By Mansor Puteh
I found the program on Chinese immigration to Malaya or Tanah Melayu on TV3’s ‘Majalah 3’ program last week to be highly inaccurate. It cited some historians and other local Chinese personalities on the matter, but all of them dwelt on the issue or their attraction of tin which was found in and around Taiping in Perak to be inaccurate.
It was the Great Famine in South China in the early Nineteenth Century which drove many young Chinese to leave the country to come to Tanah Melayu or Malaya and Nusantara Melayu or Southeast Asia, in droves, sailing in junks, which were all wind-powered.
Only much later, the Chinese women started to join the men, i.e. when steamships were introduced, making the sailing time from South China to Southeast Asia shorter and more bearable to the women.
The Great Famine may be the main reason for the Chinese to come to Southeast Asia or ‘Nanyang’ – meaning ‘South Seas’
There are basically two other reasons for the Chinese men to flee from South China, and they are because of their involvement in the Triads and for being hounded by the Manchus, especially on those who were strong supporters of the Ming Dynasty ruler who lost to the Manchus to rule China.
I wrote this book, ‘The Sinkek’ as a personal tribute to some of my ancestors who too had come from that country.
And from my estimation there are about thirty percent Chinese in Malaysia, if not more, especially so in Melaka who have Chinese ancestry, with some having closer anscestry than the others.
And each time I started to discuss the matter, I discovered my Melayu friends who said their mother, grandmother, grandfather and great-grandmother or great-grandfather was Chinese.
It is not surprising but mostly sad that the history of Chinese immigration to Tanah Melayu or Nusantara Melayu has not been dwelt with before. Is there fear in discussing such issues?
So the program on the matter broadcast on TV3 was certainly welcome, despite its flaws.
And not surprisingly, too, the history of Chinese immigration to Tanah Melayu especially has never been written in the forms of novels or produced as a feature film or television drama serial, except for ‘Kinta 1881’, which seems to concentrate on the gangsterism and triad activities of the early Chinese of Tanah Melayu.
No wonder the film bombed, simply because the Chinese in Malaysia today especially the younger generation, do not have much fascination on the history of their ancestors.
They prefer fantasy films produced by Hong Kong studios over the China-produced ones which deal mostly with their ancient history and recent social and cultural developments experienced by the new generation of Mainland Chinese.
But the most interesting aspect of this episode on the Chinese immigration to Tanah Melayu was the role played by the Melayu hosts, who welcome the Chinese who comprised mostly of the young and confused and sickly, which has never been acknowledged before.
For without Melayu support for them, most of them would not have survived a week living in Tanah Melayu.
And no wonder, too, one could find a tiny Chinese store selling all sorts of things right in the middle of a rural Melayu village, serving the community, with the Melayu supporting it, simply because the Melayu wanted to help the Chinese out.
If the Melayu villagers had wanted to be nasty, they could have boycotted the store causing the Chinese to seek employment as coolies, cutting grass and carrying water for the wealthy Melayu.
In fact, many wealthy Melayu then had Chinese women as ‘amahs’ and other servants. Those who live in the towns could find employment being active in the Triads or ‘kongsi’ groups, extorting money from small Chinese establishments up to the late 1960s when the Triad groups started to diminish in numbers as the economy grows and many being able to get proper education.
Many of the early Chinese boys were processed in Singapore and later taken to the different states in Semenanjung Tanah Melayu or Melayu Peninsula.
It was only much later that tin was found in Perak that drove many Chinese boys and men to go there since there was easy employment that they could get there.
Many Chinese and Malaysians in the country also do not realize that the Chinese were forbidden by the Chin Dynasty emperor from leaving China; those who left are considered to be ‘traitors’, and should they return, they would be arrested and hanged.
The only provision available for the Chinese to leave China then was for them to not return, ever; and that they should abide by the laws of the countries they are in and for them to follow the local ways and adopt their lifestyles and languages.
This was what the early Chinese Babas and Nyonyas had done when they embraced Melayu cultures and lifestyles without losing their own peculiar identity, so much so that they stopped speaking in Chinese especially Hokkien.
And if one were to look at the experiences in other countries, especially the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, one can say that the Chinese immigrants to these countries had adapted themselves well, despite the fact that in Indonesia they were forced by law to do so.
And because only men initially fled from China to Indonesia or Jawa Island, one can say that most of the Jawa living in the northern part of the Jawa Island have Chinese ancestries, with their grand-fathers and great-grandfathers being Chinese.
No wonder, even till today, when one looks carefully in the faces of many Jawa, one can see Chinese features.
Only much later Chinese women were able to go to Jawa where they marry their own kinds so that a group of Chinese-Indonesians was established. One such Chinese-Indonesian woman is the mother of Lee Kuan Yew who was born in Semarang, Jawa in Indonesia. She married another Chinese-Indonesian man who then went to Singapore.
So Kuan Yew can be said to be Chinese with Indonesian ties, whose father came to Singapore for other opportunities which was to expand on his business.