The Early History of the Burmese Community in Penang
by Dato' Mary J. Ritchie & Ms. Nyee Aye Toolseram
We have no records of the earliest Burmese arrivals to Penang. However, we know that after 1800, there was a large Burmese settlement in the area between Bagan Jeramal and Pulau Tikus. The Burmese also settled in Batu Maung.
The earliest settlers were fishermen who came by fishing boats and established a colony - probably at Telok Ava, near the present Chinese cemetery in Telok Bahang. The early burial ground of the Burmese was a plot of land in front of Casuarina Hotel, probably the car park site.
Most of the early Burmese community were concentrated in the Burmese Village in Pulau Tikus. There were also nearby fishing settlements along the coast. Early paintings depicted the "Burmese Temple" (painted by Captain Edward H. Locker, 1805) and a house named "MacKinnon's Residence near Burmese village" (painted by James Wathen, 1811) in the Pulau Tikus area.
The original site of the temple land was purchased by Nonia Betong from George Layton for 390 spanish dollars. The temple was founded on 1st August 1803 and named the Nandy Moloh Temple. The four trustees were all ladies: Nonia Betong, Nonia Meerut, Nonia Koloh and Nonia Bulan.
The Burmese community expanded, and together with the Thai Buddhist community they appealed to Queen Victoria of England for land to build bigger temples and burial grounds for elders. Queen Victoria through the East India Company granted land jointly for the Siamese and Burmese communities to erect their temples.
The Burmese Temple Trustees (1845) were Nong May & Bon Khan. Later, on the demise of the above trustees, three Burmese trustees were added: Koo Pao, Poh Oh and Changerig. The temple pagoda appears in an early painting (John Turnbull Thomson, 1848). In 1948, the Penang court appointed Maung Pho Min, Maung Shoey Nee and Maung Shoey Dong to administer the trust.
The Chief Monks of the temple were as follows:
The late Ven. U Nandamala 1803-1842
The late Ven. U Sutti 1842-1865
The late Ven. U Vicara 1865-1897
The late Ven. U Nanavamsa 1897-1922
The late Ven. U Jagara 1922-1957
The late Ven. U. Vimala 1957-1972
The late Ven. U Paranavamsa 1972- present
The Burmese are devout Buddhists. In recent years, much of the Buddhist Temple, including the old Simla Hall, has been redeveloped and new Buddha statues added, through the generous donations of devotees. The Burmese Buddhist festivals are Soon Dawgyi, Kathina celebration (offering of money tree and Kathina robes), Wesak Day Procession and Water Festival.
The Burmese were traders who conducted barter trade. They were also famous for cigar manufacturing. Some of the educated ones were civil servants, such as surveyors, station masters and clerks. A few became professionals, such as doctors.
The Burmese cigar factory was pioneered by Sin Yew Kyong (1890-1961). His wife was a Nonya by the name of Khoo Lean Sim. Coming to Penang at age 16, Sin later set up a "choorut" or cigar factory and company, Guan Hin, at 8, Tavoy Road, Penang. This factory employed about 300 Burmese choorut rolling factory girls in the 1930s. Sin later opened a cigar shop at 22 Prangin Lane, Penang, and a factory at 19 Eastern Road, Taiping, Perak. The factory was managed by his two sons Sin Hock Leong and Sin Tien Ho.
Many of the cigar factory girls were sought after as wives for the Chinese immigrants.
Through intermarriage, the Burmese integrated with other ethnic communities in Penang. The following are stories of two Burmese families in Penang.
Oral history by Dato' Mary J. Ritchie
My grandmother Mah Nyong (1840-1921) came from Burma to Penang, trading in gem stones. My father Maung Shoay Tong was a trader, selling herbal cures and bicycles. He loved music and was active in community work. My mother Meh Itt Chanradvirode was born in Phuket, Thailand. She was active in giving herbal cures and healing injuries. My parents had 10 chlidren (7 sons and 3 daughters). My eldest sister is Mah Seng Yin and my eldest brother is Maung Song Seng. My uncle Maung Shoay Tee worked as a surveyor. He retired and stayed in Taiping. My aunt's name was Mah Meek.
Oral history by Nyee Aye Toolseram
My grandfather was Dr. Hari Singh Thulasiram (Dr. Harrison Toolseram) of Burmese Indian origin. He had his clinic in Chulia Street. My grandmother Mah Poh Siew was of Burmese Chinese origin. My auntie, June Toolseram married Mr. Devosse of Dutch origin. My uncle Jan Toolseram married a Nyonya around the year 1941.
My father Puteh or Phu Thay (1898-1969) worked as a ledger clerk and a meter reader inspector. His first marriage was to Winnie Bamford of Dutch origin (circa 1904-1939). They had 4 sons and 2 daughters. His second marriage was to my mother Keng Choo or Peh Nyet of Burmese Chinese origin (1915-1960). They had 2 sons and 4 daughters.
My father took part as a violin player in the Bangsawan performances organised by the Chinese Amateur Dramatic Association in aid of China Distress Relief Fund on 17-18 August, 1928. My
uncle on my mother's side is Maung Toon Meng, and he married a Chinese wife. There used to be a Penang Burmese Buddhist Association, according to a picture taken around 1941.
My father Puteh Toolseram or Phu Thay Toolseram (1898-1969) worked as a ledger clerk and a meter reader inspector. His first marriage was to Winnie Bamford of Dutch origin (circa 1904-1939). They had 4 sons and 2 daughters.
• Bamooung Toolseram
• Ong Toolseram
His second marriage was to my mother Keng Choo or Peh Nyet of Burmese Chinese origin (1915-1960). They had 2 sons and 4 daughters.
• Lha Toon Toolseram
• Bamoung Toolseram
• Nyee Aye Toolseram
• Nya Toolseram
• Darling Toolseram
• Bee Bee Toolseram
My father took part as a violin player in the Bangsawan performances organised by the Chinese Amateur Dramatic Association in aid of China Distress Relief Fund on 17-18 August, 1928. My uncle on my mother’s side is Maung Toon Meng, and he married a Chinese wife. There used to be a Penang Burmese Buddhist Association, according to a picture taken around 1941.
Looking back at our history, we are proud to be the Penang Burmese community. As a minority, the questions we should ask are, what will happen to our community in the future? Will our religion and culture survive after 200 years of the history of Penang?
In view of the questions asked, we, a group of Penangites, have registered an organisation named Penang Burmese Society, with a mission to carry on our Burmese heritage and culture. Presently, we are planning, developing and strategising interesting programmes to promote Burmese living culture and traditions. We hope everyone (including the State government) can give full support to further our mission.
(source: from Penang Story Project, website: penangstory.net.my/mino-content-paperabstract.html )
Burmese Wedding in 1917
A pretty Burmese wedding took place on Sunday, at Palo Tikus, when Mr. Puteh Toolseram alias Lab Oung, second son of the lato Mr. Toolseram, of Chulia Street, Punang, was married to Miss Vince, alias Man Sing, the granddaughter of the late Mr. Moung Tbaw Oong, late Burmese Medical Practitioner of Pulo Tikus. The marriage was conducted by Mr Maung Poh Ob, the Head Burmese Trustee of 43, Cantonment Road, Penang(source: Strait Times, 8-12-1917)
1.Hannah Toolseram (Malaysian of Burmese origin) is the house-model for Versace in Milan, and Mary Lourdes Chandran (fashion designer Bernard Chandran's wife) used to work in Paris as house model for Jorge Rech - she was with Marilyn Gaulthier modelling agency.
2. Dr. Hari Singh Thulasiram (Dr. Harrison Toolseram) of Burmese Indian origin. He had his clinic in Chulia Street.
3. Mr. Moung Tbaw Oong, late Burmese Medical Practitioner of Pulo Tikus.
Penang Burmese Society
Malaysians of Burmese descent have formed the Penang Burmese Society to preserve their ethnic culture, values and language. Society chairman Moung Ban Chowi said the society will be a base for Malaysians of Burmese descent to interact and for the younger generation to know their roots.
"Being a small community, our people seemed to be losing their identity. We were once a sizeable community in Penang and Taiping but through inter- marriages, our identity has diminished.
The Burmese had formed a settlement here in the early 19th century, and their presence remained until the early part of the 20th century. At that time, there was a Burmese village here called Kampong Ava - probably named after the town of Ava (today Inwa) in Myanmar. When the British administrators created the main road here, they named it Burmah Road. Off shoots of Burmah Road were also named after places in Burma(Burma Lane) . Hence we now have road names that are of Burmese origin including Burmah, Irrawaddi, Rangoon, Mandalay, Moulmein, Salween, Tavoy and Thaton.
Today, the Burmese presence in Pulau Tikus is best represented by the Dhammikarama Burmese Temple at Burmah Lane (Lorong Burma). It has been around since the beginning of the 19th century. The oldest part of the temple, the stupa, dates back to 1805.
The Burmese are devout Buddhists. History tells us of Burmese settling in Penang Island, many wear around the Pulau Tikus area. They came here as early as 1800s and appealed to Queen Victoria of England for land to build bigger temples and burial grounds for elders. Queen Victoria through the East India Company granted land jointly for the Siamese and Burmese communities to erect their temples. This Burmese temple is the first Buddhist temple in Penang.
The Dhammikarama Burmese Temple at Burmah Lane, originally known as the Nandy Molah Burmese Temple, was the first Buddhist temple to be built in Penang in 1803, on land donated by Nyonya Betong, one of its many woman patrons. The oldest part of the temple is the stupa which was consecrated in 1805. It is enshrined within an outer stupa which was constructed in 1838, together with the ceremonial hall guarded by a pair of stone elephants.
Mythical figures and religious icons dot the spacious compound, much of which were later additions. Among them are bell-bearing acolytes, myriad buddhas, chimeras and flying beings. Two huge and imposing-looking chinthes (mythical beings that are a cross between a dragon, a dog and a lion) flank the entrance to the main prayer hall. At a disused 200 year-old well is a huge pond filled with carps. Buddha statues in different meditative poses nestle in grottos marked with the names of individual donors as well as signs of the zodiac. A pair of winged chimeras called Panca Rupa look resplendent in the roles as "Guardian Protectors of the World."
A huge mural depicts the Great Renunciation of Prince Siddharta. The future Buddha is shown riding his steed Kanthaka in mid-air with his faithful servant Channa seemingly hanging on. Evil beings try to discourage him from his noble quest while good ones welcome him with open arms.
The above articles reflected that Burma and Penang had been having close relationship in the past including trading relationship. Even today there are many Burmese immigrant in Penang, both legal and illegal, some are under refugee status.They are welcome by Penang community firstly due to their hardworking nature , and secondly they can easily assimilated to local society. Burmese community, old and new are indeed a contributor to the development of Penang....