Book Review: Sons of the Yellow Emperor

This books tells in detail the story of the millions of Chinese who left their homeland since the 1600s because of population explosion, poverty and corruption in China and the prospect for a better life in Southeast Asia, England and America. A large part of the book is about the migration of Chinese emigrants to Malaysia and Singapore.

Lynn Pan

Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora



Sons of the Yellow Emperor
Book Cover

back page


"So when the Chinese say that the native is happy to sit under a tree and wait for coconuts and durians to fall into his lap, they are stating a fact in a way: the native was the one with the land, the one with the self-sufficiency and economic security to live a life of tropical idyll in preference to the rough and tumble of the market place"
Page 243 - Lynn Pan about why the Chinese gained relatively quick but hard-earned economic success throught hard work) compared to the local population in Southeast Asia


The book is very interesting and well written talking about the hardship and also the impressive economic success of the oversea Chinese.
I picked some of the facts and desciptions in the book that talk about Malaya (what later become Malaysia) and added some extras information to give a short introduction about the Chinese in this part of the world:


Early Migration
Despite the uniform appearance of the Chinese overseas communities to the outsiders, they were insensely varied within, divided among languages groups and clans and home towns / provinces.
There are 5 main language groups are: Hokkien, Teochiu, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese.

The discovery of tin in the west coast of Malaya in the second half of the 19th century brought in a wave of Chinese immigration where they worked as coolies in the mines fired by dreams of striking it rich. The influx of Chinese was bound to be disruptive to the native Malay population. There was suddenly far more wealth around than there ever used to be, and the Malay chiefs who drew tributes and royalties from the Chinese soon came to blows over the richest fields. This was further complicated by enmities within the Chinese community, with the Hakkas ranged against the Cantonese, and the Hai San secret society against the  Ghee Hin fraternity.  Eventually the British (who were the colonial rulers at the time) had to intervene reached an agreement with the Malays 'supplied by the silent presence of the third, the Chinese miners and merchants', which would shift th ethnic and social balance of the peninsula. (page 147)

In the 18th and 19th century the term "kongsi" was used for  large social and political gourpings in the mining communities of Borneo. In the Straits Settlements (Penang, Melaka, Singapore) "kongsi" refered to clan or dialect association. The dialect communities were further subdived in clan associations based on a common surname with their own clan houses and temples. An example is the Khoo Kongsi in Georgeown, Penang, visited by most travellers visiting the town. The kongsi was built in the architectural style of the Fukkien province - the home province of the Hokkien settlers. The Khoo were one of five big clans (namely Khoo, Yeoh, Cheah, Tan, Lim) of Penang's Hookien community.
The clan assocations were a home from home  the uprooted immigrant, it acted as a welfare agency and organizer of rituals of ancester worship and so on.

The communities with their secret societies were strictly divided for the most part.
The British recognised the secret societies as a useful tool for social control. In the early days of British rule the Chinese largely governed themselves. The community leaders, called "Kapitan Cina" run the Chinese community affairs and answered to the British rulers.  Fights for economic territories were not uncommon in the late 19th century. In 1890 Chinese secret societies were eventually outlawed in the Straits Settlements by the British colonial government.

What marked the overseas Chinese, was their capacity for hard work and physical power of eindurance. Isaballa  Bird wrote in 1898 of her travels in Malaya: "I have written a great deal about the Chinese and very little about the Malays, the nominal possessors of the country, but the Chinese must be said to be everywhere, and the Malays nowhere."
With the network of Chinese connections, which joined markets through clan or family, the Chinese also dominated commerce all across South-East Asia. Historian Victor Purcell put it: "All the natives sold to Europeans they sold through Chinese, and all that the natives bought from Europeans they bought through Chinese."

The Chinese migrating to South-East Asia were almost entirely male. Hence, marriages with local women were not uncommon. People of mixed blood formed a community of their own, in the Philippines the half-indio (indigene) and half-Chinese Mestizos; in the Dutch East Indies the half-Javan and half-Hokkien Peranakan, in Malaya (especially Malacca) the half-Malay and half-Hokkien Babas - often refered to as the Straits Chinese.


20th century


In 1931 Chinese immigrants held the highest proportion  of the local population in Malaya with 40%, surpassing Indian (22%, the other big immigrant community) and even Malays (35%).

It is estimated that 190,000 Cantonese women  migrated to Malaya in the five years between 1933 and 1938. Among the reasons were the threat of war in Canton and the Japanese occupation. Many of them went on to work as "house amahs" for wealthy Chinese ladies or European mastern,  jobs previously hold, due to the few numbers of Chinese women before the late 1920s, by Hainanese men. (page 197)

Under the Japanese occupation (1941 - 1945), the Chinese were most harshly treated by the Japanese due to their contribution to the war effort in the Chinese homeland. (page 207)
But it was also the Chinese who most fiercely resisted Japanese rule. During the occupation, many single Chinese women were  quickly married off to Chinese men in their community. This marriages of convinience protected them from the Japanese underthe  shelter of marriage. The struggle against the Japanese army was largely a Chinese struggle, carried out by the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army, an almost entirely Chinese body with the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) in the center. The MCP found its most enthusiastic followers among the Hainanese, one of the lesser dialect groups earning their living as rubber tappers, domestic servants, cobblers etc.  (page 208)

After the end of the Japanese occupations and the return of the British, the Communist guerilla continue their fight, this time against the white colonial masters which become known as the Malayan Emergency from 1948 - 1960. The British eventually managed to fend off the uprising by cutting of the supply lines between the Chinese communities and the guerillas in the jungle. However, the  very last fewer fighters continued their struggle in the jungles of Malaysia until the late 1980s. One of the measures by British was the relocation of half a million mostly Chinese rural Malayans from squatter communities on the fringes of the forest into guarded camps called New Villages.   In 2009, it was estimated that 1.2 million people were still living in the 450 New Villages throughout Peninsular Malaysia (85% Chinese, 10% Malays, 5% Indians).

After Indepence of Malaysia
When Malaysia gained indepedence in 1957, the racial composition of the main groups was Malays making up just over half half of the population, Chinese the third, and the Indians a tenth. With the Malays holding political power and the Chinese owning most of the economy, it was a recipe for racial trouble. This tension was released in the riots of 13 May 1969, when opposition parties dominated by Chinese did better than expected in the election. In a victory parade fights broke out between Chinese and Malays with almost 200 people dead.
The polictians answer to this was the NEP (New Economy policy) which intended to close to income gap between between Bumiputras ("sons of soil" - Malays and indigenious groups of Borneo) by giving them privileged access to education, jobs, government subsidies and company shares. This policy hasn't changed much until today.

Until other nations of Southeast Asia were the Chinese blent in or rather were forced to blend to with local culture and language, the Chinese (as well the Indians)  in Malaysia upheld their language and culture by sending their kids to Chinese schools where a variaty of classes are taught in Mandarin. Mandarin serves as the common language among the Malaysian Chinese when at home they speak in their dialects (Hokkien,  Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, Teochiu).  The majority of classes nowadays are taught in Malay, the national language, and it is not uncommon that even non-Chinese send their kids to Chinese schools as they have a good reputation.