MALAYSIA - A mosque that looks like a Chinese temple in Ipoh, Perak, and a Moroccan-style garden in Putrajaya are some of the foreign-flavoured landmarks that Malaysians are proud of.
Now the Federation of Hakka Associations of Malaysia wants to up the ante by building an entire Hakka village in Balik Pulau, in the south-west of Penang island.
The landmark will be a massive, circular building modelled on one in the famous Tulou village in Fujian province, China. It will be the first to be built outside China.
Traditionally a large communal residence for Hakkas, the tulou, which means "building made of earth" in Mandarin, is synonymous with the community's culture.
Some of the structures in China have been around for 700 years, built as a dwelling place for a group of people who left their homeland in northern China to settle in southern China. These people are known as Hakkas, which mean "family of guests" in Mandarin.
That is why the association wants to build something similar here, said Dr Cheah See Kian, deputy president of the Hakka federation. "We want to commemorate the Hakkas' arrival in Malaysia since the 18th century," he told The Sunday Times in a phone interview recently.
Ever since a group from Taiwan identified Balik Pulau as the earliest Hakka settlement in Malaysia, he said, "it has been our dream to build a tulou".
Penang may be well known for its Hokkien community, but Balik Pulau, which means "back of the island" in colloquial Malay, saw the first Hakkas arrive in the early 18th century, before the British colonial era.
Later, more Chinese Hakkas were brought in by the British to work, mainly in tin mines scattered across Malaya. Some Hakka communities also live in Sabah and Sarawak and many still speak the dialect today.
Dr Cheah, who is the chief planner of the Hakka village, said an investor has donated an 8ha piece of land to house the tulou in this idyllic part of Penang, which is well known for its durian plantations.
Another group of anonymous businessmen from Kuala Lumpur is funding the construction, estimated to cost RM20 million (S$7.8 million).
The tulou, which will be ready in three years, will include a hotel, restaurant and a museum showing the history of Balik Pulau and the Hakkas in Malaysia.
Hakkas make up about 20 per cent of the Chinese Malaysian population of seven million. They are one of the largest Chinese dialect groups in the country.
Across generations, the Hakka community has branched into business, and at one point in time, was known for opening Chinese medicine halls. Some found their fortune in tin mining.
"As most Hakkas were tin mine workers, they were among the first to live in and develop tin mining towns across the country, and some of these towns have now become Malaysia's most prominent cities," Dr Voon Phin Keong, director of the Institute of Malaysia and Regional Studies at New Era College in Kajang, Selangor, said.
Perhaps the most famous Hakka is Yap Ah Loy, a tin mining tycoon who transformed Kuala Lumpur from a village into a commercial and mining centre in the 1800s.
That entrepreneurial spirit that the Chinese Hakkas are known for is still visible today.
Ms Maggie Fong, 45, originally from Johor, runs a Hakka-themed homestay in Balik Pulau, where guests sleep in traditional wooden houses and eat Hakka dishes.
Since its opening in December last year, Ms Fong said, she has had about 1,000 visitors every month to her restaurant and homestay. "I want the world to know of Balik Pulau's history," she said. "After all, the Hakkas have historically been treated well as guests and so it is in our blood to be hospitable to others as well."
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