Onn Huann Jan, Director, Dept of Chinese Studies, Southern College, Malaysia/photos courtesy of the Char Yong (Dabu) Association/tr. by Scott Williams
Hakka account for about 20% of Malaysia's 7 million ethnic Chinese. The four national censuses conducted between 1957 and 1980 show that Malaysia had a population of about 1.5 million Hakka, making them the nation's second-largest Chinese ethnicity after the Fujianese.
By the late-Ming and early-Qing era, a group of Hakka from Wuhua had established a gold mine in the Galas area of south-central Kelantan. Wuhua is one of the traditional Kaying Five Districts and is known for the exceptionally doughty and diligent character of its people.
With the discovery of tin in Malaysia in the mid-19th century, large numbers of Hakka began coming from Huizhou and Meixian to the states of Perak, Selangor, and Negeri Sembilan to develop tin mines.
In the early 20th century, Hakka struck out into the interior of the state of Johor, located at the southern end of the Malay peninsula, where they cleared land to raise pigs and grow pineapples, rubber trees, and vegetables. In the process, they turned unproductive forest and into fertile farmland, and in some cases even formed Hakka villages. Most of these pioneering Hakka farmers originated in Hebo (near Jieyang, Guangdong Province), Huizhou, and Fengshun.
In the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak, Hakka currently account for one-third of the ethnic Chinese population.
In 1777, Low Lan Pak founded the Lanfang Republic in western Borneo. To facilitate trade, the republic established a presidency and turned itself into a Qing vassal state. At the height of its power, local native villages acknowledged its rule, giving it effective control of virtually the entire island of Borneo. The Dutch invaded in 1884, eventually conquering the republic. Its populace fled to Bau where they formed a "company" involved in mining and agriculture. The predominantly Hebo-Hakka Bau went on to become one of the first economically developed towns in Sarawak.
The early 20th century marked the peak of the Hakka's overseas migration. Driven by poverty from their hometowns, most ended up in Southeast Asia.
The majority of these made their way abroad as shuike who carried goods and money between their native places and overseas communities on behalf of overseas Chinese. Many also led new emigres abroad after lending them their travel expenses. Still others, when asked to do so by their elders or hired by fellow villagers, would deliver young brides-to-be to their future spouses in other lands. With one villager bringing along another, who would bring still another, Hakka communities gradually began to take shape in Malaysia. Once a community formed, the Hakka speakers of a given dialect or native place would establish their own association. The Hakka communities in Penang and Melaka were the first to establish such groups, which included Kaying (Jiaying), Huizhou, and Zenglong associations.
Traditional Hakka businesses
In Malaysia's coastal cities, Hakka, largely from Dabu and Kaying, ran businesses requiring little capital, such as stores dealing in Western clothing, dry goods, fabric, Chinese medicines, eyeglasses and clocks, as well as pawnshops and smithies. In fact, these were to become typically Hakka businesses both in Singapore and Malaysia.
Though most of the new emigres, whether led by shuike or relatives, were from impoverished backgrounds, they had skills or knew a trade. Even those that didn't possessed an indomitable Hakka spirit that enabled them to subsist on "ginger and vinegar" while enduring any hardship.
Emigres who arrived alone often started off by working in the shop of an already established relative or other native of their hometown. There, they learned the business, whether Chinese medicine, fabrics and sewing, clocks and eyeglasses, or clothing and dry goods, gradually gaining experience until they were ready to establish their own shop. Many went on to be very successful in their own right.
Then, as now, the Hakka placed great emphasis on education. In 1904 they led the effort to establish Malaysia's first "modern" Chinese school in Penang.
The Hakka associations also founded a number of other well known schools, including Kuala Lumpur's Tsun Jin High School and Ipoh's Shen Jai High School. Chung Keng Quee, Cheong Fatt Tze, Dai Xinran, and Foo Choo Choon were all at the forefront of efforts to establish Chinese-language education in Malaysia. More recently, three Hakkas-Chen Jimo, Lin Huangsheng, and Hu Wanduo have served as chairmen of the United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia. And Malaysia's first Chinese institution of higher learning-Southern College-was built on land donated by another Hakka, Siow Wan Heong.
The three R's
The Hakka have a history of roaming, and they have always suffered when circumstances, whether upheaval, privation, or being stuck in a poor, remote locale, prevented them from devoting themselves to the quiet pursuit of knowledge. As a result, they have always treasured the educational opportunities they have had.
When we asked shopkeepers operating Chinese-medicine shops about this, they told us that most of the people who used to apprentice in these traditionally Hakka businesses were from poor families that couldn't provide them with the opportunity to pursue a formal education. Their families would therefore send them to the shops at age 12 or 13 to be apprentices and do odd jobs.
In the earliest stage of their apprenticeship, these young people were restricted to the back of the shop, where they cleaned and prepared food. And it wasn't just the boss who was tough on them. Even the head and assistant clerks gave the new arrivals a hard time, and didn't teach them anything. Instead, the youngsters had to rely on their own initiative to learn. They were only allowed to enter the shop after it had closed, taking a pencil and notebook behind the counter to practice their reading and writing beside the medicine drawers.
But don't underestimate the value of those medicine drawers. A typical traditional Chinese pharmacy has a huge number of them, filling shelf after long shelf stacked all the way to the ceiling, each containing four to six boxes filled with different medicinal ingredients. All told, a shop might have one or two thousand drawers, every one labeled with the names of its contents.
Constant exposure to these drawers and their own groping efforts at recognition enabled apprentices to learn many Chinese characters and gradually add to their knowledge in the evenings. Originally illiterate youngsters became literate and went on to earn their own livings, some excelling in their trade and even becoming cultured "literati businessmen." One can't help but admire such a love of learning.
(The authors wish to thank Lang Chin Ngau, head of the Char Yong (Dabu) Association, and Dr. Thock Kiah Wah, president of Southern College, for their great help in preparing this article.)