Hainan-Penang & The British Encounter(3)海南岛-槟榔屿与英国人的机缘

The Hainanese Community

Historically Hainan Island was not exposed to any major wars, civil or invading.  The island would be the last spot if at all there were any such war.  That was the advantage of being an island, a natural defence line for any aggression from outside.  The islanders therefore live a relatively simple and peaceful life, though poverty prevailed.  The need to fight for survivor was not as tense as those in the mainland, where the people not only fight against nature but also among themselves.  On the other hand, however, the islanders were generally weak in commercial activities as they had little contact with the outside world.

According to report, Baiyan in Wenchang County had a high standard of education, to the extend of being ranked the third highest literacy area in Guangdong Province (Hainan was then within the Guangdong administration), a yardstick to assess the social standing during those days.  Official records recognize that a great majority of the Hainanese who left for Southeast Asia hailed from Wenchang County.

As a result of these circumstantial compositions: humble, simply contented and trust among themselves, the Hainanese community is considered obedient, well mannered, honest and stood united among themselves in the eyes of other Chinese dialect community.  In the business environment they preferred a trade, which has no or has least competition and tend to be compromising in many aspect.  This characteristic had an impact on the social structure in the newfound land and consequently influenced the economic activities and employment pattern within the Chinese community.

The first Chinese temple in Penang, namely Guangfu Gong (广福宫) (Guanyin Ting or commonly called Goddess of Mercy Temple) was established in 1800.  The temple was the concerted effort of the Chinese from Guangdong (Hainan Island included) and Fujian Provinces in China.  The Penang Hainanese set up their own clan house complete with a place of worship in 1866, 80 years after the British landed on the island.

Economic Activities

While in Penang the community initially set up businesses for the supply of food and beverages in coffee shops and later in restaurants, bars, nightclubs and beach hotels.  They also managed the restaurants and bars outlets in private clubs and provided catering services on the trains and ships as well. 

There was also employment opportunity in the residence of British senior military personnel, with the male serving as cook and his wife as domestic helper, with living quarters provided.  Others would work in the government rest houses on Penang Hill as care takers and attended to the food and lodging need of the lodgers as well.  Yet there were others who worked for the British planters as cooks and looked after the bungalow-cum-office in the rubber plantations.

There were many Hainanese worked on board the ships plying between the nearby ports in Singapore, Burma (now Myanmar), Indonesia and the British North Borneo (now Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei).

While the other Chinese dialect communities were very successful in the industries associated with rubber and tin, the Hainanese community had quietly and steadily dominated the service industry – the provision of food and beverages.  It is said that to prevail and sustain in the service industry one must possess a hospitable characteristic.  The Hainanese community had proven that they excelled in this industry, perhaps due to their intrinsic character and culture.

During the colonial days the Penang Hainanese community practically monopolize the catering of food, beverages and general supplies for the British community.  In the process of serving and working they learnt the western style of food and beverages preparation, table manner as well as the western culture, discipline and more important too, the art of management.   

Hainanese And The Coffee Shops

Ask any elderly Chinese of non-Hainanese dialect group in Penang how much do you know about the Hainanese community.  Chances are that they will tell you the community is famous for their chicken rice.  If you ask further which Chinese dialect community dominates the coffee shops they will tell you the Hainanese.  That is the stereotyped reply of which the Hainanese community has been branded. 

That is a blessing in this modern business world – having a brand of your own!  The brand, came by after a long period of hard work and perseverance, consists of not one but two – one with 100% local contents (the chicken and the rice) and the other nearly 100% foreign contents.  The two coexisted for a long time since the Hainanese arrived in Penang in the early 1800s. By then the British has already established their presence in Penang for over half a century.

cigarette craven cigarette player cigarette rough rider

During our young days in the 1950s - 60s we used cigarette boxes as gambling token. The cigarette boxes were exchangeable with one another, with the "Craven" costing higer value and the "Rough Rider" the least.  For example one "Craven" box could be exchanged for 3 "Player's" boxes and one "Player's" box could be exchanged for 2 "Rough Rider" boxes.  

Smoking of cigarettes, including cigars, became very popular in the 1900s in the western society.  The British exported their habit to the local society through the Hainanese coffee shop outlets. Popular brands of cigarettes such as “555”, “Players”, “Craven”, “Benson & Hedges”, “Rough Rider” quickly gained acceptance by the locals

The cigarette - a lesson in history .... click read more


The Hainanese coffee shops as we have seen were in fact operated in the manner similar to those in the British homeland in Europe.  The British called them coffee houses. The coffee shops or coffee stalls (set up under the trees or along the roadsides) offered a place for social gathering to discuss matters of mutual interest, learnt the news of the day and exchange information.  The coffee shops / stalls offered simple meal such as bread and eggs together with coffee, tea, malted drinks, bottled aerated drinks, beer and cigarettes. 

Coffee drinking habit existed in Britain since the middle of the 17th century as distinct from tea drinking which was originated in China as a medicinal drink instead.  “Ovaltine” and “Horlicks” were drink produced by British companies.  The bread was baked according to western-styled, unlike the traditional Chinese bread called mantou (馒头), which was made by steaming.

F & N, a British company pioneered the aerated water business in 1883 in Singapore.  The beverages sold at the coffee shops include Tiger Beer, Anchor Beer, alongside its own range of F&N branded drinks of various flavour Guinness Stout, another beer product, was associated with a company in London.

Given a closer look at the items available in the coffee shops, one would probably notice that most of items were connected to the British.   

F & N bottle

Hainanese And The Malayan Railway

The earlier railway lines were constructed separately to serve the respective economic activities rather than leisure travel.  By the end of the 19th century, Malaya had at least six separate railway companies.  In the early 20th century the British consolidated all the railroad operators that saw the west coast line spanning from Singapore in the south to Padang Besar, near the border with Thailand, in the north.  The east coast line runs from Gemas, in Negeri Sembilan, passing through the deep jungle of Pahang (instead of along the sea coast) to Kota Bahru close to border with Thailand.

The British gave the monopoly to a Hainanese businessman to operate the catering services on all the trains as well as all the railway stations along both the west and east coast lines.
The hotel at the main station in Kuala Lumpur was also included in the deal.

For the story behind that special concession …….. go to : hainannet.com.my  〉资料库 〉海南先贤  under 姓名 click  林灏熙

Hainanese And The British Royal Air Force

The Royal Air Force (RAF) airbase station in Butterworth, Penang was officially opened in October 1941 as part of the British defence plan for Malaya against an imminent threat of invasion by the Japanese forces during the Second World War.  The Japanese took control of the airbase in December 1941 until their surrender in September 1945.  Thereafter the British resumed control of the station.  The station served as a transit point for other RAF bases within Malaya as well as the Far East, Indian Ocean, Middle East and Mediterranean.  The role of RAF was transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) after Malayan gained independence in August 1957.  In June 1988 the station was handed over to the Royal Malaysian Air Force.

Madam L M Foo, a Hainanese, said her family was the designated supplier of uniforms to the British air force personnel in Butterworth.  According to another Hainanese, Madam Lee, her father was a Store Supervisor with the British army base in Penang.  He was in charge of purchasing daily supplies for the base 

Some senior air force officers came to Penang with their family.  Supposedly many, if not all, who worked for these officers were Hainanese.  Those who worked for them were usually provided with servant quarters next to the officers’ dwelling.  Usually the male would be engaged as family cook and his wife as domestic helper. 

According to S H Jee, whose family worked for a British family, he enjoyed his childhood days then.  He recalled the most joyous day was the Christmas Day when he received the festive nuts and the chocolate from the Ang Mo (the British family) and took part in a variety of games with the Ang Mo Kia (the little British boys / girls).  The British family treated his family with dignity and due respect.

Jee, a UK trained Chartered Secretary, still keeps those testimonials hand written by his father’s bosses.  These documents are testimony of the bond of a special kind.  

Hainanese And The Private Clubs

There are a number of private clubs membership of which were, during the colonial days, exclusively for the British.  They include:

·        Penang Turf Club (established in 1864),

·        Penang Club (established in 1868)

·        Penang Swimming Club (established in 1903)

·        Penang Sport Club (established in 1947). 

We have been told that the restaurant / café / bar sections of these clubs were pioneered by the Hainanese.  





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