ESSAY ... CHUAH Guat Eng
THOUGHTS FROM A DISAPPEARING ISLAND
CHUAH GUAT ENG, the author of Echoes of Silence and The Old House and Other Stories, says that the idea of being Malaysian (or Singaporean, for that matter) is not as simple as it looks
FROM TIME TO TIME I hear it in the cadence of a voice, glimpse it in a slant of light, smell it in a whiff of something cooking. Fragmented it may be, spread thin to the point of invisibility, and slipping through the cracks of written history, but the island is not a solipsistic fiction. It was my father’s island, and I grew up on it.
Official Malaysian history has it that the Chinese first settled in the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century, following the visit of the Ming Dynasty envoy, Admiral Cheng Ho. Much has since been written about their descendants, the “Babas” of urban Malacca; their handicraft, their artifacts, their architecture, and above all, their adoption of the Malay language, food and dress. It is not certain to what degree there was intermarriage with the local people; but in private discussions with some Babas, I was told that wealthy families sent their sons back to China to find suitable brides. This in itself is an indication of the value the Babas placed on marrying within the race. This trait they shared with the later waves of Chinese immigrants who are known to be extremely energetic about retaining their culture and language.
However, the Babas of Malacca were neither the first nor the only Chinese people to settle in the Malay Peninsula. According to Sterling Seagrave, author of Lords of the Rim: The Invisible Empire of the Overseas Chinese (1995), at least a century before Cheng Ho’s visit, ethnic Chinese had settled along the coast of the northern part of the Malacca Straits—in Burma, Siam (now Thailand), Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula. I suspect that my ancestry can be traced to these small pockets of early settlers because my father was certainly not a Malaccan Baba, culturally and linguistically. I haven’t been able to find anything written about the non-Baba Peranakan. Based on my father’s history, I would assume that because of their proximity to Burma and Siam, they tended to be Theravada Buddhists, which may explain their relative lack of attachment to traditional Chinese religious beliefs and, more importantly, Confucianist concepts of ethnic and cultural purity. In the rural parts of the Peninsula, they lived as true minorities, intermarried freely with the local people, and underwent a high degree of acculturation. They kept their Chinese names for official purposes and so were nominally Chinese, but their way of life was typical of the indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia.
Little is known about my paternal grandfather, but he had business and possibly family connections in Kedah and Perlis (then part of Siam), where he died when my father and uncle were very young. My grandmother was part Burmese, although her family was based in Perak, where my father was born. She later got married again, to a Chinese who owned some rubber smallholdings in Perak. My father therefore spent his childhood in rural Malaya, living very much, I imagine, like a Malay boy. Years later, I discovered that many of the rules he imposed on us as children—getting up before dawn to bathe and change, never eating dinner before sunset, never trimming our nails after dark, and filling the house with the aromatic smoke of the kemenyan at dusk—were Malay-Muslim customs my Chinese friends had never heard of.
But to absorb the Malay culture is one thing; to be absorbed into the Malay world is another. As a young man, my father fell in love with a Malay girl but because he refused to become a Muslim, had to give her up and leave his kampong forever, thus cutting himself off from the “mainland” of his childhood. Hearing the story when I was a child, I learned that religion is an ocean that divides the world into islands.
It is tempting to romanticise the spirit of tolerance and the adaptability that foster the growth of hybrid cultures. However, tolerance and adaptability are often nothing more than the survival tools of minority groups surrounded by an alien culture, and survival in such circumstances usually requires a shaking loose of old roots.
Perhaps the most significant root shaken loose by my grandparents was the one of language. Under British rule, experienced first in Burma and then in Malaya, they had learned that survival meant an education in English. My father, the elder son, was sent away to Penang, to study in a mission school where English was taught. My uncle, formally adopted by their stepfather and therefore heir to his property, went to a Chinese school near their rural home.
From then on, the two brothers went their separate ways, culturally speaking, because education is not simply the acquisition of a language; it is the acquisition of a culture and a worldview. My uncle played mahjong, sent his son to a Chinese school, and kept his daughter at home. My father played billiards, and sent all his sons and daughters to English schools. English became the language of communication in my father’s home, and my Chinese-literate cousins would call us, with fond derision, “English horses.” After Independence in 1957, we sent our children to national schools to learn Malay; they sent theirs to Chinese schools.
Language, too, is an ocean that divides the world into islands.
Being part Burmese, my father did not look Chinese. For one thing, he had a very dark complexion. I thought he was the handsomest man in the world, but as I grew up, I learned that among multicoloured Asians, a dark skin draws to itself great tidal waves of prejudice that demolish most attempts at building bridges between islands.
Sometimes I wonder what it was like for him, a dark-skinned Chinese who did not speak much Chinese, studying in the Chinese towns of Taiping and Penang, working in the government service, married to the daughter of a man fairly well known in Chinese business circles in Kuala Lumpur. To what extent did all those encounters make him the shy man I knew? My father had few friends and little to do with relatives. He spent most of his spare time escaping into the world of books.
On my father’s island, I feasted on the cultural spread around me the way Malaysians today feast on the culinary variety our multiethnic society offers. I was taken to Chinese operas, Hindu pageants, and Muslim weddings. The radio and the cinema brought me English, Chinese, Malay and Indian music and movies. Books and magazines in English furnished my imagination with the learning and thought of the whole multicultural world. And I learned to distrust labels, outward forms, and dividing lines between races and language groups.
But Malaysia [Malaya] after Independence in 1957 functions on a framework of racial division. The ruling party is made up of three parties, each representing one of the three main races in the country. Every form one fills, whether official or unofficial, requires a declaration of one’s racial origin. The simplistic assumption is that race is identical with culture; so in spite of a great deal of rhetoric decrying racial stereotyping, racial stereotyping continues.
Unable to fit comfortably into any ready-made racial-cultural mould, I constantly have to define and redefine myself against a backdrop of several dominant cultures, all of them familiar, yet alien; mine, yet not mine. I often think that if anything can annihilate my island of fecund ambiguity, it is this swelling ocean of over-simplification.
In recent years, my fear of becoming a mini-Atlantis has been heightened by the global tendency to focus on ethnic differences in political, economic and cultural discourse. I am defined now as part of the Chinese Diaspora, and expected to feel, think and act according to the popular perception of an “Overseas Chinese.” Cultural assimilation, what my family have done for generations, is suddenly “politically incorrect,” shameful, even traitorous, because I am deemed to have forgotten my “roots.”
I have not forgotten my roots. I just cannot trace them through the generations of a single family, in the way others can. My roots are like the roots of the banyan tree; they grow from innumerable branches, trail down like vine, and slowly thicken into a complex of pillars holding up the ever-spreading tree.
Maybe that is why when I wrote my novel, Echoes of Silence, I chose to name its fictional setting Ulu Banir; ulu meaning source, and banir meaning the roots of the banyan tree.
I did not start my novel with the intention of exploring my ethnic roots. I had no higher ambition than to write a “jolly good read,” i.e., a murder mystery, a romance, or a family saga, all genres popular with English-reading Malaysians. But I soon learned that the simple act of writing is in itself an exploration.
Each genre, I found, has its own set of values. The forms and structures of the murder mystery, the romance, and the family saga are steeped in social, moral, and intellectual values that are essentially European and Christian. I wondered then: Can a Malaysian story be told truthfully through western literary forms?
Who should kill whom, for instance? Who should be the villain, and who the good guy? Answering these basic questions can be a problem in a racially divided society where, through force of habit, innate courtesy, and even law, we are made conscious of one another’s ethnic sensitivities. Furthermore, will the black-and-white morality and clear-cut justice demanded in the typical murder mystery—that the culprit be caught and punished—fit naturally and comfortably into a Malaysian setting? This is not to say that Malaysians lack a sense of natural justice. We feel horror, yes, and outrage; but in general, we leave the meting out of justice to Fate, Karma, or God. “God is great,” we say; or “Heaven has eyes”; or “He will pay for this in his next life.” Another bothersome question: Is a Malaysian amateur sleuth interfering in the affairs of the Malaysian police a plausible proposition?
Of course, no one expects a murder mystery to be realistic. Just the same, I found, as the narrative progressed, that I could not stop the realities of Malaysian life from undermining the integrity of the fictional form.
Where the romance in the novel was concerned, I decided to base the plot on the colonial experience. It seemed to me that the world’s legendary love stories—Aeneas and Dido, Antony and Cleopatra—can be read as distillations of colonial encounters. Always told from the viewpoint of the coloniser, the man (conqueror) seldom has problems getting the woman (conquered) to fall in love with him; and once subdued, the woman is abandoned, dies, or disappears into obscurity. To my growing frustration, however, the women in my story simply refused to be got rid of so summarily. For one thing, they kept getting pregnant. Although I managed to kill off three, together with their babies, I was still left with a shocking number of racially mixed characters. Once again, my subconscious grasp of reality had given the lie to fictional convention. Colonised peoples may be abandoned, but they do not just die or vanish. They have to live out their own continuing story and, like it or not, they have to do it with their racially and culturally mixed offspring.
My final major problem was that mainstay of the family saga, the “truth” about the past; the uncovering of which will set future generations free. It did not seem right to place my “Truth Manuscript” either at the beginning, as in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, or at the end, as in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear. I thought that even if one could ever know and tell the truth about the past, its relationship to the present cannot be explained along such narrowly causal lines. I finally had to go back to Asia for my literary model. I chose the Mahabharata, and my “Truth Manuscript”, though not wholly reliable as a historical source, became like the Bhagavad Gita, a little parabolic narrative embedded in and illuminating the larger narrative of the continuing present.
In the end, I did not make my father’s island reappear, much less find a brave new world, by writing my “imperfect-because-unconventional” murder mystery, romance, and family saga. But I did discover that, like Prospero, I can develop my power to conjure up “Spirits to enforce, Art to enchant.” I can create stories within stories within stories. And even if the stories are faulty, I can learn from them that “the rarer action” is not in vengeance, but in wisdom, compassion, and an understanding of the human heart.
CHUAH GUAT ENG is the author of a novel, Echoes of Silence (Holograms, 1994; reissued in 2009), and a collection of short stories, The Old House and Other Stories (Holograms, 2008). She lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.