My growing interest and readings in the history and sociology of Malaysia has got me thinking. There is very little help from reference sources on the net in the matter that which I am going to write below. I bear full responsibility for the essay content which is mainly a result of analytical thinking on my part based on known history and my own readings....may not be what kids are learning in schools today though.
Let me begin by stating that almost all of the pekans (little towns) and the major towns and cities in West Malaysia of today particularly in the west coast were started by the Chinese immigrants to Malaya. They may or may not have existed before the influx of the Chinese into Malaya in the 1790's. The much earlier and also much smaller Chinese immigration to Melaka in the 15th century is not the subject of this discussion.
The Great Famine in South China in the early 19th century drove many young Chinese to leave the country and to come to Tanah Melayu in droves by sailing in junks, which were all wind-powered. Another reason was their involvement in the triads (secret societies) and for being hounded by the Manchus. Many Chinese and Malaysians in the country also do not realize that the Chinese were forbidden by the Chin Dynasty emperor from leaving China and those who left were considered to be ‘traitors’, and should they return, they would be arrested and hanged.
Surprisingly, an interesting aspect of this episode on the Chinese immigration to Tanah Melayu was the role played by the Melayu hosts, who welcome the Chinese who comprised mostly of the young and confused and sickly, which has seldom been acknowledged before. Without Melayu support for them, most of them would not have survived a week living in Tanah Melayu.
The only provision available for the Chinese to leave China then was for them to not return, ever; and that they should abide by the laws of the countries they are in and for them to follow the local ways and adopt their lifestyles and languages. This was what the earlier Chinese Babas and Nyonyas had done when they embraced Melayu cultures and lifestyles without losing their own peculiar identity, so much so that they stopped speaking in Chinese especially Hokkien. This Chinese exodus also affected Indonesia and Thailand.
Empty land was plentiful in Malaya and the Chinese immigrants slowly settled in such places and grew vegetables and did animal husbandry initially. The locations or remoteness did not
The discovery of tin was a major booster to the Chinese community. Settlements now began to grow around mining areas and mostly populated by the Chinese. As the numbers grew specialization of trade took place. Coffee shops, sundry shops, hardware shops, tailors, barbers, opium dens, funeral homes and even brothels grew and under the protection of various triads. The ones that grew and became big were called towns and the smaller and possibly more remote ones were called pekans. If you happen to see a Chinese graveyard anywhere in Malaya like at Bangi etc. remember that the Chinese had been mining there.
Examples of the towns / bandars that “litter” the west coast from north to south are Alor Setar, Sg. Petani, Kulim, Gopeng, Taiping, Ipoh, Tapah, Slim River, Tg. Malaim, Rawang, Kuala Lumpur, Kajang, Seremban, Tampin, Ayer Hitam, Labis, Segamat, Yong Peng, Kulai, Pulai and so on. Examples of pekans which is the name for smaller towns with one main road with shops on both sides) would be Slim River, Kepong, Puchong, Sg. Besi, Mantin, Beranang, Broga, Lenggeng, Siliau, Rantau, Kepong and so on.
With British intervention after several requests from the Malay sultans a much better social order and control prevailed at the Chinese settlements. The British just identified the leading thus in the community and made him the chief with the title of Kapitan China to lord over the Chinese settlement and collect taxes for them and the sultans. Meanwhile, the British intervention in the Malay states also saw the rubber potential it is well-known how they started the rubber plantation industry mainly with the imported indentured laborers from India to man them. This was because the Malays and the Chinese preferred their own life-styles at the kampongs and the pekans and mining towns. In short, they were not exactly too willing to do the work of clearing large tracts of jungles, forests and planting rubber there. Malaria was also a very common killer disease then and many Indians succumbed to this disease.
To transport tin and rubber the British went on to build roads and the railroads by merely “ joining the dots” from north to south which was all the Chinese settlements from Alor Star to Johor Baru. These former Chinese settlements / pekans had also begun to grow and prosper. A typical pekan would have Chinese rubber dealers who collected rubber products (sheets and scrap) from the small holders around the town (Malays and Chinese). Then there were Indian barbers, Chinese run hardware and sundry shops selling things like knives and hoes (cangkuls), pails and so on. Assorted Chinese makan shops too emerged and we must not forget the ubiquitous Malabari Indian Muslim shop which primarily appeared to serve the Muslims who lived around the pekans.
The same story existed in the bigger towns which besides the aforesaid had more extended businesses and establishments including smoking dens, toddy shops, brothels, petrol stations, cinemas, groceries including Indian, bicycle shops, book shops and so on so forth. Places of worship too were built for all faiths and of course these towns also became administrative centres for the British to house the police and other civil service departments which had been set up besides offices and power stations for the various utility boards and so on.
So the next time you see a Chinese graveyard somewhere you least expect it or a Hindu temple in the middle of nowhere remember that they are tell-tale signs of the earlier Chinese and Indians who had been there. Also remember that the Chinese were there whenever you see a small or big lake in Malaya even a lake garden....they were once tin mining pools and man-made.
End of story