Saturday, 20 July 2013

What constitute a Straits Chinese?

The term Straits Chinese is colloquially known in today as Peranakan. It was also less known as King’s Chinese or Queen’s Chinese. 

Ask any modern Peranakan, they would claim that they were products of the early Chinese immigrants whom married the local Malay women during the 15th to 16th century in the Malay Archipelagos, when Malacca was an enterprising entrepôt. This first wave of exodus gave birth to later known as the baba and nonia generation, some families could trace their lineage in Malaya for up to 10 generations.

A debatable question often appears, is Peranakan a new hybrid race such as the Eurasians? 

What constitute a Straits Chinese? is a discussion to provide a gist sketch on this so-called hybrid race. 

The term Straits Chinese appeared after a bill known as Indian Act XXX of 1852 (Naturalization) was enacted and passed in the Indian Council by the Governor-General of India on 16 July 1852. This Act was to distinguish the Straits-born populations and immigrants in the then Straits Settlements. It was a local naturalization in the British dominions by providing the status of natural born British subject by naturalization. Section VIII of the Act further explained that the rights, privileges and capacities shall be granted as for a British subject. 

The enactment of the law did not mention of the criteria that a person should marry a local inhabitant in order to attain the citizenship status. However, the imperative emphasise was on a person must be born within the British dominion and shall be deemed a natural born British subject. 

Although being protected by the law, many of these Straits Chinese regarded themselves as the Sons of the Soil. Their claim was based on the history setting that their forefathers married local Malay women. Thus, they were flowing the Malay blood, and being able to speak the lingua franca of the region. Such thought had created a social lacuna seen as a form of discrimination. Whereby the new Chinese immigrants whom came later were labelled as sinkeh (new arrival). In fact, the Straits Chinese families were already well-acquainted with the Malay rulers in business affairs. It was said that Lim Leng Cheak and Choong Cheng Kean were frequent visitors to the Kedah Royal Court. They gained a very long-term rice monopoly in the state, in which made them immune from business rivals. Apart from that Chee Yam Chuan in Malacca was a close ally to the Selangor royalties, one of his sons was given concession rights in tin mining in Selangor and were often invited for a Malay function (kenduri). 

The officials in the Straits Settlements whom were then under the East India Company had vague understanding on the different ethnicity of Chinese based on their locality, dialect, and ancestry in China. This confusion was often appeared in the early government records. When the Naturalization Act was enforced, the early Straits Chinese whom received the privilege of being British subjects were actually the Chinese of Fujian origin. Many of them were entrusted by the British, and were licensees for trading gun powder and artilleries in Penang and Singapore. They also acted as intermediaries and English translators for the British officials and sinkeh. This was one of the reasons the clan associations were setup. 

The early founding fathers of Penang and Singapore were aware that in order for the island to become the centre of regional trades and a symbol of British trading empire to sustain, it needs to be more than just a pit stop between India and China. Hence, they reluctantly introduced free trade policy in the island to attract merchants from the hinterland. The benefit of free trade was to trade freely without having to pay taxes to the government. However, free trade policy generated very little income for the government to run the state machineries and expenditures as the population grows. A brink solution came, when the government introduced a plan to raise revenues through concessionaire. Whereby, the rights to supply all sorts of trades and commodities were licensed and auctioned off to the highest bidder, known as farmer. These government syndicates or popularly known as revenue farms were operated by the secret societies comprised from different Chinese clans. The principal farmer will then lease the products to the government licensed sub-farms. 

The trades include opium, spirit (liquor), rice, prostitution, gambling, pawnbroking, mining, plantation, and etc. The letting was a lucrative revenue to the government that opium farm alone worth five to six million dollars year, an amount accumulated from the Straits Settlements inclusive of the Malay States. In the later explanation, the colonial government denied that the introduction of the opium farm was to raise the state revenue but rather to control and limit the sale of opium.

The population of sinkeh in the Straits Settlements increased steadily in the mid of 19th century. Thus pushing the Straits Chinese population to a small figure. However, the Straits Chinese still played a prominent role in the political circle (many of them were given seats in the Executive and Legislative Councils). In fact, the practise of Straits Chinese whom in their early time married the local Malay women was no longer in favour. Decent women with good family background in China were taken as spouses. Hence, cutting the ties of Chinese and Malay blood relations. 

When the society grew to be more affluent, vibrant and cosmopolitan, many rich-to rags sinkeh preferred to have family members from the local prominent bred, thus the Straits Chinese were the source to cater such demands. This was probably to elevate the social status of the sinkeh whom could take this advantage to call themselves and their issues as Straits Chinese. This sinkeh whom married Straits Chinese cannot be defined as pure Straits Chinese. They were merely a physical imitation of the opulent Straits Chinese culture and lifestyle in which had been inherited for so many generations.

Although there was no union with the local Malay women. The Straits Chinese still instilled strong sentiment to their assimilated culture in their so-called domiciles in the Straits Settlements. Many of them were born in the colonies and had never visited China and almost forgotten their ancestry. Some even refused to claim their Chinese origin. They were Western educated and spoke in English and Malay, dined mostly Malay cuisine with Chinese culinary style, and their women dressed accordingly to the Malay fashion. However, one thing remained intact was that they still prayed and honoured their ancestors in high esteem and decorum demeanour. 

The establishment of the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA) in Singapore and Malacca in 1900 and Penang in 1920, was an evidence of the Straits Chinese’s loyalty pledged to the British Empire.

The prominent roles of the Straits Chinese were denigrated and subjugated after the end of the Japanese Occupation. Their family wealth were almost drained. New line-up rich-to-rags sinkeh gradually mushroomed. 

In late 1956, when Malaya was moving towards nationhood, the President of SCBA, Heah Joo Seang of Penang presented a petition on behalf of the Straits Chinese (whom later called themselves as Queen’s Chinese) to Her Majesty’s Government in London. The petition expressed the intention of the “Queen’s Chinese” to retain their British nationality and special protected rights after Malaya gained independent. Unfortunately, there was no reply from London. 

The formulation of the Malaysian's Federal Constitution had dismissed the mention of the Straits Chinese as indigenous people. According to Article 160 (2) of Malaysian's Federal Constitution, a Malay is defined as, "... a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom and - (a) was before Merdeka Day born in the Federation or in Singapore or born of parents one of whom was born in the Federation or in Singapore, or is on that day domiciled in the Federation or in Singapore, or (b) is the issue of such a person." The Straits Chinese may have fulfilled certain criteria as in Article 160, but not in the religion matter. Thus, they were omitted from enjoying the so-called equal rights with their Malay relatives.

Hitherto, the Straits Chinese still anticipate for the provision and recognition of their race in Malaysia. For instance, the Kelantan Chinese Peranakan Association imposed a requirement for its member to be able to trace a family lineage for up to three generations in the state. This is to prepare themselves to be identified as the local-people when one fine day, the government recognized their culture and existence. 

In the early time, the colonial practiced favouritism to the early Chinese immigrants. They offered economy monopoly, citizenship, political opportunity, the rights of education and etc. This is without a doubt inclined to the tendency of the Straits Chinese to think that they were part of the indigenous people and should enjoy the privilege as the Malays, due to their history background. 

The Straits Chinese assimilations to the local customs were so eminent, that were known as Chinese who could no longer speak their own language, but still professed their Chinese culture. In fact, the later social influx presented had questioned the authenticity of the Straits Chinese origin. Such as the union of Straits Chinese with the sinkeh. 

When Malaya gained independent, the rights of the Straits Chinese were not mentioned. As there was no provision for a race known as Straits Chinese, they were bemused to fit in which race; the Malay or the Chinese? If they opted for Malay, they were required to convert to Islam by law and become Muslims. And preferably known as Chinese Muslim rather than a Straits Chinese, this in which seems not the best practice. The closest relation they could tie on would be Chinese. Today many Straits Chinese encounter with the strong influence of Chinese culture and education. This so-called Chinese culture has changed the way of life of the Straits Chinese forever, in fact the term of this ethnic is now replaced by, Peranakan. 

Today, the definition of Peranakan is remained solely on one’s own thought rather in vetting the course of events throughout the history of imperialism. However, the story of Peranakan will forever remain as a classic reminiscence of its former glory. In which many has been embodied into academic studies.

Also see China and her Overseas People


  1. Hi Eugene,
    The Chinese have been around long before the term "Straits Chinese" was applied on them. That term, as mentioned in your above article, came into being via the ndian Act XXX of 1852 (Naturalization) to distinguish between the Lau3khek1 and the Sin3khek1. However, the British did not go to understand that the Lau3khek1 comprises yet different groups of Chinese, based on when their ancestors arrived. Those speaking Baba Malay trace their roots to the Malacca Sultanate while those speaking Penang Hokkien (and Klang Hokkien, Singapore Hokkien, etc., for that matter) trace theirs to early refugees of sundry rebellions against the Manchu conquerors who took over China, and Fujian province in particular.
    I wrote about where Penang Hokkien come from at

  2. When we created the Queen's Chinese UK organisation a couple of years ago to promote the rights of British Overseas Citizens of Penang and Malacca origin here in the UK, we were conscious that the terms used to describe the group were perhaps open to interpretation when it came to ethnicity. As a number of our members are of Indian origin, that's probably no bad thing.

  3. The chinese in the early british time has gained many privellege, the right to gain monopoly in economy, the favour on giving goverment tender which create big opportunity for the chinese in malaya grow richer n became millionaire and even philantropist. But unfortunately, chinese in malaysia refuse to acknowledged this