The Chinese make up about 27 per cent of the Malaysian population. They are basically urban people, concentrated heavily in towns on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia.
The majority of them now residing in Malaysia are local-born. Their forefathers came in large numbers in the last half of the 19th century attracted by the fortunes to be made mostly by prospecting for tin in a resource-rich land. Many became wealthy. Royal Selangor, for example, was the dream of a 16-year-old youth, Yong Koon, who came to Malaya in 1885, with only a few tools of his trade and lots of guts. A century later his industry – pewterwarc – has become known the world over. Cycle and Carriage, which started off as a bicycle shop, was founded by Choo Kia Peng, a penniless immigrant, who now lends his name to the road in Ampang. Handsome mansions like the PAM Building, MATIC and Le Coq d’Or stand testimony to the enormous wealth of the early Chinese merchants and tin prospectors, while the old shophouses along Petaling Street and Chow Kit reflect the more frugal lifestyle of Chinese traders: the shop at street level and the living quarters upstairs.
When the Chinese came to Malaya they also brought their customs and culture. Basically the Chinese community is made up of the major groups of Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochcw, Hakka and Hainanese. Each has its own dialect, though some speak Mandarin.
To the Chinese, the most important festival is the Chinese New Year which falls on the first day of the first month in the Chinese calendar. Each year is associated with one of the twelve animal symbols in the Chinese Zodiac. The twelve animals are chosen for their balance in yin and yang qualities (positive and negative). The Chinese believe that those born in a particular year possess some of the qualities of the animal.
Chinese New Year is a noisy, exuberant affair. Families get together on the eve for a reunion dinner. Traditional food like waxed duck, mandarin oranges, and pomeloes make their appearances at this period. Lion dances, too, are a much-awaited sight at homes, shopping complexes and business establishments. Celebrations last 15 days, with the Festival of Chap Goh Mei on the 15th day signifying the end of the new year celebrations. In olden days, this was a day unmarried girls looked forward to. They floated oranges on rivers in the hope that they would be blessed with a husband.
The Mid-Autumn Festival, sometimes called Harvest Festival or more popularly Mooncake Festival, is celebrated in September. Folklore tells how the Han people during the Yuan Dynasty hid messages of a planned attack against the Mongols in the little cakes. Mooncakes, so called because the Hans planned the attack on a moonlit night, are only found during this period and are on sale everywhere. It is especially a joyous festival for children as they participate in candlelit lantern festivals in shopping complexes and in housing playgrounds or just play with their lanterns at home.
Yet another Chinese festival that is observed every year in August/September is the Festival of Hungry Ghosts. The Chinese believe that “hungry ghosts” are temporarily released from hell, for a month to wander into the realm of the living. “Ghosts” are appeased with food offerings, prayers and entertainment such as operas so that the lives of the living will not be affected.
Chinese opera is a dying art rarely seen now. Opera performances are acted with dance drama and acrobatic acts by male and female artistes wearing heavy make-up and elaborate costumes.
Say “Chinese” and food comes to mind. Chinese cuisine is varied with regional specialities – Hainanese, Sze-chuan, Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese. Each claims to be best in certain dishes. Teochews are known for their unique kind of porridge. Their porridge is unrivalled: light, smooth with a variety of side dishes like salted eggs, pickled vegetables,abalone, and fish head. The traditional Hokkien favourite is Hokkien Mee – fat yellow noodles cooked in heavy soy sauce with prawns, squids, beansprouts and chives. When it comes to chicken rice, the Hainanese are voted best. Braised chicken prepared by Hainanese cooks is the most tender. While Hainanese cuisine is light and simple, Hakka cuisine is characterised by inventiveness and robustness with dishes like stewed pig’s trotters. Of nomadic past, their cuisine has evolved in their need to be creative with what they had. China’s fiery Szechuan dishes come from the cold mountainous western region. Szechuan dishes are lively with peppercorns and dried chilli. But wherever their origins, you will probably find Chinese cuisine an endless gastronomic adventure in most places in Kuala Lumpur.