Penang, Malaysia

A busy port of the Indian Ocean, 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 from different eras, can be found in close proximity. The traces of different cultural influences are inscribed in Penang’s people, the food they eat, the languages they speak, their clothing, their religions, and their bodily styles, and their marriage rituals – which reveal or obscure distinct ethnic histories.

Often in Malaysia, the population is described in terms of three main communities of ‘Malay’, ‘Indian’, and ‘Chinese’ (although there are also others). The people and the categories are partly the legacy of British colonialism. Each of these communities is made up of many sub-groups. Rapid urbanisation and an expansion of the middle class in the closing decades of the 20th century have been very marked in Malaysia. This means that what marriage involves, as well as how weddings are celebrated, has for most people considerably changed over the last 50-60 years. The main part of the research in Penang has involved interviewing middle-class, urban Penangites of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and ages about their experiences of marriage as well as those of their parents, grandparents and other family members. The work has also included attending weddings, frequenting wedding shops, talking to wedding planners and going to flea markets to search for photographs and objects connected to marriage. These activities and objects reflect the multiculturalism of Penang as well as some of the changes marriage has undergone over recent decades.