Restoring Dignity to Night Soil Workers

15 February 2018

The job of a night soil worker has always been frowned upon by society, although they played an important role in the city’s sanitation development. This visionary Penang documentary film aims to dispel that taboo.

In Malaysia, with the modern day sewage system that takes our excrement out of sight and out of mind instantly, it is easy to forget that no more than half a century ago, human waste was manually removed from households by night soil workers. The manual bucket or pit latrine system was introduced by the British in the 1920s and practised mostly in Penang and Singapore. Human waste was released into buckets, which were then collected by labourers every other morning to be disposed.

An illustration from Purge depicting groups of seven to eight workers who would wake up as early as 4am to hop on the "36 doors" night soil van every morning and knock on doors by 6am.

The role of a night soil worker was a thankless job. Due to the repugnant nature of their work, they were often subjected to social stigma and sometimes even harassment by the public whom they serve. After the pit latrine system was abolished, they kept their past a secret, even from their own families. The night soil workers not only spent their days carrying a pole with latrine pails on opposite ends but also shouldered the responsibility of maintaining the city’s public sanitation system.

A publicity poster of the documentary, Purge: Documenting the Labours of Penang’s Night Soil Workers.

These unsung heroes were soon forgotten. But their story resurfaced when Teoh Heng Kongsi, the clan house and dwelling place of the night soil workers, came under threat of demolition for a new housing development in 2014.

Stumbling upon this story, Lee Cheah Ni, an artist and social researcher, took up the case as an oral history project under George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI). Together with lead researcher, Lim Sok Swan, they delved into the past of Penang’s night soil workers to save their stories from being lost in history.

Lee Cheah Ni and Lim Sok Swan, the duo behind the story of Penang's night soil workers.

“If society wants to forget something, there’s no need for an intervention by the authorities. They would just forget,” Lim laments over the lack of records and documentation of the night soil workers. “The earliest record we found was the 1923 Municipal Budget which documented over 100 night soil workers in Penang, some of whom were coolies from India and China.” 

Lee, Lim and a team of researchers collected more than just oral testimonies from interviewing the night soil workers. They also discovered over 200 items in Teoh Heng Kongsi – from employment documents and work schedules to personal belongings of the workers. As demolition plans loomed over Teoh Heng Kongsi, the team felt a great urgency to raise public awareness about Penang’s history and heritage at risk of being wiped out by development.

With a grant supported by Think City and the Penang state government, Lee put together a production team to produce a 45-minute video documentary, Purge: Documenting the Labours of Penang’s Night Soil Workers, which was completed in just three months. “We wanted a digestible media that would pique the public’s interest in learning about this important past of our public health system,” says Lee.

Without actual photographs, describing the gist of the pit latrine system was no easy task. But the production team delivered gracefully with the help of playful illustrations by Novia Shin and Luisa Hung. Weaved in between snippets of interviews with the night soil workers, a carefully selected series of animations humanised their disfavoured job with attempts to chip away the societal taboo that surrounded them for decades.

DVD copies of the documentary including illustrations from the film are available here.

Purge first premiered at Penang Institute and was well received at two other public screenings at Hin Bus Depot and at the Butterworth Fringe Festival. The production team has since released it on DVD. The team also brought the documentary to Kuala Lumpur through a collaboration with the Malaysia Design Archive and Rumah Attap Library and Collective. Purge also made an appearance at the KL Biennale through Novia Shin’s participation in the international exhibition.

“We hope for this documentary to be a way of acknowledging the night soil workers as part and parcel of the heritage and history of George Town,” shares Lim. 

“This entire project is a two-way exchange between us and the night soil workers. We hope that by going through this process, the workers would also find it in themselves to understand and accept the importance of their role in our society,” adds Lee.

Purge gives Penang's night soil workers a voice to share their forgotten past.

The workers who were initially reluctant to engage and insisted on remaining “faceless” during the interviews later generously offered their support after witnessing the positive reception at the public screenings.

With a possible art exhibition in the pipeline, Lee plans to expand the project beyond documentary film to other forms of media to ultimately become a resource platform. This will not be the last we hear of Penang’s night soil workers.

To learn more about Penang’s night soil workers, visit pgnightsoilworkers.wixsite.com/purge. Order a DVD of the documentary by emailing artspenang@gmail.com. In Kuala Lumpur, the Purge DVD can also be found at Rumah Attap Library & Collective and Ilham Gallery.

By Stephanie Kee
Photos by Hizwan Hamid
Publicity materials and illustrations courtesy of the
Purge team.

This article is related to PENANG NIGHT SOIL WORKERS DOCUMENTARY

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