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. …