Connected Heritages: The Inner Life of a Port City in the Indian Ocean World

Connected Heritages: The Inner Life of a Port City in the Indian Ocean World
By combining historical perspectives with ethnography, this thesis examines the port city of George Town on the island of Penang (Malaysia). Regionally as well as conceptually the thesis is situated in Indian Ocean studies, which examines connected histories by shifting the focus of land- and nation-based research to the sea, conceptualised as a well-connected zone of exchange. Characterised by the movement and dwelling of people, things, and ideas, maritime networks have shaped the political, economic, and social composition of George Town. Thus, the port city’s histories are inextricably connected to histories of the Indian Ocean, as well as of migrations across the South China Sea. As history is distant and intangible, different pasts can be enhanced, neglected, or muted, and thus strategically and situationally exploited.
These strategic uses of different pasts are apparent in the politics of heritage-making. In discussing heritage-making and how it draws on the past, the present study therefore also scrutinises what happens within this port city through its interconnectedness. The versatile dynamics of the port city created new forms of heritages, which are not primarily associated with notions of a homeland or nation state, but rather with the port city itself, its specific colonial pasts and its migration histories. By focusing on these connections and various influences, which manifest themselves in the port city’s habits, practices, food, crafts, and architecture, the thesis introduces the concept of ‘connected heritages.’
The empirical research presented in this study follows an alternative narrative about performing, negotiating, and expressing disparate identities through heritage practices and things in everyday life. Using detailed case studies of Peranakan groups in Penang, born locally but of foreign descent, this thesis explores how local groups emerged in the port city that gradually moved away from a diaspora understanding to identities rooted in the port city itself and its colonial history. Using strategies that have recourse to particular pasts, the present can be criticised or legitimised. As the still young nation state of Malaysia tries to overcome its colonial past by emphasising an earlier history more rooted in religion, it becomes difficult for Penang’s Peranakan to become a part of this narrative. The central findings presented in this thesis demonstrate that these developments signal a process of alienation — a gradual and mundane development with potentially serious consequences for the multi-ethnic character of Malaysia.


Mareike Pampus

Defended in

1 Jan 2021 – 31 Dec 2021

PhD defended at

Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Faculty of Philosophy I: Social Sciences and Historical Cultural Studies, Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology


Social Sciences


Global Asia (Asia and other parts of the World)
Maritime Asia
Southeast Asia


National politics
Art and Culture
Gender and Identity