Cintra Street and The Pre-War Japanese Community

Cintra Street and The Pre-War Japanese Community, January 2011

On Sunday afternoon 9th January, 72 members and friends of PHT gathered at the corner of Cintra Street and Kampung cintra Malabar to follow a trail to the former Japanese quarter of Penang led by Clement Liang. Very little physical evidence remains today to remind us that any Japanese community ever existed there and only the names of the streets in Chinese and the interpretative signboards on the old wall bear witness to their presence once upon a time. During the visit, several century-old reprints showing the shops and hotels run by Japanese in the vicinity raised questions and curiosity as to why these people came all the way to Penang.

In the late 19th century, both Cintra Street and Campbell Street were the thriving red light districts of Penang. The Karayuki-san who went into prostitution overseas began when Penang as an entrepot had its first influx of Japanese people and cultural contact. Sailors and migrant workers thronging the streets in search of pleasures often found the petite Japanese girls clad in kimonos cute and accommodating.  But behind the smiling faces, these girls endured a life of hardship starting with the long arduous journey out of impoverished villages. Innocently believing in misleading offers of waitress job offers in restaurants and hotels overseas and trapped in money lending schemes that enslaved them for years, their situation was not very different from what we read in the newspapers about foreign prostitutes caught nowadays.

The arrival of hundreds of Karayuki-san later led to the formation of ‘Little Japan’ quarter around Cintra Street and Kampung Malabar in George Town which the local Chinese still fondly call Jipun Huey Kay and Jipun Sinlor. In 1910, the official census by the Japanese Consul-General counted 207 Japanese residents in Penang with over half of them involved in some sort of flesh trade. In fact, the majority of the tombs in the Penang Japanese Cemetery at Jalan P. Ramlee belonging to the young Karayuki-san who died from various sicknesses.

The success of the Meiji Restoration and the humiliating defeat of the Russian fleet in the Tsushima Straits in 1905 saw Japan emerge as a military power on the world stage. The presence of large numbers of Japanese prostitutes overseas could not longer be tolerated.  Working together with the British authorities, open prostitution in the Straits Settlements was finally banned in 1920’s and the fate of the Karayuki-san was sealed with most of them either returning to Japan, cohabiting with local men or simply going underground to continue the trade.

At the same time, the Japanese government was actively promoting foreign trade with Southeast Asian countries and encouraging its citizens to migrate overseas.  Penang received a fair share of these people in the form of photographers, pharmacists, hotel operators, barbers, dentists and traders in imported Japanese goods. Two of the well-known Japanese establishments in town were a sundry shop named Osakaya in Penang Road and Asahi Hotel in Transfer Road.

By the late 1930’s, Japan’s invasion of China heightened the conflicts between the Japanese and Chinese communities in Malaya and a series of boycott campaigns and attacks on Japanese shops and civilians drove the Japanese population of Penang down to around 50 just before war broke out. Eventually they were all rounded up and interned by the police as enemy aliens when war was declared in 1941. After the war, all the Japanese were repatriated and their property confiscated and it was not until 1960’s that  another wave of Japanese arrived, this time as investors and industrialists.

After enjoying a cool break in an old fashioned coffee shop while listening to the stories shared by Clement and many others, the group went on to stroll along Cintra Street when the afternoon heat had subsided. Judging from the stream of questions asked, the site visit generated considerable much interest in this bygone community.

Text and images by Clement Liang