Penang and Asia’s Migrant History

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Between 1840 and 1940, close to 50 million people moved across Asia’s frontiers: most of them were young men from southern China and eastern India who moved to and from Southeast Asia. They travelled under varying degrees of freedom and constraint—and, consciously or unknowingly, they transformed Asia’s future. Penang was a central point in many of their journeys. As a result, Penang’s history provides us with a unique portal into a much larger history of Asian migration. Penang has much to offer historians of Asian migration—a deep archive of print culture and visual sources, a rich material and architectural heritage, a vibrant tradition of local history and heritage activism. The lecture will argue that Penang played a crucial role as a site of intersection between multiple Asian diasporas. It will locate Penang at the crossroads of many social and political worlds: the world of the Bay of Bengal, the Malay world, and the “Asian Mediterranean” stretching from China to Southeast Asia. The final part of the lecture will consider the legacies of this earlier era of migration for Penang’s position within the Indian Ocean today.