How Chinese Malaysian writers spurned at home found success in Taiwan, and why cultural identity is so often a theme of their novels
With Chinese culture in Malaysia under pressure and their work not recognised as part of the nation’s literary canon, many writers have since the 1960s chosen to leave for Taiwan, where they find acceptance and appreciation
Racial discrimination and cultural displacement are common themes among writers of Chinese descent from Malaysia. That’s hardly surprising since, despite its multicultural society, the country does not recognise works by Malaysian Chinese authors as part of the national literary canon.
It’s a situation that has driven many talented Chinese Malaysian authors overseas to try their luck.
This sense of separation is palpable in works such as the 2007 novel My South Seas Sleeping Beauty by Zhang Guixing, a critically acclaimed coming-of-age narrative that zips back and forth between Taiwan and the tropical jungles of Malaysian Borneo. The story explores issues of migration and cultural alienation, with Zhang drawing on his personal experience as a Chinese Malaysian migrant in Taiwan.
According to Show Ying Xin, co-founder of the Rumah Attap Library and Collective, based in Kuala Lumpur, the plight of Chinese Malaysian authors in their home country stems from the lack of government recognition and a history of marginalisation.
After Malaysia gained independence in 1963, many young Chinese residents were eager to learn Malay to promote national unity. When the majority-Chinese Democratic Action Party made surprisingly strong gains in the May 1969 polls, however, anti-Chinese violence erupted. Estimates put the death toll from the ensuing riots at up to 600, the majority of the victims being Chinese.
The trauma of the so-called 13 May Incident cemented a conviction among Chinese migrant communities never to forget their roots, even as they “became Malaysian”.
According to Khor Boon Eng, an associate professor at Tunku Abdul Rahman University’s Institute of Chinese Studies, this resulted in a stepping up of grass-roots efforts to preserve what cultural heritage remained, in the face of social and political pressure. Community libraries such as the one in Kampung Attap played their part in strengthening Chinese identity.
The marginalisation of Chinese in Malaysia predates independence, however. At the height of global anti-communist sentiment in the 1950s, the British colonial authorities in what was then Malaya initiated a “New Villages” policy. The aim was to segregate communities, mainly Chinese, in guarded enclaves, where they would be cut off from the influence of pro-independence separatists, led by suspected communists.
“Within those communities, many were sympathetic to leftist ideology,” Show says. “They ran reading groups, held talks and workshops.” They set up their own community libraries and shared what reading materials they had, usually works of popular fiction, children’s books and recipe manuals, she adds.
There were restrictions on reading materials from China, over fears it would spread communist ideology, so many Chinese sought out books from Taiwan and Hong Kong. As a result, they became more familiar with the cultures of those two Chinese-speaking regions, Show says.
As more Chinese intellectuals fled China for Taiwan, the island became increasingly attractive to Chinese Malaysian students, many of whom headed there for their tertiary education.
Taiwan’s foreign affairs ministry estimates that more than 70,000 Malaysian students studied in the island’s colleges and universities in the latter half of the 20th century.
“It’s a place where you feel comfortable because everyone speaks your mother tongue,” says Show, herself a graduate of the Taiwanese university system.
The island’s robust track record in humanities studies and generous government support have helped its literary culture thrive, and that has provided an environment in which authors of Chinese Malaysian descent have also been able to flourish.
Among prominent Chinese Malaysian writers with a Taiwanese connection are the recently deceased Sarawakian author Li Yongping, as well as Ng Kim Chew, Chang Kuei Hsien, Ho Sok Fong and Li Zi Shu.
“These writers went to Taiwan for higher education and stayed because their work is appreciated and accepted there,” Show says. “They thought that in Malaysia their work would not be recognised.”
Eng says Taiwanese universities’ openness allows young Malaysians to explore the island’s strong literary history, and a greater number of writing competitions offer talented writers financial opportunities and literary acclaim.
Chong Ton Sin, the owner of Malaysian independent bookseller and publisher Gerakbudaya, says he publishes substantially fewer books in the Chinese language than in English or Malay, and does not consider Chinese Malaysian writers to be particularly talented.
Eng disagrees, saying there are those on a par with their Taiwan-based contemporaries – they simply have different perspectives.
Chinese Malaysian authors based in Taiwan have the advantage of being able to achieve greater mastery of the Chinese language – which can lead to a better level of critical acclaim, he says. They also have more access to resources such as texts on literary theory and books by Taiwanese peers.
On the other hand, many of these writers left Malaysia after secondary school, so their understanding of today’s political and social reality in the country is limited. “Even if they write on Malaysian topics, their knowledge is not as profound,” he says.
Ironically, Eng says, “Taiwan regards them as Taiwanese writers, but we also claim them as ‘mahua’ writers.”
“Mahua” refers to a genre of Malaysian (“ma”) Chinese (“hua”) literature that is inherently political. Eng says these writers, whether at home or abroad, explore themes of discomfort and discontent with the political status quo in Malaysia.
A scene in author He Shufang’s 2002 short story, Don’t Mention It Again (Bie Zai Tiqi), describes how a dispute between a dead businessman’s two wives – one Chinese and the other Malay – leads to intervention by Malaysian religious authorities at his funeral. The corpse of the businessman, who had secretly converted to Islam without his family’s knowledge, defecates, reflecting his spirit’s dissatisfaction with the circumstances.
The book was acclaimed for its examination of the complex relationship between culture, belief and personal identity. Eng regards the work as “a kind of resistance” against Malaysia’s Muslim hegemony.
“The writer, or narrator, is using this type of narrative to express disagreement with this kind of reality,” Eng explains. “Literature is a way for [mahua writers] to express their grievances.”
Another such work is Retribution: The Jiling Chronicles, a novel in 12 parts penned by the late Li Yongping. The story explores the complexities of desire and sexual violence, and its place in folklore and Buddhist beliefs. It is a taboo topic in Malaysia’s conservative Islamic society, yet Li’s works are regarded as cultural landmarks in Taiwan.
Writers abroad are much freer to explore topics that might offend others’ sensibilities, while authors in Malaysia can tend to self-censor, Eng says, because those who stay at home run the risk of political retribution for their work. This creates an environment in which writers may refrain from directly exploring sensitive issues that relate to governance
Despite the obstacles, there are some pluses for homespun Malaysian Chinese literary culture, Eng says. As China continues on its trajectory towards becoming the next global superpower, there is increasing interest in Sinophone studies worldwide. Chinese writers In Malaysia, with their concerns about loss of cultural identity, may find a wider readership for their works in the future.
The task of preserving Malaysia’s Chinese literary culture has largely been shouldered by grass-roots groups, community organisations and private corporations that provide the funding and other support the scene needs to survive. The Malaysian Federation of Hokkien Associations, for example, maintains a fund for writers looking to get their books published.
Writing contests with prize money, often organised by Chinese societies at universities, play a big role in encouraging budding authors to pursue their literary goals.
Then there’s the involvement of Chinese-language media, with incentives such as the Sin Chew Daily’s literature awards and Nanyang Siang Pau’s Golden Eagle Awards, whose substantial prizes attract a coterie of young writers.
“In one way, this is a good tendency to have, as you’re funding your own culture’s survival,” Eng says. “But in another way, the Chinese community has a lot of grievances; they feel that they’re discriminated against, and their culture, language and education are not being taken care of by the government.”