THE STREET PEOPLE OF GEORGETOWN

Hugh M. Lewis, 1996

 

 


Copyright, 1996, Hugh M. Lewis

Copies of this text may be printed for research and classroom use only.


Spot observations were conducted for a period of eight months upon the "street people" of downtown Georgetown. Over this time, more than six hundred observations were made, and these observations encompassed well over 400 different individuals. This figure nowhere exhausts the total number of such people that actually exist in the greater area under study, much less upon the rest of the whole island. Almost every day during this study period, new individuals were identified who had not been observed before. That mental illness is a prevalent problem in Georgetown is indicated by the great conspicuousness of these street people on virtually any street at any time of the day or night. One can hardly sit in a coffee shop or walk down a street without seeing or being approached for money by these people. Though there is no direct way of proving these conclusions at this time, it is strongly believed that: 1) there are more of these people in the area than previously, and 2) the number of such people in the area comprise a density that is significantly higher than the expected average rate.

Within Malaysian society, these street people constitute an important category of persons who are by every standard of measurement at the very bottom of the social scale of being. Furthermore, they constitute a category of persons that can be said to be genuinely a "pariah" class in the sense that this term originally implied, as being ostracized, separate from, and totally isolated from the normal mode of living within the community. Nonetheless, a definite adaptive niche has been carved out by these people within the society, and their presence every where is tolerated by a kind of benign neglect and deliberate ignorance that reinforces the boundaries of their pariah status. From this standpoint, they must be seen as not separate from the social system, but as a significant part of that system, in which many of its facets, causes and consequences can only be adequately understood in reference to the wider range of social and structural relations in Malaysian society. It can be legitimately asked if not special stresses occurring within a radically plural society such as Malaysia, hovering upon the edge of the modern and held back by the traditional, might not result in higher rates of certain types of mental illness that predispose people to the streets.

As a single class (hypothetically), these people share certain basic, characteristic affinities that recur with a frequency far above that given by chance alone. This brings to bear a certain inherent dilemma in the observation of these behaviors. That is the conflation of a number of distinct possible patterns under a general stereotypical label, and the inclusion of people under this broad rubric on the basis their appearance alone. This dilemma is resolved to some extent (but not completely) by the great deal of similarity and stereotypicality of the core traits these people shared that serve to clearly mark out their behavior as "different" or strange.

Of the total sample of different individuals observed, 12% were women and 88% were men. If we accept that, according to at least one newspaper source, there are slightly more women than men in Penang, and we hypothesize a ratio of men to women of 48:52 out of every hundred, and we hypothesize that these numbers are compared to 10,000 people of a total sample, then the chi square test for significance is 251, significant far above the .001 level.

The reasons for the greater apparent prevalence of men than women in this category are not clear, as those women who are a part of this category share the core traits as clearly as the males do. We can cite the greater domesticity of the Malaysian female that holds across the ethnic groups, a domesticity that may to some extent serve to protect the female from some of the socio-genic stresses and strains that the Malaysian male may be prone. Personally acquaintance of several cases of mentally ill Malaysian females, known only through insider networks of friends and families, tends to corroborate this view of a greater harbor in the home for the disordered Malaysian female. At the same time, it may serve as a greater buffer keeping disordered females off the streets after the development of the symptoms--there appears to be a strong, culturally defined norm to take care of and better protect these females.

Of the total sample, approximately 23.1% fell into the "young" category (below 30 years old), approximately 51.35% fell into the "middle-aged" category (between 30 and 50) and approximately 25.56% fell into the "older" category (over 50 years of age.) Because the exact ages of these individuals were not known, ascription to age categories was made on the basis of appearance alone, which was sometimes difficult to judge due to a number of factors such as extreme dirtiness, emaciation, early graying of hair, etc. It is thought that many appear older than they may really be, thus the "young" category may be underrepresented, and the "middle" category slightly over-represented. But these differences were compensated to some extent by an effort made to identify and separate such individuals, and by deliberately widening the "young" category to include those possibly in their late 20's.

It can be assumed that the average age of the street person is in the mid-30's to 40's. The curve drops after about age 50, when it can be assumed that the street person either reaches an adaptive plateau which will carry her or him into older age, or perishes of largely unknown causes. It can be assumed that the street person is highly susceptible to certain forms of infectious diseases and other kinds of physical disorders, in large part due to the poor nutrition and lack of hygiene. Food poison may be a big factor of early death. Starvation, or its consequences, may be a related cause of death among these people.

 

Typical Chinese male street person.

 

Approximately 66% of the street people observed were Chinese, while 26.75% were Indian, and only 7.2% were Malay. Because the areas under study were predominantly Chinese and Indian, this disproportion in favor of the Chinese and Indians is understandable, though the Malays are clearly underrepresented, and the Indians, who are nationally about 10%, and possibly the Chinese too, who in theory comprise only about 39%, of the total population, appear clearly over-represented.

The differences in rates of street people between the three major ethnic groups based on national percentages for an estimated total population of 10,000 persons are definitely significant past the .001 level. The differences in rates of street people is definitely significant past the .001 level between Indians and Malays (chi square 126), Chinese and Malays (chi square 96) and between Chinese and Indians (chi square 12.9072), even when the estimated local distribution is adjusted to reflect a closer population ratio in the wider Penang area (5 Chinese to 3 Malays to 2 Indians).

 

Women street people were underrepresented in the counts, but often more conspicuous

 

It is difficult also to interpret these significant differences in prevalence of street people between the three ethnic groups, although it can be presumed that there are clearly differential cultural and sociological factors at work in the background of these people's lives. It is suspected that for the Malays, as for females in general, more care is taken of the "orang gila," resulting in lowered rates and in a lower profile, with more Malay "orang orang gila" finding shelter within the homes of the Kampongs or flats, and possibly with greater intervention by secondary institutions. It can be assumed that because the difference between Indian and Chinese samples were the smallest, while both groups were more pronounced than the Malays, factors influencing these groups are more similar and run a parallel course.

It appears that the average street person of downtown Georgetown is clearly a middle aged Chinese male. Correlations between the categories of male/female, young, middle-aged, old, and between Chinese, Malays and Indian, over 14 evenly distributed sub-samples, yields the following table:

 

Male

Female

Young

Middle

Old

Chinese

Malay

Indian

Male

1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Female

-0.06

1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Young

0.28

-0.15

1

 

 

 

 

 

Middle

0.19

0.47

-0.7

1

 

 

 

 

Old

0.39

-0.08

-0.2

0.15

1

 

 

 

Chinese

0.58

0.39

-0.14

0.7

0.33

1

 

 

Malay

0.2

-0.08

0.1

-0.1

0.12

-0.12

1

 

Indian

0.56

-0.07

0.56

-0.38

0.28

-0.15

0.16

1

Table Appendix B-1. Gross Correlations between categories of age, sex and ethnicity.

 

The highest correlations are between middle-age and Chinese, followed by male and Chinese and Indian and Male and young and Indian.

While these statistics point to obvious differences in patterning of the occurrence of street people in Georgetown, they tell little of the actual descriptive aspects of either the problem or its distribution across the samples. The average street person can be taken to be a middle-aged Chinese male, who is probably wearing dark blue, black or brown shorts, no shirt or shoes, who is dirty, has long unkempt hair, is emaciated, has the shorts either tied with a string or is loose, exposing the pubic area, and who is walking down the street or sitting along a curb or sidewalk, holding or carrying either a plastic drink or something else like a rolled up newspaper or small bag. These traits hold up as the most frequently shared among the sample. More clothing on the females marks the major difference between males and females--few males are "over-dressed" in the same manner than many females are. Females also tend to carry more paraphernalia than the males. Another noteworthy difference between the females and males is the more frequent outward show of anger and aggression by the females than the males.

 

Someone was hanging plastics on a grill. We did not know who it was.

 

Though there were many more males than females, the males seldom if ever bothered anyone except for a few begging. Only three males showed any form of interference with other people, and only one showed any real aggression. This is to be contrasted with at least 10 different females who showed any sign of aggression or interference with others, of which several showed such aggression on repeated occasion. The Chi square test for significance is 35. 84, that is significant far past the .001 level.

Why the females should be more prone to show anger or aggression or to bother others is unknown, but it might be interpreted as a greater call for attention and need for sociality by the females than the males, as well as the possibility that their disorder may be tied up with deep seated emotions of anger and frustration more than for the men. It may also be due to bias in the sample--since more men than women are represented, the frequency of the show of aggression by males may be relatively low. Since fewer women appear to be on the streets, more women (especially the more peaceful ones) may be better accommodated and cared for, hence the angry ones may be over represented and their percentage appears to be relatively high.

 

Typical Chinese male Street Person sauntering along.

 

The male street people have a characteristic pattern of wearing shorts or trousers which are tied up around the waist (in a peculiar way) with raffia, string, rope, or an inner tube, unbuttoned and exposed at the fly and crotch. Often they are so loose that they must be held up with the hand. No females showed this pattern, and though it is not clear why, it is evidence that there is a strong association with the genitals and difficulty with incontinence and privacy. This difference in males and females is significant above the .05 level with a chi square of 4.02. The closest comparable example with the females was of a middle aged Chinese woman whose open shirt partially exposed her breasts, and a younger Chinese woman who had a solitary sanitary pad visible against her brown skin beneath a very thin pair of white pajamas she was wearing.

 

A young Indian man inhabiting a walkway, with a small dog.

 

Other characteristic behavioral traits are talking to oneself, squinting, nervous twitches of the arm, stiff shoulder and body posture, a "falling forward," zombie, "drunken" or uncoordinated gait when walking, irregular sleeping, apparent locational disorientation, (as if not knowing exactly where oneself is at) habitual perseveration of fixed action patterns which are repeated stereotypically, a dazed, detached look, nervous leg shaking, body rocking and peculiar movements of the hands or fingers.

 

Chinese male street person, holding up his pants.

 

The color choice of clothing may be significant, as mostly the dark blue, gray, black or brown colors are worn, followed by green, blue, yellow, orange and white, and only rarely is red found to be worn, and mostly by women or male transvestites. Though most of these people appear to possess little, a few have quite a bit of paraphernalia that may sometimes be associated with a particular spot or corner that they temporarily inhabit. Some of the women carry several large bags around with them in which they keep their personal belongings, mostly clothes and a few items of personalia.

 

A temporary, make-shift sleeping place for one young man.

 

A few of the resident street people became well known during the eight months of the observation period, being observed frequently.

"Paranoid shopping bag" lady was first seen down at a bus stop near the Jetty with several bags of paraphernalia and a dress on. We didn't even notice her at first until she began scolding a little Indian girl sitting next to her for touching one of her bags. She kept scolding and scolding this girl, who sought the arms of the Mother, and who finally moved away from her leaving her all alone on the bench. She had an angry scowl on her face and said something to us while we watched her. We found her sitting on the same bench a few days later.

We next saw her entering a sari-bangle shop in little India with several shopping bags in her arms and wearing a light cotton dress. She has a fierce expression on her face. She went into one store, quickly came out, walked across the street, and went into another.

The next time we saw her she came onto the Jetty were we were doing our fieldwork and walked right past us with the same determined look on her face, carrying her bags with her. We saw her again a few days later walking down the road in front of the jetty area. It turned out that she was from the Jetty next door to the one where we were conducting our study.

The next example is "leaf man" whom we saw only a couple of times but was so distinctive in his behavior as to hardly escape attention. He too appears to be from the Jetty area and is a middle-aged Chinese male who wears only green-brown shorts which are usually pulled up to his navel. He walks with a stiff-shouldered gait without bending his elbows very much, and one day when we saw him run across the road he ran in a very unusual and uncoordinated way.

 

Temporary residence of one man.

 

The first time we saw him he was walking down the road in front of the Jetty. He would stop and pick a blade of grass by the side of the road, then stop and wash his hands in a water puddle, then he picked a leaf from a tree, and then washed his hands again at another puddle, then he picked a few more leaves from another tree further down the road, and then washed his hands again. He did this four times, until he was too far out of sight to be observed.

The next time we saw him he came onto the Jetty itself to order coffee at the shop we were sitting at. He washed his bare feet at a puddle outside, ordered a plastic bag of coffee, washed his hands in the water bucket, sat at a table which was empty, noticed people avoiding him, looked very nervous, and soon got up and left.

We saw him again a few times more. One hot mid day he was walking down toward downtown from the jetty area, stopping at walls along the corners and making a peculiar sign on the wall like a cross with four dots, and then licking his fingers. He did this twice and then found another puddle and washed his fingers.

Another example is "karate" or "kung fu" man who was observed repeatedly all over Penang. He is an older Chinese male who wears only dark blue trunks. The first time we noticed him he was standing in an uncoordinated, wide "horse stance" in the middle of a very busy one way road kicking and hitting out at all the cars passing by. The bus we were riding on had to steer wide around him to avoid him.

 

Karate Man walking barefoot down a street

 

Another day we found him near the same area, in front of the police headquarters, where he was cleaning his toes up against a railing in a peculiar manner. Yet another day near the same spot we found him standing by the side of the road, suddenly kicking and hitting out when a red van drove by, shouting at the place the van had been, as the van parked a little ways down the road from him. One day we found him down in Little India kicking and shouting out at imaginary enemies. People were crossing the road to avoid him and we did also as we walked by him. We saw him several times like this, sometimes fighting, sometimes just walking quickly down the road with a menacing look. He was only one of several males who showed any sign of aggression. Another day we found him in the courtyard of an old kong si building, just walking in small circles.

The final and saddest example is of a young eleven-year-old Malay girl. We first saw her at the Komtar bus station where we noticed she was dancing around the bus terminus and had hit a European tourist girl on the leg and they began playfully hitting one at one another while she laughed with glee. We next saw her on a bus as we were headed to our apartment. She was sitting in the very back. She was wearing an orange baju kebaya and it was so loose that her flat chest was exposed. She was dirty looking and had a severely scrapped knee. She was eating little chocolates that she kept in her shirt tail between her legs, and throwing and kicking the balled up foil out the back door the bus. Everyone sat some distance from her. A young Malay man was standing by the back door when she hit his hand. He turned to her and gave her his ticket stub. She laughed with glee, such that her neck cartilage and muscles were very tensed, and then she made a circle sign with her thumb and index finger at the man. When we came down off the bus we found her looking out the back window watching intently the bus immediately behind, waving and smiling at it.

 

The youngest girl of our study, an adolescent Malay, begging from shops downtown.

 

We found her again wearing a full green kebaya (Malay dress) at MacDonald's at the downtown shopping center. She was holding a basketball and went up to several tables "kachowing" (bothering) the customers. Soon a Chinese business manager walked up to her, took the ball out of her hand, and walked outside with it, with the Malay girl quickly following behind. We found her one Friday morning walking the Muslim Indian shops begging for a few cents, as many did. She walked by a white male tourist at a table and "kachowed" him, and then hit a car that was making a turn nearby.

The last time we saw her, we were waiting at the jetty bus terminus for our bus one Sunday evening. She came up and danced around the benches. Soon she went around the back. She comes back with two or three bags of crackers under her arm. She went up to the snack shop Uncle who was putting away the juke-box. She didn't say anything but was smiling. She walked away, back outside, came back and sat down on large black duffel bag on a seat. A Chinese lady next to her with baby boy face away, looked back over her shoulder. An older Indian lady comes back over to the bag. She didn't say anything to the girl but just looked at her. Soon the girl realized her mistake, smiling, got up and sat down next to her. The Chinese lady picked up her baby and moved off to the curb. Indian lady straightened out the bag and sat, putting it in her lap. The girl was still sitting next to her, eating her crackers.

We began talking to the old uncle who ran the little shop there. He tells us that the 11-year-old Malay girl used to be dirtier. "Now she is cleaner. The social services have been around. She's been around like that 2 years now. She moves around a lot. Sometimes she's more normal like today. She can dance. If someone puts music in the box, she'll start dancing. She asks for money only. If you don't give her money she runs away. She likes to hit people. People give her food. They say she's 'hereditary.' The father and the mother are both like it. Nobody takes care of her. Sometimes she cries. Another one (the "pregnant woman"), when she had a baby she sold it for two thousand. Nobody wanted to give her the money and she went crazy."

I ask the uncle how people become like this. He tells me that some are

"jobless, don't have money so they think about things. There are more new ones. Some are very smart, because of the competition, they study so hard they just go crazy. A lot of young students have to study so hard that they go crazy. Some people also due to pressures from work, between Chinese and Malay mostly. One ("paranoid shopping lady") had a Caucasian husband and baby. The baby died and husband left her so she went crazy. She can hit children. She scolds grown ups also. She speaks very good English. It could be hereditary, husband or wives leave them, sometimes too much education, study too hard, they become that way."

We had heard this kind of folk attribution of the illness before. "The screaming lady" had been jilted by her husband for another woman, and the "bag lady," a pretty young lady downtown who one day stole the fish right off our plate in a restaurant, had her baby taken away from her and she became like that. A common theme of such explanations is one of losing a baby or a lover--the history of what came first is never clear in such accounts.

It is evident that many of these street people are living in a separate world of their own making, that is very stereotypical, and that has only minimal connection with the immediate environment. Awareness of, much less interaction with, the external world seems to come and go, almost like the tuning of a television set. Mental and perceptual functioning and motor coordination appear to be regressed. For the most part, these people are totally separated and isolated in the social world. Most people avoid them where ever and whenever possible. Only one time did we witness an act of kindness toward one of these people, and that was when a Chinese bus conductress we knew gave a packet of food to "pregnant woman" who was sitting near us and staring at my daughter. She looked sad and didn't say anything except "What's this?" She soon wandered off and on the way back on the bus we saw her sitting alone in an empty corner by some stairs where the jetty kids usually play badminton, eating the food.

It seems that no single explanation can totally account for the predicament or condition of these people. The causes may be multi-factorial, but the consequences are always similar--psycho-social impairment which effectively prevents normal interaction within their world in basic ways.

I would hypothesize that the unusually strong representation of Chinese males upon the streets, and of Chinese in general, when compared especially to the Malays, are the influence of different social and cultural factors which determine their adaptive condition and their "lot in life." One man who had been a regional sales manager for a large international company told us he couldn't handle the stress of the job, and so became a simple hawker selling economy rice at noon-time.

There is another case of a well-dressed middle-aged male who got off his motorcycle one day at the Jetty to chant loudly to the Gods, mixing his prayers with swearing and cussing. A man sitting next to us at the coffee shop told us he used to work with him for the Penang port commission. "He prayed for the datok (spirit) for numbers, The datok (spirit) put a hex on him, became possessed." He walked up to this man and asked him for money and then told him to fuck off, motioning with arms in an extremely nervous condition. He then went to the datu kong (temple) and prayed for numbers. The business man left. He said the "siow lang" doesn't like to talk about work, "he becomes angry." If he remained the man would "kachow" him. He told the man "I have no money so I cannot be your friend." The man began yelling out "The government makes soi (dirty), everyone vote for the DAP, the rocket. The Burmese boats will come back in." He began calling spirits for numbers to make the Jetty prosperous. He continued spouting off, pointing in air with his hands, yelling out. Sometimes he smiled, laughed, then looked very fierce and strutted with his arms flaring out. Everyone watched him with amusement. Kids gathered around as he went out by the road, two or three times, and came back in again. He would double over crossing his arms and laugh out loud. We were told that he had been that way for two or three years now.

Not only does the competitive success ethos of Chinese society dictate frequent failure, but it also guarantees inexorable poverty and social stigmatization for those who do fail. The structural discrimination of the Chinese by the Malays may also be felt strongest among the lower class males who are left most outside of the system. Though most Chinese male street people do not even appear slightly aggressive, unlike many Indians, there seems to be little tolerance or place left for them in domestic life--hence they are ejected onto the streets, either by themselves or their families.

It appears that perhaps only the more aggressive females are similarly ejected from a life of domestic security. We knew of one case personally where the family of a young and attractive girl had tried desperately to find a suitable home for her, only to eventually take her back in and resign themselves to her fate and her abnormal violations such as leaving her bloody menstrual pads on the kitchen stove. Another female we had known, whose condition attributed to a head injury following a motorcycle accident, wandered the streets regularly and was provided a room by her sister in a kampong. It must also be wondered what patterns of abuse in these women's lives would lead to such a pronounced aggressiveness and anger. It appears that the Chinese males are left more on their own without a similar familial obligation to take care of them.

The condition of the Indian street people appears to be a little different, and for the Indian male may be more the direct consequence of poverty. Traumatic injuries such as loss of arms and legs are more frequently observed among young Indian males, and many take up a form of begging which can be considered to be a form of indirect aggression and an indication of a "borderline" condition. 

There is an example of a middle-aged Indian man who got on the bus from the hospital dressed in clean nice clothes, light cream brown shirt, gray pants and blue thongs, talking to himself, pointing to the trees when paying bus conductress. Then he began hitting the seat with his hand. When a man got up, he hit his seat with his hand, coughing very loudly. He hit the seat and the window with an open palm. He opened a newspaper, and folded it back up, while talking out loud to person next to him, but nobody was there. The index finger of his right hand twitched nervously. He hit the man opposite him on the thigh. The Indian Muslim man ignored him. His right index finger began twitching faster. He hit the seat harder. He hit the glass in front of him with his fist--the bus driver called back to him. He changed seats to the other side, smiling, squinting. He hit the back of the seat occupied by a women in front of him with his open palm. His leg was folded up, very nervous. He moved to the bus conductress, two seats back, shifted again to a seat in front, talking to himself. He then called out "open door, open door" and hit the door. He couldn't wait to get off.

No female Indian street people were observed in the course of the fieldwork, though we had been acquainted with a catholic Tamil family who kept an over aged unmarried sister of the wife who appeared to be borderline and about whose marriage ability they worried a great deal.

It is possible that the Malays may be doing a much better job of keeping and caring for the "siow lang" within the domestic arena of the family, and of making an attempt to include them as a more normal member of the family. One Malay bus conductress we had befriended told us that her mother had been "gila" (mad, or crazy) all her life and how hard it had been growing up with her. The mother would threaten suicide by refusing to eat, and would not clean herself for weeks at a time. It was now a source of strain between her and her husband who lived with the mother and helped take care of her. But the husband had accepted her condition and they had been married for more than fourteen years. Both the conductress and her husband were responsible and hardworking citizens. She told us how difficult the ridicule had been in her life--how people thought that she too was "gila" because it ran in the family, though she appeared as normal and calm as could be. It appears that within the kampong even little children will torment "gila" people. But the mother was still her mother and was not wandering around on the street.