I remember the first time I heard the word. It was more a cry really, a shout which came back in a dream, stirring the depths of my memory.
It was the tone in which ‘Chinaman’ was said which must have caught my attention, because I began to ask questions. The adults around me squirmed, and then became evasive as they pretended that ‘Chinaman’ was an innocuous word. They told me it referred to a man from China, in the same way that ‘Englishman’ referred to a man from England.
But they were lying.
‘Chinaman’ had a ring to it; the word shook the dust, as if phlegm were being expelled. No one said ‘Englishman’ in the same way, or ‘Frenchman’, or any other word which contained the name of a country.
As I grew up, I learnt its many connotations.
No wonder the adults had been ambiguous. There is nothing attractive in the descriptions above, and they must have been embarrassed at having to explain themselves. Every one of them was of Chinese ethnicity, and I wonder what they could have been thinking. If you were Chinese – a Chinaman or a Chinawoman – what did you have to tell yourself in order to be able to spit out ‘Chinaman’, a word loaded with implications, so easily? How did you deal with the confusion which must have lurked somewhere inside your head and your heart?
As I held the contradictions inside, I veered between shame and outsized pride. There were moments when I shuddered, disgusted at my association with a race of coarse, yellow-skinned peasants who spat on the street and spiced each meal with slurping and burping. How could I have come from the same stock? There was no escaping genetics, but I sometimes pretended I could. I had to make these ‘Chinamen’ separate from me.
Before I came into the world, my grandfather and granduncles did the same. They were born in Malaya in the early 1900s, a time when China was fast declining while Britain’s star remained in the ascent. My great-grandfather Chin Choon Sam was a first-generation Chinese immigrant who married a Nyonya woman, my legendarily fierce great-grandmother. When my great-grandfather settled in Ipoh (see map and blog-post My Ipoh), he raised a second family, as was common with Chinese immigrants of the time who had left families behind in China. We know little about his first family other than that he had a China-born son, who often visited his half-siblings in Malaya.
His two families were raised very differently, however. With the onslaught of British colonisation, his Malayan sons were educated in English – at the Anglo-Chinese School in Ipoh. This is one of Malaysia’s most famous schools and among the first to be founded by missionaries (as detailed in my blog-post Smart Girls don’t find Husbands?!). My grandfather and granduncles learnt to speak and write fluently in English; they wore Western clothes, adopted healthy doses of British manners, and converted to Christianity. In contrast, their China-born half-brother, having been schooled in China, spoke only Chinese and was more comfortable with traditional Chinese customs.
It was perhaps inevitable that my grandfather and granduncles thought themselves superior to this ‘Chinaman’ among them. We have no photographs of my China-born granduncle; whenever I try to imagine what he looked like, all I can see is a man with a brown face, clad in a Mandarin suit, his hair covered by a cloth cap or a hard conical hat. This, I realise, is simply an image of a Chinaman I have picked up somewhere along the way, a picture not unlike that well-known photograph of Yap Ah Loy, the founder of Kuala Lumpur (see map), Malaysia’s capital city.
I wonder what my Westernised grandfather and granduncles must have thought as they sat with the supposedly flesh-and-blood intruder inside their home. Perhaps choice words came into their minds?
Uncouth. Lower class. Untrustworthy.
My aunt who remembers the visitor from China confirmed the disdain with which my China-born granduncle was treated. “Like a second-class citizen!”
The poor man eventually decided his prospects would be better in his native country and returned there for good. I only hope life wasn’t too harsh for him after the Communists came to power.
My family’s story was not atypical. In the decades when Malaysians looked up to the West and regarded English as superior, Malaysians of Chinese descent who came from English-speaking homes looked down on their Chinese-speaking compatriots. (Of course, all Malaysian-Chinese speak both English and Chinese to some extent; what I’m referring to is our primary preference, our modus operandi: the language in which we feel the most comfortable and which shapes how we behave in this world.)
For a long time, we English-speaking Malaysian-Chinese walked with a swagger. Our compatriots felt our condescension, as I was reminded by a Malaysian-Chinese friend from a Chinese-speaking background. She herself attended a Chinese language primary school before continuing to one of the former mission schools for her secondary education.
There, she met Malaysian-Chinese students from English-speaking homes. It was then that she felt the subtle divide which separated her from her English-speaking peers. Nothing was ever said and no one was openly rude, but she knew she was perceived as a lesser person: less wealthy, more ulu (market Malay for backward), not as well-dressed. In the canteen, social segregation took place; English and Chinese speakers usually sat in separate groups. Segregation continued inside the classroom, because in Malaysia, students are streamed according to ability and in general, English-speaking students achieved better examination results.
For my friend, what she felt palpably from one day to another drove her. She wanted to prove to her English-speaking classmates that she was their equal. She has succeeded admirably in this goal; after university in Australia, she worked for a multinational company and now lives a global lifestyle. Years later when she recounted her story, I could still hear the anguish in her voice. My friend’s success has come at a price though: she has now forgotten her Mandarin.
This is largely in the past. With the rise of China, social perceptions have changed. Malaysians no longer look to the West in the same way, and Malaysian-Chinese now prefer their children to be educated in Chinese (for political reasons which I will not discuss here).
In this brave new world, even the word ‘Chinaman’ has lost some of its sting. But a shifting state of affairs always brings its own challenges. A recent review in the UK’s Guardian paper brought home to me what some of these may be. The reviews was of the much-acclaimed novel Chinaman which is about, of all things, cricket.
Here’s what it said. “A Chinaman in cricket is a particular delivery, a slower ball designed to fool the batsman into thinking it will bounce in the opposite direction to the one it does. It also, in Sri Lankan argot, is a term indicating gullibility.”
Guile and gullibility, juxtaposed effortlessly over one another. This tells me that there are people – perhaps many – who fear and loathe the Chinese (us Chinese?) at the same time. (I rewrote that last sentence repeatedly and still couldn’t decide which phrase to use. Who do I stand with here? Do people regard me in the same way as they do the mainland Chinese? Do they fear us too but would never say so openly?) Their fear and loathing may well increase as China continues to ascend, as it surely will. And while this happens, we overseas Chinese will have to continually reassess our relationship with the land our ancestors once graced, as well as with each other, whether or not we wish to.