Tracing the history of Chinese immigrants

SINGAPORE - Back in the 1930s when Lee Khoon Choy was a seven-year-old enrolled in Primary 1 at St Mark's School in Butterworth, he was puzzled why the Peranakans (descendants of Chinese immigrants who married local Malay or Indian women) could not speak, read or write Chinese even though they followed many Chinese customs and cultural practices.

He would have become one of them, he says, if not for a quick switch from the Catholic school to the Chinese-medium Yeok Keow School there - much against his father's wishes.

"I didn't know why, but I just felt very uncomfortable with the environment at St Mark's where Chinese wasn't taught," he says.

The former senior minister of state and retired diplomat, an old guard of the People's Action Party (PAP), remembers that his late father Lee Kim Fook, then a wealthy rubber plantation owner and philanthropist in Penang, chased him out of the house with a broom for leaving St Mark's, the school which most well-to-do Chinese families wanted their children to attend.

"My father, a former Customs officer for the British colonial government, sent me and all my other siblings - 11 brothers and five sisters - to English-medium schools because he believed that our futures depended on our mastery of the English language, not Chinese," says Mr Lee, now 89.

A full-time author, he has been writing both in English and Chinese since retiring from politics in 1984, and as a business consultant a few years ago.

His tiff with his father was resolved after the Chinese school's principal spoke up for him, and the elder Mr Lee, who incidentally was also the school management board chairman, later gave his blessings.

"But I became the black sheep of the family as all my other siblings never learnt Chinese," says Mr Lee.

He went on to the prestigious Chung Ling High School in Penang before becoming a journalist - first with Sin Chew Jit Poh in Malaysia in 1946, and in the newspaper's Singapore office in 1949.

He left journalism in 1959, when he was a reporter with The Straits Times, and contested successfully in the general election that same year as a PAP candidate. The party won by a landslide to form the government.

He believes that his switch to a Chinese-medium school helped sow the seeds for what has become his 11th and latest book: Golden Dragon And Purple Phoenix.

It traces the history of Chinese immigrants in 10 South-east Asian countries, including Singapore, and tells of how they intermingled, integrated and assimilated into their respective local communities and helped shape the region's socio-political landscape today.

His other works include Passage Through China (2007), Pioneers Of Modern China (2005) and A Fragile Nation - The Indonesian Crisis (1999).

"Even as a boy, I wondered why the Chinese, through assimilation, had to give up their own language and identity and I wanted to find out more," he said in a Sunday Times interview last week. The new book will be launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Star Performing Arts Centre in Buona Vista this week.

His research on Chinese immigrants - who moved to South-east Asia from as early as the Song Dynasty more than 1,000 years ago or earlier - began when he became a journalist in the mid-1940s and when he started travelling to South-east Asian countries.

"I started collecting information for the book by reading and talking to academics, political and business leaders at the time - many of them with Chinese linkages," he recalls.

Hence the 584-page tome, which he spent the past eight years writing, including during a short stint as a senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in 2005, was more than half-a-century in the making.

His research continued when he became a politician in 1959; as the then Parliamentary Secretary for Culture in the Government, he often led cultural troupes from Singapore that performed in other South-east Asian countries, and even when he became Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia from 1974 to 1978.

He remembers meeting Professor Slamet Muljana in Indonesia who told him about the Islamisation of the Chinese in Java, and said that of the nine Wali Songo or Muslim Saints who helped overthrow the Hindu Majapahit Empire in the 16th century, eight of them were Chinese.

"I also met many political leaders from South-east Asia who were Chinese and had long discussions with them about their ancestry; they included former Philippine foreign minister Carlos Rumulo and former Thai prime minister Chatichai Choonhaven."

One of his last interviews was conducted as recently as last year in Hong Kong where he met 84-year-old Cambodian Ng Xi Beng, a former Chinese Communist Party spy who witnessed the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge on the ethnic Chinese in Phnom Penh in the 1970s.

In his book, Mr Lee writes that descendants of Chinese immigrants who intermarried and assimilated in South-east Asia are called by different names in different countries. They are known as Peranakans in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, but in the Philippines they are called Mestizos, in Thailand as Lokjins, in Myanmar as Tayoke Kabya, in Cambodia as Konkat Cen, in Vietnam as Min Huong, and in Laos as Sino-Lao. Brunei has no specific name for the Chinese descendants.

In the chapter on Singapore's Chinese, Mr Lee described them as "Westernised Singaporeans" because they were first led and governed by Peranakans or Babas, who included Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and the late Dr Toh Chin Chye and Dr Goh Keng Swee.

Mr Lee said he wrote the book as a journalist and that it was not a historical account nor academic thesis. Hence his own personal encounters and experiences were also added in the narrative.

In the foreword to the book, President Tony Tan Keng Yam praised Mr Lee for drawing on his personal insights, careful research and observations to write such an "important book to add yet another layer to the rich and complex story of the Chinese in South-east Asia".

Professor K.K. Phua, 71, chairman of World Scientific Publishing, the publisher of the book, said the work was "unique" as it dealt in detail with the assimilation of Chinese immigrants in South-east Asia in such a readable manner.

Not one to rest, Mr Lee disclosed that his next book is already in the works. It will be on the history of the PAP and titled: My Role In The Hustings, and is a sequel to his autobiography, On The Beat To The Hustings, published in 1988.

"I am targeting the book to be out next year when I turn 90," he quipped.