An estimated 500,000 tourists set foot in the Thean Hou Temple each year. On Chinese New Year, locals make their way up for their yea...
The Chinese community in Kelantan is very different from their brethren across Malaysia – they’ve assimilated seamlessly into the Malay culture of the state. We spend a day in their shoes.
An elderly man walks along the street of market vendors, speaking to the traders in perfect Malay-Kelantanese dialect. He wears a sarong, could make out the Arabic jawi script and afterwards, would drop into a warong for a plate of nasi ulam. You would be forgiven if you mistook this individual for a Malay-Muslim Kelantanese—because he’s not.
This unnamed man glimpsed in the capital city’s streets is one of the many thousands of Peranakan Chinese who reside in Kelantan, living life the way their ancestors have for over four centuries. Culturally, they are Malay. Religiously, the majority of them are Buddhists. And unlike other parts of the country where the difference of one’s race may highlight their presence, the Kelantanese Chinese are right at home and are at one with this East Coast state.
Outside the capital city and in smaller provinces throughout the state, the Kelantanese Chinese can be found living along the Kelantan River that cuts southwest. One among many of these villages is in Tanah Merah, where the Kelantan Peranakan Chinese Association has ambitions of establishing a centralised cultural village. The first among its long list of plans is a community gallery, now at the dawn of its humble beginnings.
The association’s President, Mr. Lim Kham Hong is a retired teacher, concerned with preserving the community’s centuries of history and culture. At 60, he and his peers in the association are at odds with the wave of progress and development that’s slowly eating away at the Kelantanese Chinese culture.
“You wouldn’t find any differences between the Peranakan Chinese and Malays in Kelantan. You would catch me wearing the sarong at night and even eating budu!” he laughs. Not uncommon among the Kelantanese Chinese, Mr. Lim mentions that his late father was well versed in the jawi script, even writing in it. Though the community speaks Malay, they also occasionally converse in Hokkien.
In fact, for many Kelantan Chinese of his generation, they would go through the same cultural experiences that their Malay neighbours would – even as far as enrolling in boarding schools and making Malay friends, shattering outside perception that these schools generally house Malay youngsters. This lack of ethnic distinction would be made apparent to Mr. Lim in 1969, the year of the May 13th racial riots.
“Kuala Lumpur may have felt its strain and effects but as a Chinese in Kelantan, I did not feel any difference, any form of animosity from my Malay neighbours.” To the Kelantanese, the racial politics in the south had no bearing to their co-existence.
As a Kelantanese, state pride and brotherhood surpasses ethnic background. When travelling to other parts of Malaysia, their fluency in the Malay-Kelantanese dialect would earn them warmth and acceptance from other Kelantanese abroad. And from other Malays, both pleasant surprise and respect.
When it comes to occupation, the Kelantanese Chinese work across different industries, unlike their counterparts in different parts of Malaysia, such as Selangor and Perak, who formed a significant part in the tin mining boom. One such individual is Wee Kim Seng, 69, who has been harvesting tobacco for decades. He rolls up a cigarette, burns it and breathes a thin line of aromatic smoke as he gestures towards his stack of dried tobacco, sold at RM4 per stack.
Northern Kelantan is also well known for a sizable number of Wat, Thai-Buddhist temples recognised by their tall golden spires from afar. Mr. Lim makes the observation that while these temples are owned primarily by the Thai people, it is run by the Kelantanese Chinese. In fact, the traders and caretakers of the famous Wat Photivihan that houses Southeast Asia’s largest sleeping Buddha, receives a large number of Chinese Kelantanese worshipers daily.
Earlier in the month of April, the Kelantanese Chinese celebrated the anniversary of one of their deities. In this four-day long night festival, the community from nearby villages would congregate to the Keng Choo Temple in Kampung Pasir Pinji to pay their respects to the deity as well as to be merry. The atmosphere would be festive, with stage performances, lucky draws and feasts.
This year, over 30 wild boars were hunted and caught – all fried, steamed and prepared into a variety of dishes, served in a long buffet line patronised by hungry families. This impressive feast was prepared by a team of cooks in the temple’s community kitchen, led by the 55-year-old Wee Too Teng, who has been an active member and head chef for over 20 years.
Away from the feasting and merriness is a more solemn event, where chants and gongs resound within the temple walls. Every year on these auspicious days, droves of individuals would seek help from the head monk who would forecast fortunes and heal the unwell. While he enters a trance and inscribe blood red on yellow materials, a chorus of chanting would surround him.
This was a community deeply entrenched in their religious roots, escaping an unstable Chinese empire almost four centuries ago and finding home along the Kelantan river. Their forefathers married local Siamese women, assimilated and have since never left, slowly influenced by the Malay culture and adopting it.
Four centuries on, the community is slowly crumbling to the danger of losing their heritage, with the newer generation shedding their Malay culture and adopting a more modernist and urban upbringing; switching Malay and Hokkien for English and emigrating to more developed parts of the country. In Mr. Lim’s own words, “trading the wooden kampung houses for two-storey brick ones."
On the final night of the temple celebration, there would be a wooden boat that the community would light up and set sail down the river. The vessel carrying the community’s collective hopes and dreams. Their cultural and historical narratives weaving between the sparks and flames that would eventually consume the whole boat – burning bright into the darkness of the night.
By Aziff Azuddin
Photos by Aziff Azuddin
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