Snapshots of Globalization's First Wave

Article excerpt

Photographs taken in 1979 captured the fading way of life among the migrant workers of Penang.

Every weekend in 1979, Ooi Cheng Ghee took his Leica camera out to the docks of Penang, an island off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. Mr. Ooi, a local physician of Chinese descent, roamed the working-class district of Georgetown to document life in the harbor. By year's end, he had taken 4,000 portraits, mostly of first-and second-generation migrants from India.

The photographs chronicle a vanishing world. You can see it in the sad but defiant eyes of an old man hauling jute sacks of betel nuts, an ancient trade that was fading away. By then, Mr. Ooi said, the Indian enclave of Penang "gave off a feeling of having been abandoned." Modernization had eclipsed the commercial and social patterns of earlier waves of globalization.

Many coastal cities across Southeast Asia gained prominence in the 15th century, as power ebbed from ancient upland capitals like Angkor and Bagan, which had become riven by conflict and were weakened by the collapse of agricultural production. Ports developed as ocean trade grew. Textiles from Gujarat and the Coromandel Coast of India were exchanged for staple goods like rice or spices and medicinal products from across Southeast Asia. The Chinese market was the most lucrative of all.

Malacca, situated at the junction of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, emerged in the 1400s as the greatest trading emporium in the region, perhaps even the world. Many smaller ports also thrived, including Aceh, Banten and Manila.

Most were small principalities ruled by Muslim families, but their populations were multiethnic. The important political office of harbormaster was often occupied by foreigners, often Indians. Alongside Chinese, Indian and Arab merchants, the port towns relied on a workforce of local peoples and slaves from South and Southeast Asia. When the Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511, the apothecary Tome Pires claimed to hear 84 languages spoken in its marketplace.

After the Portuguese, it was the Dutch who came, then the British and the French, setting up coastal footholds around the Indian Ocean. A British colony was founded in Penang, a strategic location on the Strait of Malacca, by the East India Company in 1786 as a trading and military base. As the British expanded into Malaya in the 1870s and established plantations, Penang prospered. By the early 20th century, Malaya was the world's largest producer of rubber and Penang among the most culturally diverse cities on earth.

Some migrants moved in search of fortune; others were forced to relocate by colonial authorities, labor recruiters or difficult circumstances at home. The Chinese went to all parts of Southeast Asia; Indians stayed mostly within the British Empire, concentrating in the Malay Peninsula, Sri Lanka and the area then known as Burma.

But the ports' fortunes were always precarious, contingent on the fluctuations of global trade. The Great Depression hit them hard, forcing many migrant workers to head back home. Singapore and Malaysia introduced immigration controls for the first time.

World War II severed already-strained trading links. After decolonization in the late 1940s and 1950s, newly independent governments favored industrialization over the export of basic goods, and the old port cities suffered. India's drive for self- sufficiency in food -- supplemented as necessary by aid from the United States and bilateral deals -- brought a decline in the Bay of Bengal's traditional free trade in rice.

By the second half of the 20th century, nearly all of the old ports of the eastern Indian Ocean had been eclipsed by investment in new facilities as part of national development plans: Penang lost out to Port Klang, closer to Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur; Calcutta gave way to Visakhapatnam. …