What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about dhobis?

Once hailed as a prosperous profession, the traditional Indian dhobi trade has witnessed a decline in recent times, largely overshadowed by modern washing machines.

Nestled within Penang lies a hidden gem known as Dhobi Ghat, reminiscent of its counterpart in Mumbai, India. Here, generations of traditional Indian laundry cleaners have toiled diligently since the late 1910s, upholding their ancestral craft amidst rapid urban development.

A stroll through this historic settlement, nestled between Jalan Air Hitam and York Road, reveals a vibrant tapestry of colourful linens, adorned with sarees, salwars, and churidars, meticulously hung out to dry under the sun. Despite the passage of time, the essence of the trade remains unchanged for over a century, with clothes still hand washed and pressed using charcoal irons.

However, the once-thriving community of dhobi men has dwindled significantly, with only a handful of them continuing the legacy. A. Raman, a third-generation dhobi man, laments the waning interest among the younger generation, who favour higher-paying jobs over the traditional trade. With limited helpers and stiff competition from launderettes and washing machines, the future of this time-honoured profession hangs in the balance.

For K. Vanan, another stalwart of the trade, the traditional method of handwashing offers unparalleled hygiene benefits compared to its modern counterparts. Employing a meticulous process of soaking, scrubbing, and rinsing by hand, followed by sun-drying and pressing, Vanan attests to the enduring quality of traditional ironing, which many of his clients prefer for its longevity.

Despite the challenges, these dedicated dhobi men persevere in their craft, catering to a loyal clientele comprising householders, restaurant owners, and business proprietors. Yet, the looming specter of dwindling interest among the youth and environmental concerns, such as water pollution, cast a shadow over the future of this cherished tradition.

As the last bastions of a fading era, these dhobi men impart a sense of nostalgia to the local landscape, forever etching their legacy onto the streets of Penang. Though the sands of time may continue to shift, Lebuh Ghaut will forever be remembered by locals as Vannan Thora Tedal in Tamil, a poignant reminder of a bygone era.

Philippe Durant deserves a big shoutout for bringing this valuable information about the generation business to the limelight!

Source / Image Credit : Malay Mail, PenangToday Community, Philippe Durant