Weddings in Penang:
Diversity and Transformation
A busy Indian Ocean port, with a long history of trade and migration, Penang is an exceptionally interesting place to study marriage because of the diversity of its population and cultures. This multiculturalism is visible in the streets and buildings of its capital city, George Town, where old trading establishments, jetties, Chinese clan houses, mosques, churches, Buddhist and Hindu temples, shop houses, medicine halls, law courts, museums and government buildings, with distinctive architectural styles of different eras, are found in close proximity. The traces of different cultural influences are inscribed in Penang’s people, their food, the languages they speak, their clothing, their religions, their bodily styles, and in their marriage rituals – which reveal or obscure distinct ethnic histories.
In Malaysia, the population is often described in terms of three main communities of ‘Malay’, ‘Indian’, and ‘Chinese’ (although there are also others). The people and categories are partly the legacy of British colonialism. Each of these communities is composed of many sub-groups. Rapid urbanisation and an expansion of the middle class have marked Malaysia in the closing decades of the 20th century. This means that how weddings are celebrated, and what marriage involves, has for most people
considerably changed over the last 50-60 years.
The main part of my research in Penang has involved interviewing middle-class, urban Penangites of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and ages about their experiences of marriage. I have attended weddings, frequented wedding shops, and gone to flea markets to search for some of the objects you can see here. These objects reflect the multiculturalism of Penang as well as some of the changes weddings have undergone over recent decades. Many people now spend more on weddings than they would have in the past; some items are now mass-produced, and many items that formed the
traditional Chinese dowry are no longer in use. Such changes are part of new patterns of urban middle-class consumption.
This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 695285.