian ecumene, having experienced the Calcutta intellectual world spearheaded by Roy as well as the Confucian reform movement that appealed to Lim. He was one of the earliest Asian contributors to the Rangoon press; like Lim, his Chinese origins and Western education helped make him a phenomenal, hybrid figure in the public sphere of late colonial Burma. The son of a Fukien merchant and a Shan princess, Ko threw him-self into a gentlemanly world of letters, seeing himself in the mould of a Confucian civil servant. Penny Edwards has described him as a cultural interlocutor between and across cultures–Burmese, Chinese, and Western. He was educated in Burmese, Chinese, and English Schools, at Cambridge University, London’s Inner Temple and Peking, and was conversant in Burmese, Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Hindustani, Shan and English, making him a polyglot and a polymath (Edwards 2004: 279). While contributing frequently to learned journals in Rangoon and Calcutta, Ko also wrote for the English, Chinese and Burmese press in Rangoon. A graduate of Rangoon College and an affiliate of Calcutta University, Ko campaigned tirelessly for the founding of a university in Burma and promoted the cause of education.

  • 15 Straits Echo, 11 December, 1937.

21The focus on Lim Boon Keng as a pioneer of Anglophone Asian literature and philosophy in Malaya has obscured the work of equally intellectual figures from Penang, particularly those who wrote for the Straits Echo with a more pragmatic and inclusive approach in their perceptions of colonial culture. A comparably cosmopolitan figure was the Straits Chinese writer Lim Cheng Law, who appeared in the 1920s and 1930s as a frequent contributor to Penang’s English press. Law was a successful businessman, as well as a mine of information about Penang society and history. Though he never set foot in Ceylon, he was an authority on the colony and could allegedly quote Ceylonese parliamentary debates as far back to the 1890s (Saravana-muttu 1970: 67). He was also a patron of the arts, including Penang Bangsawan, a hybrid form of popular entertainment that combined Malay pantun, Italian opera, Hindi songs and Shakespearean sub-plots. Like Ko, he passionately advocated the cause of education, arguing, “In Malaya […] a great number, a very big proportion in fact of local children, can cross the borderland that separates the literate from the illiterate, and is a passport into the modern world of new opportunity and prosperity.”15

  • 16 For an astute account on how media developments in Burma were perceived and arbitrarily controlled (...)
  • 17 Gazetteer of India: Provincial series – Burma, Vol.1: 141.
  • 18 Annual Statement of Newspapers and Periodicals published in the Province of Burma 1926-1940, India (...)
  • 19 Idem.

22As in Penang, the English press in Rangoon co-existed with the vernacular press, targeted towards the bilingual inhabitants of the port-city. Newspapers mushroomed exponentially well into the beginning of the 20th century, as many educated Burmese increasingly began to use the press for political purposes.16 In 1903, Rangoon had twenty-six newspapers, sixteen of which were in English, eight in Burmese, one in Tamil and one in Gujarati.17 Asian-language newspapers were owned and operated by Asians with their own capital. According to the Gazetteer of 1908, none of the Burma journals were actively political, and none printed in English or Burmese was addressed to any special class of the reading public. English papers such as the Rangoon Gazette, Rangoon Times were joined by the Burmese-language Friend of Burma and Burma Herald. Other newspapers followed in the 1910s including the Burma Guardian, Rangoon Mail, and a host of other short-lived ventures. In 1915, the first openly political newspaper, Thuriya was published by U Ba Pe, one of the founding members of the Young Men’s Burmese Association (YMBA)–modeled on the YMCA and later becoming the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA), the first Burmese protonationalist organization. Over a hundred newspapers appeared throughout Burma in the interwar era, including both religious and secular papers in Chinese, Tamil, Persian, Karen, Bengali, Hindi, Telugu, Urdu and Kachin papers in cosmopolitan Rangoon.18 Bilingual literature students from Rangoon University worked on and started new literary publications in Burmese. Nationalist-minded students and intellectuals worked on new Burmese-owned newspapers that supported their cause, from the Burmese-language New Light of Burma to the English-language New Burma (1920) (Maung Maung 1980). Papers of some diasporic communities became more extremist–the Rangoon Mail, owned by Ramesh R. Caherhan and with a circulation of 1000, reported on Bengal Politics and was described as “Rabid Anti-Government in Tone”–others (owned by Anglo-Indians of mixed white and Asian blood) were moderate and “loyal” in tone.19

23English newspapers, in particular, provided a new generation of educated Asians in the Indian Ocean a means by which to communicate and interact with each other across ethnic lines in a shared print medium. In Burma, Burmese and Indian literati wrote and responded to each other in the pages of the leading English papers in Burma, linking the shared nationalist cause of Burma and India while fiercely debating issues surrounding Indian immigration into Burma. In Penang, Chinese, Indians, and Malays argued and spoke to each other through the correspondence columns of the popular press on politics, education, and cultural affairs. The staffing of an English newspaper that catered to the information needs of the colonial port-city constituted a cosmopolitan mix, necessitating a multitude of linguistic and cultural expertise. In the early 1920s, George Bilainkin, an English journalist who chronicled his Penang experiences in a lively memoir, arrived to take up the post of Straits Echo editor where he would remain until 1931. He inherited a staff of between 70-80 Chinese, Malays, Tamils, Singhalese, and Eurasians, which provided him with “a fascinating background from which to learn of the eternal clash of race and colour in the Orient.” (Bilainkin 1932: 25.)

  • 20 Ikeya sees these women within the context of increased female liberality in the colonial public sph (...)

24Journalism also provided a venue for women to contribute to intellectual discussion. Women–particularly Straits-Chinese women–were frequent contributors to the correspondence columns of the Straits Echo, often engaging in heated and colorful debates with men on the role of the Modern Girl (Lewis 2009). They drew on models of female modernity from Shanghai to America. In Burma, female journalists and editors were becoming increasingly prominent, as more educated women graduated from the ranks of the new Rangoon University. Many women, including Burma’s most famous female journalist Luthu Daw Amar, not only wrote and translated for popular newspapers and periodicals but owned and edited their own papers.20 Daw Amar gained fame in the literary world with translations of letters written by Jawaharlal Nehru to his daughter Indira in the 1930s.

  • 21 For a discussion on such arguments in Penang’s English press, see Lewis (2006).
  • 22 On the circulation of models of nationalism through the press, see Anderson on nationalism and the (...)

25The growth of print culture in the colonial port-city facilitated an increased awareness of regional and international events from abroad. Reuters opened an office in Rangoon in 1903. Asian papers shared news and editorials on an inter-city basis; columns of the Rangoon Times and Rangoon Gazette relaying local news would often appear in the Singapore Straits Times, Malaya Tribune, Penang Gazette and Straits Echo, Bangkok Times, Calcutta Herald. As in India, English, the language of the colonizer, came to be used as a tool by which colonized people could argue against racial prejudice and make claims in the press and political arenas. In Penang and Rangoon this included demands for vernacular education and for immigrant communities, education in their native tongue.21 By the 1920s, models of modern nationalism were being circulated throughout the press across coastal Asia.22 The examples of the Young Turks and the Caliphate movement, the Chinese and Russian Revolutions, and Gandhian politics were a testament to a changing world. Ba Maw, one of the most outspoken politicians against colonial rule and elected as the first Premier of Burma in 1937, wrote in his memoirs, “Most of those who accepted them did not much care whether the ideas were black or red or yellow, whether they were from Russia or Germany or China or Japan. It was enough that they promised something new and were on their sides, as against their colonial rulers, and held out a future that would be totally their own.” (Ba Maw 1968: 4.)

26Inspired, in part, by Ba Maw’s revolutionary nationalism, Rangoon university students–including Burma’s future nationalist hero, Aung San, and other future politicians of the 1940s and 50s–formed the Dobama Asiayone (meaning “We Burmans”). As Taylor notes, the association–which had its parallel in Ireland’s Sinn Fein (“We Ourselves”)–was a culturally homogeneous nationalism, criticised by Marxist nationalists for being racist and sectarian because of its narrow appeal to Burmese Buddhists (Taylor 1987: 207).

  • 23 New Burma, 21 December 1934.
  • 24 See Chakravarti (1971). For a detailed explanation of the role of Indian capital in financing Burme (...)

27Nationalist sentiment in Rangoon was often manifested in antagonism towards the Indian community, seen by many as either lower class citizens (coolies, street sweepers, and dock labourers) or stooges of British imperialism. The Chinese were seen as a smaller, less threatening minority with older roots in the country; some aligned themselves with the Burmese in denigrating the Indian community, protecting their own minority position (Thein 1997: 27). Burmese antagonism was rooted in the colonial government’s policy of unrestricted Indian immigration and the marginalisation of Burmese entrepreneurs and farmers who suffered from the effects of the Depression in 1931. Racial tensions in Rangoon culminated in a series of strikes throughout the 1930s. The new constitution of 1934, upon Burma’s administrative separation from British India sparked heated debate. In the New Burma, a Burmese-run English newspaper, an article praised Indians in India “for their struggle for the common good”, while “Anglo-Indians [in Rangoon] were accused of clamouring for their own selfish interests in Burma without any regard to the well-being of all the people in the country.”23 Yet though Burmese wanted to sever their administrative ties to British India, Chakravarti notes that even the most aggressive nationalists did not want terminate Indian interest in Burma–possibly due to their financing by Indian capital to help raise money for their political parties.24 U Tin Tut, the brilliant, Cambridge-educated economist and ardent nationalist, looked to non-Burman experience, foreign contacts and capital as essential components of building the Burmese economy. Following the example of Ba Maw–who lost popular support by pandering to minority communities, Aung San and the Indian Muslim student leader M.A. Raschid, shared a vision of nationalist unity between Burma’s ethnic communities. Yet it seems that theirs was not a popular vision shared by the bulk of the population–many Burmese who suffered economic dislocation at the hands of perceived encroachment from “alien” communities were more prone to subscribe to a narrow ethnic nationalism.

  • 25 For a masterful study on the shifting communal allegiances of the jawi-peranakan community in pre- (...)
  • 26 Frederick Cooper discusses the tensions and possibilities inherent in imperial citizenship. See Coo (...)

28Meanwhile, in Penang, anticolonial sentiment took a more muted form. Immigrants had lived, and often prospered, side-by-side under British colonialism for a century before all of Burma fell under British occupation. Malays were a small proportion of cosmopolitan Penang–those at the top of the economic and political hierarchy were jawi-peranakan, themselves a relatively affluent hybrid Malay-Indian Muslim community.25 It was in the interest of long-domiciled hybrid and migrant communities who made up the bulk of Penang’s population to stay British citizens. This is not to argue that Asians in colonial Penang were any less conscious or active than their nationalist counterparts in Rangoon, but that politics took a different form. Political claims were fought for using the language of rights and responsibilities of citizenship within a context of imperial belonging, with the aim of bringing the ideology of free trade imperialism to its logical, fully democratic conclusion.26 Penangites saw themselves as sharing a common struggle against the color bar, making claims for a greater role for Asians in administration. Chinese and Indians also fought to be recognized as settled citizens of the country with a right to educate their children in their own native tongue, motivated by the spirit of diasporic nationalism. Lim Cheng Ean, the Straits Settlement Legislative Council member for Penang famously walked out of the Straits Settlements Legislative Council over the issue. Such arguments were echoed in the

29English Press, particularly in the editorials and readers’ pages of the Straits Echo.

  • 27 Ung Hok Boey, a peranakan Queen’s scholar, was the first assistant editor of the Straits Echo in 19 (...)
  • 28 Straits Echo, 4 January 1939.

30By the 1930s, the Straits Echo was vying with the Kwong Wah Yit Poh as the most popular paper in North Malaya. Circulation had tripled to 4,500 under the outstanding editorship of Manicasothy Saranamuttu. “Sara” was an Oxford-educated Fabian brought in from Ceylon as a sports editor. He took over the editorship of the paper from Bilainkin in 1931, becoming the first non-white chief editor of a Malayan paper, training many of post-independence Malaya’s leading journalists.27 Continuing the leftleaning editorial line of the Straits Echo, Sara promoted the cosmopolitan ideals of empire in order to make political claims for more Asian representation and political reform. The possibility of Asians having a greater share in the management of their own affairs, he argued, was “the only policy that would be consistent with the aim of the British Empire.”28 Whereas Burmese journalists looked to India as a model for its anticolonial nationalism, Sara pointed to the crown colony of Ceylon as a model for a multi-ethnic democratic society. In a passionate editorial, he argued:

  • 29 Idem.

The excuse that this country is very backward and therefore not fit or ready for any advance on the present system of benevolent bureaucratic government is a very hollow one and one that does not bear close inspection. Equally hollow is the excuse that the cosmopolitan character of the Malayan population does not easily lend itself to political progress. Ceylon is very little, if at all, less cosmopolitan as regards its population, yet has enjoyed universal suffrage now for eight years and […] progressed sufficiently to be fit for the Cabinet System of Government –the most advanced of all modern forms of democratic government.29

  • 30 Straits Echo, 18 November 1937.

31As a result of the Straits Echo’s editorial stance, its most dedicated readers became the vanguard of a cosmopolitan ideal of Malaya. A group of young Straits-Chinese who contributed frequently to the paper’s letters section proposed the formation of a “Straits Echo League”, whose object was “to foster harmonious relations among the various races of Malaya” and “to be the organ instrumental in letting the people have a voice in the administration of the country.”30Penangites increasingly felt a sense of attachment to the Peninsula, aided no doubt by its economic ties to the tin and rubber plantations of North Malaya. In an article about Singapore politicians, one writer argued,

  • 31 Straits Echo, 16 April 1936.

In fact we are inclined to think that they will glory in the separate identity and like this country to be known as “Singapore and Malaya”. But we in Penang are not so exclusive. We are glad to be part of Malaya and as the northern gateway into Malaya, fulfill an important part in the economic life of the country.31

32A regular feature on “Malayan Men and Matters” invited Malays to take pride of place. Though the tone was patronizing, the sentiment was important:

  • 32 Straits Echo, 5 March 1936.

The Malays have been slow to wake up to the changes in their country, but there are clear indications today that the higher-born amongst them wish to take their place in the scheme of things as it is today and who can deny them that. It is their country: their land for generations; their home; their all.32

33It was the rights of all those born in Malaya–including those of immigrants and their children–that gained attention in the pages of the Straits Echo, yet this patronizing sentiment pointed to major tensions that Anglophone Penangites would face in the post-colonial era with the rise of ethnic nationalism. As an island populated largely by long-established immigrants, with a local history of trade, intermarriage, cross-cultural interaction and an openness to the world, Penang gave rise to halcyon, empire-tinged mentalities of cosmopolitanism as well as visions of a cosmopolitan nation, which would be heavily tested in the post-colonial era of nationalist consolidation and the increasing desire for an authentic and official Malay national identity.


34From long-haul sea voyages to the telegraph and the newspaper, the Indian Ocean was at the heart of a globalising world from the early modern era to the Second World War. Hybrid communities in Penang and Rangoon retained a diasporic sense of community and tradition, while helping to shape a vibrant Asian public sphere in their contributions to a new, inter-connected world of letters. The Anglophone world of the colonial-port city facilitated access to a new world of books and ideas for urban intellectuals. Newly imagined and newly informed communities drew on older, Asian traditions while looking laterally at visions of the modern that came variously from Calcutta and Colombo. While Burmese sought to reclaim their nation from colonial rule, the readers and editors of the Straits Echo employed Britain’s own democratic ideals in the transition to political autonomy. Their vision of “Malaya for Malayans” was a cosmopolitan one, sensitive to the role of both indigenous and migrant communities in shaping the nation.

35The vibrant atmosphere of the colonial port-city was shattered with the Japanese occupation of Burma and Malaya in 1942. Following the war, Rangoon’s multi-ethnic character dwindled, as many Indians, Europeans, and Baghdadi Jews never returned. Penang, the most Anglophile of colonies, witnessed the hypocrisies of British imperial paternalism with the rapid pullout of Westerners who left Penang to the Japanese as an open town, leaving Saravanamuttu to raise the white flag over the colony. Penang lost its status as a crown colony, prompting three secessionist movements; yet the son of a Kedah sultan, who had played football with his Chinese and Indian friends on the pitches of the Penang Free School, became the first Prime Minister of a multi-ethnic nation. Meanwhile, Aung San, who had earlier subscribed to ideals of “unity in diversity”, and his cabinet, including U Tin Tut, were assassinated in a violent coup. Though Rangoon witnessed an indigenous, cultural renaissance in the 1950s with the blossoming of periodicals and literary culture, eating away at the edges of the state were the demands of ethnic minorities who could not see their place within the new framework of the Burmese nation. Factionalism between Rangoon politicians and the loss of state stability resulted in the 1958 caretaker military government and subsequent 1962 takeover by the military, a legacy that continues until this day.

36Although ethnic nationalism would shape the political life of Burma and Malaya over the ensuing half-century, working underneath the machinations of the state were the remnants of a vibrant intellectual world from an earlier age, remade anew. The press flourished in Rangoon and Penang in the 1950s, liberated for a time from colonial and state censorship laws. The drive towards state centralization and anti-communist sentiment during the Cold War resulted in a clampdown of individual and press freedoms in both countries. Nonetheless, manifestations of this early civic culture still exist in the local NGOs and multi-ethnic volunteer associations that thrive in Penang and survive in Rangoon. Journalists and activists in both cities have risked their liveli-hoods and their lives to tell the truth, remain critical and envision alternatives for the future, contesting the machinations of states. Today, tucked away in a leafy suburb of Penang, the overflowing library of the Consumer Association of Penang empowers citizens to be active consumers, while the second-hand bookstalls of downtown Rangoon, buzzing conversations in teashops, radios playing the BBC World Service and internet cafés speak to an urban public keen to keep ideas and information flowing even in the midst of a police state. The links between the old and new worlds of these vibrant, informed communities, and the multi-ethnic port-cities to which they belong, might be fruitfully explored.

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1 Underlined by the author.

2 See for example: Bose (2006), Frost (2004), and Fawaz, Bayly & Ilbert (2002).

3 See Anderson (1998). The point has been made in Amrith (2009) and Lewis (2006: 234).

4 Though the name of Rangoon in Burmese is now and was “Yangon” before the arrival of the British–named by Alaungpaya to mean “the end of strife”–I have used the city’s anglicised name of “Rangoon” for the purposes of continuity. Arakanese, among the first people of Burma to fall under British rule, pronounce Yangon “Rangon”–and it is likely that the British inherited the name from their pronunciation with the annexation of the area in the First Anglo-Burmese War.

5 Symes as qu. in Pearn (1939: 74).

6 This description of Rangoon is taken from a memoir by a Rangoon Gazette editor. See Grant (1940).

7 See U Thaw Kaung & Daw Win (2003) and for example the Lim family in Thein (1997).

8 U Hla Sein and Dr Ohn Gaing (Myanmar Historical Commission). Interview by author, 27 July, 2008, Yangon, Myanmar.

9 For more on the role of the nonya as an object of “cultural capital” see Khor (2007).

10 On port-cities as “agents of change” see McPherson (2002: 90).

11 For an excellent account of the complex loyalties evoked in print by Malaya’s Tamil community, see Amrith (2009: 561-565).

12 Seminal accounts of the origins of cultural nationalism via the Malay press are in Roff (1967) and Milner (2002). More recently, Mark Emmanuel looks at the emergence of a new Malay economic discourse in such papers (2005).

13 Straits Echo, 12 June 1903.

14 See, for instance, Harper (1997: 276-282), Frost (2004: 21), Doran (1997: 95), and Bayly (2007).

15 Straits Echo, 11 December, 1937.

16 For an astute account on how media developments in Burma were perceived and arbitrarily controlled by the colonial state, which sought to promote freedom of expression while securing its legitimacy as rulers, see Larkin (2003). For a wider Southeast Asian context on media, censorship, and state control see Harper (2001).

17 Gazetteer of India: Provincial series – Burma, Vol.1: 141.

18 Annual Statement of Newspapers and Periodicals published in the Province of Burma 1926-1940, India Office Records: V/25/960/44.

19 Idem.

20 Ikeya sees these women within the context of increased female liberality in the colonial public sphere, viewed as threatening by Burmese men. See Ikeya (2006: 76-78).

21 For a discussion on such arguments in Penang’s English press, see Lewis (2006).

22 On the circulation of models of nationalism through the press, see Anderson on nationalism and the “logic of seriality” in Anderson (1998: 29-45) and Bayly (2004: 205-206).

23 New Burma, 21 December 1934.

24 See Chakravarti (1971). For a detailed explanation of the role of Indian capital in financing Burmese political figures, see Taylor (1987: 162-188).

25 For a masterful study on the shifting communal allegiances of the jawi-peranakan community in pre- and post-war Penang see Fujimoto (1989).

26 Frederick Cooper discusses the tensions and possibilities inherent in imperial citizenship. See Cooper (2005: 171-190).

27 Ung Hok Boey, a peranakan Queen’s scholar, was the first assistant editor of the Straits Echo in 1905. See Wright & Cartwright (1908).

28 Straits Echo, 4 January 1939.

29 Idem.

30 Straits Echo, 18 November 1937.

31 Straits Echo, 16 April 1936.

32 Straits Echo, 5 March 1936.

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Su Lin Lewis, « Print Culture and the New Maritime Frontier in Rangoon and Penang »Moussons, 17 | 2011, 127-144.

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Su Lin Lewis, « Print Culture and the New Maritime Frontier in Rangoon and Penang »Moussons [En ligne], 17 | 2011, mis en ligne le 11 octobre 2012, consulté le 04 juillet 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Su Lin Lewis

Su Lin Lewis completed her Ph.D. in History at Cambridge University in 2010, focusing on early 20th century urban culture in Bangkok, Rangoon, and Penang. She is one of the 2010-2011 Past and Present Postdoctoral Fellows at the Institute of Historical Research in London, looking broadly at the anglophone print world in cosmopolitan cities from Cairo to Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s.

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