Sunday, January 15, 2017

Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia

A street in Penang

I have just got back from a one week trip to Malaysia.

Although I only got the briefest glimpse into the country, Malaysia struck me as a fascinating example of a true multicultural society in Asia. The countries I have previously visited in East Asia have all essentially been monocultural, or at least dominated by a large ethnic-linguistic majority making up over 90% of the population. This would be the case for China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Malaysia on the other hand, with its large proportion of Chinese and Indians living alongside the native Malay and the other indigenous groups, is a true melting pot. What's more it is quite a successful one, and the different ethnic and religious groups seem to coexist relatively well.

I am of course aware that there is tension and resentment caused by the government's affirmative action policies that favour the bumiputera, Malaysia's "sons of the soil". But all the same, the fact that the country's last episode of actual racial violence took place in 1969 suggests that it must be getting something right. Malaysia's successful economy and relatively liberal politics, in a country with a Muslim majority, also point to a success story.

While in Malaysia I visited the island of Penang, one of the country's main draws for visitors. The island's main city, known as Georgetown, was established by the British in 1786, and soon became an important colonial hub. It is still Malaysia's second biggest city, and the entire historic centre is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its streets are a fascinating mix of colonial architecture, Chinese temples, mosques, Hindu shrines, and a variety of languages and faces.

Penang is also considered to be Malaysia's gastronomic capital, although to be fair, after constantly hearing people telling me that Malaysian food is amazing and some of the best in Asia, I failed to eat anything truly delicious during my time in the country. Most of the cheap restaurants appear to be of the self-service kind, with Malay or Indian food that you scoop out of big trays onto your plate. The food just lies around for hours in these trays, and in many of the places I visited there were flies buzzing around the food. It didn't look especially hygienic, although I eat in such establishments a few times and never actually got ill. While in Penang I did go to the famous Gurney night market, where you can eat snacks from stalls. There was some pretty good Chinese-style sea food, although nothing that amazing.

Another place I visited in Penang was the Khoo Kongsi clanhouse. In the nineteenth century, Chinese overseas communities would set up clan associations which would include individuals with the same surnames. The Chinese word gongsi or kongsi (公司), now used to mean company, then indicated such clubs. These associations would serve as mutual aid societies and points of social gathering. The Khoo Kongsi (邱公司) served as the headquarter for all the immigrants surnamed 邱 (Khoo or Qiu) in Penang, and it is the most impressive Chinese clanhouse surviving in Malaysia. Originally built in 1851, it was destroyed by a fire in 1894, and rebuilt in 1906. Although it is no longer an important centre of social activities, it has become a tourist attraction. It includes a clan temple and a traditional theatre.

The Khoo clan also became involved in the Penang Riots of 1867, in which the two main Chinese secret societies fought on the streets for days over competing commercial interests. Apparently a cannonball was fired from the clanhouse, which is why the square outside it is known as Cannon Square. The fighting only subsided when the British brought in reinforcements from Singapore.

The Khoo clan is Hokkien, in other words hailing from China's Fujian province, which alongside neighbouring Guangdong and Zhejiang has always been the point of origin of most Chinese emigrants. Many Chinese Malays still speak Hokkien Chinese (known as Min Nan in China), which is essentially the variety of Chinese spoken in Southern Fujian. Outside the clanhouse I happened to see an interesting diatribe against Mandarin Chinese and in favour of Hokkien, which is pictured in the photos below.

I wouldn't fully subscribe to the diatribe, especially since I don't see the problem if Mandarin was influenced by non-Han peoples from the North. Languages evolve and inter-mix, and viewing Mandarin as inferior because it was influenced by outsiders is suspicious. The content of the text is also not all linguistically sound, although it is indeed the case that many Southern Chinese dialects are closer to the Chinese spoken in the Tang Dynasty than Mandarin is. I found a refutation of the text's exaggerated claims here. Still, it was interesting to see this example of Hokkien pride, which would probably be hard to find in Mainland China. I suppose it is also a reaction againse the cultural insensitivity of some Mandarin-speaking visitors from China.



13 comments:

Borio Maggiorino said...

Anche oggi ho fatto un bel viaggio, grazie Gabriele.

Ji Xiang said...

Prego!

Gilman Grundy said...

Good stuff. I spent a few days in KL back in 2009 whilst I was on my way to Japan. Malaysia is an interesting country all-round because, as you say, of the truly multi-cultural aspect of the place. It does of course also have its problem which this piece does a good job of running down ( http://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/1/9/14207302/authoritarian-states-boring-tolerable-fascism-trump )

Ji Xiang said...

Uncharacteristically for me, I didn't look into Malaysia's political system very much before going there. It appears to be more authoritarian than I thought. I do suppose though that it is considerably less authoritarian than countries like Vietnam, Laos and China.

Anonymous Chinese said...

Still lots of corruption by Malaysians, particularly against ethnic Chinese.
If you are recognized as Chinese then often extortion happens.
E.g. apply for some government papers like a passport, the malay bumiputera could have a no-care attitude, until extra bride money is given.
If no bride money, then a Chinese could be waiting and waiting at the visa office all day, and at the end of day still nothing would happen, and no explanation.

Anonymous Chinese said...

bribe money

Ji Xiang said...

Hi, "Anonymous Chinese".

I'm curious, are you a Malaysian of Chinese origin? Are you speaking about things which have happened to you personally?

Also, are you sure that the "bumiputera" don't also have to pay bribes to get these things done?

Anonymous Chinese said...

Hi host, you saw my posts about Vietnam.
I'm Chinese of Hong Kong origin.
Very interested in the experience of ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, as they are very often being treated and regarded like the Jews in medieval Europe.

I have intimate knowledge and experience with ethnic Chinese from different parts of SE Asia.
The experience I shared here was recently told me by a Malay Chinese, and I asked if that kind of things still exist or only in the recent past, he just said still exists.

Bribery can still be rampant, like Filipinos told me how things still are in the Philippines, to both Filipinos or Chinese-Filipinos.
So it's really about money.
Except that if one is recognizably ethnic Chinese, then would be preyed on more readily, whether that person is actually wealthy or not.
There must still be the perception that all Chinese people have wealth (from ripping off the 'locals').

White people likely won't experience as many acts of bribery; the SE Asian natives may still have more fear of the 'white countries', versus China.

Ji Xiang said...

Hi Anonymous Chinese,

so you're from Hong Kong then? Interesting.

I think the experience of the ethnic Chinese in SE Asia has similarities with the Jews in Europe, in the sense that they are a minority resented for being successful and perceived as being wealthy, but without political power. On the other hand, there is a lack of the whole aspect of religious hatred (fortunately).

White people are probably unlikely to be asked for bribes, but on the other hand they are more likely to be overcharged in shops or by taxi drivers. In Vietnam I experienced this constantly, although in Thailand and Malaysia not really.

Anonymous Chinese said...


Ethnic Chinese in SE Asia are resented for being (real or imaginary) financially successful and arrogant.
And because China had not been protecting them, plus China being a relatively weak military country for long time, so locals found them easy targets to discriminate or attack against, in times of economic/political strife and conflicts.
Western (white) countries had a stronger military colonization history and that had burned into traditional conscience, so locals would have less dare to attack whites.

And as is quite well publicized, Chinese specialization in the pursuit of commerce was largely due to the segregation policy by the European colonizers.
Like in Indochina, French set the Khmers to be laborers, Vietnamese to be clerks and administrators, and Chinese channeled into business activities - divided and conquered.

In less enlightened places tourists could be uniformly overcharged.
I think bribery happens primarily to local people, e.g. Chinese-Malay or bumiputera-Malay, except Chinese-Malay would be targeted more; the common thinking would be that tourists are better protected by international laws.

I spoke to a European Jew once, his feeling was that ethnic attacks mostly stemmed from jealousy about wealth.
Religion difference was just scapegoat.

Ji Xiang said...

I don't really see how China could "protect" Chinese outside its borders, who let's remember are not Chinese citizens, from resentment by the local people. The only thing they could try is full-scale invasion, and actually the 1979 Chinese attack on Vietnam was justified partly through the plight of the Chinese in that country.

White people or in any case people with the passports of Western countries probably are perceived as having strong governments behind them that will protect them, and to be more cared about by the media, but in the end the amount of protection this really offers is debatable. White people have been executed for drug dealing in Indonesia, Thailand and other countries in the area. And when it comes to over-charging, I think it is a fact that white people (or non-Asians anyway) are perceived to be more easy to trick. On the other hand locals are more likely to be asked for a bribe I suppose, and it may be that the ethnic Chinese are the most targeted. If that's your experience, I won't dispute it.

About the reason for the Chinese tendency to engage in commerce, I doubt it was only due to the European colonizers. I think it probably has a lot to do with their industriousness and attitudes. After all Chinese from the Southern coast of China are also working as traders and shopkeepers all over Europe right now.

About the Jews it's a long and complicated story, but in the past religious differences were much more than just a scapegoat. They were deadly serious. Everyone used to be Christian in Europe except for the Jews, and this was no laughing matter at all. This was the time when people could be executed for switching religions.

Anonymous Chinese said...


Well China not being a respected power in the past several hundred years would have contributed to the daring-ness of mistreatment to ethnic Chinese.
Plus during the chaos of from 1950's to 70's China treated her own citizens as protoplasm, that certainly added to the low regards of ethnic Chinese everywhere in the world.

As to why Chinese tend to engaged in commerce, aside from the couple positive attributes mentioned like industriousness, there are certainly these other points:
* common human weaknesses, that 'making money is glorious' thing, and doing business is most directly about making money.
* lower language skill requirement for a simple small business, so an emigrant Chinese can temporarily delay learning a new language.
* real or perceived discrimination felt that caused the feeling of 'climbing the job position ladder' not practical in a new country.

And for ethnic Chinese in SE Asia, there is this unfortunate superiority complex the Chinese have against the SE Asian locals.
That would cause more isolation with the 'main stream', delay in learning well the native language, and further deepening the somewhat self-imposed path of doing a business to make a living.

I might as well say that the Chinese tend to have a more complicated feeling toward white people.
There's both a feeling of superiority AND inferiority, and as someone once pointed out, this complex feeling is quite an explosive mix.

For the Jewish experience, the context of what I said (religion difference as scapegoat) was for a more recent time, like the past couple hundred years; well after the medieval time of inquisition.

Ji Xiang said...


"Well China not being a respected power in the past several hundred years would have contributed to the daring-ness of mistreatment to ethnic Chinese.
Plus during the chaos of from 1950's to 70's China treated her own citizens as protoplasm, that certainly added to the low regards of ethnic Chinese everywhere in the world."

Honestly, I think you are making the same mistake many Chinese make of assuming that the treatment of Chinese abroad, or the way they are perceived, depends on China's power and wealth as a country, or in any case on China's reputation.

I'm pretty sure that the attitudes of people in South East Asia towards the Chinese among them are entirely the product of their particular experience with them, and not connected with whether they think China is a rich and strong country. It should be noticed that China's increasing power and wealth over the past 30 years has not made the Chinese more popular in countries like Malaysia or Indonesia (am I wrong?). In fact it might even make them less popular, because they risk being accused of being agents for a foreign powers.

I would imagine, without knowing the situation first-hand, that there are faults on both sides: a superiority complex and a refusal to integrate and learn the local language among many Chinese, and prejudices and simple envy among the locals. It is these that have to be worked on. If China clumsily tried to do anything to protect the Chinese in SE Asia, this would only make the Chinese communities there even more unpopular. The best thing the Chinese government can do is probably keep out of it.