When the Chinese headed south to earn a living in the late Qing Dynasty, this led to many of them putting down roots in Malaysia. John Walker & Sons XR 21 explores the history of Malaysia’s Chinese people of different origins.
VINCENT TAN – Container Hotel Group Co-founder
As the saying goes, where there is tide, there are Teochew people, and where there is money, there are Teochew merchants. Teochew, otherwise known as Chaozhou, merchants refer to the ones whose roots trace back to the area of Chaoshan – a collective name for Chaozhou, Shantou and other regions.
From studying multimedia design to founding Agreement Design, as well as founding the Container Hotel Group, which operates container hotels, capsule hotels, and pet hotels, Vincent Tan finds himself agreeing with the statement that Teochew people are particularly keen on doing business.
“My father left his hometown of Sungai Besar when he was young to start a business in Kuala Lumpur.
“I still remember when I went to dinner with my father and met his friends when I was a child, I found out that the uncles who were doing business at that time were all Teochew people. This left an impact on me since and before I graduated, I decided to start a company and become a boss in the future. “
During his studies, he had a brief part-time job career, which strengthened his belief in doing business.
“I studied at Limkokwing University of Creative Technology. Before I was going to study abroad, I had a short break. At that time, I was a Top 10 student. The lecturer recommended me to be an assistant teacher at HELP University, and I started my part-time job in about three months.
“I remember that at the time, I started working in the morning and went home in the evening. I had to go back to work the next day and do the same thing every day. I was pretty sure that this was not what I wanted to do.
“Of course, everyone wants a different life. Some people find it safe and enjoyable to do the same thing every day, but for those who want to use their strengths and challenge different things, that’s boring. “
He then shares a story of visiting Sungai Besar with his father when he was a child. There he had the chance to speak Teochew with his relatives. Having grown up in Kuala Lumpur, he had not had plenty of opportunity to communicate in Teochew.
“While working in China, I discover that the local Teochew people can speak Teochew fluently, and everyone will say that Teochew people are ‘the Jews of the East’. After learning about it, it turns out that the richest Chinese like Li Ka-shing and Ma Huateng are Teochew people.
“There is also a Teochew Chamber of Commerce among the Teochew people in Guangzhou. The Teochew people who are engaged in business will gather together, and everyone will be very united. When some of them have business problems, the others will find ways to help each other, build trust with each other, and build a good relationship. We Teochew people often say “our own people” when we meet our fellow villagers or acquaintances, and we should take care of each other, that’s what we mean.”
After years of hard work, Vincent has developed his own work philosophy.
“The most important thing in doing business is honour. Money can’t buy it. No matter how well you do something, people who don’t have it won’t be able to last long.
“I was studying art back then. I didn’t know anything about business management. I did everything by myself. When I first started a business, I learned step by step through different setbacks and problems. So now when I encounter young people starting a business, I am happy to chat and share with them, so that they can avoid the wrong path.
He also reminds one to always be humble and not show off, quoting a Chinese idiom that delivers the message ‘there is always someone or something who does it better’ to emphasise his point. “Only by listening carefully can you learn more.”
MERVYN LEE – The third-generation owner of Yut Kee Restaurant
The Yut Kee Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur is arguably the most well-known Hainanese cuisine brand in Malaysia.
Founded in 1928, the restaurant has always been a “check-in point” with crowds of friends before the pandemic broke out. Especially on weekends, sights of long queues in front of the store are not surprising. This is not only a shop loved by locals, but also a local specialty restaurant that foreign tourists are willing to make pilgrimages to.
However, it is interesting to learn from Mervyn Lee, the third generation of the Yut Kee legacy who now heads the eponymous restaurant, that the well-known signature dishes and drinks such as Hainan Chicken Chop, Hainan Noodles and Hainan Coffee are in reality not much related to their namesake province in China.
“I visited China’s Hainan Province with my family 13 years ago. There was no Hainanese chicken rice or Hainan coffee that everyone knows of. When I mentioned the signature dishes in our restaurant, the locals were at a loss.
“In fact, the Hainanese cuisine that is currently eaten in Southeast Asia should be classified as Hainanese Western cuisine, which can be regarded as the first fusion menu that appeared in this locality.
“When the Hainanese people first started going south, Malaysia was still a British colony. At that time, the Hainanese were helping foreigners at the beginning, and the dishes they prepared were a mixture of Chinese and Western styles. So later when they ran catering businesses, they followed these menus and these became the unique catering features of the local Hainanese,” he explains.
Even though he originally graduated in Computer Engineering, it has been 18 years since he officially took over the running of the restaurant.
“My grandfather (Lee Tai Yu) had a wife in China. He came to Malaya and married three other wives and founded Yut Kee.
“My grandfather passed away when my father was 3 years old. Yut Kee is the result of the family’s persistence by gritting their teeth, it is nothing more than to provide the family with food and clothing. I was able to study in the United States, and my brothers and sisters can live a worry-free life, all thanks to the dedication of my family.
“It was when I was around 10 years old that I started helping out at the store. Honestly, I was quite annoyed back then. Other children can go out and play on weekends or holidays, why must I serve meals and usher guests?”
Despite his young self’s antagonistic thought, after furthering his studies in the United States, returning to Malaysia and getting a full-time job, he found himself resuming his work at the restaurant on weekends. It was not something forced on him by his family, he clarifies, it was just something he wanted to do for them.
A few years of this led to him feeling physically exhausted, however, falling ill at least two or three times a month. Knowing that he could not go on in such a state, he decided to quit his main job and concentrate on managing Yut Kee.
As the business model of the previous generations was more “casual”, as he describes it, Mervyn spent a long time restructuring the restaurant’s operation, sorting out the process, recording and managing everything step by step.
“I think food can connect the whole world, and it can also bring people closer together,” he says, recalling that the Hainanese customers used to try talking to him in the dialect but would then lament his lacking ability in speaking it – something he’s grown accustomed to.
“However, being able to call out the food the regular customers want to eat before they start ordering, and watching them react with surprise and admiration is a very heartwarming memory.”
TAN YUNG HONG – Funeral Director
For people born in the 1990s, what sort of impression do they give off in workplaces? Responses to this are mixed, but it does seem difficult to associate youngsters born in said era with occupations generally held by the elderly.
Tan Yung Hong, born in 1990, is a co-founder of Yi Yuan Life Care and a funeral director, whose job is – as one would expect – to help families deal with the deceased’s funeral arrangements.
He openly admits that his age is quite a disadvantage in this line of business. There are often elders in his family who will question whether he is capable of handling it, to which he will jokingly reply, “How many funerals have you been to?”
“What I want to say is that helping with funerals is my daily job,” he explains.
Having trained and worked in a large funeral home chain seven years ago, he co-founded Yi Yuan Life Care in 2020 and believes that his current responsibilities are somewhat different from his previous job.
“Previously, I would tell the family members what to do (at the funeral). Later, I started to think about what the family actually wanted to do. But this is not an easy task. When something happens, the family members will have to be distracted to decide on major and minor matters, which can cause trouble. So now I will listen to their wishes first and then consider what guidance to provide.
“This is why planning ahead is important. You can think about this seriously when you are healthy. I want everyone to know that death is not frightening, there is no need to push “it” far, we will come to it one day. Death is inevitable.
“Many modern people will pursue simplicity. But the function of many traditional forms in funerals is to express emotions. Why do we kneel at funerals? To pay respect? There is a reason for everything. Funerals are very interesting. We can educate about life through the people we’ve lost, by thinking of them as mirrors, reflecting on ourselves and learning to cherish. “
Talking about his roots, Yung Hong confides, “When my father was 6 years old, his grandmother brought only him to Malaysia from China, so we have never had other relatives here.
“A few years ago, we returned to our father’s hometown in China and went to the ancestral hall to pay respect to our ancestors. That was when I finally knew that I had a ‘root’ and that there were many relatives standing behind my dad. This kind of emotion is actually very powerful. Modern people slowly become accustomed to living only for themselves, but after understanding their family history, people can live a steadier life.”
As his father is from Fujian, one tradition that has long been held in their family is the Hokkien celebration of Bai Tian Gong on the ninth day of the Chinese New Year.
“We sometimes find it difficult to communicate with the previous generation, but when my father and I kneel together and pray to the gods for blessing, that’s when we feel the closest to each other. I think understanding these traditions is the best connection we can have with the previous generation.
“The most important thing in inheritance is spirit. Tradition is not something that is forced to do, it is what children see the previous generation doing, and then continue to do in order to remember them.”
LIHUA – Illustrator
Born Wong Lihua, this illustrator – renowned for her fashion illustrations and sketches – is more famously referred to as just Lihua. Often, at media conferences or parties of fashion and beauty brands, she can be found sitting in a corner and drawing portraits for the guests.
A personality well known by the local fashion circle and the media, she has been invited to produce illustrations for many famous international brands, such as watch brand Zenith, stationery brand Faber-Castell and footwear brand Christian Louboutin. Apart from her job as a lecturer at fashion design school Esmod, she also holds various exhibitions locally and abroad.
Through her paintings, it can be observed that she uses large-scale blending, sweeping, brushing and other techniques, mixed with delicate lines, to draw her best portrait paintings. She states that part of this is due to the use of calligraphy skills.
“My dad’s writing is beautiful and neat,” she shares, revealing that her brothers and sisters would go to calligraphy classes since they were young and even though out of all of her siblings, she was the one who could barely sit still most of the time, she still decided to go to calligraphy classes with them.
She says that she may not be able to completely inherit the Chinese customs or traditions, but she can at least learn the beauty of Chinese traditions through calligraphy and will continue to practice them.
While Lihua doesn’t particularly follow traditional customs, she believes her Cantonese side is apparent when it comes to food.
Hailing from Alor Setar, Kedah, Lihua admits that her older siblings do speak Cantonese but her age gap with them is noticeably large. Plus, she spent her younger days in a nursery, where Cantonese wasn’t widely spoken.
“Cantonese people love to eat and know how to eat. And we are all used to eating and drinking soup, people from other hometowns may not be so persistent,” Lihua says on the topic of food, adding that Cantonese people follow practices that include having fish on the table during the Chinese New Year, eating rice cakes, and not eating salted fish.
“In addition, my family pays special attention to table etiquette. You can’t make a chewing sound when eating, you can’t put chopsticks in the food, you can’t shake your feet when sitting, etc. Although it sounds like some taboos, I think sometimes these traditional customs will also train us, let us become more decent people,” she observes.
“I think many of the Cantonese customs in Malaysia have been filtered or watered down. After all, there are still regional differences between different places of origin in China, but here it becomes more unified, and the culture of each place of origin is not much different. And modern people will choose habits or customs that are helpful to daily life, or just follow what they want.
“If you are too persistent or too conservative, you will not be able to pass on these traditions in many cases. The new generations have new ideas. It is better to integrate these traditions into modern life appropriately. “
DATIN JEAN LIEW – Sushi Hara Founder
Why would someone who already lives a comfortable life thanks to her caring father and her successful husband decide to open her own business? Datin Jean Liew’s reply to this: perhaps it is because she is a Hakka, someone who is able to endure hardships and loves a challenge.
Jean has previous experience of handling the accounts of her father’s alloy wheel business, while her husband is involved in the construction industry. Wanting to do business on her own, she decides to begin with two, an indoor children’s amusement park and a Japanese restaurant called Sushi Hara.
Stating that before this she didn’t feel much pressure as she was only responsible for the accounts of her father’s company, but now that she is her own boss, she has to deal with everything, no matter how big or small.
“We are in a service industry, so we have to take special care of our employees because their emotions will be affected,” she explains, adding that if the employees’ performance is affected, so will the brand’s image.
She reveals that she has learned from her father since childhood. As someone who believes in the ‘no pain no gain’ motto, he continues to instill in her that she must do everything while keeping her feet on the ground, often telling her that today’s affairs must be settled by the same day.
“Even if doing business is very hard, but if I can start again, I still don’t regret it and will choose to do the same thing,” says Jean, while sharing a saying of the Hakka people that she finds particularly interesting, “Don’t be afraid of difficulties, but of laziness”.
“The spirit of the Hakka people is to be extremely hardworking,” she adds.
During this interview, Jean repeatedly mentions her father and her little son who can be seen playing with her – running to her, hugging her and acting like a baby. She admits that she has a very close relationship with her family.
This is something instilled by her father, whom she describes as “traditional”. He remembers all the big Chinese festivals and insists that these must be celebrated together. For example, during the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Winter Solstice, her family will gather to pay respect to their ancestors and enjoy a meal together. Especially during the Chinese New Year, it is very important for them to bow in respect to the elders. They will diligently follow the custom, such as speaking only nice words and not sweeping the floor.
“We will also pass on these customs to the next generation and explain to the children why we do this,” she says. “The Chinese culture has been around for very long. If it is not passed on, the next generation may not know why they eat glutinous rice balls in the winter solstice, or even understand the meaning of reunions.”
Speaking of the Hakka people, of course, the most well-known iconic cuisine of the local Hakka community is Lei Cha.
Jean elaborates: “Lei Cha is made from a variety of vegetables. All the ingredients must be cut into cubes, and then pounded with a hammer made of pomegranate wood. It takes a long time to prepare. Modern people find it troublesome and use a blender to process it, but this way it tastes different.
“My mother is from Hainan. Maybe she uses different ingredients. The Lei Cha she makes is different from the one my mother-in-law makes, and it is also different from the one sold outside. Anyone who likes Lei Cha can tell the difference.”
She goes on to explain that the Hakka people are divided into different ‘Ke’ because of their different ancestry. “For example, I am ‘he po ke’, and there are others who are ‘hui zhou ke’ and ‘mei zhou ke’. The Hakka dialects are not the same. They are divided into more detailed points. I think this is also very interesting.”
JOANNE TIENG – Yoga Instructor
Joanne Tieng shares the journey she embarked on to become a yoga instructor, which includes her experience of studying Taijiquan in China’s Wudang Mountains.
“I took a short-term Tai Chi course in 2019 and received a scholarship through the exam, so I went to China to continue my studies,” explains Tieng.
For the whole month that she was there, Tieng reminisces, there were no McDonald’s or western restaurants in town and she had to drive 40 minutes just to get to another town. She adds that training was carried out every day, quite a rare experience for her.
Being of Fuzhou descent, Tieng was born in Sibu, Sarawak, one of the two places in Malaysia where most of the Fuzhou population is concentrated in – with the other being Sitiawan. She has, however, lived in Kuala Lumpur for a number of years and says that there is a distinct difference between the Fuzhou dialects of East Malaysia and West Malaysia.
“Sometimes when I hear someone near me speaking in Fuzhou dialect, I’d turn to look at them. When I go to a Fuzhou restaurant, the owner knows that I am of Fuzhou descent and will talk to me using the dialect, but it actually sounds different from what I speak in my hometown,” she muses.
As for the best way to show a nation’s or a hometown’s characteristics, Tieng believes the answer is food. It also shows regionality, since, for example, hometowns located near the sea would be good at making seafood-based delicacies.
She adds, “People often say that the Hakka people are thrifty, so if it was rare to have meat in the past, it is necessary to use the ingredients from the beginning to the end to make delicacies, or to marinate them, so that they can be stored for a longer period of time.”
Longevity noodles in chicken soup is her pick as the representative food of the Fuzhou people. The dish – which, as its name suggests, symbolises longevity – is cooked and eaten during Chinese New Year, birthdays, or children’s full moon birthdays. She additionally picks red glutinous rice noodles and flat dumplings (similar to wonton) as the Fuzhou people’s representative dishes.
When it comes to whether it is necessary for culture and customs to be passed on, everyone has differing opinions on it. For Tieng, this simply relates to her remembering her relatives. Her voice is choked with emotion when she begins talking about her late parents.
She shares that her mother, as a young girl, was given to another family to be adopted. Her mother entered an arranged marriage at just 18 years old, which ended in divorce. Her mother then went on to marry her father.
Since her father was a sailor and away from home most of the time, it was her mother who raised her and her siblings on her own. She remembers her mother as a strong woman, who would work as a maid and built chicken coops to raise her own chickens and ducks.
“Compared to the previous generation, we have more choices and that makes me grateful,” admits Tieng. “Therefore, I think that the culture of the ethnic or native place is necessary to be passed on.”
Part of these customs are the lifestyle habits of the parents, the outlook on life and values they choose to accept, and the spirit left by the previous generation and placed on the current one. Tieng emphasises, “Although we will accumulate our own things as we come into contact with work and future life, and make our own choices and decision on what to keep, parents still account for a large part of my life. I still remember how my mother taught me when I was a child. All these things have shaped a part of me.”
This story first appeared in Prestige Malaysia’s October 2021 issue and on PrestigeOnline Malaysia