Penang’s Dhobi Ghat: The last laundry district in Malaysia

Most of the laundry here is still washed by hand.

04 May 2024 01:00pm
A worker washing the laundry. Photo by Bernama
A worker washing the laundry. Photo by Bernama

GEORGE TOWN - In a quiet corner of a bustling township and between beautiful multicultural heritage architecture in the inner city of George Town, there lies an outdoor laundry village similar to an open-air laundromat in Mumbai, India.

Located between Jalan Air Hitam and York Road, Dhobi Ghat in Penang, set up in the early 1800’s is the remaining settlement of its kind in this country. Before this, there were a few dhobi ghats in Malaysia, including in Perak.

A survey by Bernama found that most of the laundry here is still washed by hand. The process begins with sorting the garments, followed by soaking them in soapy water before the washerman, dubbed dhobis, beats the clothes on flogging stones. This scenario is reminiscent of a bygone era.

Yuvaraj Muthukannu, 67, a seasoned dhobi since 1976 who inherited the skills from his father, said the settlement used to be occupied by around 100 traditional Indian laundry service providers who were brought over from India during the British colonial era.

However, now there were just 15 to 20 people who still continued operating the outdoor laundry, and even their children were not interested in carrying on the family legacy.

Reminiscing those days with a heavy heart, Yuvaraj, who was born and brought up in the Dhobi Ghat, said his father and others used to wash clothes in the waterfall river before the housing development took place because the river water was clean back then.

"Every Saturday, nearly 100 people would wash clothes in this river at the same time, and even the traders from India would come to bathe here because the Penang Port is nearby. The municipal workers would clean the river every Monday to maintain its cleanliness,” he recalled.

According to the info board in the Sri Ramar Temple in the Dhobi Ghat settlement, the place was set up by an Indian laundrywoman named Rhanee. The land was granted to her on May 2, 1802 by the Governor of Prince of Wales Island Sir George Leith Boranet Lieutenant under the East India Company.

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Originally known as Rhanee Dhoby in the 1800s, the settlement will always be remembered as ‘Vanna Thora Tedal’ in Tamil among the Indian community here, which means a laundry district.

Raman Angko drying the clothes. Photo by Bernama
Raman Angko drying the clothes. Photo by Bernama

Meanwhile, a third-generation dhobi man Raman Angko, 61, said many people, especially from the Indian community, still prefer traditional laundry methods for garments like saree, Punjabi suits and dhotis because they worried their clothes material would be spoiled when using washing machines or modern laundry.

"It took one week to do the laundry. First, I will organise the garments and separate them according to materials and colours. Then, I will soak and wash them with water, detergent and some traditional chemicals imported from India.

"After that, we will scrub and rinse them by hand before drying them under the sun. Ironing is done using a charcoal iron because it has the right temperature for lasting results. I even submerged the clothes, especially white dhotis, in hot water for a few minutes to kill germs and restore brightness,” he explained.

Although working as a washerman at the Dhobi Ghat does not generate a big income, Raman said he is living a satisfying life and will happily continue his grandfather and father’s legacy.

He even described himself as a devotee of the ‘laundry-art’ and takes pride in his profession despite knowing that his legacy may not continue in Penang after him. - BERNAMA

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