The Chinese cultural heritage of Malaysia

Pat Fama
Yahoo! Malaysia Editorial

Malaysia has one of the largest ethnic Chinese communities in the world, making up about a quarter of the country’s population. Over the centuries, a distinct Chinese Malaysian culture has developed, which comes to the fore most during the annual Lunar New Year celebrations.

The Malay Peninsula has had an ethnic Chinese community for at least six hundred years,  and there are some 6.4 million Chinese Malaysians today. Due to intermarriage over the generations, many other Malaysians have some Chinese ancestry.

When the Chinese admiral, Zheng He (Cheng Ho) visited the sultanate of Malacca in the early 1400s he found a small group of Chinese settlers already there. Indeed, Chinese traders had been coming to the Malay peninsula for many centuries before then.

The majority of early Chinese migrants were male, many of whom married Malay women, giving birth to a culture known as Baba-Nyonya (or Peranakan). Elaborately decorated houses, such as this one in Malacca, provide visible reminders of this community.

Cheng Hoon Tong in Malacca is the oldest functioning temple in Malaysia, having been founded in 1645. The temple has shrines to China’s three main religions - Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism - a syncretic mix of faiths which is common amongst Chinese Malaysians.

Kongsi (clan halls) played a huge part in the migrant experience, giving support to fellow settlers of the same surname. Many of these halls now function as Chinese temples open to all, and are amongst Malaysia’s most attractive built heritage.

Clan associations still serve and important function today, particularly when it comes to providing educational support. Name plaques honour successful clan members who have endowed their kongsi.

Even though much Chinese Malaysian culture can trace its roots to China, it has also been influenced by local circumstances. Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in George Town, for example, combines classical Chinese architecture with other disparate styles, including Gothic and Art Nouveau.

If there is one architectural style most associated with Chinese Malaysians, it is the shophouse. Found in towns and cities across the country, they are terraced houses, with commercial businesses on the ground floor, and living quarters above.

The rate of Chinese migration ebbed and flowed according to economic opportunities. The growth of the rubber industry from the early 1900s provided a fresh lure, and many fortunes were made, including Lee Geok Kun, the founder of the Lee Rubber Company.

The clan jetties in George Town, made up of simple houses on stilts, show that many Chinese settlers did not strike it rich in their new home. Those who originally lived on the jetties were too poor to buy or rent houses on land.

West Malaysia has dozens of Kampung Baru Cina (Chinese New Villages), which were built during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) to cut communist insurgents off from their sympathisers. Although born out of forcible resettlement, these villages are now amongst the prettiest and most charming in Malaysia.

Many of the most popular food dishes in Malaysia have their roots in Chinese cuisine, particularly Cantonese. But they have also been strongly influenced by other culinary traditions, including Malay, Indian and British.

Chinese coffee shops (kedai kopi) have been a fundamental part of the Chinese Malaysian experience for generations. Sadly, these wonderful examples of living heritage are slowly dying out, often replaced by bland, modern chains.

Around Lunar New Year, you will see red lanterns everywhere, from homes to shopping malls. They are colourful reminders of the profound effect the Chinese community has had on the Malaysia of today.