Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

New PM cements Japan power shift

Now this should signal a brand new dynamic in the Asia-Pacific region. New Japanese Leadership that affirms needs for strong ties with the US. An undercover (to an extent) public announcement of a renewed deterrent force to China’s rise I suspect.

Quotable Quotes
– “On foreign policy, he said ties with the US were a priority.

But he said he wanted a relationship in which Japan “can act more proactively and tell them our opinions frankly“, adding that his party’s position on reviewing deals relating to the US troop presence had not changed.” Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama

New PM cements Japan power shift
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama promised economic revival and strong US ties, hours after taking office.
Source – BBC 16 September 2009

In a news conference, he vowed to deliver a “people-oriented society”, quick economic improvements and frank but trusting ties with Washington.

Mr Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan won a huge poll victory last month, ending 50 years of almost unbroken Liberal Democratic Party rule.

His untested government now faces tough economic and social challenges.

The new cabinet will be sworn in by Emperor Akihito later in the day.

Former DPJ leader Katsuya Okada becomes foreign minister and Hirohisa Fujii, a veteran bureaucrat, takes over as finance minister.

Another former DPJ leader, Naoto Kan, will head a new National Strategy Bureau set up to oversee the bureaucracy. He also becomes deputy prime minister.

The defeated LDP, meanwhile, will hold an election later this month to choose its new leader, after former Prime Minister Taro Aso stepped down.

The DPJ has entered into a coalition deal with two smaller parties, the Social Democratic Party and the People’s New Party, and controls both houses of parliament.

Its priorities now include tackling a rapidly ageing society and an economy still struggling after a brutal recession.

“We would like to carry out policies that will stimulate households so the Japanese people can have hopes for the future,” Mr Hatoyama said.

He has promised to increase social welfare spending, cut government waste and rein in the powerful bureaucracy.

”Now is the time to practise politics that are not controlled by bureaucrats,” he said.

On foreign policy, he said ties with the US were a priority.

But he said he wanted a relationship in which Japan “can act more proactively and tell them our opinions frankly”, adding that his party’s position on reviewing deals relating to the US troop presence had not changed.

The DPJ was elected as a wave of discontent with LDP rule swept across Japan.

Opinion polls have shown many people did not vote for the DPJ because of their policies – but because they wanted change.

Analysts say the electorate will be watching the DPJ closely in the next few weeks and months to see if it can deliver.

The BBC’s Roland Buerk, in Tokyo, says that in defeating the LDP, Yukio Hatoyama has already achieved what many people thought for years was impossible.

But now the difficult part – governing Japan – begins, our correspondent says.

Roland Buerk, BBC News, Tokyo

Yukio Hatoyama looks like many who have gone before him, the scion of a wealthy dynasty, the grandson of a former prime minister. But his DPJ has promised profound reform.

For decades the LDP, bureaucrats and big business held sway, steering the country from wartime defeat to economic might. But in recent years this brought stagnation, rising unemployment and increasing inequality.

Mr Hatoyama wants to build a more ‘fraternal’ society, with a social safety net including a generous child allowance to try to encourage people to have children and arrest Japan’s declining population. He wants to turn away from export-led growth and encourage domestic demand.

But there are deep concerns over whether the untested new government can deliver the new era they promise.

Filed under: BBC, International Relations, japan

Geylang: The new Chinatown

This is a long feature, but worth a read. Welcome to Singapore’s true Chinatown – Geylang! Singapore’s ‘official’ red-light district is transforming into a social enclave for Chinese foreign, and migrant workers.

As you read on, you might notice that the Chinatown in Chinese is ‘Tang Ren Jie’ literally, Street of the People of the Tang. Now why not Han Ren Jie (i.e. Street of the Han People)? The Chinese are often known as the Han (ethnicity), even the spoken language is known as Han, so why ‘Tang Ren Jie’, where ‘Tang’ refers to the ‘Tang Dynasty’?

Now this is an ancedote so I’m not entirely sure. Apparently the Teochew diaspora was responsible for much of the establishment of Chinatowns around the world. Out of the 40-over million Chinese overseas, more than half are Teochew. Now this is way more Teochews than there are on the mainland. And I’m Teochew too. Known to be rather resilient entrepreneurs (think Thaksin and Lee Ka Shing), they’ve become some of the richest overseas-born Chinese there are today. Now, the Teochews, geographically and socially never quite associated themselves with the Han (people and dynasty), but more with the culture and ways of the sophisticated Tang Dynasty – and there you have it. Tang Ren Jie.

Quotable Quote – “Geylang is a food haven and a district populated with places of worship, clan associations and other traditional enterprises. New arrivals could have been drawn to Geylang because of these characteristics.” Dr Leong Chan Hoong, research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies

Geylang: The new Chinatown
China nationals are flocking to Geylang, drawn by low rents and cheap food.
By Jamie Ee Wen Wei
Straits Times | Tue, Sep 15 2009
Source – AsiaOne Relax

Ask Hebei native Albert Li where the real tang ren jie, or Chinatown, is in Singapore, and he will tell you confidently that it is in Geylang.

“Among the Chinese nationals here, we have privately discussed this many times,” he said in Mandarin.

“Geylang is more like a tang ren jie than Chinatown. There must be more Chinese nationals living and working here than in Chinatown,” said the 25-year-old.

Mr Li, who has been in Singapore for almost two years, mans a provision shop on Geylang Road which sells goods from China.

Indeed, his sentiments are shared by most of the China nationals whom The Sunday Times met in the neighbourhood known for its red-light allures and food.

No official numbers are available but anecdotal evidence suggests that a growing number of China nationals – namely the working class, students and entrepreneurs – are flocking to the precinct.

Singaporeans certainly have noticed their presence. In a letter to The Straits Times Forum two months ago, a reader observed how Geylang has evolved from a racially mixed, multilingual area into an enclave for new residents from China, with a growing prevalence of Chinese-only shop signs.

When The Sunday Times visited the neighbourhood last week, many such signs were seen, advertising Chinese products and services like hairdressing and Internet usage. Mom-and-pop eateries serving authentic Chinese cuisine dotted the shophouses.

Their waitresses, almost all China nationals, greeted passers-by in various Chinese accents. Drive by in the evenings, and you spot groups of Chinese workers sitting along the busy streets to unwind.

Why is Geylang such a magnet?

Dr Leong Chan Hoong, a research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, said that historically, immigrants from developing countries tend to congregate in the less fanciful or desirable town centres because of lower rent and cheaper food.

This was true of Chinatown in Singapore, and elsewhere, like the Newtown suburb in Wellington, New Zealand, and the Fortitude Valley in Brisbane, Australia, he said.

“Geylang is a food haven and a district populated with places of worship, clan associations and other traditional enterprises. New arrivals could have been drawn to Geylang because of these characteristics,” he said.

Indeed, China nationals who live and work there said they chose Geylang for its lower rents, array of Chinese food and accessibility.

Mr Liu Yang, 28, who lived in a dormitory for foreign workers for eight months, said the rent for a bed space in Geylang is between $150 and $180 a month, way below that elsewhere.

“I’ve a friend who works in Chinatown. He tried to find a place to stay in Outram and was quoted $280 for a bed space,” said Mr Liu who works at a beancurd shop in Geylang. He lives in Whampoa now.

Ms He Wen Wen, 24, chose Geylang as it is near her school in Aljunied, where she studies accounting and finance. The Henan native lived in an HDB flat in Sengkang before moving to a condo in Geylang with seven friends – all students from China – five years ago.

“I like the food here, such as the beef hor fun at Lorong 9. I can also find Shanghainese food like xiang la xie (spicy crab), which I enjoy.”

Dr Leong said the nooks and corners in the neighbourhood also favour small-time businessmen who can nurture their trades at a lower cost. Indeed, businesses like Internet cafes and eateries targeting the Chinese have mushroomed.

Earlier reports estimated that there are about 200 food outlets opened by China nationals.

On weekends especially, scores of their countrymen living elsewhere flock to the area for a touch of home.

Singaporean Kelvin Ho, 35, who runs two supermarkets in the neighbourhood, has benefited from their presence. Some 70 per cent of his customers are China nationals.

“I’ve been doing business here for about 10 years and it’s obvious to me the number of China nationals is growing,” said the businessman who stocks items like vegetables and beauty products.

Dr Leong said a social enclave like the one developing in Geylang is harmless and is a natural coping mechanism for new immigrants.

“It is only human instinct to want to meet and socialise with people who share a similar cultural background and nationality.”

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser from the National University of Singapore agrees, noting that social enclaves serve the needs of new immigrants and help them settle in faster.

But if it becomes a segregated community with different habits and values, it could lead to prejudice, discrimination and tensions, he said.

Already, some Singaporeans whom The Sunday Times spoke to are complaining that the China nationals tend to talk loudly and some have undesirable social habits. Ms Linda Ong, 40, who runs an electrical goods store on Geylang Road, said they sometimes discard empty bottles or food outside her shop.

However, Geylang Serai citizens’ consultative committee chairman Eric Wong said he has not received any feedback specifically about China nationals, although residents do complain about the crowds and noise in the area.

He does not think Geylang is evolving into a Chinatown. “There is a good mix of foreigners and locals here,” he said.

Whether the area will continue to draw the China nationals remains to be seen. Dr Lai Ah Eng, a senior research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, noted those who have moved up socially and economically tend to relocate.

Dr Leong agreed, saying: “There is no reason why a successful immigrant, who is financially well-off, can speak English and has a bigger circle of Singaporean friends, would choose to patronise shops only in Geylang or Chinatown.”

Ms He, for one, hopes to move out of Geylang once she finds a job after completing her studies.

She does not find the area ideal – she has been mistaken as a streetwalker and has been propositioned. She said: “The culture here… it’s too complicated.”

Good place to work but not to live.

For four years, Geylang has been both home and workplace for Shandong native Wu Min.

He lives in a condo in Lorong 31 with his wife, also a Shandong native. She is a nurse at the Singapore General Hospital.

They met in Singapore four years ago through a friend when Mr Wu was studying for a degree at the Singapore Institute of Materials Management.

They registered their marriage here last year and have a four-month-old daughter, who lives with his parents in China.

He opened a provision shop here after he found the work at a logistics company, which he had joined after his studies, too stressful and the pay low.

The 29-year-old said he chose to do business in Geylang because of its large Chinese population, wide variety of food and convenience of travel.

He used to visit restaurants in the area on weekends.

Sited between Lorong 11 and 13, his provision shop sells local products and China imports. The minimart, called Ba Fang Guo Huo, has another outlet between Lorong 40 and Lorong 42.

The two outlets were set up with $100,000 borrowed from his parents. Every month, he pays about $6,000 in rent for each of his shops, and income is just enough to cover costs now.

About 60 per cent of his customers are China nationals.

“It’s more like ‘Chinatown’ than the real Chinatown. You see Chinese here every day, not like in Chinatown, where perhaps the Chinese may visit on weekends,” said Mr Wu.

Given a choice, however, he said he would not want to live in Geylang. He is considering moving to Tampines, where he lived for about two years as a student.

“Geylang is a good place to run a business but it’s not so ideal for a home,” he said, referring to the red-light district.

Location won them over.

For married couple Dai Xue Yong and Zhang Zhi Ying, Geylang was the perfect location to set up their food business, Orient Garden Restaurant.

The one-year-old homestyle eatery, which serves Shanghainese cuisine, sits alongside several other Chinese restaurants.

“We know that Geylang is a food haven. We thought we could offer another variety of Chinese cuisine,” said Ms Zhang, 40.

Indeed, on week nights and weekends, their eatery is packed with China nationals who go there for a taste of home.

Singaporeans and tourists are among the patrons as well.

Ms Zhang said she and her 43-year-old husband had considered setting up shop in Chinatown, but a scouting trip to Geylang last year led them to do so in Lorong 39 instead.

They have been in Singapore for a year now and used to run a trading company in Shanghai.

“We felt that Chinatown attracts more of the tourist crowd whereas in Geylang, you get the people who live and work here,” she said. “We just see so much potential in Geylang.”

The couple hired two chefs and two waitresses from China. They will consider opening a branch when business picks up.

They are now making small profits after paying the monthly rent of about $8,250, Ms Zhang said.

The couple live in the upstairs unit of the shophouse that is home to their restaurant. They like the location because they can get both local and China products easily.

“If I feel like eating prata, there’s a stall just down the street. If I want to eat Chinese food like dianxin, it’s also easily available here,” she said.

Filed under: International Relations, Migrant Workers, Singapore, Straits Times

Cambodia PM lauds China’s aid

More exemplars of China making friends, without any complicated conditions apparently. It’s getting more and more apparent South-East Asia’s place as an extension of China’s strategic southern ‘shield’.

Quotable Quotes – “China respects the political decisions of Cambodia…We have a mutual understanding and respect each other.” Cambodia Premier Hun Sen.

Cambodia PM lauds China’s aid
Source – Straits Times 15 September 2009

PHNOM PENH – CAMBODIA’S premier lauded China on Monday for providing billions of dollars of aid without imposing conditions, a subtle jibe at Western donors who seek curbs on human rights abuses and corruption.

‘They are quiet, but at the same time they build bridges and roads, and there are no complicated conditions,’ Prime Minister Hun Sen at a ceremony for the construction of a new bridge built with US$128 million (S$182.6 million) of Chinese aid.

Mr Hun Sen recently rejected World Bank aid intended for settling land disputes after the Washington-based institution and rights groups accused Cambodian authorities of forcibly evicting tens of thousands of people from their homes.

Speaking to about 1,000 villagers and China’s ambassador in Prek Kdam, about 50 km (30 miles) north of the capital Phnom Phen, Mr Hun Sen said Beijing’s aid had helped Cambodia become more independent while fostering social and economic development.

‘China respects the political decisions of Cambodia,’ he said. ‘We have a mutual understanding and respect each other.’ Cambodia’s government has come under fire recently, accused of corruption and undermining the judiciary, although analysts say the investment environment is stable after decades of poverty, brutalilty and instability.

China is Cambodia’s biggest aid donor, providing US$600 million in 2007 and about US$260 million in 2008. It also leads the country’s foreign direct investment, with about US$1 billion spent in the war-scarred South-east Asian nation this year.

Mr Hun Sen added he also supported China’s multimillion dollar investments in hydroelectric power. Western environmentalists have accused Cambodia of failing to provide adequate environmental safeguards for such projects. — REUTERS

Filed under: Cambodia, Foreign aid, International Relations, Straits Times

China builds 4th space centre

This begs to ask the politics of space. Whilst China was last in most of the 20th century bastions for potential dominion, when it comes to Space, China’s one of the few in the game. Let’s see how the lines are drawn on this one.

Quotable quotes – “China’s space programme is run by the nation’s military.”

China builds 4th space centre
Source – Straits Times 14 September 2009

BEIJING – CHINA began the construction of its fourth space launch centre on Monday as the nation gears up for future manned space flights aboard a new generation of carrier rockets, state media reported.

Work started on the Wenchang Space Satellite Launch Centre on southern Hainan island, which will become China’s first coastal launching pad when completed in 2013, the Hainan Daily reported.

Chang Wanquan, member of the powerful Central Military Commission, and Chen Qiufa, head of the State Commission for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence, attended Monday’s groundbreaking ceremony, the report said.

China’s space programme is run by the nation’s military.

The Hainan site is being built to accommodate the Long March CZ-5 carrier rocket, which will be able to carry larger payloads and is slated to become the workhorse of China’s manned space and space station programme, it said.

The Long March 5 is expected to take its maiden flight by 2014, previous news reports have said.

China put its first astronaut into space in 2003, becoming the third nation to do so following the former Soviet Union and the United States.

In September last year, three Chinese astronauts, or ‘taikonauts,’ carried out the country’s first space walk during a 68-hour voyage on board the Shenzhou VII spacecraft.

The Shenzhou programme is expected to form the basis for China’s planned space station. — AFP

Filed under: Politics, space, Straits Times, Strategy

China showers gifts on Timor

Spanking new government buildings built for countries friendly to China are becoming more frequent. Some might argue it is a form of ‘white-elephant’ support, I seriously doubt the receivers of such goodwill have much to complain about. Or, is there anything they can do to stop that generosity, probably with an agenda?

Quotable QuoteThe growing Chinese presence is part of their natural expansion into Southeast Asia and I think Timor is not really their priority,’ said Loro Horta, at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. ‘But they are definitely keeping an eye on it. The Chinese are very patient people and they think very long term.

China showers gifts on Timor
Source – Straits Times, 14 September 2009

DILI – DILI’S gleaming new Presidential Palace and Foreign Ministry, gifts from China, stand in stark contrast to nearby burnt-out buildings and are symbols of how the energy-hungry superpower is growing closer to tiny, oil-rich East Timor.

In the 10 years since the independence vote that led to a split from Indonesia, China has spent more than $53 million (S$75.5 million) in aid to East Timor, also known as Timor Leste.
While that is just a fraction of the US$760 million in Australian government aid, China has raised its profile in dusty Dili in several other ways.

It is building big and showing generosity such as its donation of 8,000 tonnes of rice during a recent food crisis. Noticeable projects such as a new Ministry of Defence building, houses for soldiers and schools are underway as are scholarships and training programmes for civil servants.

In all, China is sending a very public message that it is serious about strengthening bilateral ties with East Timor,which many analysts put down to its desire to diversify strategic energy interests.

Loro Horta, who is a China expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and is the son of East Timor’s President Jose Ramos-Horta, said that the aid is linked to China’s desire for energy and infrastructure contracts. East Timor is one of Asia’s poorest and least developed countries, but it has enormous oil and gas reserves.

The Bayu Undan gas field is expected to reap US$12-15 billion by 2023, the country’s Natural Resources Minister, Alfredo Pires said. Bayu Undan is already the subject of a deal between Australia and East Timor but other, untapped reserves still need development partners.

Another oil field, Kitan, has an estimated 40 million barrels of recoverable light oil, Mr Pires said, and the Greater Sunrise field contains around 300 million barrels of condensate and 9.5 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to the United Nations.

Lucrative opportunities also exist in the minerals sector, including copper, gold, silver and marble, and for big-ticketinfrastructure projects as East Timor tries to reverse years of under-investment.

Mr Pires said Spain, China and Australia are all keen on a piece of the Timor resources pie, while East Timor expert Damien Kingsbury from Deakin University said the United States and the United Kingdom are also interested. — REUTERS

Trade Routes
China and East Timor’s links date back centuries. Hakka Chinese traders sailed there more than 500 years ago looking for sandalwood, rosewood and mahogany. Many stayed on, forming an overseas Chinese community as in many other parts of Asia.

Today, Dili’s main street is lined with buildings, some of which display Chinese script, families can be seen praying at a Confucian temple in downtown Dili, while Chinese traders run appliance stores on busy streets.

Chinese labourers are already at work on one of two heavy oil power plants which are under construction after Dili in 2008 awarded the Chinese Nuclear Industry 22nd Construction Company a $360 million contract to build the power plants and a national power grid. East Timor also paid US$28 million for two petroleum vessels from China.

Loro Horta said China is also angling for big ticket infrastructure contracts such as a pipeline that East Timor wants built from its Greater Sunrise oil field to a proposed processing plant on land. He said Chinese oil giant PetroChina has already done studies and is keen to drill.

Yang Donghui, a spokesman for the Chinese ambassador in Dili, said that the first phase of the seismic investigation was completed as an aid project, but that a proposed second phase investigation became the subject of commercial talks between the East Timor government and PetroChina.

China’s ambassador to East Timor, Fu Yuancong rejected speculation that China’s interest in the fledgling nation isdriven by a desire to gain an advantage when East Timor is handing out contracts to develop its billion-dollar oil and gas fields.

He also said that his government was in energy talks with Dili. And as stability has slowly returned to Dili, Mr Fu said hisgovernment has encouraged a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs to move to East Timor.

‘The growing Chinese presence is part of their natural expansion into Southeast Asia and I think Timor is not really their priority,’ said Loro Horta, at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

‘But they are definitely keeping an eye on it. The Chinese are very patient people and they think very long term.’

Filed under: Foreign aid, International Relations, Straits Times, timor

Domestic markets can’t sustain China’s growth

Now this is new to me. Had always figured, thanks to popular opinion, that China would be able to ride any wave of global economic calamity thanks to its hugely undeveloped domestic markets.

Assistant Professor Yu Maojie at the China Center for Economic Research at the highly esteemed Peking University has different ideas…

Quotable quote – “The export-oriented growth model is an unavoidable choice for China based on two key features of the economy: its low age dependency ratio and low level of urbanization.

Domestic markets can’t sustain China’s growth
By Yu Miaojie
Source – Global Times, 25 August 2009

With the global financial crisis and the precipitous drop in external demand, there are many voices urging China to upgrade its industrial structure and put domestic consumption as the new engine of China’s economy.

However, China’s current economy means that it cannot give up the export-oriented growth model.

One of my recent studies along with Yang Yao, Professor of Economics at Peking University, found that the export-oriented growth model is an unavoidable choice for China based on two key features of the economy: its low age dependency ratio and low level of urbanization.

China’s age dependency ratio, the ratio of population below age 16 and above 64 relative to those with ages in between, was only 40 percent in 2007, which is one of the lowest levels in the world. In addition, only 45.68 percent of China’s population is urbanized, which also lags behind its income level when compared with other countries.

Both low age dependency ratio and low urbanization rate jointly determine a large supply of labor and a slow growth of labor income, which in turn leads to fast accumulation of capital and the manufacturing sector.

The two factors also determine a relatively small domestic market, and the only way to clear the market is to export. Our estimation suggests that China’s export-oriented model will continue till 2025.

However, today exports are much more difficult for China given growing global protectionism. To some extent, export-oriented growth model seems like an audacious hope. The key point is: How to guarantee huge exports for China?

In my opinion, Chinese manufacturing firms should try to upgrade the quality of exporting goods, which is more important than the quantity. The idea is intuitive. Goods with higher quality have higher market prices and generate higher revenue with fixed or even slightly declined quantity of goods sold. From a macro perspective, a country with high-quality exports would become a favorable exporter. Goods labelled “Made in China” should not be treated as cheap-labor and low-quality.

In addition to the quality, credit constraints are another important factor that affect company’s export. To export, firms need to set up their distribution network abroad. However, with severe liquidity constraints, firms are unable to cover their export entry fixed cost.

According to the 2007 Investment Climate Assessment, China is among the group of countries that have the worst financing obstacles. Research found that, all else equal, firms find it easier to export if they have easier access to external finance from financial intermediates.

How then to produce high-quality goods and alleviate the credit constraints for firms? The answer is simple. Firms should improve their productivity. Paul Krugman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, once said that productivity is not everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. Many other economists also find evidence that good firms lead to more exports. Recently Marc Melitz, a Princeton professor in Economics, has theoretically shown that firms with high productivity have the intrinsic capability to export and even invest abroad.

Indeed, the most efficient firms export and earn extra profits abroad. The less efficient firms can only serve the domestic market since the entry to the foreign market would generate profits loss due to fixed entry cost. In contrast, the least efficient firms die and exit from the market.

The last question remained is how to improve firms’ productivity.

The first way is to reduce firms’ various variable costs.

Another strategy is to have the Chinese government impose more favorable production policies or trade policies to support exporting firms within WTO rules.

But the crucial thing is better enforcement of the laws and stronger protection of property rights, which help create, both domestically and internationally, a fair and competitive market for firms.

There are many useful ways to foster China’s exports if Chinese firms and the Chinese government can take appropriate actions or adopt the right policies.

The author is an assistant professor in the China Center for Economic Research at Peking University

Filed under: Economics, global times

Is Hokkien My ‘Mother Tongue’?

Poignant, brilliant and perceptive writing by Singapore playwright Alfian Sa’at as he points out the simple truths about the melting pot of Singapore’s intercultural growth, leading to an inextricable confluence of language. This broth consequently led to the emergence of Chinese more aptly described as ‘Nanyang Chinese’ (like the old Straits Chinese) who really, at least right now, feel more at home with his Malay and Indian neighbours than their bloodline of ancestors and brothers/sisters from mainland China.

Quotable Quote – “There are even some Cantonese words that are now part of Malay parlance, such as pokai (broke or penniless), as well as samseng (gangster). Interestingly, it has been postulated that the word sam seng (three star) was derived from the fact that recruits from the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) used to wear caps emblazoned with three stars, each one representing one of the main races in Malaya: the Malays, Chinese and Indians.” Alfian Sa’at

Is Hokkien My ‘Mother Tongue’?
Alfian Sa’at
8 September 2009
Soruce – The Online Citizen

A long time ago, a Chinese man saw some Malays eating a fruit. It had a spiky shell, but its insides were filled with large seeds covered by yellow, buttery flesh. He had never seen (nor smelt!) a fruit like it before, in his native village in Fujian. He asked them what the fruit was called.

‘Durian’, they replied. This was from the Malay word for duri, which means ‘thorn’. And so the Chinese man went back and told his friends about this new fruit. As the word spread, it became incorporated into the Hokkien vocabulary as loo lian.

Then one day, a new fruit made its appearance, native to South America, possibly brought in by colonial travelers. It was also green, with a spiky exterior. In English, it was known as ‘soursop’.

The Malays had a tendency to append the word belanda (meaning ‘Dutch’) to anything foreign that they had never seen before. Examples include the Dutch goat (kambing belanda, or sheep), the Dutch chicken (ayam belanda, or turkey) and the Dutch cat (kucing belanda, or rabbit). So they called the fruit durian belanda.

The Hokkiens, on the other hand, called it ang mo loo lian. Ang mo (roughly meaning ‘Western’) was also used for other edibles, like ang mo kio (tomato) and ang mo chai thou (carrot). Thus the word ang mo loo lian now carries traces of Hokkien contact with both Malays and Westerners.

The study of loan words has always fascinated me, because they give clues to the kinds of social interactions that occurred in the past. At the beginning of this article, I sketched a scenario of how a single word from one language entered another. But the process is definitely much more complex, and would involve long-term, sustained contact. The chain of transmission might even involve an intermediary, such as the Straits Chinese (or Peranakans), whose Baba patois contains both Malay and Hokkien words.

I have often felt a sense of loss at the fact that the lingua franca among Singaporean Chinese is no longer the Southern Chinese languages (such as Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese), but Mandarin. A little bit of research revealed to me the words that were borrowed from Hokkien into Malay. These include: (note that ‘c’ in Malay has the ‘ch’ sound): beca (trishaw), bihun (vermicelli), cat (paint), cincai (anyhow), gua (I/me), guli (marbles), kentang (potato), kamceng (close), kuih(cake), kongsi (share), kuaci (melon seeds), teko (teapot), taugeh (bean sprout), tahu (beancurd) and tauke (boss).

This process of linguistic exchange was two-way, as demonstrated by these Malay words that have penetrated Hokkien: agak (guess or moderate), botak (bald), champur (mix), gadoh (fight), gaji (wages), jamban (toilet), kachiau (disturb), longkau (drain), loti (bread), otang (owe/debt), pumchet (puncture), pantang (superstitious/taboo), pakat (conspire), pasar (market), pitchia (break), salah (wrong), sapbun (soap), sinang (easy), senget (crooked), sukak (like), timun (cucumber),tiam (quiet) and torlong (help).

There are even some Cantonese words that are now part of Malay parlance, such as pokai (broke or penniless), as well as samseng (gangster). Interestingly, it has been postulated that the word sam seng (three star) was derived from the fact that recruits from the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) used to wear caps emblazoned with three stars, each one representing one of the main races in Malaya: the Malays, Chinese and Indians.

In the army, one of the things that we were told by a sergeant was that ‘over here, Hokkien is your mother tongue’. But this was based on stereotypes: that Hokkien was a gendered, macho language (with the most pungent swear words) and the primal expression of working-class angst (as exemplified by the tattooed Hokkien-peng squatting and glowering in the yellow smoking box).

But considering how Hokkien words have entered the Malay language, I have realized that there is a larger truth to that statement. It’s like tracing a family tree and then discovering that I had a Hokkien great-great-great-great grandmother. As a matter of fact, since almost two-thirds of the Malay lexicon consists of borrowings, I definitely had Arabic and Indian (linguistic) ancestors too.

Malays have a saying, bahasa jiwa bangsa, which means, ‘language is the soul of a race’. But I’ve always noted a tension in the phrase. We tend to think of ‘race’ as something that is often bounded and rigid, defining it in terms of bloodline descents. But ‘language’ does not have such impermeable borders. Words of various origins pass through open checkpoints, undergo shifts in meaning, and become naturalized over time.

Thus, as much as we’d like to be essentialist about our ‘race’, we cannot escape from the hybridities already extant in our language. There is humility in the idea that no language is perfect on its own, and will borrow words to make up for its lack. If I’m feeling schmaltzy I’d even imagine this as a scene from the movie Jerry Maguire, where Tom Cruise utters to Renée Zellwegger the words, ‘You complete me.’ I also imagine her replying, ‘Shut up…just shut up. You had me at hoh boh.’

In Royston Tan’s getai musical, ‘881’, the main song started with ‘jit lang jit pua, kamcheng buay sua’ (one half for each [friend], relationships will not dissipate). The following line was ‘jit lang jit su ku, kamcheng jia eh ku’ (a quarter for each, relationships will endure). I had always wondered why Hokkien often resonated with me much more than Mandarin. And my guess is that this has to do with my recognition of some words, like kamcheng and su ku (which means ‘quarter’ in Malay).

Similarly, the well-loved comedians Wang Sa and Ye Fong not only switched among the different languages with ease, they expected audiences to do so as well. Malay idioms and phrases were common. Their trademark remark, whenever a situation was deemed to have gone out of hand, was: ‘Ah di ah, aga aga jiu hor ar’: ‘Hey [brother], you would do well to act in moderation (aga aga)’.

My Hokkien friends who travel overseas would often relate to me the sense of dislocation they feel when speaking to other Hokkien-speakers. A friend who went to Taiwan, for example, was surprised to note that they did not understand what loti meant. Another friend shared a story about the nuances of the word pokai in Hong Kong. At the end of the month, he moaned out loud at the office kam chi pokai le (‘I’m broke this time’) and all eyes turned on him. Pokai meant ‘broke’ in Singapore, but the reason why his colleagues reacted was because pokai (literally, ‘cast out on the streets’) in Hong Kong meant something worse, like being destitute on the streets, or being beaten up.

Because we are inundated by messages that often emphasise cultural purism, it is easy to interpret these instances as cases where the Chinese from this part of the world have been ‘contaminated’ by other cultures. I happen to take the opposite view: the Nanyang Chinese has evolved an identity of their own, incorporating elements of the other cultures that surround them. That this has been possible is a testament to their openness, curiosity and lack of insularity—a far cry from the global stereotype of cliquish and ethnocentric Chinese immigrants.

Much ink (and tears) has been spilled on how the Speak Mandarin Campaign has resulted in what some have called the ‘cultural lobotomy’ of the Chinese community. In many ways, I find great sympathy with the late Kuo Pao Kun’s observation that Chinese Singaporeans are ‘cultural orphans’. After all, they were forcibly snatched from their biological Southern Chinese bosoms and placed in the laps of Mandarin-speaking foster mothers.

A familiar lament is that the declining use of the Southern Chinese languages has resulted in the estrangement between generations of Chinese Singaporeans. But I’d also argue that it has also led to some kind of estrangement among the various races. I don’t know if I should worry about the fact that these days, the traffic of loan words has almost ceased between Malay and Mandarin. It is perhaps premature to theorise that this is a symptom of lesser interaction between these races, as compared to the past—after all, there is English to mediate our communication with one another.

But the fact remains that I don’t know of a single Malay word that has Mandarin origins. Which is why I feel it’s all the more urgent to preserve the variety of Southern Chinese languages spoken here (I refuse to call them ‘dialects’). They are reminders of the mingling and blending that has occurred here in Singapore; the very metabolism of what we understand not simply as ‘multiracialism’ but a deeper, more engaged ‘interculturalism’.

Somehow, our forefathers, of various races, knew how to pakat against common enemies, were able to kongsi their resources, and in the process of all that champur became kamcheng with one another. The product of their alliances, friendships and inter-marriages is reflected in the language they have passed on to us. To lose this legacy is to sever a vital connection not only to the historical origins of the Nanyang Chinese, but also to Singapore’s dynamic multicultural past.

(My profuse thanks to Lai Chee Kien for input into this article)

Filed under: Culture, International Relations, Online Citizen, Singapore

Singapore can learn much from China

A very timely piece that’ll be useful for me. It’s crunch time as it has become time to submit the research proposal. Wish me luck people.

Quotable Quote – “…while there are still some lessons China could learn from Singapore, it is no longer a one-way flow.” Singapore’s Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong

Singapore can learn much from China
Source – AsiaOne 4 September 2009

THERE is much for Singapore to learn from China.

This was Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s response when asked about the achievements and transformations of China over the past 30 years.

In an interview conducted in August by the Director of the Thailand branch of China News Service, Mr Gu Shihong, SM Goh replied in writing stating that while there are still some lessons China could learn from Singapore, it is no longer a one-way flow.

He brought up Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Singapore in 1978, in which he saw a first-hand account of how Southern Chinese had settled and progressed in Singapore, and felt that China could achieve the same results with its much bigger population.

Now, SM Goh said that each time he visited China, he was left impressed by its new urban landscape, skyscrapers, wide motorways and obvious signs of a higher standard of living, as opposed to how the country was pre-1978.

The greater change, he replied, is the mindset of the Chinese towards modernisation based on market principles.

Besides praising China for its reformation over the past decades, the Senior Minister also wrote about the many aspects in which both countries have cooperated.

He mentioned that the key pillar in bilateral cooperation with China is human resource development, in which there are tailored programmes for Chinese officials in Singapore to fit the needs and national conditions of China.

On the education level, there are extensive collaborations between the two and when it came to doing business, China continues to be an exciting investment destination for Singapore companies, while Singapore continues to be an attractive base for China companies to expand their international reach.

This year, relationship with China had also reached a new milestone with the signing of the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (CSFTA).

One of the many struggles both countries face is the ever-expanding income divide. SM Goh stressed that China and Singapore no exceptions as it is a challenge all market economies face.
He also said that Singapore is ready to share its sustainable development for a cleaner and greener environment.

Environment protection is a contradictory problem that China is facing due to its economic expansion.

Filed under: AsiaOne, International Relations, Singapore

Chinese diplomacy can’t rest on its laurels

A highly useful perspective that cuts through the fog about Chinese diplomacy.

Quoteable Quote“Sometimes China is shouldering responsibilities that surpasses its strength. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. In a way, it gives you soft power. Of course you have to pay for that. Soft power often needs a solid economic base.” Gao Zhikai

Chinese diplomacy can’t rest on its laurels
Source – Global Times, 4 September 2009

Editor’s Note:

China’s diplomacy has chartered a twisting road in the past 60 years. As the country is poised to be a major power in the world, what lessons it has learned from the past six decades, and what’s the future direction of its diplomacy? The following is an interview conducted by the Global Times (GT) with Hao Yufan (Hao), Professor of Political Science at the University of Macau, and Gao Zhikai (Gao), current affairs commentator.

GT: How do you see the gains and losses of Chinese diplomacy over the past 60 years in retrospect, especially the long-time issues that haven’t been solved?

Hao: As for the shortcomings, in the first 30 years, that is from 1949 to 1979, China was relatively independent from the international system.

We emphasized being independent, partly due to the political environment back then, and sometimes we stood against two superpowers simultaneously. But that was dangerous in a way and we were isolated.

The 30 years of reform and opening-up has been a learning process for China. And we learned well during our interaction with the rest of the world. The downside is that we are still passive in our involvement in international affairs and international discourse. We are still learning.

For China and the rest of the world, China has transformed from a revolutionary, “outlaw” type of country into a responsible one, willing to maintain the status quo. That’s the biggest achievement of the past 60 years.

But even today we don’t have an overall strategy for our diplomacy. In the past we were on the defensive, busy handling situations, and didn’t have a long term, systematic strategy that ensures the consistency of our foreign policies.

A country’s diplomatic strategy should serve its ultimate goals. On certain level, we should consider: What are China’s ultimate goals in the next 20 years?

Gao: China today is a major force for peace and stability in the world, and its diplomatic independence has positioned the country well to play a crucially important role in many regional and international issues in the world.

Furthermore, as its economy is already the third largest in the world, and its growth rate is much higher than the rest of the world, China is destined to have more important roles to play in the years to come.

On the other hand, China is also confronted with many daunting challenges in its diplomacy.

For example,how to make the rest of the world, especially the Western countries, understand China’s growth better? How to prevent major divides between China and the West? How to make sure that China’s relations with its neighboring countries are peaceful and mutually beneficial? How to make sure that many territorial disputes and controversies are well dealt with without flaring up into any armed conflicts? How to identify and play an increasingly more important role in the world that is commensurate to China’s growing economic might? How to maintain China’s domestic stability and development on the one hand and promote international harmony and peace on the other hand?

All these are major tasks that China needs to grapple with in its diplomatic theory and practice.

GT: How do you see the current diplomatic challenges China faces now?

Gao: There are many people and forces in the West who, for one reason or another, want to put China as an enemy or potential enemy of the world.

This is not only a major diplomatic challenge China needs to address, but is also intricately related to many important issues at home, including Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang.

China needs to be more effective and eloquent in communicating with the Western countries that we stand for peace, stability, harmony and development.

China needs to constantly improve its diplomatic theory and practice in line with the rapid development of its economy and the growing weight it carries in global trade and international finance.

If one is lagging behind the other, then China’s diplomacy may either become less effective, or its potentials for world peace and stability and development may not be fully utilized.

We need wisdom and a sense of urgency in dealing with many tough issues we are confronted with.

Another weakness in China’s diplomacy is that we stay on the defensive too much and for too long.

Any expectation that we may be able to sit through an issue, and many problems may solve by their own momentum may be false.

On major issues like Tibet, China needs to come up with greater initiative and greater wisdom in achieving a lasting solution for issues.

Throughout Chinese history, as soon as a dynasty prospered it started to lose the sense of urgency, and many people simply began to indulge in the good life.

Therefore, we need to make sure that the great economic miracles and the peace and prosperity we enjoy now at home do not blind us to the harsh realities at home and abroad, and do not deplete our dynamism, innovation and momentum for even greater achievements.

Hao: Europe, the US and Japan are taken aback by China’s rapid development. Though they are adjusting their attitude toward China, in fact they don’t want to see China grow too fast, but couldn’t find a reason to persuade China to slow down.

What can they do? As far as they know, the only thing they can do is finding faults with China’s political system.

Take the July 5 riots in Xinjiang for example. Some overseas scholars told me that such things happen in some so-called democratic countries in Asia quite often. But the Western elites will not point fingers at them because they find it inevitable that economic inequality causes racial or ethnic conflicts in many developing countries. But when it comes to China, they criticize China’s political system or communism.

Meanwhile there’s a certain degree of jealousy and prejudice, as they overemphasize the difference in political systems. I don’t think they actually see China as an opponent, but are adjusting to China’s rising status. Therefore it is not a fundamental conflict, and we need to think of a solution.

Gao: One thing we need to think about carefully is whether the US would ever allow China to peacefully rise to such an extent that its economy eventually surpasses the US economy? Is this something inevitable or irreversible? Or will some forces be deployed to make sure that it will not happen, at least not in a peaceful way?

How to make sure that the US and China will never have a major conflict with each other? How can we make sure that the US will not feel (or think it feels) threatened by the rapid peaceful rise of China? Can both China and the US come up with enough wisdom and vision so that we will not fall into the historical curse of conflict and come up instead with a new model of long-term cooperation rather than eventual conflict?

GT: For a long time we have abided by the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. Today China is asked to take more international responsibilities. Is it a contradiction?

Hao: China’s rapid development has led to higher demands from the international community, and in turn, China needs to respond to the expectations and requirements of being one of the world’s greatest countries.

China is the world’s biggest developing country. That statement stayed unchallenged until recent years. The West doesn’t want to give China a free ride.

What we have here is a gap between conception and reality. Perhaps China is not as powerful as the great powers in the world, but when the people, leaders and media worldwide see you as a superpower, they will hold you to that standard.

Sometimes China is shouldering responsibilities that surpasses its strength. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. In a way, it gives you soft power. Of course you have to pay for that. Soft power often needs a solid economic base.

Gao: I think we need to look at it from two sides. There’s nothing wrong with peaceful coexistence or harmony. But it takes two to tango.

What if you want to seek harmony and peaceful coexistence, but your opponent wants to seek your destruction and derailment?

We also need to decide on which matters we need to be tough and principled, but on which other matters can we soften up as much as we can, and demonstrate all the flexibility that we can?

We also need to move from a moralistic foundation of diplomacy to a legalistic foundation of diplomacy. What does that mean?

For example, rather than jumping out of our seat in condemnation each time a senior Japanese government official visits the Yasukuni Shrine, which memorializes some war criminals, we could promulgate a law or regulation denying such officials visas to visit China.

In a sense, harmony should be based on the rule of law, both at home and in the international arena.

Filed under: global times, International Relations

Chinese are world champions at sleeping

In a sense, so are Singaporean males who’ve made it through compulsory military service. Much of our time in military training was spent in transit, either sleeping in moving trucks, in trenches dug into the ground, or just standing still during a parade. I guess for the Chinese it applies to both males and females, and for drastically different motivations.

Quotable Quote – If sleeping were to become an Olympic sport, China would win gold, silver, and bronze. In fact all other nations probably wouldn’t bother turning up, defeated from the start by the unequivocal Champions of Sleep.”

Chinese are world champions at sleeping
By Marcus McAdam
Foreign View
Source – Global Times, 3 September 2009

I am fortunate to have a job that has led me all over the world, witnessing the diversity of countless cultures, and being fascinated by their contrasts.

The most obvious differences are the way we eat or spend leisure time, but we are taught to do these, so such differences are hardly surprising. But some more instinctual or natural activities vary little throughout the world.

For example, a person laughing in Russia looks the same as a person laughing in Argentina, Greece, or Uganda. Sleep is another natural activity that we all do on a daily basis, yet somehow no one can do this more effortlessly than the Chinese.

The infinite number of environments in which a Chinese person can sleep is nothing short of incredible. They can do it lying, sitting, or sometimes standing. They can do it in a quiet, noisy, or even hectic place. They can do it at any time of day, and seemingly without any hint of self-consciousness.

I was once on the furniture floor of a large department store in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, where all the beds, chairs, and sofas had people sleeping in them. Confused as to what was going on, I asked a local friend to find out what all these people were doing.

A quick look at my watch confirmed it was 3:15 pm, and while my friend went off to enquire, I counted 43 people asleep on the furniture. I thought maybe they were customers trying out the items before they committed to a purchase, but this seemed rather extreme. I then thought that maybe they were real life mannequins – cheaper to employ actual people than buy plastic ones?

I particularly admired the woman who had chosen a massage chair to fall asleep in. With her mouth wide open, and head rolling franticly from side to side, she seemed totally oblivious to the violent shaking she was receiving from the electric chair.

My friend returned with the news that all these people were actually the store’s cleaning staff who worked overnight. Most of them lived too far away from downtown Nanjing to go home during the day, so instead they just got into the beds on the furniture floor.

I thought this was genius, but saw a flaw in the plan. I asked what would happen if I wanted to buy an item of furniture in which someone was sleeping. Would it be delivered discreetly to my home, so as not to wake the occupant? And what would I tell them when they eventually woke up in my bedroom?

Another environment where Chinese people can sleep without any effort is on a train. I remember being on an overnight service from Shanghai to Changsha, Hunan Province, and found myself sharing a soft-bed cabin with three other Chinese men.

Within seconds of turning off the light, all of them were snoring so loudly that I thought they must be joking with me. However, 20 minutes later, I started to realize the depressing truth that this was in fact real. One guy sounded like a hippopotamus with a breathing disorder. He was sleeping directly below me, and every time he exhaled, the vibration reverberated through my bed.

Along with the other two accomplices, the volume of this snoring trio was such that it actually drowned out the noise from a goods train passing by on the adjacent track at 200 kilometers per hour.

Needless to say, I got no sleep before arriving in Changsha, yet these three awoke with the freshness of spring rabbits, and had obviously slept like babies.

I have also experienced the Chinese office sleep, which to any foreigner is nothing but a mystery. All of a sudden, every person in the office will simultaneously stop working, lay down on a hard floor or on their desk, before being completely unconscious in less than 20 seconds. No amount of phones ringing or doors banging seems to be able to disrupt the office workers from their deep sleep, yet after sufficient rest time has passed, everyone suddenly wakes up and continues the day as though it never paused.

The same thing happens on buses, in city parks, and in Internet cafes. Seldom can you visit any of these places without finding someone asleep, unaware of the world around them. I once saw a man asleep while having his hair cut.

It seems there is no limit to the possibilities of places and environments in which Chinese can sleep.

If sleeping were to become an Olympic sport, China would win gold, silver, and bronze. In fact all other nations probably wouldn’t bother turning up, defeated from the start by the unequivocal Champions of Sleep.

The author is a UK-based freelance writer and photographer

Illustration by Liu Rui – Global Times
Date of Access – 7 September 2009

Filed under: Culture, global times

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