GEORGE TOWN: The traditional Indian dhobi, once described as a lucrative profession, has certainly been washed up by the modern day washing machine.
Not many know that there is a Dhobi Ghat in Penang, an open-air laundry which is similar to an open air laundromat in Mumbai, India, but the days of these dhobi men and their trade seem to be numbered.
A walk in the settlement will find long lines of linen, including colourful sarees, salwars or churidars – bright red, yellow, green and blue – left to dry under the sun.
This settlement, located between Jalan Air Hitam and York Road and set up in the late 1910s, is occupied by traditional Indian laundry cleaning service providers who have been operating there for generations.
The trade here has hardly changed since it was started more than 100 years ago, with the laundry still being hand-washed and pressed using charcoal iron.
The settlement is hidden by the rapid development in the surrounding area, with many of the dhobi men operating within old wooden structures next to a river.
One of the dhobi men, A Raman, 53, said in the past, there used to be about 80 traditional Indian dhobi men in the settlement, but now only about 15 were still operating as many had left to look for better opportunities.
“I learnt the trade from my parents. I start my daily work at 8am and continue until 10pm with the help of my two workers, who will dry and iron the clothes,” said Raman, whose family has been in the business for the last 80 years.
Raman, a third generation dhobi man, lamented that the younger generation was no longer keen in the business as they preferred jobs with higher pay.
He said it was a tough life being a dhobi man since there were limited number of helpers, besides the competition from launderettes and washing machines.
For dhobi man K. Vanan, 62, the traditional method of washing clothes by hand is more hygienic compared to using washing machine since the clothes are first soaked with detergent, before they are scrubbed and rinsed by hand, and then dried under the sun and pressed.
Vanan, who still uses the traditional method of ironing, said he preferred to use the charcoal iron because the electric iron was not heavy and did not give the right temperature for ironing the clothes.
“Many of my clients prefer traditional iron because the ironing will last longer,” he added.
He said the day starts with his workers going on their bicycles to collect the dirty clothes from customers, including households and restaurants, and then the clothes are separated according to colour for washing.
“Many of our customers are barber shop owners, restaurant owners and jewellery shop owners who have asked us to provide laundry service for their workers, as well as for their family members,” he added.
He said the cleaned and ironed clothes would be returned to the customers after two days.
Another dhobi man, A Letchumanan, 53, said although the traditional method of handwash was time consuming and labourious, it works in killing germs and bacteria.
He said traditional washing required all clothes to be submerged in hot water about 10 minutes to kill the bacteria and germs before they are washed and scrubbed.
“In the old days we used to wash the clothes in the nearby Air Terjun river, but now the river has been polluted and we have to use tap water,” he added.
Letchumanan said he realised that business was disappearing since the existing dhobi men were all in their late 50s and the young people are not keen to take over.
Nevertheless, Lebuh Ghaut will always be remembered by the locals as “Vannan Thora Tedal” in Tamil, which literally means a laundry district.