Hornbill Unleashed

September 7, 2017

The Chinese poor – forgotten and marginalised

Filed under: Politics — Hornbill Unleashed @ 8:02 AM

Ah Li lands in Malaya. Many of his friends have died on the ship from China due to starvation, illness and diseases. Ah Li rushes back to the ship and shouts to his shipmaster to pass him his pouch.

His shipmaster throws it to him and calls him a forgetful fool. This pouch carries Ah Li’s clothes (few good, many torn), preserved vegetables and a photograph of his family.

Well-built men with palms as coarse as the soil tie ropes around Ah Li’s wrists and push him to see his new master. The master calls Ah Li and his friends “zhu zhai” (piglets) whose bondage is for three years to pay off the debt of the ship voyage, food and accommodation. This is the “credit-ticket system” to work in the British colonial capitalist economy in 1917.

Many Chinese like Ah Li were eager to get out of the shackles of poverty and instability in Qing China. Ah Li saw the abundant job opportunities in the resource-rich Malaya as a promise of a new life. After saying goodbye to his family for the last time, he took a one-way ticket to Malaya.

But Ah Li did not know this was a slave system. Work conditions were unbearable, abuse was unfettered and the pay was unacceptably low. Each day Ah Li and his co-workers rise before dawn and work 15 hours a day, sleep on wooden floors that broke their backs, and eat food more aptly served to dogs. The slave system resulted in many deaths and escapes among workers.

The only Chinese who profited from this system were the small number of tin mine owners and rubber estate holders. Most of the Chinese who worked as “piglets,” like Ah Li, spent their lives at the lowest rung of society.

Fraud, deception and intimidation extended Ah Li’s bondage to five years, and when he finally escaped this system, he used the little money he earned to start planting sugar cane, pepper and vegetables.

Fortunately, the land was fertile and traders favoured his honesty. In a few years, he earned enough money to bring the rest of his family over. Modest and simple, his new life in Malaya began.

The Chinese label

Ah Li is my great-great-grandfather. His story is the story of many Chinese who eventually settled down on this land.

When they decided to emigrate to Malaya, they took a gamble to cut off ties with their birthplace. They looked forward to making a home in Malaya and learning the new ways of the land.

When Malaya negotiated the terms of independence, many Chinese looked at the homes they had built and the friends they had made in Malaya and decided to join the common destiny of a new nation. They then renewed their vows together again as Malaysians in 1963.

But many generations later, the Chinese label never ceases to be a mark of misleading privilege. The common assumption is that most Chinese are rich and we can therefore determine the fate of a people by the race they were born. Poor Chinese were marginalised and forgotten.

The justification of race-based economic policies have always avoided the inconvenient question of the poor Chinese. When asked about it, most policymakers simply shrug and consider their marginalisation a price we have been forced to pay. The idea is that since some Chinese earn relatively more than the other races, it is presumably reasonable to consider the whole Chinese race as being economically comfortable.

When I think of poor Chinese, I think of my relatives who still live on thin wages in the suburbs of Perak. My uncle Soon’s house is made of wood washed by decades of rain and storm, with walls furnished only by photos of Ah Li and his wife – yellowing bases in coal-black frames.

When I told my uncle that we could change this country for the better, he turned his head away from me before puffing incessantly from his hand-rolled cigarette. He threw the cigarette butt to the floor and stepped on it with some force. He nodded repeatedly before he turned his wrinkled face to me and said, “Good, good.”

Uncle Soon continued, “See there, that piece of dead steel is all I could afford,” and pointed to his old motorcycle. “See this house – this dirty, broken, desolated house! I have lived here for 62 years and this is all I eat every single day!”

He lifted the bowl of plain porridge slightly and slammed it onto the table. “Who asked me to be poor and Chinese? Make a change all you want, but the Chinese poor will always stay on the fringes of society with no one to care for them.”

He rubbed my skin with his crooked fingers and said, “Look at your colour, you will never be one of them.”

A simple plea

The plea in the minds of Chinese is a simple one: give me a home. A place where I can feel belonged and wanted, to be acknowledged for what I have done for this country, which is bounded in a deep spirit of love and sacrifice, and to know that I am prepared to do more even when the light inside me has dimmed.

Since they left for China, the Chinese have carried with them the immovable tragedy of losing two homes. They left their home in China to build a home in Malaya; but when there was no home in Malaya, they could not go home to China.

Five generations later, I can no longer see any resemblance between myself and the people in China. The friends I meet from China are remote to me. They do not regard me as part of their family; I could not see them as being people of common creed. I am called Malaysian everywhere I go, but in Malaysia I am called a Chinese – a permanent outsider.

A home means being treated as people of equal worth, being given a seat at the table with a name, and being understood for our personality and not the dye on our skin.

On Ah Li’s deathbed, aged 93, memories of the slave system remain etched in his head. The scars of abuse are still printed on his soft arms but his tongue has long hardened from never mentioning the painful days.

Before he died, he said Malaysia was the land that raised his family and saved them from dying. He spilled his blood, sweat, and tears on this land, before his last breath. It’s been 100 years since my great-great-grandfather left China, but our boats have yet to reach the shore.

Source : Malaysiakini by James Chai
JAMES CHAI works at a law firm. His voyage in life is made less lonely with a family of deep love, friends of good humour and teachers of selfless givings. This affirms his conviction in the common goodness of people: the better angels of our nature. He tweets at @JamesJSChai.



  1. MCA has earned its reputation as a rich man club where members serve their own needs, and not the societal needs. Liow depicts himself as self pity individual who needs empathy and support in his Merdeka video (at least not rated R like Chua Soi Lek’s VCD). Thats so misleading as he is part of this corrupt patronage system. Positioning as a victim isn’t helpful majority had given up. MCA fails where it matters from where they stand on national issues of importance to even addressing local issues including many red IC holders, and bright kids who had no access to higher education. Past corrupt presidents in cahoot with their UMNO brothers have escaped with billions of ill gotten wealth. The case of PKFZ is unforgivable. Corporate videos of right vision of Malaysia is at best a PR event. No one says the job is easy. They should move aside and let others do the job. Many have let their feet do the walking. What we have are retirees who could only watch sad decline of a nation of which MCA is one of those to be blamed. So how can the Chinese trust MCA?

    Comment by Alvis — September 9, 2017 @ 8:43 PM | Reply

  2. My favorite chinese noodle stall (now joined son’s family settling in Singapore) is now taken over by the former worker. She is a very nice Indon lady with a great smile. I still visit the stall and notice biz has grown and she brought him in her husband and her kids. This phenemonon is happening in many small towns in Malaysia. As I sat thinking about it I realised that her kids will have a better chance to be our Prime Minister than mine.

    Comment by LPK — September 9, 2017 @ 2:10 PM | Reply

  3. Many poor Malaysian Chinese shuttle to work daily at Singapore. A lot of hardship.

    Comment by Shirly — September 8, 2017 @ 3:06 PM | Reply

  4. Poor Sarawak Chinese should know how to vote for their future.

    Comment by Shirly — September 7, 2017 @ 11:48 AM | Reply

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