Large numbers of Chinese live in Southeast Asia. They are sometimes called "Asian Jews" because they started businesses, retained their customs and have become very rich. The economies in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand for the most part are controlled by rich Chinese Although some live in rural areas, the vast majority of Chinese in Southeast Asia live in urban areas. Sometimes they live in separate Chinatowns.

Chinese in Southeast Asia (percentage of population): 1) 6 million in Malaysia (34 percent); 2) 6 million in Indonesia (3 percent); 3) 6 million in Thailand (14 percent); 4) 2 million in Singapore (76 percent); 5) 1 million in Vietnam (2 percent); 6) 600,000 in the Philippines (1 percent); 7) 300,000 in Cambodia (4 percent); 8) 25,000 in Laos (0.8 percent). These numbers do not always reflect the full extent of Chinese presence. Partially assimilated Chinese are often not counted as Chinese.

The first Chinese to enter Southeast Asia were Buddhist monks, maritime traders and representatives of the Imperial Chinese government.. In ancient and medieval times, Chinese traders utilized Southeast Asian ports on maritime Silk Road but in the early days much of this trade was carried out by Arab mariners and merchants. Regular trading between China and Southeast Asia didn’t really begin in earnest until the 13th century. Chinese were attracted by trade opportunities in Malacca, Manila, Batavia (Jakarta) Some of the most detailed descriptions of Angkor Wat and other Southeast Asian civilizations came from Chinese travelers and monks.

Companies controlled by ethnic Chinese are very powerful in all across Asia, with the exception of South Korea and Japan. The economic clout of the Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia would rank third or forth in the world after the United States, Japan and possibly Germany.

Chinese Arrive in Southeast Asia

The Chinese eunuch explorer Zheng He (1371-1433) helped establish Chinese communities in parts of Java and the Malay Peninsula in part, many historians believe, to impose imperial Chinese control.

Beginning in the late-1700s, large numbers of Chinese — mostly from Guangdong and Fujian provinces and Hainan Island in southern China — began emigrating to Southeast Asia. Most were illiterate, landless peasants oppressed in their homelands and looking for opportunities abroad. The rich landowners and educated Mandarins stayed in China. Scholars attribute the mass exodus to population explosion in the coastal cities of Fujian and prosperity and contacts generated by foreign trade.

So many people left Fujian for Southeast Asia during the late 18th century and early 19th century that the Manchu court issued an imperial edict in 1718 recalling all Chinese to the mainland. A 1728 proclamation declared that anyone who didn't return and was captured would be executed.

Most of the Chinese who settled in Southeast Asia left China in the mid 19th century after a number treaty ports were opened in China with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 after the first Opium War. The ports made it easy to leave and with the British rather than imperial Chinese running things there were fewer obstacles preventing them from leaving. British ports in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore, gave them destinations they could head to.

A particularly large number of Chinese left from the British treaty ports of Xiamen (Amoy) and Fuzhou (Foochow) in Fujian province. Many were encouraged to leave by colonial governments so they could provide cheap coolie labor in ports around the world, including those in colonial Southeast Asia. Many Chinese fled the coastal province of Fujian and Zhejiang after famines and floods in 1910 and later during World War II and the early days of Communist rule. Many of the legal and illegal immigrants from China continue to come from Fujian.

Chinese Advance in Southeast Asia

Of the Chinese who went abroad, some returned, some died under harsh working conditions but many stayed on where able to prosper under European colonial rule. Many of those who initially did well acted as middlemen between the Europeans and Southeast Asian producers and consumers.

The Chinese thrived under colonial rule. In French colonies laws discouraged participation in commerce by the native population but encouraged Chinese participation. In the British-controlled Malay states the Chinese managed the lucrative opium farms and controlled opium distribution. in Indonesia, the Chinese collected taxes and worked as labor contractors for the Dutch.

Over time, the Chinese became moneylenders, and controlled internal trade in the Southeast Asia countries where they lived. They also played various roles in the trade between Southeast Asian countries. Some accumulated great wealth and this encouraged other Chinese in China to follow in their footsteps.

Overseas Chinese worked as shop owners, traders, middlemen; became involved in wide variety of businesses; and founded family businesses and international firms. By the late 19th century they controlled much of the commerce in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia and ran companies that businesses through the Asian-Pacific region.

Chinese Assimilation

Chinese that arrived before the mid 19th century often intermarried with local people and became assimilated into the local culture. As time went on they became progressively less assimilated.

Assimilation has been particularly difficult in Malaysia and Indonesia where Islamic practices discourage marriages involving Muslims and non-Muslims. For local people marrying a non-Muslim is also seen as rejection of Muslim-based nationalist pride.

Assimilation has been easier for Chinese in Thailand, where the people speak a tonal language somewhat related to Chinese, practice Buddhism and Chinese influences are present in the culture. Here more Chinese of have intermarried and become assimilated. Many have taken Thai names and speak the Thai language but retain Chinese cultural practices

In most countries in Southeast Asia Chinese children speak Chinese at home but use local languages at school and study government-designed curriculum that encourages nationalism and identification with the culture of the Southeast Asian nation where they live. Chinese culture is often transmitted outside the education system in community-based cultural and recreational clubs.

Despite all this there waves of anti-Chinese protests swept Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. See Chinese in Malaysia Below

Chinese Language in Southeast Asia

Overseas Chinese speak three main language groups: 1) Min (Northern and Southern), 2) Yue and 3) Hakka. Southern Min dialects include Hokkien and Fukien from Fujian; Chaochow, Teochew and Taechew from Chaozhou and Hainan. Northern Min dialects include Foochow and Hockchew from Fuzhou, Hungua from Xinghua and Hockchia. Yue dialects include Cantonese, Guangfu and Yueh. Hakka dialects include Hokka, Ke, Kechia, Kejia, Kek and Kheh. Technically these dialects are not really dialects. They are topolects (speeches from a particularly place).

It is not unusual for an overseas Chinese community to speak eight of more dialects. When this is the case one dialect becomes the lingua franca for the entire community. Hokkein, the Southern Min dialect of Fujian, is the primary dialect of many overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore Indonesia, and the Philippines whereas Teochew, the Southern Min dialect of Chaozhou, is the primary dialect of the overseas Chinese communities in Thailand.

Even when different Chinese communities can not understand each other’s speech they can communicate through written Chinese, which more less universal for all Chinese dialects. See Written Chinese, China.

Most Southeast Asian Chinese are required to learn local languages in schools and need skills in the local languages to get a top level education and land a good job. Southeast Asian Chinese keep up their Chinese because it use useful in business and helps them communicate with other Chinese in Southeast Asia, China and around the world

Chinese Society in Southeast Asia

Social stratification tends to be based on income levels in the country where the Chinese live rather than on class distinctions from back home. This is at least partly because most overseas Chinese are descendant of poor peasants. Social unification is based on bonds created by “dialect” groups, business associations, and shared surnames. Leaders tend to be selected in the basis of merit, connections and economic influence rather than family background.

Overseas Chinese generally use the legal and political systems in their home countries to settle disputes and further their aims. In some cases they may turn to Tongs (secret societies) for some help. Tongs have their roots in fighting societies created when rival Chinese communities fought one another. They have traditionally been involved in “underground economies,” gambling and prostitution; often had their own “police force” of thugs; and had links with Triads (organized crime groups).

Chinese Communities in Southeast Asia

Chinese in Southeast Asia tend to congregate in Chinese urban communities, There they have elaborately decorated temples, ancestor halls (“kongi”), dialect associations and Chinese chambers of commerce. Many Chinese live in two story houses that have a residence on the top floor and a business or shop on the first floor. Businesses of a similar kind are grouped together in the same neighborhood. Jewelers, for example, run shops in one area, while fabric sellers run shops in another area. Everywhere there are restaurants up and food hawker.

The Chinese often attend their own schools, read their own newspapers, attended their own operas and set up their own banks. They have community associations and try, whenever possible, to trade with each other.

Many Chinese are members of societies within societies and have retained an intense loyalty "to family, village and clan." They are often more interested in events in China than the are in what was going on in the countries where they live. Descendants of Chinese who arrived abroad generations ago still send large amounts of money back home.

With the exception of Singapore and Malaysia, Chinese in Southeast Asia were required to adopt non-Chinese names. Chinese living outside of China have generally endured discrimination without complaining, partly out of fear that they would only make the situation worse if they rocked the boat.

Chinese Family-Run Businesses

In his book The Spirit of Chinese Capitalism, Gordon Redding wrote, "The Chinese family peculiarly effective and a significant contributor to the list of causes of the East Asia miracle." Chinese-owned companies are often family run and have family members, other relatives or family friends in all the management positions. This contrasts with Western corporation which generally rely on professional managers. One Chinese businessman told the Washington Post, "We mostly hire people because he family knows them, or because they're introduced by a family member. That way you can find someone you can trust. Chinese find it not so easy to trust other people."

Many Chinese companies are run by old patriarchs backed up by Western-educated sons and daughters. The Chinese family system is much more effective in simple organizations like shipping, real estate and the production of low-market goods such as shoes and electronic but is not as effective in sophisticated organization that spend a lot on research and development and design high-tech products.

Confucian thought adapts itself very well to the hierarchical management style. One of the key components of a Chinese family-run business is trust. The Chinese have a reputation of distrusting people outside their clan or circle. The advantages of the Chinese family system of business are that it keeps management size down and allows quick decisions to be made without lengthy meetings, which in turn allows companies to move quickly into profitable markets. The disadvantages of the Chinese family system of business are that favoritism keeps talent out and family feuds can bitterly divide a company especially after a patriarch dies.

Modest Chinese businesses like noodle restaurants and small shops. are run by husband and wife teams, with children providing labor. Women often play an important role in organizing the finances. Explaining how such a business gets started one Asian businessman told Stanley Karnow in Smithsonian magazine: "Americans make big investment, hire manager, technicians.” Asians “cannot afford that, but wife and children all work hard. At first I keep old job while wife and friend take care of store; later I quit to run business full time. Until last year we are here seven days a week, sometimes until 2 in the morning. Now we are doing OK, so we take Sunday off."

There are critics of the the Chinese family business model. One Chinese businessmen said that many Chinese businessmen suffer from “Chinese restaurant syndrome” in that “they are contents with small-scale enterprises; they are happy to making a living. But Jewish people want to be the best and make a huge company.”

Chinese Custom Among Chinese in Southeast Asia

Customs regarding extended families, kinship, marriage, funerals, inheritance have remained the same or close to same as those practiced by Chinese in China. Descent is along patrilineal lines. Children are taught Confucian values of respect towards elders and filial duty. Women do most of the child rearing but sometimes grandparents help out so women can work.

Marriages tend to follow the Chinese pattern. They are arranged or have a fair degree of parental input and couples tend live the groom’s parents after they get married. . Overseas Chinese are more likely to marry a partner with different religious beliefs or from a different hometown area than Chinese in China. Intermarriage with local people varies from place and place and has traditionally been less likely in Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia than in non-Muslim countries.

In the case of divorces local laws are generally stronger than Chinese customs. This means that divorces are often easier to get than they would be in China and women are more likely to get custody of the children.

The religion observed by overseas Chinese is the generally the same mix of Taoism, Buddhism and folk beliefs practiced by Chinese in China. They perform rites to ancestors and celebrate Chinese lunar calendar festivals and visit temples. .In some cases their beliefs are stronger than Chinese in China because their religious beliefs were not discouraged by a Communist regime.

Views of Ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia Towards China

Michael Vatikiotis wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “Western social scientists have long postulated that ethnic Chinese communities in Asia have assimilated with their host societies and slowly lost their Chinese identity. But much of this research was conducted in the dark days of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, when links between ethnic Chinese and their motherland were cut off. [Source: Michael Vatikiotis, International Herald Tribune, August 24, 2005]

The trend for the last 25 years, since China opened up under Deng Xiaoping, has been for ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia to make return visits to China to explore their ancestral villages, network with distant relatives, relearn the language and - more recently - invest in China's booming economy. On a recent official visit to China, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand made a pilgrimage to his grandparents' graves in Guangdong Province. Thailand's Charoen Pokphand Group was for many years one of the largest foreign investors in China.

China, for its part, has been careful not to claim the loyalty of its overseas kin. Successive prime ministers, from Zhou Enlai to Li Peng, made it clear that ethnic Chinese overseas owed their loyalty to host governments. This position has modified somewhat with the growth of China's economy. Special arrangements were made for ethnic Chinese returning to "invest in the motherland." A new network of "Confucius Centers" is being established to teach Chinese language and culture overseas. When anti-Chinese riots broke out in Indonesia a decade ago, Beijing felt compelled to lodge a protest with Jakarta. And China has increasingly made use of ethnic Chinese business and political contacts to further its influence in Southeast Asia.

All this raises the question of where the loyalties of ethnic Chinese overseas lie.The official line is that Singaporeans are culturally Chinese but politically Singaporean. It's this cultural identification that inspires pride in China's recent achievements and helps mute the kind of knee-jerk fear of China that tinges debates in the United States and Europe. "The idea and ideal of One China" are "deeply embedded in the Chinese mind," Singapore's foreign minister, George Yeo, said recently.

But as China extends its influence economically and politically, the nagging question is whether Beijing's policy of not claiming loyalty and affiliation will hold. With so much overseas Chinese capital now invested in China, how easy will it be for governments or individuals in Southeast Asia to resist calls for support and sympathy? The difference between being American and being Chinese is that America has a universal appeal, rather like a religion; being Chinese is a tribal thing, Yeo argues. "A Chinese cannot cease being a Chinese."

Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post: For much of Indonesia’s modern history, first under the dominance of the Dutch East India Co., then as a formal Dutch colony and, after 1949, as an independent nation, ethnic Chinese have rarely been able to live in peace. “No country harboring a Chinese minority possesses a blacker record of persecution and racial violence than Indonesia,” according to “Sons of the Yellow Emperor,” a study of overseas Chinese communities written by Lynn Pan, a leading authority on the subject. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, August 18 2012]

“A massacre triggered by economic unrest in 1740 left thousands of Chinese dead. Dutch authorities later barred Chinese Indonesians from traveling without special permits and introduced a system of racial classification that separated residents of Chinese descent from other groups. At the same time, they also gave Chinese economic privileges over other ethnic groups. Independence in 1949 brought a severe backlash, with the new government, led by a fiery nationalist, banning trade in rural areas by non-indigenous Indonesians and imposing other restrictions. [Ibid]

“A failed communist coup in 1965 led to a spasm of horrific bloodletting targeted at ethnic Chinese and supposed supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, a revolutionary outfit that had been encouraged, funded and armed by Mao Zedong’s Communist regime in Beijing. Amid the chaos, a new regime took over in Jakarta, led by Suharto, who ruled Indonesia with an iron hand from 1965 until the mayhem of 1998. [Ibid]

Discrimination against local Chinese became a pillar of Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime. After rejecting forced emigration as a solution to the “Chinese problem,” authorities opted for coerced assimilation, banning Chinese newspapers, schools, festivals and other expressions of identity different from that of the indigenous majority. [Ibid]

“Under Suharto, everything Chinese was suppressed,” said Myra Sidharta, an 85-year-old, third-generation Chinese Indonesian who has chronicled the Chinese minority. Sidharta said that she sometimes played golf with Suharto before he seized power and that she found him “very boring” but not a frothing bigot. His anti-Chinese policies, she said, derived from a political calculation that the relatively well-off Chinese minority served as an easy and popular scapegoat. [Ibid]

“The crumbling of Suharto’s dictatorial authority in 1998 initially proved a nightmare for Indonesian Chinese as pro-democracy student demonstrations morphed into an orgy of rioting that hit Chinese-owned shops and homes with particular fury. But, as the country stabilized into a functioning democracy, the first elected president, the liberal-minded Muslim cleric Abdurrahman Wahid, and his successors introduced legal and social reforms aimed at undoing past discrimination. [Ibid]

They lifted bans on expressions of Chinese culture, revised nationality rules and even declared Confucianism an official religion, alongside Islam, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Buddhism. The Ministry of Religious Affairs now has a special unit dedicated to promoting and protecting an ancient Chinese system of Confucian ethics that China itself does not consider a religion. [Ibid]

Ethnic Chinese in Cambodia

There are an estimated 300,000 and 600,000 Chinese-Cambodians in Cambodia. They tend to be assimilated and many have intermarried with Khmers (one reason for variance in population numbers is how mixed blood and intermarried Chinese are counted) . They speak Khmer, worship at Khmer Buddhist temples and have Cambodian style weddings. Few can speak Chinese. In many cases the only thing they seems to have retained from their culture is the Chinese cakes served at special occasions and the custom of living with the wife’s family after marriage.

There are records of Chinese envoys visiting Angkor Wat in the 13th century. The Chinese have traditionally lived in the cities and towns and controlled businesses in part because the Khmers have traditionally looked down on commerce. Chinese have controlled much of the commerce in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia since the 19th century and today are still involved in businesses throughout the Asian-Pacific region.

In the colonial period, with the help of French policies, Chinese were set themselves up so that about 400 of them dominated the Cambodian economy. In the 1960s there were about 500,000 Chinese in Cambodia. Most of them originally came from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.

Chinese-Cambodians were singled out for discrimination by the Lon Nol government that preceded the Khmer Rouge. Although Beijing was an ally of the Khmer Rouge, that didn’t stop the Pol Pot regime from killing Chinese-Cambodians and forcing them to flee the country. The number of ethnic Cambodia fell from 430,000 in 1975 to 215,000 in 1979. After the Khmer Rouge was ousted Chinese were discriminated against by the Vietnamese. At that most Chinese were poor, getting by running very small businesses.

The Cambodian Chinese are recognized as Cambodian citizens and as a sign of how influential they are, of the 24 member board of the Chamber of Commerce established in Phnom Penh in the early 2000s 17 members spoke Chinese, but only three were fluent in English.

Chinese in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge and Afterwards

Tens of thousands of Chinese were killed or driven from Cambodia during Khmer Rouge years. They were reportedly to singled out for harsh treatment because of their involvement in commercial activities. By one estimate 200,000 Chinese perished between 1975 and 1979.

One diplomat told Reuters: "They were regarded as bourgeois and forced to the fields to do hard labor. In 1979 they started to return to Phnom Penh but they had lost all their properties and land, even the Chinese temples were destroyed. They suffered a lot during those years — now they have restored their business, gradually they have started to make business and learn to make a little money so they could begin and get their property back."

In the 1980s the Chinese kept a low profile because of Chinese support of the Khmer Rouge. In the 1990s the government softened up on the Chinese. Temples were rebuilt, Chinese-language schools were reopened and permission was given in 1990 to establish the Association of Chinese in Cambodia. In 1995, there were 13 Chinese-language schools and five Chinese temples in Phnom Penh.

In 1995, it was estimated that there were about 300,000 Chinese in Cambodia, 80 percent of them in Phnom Penh. According to many people in Cambodia the Chinese have re-established themselves as the dominant economic force in the country, playing a major role in import-export, banking, hotels, gold and rice trading, garments, manufacturing and property.

In the late 1990s and 2000s there was a kind of rebirth of Chinese culture. A number of Chinese schools opened. Other private schools offered Mandarin lessons. Chinese restaurants and Chinese newspaper were launched. The government made efforts to attract hundreds of millions of dollars in investments from overseas Chinese businessmen and lure large numbers of Chinese tourists. Chinese-Cambodians have been encouraged by the Hun Sen government to engage in business and use their connections in China to bring in foreign investment. In this environment, Chinese-Cambodians have thrived and increased their domination in many businesses.

Chinese in Thailand

Ethnic Chinese make up 10 to 14 percent of the population of Thailand, or around than 6 million to 9 million people (the range in numbers has to do with how mixed-blood Thai Chinese are counted). They are largely assimilated and many have intermarried with Thais. Many Chinese became Thai after a few generations. Many recognize their Chinese heritage but no longer identify with the Chinese ethnic group. An estimated 80 percent of Chinese Thais speak Thai at home. Thais intermarry with the Chinese more than the Malaysians do.

Teochew, the Southern Min dialect of Chaozhou, has traditionally been the primary dialect of the overseas Chinese communities in Thailand whereas Hokkein, the Southern Min dialect of Fujian, has traditionally been the primary dialect of many Overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Bangkok has a large, influential Chinese community. They are said to be fond of shopping and new condominiums. Bangkok supports six daily Mandarin-language newspapers. At one time half the population of Bangkok was at least part Chinese by descent. Even the royal family has some Chinese blood.

Assimilation has been easier for Chinese in Thailand — where the people speak a language somewhat related to Chinese, practice Buddhism and there are many Chinese influences in the culture — than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. In Thailand, many Chinese have taken Thai names.

Many of the businesses in Thailand are owned by Chinese. Thais have traditionally been involved in farming and governing while Chinese ran commercial and industrial activities. In the 1970s, about 75 percent of all the shops, banks and factories in Bangkok were Chinese owned. In 1995, 11 Thais were listed as dollar billionaires. All but one were of Chinese descent. At that time 12 of the 15 commercial banks are owned by Chinese families. Ethnic Chinese tycoons were hit hard by the Asian financial crisis. Many were technically bankrupt for years.

History of Chinese in Thailand

Trade between Siam and China existed from an early period. Rhinoceros horn, kingfisher feathers and ivory were among the items sought by the Chinese. The famous 15th-century explorer-eunuch, Zheng Ho, commented that when he arrived in Siam there were many Chinese who lived there because the women were easy to get. He also commented on the large number of monks and the fact that women seem to run everything.

By the time the Europeans arrived in what is now Thailand, Thai harbors were filled Chinese junks and Thai ports were home to Chinese that spoke a number of dialects. Siam was a major destination for Chinese exports and was a major transshipment center for goods to other places and islands in Asia and Oceania. Bangkok was a Chinese trading post before it was an important Thai city. King Ram I was married to the daughter of a rich Chinese merchant.

By the 19th century, the Chinese were an important segment of Thai society. They ran much of the economy and controlled trade and in many ways were Thailand’s window to the outside world. In both Thailand and China their money help strengthen the economy and finance the construction of many temples and buildings. Many of the hardworking and enterprising Chinese in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are from the southern Chinese province of Fujian. In Thailand many are also from Chaozhou area of Guangdong Province.

History of Chinese in Thailand in the 20th Century

After Imperial China collapsed in the early 20th century, Chinese in Thailand were discriminated against. Their schools were closed down and they were barred from certain jobs and business. The Thai King wrote a tract called the Chinese the “Jews of the East.” Some of this was based on prejudice and ignorance. Some was based on worries that Chinese revolutionary politics might spill into Thailand. A similar wave of anti-Chinese occurred when Mao Zedong seized power in China after World War II. Since 1948 there has been a government policy restricted Chinese-language instruction in Chinese schools.

Many Chinese changed their name and took other measures to try and hide the fact they were Chinese. They government made it easy for them to become Thai citizens. Many intermarried with Thais. Over the years many Chinese became more assimilated to Thai culture and lost their bonds to China. Some though continued to speak Chinese at home, quietly practiced Chinese customs and religion and retained their Chinese names.

In the 1980s, when China began to emerged as an economic power, being Thai Chinese became kind of fashionable. Thai Chinese were instrumental in forming close relations with China. There was a re-emergence of Chinese pride and more open expressions of Chineseness. Television dramas began touching on relations between Thais and Chinese. Men of Chinese decent became prime ministers and Miss Thailand began looking more like Chinese than Thai.

Chinese in Vietnam

There are about one million Chinese in Vietnam (two percent of the population). There used to be more but many were forced to leave. Many of the so-called Boat People that fled Vietnam during a much-publicized exodus between 1975 and 1980 were Chinese Vietnamese (See Boat People).

The Chinese did well in the colonial period. French laws discouraged participation in commerce by the native population but encouraged Chinese participation. In 1970, Chinese Vietnamese made up 5.3 percent of the population but controlled 70 to 80 percent of the commerce. After the Vietnam War, the Chinese were targets and many fled or were driven out.

At one time, assimilation was easy for Chinese in Vietnam, where people speak a language somewhat related to Chinese, practice some Buddhism, follow Confucianism, and have many Chinese influences in their culture. Many Chinese intermarried with Vietnamese, took Vietnamese names and spoke Vietnamese at home.

Vietnam’s Chinese community has traditionally lived mostly in urban areas on the south and centered in the Cholon district of Saigon. Stanley Karnow wrote in Smithsonian magazine, they "quietly play a pivotal role in finance...Everyone relies on overseas Chinese." Many of the hardworking and enterprising Chinese in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are descendants of people originally from the southern Chinese province of Fujian.

Chinese in Malaysia

There are around 5.2 million ethnic Chinese in Malaysia. They are mostly descendants of Chinese who arrived is various waves of immigration and established themselves in the cities. Like their counterparts in Singapore, Indonesian, Thailand and Vietnam, many are from the southern Chinese province of Fujian. Many of the Chinese in Malaysia were brought in by the British in the 19th century to work the tin mines and rubber plantations as laborers.

In the past, Malaysia was divided into the Chinese haves and Malay have nots. Ethnic tension ran high. A Chinese living in Malaysia I talked with compared the situation in his country to apartheid. Assimilation has been particularly difficult for Chinese in Malaysia and Indonesia where Islamic practices discourage marriages involving Muslims and non-Muslims. For local people marrying a non-Muslim is also seen as rejection of Muslim-based nationalist pride.

The Chinese have traditionally dominated business in Malaysia and run shops and hotels. Many are descendants of laborers who worked hard and saved so that succeeding generations could prosper. Many are self employed. In the 1970s, Kuala Lumpur about 90 percent of all the shops, banks and factories are were owned by Chinese and Chinese businessmen still control a large share of the commercial enterprises. These days “bumiputra” (Malay) billionaires run much of the economy rather Chinese billionaires.

Between the early 1990s and the early 2000s, ethnic Chinese dropped for 28 percent of the population to 26 percent. The primary reason for this was that Malays have a higher birthrate than the Chinese. To correct this situation a Chinese political party set up a “Cupid” matchmaking club that hosted mixers to bring single Chinese men and women together in hopes that they would get married and produce more children. In recent years, young Chinese adults have said they were more interested in advancing their careers than getting married. Participant in the Cupid Club events had to swear they were single and reveal their favorite political party and bloodtype and confess if they had drinking or gambling problems.

Chinese Culture in Malaysia

The Chinese tend to live in urban areas. Unlike many of the Muslim Malays, they eat pork and drink alcohol. Many send heir children to Mandarin-language schools. Chinese homes often have altars with Buddha statues. Chinese grave offerings — cardboard microwave ovens, televisions, air conditioners — are burned during holidays as offerings to the dead. There are even checks, credit cards and passports which can be used by the dead in the other world.

Malaysians have intermarried less with the Chinese less than the Thais have. Babas and Noyas are the respective names and males and females born to Chinese-Malay unions) . Baba and Nyonya families are descendants of Chinese traders that married into Malay families. “The Straits Chinese” by Malaysian sociologist Khoo Jo Ee is about the subculture of Babas and Noyas.

Baba Malay, a fusion of Hokkein and Malay, is spoken in Singapore and Malaysia. Hokkein, the Southern Min dialect of Fujian, is the primary dialect of many Overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore Indonesia, and the Philippines. Mandarin Chinese continues to be the primary language of instruction at Chinese primary schools and private secondary schools. The Chinese-language press has also managed to endure.

The Chinese generally keep a low profile. They generally do not go to great lengths to display their Chineseness nor to make a great effort to express their Malaysian patriotism. Many Chinese have adopted English nicknames. Only 9 percent of Chinese students attend national school. Most go to private schools oriented for the Chinese community.

Chinese and Malay Riots and New Economic Policy in Malaysia

In 1965, there were mass killing in Malaysia and Chinese were often the targets. After that tensions were very high between Malays and Chinese. In 1967 there were rumors that the Muslim Malays had poisoned pork eaten by the Chinese and many Chinese men cam down with a mental disease called “koro” in which they believed their penises were being sucked into their bodies.

There were bloody race riots between Chinese and Malay on May 13, 1969 that nearly ripped Malaysia apart. At least 63 people were killed and 4,000 were arrested. They occurred after a hotly contested general election in which the ruling party lost a lot of seats to the opposition and the parties tried to win voters by making racial attacks at one another.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) was an affirmative action plan implemented un the 1970s in response to the ethic riots of 1969. It intended to help indigenous Bumiputras (native Malays, literally "sons of the soil") improve their positions by giving them preferential treatment in education, business and government. and setting quotas that limited the number of Chinese and Indians in universities and public jobs. Money was also provided by banks and investment firms for Malays and indigenous people to start businesses.

The policy worked quite well for the Malays. Over they years Malays have taken over many business run in the past by Chinese and Malays prospered without destroying Chinese business. By the 1990s, Malays controlled the nation's major businesses and achieved more prosperity and relatively few Chinese and Indians seem to resent the quotas.

One minister of Chinese descent told National Geographic, "I've been quite critical of some specific cases when Chinese people got blatantly unfair treatment. But the situation we had at the end of the sixties, where the distribution of wealth was so skewed — it couldn't last. It made for an inherently unstable society. Because of NEP, there is less racial resentment now, and more a feeling of Us — you know, Us Malaysians."

Many people feel the law has outlived its usefulness. The Malays have made great advances and are no longer a marginalized people like they were when the policy was adopted in 1970.

South Asians

There is large number of South Asians, mostly Indians or Pakistanis, living in Southeast Asia, particularly in Myanmar. Malaysia and Singapore. The majority were or are plantation labors although there are also a significant number or traders and merchants and professionals such as lawyers and doctors

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2012

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