I had the pleasure to spend a week in Malaysia in early March, the hottest season in this South East Asian country, which is also a member of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). I spent time mainly in the Federation’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, and the state capital of Pulau Pinang (Penang), George Town.
Malaysia Chinese culture
According to the Malaysian Department of Statistics, in 2016, around 1/4 of the population are Chinese, another 7% are Indians. Most of the ethnic Chinese and Indians are eloquent in Malay, although their mother tongue could be Mandarin (or Cantonese for some) and Tamil respectively.
Heavy Roles Played by Chinese and Indians in Independence Movement
In contemporary Malaysian history, the cooperation between various ethnicities played an important role to ultimate independence. “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!” (Malay word meaning “independence” or “freedom”) was shouted on Merdeka Square by the country’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. Along his side to London for the negotiation were the Presidents of Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). Nationwide unity of ethnicity were regarded as a key to success on Malaysia’s path to independence.
Organic Fusion of Cultures and Lack of Policy Support
A scene that amazed me most was how the stalls operated by Malay, Cantonese-speaking Chinese, Mandarin-speaking Chinese and Indians co-exist in a kedai kopi, i.e. a coffee shop. In a kedai kopi, there are multiple food stalls selling similar cuisines, forming a slightly competitive environment.
The first time I entered a kedai kopi, knowing nothing about the logistics in ordering food from individual stalls and paying them separately, I ignorantly asked an Indian lady for a menu through body language. Luckily a Cantonese-speaking Chinese approached and explained how I should order food and beverage from different stalls. Noticing that I do not speak Malay, he even offered help in ordering me a drink from an Indian-operated stall.
The ecology in a kedai kopi was really fascinating, how the stall owners cooperate with each other and co-exist despite the inherent competition for business. Cultural exchange happens in such an organic manner, and multi-culture can co-exist peacefully without deliberate advocacy.
Sarcastically, the official policies, nevertheless, discourages the multi-culturalism. Since 1979, a Malaysian Speak Mandarin Movement has been launched. It discourages the use of Chinese “dialects”, e.g. Cantonese, Hokkien dialect, Minnan, etc., and solely encourages the use of Mandarin, treating it as the orthodox Chinese. Precisely, the policies implemented do not only include prohibiting Chinese schools to teach in “dialects”, but also banning students from speaking them in conversation among themselves. In the past few decades, this has led the Chinese families in Malaysia increasingly used Mandarin instead of the dialect to communicate with each other even at home. In the long term, children who were born at these families in Malaysia, having no personal ties with their hometowns, would foreseeably abandon their native “dialects” completely.
In Search of the Cultural Roots
Taking the ferry from Port Klang, near the capital region of Kuala Lumpur, a 40-minute journey takes you to Pulau Ketam, i.e. Crab Island. The island is administered by the Majlis Perbandaran Klang, an executive branch under the Selangor state government. It accommodates mainly ethnic Chinese Malaysian, they built their homes on stilts to avoid tidal waves, and earn a living by fishing.
This village is not only famous for its cuisine (signature dishes include clam omelet and oyster omelet), but also the preservation of Chinese culture revealed in the architectures and daily activities of the residents. Most of the houses are installed with a plaque at the front entrance, indicating in traditional Chinese the names of Chinese native towns where the house owner migrated from. It is easily observable that families sharing the same origin in China live next to one another, forming tiny communities on the Island. There are eye-catching temples for worshipping the Dato Neo-Neo (considered to be the mother of all Malaysian ethnics), Guanyu (the Chinese warrior god), etc., signifying a fusion of local gods and goddesses with traditional Chinese figures.
Penang as Hong Kong in the 1930s
I took a domestic flight from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, after an hour ride on a bus from the airport to the State capital, George Town, I was presented a Hong Kong in the 1930s. The building are at most three-storey tall, with the year of construction clearly written on the external wall. Most of these buildings were built pre-WWII. Despite the fall of Pulau Pinang into the Japanese hand in 1941 and all the bombings, most of the architecture were largely intact. The stunningly white and bright St. George’s Church was one of the attacked target which survived at least six rounds of bombing, the local proudly told me, first in Mandarin and converted to Cantonese when they discovered my Hongkonger’s identity. Tourists nowadays are thus left with a beautiful town where architecture from the east meets with the west.
Yvonne is a law student at the University of Hong Kong. She is obsessed with travelling alone, and believes that learning the history and language is the best way to explore a place.