Memories of Penang

by Adrienne Rozells | Voices | Fall 2017

Photograph by Jeannine M. Owens

I remember saying it over and over again: Three-quarters German and a quarter Malaysian. It was easily said, and always with pride. Now I use those words and feel a bit strange. As an adult, it’s hard to lay claim to a piece of heritage that my family doesn’t often look back on. I’ve always felt culturally both German and Malaysian, but identified as white. No one would look at me and see anything other than that. In trying to further my understanding of my heritage and deepen my connection to Malaysia, I don’t want to claim to be anything other than who I am. As I write about my family’s history I am also attempting to grasp onto it. There is still so much I’ve yet to discover, but I’ve found one concrete path into the past through my grandfather’s life experiences. Like any family’s past, that which can be told comes from many different lenses, including lived experience, family narratives, and research.

My grandfather was born in Malaysia on November 3, 1935. His name is Noel Adrian Rozells. He marks the first generation of Rozells who immigrated to the United States. He grew up in a musical home on the island of Penang, where his parents threw parties that revolved around their piano, and often invited friends and extended family to stay over. He skipped school to go to the beach or fly kites with his friends. His family attended The Church of the Assumption regularly, and always spent the day at the beach after Sunday service. Church records trace my family back to Eurasian roots, starting with a woman named Martina Rozells in the eighteenth century. When I was little, my grandparents traveled to Malaysia. They came back talking about a statue depicting a Malaysian princess who we were related to. I spent years pulling that story out for Two Truths and a Lie. It wasn’t until middle school that I did my own research and realized Martina wasn’t actually a princess. Some people on the internet called her a concubine. Most said she was the First Lady of Penang and the common-law wife of British colonizer Francis Light.

Captain Francis Light established the island of Penang as a colony for the East India Company in 1786, which led to the British occupation of most of Malaysia. Malaysia’s capital, Georgetown, is still the site of a statue of Light, along with a small dedication to Martina. Martina and Light never married. Marriage between the two was forbidden, as Martina was not only Roman Catholic, but also Eurasian. From what I understand, the term ‘Eurasian’ is used in Malaysia to refer to an ethnic community of mixed Asian and European ancestry. Martina was definitely of Portuguese descent. There is speculation about whether she was also Thai. Either way, Light’s English associates swindled Martina out of the inheritance Light left behind. Her children lived to see all of her inheritance taken by the British and her story smothered until only islanders seemed to know it. There are plenty of sources that talk about Francis Light, but few on Martina Rozells—she most often appears in a sentence attached to description of Light. Despite that, the Rozells line persisted and still lives on in Penang today.

By the time my grandfather was born, the Eurasian community had become influential in Penang as civil servants and educators. These administrative roles were comfortable positions on the island; in order to be hired for such jobs, one had to speak English well. In the thirties my grandfather grew up speaking English at home as well as learning it in school. He also picked up Chinese, Hindi, and Malay. Being multilingual was necessary to live in Penang and still is. Eurasians were influential but a tiny community in comparison to the Chinese, Malay, and Indian communities on the island. Among the thirty million citizens living in Malaysia today, only 30,000 of those citizens are Eurasian, making the group a minority on the island. Even within this small group there are differentiations: A majority are of Portuguese descent, some were known as Dutch Burghers, and others as Anglo-Indians. Under British colonial rule being Eurasian did offer some advantages, because Eurasian folks shared the English language and were given British passports, which allowed for travel in a time period when Britain controlled much of the surrounding world. Aside from that, the Eurasian community was not treated as separate from others on the island and didn’t see themselves as such either. People of all different ethnicities lived on my grandpa’s street and shared the languages that existed on the island, but most families sent their children to the English-speaking school. It seems worth noting that since gaining independence in 1957, Malaysia has been examining race differences more in a push to define its own identity. In fact, the name ‘Malaysia’ has only existed since 1963. The country used to be known as ‘Malaya.’ My grandpa says that the change in name reflects an attempt by citizens to reclaim their Southeast Asian identity. I feel almost parallel to the country as I attempt to reclaim my own Southeast Asian history.

The British occupation of Malaysia was interrupted when my grandpa was seven years old: World War II broke out and the Japanese took Malaysia, hoping to harness the land’s production of rubber and tin for their war effort. My grandpa often tells me stories about growing up under Japanese military occupation. I recall sitting next to him on the couch as he chuckled about being excited when school let out early, which I later learned happened during air raids. Only once I was old enough to ask did he describe shortages of food, electricity, clothing, medicine, and jobs. His face became solemn, smoothing out the laugh lines that usually appear during his stories. He spoke about his family growing their own vegetable garden, because they saw almost no meat for four years. Sometimes soldiers raided their homes. He mentioned a fear of being sent to internment camps if accused of being rebellious, hummed, and said, “I guess those would be considered hard times.”

One of my grandfather’s stories in particular has always stuck with me. It occured during a raid. It was nighttime and soldiers were searching the neighborhood, so my great- grandparents sent my grandfather and his two older sisters to hide in the attic. They were meant to be sleeping, but instead stayed awake praying to the Virgin Mary. In the middle of their prayers, a soldier came stomping up the stairs, carrying a flashlight. The children stopped praying and huddled together, staring at him. The soldier saw them, took a step forward, and then paused. He took a biscuit out of his pack and gave it to my grandfather. Without a word, he left. Grandpa thinks the soldier must have been Catholic.

My grandpa continues to pray in the evenings at 5:00 pm services every Saturday. He took me a few times when I was little. He even let me bring my favorite stuffed animals along as I considered the faith that has played such a huge role in his life. Mostly I looked forward to holy water being flicked into the crowd. I thought it was funny when the drops landed on my grandpa’s glasses—he had to stifle his laughter so it wouldn’t echo through the big church. Grandma was always bribing me with candy to stay home with her instead of going to church with Gramps.

In Malaysia, my grandpa attended St. Xavier’s Institution, a Catholic school that was established by Francis Light and Martina Rozells. During wartime, the Japanese took over St. Xavier’s. Every day at 8:00 Am, children—including my grandpa—arrived on the school grounds to sing and bow to the Japanese flag. My grandfather’s early “schooling” consisted of learning to speak and write Japanese. The teachers were locals brought in by the Japanese military. They often decided to go against the lesson plans they’d been given, and instead of Japanese lessons, the kids received unstructured storytelling. Some teachers only instructed in Japanese if a soldier was near the room. From time to time, the U.S. and Britain bombed the island. My grandfather says that when bombings occurred, they either hid under the stairs or in the muddy trench in the backyard as a family. After he told me this, I didn’t know what to say. We were speaking on the phone. I let the line stay quiet for a while, then settled for, “Gramps, you’ve led an interesting life.”

“Oh yeah, it’s been long enough to include a few crazy things,” he responded.

At some point, St. Xavier’s was bombed and destroyed. When the war came to an end, Jesuit brothers set up a new school in the school’s bombed-out remains, a series of patios covered by palm leaves. Meanwhile, reparations and rebuilding processes began throughout huge swaths of Europe and Asia. As the Cold War began, the U.S. began offering scholarships to bring foreign students affected by the fighting to be educated in the U.S. In 1953, my grandfather was awarded one of four scholarships offered in Southeast Asia by U.S. International Aid.

Church members came together to send him off with money, a turtleneck, and two sets of long pants. He set off from Singapore to Long Beach, CA, working on a barge. The trip took 36 days. His ideas of what to expect from the U.S. were based entirely on what he’d seen in movies; besides reading, his favorite pastime in Malaysia was going to the movie theater, where he’d sit in the cheapest seats, right up close to the screen. Film continued to be a theme in his life, from his years spent putting himself through college by cleaning a theater in San Diego to the love of film he still has today. His favorite films are Westerns.

In another life, maybe my grandfather would’ve studied film. In this one, he decided to get his Bachelor’s in Economics, then pay for his Master’s and become a citizen at the same time by joining the military. After growing up during World War II, he joined the Cold War as a soldier of a country that had dropped bombs on his childhood home. He was trained in Texas and stationed in Germany, in a unit that consisted of one other immigrant and white Americans, including Elvis Presley. As all his friends wrote letters back to family in the States, my grandpa didn’t have any idea what he would be heading back to. He met my grandmother in the army base library. My mom was born on the base in 1960. Grandpa was discharged from the army in New Jersey the following year. The family came back to the U.S., bought a car for 250 dollars, and drove cross-country to San Diego for a job in the army sector. Maybe I should find his time in the military strange. I can’t imagine what war meant to him after growing up in the midst of World War II. But the way my grandpa talks about his army days is bright and hilarious, filled with friends that became family and chance meetings that led to the creation of our family.

Grandpa was the only person who could get me to sleep as a baby. I slept over at his house and began to hear stories of Malaysia. He’s continued to share them with me, in more and more detail, as I’ve learned to ask questions. As I wrote this article, I spent hours on the phone with Gramps. Sometimes I held back my questions, only to call back a few days later, apologizing for bringing up potentially painful memories. He said the war was much easier on him as a five-year-old than it had been on his older sisters and his parents. He said, “memories are distant, and fade with time.” Some of the stories he’s given me have been buried under 80 years’ worth of important moments. He hasn’t been hiding the stories and he doesn’t seem to mind sharing them. He says it’s just that no one ever asked.

My mom never considered asking when she was growing up. According to her, grandpa was not the open “teddy bear that he is today.” Whenever I relay Grandpa’s stories my mom exclaims, “He never told me about that!” Unlike my mom, I grew up with a Malaysian influence alongside the German. By the time I was born, Grandpa had reconnected with cousins in Penang. He talked about them when he drove me home from school and taught me to speak Malay: Ada baik? Baik! (Are you well? I’m well!) His days in Penang are far-removed from our drives through suburban San Diego, but are also some of the most vibrant stories he tells. My grandpa tells me that when he was raising his kids, he never thought to talk about Malaysia. I think it was something of a survival tactic, a way to keep moving forward without missing the place he’d left behind.

Since I’ve known him, my grandfather has grown increasingly interested in our family’s past. I like to think that the burgeoning curiosity my grandpa has shown in Malaysia is a product of my own. Some of the most warm and calm moments of my life have been spent curled up next to my grandfather, listening to his quiet voice roll out a childhood in Penang. By now he has spent hours on Google and Facebook searching out distant cousins, some still on the island and others scattered around the world. My uncle tells me that he tried to get Grandpa to go back to Malaysia multiple times over the years but, he wouldn’t hear it. He said Malaysia was in the past and that he had no intention of going back. Maybe he didn’t think there was anything to go back to. It wasn’t until he was in his sixties and had reconnected with people who knew him when he lived in Penang that he agreed to visit. It was the first time he’d seen the island since he left at sixteen. Now he’s been back twice, and our Malaysian relatives come to visit San Diego as well, livening up family barbecues with music and dancing.

Despite having lifelong knowledge that I am partially Malaysian, and meeting that side of the family multiple times, it was not until last year that I realized I am not entirely white. The question has floated around the back of my mind since I was young, and even now I’m not quite sure what it means to be just a quarter of an ethnicity. As I write this article, I grapple with the idea, hoping to find concrete history to hold onto. I think I’ve found it in my grandpa’s story. My grandfather recently hunted down a Malaysian family tree to guide me through our past; alongside what he had given me, I have done my own research, and learned how our history intertwines with that of Malaysia.

After World War II, Malaysia returned to British occupation until 1957. Since then, Malaysia has changed its name and established its own Parliament. Martina Rozells was officially honored as the First Lady of Penang for the first time in 2013. She passed on that title to Joanna Rozells, who also appears on my family tree and was also involved with an Englishman. Joanna was legally allowed to marry Francis Light’s successor, becoming the second First Lady of Penang. From there, the family tree branches out across the island and across the ocean. From Portugal to Malaysia to the United States, my name has migrated and been passed down. From Rosales, to Rozels, to the Rozells we are today.

Over the years, Grandpa has given me a lot of advice. Ask any of his grandkids and we can tell you his most common catchphrase: Don’t sweat the small stuff. He once elaborated, Live in the present. If you live in the past, you either think of the bad times and want to change them, or think of good times and want to go back to them. You can’t do either. Grandpa worked hard to bring our family to the place we are today, and part of that work involved a gaze held steady on the present. It may have meant that not much attention was paid to where we came from, but I carry that history with me, in all my own memories as well as those he has shared. He’s right when he says not to live in the past. But as I am moving forward, I must be able to look back at the roots that haven given me life.

Create a website or blog at