Many Malaysians today regard the Chinese as the dominant economic force in Malaysia. Some have even accused the Malaysian Chinese of wanting to not only dominate the economy but also the politics of the country. This has given rise to various unpleasant stereotypes of the Malaysian Chinese. As a result, many reactionary insults and derogatory terms have been hurled at the general Malaysian Chinese population.
I would like to present a very brief history of the Malaysian Chinese to help people understand their fellow Malaysians better. And perhaps help them look at the Malaysian Chinese as fellow humans and citizens, and not as the greedy alien monsters that many have made them out to be.
Perhaps it is time to remember that the Chinese have a history in Malaysia spanning almost 400 years, reaching back to the time of the Melaka Sultanate. These Chinese immigrants and the latter day ones did not manipulate their way into this land, but made a conscious choice to settle here and contribute their blood, sweat and tears to this country. Many made a heartbreaking choice when they chose to be Malayans (and later, Malaysians) and not Chinese.
This series is absolutely NOT meant to be an exhaustive history lesson. My aim is just to provide a broad-strokes understanding of the Malaysian Chinese, and perhaps illustrate how their history has shaped their psyche today. If anyone takes exception that I'm generalising too much – too bad. Go and write your own account then! I'll be happy to publish your opus in this blog.
Chinese Immigration To Tanah Melayu
There were 2 main waves of Chinese immigration to Malaya.
The first wave was during the Melaka Sultanate. These Chinese were mainly traders who came to Melaka to trade, and for various reasons stayed on in Melaka and made it their home. They married the locals and merged into the local culture. Their descendants are the Straits-born Chinese, or popularly known as the Baba and Nyonya.
The Baba/Nyona culture is a true melting pot of Chinese and Malay influences. Many cultural traditions retained their Chinese flavour – e.g. celebrations and architecture. But many other aspects took on a Malay flavour – clothes, food and language being the most obvious ones. The traditional Baba/Nyonya wore baju kebaya, speaks Bahasa Melayu as well as the Malays and their cooking is laden with the spices. It is worth remembering that the Baba/Nyonya have been in Malaysia for almost as long as the Malays, as their ancestors arrived on this land mere decades after Parameswara.
The second wave of immigrants came during the British era, mainly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Masses of Chinese were brought in to work as hard labour, mainly in the mines and the construction industry. Most of them arrived from the poorer southern provinces of China – Hainan Island (Hainanese), Guangdong (Cantonese), Fujian (Hokkien & Hockchiew), etc.
Those who came during this era were mostly the uneducated folk who were fleeing the social breakdown arising from political decline of China. They were the bottom-of-the-foodchain folks who found it increasingly difficult to make a living in times of unrest. And without an education, there was no hope for them to advance upwards of the foodchain.
Thus, they made the decision to sojourn to other lands in search of opportunity. Many went to California (popularly called Kam San or “Gold Mountain”) to work in the gold mines. Many thought they were going to strike it rich as prospectors. Little did they know that they were just going to be menial workers for the rich towkays who operated the mines.
Many others came to Malaysia (popularly known as Nam Yeong or the “South Seas”). They too were sold on the dreams of rich opportunities for a better life in Malaya by immigration agents. And they too arrived to find themselves the serfs of the rich towkays. For all their dreams of a better life - they remained at the bottom of the foodchain in the new country.
These immigrants typically had to pay for their own passage to Malaya, as well as the exorbitant agents fees for bringing them over. They left behind their families, sold all they had or took hefty loans for a chance at a better life in a strange land. Many left with the hope of making it big in a few years and returning home to retire with their riches.
These early Chinese immigrants' situation is not too unlike the foreign workers who arrive on our shores from Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, etc. But these modern day immigrants have it much better than the early Chinese immigrants as they have some rights and freedoms, and plenty of opportunity - even if they are not citizens.