One of the things that caught my attention early last month was a story about the wedding photos of the Hollywood couple Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds being removed from websites. Why had those photos caused such offence? The answer was because the wedding had taken place at a US plantation which was ‘a site that holds deep traumatic historical meaning for the African American community’. (1)
I set about investigating this story a little more and found an online article about it in The Guardian where it was stated as follows: ‘In a letter, Color of Change wrote that “plantations are physical reminders of one of the most horrific human rights abuses the world has ever seen. The wedding industry routinely denies the violent conditions Black people faced under chattel slavery by promoting plantations as romantic places to marry…’ (2)
Why? Because my immediate thought was that this can’t happen here in Malaysia. Off the top of my head, there are times we’ve gone on trips to an eco-resort built on an estate. Two years ago, I attended a traditional Indian dance recital in a state-of-the-art multi-purpose hall located on a hill in another estate. My cousin’s wedding was inside an estate temple because the bride used to worship there. If we cannot have our celebrations and holidays in places that were formerly estates, then where would we go?
Today, oil palm is cultivated in many of the estates in Malaysia. At one time, the main product exported from these estates was rubber. I allude to this ‘conversion’ from a full rubber estate to sectioning it into different parts to create an oil palm plantation and establish a resort in my novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets.
LIFE IN THE ESTATES
What fascinated me about how offensive it was to have a wedding at a former plantation was that, as a descendant of someone born and brought up in the estates, I don’t recall suffering from any sort of trauma when recounting the history of Foothills Estate. In fact, I was deeply amused by observing my often-subdued elderly uncle become excited after reading my novel because he recalled playing near the stream I wrote about.
Although I grew up in the sleepy town (now city) of Alor Setar, I know many people who knew well what life was like in the estates. My father was one such person. He told me fascinating stories of his life in Foothills Estates, Kulim. When it came time to craft my story, I chose to set it in the Foothills Estate that he spoke of. Of all the characters in the novel, the one that is closest to the kind of people my father described was Nagakanna. Made a ghost in the novel, Nagakanna features heavily in the edited version of Chapter 9 of the novel which was submitted for an anthology about indenture that was published in 2018 (please see below).
Still, I am aware that historical accounts state that life in the estates wasn’t rosy. In a story that was published in the papers in Singapore, which one of my cousins very kindly saved for me, there is an edited excerpt from the book called ‘Journeys: Tamils in Singapore, 1800 – Present’ by Nirmala Murugaian. (3) She wrote:
The system of indentured labour in Malaya was different from that in the other British colonies… [I]n Malaya, the employers carried out direct recruitment through private agencies in India. The Malayan government’s role was to ensure that the employers adhered to the terms of the contracts. But even this was not always done.
The method of recruitment and arrival for Tamils was also different from that of the workers from China….
…According to documents in the Government of Madras Proceedings in the Public Department 1870, the traffic [from India] was so profitable that recruiters kidnapped boys and women as well. …
Unlike the Chinese labourers, who could move around freely on the island, Indian workers were isolated from the rest of the local population, housed in barracks and severely punished for acts of disobedience or for not doing sufficient work. Toddy shops and cinemas were opened for them, and many became addicted to toddy, known as the poor man’s whisky, and sought escape through Tamil films with themes of romance, betrayal and violence.
This seems to echo every harrowing account of what happened to those who were taken as slaves from Africa to America.
HAPPY AND CONTENT LIVES
Scrolling through the rest of the article in The Guardian I came across this: ‘There’s also persistent trope that black people were happy slaves. But most African Americans don’t find much joy in seeing plantations glorified and their human histories deemed a niggling inconvenience.’
Suffering from the kind of insecurity that only another writer will understand, I wondered if I’d glorified life in the estates? Had I dismissed this version of the human history of Foothills Estate? Had I glossed over all this suffering in telling the tale? After a long and protracted time of reflection, I came to two conclusions.
The first was a reminder of something that came to mind during a discussion about indenture that took place in Kuala Lumpur last year. I was part of the panel and the event centred around the publication of an anthology called We Mark Your Memory: Stories from the Descendants of Indenture. (4)
One panellist had a simple point to make: if we were going to help the poor, their colour, creed or faith shouldn’t matter. Another panellist, however, vehemently disagreed and insisted that we should concentrate on helping the Indians of Malaysia. Past governments had done very little for them. Marginalised, they had neither food, education nor a means of living. They were poor and miserable.
Hopeless at public speaking, I said nothing. Had I the courage, I would have pointed out that if I were to guess, neither of them had what I’d call ‘personal history’ behind them. Their surnames gave me reason to believe that they were probably descendants of Indians born and brought up in the city. Their forefathers hadn’t come to work in the estates, but the Malayan Civil Service. I, on the other hand, had forefathers who had spent their entire lives in estates. I should have said this: “My father once told me that the estate people didn’t know they were poor, marginalised and badly treated until those from the city came and told them this.”
If only I’d had the courage …
Second, I have never heard any descendant of indenture describe their forefathers as ‘happy slaves’ – in this case, ‘happy indentured labourers’. On the contrary, those who took the opportunities offered to them when Malaya gained its independence, prospered. They adapted to their new home and made happy and secure lives for their progeny.
As for wedding photos, those sepia-toned and black and white ones of my relatives, together with modern coloured ones from the progeny of said relatives, taken at the same venue almost 80 years apart, share this – everyone looks rather content.
Perhaps, it is wiser to continue to quietly contemplate this matter about abuses in a past era. For a start, I will choose to stick with the first-hand truth told to me by my father about his life when he was growing up. I will remember, always, how he half-scolded me when I told him that part of the story in my novel was set in the place where he once lived – “Don’t write bad things about Foothills Estate,” he said. “It was a very nice place to grow up.”
20 January 2020
1. Preston, S. Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’ Problematic Wedding Photos Are Basically Banned Online — Here’s Why. December 8, 2019. [Accessed January 2020]
2. Jabali, M. Plantation weddings are wrong. Why is it so hard for white Americans to admit that? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/11/plantation-weddings-are-wrong-why-is-it-so-hard-for-white-americans-to-admit-that [Accessed January 2020]
3. How Malaya became a ‘death trap’ for early labourers from India. The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/how-malaya-became-a-death-trap-for-early-labourers-from-india [Accessed January 2020]
4. The legacy of indenture in contemporary times. https://commonwealthfoundation.com/events/the-legacy-of-indenture-in-contemporary-times/ [Accessed January 2020]
Aneeta Sundararaj is a freelance writer who contributes stories and articles to many publications, both online and offline. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).