In 1937, Palanisamy Kumeran* traveled across the Bay of Bengal from Southern India to Penang to work on one of the many rubber** plantations to be found on the Malay peninsula. Palanisamy had planned on staying long enough until he had enough money to return home to India. He ended up staying for seventy years.
Many millions of people, like Palanisamy Kumeran, had made their way back and forth across the Bay of Bengal seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families. The island of Penang was more often than not the first port of call for many heading east. It was the place where many started the process of assimilating into this new and different land.
Although Penang is a small island situated just off the coast of the Malaysian mainland and to the northwest of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. For centuries it was a gateway for trade where someone visiting the island could hear Portugese, Arabic, Tamil, Hokkien, Cantonese, Javanese, Malay, Swahilis, Gujaratis, Burmese, Bengali, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and many more languages of business and commerce.
Today as one travels and moves through the island of Penang you see a glimpse of the ethnic and religious diversity of the population. It’s common to hear a Tamil speaker of the Malaysian Indian group being able to converse in English and then switch gears to order food in Hokkien (Chinese dialect of Fujian) or even Mandarin Chinese as the lingua franca. Many Chinese speakers can speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, and then Malay along with English. The Malay language alone has 10 dialects throughout Malaysia.
While traveling in Malaysia it was easy for us to travel using English as it was the most useful, but outside of that we used Mandarin Chinese nearly half the time as many Malaysian Chinese were able to use either Mandarin Chinese or Hokkien with us.
* Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortune of Migrants by Sunil S. Amrith
** Many Americans may never have realized much of Henry Ford’s sourced rubber for his automobile tires came from the Malay peninsula.