The Washermen of Dhobi Ghaut

29 February 2016

Generations of men at Taman Dhobi Ghaut in Penang have been washing laundry even before Malaysia’s independence. We take a look at the past, present and future of this age-old trade.

Laskhmi perches on her motorbike chatting with her neighbours and tells us how her father came from India, without his parents, when he was just a 12-year-old to work and live in what is known today as Taman Dhobi Ghaut, Georgetown. It is a small residential area where houses sit snugly next to each other in a makeshift fashion. At the main entrance of the taman stands a modest Hindu temple. Doors of houses are left open and neighbours lean on the walls talking to each other. This place is also home to generations of washermen (called dhobi men) like Laskhmi’s father who chose to settle here because the river provided them with their source of income.

Even though she has just completed her night shift at a factory, Laskhmi is accommodating and reveals how she has lived here all her life. She also tells us how most of the men working here today are locals; often second or third generation of the original dhobi men that first arrived on Malayan soil. “Only two or three are non-locals,” she says. “You can go in and talk to them, but be careful, there are dogs,” she warns before she leaves on her bike for the market.

It is a Saturday morning and things are a little slower at the launderettes. Sri has music coming out from a small box TV as he irons shirts into neat rectangles. He speaks almost no Malay but knows a few English words. Arriving in Taman Dhobi Ghaut in 2010 with his wife, they leave behind in Sri Lanka their 10-year-old child. In a few months time, he will be heading back to his homeland, Sri reports with a visible lift in his countenance.


Sri

Nearby, his fellow worker carries out his duties silently. Mounds of clean white sheets are hung out in the morning sun on high clotheslines while in the background, the whir of washing machines can be heard. With many households having the luxury of their own washing machines nowadays, the dhobi men have taken on more jobs from businesses such as hotels and restaurants.  

Just around the corner, with similar exposed cement walls and floors, is another laundry service. Parathirajan (Rajan for short) is at first unnoticeable, curled asleep under blankets that could be easily mistaken for yet another mound of unwashed sheets. But as his employees start to stream in, detergent in hand, he stirs and wakes. Working as an Astro technician and cultural drummer on the side, he also helps out with the family laundry business - PVM Enterprise. With sleep hardly shaken off his eyes, he tells us how after all the drumming gigs throughout the Thaipusam weekend, he is dead tired.


Rajan

The PVM in PVM Enterprise stands for the matriarchs and patriarchs of Rajan’s family line: P is for Pachi, V for Veerapen and M for Muniandy. It all started when Rajan’s grandfather came to Penang from the south of India to set up home here. More than seven decades down the line, PVM Enterprise continues its business faithfully. Although the river, ironically named Sungai Air Hitam, is now too polluted to be counted on as a water source, and machines are used to help with the washing, the dhobi men keep at what they do through the generations.

Workers first load up the commercial washing machine to soap the laundry. After a few minutes of spinning, the load is then transferred out to be rinsed by hand twice. Finally, the clothes, table cloths or sheets are hung out to dry. If there is rain, they use a drier to get the last part of the job done.

The incorporation of machines to do what was once done by hand is the type of transition that happens everywhere, but here in this heritage town, there is a certain tension to these sort of changes. As Georgetown’s historical buildings undergo facelifts to draw in the crowds, the city has to toe the line of maintaining authenticity and over-commercialisation cautiously. What was once valuable because of its historical value might be spruced and polished up to a point where it loses its original appeal.

When it comes to businesses like PVM Enterprise, evolution may be a necessity that will soon force them to be like any other laundry service out there for the sake of their livelihood. In fact, they are slowly moving in that direction as we speak. Like the first dhobi men who left everything behind to start anew in Malaya, some parts of the past are bound to be left behind. All we can do is record and acknowledge it as an important step in a very long journey.

By Adeline Chua

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