On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

How the tide has turned

THE celebrations of the Chinese New Year, now in its third day, have progressively undergone dramatic changes — much more than we Malaysians, especially those who are ethnically Chinese — realise.

And I am not just talking about traditions and the good old days but also the major socio-economic, geo-political and demographic changes which have a great impact on the lives of the Chinese in Malaysia.

Some of us may be caught in a time warp and think that things remain the same. But here are 10 paradoxes that are already so apparent as we usher in the Year of the Horse.

Paradox One: Today, many Malaysian Chinese families are seeking to trace their ancestral roots now that there are no more barriers to travelling back to China. Journeys back to the Chinese provinces where their ancestors originated, especially during the CNY season, have become something of a fad.

But here’s the shocker many Malaysians have encountered — their once impoverished Chinese relatives are now better off than the Malaysians!

If Malaysians once dreaded visiting these rural simpletons who lived in near collapsed houses where the toilets were located outside, the scenario has changed dramatically. Many have become wealthy and live in modern suburbs, and they certainly do not need their overseas relatives to give them any handouts.

Thanks to capitalism thriving, ironically in a Communist country, they are now telling their Malaysian family members not to bother visiting them during CNY. “We are going on holiday… err, not to Malaysia, Singapore or Thailand but to Europe. Thanks but it’s okay. Visit us another time. We will let you know when.”

Paradox Two: Our forefathers left their mainland Chinese wives, mostly in the southern provinces, in search of a better life in the Land of Honey — Malaya — in the 1920s or even earlier. Their wives remained faithful despite the distance. But the men would get married to the local Chinese women or nyonya in Malaya and have new families here. Now, the reverse is taking place in modern Malaysia — many Malaysian men now leave their wives behind in search of new Chinese wives-companions-girlfriends in China!

Paradox Three: Still on our forefathers. They would keep every single penny they could save, with the exception of the few spent on the occasional opium puffs, to be sent back to China. When they travelled back home, they would bring along plenty of gifts from Malaya for their near-starving Chinese family members. Well, the world has changed. China is now the world’s biggest factory. The country is producing everything you can imagine — or not imagine. So, it’s the other way around. Fast forward to 2014. We go to China now to do serious shopping and bring them back to Malaysia!

Paradox Four: My grandfather, Wong Ah Fook, landed in Langkawi. He remains a man of mystery to me because my father simply refuses to talk about him. My grandpa was born in the fruit planting county of Kochow or Gaozhou, in the southwestern Guangdong province of southern China.

As my father refuses to tell me anything about him, for a while I thought he was a discredited politician or maybe a crooked mandarin who sought refuge in Malaya.

But I was wrong. He was simply a peasant. I am not sure what he planted in Langkawi. It was also highly possible they told him he had landed in Penang. He may have gotten off on the wrong island. All islands looked alike in the 1920s.

Sometimes I wonder if there are Chinamen working in the canals in Kochow who look like me. Or whether there are any rich look-alikes who have made a fortune and are now living a life of luxury in the United States.

Paradox Five: We have all read about the all-important CNY reunion dinners. But do you want to know what has been happening? Well, more and more Malaysians are holding their CNY reunion dinners at restaurants. In the Klang Valley, most restaurants are fully booked with three dining sessions: 5pm, 7pm and 9pm. If you can’t finish your dinner, some restaurants insist you must pack up the food to make way for waiting diners.

I have also heard that the pot luck has become fashionable as busy modern families can no longer find the time to cook. To ensure that the CNY dinner does not erupt into a war, a compromise has been struck. Come to the patriarch’s home with your contribution. The old folks are just too tired to cook for a battalion of family members anyway.

Paradox Six: My father celebrates his 90th birthday this year. It’s amazing. He can enjoy his food — no diabetes, no hypertension, no cholesterol and he doesn’t exercise. My mother turns 84 this year. She eats everything too.

Like most elderly people, they talk about the old times when life was tough. The Japanese occupation is always a favourite topic.

They can’t understand why many family members refuse to eat rice and spend a fortune trying to lose weight when Africans are starving. For old Chinese parents, eating rice is good. So can you imagine not touching carbohydrates at a CNY dinner? Asking for trouble, man!

Paradox Seven: The days of wearing everything red — from bras to underwear — are slowly diminishing. Red is still the preferred colour but with the Red Devils losing practically every football match, that association is also quickly changing. Sure, Liverpool and Arsenal fans are also in red but that’s a different story.

Wearing dark colours seems more tolerable now compared to the past, when anyone in any colour remotely perceived as mourning, such as dark blue or even green, would earn the wrath of our parents. Sure kena lecture one! (“It’s sure to invite a lecture!”) Don’t even think of wanting to look like the late Apple boss Steve Jobs or our advertising guru Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing, who are always in their trademark black.

Paradox Eight: Okay, this one is a super sensitive subject. We are not talking about politics. We are talking about the increasing number of family members, especially women, who have refused to get married.

It’s a tense situation during CNY dinners. You can be sure some idiotic loudmouth (usually an insensitive daughter-in-law) will bring it up. Not sure if she wants to brag about getting pregnant again or just embarrass the hubby’s sisters.

But welcome to the modern Malaysian Chinese family — the population is shrinking fast. Plunging, to be more precise, and soon in danger of falling into the category of “dan lain-lain (others)” as more Nepalese, Myanmar, Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Iranians, Iraqis and Nigerians land in Malaysia.

Paradox Nine: After a week of pre-CNY yee sang, 10-course meals and more of the same food during CNY, most of us would much prefer going back to our more palatable Malaysian-style food, from mamak nasi kandar to Kajang satay. Yes, Kajang satay is great and does not need politicians to boost the business. More so those politicians who give us silly excuses on why this by-election has to be held. We do not need any convincing to eat other kinds of food during the festive season. Some politicians think they can take us for fools, believing they are world-class material just because they can talk about Winston Churchill and other world leaders who had humble beginnings!

Paradox Ten: And finally, what is it that the Malaysian Chinese want? The same as our forefathers who migrated here. They heard about how great Malaya was. We want Malaysia to remain great, so we can all be proud.

Malaya was thriving and a good place to make a living, and that was what our forefathers found. Likewise, we want the same in modern Malaysia.

And why did our forefathers leave China? Because they were sick of the corrupt nationalists and later the silly communists. They chose Malaya over other countries in huge numbers because of the moderation and openness here. That’s what we want too in modern Malaysia. Keep it moderate.

It’s not enough to be good. Let’s make Malaysia truly great! And we are sure we will be talking about this over CNY dinners because we truly love Malaysia.