Nightfall over Jalan Yahudi, Penang

Nightfall over Jalan Yahudi, Penang

Image: Mordecai’s Grave by Sara Ashencaen Crabtree

Sara Ashencaen Crabtree, University of Bournemouth


On the island of Penang, once known as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ owing to its beauty and rich natural resources, stands George Town, a much visited UNESCO Heritage site. Penang, originally the Prince of Wales’ Island, was established by Sir Francis Light in 1786, who lies at rest, having died of malaria, in the old Protestant Cemetery, his tomb a massive mitred slab is commendably plain. Around Sir Francis, in the shade of trees and overgrown grass are huddled the various resting places of gentlemen officers, British missionaries and their wives, the latter often having died in childbirth. While nestling close by are forlorn graves of infants. Here it is still poignant to find tombs of whole British families who died of ‘jungle fever’ within days of each other.

There is, however, another cemetery of note, seemingly as abandoned as the Protestant one. This cemetery, unlike its neighbour, is securely locked and upon approach, a snarling dog on a chain will announce an intruder.  This is the Jewish Cemetery that once stood on the eponymously named, Jalan Yahudi, now renamed Jalan Zainal Abidin.

Penang differs distinctly in character from peninsula and East Malaysia on the island of Borneo. The mix of cultures of those who settled here in the wake of the first British settlement of Malaya has been particularly vibrant and cosmopolitan. In addition to the established Eurasian community (to which Sir Francis contributed through his numerous offspring with his assumed Eurasian common-law wife, Martine Rozells) are the Chinese, Tamil, and Malay communities, to name but a few.

So, too, could be found the Jews of Penang, who were a strong presence on the island, but where now it would appear, none remain, following the death in 2011 of David Mordecai, aged 89, who was the former manager at the Eastern & Oriental hotel.  The magnificent E&O, as it is generally known, is probably one of the most famous landmarks of George Town and was built in 1885 by the tycoon Sarkies brothers, four Armenian brothers, whose Jewish heritage is somewhat contested, but subscribed to by the National Museum of Penang. The brothers went on to build other opulent palaces for the wealthy: ‘The Raffles’ hotel in Singapore and a final companion piece: ‘The Strand’ in Burma. The latter still stands elegantly in chaotic, collapsing Yangon as a lonely marble and teak mausoleum to the glories of the British Empire.

The Jewish diaspora travelling to the Far East appears to have migrated from the Middle East.  Primarily composed of Sephardic Jews, Armenia and Baghdad are frequently mentioned as the origins of many of the Jewish settlers in Penang. In Penang itself, the Jewish community appeared to have integrated well, retaining its own distinctive religio-cultural identity, but mixing freely with the famously gregarious Penang society. It is said that during the British retreat from the Japanese invasion during the Second World War the Jewish community was transferred to Singapore for safety and, from there, the majority emigrated to safer pastures. It is also claimed that only 20 Jewish families remained in Penang by 1963, the year of Independence when the Federal State of Malaysia was born.

Having found the story intriguing and being currently in Malaysia as a Visiting Professor to Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, I visited the Jewish Cemetery where I encountered one of its ferocious guardians. It was later hauled off to pant quietly in the shade and thus I was permitted entry.  I found the Cemetery to be both evocative and symbolic in representing the decline and end of the Jewish community in Penang.

The small, walled Cemetery holds over a hundred neatly arranged, largely wedge shaped, tombs of adults, with a few sad reminders of infant mortality as well.  The Cemetery was reputedly established in 1805 by a British Jew, Mrs. Shoshan Levi – a corner of the Cemetery was kept exclusively for the Levi and Cohen family burials; and one of the more recent graves, holds a fallen soldier of the Cohen family from WWII.

A remarkable aspect of the Cemetery relates to how it is maintained. The site is not entirely immaculate, the grassy weeds grow long but the graves are clean and in good condition, more so than at the atmospherically dilapidated Protestant Cemetery.

The mystery of its care was soon resolved, for, by the tall, barred gates and inside the locked Cemetery itself, is a makeshift, extended shack. This is the ramshackle home of rising four generations of caretakers of the graves: an impoverished Hindu family who look after and guard the graves from vandalism and neglect. Astonished, I spent time talking to the current representative of this family.  Madam Saraswathi,  56-years old, but looking much older than her years and wearing a simple sarong, told me that it had been her Hindu grandfather who first started looking after the Cemetery. Since then she has taken the duty over from her father; and her son and grandson will in turn take care of it provided they are allowed to continue living on the site unmolested, as it is clear that this family are long-term squatters.

To my question of who paid them to undertake these duties, I was told that they received no money from the Penang or Federal government at all, but that instead an anonymous donor from Australia sends them 150 Malaysian ringgits every month via the Penang Heritage Trust. It transpires that the trustees of the site are the Jacobs family, émigrés to Australia. Abraham Jacobs, now aged 90 years old, was mentioned in a small newspaper article in February of this year with reference to his annual pilgrimage to visit the family graves at the Cemetery.  While no doubt even a token sum helps, it actually constitutes a bit less than £30.00 a month. The family supplements their living through odd jobs but clearly they remain in hardcore poverty. Asked why they continued to care for the Cemetery under the circumstances I was told that the family regarded this as a form of honouring their patriarch’s example.

I asked if I might be permitted to take a photograph of the Cemetery’s resident caretaker, but this was refused. Apparently Madam Saraswathi was afraid of reprisals. This understandable fear is the reason why the Cemetery remains locked at the request of the trustees. It is overlooked by a large social housing estate made up, I was told, of 80% Malay Muslims, who are, sad to say, apparently considerably less tolerant of cultural differences than their forebears, or so I was informed. Should the Cemetery be open it is feared that the tombs will be vandalized in an anti-Semitic attack. This is also the reason for the guard dog: dogs are haram to Muslims and so act as an extra deterrent. However, racist intolerance naturally leaves the Hindu caretakers vulnerable so a very low profile is maintained by the family at all times.

Just as the name of the road has been altered serving to erase the memory of the Jewish community in Penang, the old synagogue in nearby Jalan Nagore, now a photographer’s studio, no longer sports its signboard. I was told that this was removed years ago at the request of the trustees to discourage unwanted attention. This phenomenon should be put into context. All over Malaysia the names of long-serving British administrators and officers who died in service, together with Chinese patriots, frequently anti-colonial, are also being erased from street signs and replaced by Malay appellations in a fervor of nationalism and historical denial.

The Islamist resurgence in Malaysia, poses a threat to all non-Muslims. Islam is the State religion and is also promoted as the dominant cultural form in a country once known for its religious and cultural tolerance (Hew & Ashencaen Crabtree, 2012). Thus, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians all experience oppression in terms of an increasing lack of religious tolerance.  Molotov cocktails have been hurled at Christian churches and there has been extreme action in attempts to defile Hindu temples. Anti-Semitism is strongly expressed in response to the bloody Palestinian conflict and where Malaysian citizens are not permitted to visit Israel. However, owing to a veil being drawn over the Jewish presence in Malaysia, anti-Semitism is symbolic and policy driven rather than enacted through direct action, given the lack of Jews locally. Whereas, by contrast, the other ethnic groups who remain, former neighbours of the Jewish community, those who have lived in Malaysia for generations, are made to feel unwanted strangers in their own land, and  discriminated against in many ways on a daily basis.

It is a tragic fact that modern Malaysia would no longer be a hospitable home to the industrious Jewish migrant wishing to settle there. The Jews of Penang are now remembered as a historical anomaly among an accelerated exodus of Chinese and Indian citizens for whom Malaysia’s increasing religio-cultural intolerance is an increasing affront.


HEW Cheng Sim & Ashencaen Crabtree, S., 2012. The Islamic resurgence in Malaysia and the implications for multiculturalism. In: Ashencaen Crabtree, S., Parker, J. & Azman, A., eds. The Cup, The Gun and the Crescent: Social Welfare and Civil Unrest in Muslim societies. London: Whiting & Birch


Sara Ashencaen Crabtree is Head of Sociology at Bournemouth University and Visiting Professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. She has worked extensively overseas in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and the Middle East and is widely published in areas of discrimination and disadvantage, cross-cultural issues and belief. She is the author of the first European book on Islam and Social Work. She is currently engaged in research concerning women’s relationships with religions, and a study of nurse missionaries in Kenya and Madras, India.