The Chinese are quickly becoming world players in areas of business, economics, and technology. At least one in five persons on the planet are of a Chinese background. Chinese are immigrating all over the globe at a rate that may eclipse any historical figure. These immigrants, known as overseas Chinese, are exerting tremendous influence on the communities they live in. This ethnography will focus specifically on those overseas Chinese living in urban Malaysia. Malaysian Chinese have developed a unique culture that is neither mainland Chinese nor Malay. In order to propose a strategy for reaching them with the gospel several historical and cultural considerations must first be examined. This paper will provide a history of Chinese immigration to Malaysia, then explore the unique Chinese Malay culture, and finally will present a strategy for reaching the Malaysian Chinese with a culturally appropriate method.
It will be demonstrated that a successful strategy will take into account the unique culture of Malaysian Chinese, including reshaping the animistic worldview, finding a solution to the practice of ancestor worship by redeeming the cultural rituals, and delivering biblical teaching through a hybrid oral/literate style. History of Immigration Malaysia has long been influenced by travelling cultures and neighboring nations. Halfway between India and China, Malaysia has been influenced by both. Historically, India has had more influence on Malaysia than has China. The primary reason is that the Chinese have long been a self-sustaining empire, seeing themselves as the center of the world (zhong guo) and were not prone to long sea voyages. So, although China grew in power, much of the culture was contained within her borders. Meanwhile, until the 16th century, Malaysia was ruled by a series of kingdoms and empires. Control of the land and surrounding seas changed hands depending on who had the strongest army at the time. By the mid-16th century the strongest forces yet seen, the colonial powers, had arrived.
1 First came the Portuguese and then the Dutch, and finally the British at the end of the 18th century. Prior to, and then concurrently with, the advent of the Colonial powers, Chinese people and their culture began to trickle into other countries, eventually coming to Malaysia.2 Chinese trading communities began forming in Malaysian port cities. As long as trading prospered, the cities remained, though none grew large. Hundreds of years passed with little permanent Chinese influence on the indigenous Malay people. The tide began to turn when the British founded Singapore and the Penang region of what was to become Malaysia in the early 1800s. Industrial centers formed and the Chinese began immigrating in large numbers.3 The largest draw for Chinese immigration came with the opening of tin mines around 1850. The exploding popularity of canned food in Europe drove the demand for tin high. More permanent Chinese communities began to be formed as workers flooded in. At this time, unlike during previous eras, Chinese customs, religion, and language began to take root in Malaysia.4 Jaime Koh and Stephanie Ho, Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 2009), 9. N.J. Ryan, The Making of Modern Malaysia and Singapore: A History from Earliest Times to 1966 (London: Oxford University Press, 1969)
Just before the dawn of World War Two the Chinese found themselves flourishing on the Malay peninsula. Life was not to proceed smoothly for long however. The Chinese population of Malaysia suffered extensively during the Japanese occupation from 1942-45. The Japanese performed the Sook Ching (purification through purge) where all Chinese males aged 18-50 were systematically rounded up. Each person was interrogated and all anti-Japanese elements were executed. Many thousands of Chinese men were killed, most of them without fair warrant.5 The Japanese were expelled from occupied lands after their defeat by the Allies in 1945. After the war many colonial powers began rethinking governing strategies with overseas holdings. Several powers backed out of the colonial game and turned government over to the local people. Such was soon to be the case in Malaysia. Southeast Asia saw an uprising of Communism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, driven mainly by Russian influence on the new People’s Republic of China.
When Malaysia was formed as an autonomous nation in 1957, leaders were wary of the Chinese communist threat. Many Chinese were already living in Malaysia, though not a majority population. Malaysia’s first prime minister thought he could integrate the Chinese population into the Malay majority by granting refuge for Chinese nationals fleeing Communist China and cracking down on the Communist guerrilla movement beginning to form in Malaysia. Communism was outlawed and with the help of British troops the communist insurgents were suppressed. Integration was not smooth, however, as the Malay government expected the Chinese population to take a substandard position to the Malay peoples. Malay was declared the official language and quotas were established to ensure that Malays would be hired for civil service jobs, given scholarships for education, and issued driving licenses over and above the generally higher educated Chinese population.6 Currently, the Chinese represent about 25 percent of the total population in Malaysia while Malays themselves constitute about 57 percent.
The remaining population numbers represent a conglomeration of Indians, westerners, and other minority immigrants.7 Though officially still a minority, the Malaysian Chinese have begun to exert an economic and cultural influence on the nation. The next section will focus on elements of this unique culture that must be understood in order to effectively reach the Chinese population with the gospel. Culture Anthropologist Paul Hiebert identifies culture as “the more or less integrated systems of ideas, feelings, and values and their associated patterns of behavior and products shared by a group of people who organize and regulate what they think, feel, and do.”8 Malaysia is made up of many cultures, the Chinese being just one of them. Even the Chinese culture can be categorized further based on sub-groupings of ethnicity. Chinese culture is complex so a few of the most important elements will be defined below. Missionaries would do well to learn as much as possible about these crucial keys to the lives of the people being reached. Language The standard language in Malaysia, Malay, is taught to every citizen through the educational system. According to an official policy passed some years back, other languages are discouraged from being taught and used. In reality many citizens criticize this policy and it is not strictly enforced. One can expect to hear a variety of languages being spoken, especially in major cities.
The most common languages used are Malay, English, and Mandarin Chinese. Until World War Two, Chinese communities in Malaysia were fairly heterogeneous by dialect and kinship.10 The dialect spoken served to tie the immigrants back to the language source in mainland China. These ties allowed for the continuance of family relationships as well as cultural practices and religious beliefs specific to the region of China the people immigrated from. Younger Chinese are beginning to leave their homeland dialects behind in order to function in the business world on a larger scale. The loss of dialect also weakens cultural identity with the home village and its customs as well as decreasing ties with mainland China as a whole.11 However, with the rising prominence of China on the world scene, overseas Chinese may seek to renew ties with their homeland, though not necessarily with their specific ancestral village.