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Voice of the Straits Chinese

Millennium markers - Immigration

THE publication of the Straits Chinese Magazine in 1897 marks one of the earliest local efforts to find voice in the burgeoning print media. Its editors and writers - Western-educated scions of Peranakan culture - had decided that it was time local concerns were heard by the colonial administration.

This millennium marker, an early one for this year, charts the issues that were pertinent 100 years ago. Before exploring the first issue of the quarterly magazine, it is perhaps important that we look at the careers of the people behind Malaysia's first local intellectual journal.

The editors of the magazine came from a cosmopolitan culture. Dr Lim Boon Keng's grandfather, Lim Mah Peng, had left Fujian province, China, for Penang in 1839. The family moved to Singapore, where Lim attended the Cross Street government school before entering Raffles Institution in 1879. He won the Queen's Scholarship to study medicine in Edinburgh University, Scotland, where he graduated with first class honours in 1892.

Lim (left) would later enter the world of banking academia - where, in 1921, he became chancellor of the University of Amoy, China, and more importantly, the world of letters, his mouthpiece being the Straits Chinese Magazine.

The other editor of the magazine has an equally impressive curricula vitae. Song Ong Siang, also a Queen's scholar, earned his Master of Arts and Bachelor of Law degrees from Cambridge University, Britain. He would later author the seminal One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore.

The third editor, Dr Gnoh Lean Tuck (@ Wu Lien Teh featured in a previous Millennium Marker as the "Plague Fighter'') held a medical degree from Cambridge and went on to be the medical adviser of the Foreign Office, Peking. Dr Lim and Song, however, played more prominent roles in the Magazine.

Throughout the colonies, colonial administrators were assiduously trying to capture local practices through writing. To the colonialists, the power to subdue and rule is linked to the power to silence. Thus, one British viceroy to India laid the claim that all the literature of India and Arabia were inferior to a British primary school library.

In British Malaya, both Dr Lim Boon Keng and Song Ong Siang must have, on some level, realised the need to break this silence and subsequently dethrone Britain's monopoly on the written word. In the inaugural issue of the Straits Chinese Magazine, they explain to their readers that the magazine would serve as a bridge between oriental and occidental concerns, thus undoing the stitches that kept the East mute.

To list the Magazine's concerns could take a whole book. Thus a selection would have to suffice. What is most interesting about the Straits Chinese Magazine is that it allows us to piece together Peranakan intellectual thoughts and ideas as well as describe the larger concerns of the Chinese in the Straits Settlements.

In other Chinese publications such as the Lat Pau (Straits newspaper), interests for the reform of China and local news made up the primary contents. In the Straits Chinese Magazine, apart from news about local societies and briefs concerning the Chinese business community, the magazine also highlighted the problems of being Straits Chinese.

In the very first volume, a sermon-like article by a British Sinologist attempts to define the Straits Chinese identity and what is expected of the Straits Chinese.

Basically a British agent overseas but with all the characteristics of the Chinese, the Straits Chinese must act as intermediary between the local and the colonial.

However, this position did not necessarily mean that he/she was privileged. In the third volume of the magazine, Song Ong Siang (left) asks the question "Are the Straits Chinese British subjects?'' Explaining that the Naturalisation Ordinance of 1867 makes clear that the Straits Chinese are British subjects overseas, Song later ponders on Britain's acceptance of China's insistence that all overseas Chinese are subjects of the Chinese empire.

Till today, the problem of dual nationality plagues the overseas Chinese. However, Song's explanation may still be a relevant rebuttal for those who question the Chinese community's loyalty because though the "Straits Chinese are as jealous as the immigrant Chinese of all their inherited Chinese customs, manners and prejudices, to the great majority of them, the feeling of patriotism or love of their fatherland is absolutely awanting.''

Later issues would be devoted to problems of not belonging, or as in sophisticated academic jargon, problems of hybridity. Dr Lim Boon Kheng, having had a strong Chinese education as well as an excellent Western one, was able to make the best of his "in-between'' position. He would write articles on Confucianism and Buddhism and refute claims that the Straits Chinese were capricious and ungodly.

While Song was more typically Straits Chinese, speaking and writing in Malay and English, Dr Lim eventually saw Western scientific knowledge as a means to enrich Chinese culture. He would eventually lead a movement to do away with the towchang (or queue) as well as revive Confucianism.

Putting this philosophy into practice, Dr Lim Boon Kheng, a medical practitioner, also included articles on medicine in the magazine. In a particularly important article, readers were informed about small pox and the need for vaccination.

All three editors were also champions of the anti-opium campaigns. In the second volume of the Magazine, Dr Lim wrote an extensive article on "The Attitude of the State Towards the Opium Habit''. In his exulting style, Dr Lim pens: "From the helpless coolies' point of view, it is most cruel tyranny that a man in a free country should be able to get any amount of opium for the gratification of a vice but could not get a remedy for the cure of the habit without being run in by the police and, in all probability, sent to gaol for non-payment of fines.''

Their opposition to a lucrative yet heinous activity was met with opposition from the British Government and the powerful revenue farmers (as opium, spirits and gambling barons were called). However, the anti-opium movement in England won the day and eventually, the colonial government could no longer justify carrying on the practice and banned opium farming.

Once again, the editors managed to convey the schizophrenia of imperialism, where exploitation and the civilising agenda went hand-in-hand, as the opium debates reveal.

The Straits Chinese Magazine was particularly forward-minded in its support of women's rights. In its earliest issues, Song Ong Siang wrote extensively for the liberation and education of women. Straits Chinese women, one writer charged, needed to be properly educated before being allowed physical freedom. Song, however, defended women's liberties by explaining the need for more physical and economic freedom for women if society is to be more equitable.

The Magazine, despite Song's interest in gender politics and Dr Lim's preoccupation with the politics of nations, also published several very interesting literary pieces. Short stories such as The President's Ball, Rodney's Salvation and The Travels of Chang Ching Chong presented local ideas about being a Victorian gentleman, the hypocrisy of the colonial enterprise and local views about the world.

The Magazine, according to its advertisement in the first Malay newspaper Bintang Timor, could be purchased as far north as Penang and as far south as Batavia. Though centred in Singapore, the magazine appealed to Peranakan communities all over South-East Asia and, by extension, became relevant to all colonised communities.

In 1900, amidst the pinnacle of Straits Chinese economic and cultural achievement, the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA) was established. The Magazine carried news about SCBA and its activities as the latter grew out of the activities of the publication's editors, writers and readers. It carried on till 1907 before quietly slumbering off into the annals of history due to "a lack of support and interest from the very community it has been intended to benefit''. Song added that the younger generation was also not interested in undertaking the heavy responsibilities that came with publishing.

However, the Magazine's editors would chart marvellous careers in Malaya.

In keeping with the spirit of the Magazine, it would be a good idea to allow this marker its own voice in the 21st century through an extract from Vol VIII March 1904 No 1 of the magazine.

"With this present number begins the eighth volume of this Magazine. During the seven years of its existence, we have constantly kept in view our aims for the advancement of our people and have met adverse criticism, abuse and even monetary discouragement with an unflinching heart, knowing well that our cause and purpose are right. That these aims have, to a great extent, been fulfilled may be judged by the distinct change in public opinion amongst the Straits-born of the present day. In the circulation of the magazine also, we may congratulate ourselves on our success, for it is now being read in almost every part of the world.

"From the Library of Congress in the United States in the Far West to l'Ecole Francais de l'Extreme Orient in the Far East, we have received words of encouragement, and it has even found its way into several quiet homes in England and America.''

* Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.


Notes: STF - : Through its role as a mouthpiece for the Straits Chinese community, the Straits Chinese Magazine subsequently dethroned Britain's monopoly on the written word in British Malaya, writes NEIL KHOR JIN KEONG.

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