Khoo Salma

Khoo Salma with Syed Thajudeen Shaikh Abu Talib, Malaysia’s distinguished painter during the launch of her book in Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

Once, Penang was a free port in the northern Straits of Malacca. It was the first port of call for Europeans coming to the Far East and second in importance after Singapore within Southeast Asia. At that time, the port was filled with merchants coming from China, India, and Malay Archipelago. Therefore, the population in Penang was home to a small minority of Hadhrami Arabs, Thais, Burmese, Ceylonese, Filipinos, Sikhs and North Indians.  The other hybrid communities comprised of Eurasians and Jawi Peranakan.

The Jawi Peranakan community was enterprising and by the late 19th century, they had significant wealth and were prominent merchants and landlords. They were also English-educated and qualified easily for government jobs mostly residing in Penang and Singapore. The intermarriages with the locals at that time had enriched the terms used from Chulia to Jawi Pekan to Jawi Peranakan.

The Kapitan Kling Mosque situated in Georgetown, Penang is a major hallmark for the Tamil Muslims. Designed by German Eurasian architect Neubronner, this Moghul-style domed mosque was first introduced to this part of the world by the Dutch in Acheh. The leader of the Tamil Muslims of that time was Kapitan Kling Cauder Mohudden, a ship owner, merchant and predecessor of the Merican clan. He was the headman of “Chulia” (South Indian Muslim community).

The word “keling” has been used since the 15th Century within the Malay community to refer to Indian-Muslims from Southern India. As it was also a norm to refer to the representative of the Chinese community as Kapitan Cina, it was customary for the leaders of the Tamil Muslims to be called Kapitan Keling. Not many people are aware that the Tamil Muslims arrived in Penang before the British brought labourers from Madras to work in the rubber estates of Malaya.

Currently, the state of Penang, or “Pulau Pinang” covers an island a as well as a strip of land on the Peninsular of Malaysia. It is also one of the 13 states in Malaysia. Accomplished award winning writer, publisher and heritage advocate, Khoo Salma Nasution nee Khoo Su Nin spent 17 years of research to write her book,“The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making Around The Kapitan Kling Mosque 1786-1957”.


Khoo Salma’s book entitled,“The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making Around The Kapitan Kling Mosque 1786-1957”

When asked what brought her to be interested in the numerous stories found around Masjid Kapitan Keling, Salma says, “If you visit a place where you can feel the past, you will become interested in the stories. That’s why it is important to keep our places of special significance for the future generation. I think that all children should learn about the history of their hometown or their state first, and visit the places they learn about. That is how they grow up with a strong sense of belonging which they will carry with them wherever they go.”

She added, “In 1989, when I started exploring about Penang as a historic port city, Chulia Street, with its Muslim sacred sites and Indian bungalows hidden behind the Chinese shop houses, it fascinated me. As much was already known about Nanyang Chinese networks, I was determined to discover Penang’s role in the Indian Ocean monsoon trade. When the Masjid Kapitan Keling mosque chairman approached me to write a book about the mosque in 1996, I had to learn at least a little bit about two impossible vast subjects – Islam and India-with all their internal diversity.”


Customers enjoying Nasi Kandar at a junction. Photo Credit: Photograph from the Wade Collection. 

A full photo exhibition was on display in Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) until March 2016. The exhibition emphasized on four distinct areas; the origin of the Tamil Muslims in Penang, the wafq (an endowment), the famous Kapitan Keling Mosque and the contribution of the Chulias to the heritage of Penang. Salma, a fifth generation Penangite Peranakan, paid homage to her mentors; Emeritus Prof. Raj Brown, Professor of International Business and an expert on waqf, French conservation architect – Didier Repellin, who was the advisor to the Syed Alatas Mansion restoration project and Australian heritage architect – Bruce Pettman. Without their insight, the exhibition would have never been a success.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Khoo Salma Nasution and Jasmin Abdul Wahab gave a thought-provoking lecture on “The Chulia Diaspora, Mosque and Endowments”. They had interesting stories to share about the Muslims in Penang and how the Chulia community transformed Penang into a vibrant cosmopolitan community. Jasmin, director of Masjid Kapitan Keling documentary, made a major first in Malaysian media as she was able to persuade award winning A.R. Rahman to contribute the music arrangement.


Indian Muslim seller of Malay cakes surrounded by children. Photo Credit : Photograph from the Wade Collection.

She had to say the same thing about the importance of learning family history. “It is good for any individual to know their family origin as I believe that when we know of our roots we will be proud of ourselves.”

Jasmin dedicated the documentary to her late father, Abdul Wahab. Her father originated from Yembal, a small village in Sivagangai District in Tamil Nadu, India. He came to Malaya at the age of 9 and lived with his grand uncle in Pitt Street in Penang. She proudly said, “Atha (Father in Tamil) is of Indo-Turkish and Indonesian origin. My maternal parents were from Nagapattinam, India and my mother was born in Butterworth. She reverted to Islam when she married my father.”

When asked about the challenges she faced directing the documentary on Masjid Kapitan Keling, Jasmin said that funding for a documentary was always a major issue as documentaries are not as popular as films. Her company, Asa’ad Entertainment Network made a major first in Malaysian media, as she succeeded in coaxing Academy Award winner, A.R Rahman to compose the music.

As for Salma, this beaming mother of 3, has come a long way from writing her first book on Penang’s history and culture, Streets of George Town in the early 1990s. This was way before Penang was named as UNESCO World Heritage Site for its long history as a cosmopolitan city. As President of the Penang Heritage Trust, she has her hands full attending endless conferences and talks. This feisty historian is currently conducting research on another book entitled ‘Sejarah Gambar Seberang Perai’ Province Wellesley, a Pictorial History.


Mahomed Noordin’s fourth son, Mahomed Mashurdin Noordin better known as M.M Noordin (C. 1851-1924). Reproduced from Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya.

Khoo Salma Nasution’s book “The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making Around The Kapitan Kling Mosque 1786-1957” is an International Convention of Asian Scholars (ICAS) Book Prize 2015 Colleagues’ Choice Award winner. Books can be purchased online on Areca and at the International Islamic Arts Museum (IIAM) Museum Shop. Islamic Arts Museum Shop business hours are from Mondays to Sundays, 10.00 am to 6.00 pm.

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