What happens to human waste after one pushes the flush button or lever following the completion of their business in the toilet is not something most Malaysians would think about.
With the ready availability of modern sewage systems to quickly channel the icky stuff out of sight and out of mind, we don’t really have to think about it.
But it is hard to imagine a society and daily life being able to carry on without it.
But go on it did, as locals of a certain vintage would attest to.
For in places like George Town, Penang, dedicated sewage treatment systems only came into widespread use around the 1960s and 1970s.
Prior to that, the masses mostly utilised a manual bucket or pit latrine system – where they would defecate or urinate directly into containers, which were then collected by workers to be disposed of in a variety of ways.
But despite their contributions to public sanitation, these hard-working labourers – also known as night soil workers in reference to the waste often being collected at night – have long had to put up with social stigma due to the nature of their job.
A new project, titled Purge: Documenting The Labours of Penang’s Night Soil Workers, seeks to change that, and also laud the unsung heroes’ efforts that allowed George Town and its people to thrive and grow over the decades.
Sponsored by the Penang State Government, Think City and the service centres of Tanjong MP Ng Wei Aik and Komtar assemblyman Teh Lai Heng, it includes the production of a 45-minute documentary.
This will have two public screenings – the Warehouse of Hin Bus Art Depot on Aug 12, 8pm, and at No.13 Jalan Jeti Lama on Aug 13, starting 7pm.
There are also 1,000 DVDs containing the documentary, which the public can get their hands on via a donation at the screenings, as well as a website with all related information and photos of artefacts.
Producer Lee Cheah Ni says the majority of information was gleaned through interviews done from 2014 to 2016 with former night soil workers who lived at the now-demolished Teoh Heng Kongsi at Jalan SP Chelliah.
The kongsi was built by the British in the 1930s as a hostel for night soil workers, who were mostly Chinese migrants from the Teochew clan in Guangdong Huilai.
Despite the night soil service ending around the 1970s, many continued to live in the building’s communal spaces until it was demolished in late 2015 to make way for new development.
“We wanted to tell their story and raise awareness on their contributions. Their jobs may not be glamorous, but they are the ones who kept the city functioning,” says Lee at a recent press conference at the Hin Bus Depot to announce the upcoming screenings.
“Through the project, we’ve built up a good relationship with them. But some are still reluctant to be photographed. Others have hid what they did from their own children. We hope this will change society’s perception,” she adds.
Besides giving the workers a voice, she says the project also seeks to document the historical and cultural significance of George Town’s manual bucket latrine or night soil system, which came into use in the early 1900s.
The Purge research team was spearheaded by Lim Sok Swan, a researcher with a heritage office in Penang, and academic consultant Datuk Dr Anwar Fazal, who is also Think City chairperson.
In a historical overview of George Town’s handling of sewage on the Purge website, it is noted that due to the city being established on swamp land, there was no proper system in place in the early years – and it was disposed off via traditional methods like dumping into the sea or sent to rural areas as compost.
In 1934, systematic faeces treatment became available, but due to prohibitive costs, less than a thousand households received it. It slowly developed, and in 1945, it had 48 miles (77km) of pipeline, nine pump stations, 500 septic tanks to cover 9,915 homes.
But most still used the bucket or pail latrine system that had to be manually emptied, or over-hanging latrines where a hole is opened and waste is disposed directly into the sea beneath houses – something still present in the Clan Jetties.
The Purge team also highlighted that by the 1960s, with Penang transitioning from an agriculture to industrial-based economy and experiencing a population boom, more progressive sewage systems like water-flushing toilets and individual septic tanks became more common.
In the 1970s, the federal government officially took control of wastewater management, bringing in better methods like oxidation ponds and aerated lagoon systems, followed by biological filtration and activated sludge processes in the 1980s and 90s to meet more modern demands.
One man who remembers the changes well is Teoh Heng Kongsi secretary Tan Chin Keat. A factory manager involved in R&D, he is a descendant of a night soil worker.
“My father was doing it till the mid 1970s. At the time he retired, he was paid a salary of only around RM100 a month. The job required them to do the collecting from 6am to noon, two to three days a week, in the George Town area.
“At other times, they would collect from homes on a freelance basis to earn extra money. Often times, it was dangerous work as they had to walk down back lanes and narrow places where the trucks couldn’t reach.
“But he, like the others, didn’t complain much. As the population grew, they saw their role as vital to the city. Because you cannot stop humans making waste, everything that goes in must come out.
“They went around in their shorts and singlets, and often had a cap on to avoid people recognising them. Once the waste was collected, they would transfer it onto a truck that would then take it to the main collection centre, to be pumped into the sea.
“Imagine that without them, everything would collect and people would fall sick. This was compounded where there were floods,” adds Tan.
Penang Island City councillor Wong Yuee Harng, representing Ng, described the night soil workers as heroes of the community. And it was time their contributions were recognised.
“Those born in the 1980s onwards would have probably heard only stories of this system. Those who followed in the 1990s are likely to not know about it at all.
“This project is important to bring greater awareness about how life was in the past,” says Wong.
For more information, visit the Purge Facebook at “PenangNightSoilWorkers” or the website at pgnightsoilworkers.wixsite.com/purge.