Hugh M. Lewis


Copyright, 1996, Hugh M. Lewis

(Copies of this text may be printed for research or classroom use only)


Various things were counted in Georgetown, especially during the first few months there, and when collected together these miscellaneous counts show some facets of life in Georgetown. Counting is a kind of neurotic activity that a young ethnographer might do, especially in complex and stressful field situations and especially in the first few months of adaptation when the focus of research has not yet crystallized. Such statistics especially point to differences in social patterning between men and women within Malaysia. They reveal statistically significant phenomena that cannot in themselves be denied, however we may wish to interpret them or whatever their ultimate relevance.


Morning Markets

There are nine or ten morning markets that recur daily in the wider Georgetown area, and more than this if one includes the entire island. These morning markets, or "bahn sahns" are focal centers of activity that constitute an important part of life in Penang. They are the place where the majority of Chinese people shop on a daily or weekly basis to buy fresh meat and vegetables, to by cheap household goods like soaps, towels, toilet and bath articles, etc. They are also a social occasion for women especially, and perhaps for many, may constitute the primary social outlet outside the home--it is a place to see different people, the strange admixture of the base and common with the exotic, and to meet and renew old acquaintances and exchange gossip. It is only in the coffee shops next to or within these markets during peak hours that one may find a majority of the patrons who are women and not men. Thus the market in Penang, as well perhaps as in all Malaysia, represents a focal social and cultural institution.


Clothes Vendors at morning market.

The three largest of these markets were counted for the composition of people during different hours, and for the kinds of items sold there. All three of these markets are clearly "Chinese" affairs, as are most if not all of the other markets. Over ninety percent of the customers and sellers at these markets are Chinese. Indians are common but relatively infrequent, and Malays are rarely found there. This leaves unanswered the question of where the Malays find their fresh food if not at the central market places. If they have their own markets these were not obvious. It appears that they frequent the Indian Muslim traders that are at the periphery of the downtown morning market for a great deal of their commodities. They are found more frequently at the markets on the outskirts of the city, nearer to the Kampongs, and where fish and chicken is sold and the sale of pork is not as open and central as at the downtown markets.


Bread seller at the morning market


An inventory of items sold with number of hawkers selling these items at the largest, most central market during the New Year season is as follows in order of decreasing frequency:

vegetables 15

clothes 14

children's clothes belts

towels pants

wallets shirts

shorts ladies pants

Fish 13

live fish (black catfish)

Dried food stuff (non perishable) 12

ground nuts

koay 11

local cakes and pastries 7

dumplings 3


Chicken and poultry 9

Fruits 8

apples pears

bananas melons

pineapples oranges

Sundries 5

Chinese New Year cakes 5

shrimp 4

flowers 3

religious paraphernalia 3

cooked food, dishes 3

canned goods 2 eggs 2

garlic 2 wooden clogs 2

household goods 2 moth balls 2

milo dried pork

roasted pork pork

tapes, video cassette tapes

hair bands shell fish

cosmetics magazines

papers nasi lemak (rice in coconut milk, with sambal)

stools curry, chili spices

frogs cameras and binoculars (Europeans)

dried meat fish balls

candies cuttle fish

cigarettes matches

dried fish onions

cooking utensils, kitchen beans

bean curd onions

dried pork skins spices condiments

toilet paper scouring pads

shoes, sandals Chinese medicine

herbal medicine sewing things

lighters fried bee hoon

This list gives a good profile of the simple kinds of material things which Malaysians, mostly Chinese, need and prefer on a daily or weekly basis: cheap clothes (underwear, dresses, t-shirts, children's clothes), fresh vegetables, local and imported fruits, fresh fish, chicken and pork, fresh eggs, dried food stuff and a variety of miscellaneous condiments for cooking, basic household things like matches, fire starters, hair pins or clothes clips, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, etc., cooking utensilsm cheap plates and bowls, cheap toys, cassettes, etc.


Plastics and clothes vendors.


A breakdown of some of the categories of things sold by hawkers at morning markets follows:


pineapples mandarin oranges (tangerines)

Sunkist oranges siam kam (Thai oranges)

green apples red apples

Japanese apples Chinese yellow pears

green pears brown pears

cantaloupes bananas

watermelon guava

mangosteens papayas

grapes plums

lychees rambutans

mangos star fruit

jack fruit guava



cucumbers 4 yellow cucumbers

lemon grass chives

water chestnut fresh sweet potato

bamboo leaves (for spring cleaning) water cress

carrots egg plants (brinjal)

water cress hot chilies

leeks cabbage

enchie white radish (dicon)

ginger green (Spring "bunching") onions

lotus fruits okra

lemons mint

tomatoes jicama

cauliflower bitter gourd

bak choy cucumbers

French beans beans

Chinese long beans string beans

baby corn peppers

chilies green peppers (bells)

red peppers snow peas

celery choy sum (bulbs)

selantra spinach (purple leaf)

lettuce ice-berg lettuce

chi sim ang char

Chinese gourds brown onions

brown pumpkins baby red potatoes

small orange pumpkins pandanus leaves

cerrano peppers "bunga tergang" (red ginger flower)

cut potatoes peeled garlic

brown large potatoes bamboo shoots

dried food stuffs

pumpkin seeds mushrooms

dried chilies coffee powder (different grades)

salted eggs duck eggs

tamarind balachan

beans ketchup

garlic dried onion flakes

different grades of ikan bilis salted fish

bulk rice (dog, black, sweet, brown, "cha be" or "leg rice")

lap chan (sausage) pork skins

prunes noodles

salt sugar

spices condiments

canned goods. Spam

vegetarian bean curd peanut butter

bamboo shoots peaches

baby corn abalone

instant coffee


salted fresh brown

duck eggs quail eggs

egg yokes turtle eggs


liver legs, parts

whole fried, roasted

feet blood

heads & necks


blood intestines

tripe brains

liver meat

dried roasted

char siow


lor bak oysters

meat balls fish balls

Ladies paraphernalia

tissues wallets

pins purses

nail polish hair bands

hair braids hair clips

earrings costume jewelry



glutinous rice yellow rice

ang ku New Year Cakes

white carrot cake bung cake

biscuits crackers

durian cake apong

bachang koay (peanut pan-cakes) bread


pomfret small grouper

tuna rumpah hu

small fish shark

catfish shrimp

steamed fish ikan parang

squid dried fish

crabs small flounder

ciput (shell fish) lobster

sting ray mackerel (different varieties)



Plants and flowers

black-eyed susans chrysanthemums

oleander junipers

ferns roses

carnations mums

flower petals croutons

succulents pepper plants

"Chinese New Year Plant" cactus

chemical fertilizer


shirts socks

towels petticoats

slips dresses

panties bras

underwear pants/trousers

pull-over shirts shorts

sandals shoes

wooden clogs

Miscellaneous household

pins matches

stoppers toys

hangers moth balls

soap tooth paste

tissues hi-lighter pens

straw baskets Chinese checkers

children's toys cato-pens

bed sheets pillows

towels cato-cutters

toilet paper scouring pads

tooth brushes rice starch

baby powder tooth picks

assorted candies scouring laundry brushes

fire starter toilet brushes

deodorizer clothes pins

laundry detergent shoe white polish

ear swabs brooms

mosquito coils straw brooms

plastics (buckets, bowls, tubs, etc.) clocks

watches sunglasses

chopping boards


Though pasar malams (or night markets) were not studied, past experience shows that these are similar affairs, with more clothes, toys, miscellaneous sundries, household items, cassettes, and cakes being sold. The pasar malam occurs every night in a different place. State sponsored pasar malams cycle every two weeks. There are perhaps 60 or 70 traders, with 10 or 15 food stalls. Chinese sponsored pasar malams cycle every week. A friend of ours sells clothes regularly at the Chinese markets, which has 40 or 50 traders, She had been a member of the market for about two years, and joined it of her own initiative.

Separate counts on separate days at the main morning market showed within a single street about 851 people at about 8:30 A.M., 926 people at about 8:40 A.M., 886 people at about 9:20 A.M., 771 people at about 10:05 A.M., and about 406 people at about 10:35 A.M.. Another count on another day of the same market showed 1,149 people at about 10:55 A.M. Of this final count, approximately 653 (56.8%) were women and 496 (43%) were men (a portion of which is represented by the sellers). Slightly more women than men appear to attend these markets. In an hour at one market, less than 30 non-Chinese were observed at the market, out of probably 2000 people, and of the 30 approximately half were tourists. Thus proportionately very few Indians and Malays frequent these morning markets, and they seem to be almost exclusively Chinese institutions.


Coffee Shops

One hundred and thirteen counts were made of coffee shops in the downtown area over a period of four months. It was noticed early that more men than women were eating in coffee shops, sometimes exclusively so. It turns out that there is an average of 11 men in coffee shops, with a median of 9, a range of 36, and a mode of 3 compared to an average of 5 women with a median of 2, a range of 34 and a mode of 0 (an average of one child with a median and mode of 0 and a range of 10). The only times and places (12 times out of 113) in which more women than men were found at the coffee shops was at the morning markets, between 8:00 and 11:00 A.M. and one time at one coffee shop during a lunch hour between 1:00 and 2:00 in the afternoon (proximate to businesses hiring women secretaries). A chi square test for significance of the number of males eating in coffee shops at the time when women outnumbered the men compared to the number of males and females when the men outnumbered the women is 174.5, significant beyond the .001 level.


A typical small coffee shop late in the morning.


It can be safely said that coffee shops are primarily the domain of adult males compared to females, and of adults compared to children, but with the regular and easily defined exception of the morning markets. This conclusion holds across the ethnocultural boundaries. The implications of the coffee shop, as a central institution of pan-Malaysian culture, like the morning market, have yet to be fully explored. Among the Chinese, at least, coffee shops are frequently the locations of important business negotiations and done deals. It is a place where business relations and partnerships are cultivated, and clients are treated. It is a place where information and views are exchanged between males, and where those at work can get out of the hot sun, cool down, enjoy an ice coffee and some rice or noodles.


Young hawker preparing grand fare for the lunch crowd




Counts were made on buses of the number of men, women and children, as well as the number of male Malays, Chinese and Indians who rode these buses. These counts were kept up for a period of three months and encompassed two separate bus companies on four routes. It cannot be known how representative these statistics are for the entire bus system of Penang, which comprises six or seven bus lines and quite a few different routes. Who rides on what bus depends upon the time of day and the area that the route passes through. If a route passes near to several kampongs, it can be expected that more Malays will be riding these buses. If they pass by an Indian community, as did two of the routes that we counted, then more Indians can be expected to be riding the bus. If you count at 8:30 in the morning, you will count mostly women and men going off to their jobs downtown. If you count a couple of hours later there are a lot of older men and women coming back from shopping at the markets or going visiting. If you count after 3:30 in the afternoon, you will get many school children of all ages coming home on very crowded buses, along with the women and men returning from jobs downtown. These counts could have easily been extended to encompass a wider area and more lines, but the net knowledge learned from this did not seem to justify the effort or provide the motivation to do so. There are many better things to do with one's time than riding buses all day long, and by the end of our study were both too well accustomed, and tired, of riding buses.


A typical day on the bus with mostly women and children riding.


There was an average of 20 women (a median of 19, a mode of 24, and a range of 39), compared to an average of 11 men (a median of 11, a mode of 8, and a range of 29), riding buses over 71 separate counts. Just under twice as many women than men are riding the buses, at least on the lines that we took, although this is probably true for most or all of the other bus lines as well.

The number of Chinese, Malay and Indian men riding buses was counted over 35 trips. Out of a total of 327 men riding these buses during these times, approximately 42.36% were Malay (and indistinguishable Indonesians), 32.57% were Chinese and 22.77% were Indian. Impressionistically, this count corroborates the observation that stimulated these counts in the first place that proportionately more young Malay men are riding the buses. The most significant difference was between the number of Indian and Malay male bus riders, with a chi square value significant beyond the 0.001 level, then between Chinese and Indian bus riders, with a chi square value significant beyond the .005 level, and then between the Malays and the Chinese with a value significant beyond the .025 level.

It is difficult to interpret these numbers as they were complicated by the fact that all the routes went by one or more largely Malay communities, and two or three lines went by at least one or two Indian communities. If larger samples were taken, one might find these numbers coming to closely resemble the national population ratios between the ethnic communities. It would have perhaps been more useful, as well as more difficult, counting the number of women on the basis of ethnicity rather than the men. First, the ethnicity of women is more clearly marked and distinguishable than for men. Secondly, because twice as many women than men ride the buses, it can be expected that their numbers will be more representative of actual larger social patterns.

Bus counts were undertaken for another reason. Bus riders represent a distinct social category in Malaysian society, those who do not own or drive any kind of motor vehicle. Thus it can be considered that, except for a few anomalies, most of these people are near the bottom of the social pecking order of semi-skilled working class. This distinction is known by the Malaysians themselves, as one day when a well dressed middle aged Chinese lady missed her coming down place, asking which way she should to get to the main shopping center, and the bus conductress who was our friend told us she must have been a rich lady not to know the buses like that.

The fact that statistically more women than men ride the bus, means that probably more women than men occupy this particular working class category within Malaysian society. This category is reflected in the factory bus system, which is predominantly for taking women to and from the factories. It also has a resonance in the school bus system, which shows a similarity of social status between adult women bus-riders and child school bus riders. This type of difference is demonstrated by the greater imposed "uniformity" of dress of women in the workplace and school. More women wear more uniforms in the workplace than men, as do children in the schools, and this uniformity often downplays or highlights the women's sexual characteristics.



 Cars and Motorcycles

Cars and motorcycles were counted at certain bus stops within the greater city area. A set of 106 such counts were accumulated over ten different locations. The average time of each count was just over ten minutes. The average number of motorcycles was approximately 16 per minute. The average number of cars was just over 20 per minute. The total amounts to one vehicle every 1.67 seconds, which is about right, but which also disguises quite a bit of variability in the pattern between different roads. On some roads at some times of the day the rate of traffic goes up to as high as two vehicles every second, making it next to impossible to cross these streets by foot without becoming dangerously caught in the center between the lanes. Most roads of Penang have become extremely crowded, with thousands of new cars and motorcycles being brought onto the island every year but very few roads being constructed or widened. The net result is an almost ceaseless congestion, especially along certain main access routes that are prone to bottleneck jams at certain hours of the day or on holidays, and making available parking space very precious.


Downtown traffic in a busy section of town.


The primary purpose of the counts was not to understand this volume of traffic, so much as it was to get at certain ratios of motorcycles to cars, single person cars and motorcycles to multiple person cars and motorcycles, and to the differences in the number of male and female drivers. It is almost certain that certain categories are clearly distinguished on the basis of the ownership of motorcycles or cars. Though many car owning families will also likely own and regularly use a motorcycle too, many families have access only to motorcycles as an available means of transportation, and this marks a clear socio-economic boundary within the society.

For counting over a total period of more than 1070 minutes, approximately 43.78% of the total number of vehicles (38996) were motorcycles, and 56.22% were cars. This difference is found to be significant by the Chi square test far beyond the .001 level. This greater preponderance of cars to motorcycles, despite the fact that many car owners frequently drive motorcycles for greater convenience, demonstrates a basic shift of wealth and mobility that can be clearly associated with the modern development of Malaysia, especially over the last decade. It means that most of the people focused in those areas where the counts were conducted, have moved up to the "car" owning category. This is reflected by the fact that most cars seen on the road are relatively new and recent acquisitions. It also means that most of the press and congestion of the traffic that has recently been felt has been due to this increase in the number of new cars being driven, though more motorcycles than cars are implicated in motor vehicle accidents. Motorcycles, always dangerous, may have become increasingly dangerous and vulnerable to accidents due to the increase in the number of cars on the roads.

There is variability in this ratio of cars to motorcycles, reversing itself clearly in the downtown area where there are more poorer people residing locally, where parking is more difficult and motorcycles more convenient and mobile. There are an average of 21 motorcycles per minute downtown, compared to an average rate of 18.4 cars per minute, out of a total of 23 counts encompassing 203.25 minutes of counting. Along the Jetty, the number of motorcycles is actually about equal to the average number of cars, an average of 13.47 motorcycles per minute compared to an average of 12.7 cars per minute, perhaps reflecting the lower working class environment. This difference between downtown ratios compared to outside-of-town ratios has a Chi square value of 3.2 that is significant above the .1 level.

The number of male to female drivers of cars and motorcycles were counted over 9 separate times with an average of 10.25 minutes per count and a total of 92 minutes. Out of an average of 16.6 motorcycles per minute, approximately 1.8 were driven by females. Out of an average of 18.74 cars per minute, approximately 5.78 were driven by females. Though unfortunately not enough of these counts were made, these ratios of male to female drivers reveal what are strongly believed to be significant differences in driving patterns between males and females. Significantly more males than females are driving motorcycles on the road. The Chi square test for men and women driving motorcycles compared to the total number of vehicles driven by men and women is 12.1, significant past the .001 level. The Chi square test for men and women driving cars compared to the total number of vehicles driven by men and women is 2.494, significant past the .25 level. The highest correlation between these counts was between the number of female car drivers and the total number of female drivers (.97). It appears that the changing socio-economic profile of Malaysians may be reflected in the greatest changes in the profile of women, as there may be a higher proportionate increase in the number of female car drivers.

The number of single driver cars and motorcycles to multiple person cars and motorcycles was counted over 13 times for an average of just over 9 minutes per count and a total of 118 minutes. The average rate of cars counted was approximately 17.35 per minute, while the average rate of motorcycles counted was approximately 17.3 per minute. The evenness in rate is reflected in the fact that proportionately more of the counts were done downtown and by the Jetty (46%). Of these, approximately 2.89 (16.7% of all motorcycles) motorcycles per minute, and approximately 8.49 (48.9% of all cars) cars per minute had two or more people in them. This implies that cars are more frequently used for carrying groups (presumably families) and motorcycles are owned and operated more frequently by individuals, though the chi square test reveals no significant difference in this regard.


Motorcycles are affordable, frequent, fast and dangerous.


The number of single person to multiple person motorcycles was corroborated with a larger sample of 42 counts with an average of 8.63 minutes per count for a total of 362.5 minutes. The total average rate of cars was 17.75 per minute, while the average rate of motorcycles was 15.24 per minute. The average rate of more than one person motorcycles was 3.476, or about 22.8% of the total count. Slightly more motorcycles are being used in the transport of other persons away from the central town area. About 42.85% of these counts were made in the downtown or jetty areas.

The final consideration in the way of traffic is the frequency and kinds of traffic accidents. A number of these accidents were witnessed during our stay in Penang, and notes were kept on each of these. We witnessed at least 18 clear accidents during our time there. Of these, 14 involved motorcycles (78%). Three involved fender benders between cars. The only injuries we witnessed were with the motorcycles, including: two cases of severe injury, one certain fatality, one broken arm, and two or three minor injuries to the legs. One motorcycle accident involved hitting a pedestrian; another involved running over a bicycle; three involved only motorcycles hitting each other; five involved motorcycles hitting or being hit by cars; and three involved motorcycles hitting or being hit by vans or lorries. Several of the motorcycle accidents involved young persons, and several of these involved women. Several involved making right turns. Several involved following too closely. A couple involved passing a vehicle on the blind side, and several involved the carelessness of the motorcycle driver who was driving to fast. Motorcycles remain the most dangerous vehicles on the road, and safety precautions are minimal. Young children without adequate helmets or restraints are seen riding on the fronts or backs of motorcycles. The most common violations of motorcycles are executing an entry of the lane from the wrong way; driving down the wrong way; cutting corners; not making full stops; passing on the wrong side; speeding; and driving on sidewalks.


An unusual accident, with a car that ran off Hillside road.




Graves at the largest Chinese cemetery on the island were counted over a three week period during the first part of April for a week before and a couple of weeks following what is known as "Cheng Beng." The purpose behind the count was to see the ratio of graves visited compared to those that remained unvisited during this season. Visited graves were relatively easy to identify, with the paper money, joss sticks, candles and other votive offerings left there after the visitation. Unvisited graves were easy to identify not only for the lack of these leftovers, but also from the general lack of upkeep, the overgrown state of the weeds and the grass, of the grave itself.


Lonely graves on the hillside--notice the fresh red paint in the foreground.


Overall, out of 40 counts of an average of 92.9 graves per count (3717 total) an average of about 34.1 were visited (1,363 total), about 36.8% of the total. The period was divided into the first ten days and the subsequent seven days. In the first period, a total of 20 counts had an average of 114.85 graves per count and an average of 31.5 visited graves (27.43%). In the second period, a total of 20 counts had an average of 71 graves per count and an average of 36.65 graves visited (61.82 %). It can be seen that by the last week of this three week period, the number of visited graves goes from just over a quarter to just under 2/3's of the total number of graves counted. This difference between visited and unvisited graves is significant well past the .001 level with a Chi square test of 114.47.

It is interesting that newer graves could also be distinguished from the older grave sites, and that for the first two weeks average visitation of the new grave sites was 23.68%, but jumps up to 84.32% by the last week. On the other hand, older grave-sites are visited 28% during the first two weeks, and go up to 46.72% in the last week. These differences between older and newer visited and unvisited grave-sites are all significant with the Chi square test past the .001 level. The greater variability of the old grave sites visited is accountable for because of the different locations of old graves counted--some of the oldest sections of the cemetery remained unvisited compared with newer sections.

It can be interpreted that more than 3/4s of the newer graves are visited, and these graves represent mostly second or third generation ascending. The older grave sites which fall to less than 50 percent visited represent the termination line between third and fourth generations ascending. It seems that actual ancestor worship and filial piety extend back at most to the third generation, but quickly falls away by the fourth generation. As an informant told us, too old is not good, great grandparents will eat one's children. If we allow about 25 years for each generation, we can assume that graves over 75 years of age will most likely be forgotten, and that graves over 50 years old will have only a 50 percent chance of being visited, whereas grave sites less than 25 years old will have a 2/3's to 3/4 percent chance of being visited. Children remember their parents, and widowers their spouses and siblings, but with each successive generation this memory lapses. Another qualitative difference between older and newer graves are that among the older sites there are many grand tombs, with many very humble markers scattered in between. With newer sites there is greater uniformity in both style of construction and in the laying out. Space is more precious and the density of graves is greatly increased.



Trishaws are a conspicuous part of the Georgetown setting. It was my initial presumption that they were primarily a tourist institution, supported mostly by the inflow of tourists dollars. Interaction with them is frequent enough in downtown Penang that it warranted a count. Many more than 1087 trishaws were observed at all hours of the day and in practically every part of the city, though this number represents only that part of the total sample that could be clearly coded on categories of ethnicity and age of both driver and passenger. Twenty-three sub samples of this total was drawn with an average of 47.26 observations per sub sample. Of this total, 570 with an average of 24.78 (52.43%) per subsample were empty and without passengers. This means that trishaws are generally without customers more than fifty percent of the time. An average of 33.78 of the trishaws (total count 777, 71.48%) were Chinese drivers, while an average of 9.87 were Malay (total count 227, 20.88%) and 9.78 were Indians (total count 225, 20.69%).


Tri-shaw carrying a two young Indian women.

  An average of 19.13 of the customers were Chinese (total count, 440, 40.48%), while only an average of 5.44 were Malay (125, or 11.5%) and only 2.8 on average were Indian (65, or 6%), and only an average of 3.1 were white tourists (71, or 6.53%). Thus it can be concluded that trishaws are clearly mostly a Chinese institution, and Malay or Indian employment within or of the institution are borrowings of Chinese culture by these different ethnic groups situated within a predominantly Chinese city.

Of a total of approximately 1087 passengers, average age of the customer is young, below 20 years old, and most of these were school children (372 or 34.21%), followed by middle aged customers (254, or 23.36%) and then elderly (66, 6.1%). There were slightly more females (average of 12.74 per subsample) than males (average of 11.52 per subsample). Out of a smaller set of about six subsamples, most trishaw drivers were middle aged, (approximately 45.49%), followed by elderly, (approximately 43.23%) and then young (approximately 11.28%).


A typical tri shaw cart, parked.

  Interpretation of these statistics suggests that the trishaw is primarily a local Chinese institution serving local needs of transportation, especially of school children to and from school (7 %) and middle aged females to and from the market, and also of businessmen, the elderly, young families and couples and the carriage of things (approximately 3%) primarily vegetables, groceries, furniture and bulk products. Tourism is only an adjunct, if probably lucrative, source of income.