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Curtain to fall on the dhobi men of Penang’s Lebuh Ghaut

PENANG, Tuesday 8 June 2010 (Bernama) -- It is like taking a trip back in time, a walk down the historic memory lane. That is how one feels when taking a walk along the narrow lane of the Dobi Ghaut settlement in Penang.

This settlement located between Jalan Air Hitam and York Road is occupied by the traditional Indian laundry service providers who have been operating there generations after generations.

Long lines of linen including colourful sarees ¬- bright red, yellow, green and blue -- left to dry under the sun dominate the view.

The trade here has hardly changed since it started more than 100 years ago, with the laundry still being hand washed and pressed using charcoal iron. Many of them operate within old wooden structures and the settlement is obscured by the rapid development in the surrounding area.

The traditional dhobi is dying

Nonetheless, the days of these dhobi men and their trade seems to be numbered.

This is because the number of dhobi entrepreneurs has steadily declined with currently only 13 of them left in the trade.

One of the last dhobi men, A. Ramu, 65, recalled that in the 1970s there were about 150 of them in the area providing the dhobi service.

"The rest have passed on or shifted to other places," said Ramu, who has been in this business for the last 50 years.

Ramu, who is the third generation to undertake the family business, laments that the younger generation is no longer keen in the business.

Washing without machine
It is a tough life for these dhobi men especially with limited number of helping hands nowadays and the competition from launderettes and washing machines at home. They are still in the trade due to the labour of love.

Though modern launderettes use sophisticated washing machines, the dhobi entrepreneurs are sticking to their traditional method of hand wash.

Ramu, who is assisted by his younger brother Muniandy, 62, starts work at 8am and continues until 8pm daily.

Muniandy told Bernama that the traditional laundry washing process is time consuming and labourious.

"In the old days we used to wash the laundry in the nearby Air Terjun river," he said.

But it is no longer the case now as the washing chore is done in-house using tap water because the river water is no longer clean.

The way it is done
"First, the clothes are soaked with detergent before being scrubbed and rinsed. Then it is dried under the sun and pressed," Muniandy said.

The laundry is then sent to their respective owners using another traditional transport mode -- bicycle.

"I and my brother cycle to collect and deliver our customer's laundry around George Town and Bayan Baru," Muniandy said.

It takes them two days to wash and two more days to dry and iron the clothing.

"The customers will get their laundry about one week after we collect them," Muniandy said.

The brothers charge between RM1 and RM8 to wash and press per laundry item depending on its size, and they wash between 100kg and 150kg of laundry daily.

Another of the last dhobi man, V. Manoharan, 42, the fourth generation in this business, pointed out that many people still prefer hand-washed clothes.

"Though washing machines are the norm now, there are still some who like their clothing washed the old way," he said.

The days are numbered for the traditional laundry business, and the dhobi men are all aware that the curtain will finally fall on them soon.

But, Lebuh Ghaut will be remembered by the locals for what it was once known -- Vannan Thora Tedal, literally meaning “laundry district” in Tamil.

MySinchew 2010-06-08



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