‘Gambier Road, lima puluh. Ini pasar ikan. Ini pasar babi.’
The elderly man wearing a white songkok is pointing to a picture of the Gambier Road markets from 1950. This is the fish market. This is the pork market. I’ve found a show on Netflix called Jason’s Market Trails, where the host, Jason Yeoh, visits markets throughout Malaysia. Episode 10 takes place in Kuching Stutong Market—a market I’ve visited with my parents, in the city where my whole family was born. It’s a small grace to find a sliver of Kuching anywhere; for when people think of Malaysia, they think of the peninsula. I say Kuching, then when I meet no recognition I say Sarawak, the state, then I say east Malaysia, the general direction.
Though Jason narrates the show in Mandarin, he switches seamlessly to Malay as the man explains that many of the Stutong vendors had been at the Gambier Road markets until they were destroyed to build the new Kuching waterfront. ‘Sayang,’ says the man; what a pity, what a waste. ‘Oh, the old wet markets,’ Mum says, ‘I hardly went because it was hard to find parking.’
‘Your grandpa used to sell fish at those markets,’ says Dad. ‘We’d take the six-hour boat ride from the kampung into Kuching. He would buy other supplies, pork if we were lucky, then sleep in the boat and go home the next day.’ Pasar ikan. Pasar babi.
That rojak of language, that mix, is the sound of my childhood, even though much of it was spent overseas in New Zealand.
Jason moves, almost without needing to think, between Mandarin and Malay, English, Hokkien. Each blurs into each as everyone, even when not speaking Malay, refers to market by the Malay word pasar. To the untrained ear, it sounds indistinguishable from the rest, so seamless is the blend. Malaysians, Indonesians, and Singaporeans eat a spicy salad of diced fruit and vegetables called rojak. Each area has its own version—the Malaysian variety I grew up with adds Chinese yew char kueh (油条), has a dark and sticky sauce with sambal belacan, and is crumbled over with crushed peanuts. ‘Rojak’ means ‘mixed’, and it has also come to describe the jumble of languages we speak. That rojak of language, that mix, is the sound of my childhood, even though much of it was spent overseas in New Zealand. Passed down as a whole, it was only when I began probing that I saw its many fragments.
No one I know from Malaysia says they speak ‘Malaysian’. Malay is the official language, with its variants. There are the indigenous languages, and Chinese and Indian dialects. Both my parents’ families originate from different provinces in the south of China along the coast. On my father’s side, my Teochew grandparents, Ah Kong and Ah Ma, left China to escape famine. On my mother’s side, my Henghua grandfather, Gung-Gung, was born in Kuching.
I knew Gung-Gung mostly through occasional phone calls, dialled through international phone cards bought at Asian supermarkets. His voice came delayed in crackly and gentle English with the occasional line of Mandarin as a reminder of where we came from. Though forced to stop his schooling after the early death of his father, he taught himself Mandarin, made his children learn Mandarin, and drilled Chinese values into them. Honour, filial piety, respect. While all he knew was Kuching, he would hearken back to Tiong-kok—meaning China in Hokkien—as the place to which he anchored his identity. A pillar to cling to. I saw him for the last time as he lay dying, skin and bone, on the cushioned rattan couch of my mother’s childhood home. He barely spoke. But I like to think he heard Mum dust off three books he had written in Mandarin. I took them with me: three slim volumes in a script I cannot read, let alone begin to understand in any sophisticated way.
Ah Kong spoke little, preferring instead to smoke and drink coffee. What was passed down came by way of daily life. There was no space for cultural preservation. There was only survival.
My dad only learned Mandarin in his forties because my grandparents raised their children in Teochew; the two are mutually unintelligible. Ah Kong took newspapers in Chinese script and read them out loud in Teochew. Ah Ma was teased for having the singsong Teochew accent. As the only Chinese family in a Malay kampung, the children spoke the local Malay dialect with perfect fluency. ‘They’re just like the Malays,’ Dad says of his sisters when they visit the kampung, ‘their accents, their mannerisms. They take raw belacan and use both hands to mix it with rice, playing with it, eating as they talk. But they don’t go back much anymore. Their friends are dying. It’s a hard life.’ Even so, the memories of China were bitter. Ah Ma refused to return, though she kept a book that held the family’s generational names, lost to us now. Ah Kong spoke little, preferring instead to smoke and drink coffee. What was passed down came by way of daily life. There was no space for cultural preservation. There was only survival.
Despite, or because of, the need to survive, the clash of cultures has produced a variety of hybrid existences. Chinese in Kuching, no matter their dialect group, speak Hokkien as the lingua franca. They also speak Malay and English as part of their education. When it comes to food, we have a taste for belacan, a dried shrimp paste that anchors Sarawak laksa, and that my parents add to most dishes. For each holiday celebrated by Sarawakians—Chinese New Year, Gawai, Hari Raya—they feast together.
At the end of 2018, I went back to Kuching with my parents, determined to find out more about the traditions I told myself I’d been denied. In New Zealand, people project a particular image of who one should have been to fit one’s ethnic image. I imagined family dishes passed down, deep fluency in language, an ease at existing in the world because there would be no ruptures—only a smooth transition from generation to generation, the knowledge held perfectly.
But when I asked about family history and traditions, I often met stares as blank as my own. I tried to ask my Mum’s sisters about their mother, but they knew little. They believed she was born in Kuching, but couldn’t be certain; they didn’t know the year of her birth and they barely knew her parents. She didn’t teach them recipes because she wouldn’t let them cook. ‘What do you remember, then?’ I try. ‘What was she like?’ She loved to sing. She had a high, sweet voice. She could cook many dishes. Before school, everything was prepared for us, breakfast on the table all laid out. We didn’t have to do a thing. Day to day, we don’t think of traditions as traditions. My aunts remembered a mother and her love. What is passed down is the granular inheritance of accumulated days with those who shaped your ear, your tongue, your taste, the way you step into and apprehend the world.
Only when that daily existence is taken away or placed into a new context do we see our mundane rituals and everyday existence as culture. For identity is not fixed; it is contextual. In Malaysia, Chinese wear their Chineseness as a badge of pride, particularly in response to tense racial relations. But Malaysian-born Chinese in New Zealand tend to distance themselves from China and call themselves Malaysian. We cling to cultures when we stand to lose them—Gung-Gung clung to China while Ah Kong could be nothing but Chinese. It was only in my attempts to unlearn and relearn Malaysian identity that I saw it, mistakenly, as an identity to be possessed and preserved. I didn’t see that we lived it every day. It was never a question of ownership—it was one of belonging.
Only when taken away or placed into a new context do we see our mundane rituals and everyday existence as culture.
And what we belong to is the glorious jumble. Our language is a rich tapestry of multiple languages, a code-switching that obeys a logic learned only by living it. Online, Kuching Hokkien barely exists. I replay the brief exchange in Jason’s Market Trails, only a few seconds, just to hear it. I find approximations in Penang Hokkien and Singlish. Slowly, I unpick the way my parents speak, finding that many words in our Hokkien are loaned from Malay: suka, tahan, kena, jamban, habis. I show my parents videos of Taiwanese Hokkien—we can barely understand it. ‘Koe tao chim,’ Mum says. Too sophisticated. Too deep. That doesn’t, however, make our bahasa rojak, our mixed language, any shallower. Hybridity means we learn to be in other ways, and we learn that all ways share a common humanity.
I missed both my grandfathers’ funerals. Tall, relatives say when I ask about Ah Kong, who died before I was born. Could carry a gunny sack filled to bursting on each shoulder. A man of few words. Astute. Very astute. He gave what was due and never took more. He never bargained. That was the price they set, and people needed to live. He looked after his family, all ten kids. Could you provide for ten kids? He loved your grandmother. A hard-working man. I imagine him navigating a new land, doing what he could with what he knew, as my dad did a generation later in New Zealand. Call it Chinese or Malaysian or simply human—we adapt, survive. We evolve. Our culture moves with us.
For Gung-Gung, only Mum took the 10-hour flight back. Years later, when we visit the house he died in, I stand in his study and wonder if the last hands to disturb the shelves were his. It was from this room that Mum took the books he wrote. On the wall is the stern visage of an unfamiliar man, perhaps my great-grandfather. Honour, filial piety, respect. But for all his pride in being Chinese, he loved Malaysia too. He belonged to both. And in the middle of the room, propped against the piles of books and papers in Mandarin and English, rests a Malaysian flag.