Monday, 24 October 2011

The Arabs in Penang (1)

The Honda Story of Penang


This is the fourth time someone related the story about Boon Siew and Honda to me - my dad, my mum, a research officer then with USM and Prof Syed Mohsin. After many years of being told about how Honda became a success story in Penang, I have decided to pen down my story of the Honda success story in Penang to share with you. Little did I understand the humble beginnings and the opportunistic franchise that came to Penang. That opportunity was overlooked (blinded to the Penang Arabs) but the Chinese saw the $ behind it and made it big. It led to the Chinese success in taking over the economy of Penang island. This is my version after listening to many people. Of course there is still the Honda Penang Chinese story to listen to and the Japanese Honda story to follow up before my story too can be complete. Here's my story ...

Post WWII 

The Japanese lost the war in Malaya in September 1945. The Japanese army surrendered. From a TV documentary, I learned about the Japanese difficulties faced whilst still in Malaya. Before they left for Japan, the soldiers had to scrounge for food and survived by subsisting on tapioca (manioc; Malay ubi kayu) which they had to grow since their supply of rice ran out. This was in Rompin before the Japanese soldiers were finally taken home to Japan. It was a sad documentary that I watched. Watching the Japanese General beri hormat a tapioca on his prayer shelf can be heart-breaking. War is war. Survival is for the fittest. 

A Japanese lady in post-war Penang 

The Japanese war did not end without any trace. The war left a lot of things behind. They are traceable as the things they left behind are not Malay but Japanese. What things are Japanese? A lot of things. When I was a young child, there was one Japanese lady who frightened me and that memory has lasted a lifetime. I had heard of Japanese atrocities from my mother but not from my father. My mother's father (my grandfather) was tortured by the Japanese army but survived the ordeal. However, his voice changed considerably - he had a gruffy voice; maybe because he was old. He had a human voice but a different human voice. That memory of his voice has lasted in me till today. It feels sad when humans are tortured but that is reality. On the other hand, my dad's people enjoyed the Japanese presence in Malaya. Anyway, this Japanese lady whom I met at my dad's Ami Aziz's shophouse, she looked to me like she had a lot of untold secrets locked in a cupboard. Who was she? Was she a spy? Why did she appear in Penang when she is Japanese? Did the Japanese bring her to Penang for a reason? For what reason? Who is she really? What is the meaning of her existence in Penang? These were the questions that played in my mind throughout my growing up years and whenever I passed by Jalan Anson (Anson Road) in Penang. Even if I forget the roadname, the characteristic whitewashed building will always remind me of my dad's Ami Aziz and this Japanese lady (who is Nenek Jepun to me, for lack of a better name).

Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Sheikh Muhammad 

Sheikh Abdul Aziz is Ami Aziz to my dad. Sheikh Abdul Aziz is Arab but not a Syed. Prof Syed Mohsin tells me that the Arabic word "Ami" is brother (abdooss said it means 'uncle' or 'my uncle'). As I recall Ami Aziz, he was a short tan man. We sat at a table with generous helpings of Hari Raya Aidilfitri cookies - Japanese style! Hahaha ..... yes! Hari Raya cookies, Japanese style! They were prepared by his wife, Nenek Jepun! Goodness. This Nenek Jepun prepared the Raya cookies and even the drinks. And guess what? I tasted the colorful sugar crystals on the sugar-coated cookies but I refused to drink the green-coloured drink, poured and served by ..... Nenek Jepun! Such was my unreasonable childhood fear of this lady! I was frightened that she would "poison" me with the "green juice" that Raya. In the mean time, my dad enjoyed the conversation with Ami Aziz. Who was Ami Aziz? Everybody tells me he was a great man in Penang, but who is he really? After many years of trying to make sense of stories I've heard and trying to fix the jig-saw puzzle, yesterday, Prof Syed Mohsin told me who this Ami Aziz was and the real story behind the Honda motorcycles and cars we see today in Malaysia. It all started in Penang.

[My dad's blood link to Ami Aziz is in my other blog. Try search for 262 Banda Hilir.]

The Honda story 

After the Japanese war, Japan's Honda offered a franchise to Penang to sell its motorcycles. They practically "gave" the franchise to the Penang Arabs, and Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Sheikh Muhammad @ Ami Aziz reluctantly took up the offer, as there was no market for motorcycles in the post-war. He did not know whether the motorcycles would sell. I can't recall what Prof Syed Mohsin said. 

Loh Boon Siew

The young Boon Siew was a Chinese night soil collector (kutip tong tahi). When he heard of the Honda franchise and the Penang Arabs had no faith in it, he offered his interest in the franchise. He took over from the Penang Arabs. To promote sales of the Honda motorcycles, he organised a 50-man motorcade to ride the length of the west coast of peninsular Malaya. The motorcyclists took off from Penang, to KL and on to Singapore and returned the same route. This ability of the motorcycles to withstand the long journey took the Malayan people by surprise and attracted them to buy Boon Siew's Honda motorcycles. Sales of the motorcycles rocketed and instantly Boon Siew's fate changed, from a poor night soil collector to a millionaire. To motorcycles were added Honda cars, a symbol of prestige. Sales rose even further and Boon Siew became super wealthy. So wealthy was he that he alone could "buy" the entire strip of Malaya! Such was his unusual twist of fate. Prof Syed Mohsin tells me that Honda still pays its surviving motorcycle riders a stipend as a symbol of gratitude for making that motorcade a great success which then snow-balled Honda's success in Penang and Malaysia. I don't have the list of names of the 50 motorcyclists, maybe Honda does. You can try and ask Honda Penang and maybe interview the riders too.

Boon Siew Ltd in The Who's Who in  Malaysia 1963

External links for Loh Boon Siew and Boon Siew Honda: - Tan Sri Dato' Loh Boon Siew (1915–1995) also known as “Mr Honda”.

Penang Chinese and the Penang Arabs 

Now that Boon Siew is rich and the Penang Arabs remained status quo, Penang's economy laid in the hands of the rich and influential Chinese. Penang grew and the economy of the Chinese rose higher from the demand of Honda products - motorcycles and cars. Both were much sought after in the Malayan/Malaysian market. Had the Penang Arabs jumped on the band wagon and gone on like what Boon Siew did, Penang's economy today would be in the hands of the Penang Arabs and Penang would remain largely an Islamic island. What lessons have we learned from the Penang Honda story? Yes, never to let an opportunity go by untouched. Opportunities come only once - either take it or lose it. I hope this story of a missed opportunity will never happen again to anyone, be it a Chinese, Indian, Malay or Arab. In historical lessons of this nature, we cannot blame anyone nor is there a need to point fingers. A missed opportunity has reasons and we must take the lessons and move on. Life is such. 

Ami Aziz's family 

From Prof Syed Mohsin's story, Ami Aziz married Nenek Jepun and they have a son. Prof Syed Mohsin tells me the son was a police inspector. They also have an adopted Chinese daughter, Muzlifah. Both are my dad's cousins. I have not met the son nor the daughter. I can't recall where Ami Aziz's shophouse is anymore or whether it is still there or demolished. I have vivid memory of his shophouse alone but not its location. 

Update 22 August 2013: Nenek Jepun had married another man (I don't have his name) and was widowed before marrying Ami Aziz. It was Nenek Jepun's second marriage and also the second marriage for Ami Aziz. Ami Aziz's first wife lived in Jelutong Timur - Nenek Rahmah who kissed me so much when I visited her house by the beach for Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Nenek Rahmah made very tasty putu kacang - sand-dry biscuits - the only putu kacang I would ever eat as a child. The Chinese daughter Muzlifah had married and was widowed before she married a policeman. The mother and child (Nenek Jepun and Muzlifah) were close. According to Tok Chu, the house is behind Masjid Jalan Hatin. See post on Tok Chu.
Ami Aziz's elder sister (kakak) is Patma @ Fatimah bt Sheikh Muhammad. Patma married to Haji Mohd Sharif bin Ismail, and their only son is Mohd Yusope. Mohd Yusope is my father's father, my paternal grandfather. See 262 Banda Hilir for more stories. 
Haji Mohd Sharif is my great-grandfather. Patma is my great-grandmother. So Ami Aziz is my great-granduncle.

Ami Aziz's car shop 

Ami Aziz ran a foreign car trade business at the corner of Jalan Dato' Keramat and Jalan Anson in Penang. The car shop & showroom is a big whitewashed building with the showroom facade on Jalan Anson. The business is varied today. I don't know who owns or manages the place today. 

Ami Aziz's car showroom - facade on Jalan Anson in Penang
Car showroom - facade on Jalan Dato' Keramat


I re-visited the village in Jelutong, Penang on 10 October 2011. The village is behind Masjid Jamek Mukim Jelutong. There were 2 Arab families left, both of the Yamani clan. Some of the old houses that once occupied the shoreline have been demolished and new high rises have been constructed on the reclaimed lands beyond where the giant Chinese junks (tongkang Cina) went aground. Will update at another blog of mine - 262 Banda Hilir.


Anonymous said...

I was informed by a friend of mine, Syed Hafiz (refer to post Straits Arabs) that his grandfather was the owner of Garage, the first "automobile" outlet or something. His wife was a Japanese and the Honda group through her tried to propose what is Honda today. His grandfather rejected the offer, as it involved riba. So he passed it to his most trusted mechanic, the humble Boon Siew... and was indirectly involved. That was the sum of what he relayed.

Prof Faridah said...

TQ for your comments. Please get Syed Hafiz to write to me.

Prof Faridah Abdul Rashid
Universiti Sains Malaysia
012-963 2218

abdooss said...


Great story!

'Ami' means 'uncle' or 'my uncle' in Arabic.

'Brother' would be 'Akhi' or 'Akhoya'..

Prof Faridah said...

TQ, abdooss for the correct meanings of the Arabic words.