Malaysian Chinese

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Malaysian Chinese

LOCATION: Malaysia
POPULATION: 5.4 million (in 2000)
LANGUAGE: Malay; Chinese; Tamil; English
RELIGION: Buddhism; Islam; Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: China and Her National Minorities


Ethnically known as Orang Cina or Kaum Cina in Malaysia, the Malaysian Chinese are the descendants of Chinese who arrived between the 14th and mid-20th centuries. The first wave of Chinese emigrants in the 14th century were mostly merchants, who were partly attracted to the economic potential of the country and partly fleeing from the persecution of the Ching government of Chung Kuok (China). The latter waves were mostly poverty-stricken peasants who hoped for a better livelihood for themselves and their families.

It was only in the 19th century, particularly after the 1820s, that a great number of Chinese migrated to Malaya. Th is was due to colonial occupation, which caused rapid economic and land development in the region. This development included the opening up of large tracts of land, which created opportunities for mercantile expansion, which in turn attracted emigrants from China. Most of these emigrants were from rural villages and small towns of the southeastern provinces of Fujian and Gaungdong. Upon arrival in Malaya many worked as indentured laborers known as coolies.


In 2000 it was estimated that there were about 5.4 million Chinese in Malaysia, making up 30% of the entire population. The Malaysian Chinese are made up of eight dialect groups which include Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew, Mandarin, Hainanese, Min Bei, and Foochow.

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Most Malaysian Chinese live in urban areas, dominating the commercial and business areas of the country. A large number also live in areas called kampung baru (new villages). These "new villages" were set up by the government during the Communist insurgency in the 1940s and 1950s in order to keep the Chinese community from getting involved with any subversive movements by the Communists against the government.

Nowadays, the Chinese form the majority of the population in almost all cities and towns throughout Malaysia such as Georgetown, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Petaling Jaya, and Klang. Most of them are found on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, the most urbanized part of the country, as well as in the major cities and towns of Sabah and Sarawak.


Even though Malay is the national and official language of Malaysia, Chinese, Tamil, and English are also widely spoken. Mandarin is taught in Chinese schools in Malaysia (along with Malay and English). Since most of their ancestors were from southern China, Malaysian Chinese speak Cantonese, Hokkien, and Hakka dialects, which are very similar to each other. Other dialects include Teochiu, Hainanese, Hokchiu, and Hinghwa. With this many Chinese in Malaysia are trilingual, speaking and writing in Malay, English, and at least one of the Chinese dialects.

A Chinese name consists of three parts: the family name, the generation name, and the personal name. In contrast with the Western manner of putting the Christian name first, the middle name second, and the surname last, the Chinese put the family name first, the generation name next, and the personal name last. An example of a Chinese name is Foo Sing Choong. However, there a few Chinese names that consist of only two parts; for example, Chin Peng. In either case, the first part is the family name. Western-educated or Christian Chinese usually add a Christian name to their names. As a result, some of their names consist of four parts; for example, Alex Goh Cheng Leong.


The Chinese have many folk tales and myths. Some of these myths and tales reveal their view of the world, such as their myth of the creation of the universe and the origin of human-kind. According to this myth, heaven and earth were created by Pan'gu, the origin man. The existence of humans is made possible by the complementary nature of two opposites: heaven and earth, or yang and yin . Besides that, the harmony of three—heaven, earth, and humans—makes the fixation of the four cardinal directions possible. Once these four directions are defined, life forms and inanimate objects are derived from the five basic elements of wuxing: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. The ethereal force of the sun and the moon is required to regulate these elements in harmony. It is the true harnessing of elements, and forces of nature, that enables humankind to flourish to the eight polar points, which are only limited by the boundaries of the nine heavens and the 10 hells. The birth of the Chinese cosmos, and with it the subsequent idea and formulation of the soul, are based on this elementary arithmetic.


A small percentage (9.6%) of Chinese in Malaysia are Christian, while most are Buddhist and Taoist. Some, (0.7%), have converted to Islam through marriages with Malay Muslims. Although Buddhism originated in India, and early Malays in Malaysia were Buddhist, the Buddhism practiced in Malaysia today was brought by the Chinese who migrated to Malaysia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Once in a new environment, the immigrants adopted a practical approach to religion, embracing pragmatic aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, and ancestor worship. Although the religion was rooted in Chinese tradition, once transplanted it was adapted to the current needs of the immigrants.

By the turn of the 20th century, Buddhist temples in Malaysia had increased in number to cater to the moral needs of the population. Most of these temples today promote a "folk version" of Buddhism, peopled by a multitude of gods and goddesses. These temples are concerned with putting forward the views of special Buddhist scriptures, which are connected with an individual's salvation. Special problems and requests may be brought before the deities by presenting them with joss sticks, flowers, or fruits. Devotees at Chinese temples usually burn incense to give thanks and to ask for blessings. There are times when wealthy persons may bequeath some of their estate for the upkeep of an old temple or the endowment of a new one. This will help ensure the donor's blessings in the afterlife and perpetuates her or his descendants' prosperity.


The Chinese New Year begins on the first day of the lunar calendar and falls anywhere between January 21 and February 19. It is one of the major holidays in Malaysia when schools and offices are closed for two days. The celebrations may go on for 30 days, starting two weeks before New Year's Eve. It is the most joyous time for the Chinese, a time of new beginning. It is celebrated with feasts, fun, gambling, lion dances, lighting of firecrackers, and "Open House" [seeMalays ]. Friends and relatives visit each other to eat, drink, and wish each other good luck and prosperity during the "Open House." This is usually done on the first, second, and fourth days of the celebration.

Besides being a time for family reunions, Chinese New Year is a time when one's debts are paid up, new clothes and shoes are worn, the entire house is cleaned and renewed, and old arguments are forgotten and peace is restored between family and friends. It is also a time to pay one's respects to the elders and to worship the gods and ancestors. Children pay respect to their elders and are given ang pows ("red packets") containing money. Various festivities go on until the 15th day, chap go mei, at which the time Chinese New Year officially ends. The family will get together again for another reunion dinner. On this day, many unmarried women used to throw oranges into the sea or rivers as prayers to get a good husband. However, this is becoming a very rare practice among the Chinese community today. Besides Chinese-based holidays, Malaysian Chinese also consider other Festivals of Malaysia as major holidays. The list includes New Year's Day, Hari Raya Puasa or Hari Raya Aidil Fitri (end of Ramadan), Thaipusam (celebrated by Hindus on the 10th month of the Hindu calendar), Chinese New Year (celebrated over 15 days beginning on the first day of Chinese Lunar Calendar), Wesak Day, Gawai Dayak (harvest festival), Deepavali, and Christmas.


In the past, women gave birth at home with the help of a midwife, whereas today the majority of women give birth in hospitals with the help of a gynecologist. During her confinement, a young mother is prohibited from eating "cold" food such as fruits. Instead, she is encouraged to eat "warm" food, particularly kachang ma, a chicken soup stewed in distilled rice-wine and herbs.

The most important occasion on the birth of a baby is the "first-month" celebration. Friends and relatives are invited to celebrate the occasion. A variety of food is served in abundance, and hard-boiled eggs with red-stained shells are distributed. Gifts are given to the baby during this occasion. However, this celebration is only of great importance for the first son and the first daughter. Subsequent children will have some ritual celebration, but not the elaborate affair accorded to the first-born. In the past, at this celebration, the child's hair was ritually cut off and kept in a jar along with the dried umbilical cord. This was ritually used to stop fights between the child and his or her other siblings.

During their childhood, Chinese children are expected to help their parents at work. Many boys can be found helping their parents in the shops or working on the farms, while girls help their mothers with household chores or take care of younger siblings.

Unlike the Malays and Indians, the Malaysian Chinese do not have a tradition of puberty rituals. Even though dating was never part of their cultural tradition, it is becoming a common practice among the Chinese community in Malaysia. The young people are influenced by practices they see on television, in movies, and in the magazines and novels they read. A Chinese girl starts dating when she is 17 or 18 years old and gets married at least by the age of 24, while a boy would be a few years older. A married man and woman are automatically considered adults and are expected to act accordingly. Since Malaysia does not operate on a welfare system, the children of elderly parents are expected to take care of them until they pass away.

Death among the Chinese is marked by lengthy, colorful, and traditional ceremonies. A departed relative is sent off by his or her relatives with full ceremonial honors, partly to prevent the deceased from coming back to haunt them, and partly to "save face," that is, to prevent people from talking negatively about the ceremony. Therefore, death is sometimes an expensive affair that can run into thousands of dollars. Funerals are

sometimes held at home in large open spaces, or in funeral parlors.

The body of a deceased person is ceremonially washed, usually by the eldest son, before being dressed in an odd number of suits of clothing and laid in a coffin. This is followed by an elaborate ritual observation. It is important that the coffin is placed in a prominent position in the house, surrounded by the deceased's favorite possessions and refreshments. Candles are kept burning throughout the period so that the spirit of the deceased can view the surroundings. Offerings, incense, and paper money may be burnt close by. The coffin is never left unattended throughout this period. Relatives are expected to donate money for the occasion in odd denominations of RM10, RM30, or RM50, and never in multiples of RM20.

On the morning of the funeral, mourners come together for one last gathering. Sometimes stilt-dancers may perform before the coffin is taken to the graveyard. The funeral procession leaves the house at a predetermined time, often 2:00 pm. The hearse, usually a truck, is driven slowly from the house. The chief mourner and other relatives of the deceased follow the hearse on foot. Immediate members of the family dress up in shapeless garments of unbleached calico, indigo, or black cotton. Colorful attire and jewelry are unsuitable even for friends who come to visit. This procession is preceded by trucks carrying banners and wreaths of condolence from associations or sympathizers, the local drums and gongs ensemble, and sometimes also by one or more brass bands. Therefore, a funeral procession can sometimes be heard from quite a distance. Funeral processions of prominent Chinese can be very elaborate and may last a long time.

After the funeral, the family continues to mourn the deceased by wearing black patches or black armbands with their somber clothes. Prayers are read every evening by Buddhist monks until the seventh day after the death. On a set day, the family visits the graveyard bringing a grand house, a car, some temple money, servants, a TV set, and a video player, all made from paper, to be burned at the graveyard for the deceased to receive and use in the other world. Usually the family is in mourning for 100 days.


The Chinese normally greet each other with "Have you eaten your fill?" or "Have you taken your food?" The response is always "Yes, thank you," even if one is starving. This greeting is similar to the Western "How are you?" "Fine, thank you." In business a polite Chinese will say, "Is your business prosperous?" The response will be, "My business is moderate."

Unlike the Malays and Indians, shaking hands as a form of greeting between a man and a woman is acceptable among the Chinese. Chinese men often greet each other with a friendly pat on the arm, while hugging or kissing is prohibited except in a close relationship.

Even though the Chinese do not have religious restrictions about wearing shoes in homes, it is considered inconsiderate to wear shoes in the house. This is because they may mar or soil the floor. Chinese usually entertain their guests in the living room and seldom show the entire house, particularly the bedrooms. Even family members do not enter each other's rooms without permission. It is proper to bring gifts such as fruit, sweets, or cakes on the third and fourth visit. However, gifts should always be given in an even number, as this is a sign of happiness and good luck.

A Chinese girl does not date until she is about 17 or 18 years old, and a boy would be a few years older. Even though it is not part of their tradition, dating as understood in the West is becoming very common among the Chinese, as compared to the Malay Muslims. One of the reasons is that most Chinese live in urban areas that make them more liberal.


The Malaysian Chinese populate most of the urban areas in the country. This is because most of them are traders and businesspeople who are very much involved in the commercial and professional sectors. In fact, they are considered the richest ethnic group in Malaysia, possessing 40.9% of Malaysia's total wealth.

Many Chinese in urban areas live in shop houses: the second floor is the living quarter, while the first floor is for business. In recent years an increasing number live in housing estates or suburban areas. They either live in condominiums, bungalows, and/or terrace houses. This is also due to the establishment of "new villages" at the fringes of urban areas in the 1940s and 1950s, which forced many rural Chinese to be relocated to urban areas.

Since the standard of living in Malaysia has increased tremendously during the past decade due to an economic boom, most Malaysian homes have consumer items such as cars, a television set, a VCR, and a refrigerator. Th is is particularly true among the Chinese who are economically better-off than the other ethnic groups. They have easy access to better sanitation, electricity, water supply, and efficient public transportation. Nonetheless, Chinese who live in rural areas do not have access to these basic amenities. They are still burning kerosene for light, and depending on wells and rivers for water.


Marriage and raising a family are vital elements in the life of a Chinese. A basic Chinese household unit includes a husband, a wife, and their children. Since Chinese are expected to take care of close relatives, sometimes a household may include extended members of the family, such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Among the upper- and middle-class households, the unit may include a live-in servant or nanny who looks after the young children. A middle-class couple usually has two or three children, while lower-class families have more children.

Female members of a family are expected to know how to cook, clean the house, and take care of elder relatives. However, nowadays many Chinese women have professions that keep them away from their homes; therefore, they have to hire maids to take care of household chores. A husband's main responsibility is to provide shelter and financial support for his family.

Chinese families usually keep dogs and/or cats as pets. Dogs are partly kept to guard homes from burglaries. Sometimes parrots and other "singing birds" are kept as well. These birds are kept for their beautiful sounds and their ability to talk, and also for bird competitions.


Cheongsam, a tight-fitting, high-collared, slit-skirted dress, is the traditional Chinese women's dress, while yi fu is the traditional Chinese men's dress. However, most Malaysian Chinese nowadays wear ordinary Western clothes, such as t-shirts, pants, skirts, jeans, dresses, shorts, blouses, etc. The color red is considered lucky by Chinese, and they never wear black except to funerals, although nowadays some youngsters dress in deep black at New Year's celebrations. Also, some elderly Chinese women, especially if they are widows, wear black silk clothes for weddings and other ritual occasions. Older men, particularly the "shop houses Chinese" men, often wear long baggy shorts and tank tops.


The Chinese saying, "Anything that walks with its back to the sky can be eaten," shows that eating and drinking are their favorite pastimes and that they have a way to prepare and make tasty every edible object. Their staple foods include rice and a variety of noodles. While rice is usually eaten with meat and vegetables cooked in various ways, noodles are often prepared in broth or stir-fried. Noodles are usually eaten for breakfast, while rice is eaten for lunch and dinner. Most of these foods can be easily obtained from food stalls and cart vendors selling foods by the roadsides.

The Chinese consider certain foods as "cooling" or "heating." Heating foods such as chocolate, granola, and most meats make the body feel too hot, too full, and uncomfortable. These foods also cause certain illnesses such as sore throats. While cooling foods are the opposite of heating foods, they can also cause or aggravate illnesses such as colds and coughs. Water-melon, tea, and yogurt are a few examples of cooling foods and are not supposed to be taken on cool days.

Unlike the Malays and Indians, the Chinese eat their food with chopsticks. The Chinese observe certain taboos and manners when eating with chopsticks. Chopsticks are not to be rested on the dinner plate or rice bowl; rather, they are to be placed on a rest stand or a bone plate. Sticking a chopstick in a rice bowl is considered a bad omen as it signifies death, pointing with chopsticks and waving them in the air is considered bad manners.

One Chinese traditional food is Yee Sang . It is basically raw fish served with salad and is usually eaten on the third or fourth day of the Chinese New Year's celebration. Yee Sang may consist of several types of finely shredded vegetables, colorfully placed in small portions and mixed with different condiments and a few flakes of raw fish.


Malaysia's literacy rate is about 92%. This is because primary and secondary schools are mandatory in Malaysia, which means children from the ages of 6 to 15 have to attend school. The Chinese are noted to be high achievers in education. Th is is partly due to their tradition that emphasizes education above everything else.

When the Chinese arrived in Malaysia, they brought along with them their schools. The first Chinese school in Malaysia was set up in 1815, and today there are about 1,300 fully and partially government-assisted Chinese primary schools which form an integral part of the Malaysian education system (salaries of teachers in these schools are paid by the government while the upkeep of school buildings and facilities is funded through donations by local communities). Most Chinese parents send their children to Chinese or English primary schools. In 2004, 90% (600,000) of all Malaysian Chinese schoolchildren were enrolled in Chinese schools. It is important to note that the Chinese schools are not solely for the Chinese, but are open to other communities in Malaysia. For instance in 1994 it was estimated that a total of about 32,000 non-Chinese students attended Chinese primary schools.

By the time a Chinese child is 4 or 5 years old, she or he is sent to kindergarten. At age 6, the child continues on to primary school. After the age of 12, some of these children will transfer to Malay and English high schools, while the others remain in Chinese medium secondary schools. However, they are all required to master the national language, Malay, since the national examinations for students at the age of 15 and 18 are conducted in Malay. Outstanding students in the examinations are allowed to go to Form Six or directly into the university. Due to a limited number of universities in Malaysia, many of these students go to universities in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.

Parents expect their children to do very well in school and will do whatever is necessary to ensure that their children are able to receive an education. Having said that, it is estimated that about 25% Chinese students usually dropout from school before reaching 18 years old. Many of these leave school to become apprentice as plumber, mechanic, builder, and running family or personal enterprise.


When the Chinese came to Malaysia, they brought their dance, music, and literature with them. However, due to Malaysia's multiracial society, most ethnic groups in Malaysia, including the Chinese, have adopted or assimilated each other's culture. Today, the Malaysian Chinese do not only speak the Chinese language, eat Chinese food, wear Chinese clothes, and appreciate Chinese classical songs, but they also eat Malay, Indian, and Western food, wear other clothes, and enjoy the music of other communities. Nonetheless, the Malaysian Chinese still keep their many traditional celebrations, which form a large part of Chinese cultural heritage in Malaysia. These celebrations include the Lantern festival, the Dragon Boat festival, the Tomb festival, the Hungry Ghost festival, and the Moon Cake festival.

Chinese traditional music and dance are usually aired and performed during festivities such as the Chinese New Year or when there is a funeral. One of their most popular dances is the Lion Dance, which is usually performed during the Chinese New Year's celebration. Literature such as The Eight Immortals, The Monkey God, and Na Cha the Dragon Slayer are ancient children's stories which are as popular in Malaysia as Mickey Mouse is in the United States.


Initially the Chinese came to Malaya as traders, shopkeepers, planters, and miners. They worked in tin mines and opened up plantations of pepper, rubber, gambier, coconut, and sugar. But today most Malaysian Chinese are prominent professionals and businesspeople. As a result they make up of the majority middle and upper income classes in Malaysia's multiethnic society. They are economically more progressive—dominating the Malaysian economy—resulting in an economic imbalance between races. This imbalance led to race riots on 13 May 1969. In order to rectify this economic imbalance, particularly between the Malays and Chinese, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was formulated by the government with the twin-pronged objectives of eradicating poverty and restructuring society. This increased the Malays' share of the economic pie by 20% during the period of 1970 to 1990, and the Chinese managed to advance from 28% to 45% over the same period.


Like most other ethnic groups in Malaysia, the Chinese have become acquainted with sports such as soccer, volleyball, basketball, swimming, ping pong, badminton, tennis, squash, etc. Three of the most popular spectator sports among the Chinese are soccer (known as "football"), basketball, and badminton. Some of the top national athletes, both men and women, who represent the country in international competitions or events are Chinese.


Since most Chinese live in urban areas, their forms of entertainment and recreation are very similar to those of residents in suburban or city areas in the US and UK. They attend movies, watch television and videos, listen to radio and music (on

cassettes and compact discs). They watch Western, Chinese and Malay movies, and listen to recordings of both local and imported traditional and modern music, which are available at local music stores. This includes Western, Chinese, Malay, and Indian music. Besides watching movies and listening to music, gambling with mahjong, a game similar to playing cards except that it is played with tiles, is a popular form of entertainment among the elderly Chinese.


The Malaysian Chinese both in Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo are fine potters. They produce clay vessels, jars, vases, tall narrow jars wired as standard lamps, round containers with and without lids, ashtrays, plates, mugs, etc.


Due to the existence of the Internal Security Act (ISA) in Malaysia, the country has received plenty of criticism from human-rights activists in the West. The Act provides for detention without trial for individuals deemed detrimental to the harmony of the nation. Many prominent Chinese leaders have been detained under the Act since its enactment in 1950s.

Even though Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, and Malay is the national language, the basic rights of the Malaysian Chinese to practice their faith, speak their dialects, and keep their traditions and cultures are virtually secured by the constitution.

There is a high rate of school dropouts before the age of 18. The situation has created major concern since there is a tendency among dropouts to also engage in illicit trades and related activities.


Traditionally, female members of a family are expected to know how to cook, clean the house, and take care of elder relatives. However, nowadays gender roles in domestic realms have changed as a result of women's increased labor force participation. There is a more relaxed attitude in gender issues which can be gauged by the different roles husband and wife play in their duties to one another.


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—by P. Bala