Chapter 4, Part 18
At the height of the spice trade in the Orient, the Europeans had their eyes fixated on strategic islands along the trade routes, which they eventually colonized. From British Hong Kong and Portuguese Macau at the Pearl River Delta, to Singapore and Penang in the Strait of Malacca, these otherwise small pieces of land experienced rapid economic growth as they were developed into important trading hubs in the region.
Economic growth creates opportunities, and opportunities attract people. Penang, as one of the most thriving colonial outposts in the region, certainly had an irresistible allure that drew merchants and laborers alike to get their share of fortune on the island, or simply to escape poverty at home. The Cantonese, Hokkien and Hakka peoples were among the most eager to leave China for a region once known as Nanyang, the Southern Seas, that is modern-day Southeast Asia.
The Hokkien people began settling on the island of Penang in earnest following the rapid development it experienced under British control. As goes with the tradition of overseas Chinese communities, they formed clan associations – also known as kongsi – as a means to unify fellow Hokkiens with the same surname and help clan members grow their businesses. Clan houses and temples were then built, particularly at the turn of the 20th century, for the members to worship the clan’s principal deities. Cheah, Khoo, Yeoh, Lim and Tan were the five major Hokkien clan associations in Penang, and today their clan houses are a testament to each clan’s wealth, as well as George Town’s importance as a trade hub in the past.
The Hakka people (also called Kek) in Penang, on the other hand, were not as numerous as the Hokkiens. Instead of building impressive clan houses, individual Hakka tycoons constructed their own mansions, filled with splendor and opulence. Cheong Fatt Tze (Tjong Tjen Hsoen) was among the most prominent Hakka business magnates on the island. Hailing from a village in Guangdong Province in China, he moved to Batavia (present-day Jakarta) – then the capital of the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia) – to seek a better life. His perseverance, hard work and marriages helped propelled his business, making him a successful businessman not only in Batavia, but also in Medan (where his relative Tjong A Fie lived and prospered), and eventually Penang, where he spent the rest of his life.
The distinctively blue Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was built toward the end of the 19th century. “He had eight wives, but he loved the seventh wife the most,” our energetic mid-aged female guide – who was a Hakka herself – at the mansion told us. “He married the other wives out of business interests, and he built houses at other places for them.” The seventh wife, unsurprisingly, lived in the blue mansion. As we explored some of the mansion’s rooms, where several movies were filmed, including an Oscar-winning French film, she continued, “The Hakka people, or Kek, were late in exploring lands in southern China. By the time they moved there, the Hokkiens had already settled and cultivated the land. They called the late comer Hakka, or Kek, which means guest.”
The more she told us and other visitors about the history of the Hakka people, the more palpable she took pride of her ancestors. She told us that since the lands in that particular part of China were already owned by the Hokkien people, the Hakkas had to work really hard, including the women. Therefore they couldn’t follow the foot-binding practice common among Chinese women at that time. Petite feet were favorable and they showed a woman’s status in the society. For that reason, Hokkien women purportedly looked down on their Hakka counterparts.
The guide quickly moved the topic to the mansion itself again just as fast as she started recounting about her ancestors. “This is one of the only two Chinese mansions outside China with five courtyards,” she explained – the other one being none other than Tjong A Fie Mansion in Medan. Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion itself was not the only mansion built by a Hakka businessman in Penang. Pinang Peranakan Mansion, which has been turned into a museum, was commissioned by Chung Keng Kwee, another prominent Hakka tycoon on the island. His business empire comprised farming, logging and tin mining, to name some, and he was once appointed Kapitan Cina (leader of Chinese communities in Southeast Asia) of Perak by the British in 1877. Today the museum hosts a wide array of Peranakan cultural items, as well as Chinese carved-wood panels, English floor tiles, and Scottish ironworks.
Due to the pompous showcase of wealth among the Chinese communities in Penang, the island was chosen by the Chinese nationalist leader, Sun Yat-sen, to hold a fund-raising conference to support a revolution to overthrow the Qing dynasty – the last dynasty to ever rule China. Several uprisings and revolutions broke out, culminating in the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 which ended more than two thousand years of imperial rule in China. The event became the catalyst to the creation of the Republic of China in 1912, which decades later was defeated by the Communists. In 1949, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed with Beijing as its capital, while the remaining Nationalists fled to Taiwan and have been governing the island as the Republic of China since then.
Today, the thriving businesses owned by ethnic Chinese Malaysians on Penang have significantly contributed to the island’s position as one of Malaysia’s commercial centers. It is a testament to the importance of Chinese communities all across Southeast Asia, a fact which is not always welcomed by non-Chinese communities in the region. Some say the Chinese control a disproportionate share of their country’s economy, some think the wealth gap between the Chinese and the rest of the population is too wide. But few would argue that a lot of ethnic Chinese people they know are hard workers.
In a video published by the World Economic Forum in June 2016, of ten countries where most of the world’s Chinese diaspora live, seven are in Southeast Asia. Vietnam, the Philippines and Myanmar each have more than one million ethnic Chinese residents. Meanwhile, out of Singapore’s 5.6 million people, more than 70% are ethnically Chinese. In Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, there are more than six million ethnic Chinese in each country, with the latter being home to the world’s biggest Chinese diaspora. Assimilation rate among Chinese communities in the region varies greatly. On the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, for example, most Chinese still speak Hokkien at home. Meanwhile in Java, the ethnic Chinese people are so assimilated they even use the local languages at home and absorb a lot of aspects of the local cultures, so do the local communities to the Chinese culture.
Cultural integration has always been, and will always be, tricky. Willingness to open up and learn about cultures different from one’s own should be nurtured, instead of tolerating stigmatization and segregation, whether self-imposed or government-sanctioned. Chinese communities have been flourishing in Southeast Asia for centuries, contributing to the diversity of cultures in the region, from culinary tradition to architecture, fashion and language. Isn’t it worth celebrating?
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.