Malaysian Chinese

Malaysian Chinese (simplified Chinese: 马来西亚华人; traditional Chinese: 馬來西亞華人; Malay: Orang Cina Malaysia), alternatively Chinese Malaysians, are Malaysian citizens of Han descent. They form the second largest ethnic group after the Malay majority constituting 22.4% of the Malaysian population. Most of them are descendants of Southern Chinese immigrants who arrived in Malaysia between the early 19th century and the mid-20th century. Malaysian Chinese form the second largest community of Overseas Chinese in the world, after Thai Chinese. Malaysian Chinese are traditionally dominant in the business sector of the Malaysian economy.

Malaysian Chinese people
马来西亚华人 / 馬來西亞華人
Orang Cina Malaysia
Ethnic Chinese in traditional samfu attire with umbrella, c.1945.
Total population
22.4% of the Malaysian population (2021)[2]
Regions with significant populations
Penang, Kedah, Perlis, Kuala Lumpur, Johor, Perak, Selangor and Sarawak
Significant diaspora in:
 Christmas Island[3]
 Singapore (338,500 in 2010)[4]
 New Zealand[note 1]
 United States
 United Kingdom
 Hong Kong[6]
 Mainland China

Mandarin (lingua franca), Malay and English as medium of communication in schools and government
Mothertongue languages: Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew, Fuzhou, Hainanese, Taishanese and Henghua; Manglish (creole)
Mahāyāna Buddhism and Taoism (Chinese folk religion) • significant Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Protestantism) • Non-religious
Related ethnic groups
Bruneian Chinese · Singaporean Chinese · Indonesian Chinese · Thai Chinese · Peranakans · Overseas Chinese
Malaysian Chinese
Traditional Chinese馬來西亞華人
Simplified Chinese马来西亚华人
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese馬來西亞華僑
Simplified Chinese马来西亚华侨
Second alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese馬來西亞唐人
Simplified Chinese马来西亚唐人

The ethnic subgroups of Chinese people in Malaysia include the Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew, Hainan, Fuzhou and Kwongsai. Different Chinese languages are spoken in Malaysian towns and cities. Among them are Cantonese in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Kuantan, Seremban, Mersing, Kampar, Petaling Jaya and Sandakan, Hokkien in George Town, Alor Setar, Kangar, Butterworth, Bayan Lepas, Klang, Taiping, Kota Bharu and Kuching, Hakka in Kota Kinabalu and Tawau, Teochew in Johor Bahru, Bukit Mertajam, and Nibong Tebal, Fuzhou in Sibu, Miri and Sitiawan, and Hainanese in Kuala Terengganu and Papar. However, Mandarin is now widely used as a working language or lingua franca among the different Chinese ethnicities, particularly in younger generations.

Most Malaysian Chinese have maintained their Chinese heritage, including their diverse mother tongues. However, the descendants of the earliest Chinese migrants who arrived between the 13th and 17th centuries have assimilated aspects of the indigenous Malay cultures and formed distinct sub-ethnic groups, such as the Peranakans in Kelantan and Terengganu, Baba-Nyonya in Malacca and Penang, and the Sino-Natives in Sabah. The Malaysian Chinese are usually referred to as simply "Chinese" in Malaysian English, "Orang Cina" in Malay, "Sina" or "Kina" among indigenous groups in Borneo, "Cīṉar" (சீனர்) in Tamil, and "Huaren" (華人/华人, Chinese people) or "Huaqiao" (華僑/华侨, Overseas Chinese) in Mandarin by the local Chinese themselves.

Although the Malaysian Chinese population is increasing in every census, the proportion of ethnic Chinese among the country's total population has been consistently declining due to a lower birth rate and high emigration rate in recent decades. According to a report by the World Bank, the Malaysian diaspora around the world in 2010 included around a million people; most of them were ethnic Chinese. Their main reasons for emigrating are that there are better economic and career prospects abroad, and a sense of social injustice within Malaysia, which has institutionalised racial policies in place. The large number of emigrants, many of whom are often young with education or skills, constitutes a significant brain drain from the country, especially towards the country's immediate neighbour Singapore.[7]


Early history

A Chinese junk in the Kinabatangan District of northern Borneo, photographed by Martin Johnson c.1935

China and other early kingdoms in the Malay Archipelago, such as the northern area of the Malay Peninsula and Po-Ni in western Borneo, have long been connected.[8] The first recorded movement of people from China into present-day Malaysia was the 1292 arrival of Mongol expeditionary forces under Kublai Khan in Borneo in 1292 in preparation for their invasion of Java the following year.[9][10] Many of Khan's Chinese followers settled on the island with Chinese traders after the campaign, establishing an enclave along the Kinabatangan River. Their arrival was welcomed by the indigenous people, who benefited from the jars, beads, silk, and pottery brought to the island by the Chinese.[11][12][13]

1935 map of the Ming dynasty under the Yongle Emperor in 1415

Chinese explorer and sailor Zheng He commanded several expeditions to south-east Asia between 1405 and 1430; during his third voyage, Zheng also visited Malacca.[14] His companion and translator, Ma Huan, described Malacca in his Yingya Shenglan. Formerly part of Thailand, Malacca was founded after convoys from the Ming Dynasty developed a city and the area's chief was crowned king.[15] During his fourth imperial-fleet visit, Ma wrote that the local king had just converted to Islam and dressed like an Arab.[16][17] The last edition of Mingshi, one of the official Chinese Twenty-Four Histories, mentioned a pre-established Chinese settlement in the area.[18] Mentions in other records exist, especially after trade contacts were established with the Nanyang region.[19] According to Hai Yü (Words about the Sea), written by Huang Zhong and published in 1537, the lifestyle of the Chinese community in Malacca differed from that of the local Malays.[20]

This close relationship was maintained during the Islamisation of the Malacca and Brunei kingdoms, whose thalassocracy once covered much of present-day Malaysia. Both the Muslim sultanates pledged protection to the Chinese dynasties from further conquest by the neighbouring Javanese Majapahit or the Siamese Ayutthaya.[21][22][23] This relationship resulted in interethnic marriage between the sultanate's royal family and the Chinese envoy and representatives.[24][25][26] Zheng He's arrival encouraged the spread of Islam in the Malay Archipelago and aided the growth of the Chinese Muslim population from the Eastern Chinese coastal towns of Fujian and Canton, with many of their traders arriving in the coastal towns of present-day Malaysia and Indonesia by the early 15th century.[27][28] In addition to the early settlements in Kinabatangan and Malacca, two more old Chinese settlements are located in Terengganu and the Penang Island as part of trade networks with their respective areas.[29][30][31]

Colonial era (1500–1900)

1860–1900 photograph of Bukit Cina (Chinese Hill) in Malacca, one of Malaysia's oldest Chinese cemeteries[30]

Although many Chinese traders avoided Portuguese Malacca after its 1511 conquest, the flow of emigrants from China continued.[32] The Zhengde Emperor retaliated against the Portuguese for their activities in Malacca during the Ming dynasty after the arrival of their fleet in Canton.[33] The Chinese emperor was reluctant to help the deposed Malaccan ruler reclaim his position, however, since the dynasty's foreign policy was changing to maintain friendly relations with the Portuguese.[33][34]

His successor, the Jiajing Emperor, changed the attitude of the Ming court by executing two government officials and reaffirming the importance of Malaccan issues in major policy decisions.[34] Some Chinese, including those from Fujian (defying Ming-Dynasty regulation for the sake of trade), informed the Portuguese of the trade route between Guangdong and Siam. Since the local Malaccan Chinese were not treated favourably by the Portuguese, they and most overseas Chinese refused to cooperate with them.[35] Through the Portuguese administration in Malacca, Chinese Muslims sided with other Islamic traders against the latter by providing ships and human capital.[36] Negotiations were later held in Guangdong between Chinese officials and Portuguese envoys about Malaccan issues, with Malacca remaining under Portuguese control.[37]

The Hai San Secret Society's "Captain China" with his followers in Selangor, June 1874

After the 1641 Dutch takeover of Malacca,[38] many local Malaccan Chinese were hired to construct Dutch buildings.[39] The Dutch found the Chinese industrious, and encouraged their participation in the colony's economic life;[40] the Dutch also established a settlement in Perak in 1650 through an earlier treaty with Aceh[41] and suggested that Alauddin, the 17th Sultan of Perak, allow the Chinese to develop tin mines. This facilitated Alauddin's plan to request more Chinese workers from Malacca, and the sultan promised to punish any official guilty of mistreating the Chinese.[42][43]

With the sultan's consent, the Chinese played a leading role in the tin-mining industry. The Fourth Anglo-Dutch War in 1780 adversely affected the tin trade, however, and many Chinese miners left.[44] Early Chinese settlements in Malacca and several areas along the archipelago's coasts notwithstanding, most mass Chinese migration to Malaysia occurred after the founding of British settlements in Malaya and Borneo during the early 19th century.[45]

Chinese tycoon Ng Boo Bee with British officials in Perak in 1904

A 1786 British settlement in Penang and another in Singapore in 1819 triggered a mass emigration from China to the Malay Peninsula.[45] After the establishment of British rule in Labuan in 1846, more ethnic Chinese (primarily Hakka, and many from Singapore) arrived in British Borneo. The migration continued through the first few years of the North Borneo Chartered Company.[46] Chinese migration to Labuan and North Borneo was largely confined to the agricultural sector; migration to the Raj of Sarawak was largely restricted to the mining and agricultural sectors.[47][48] Rajah Charles Brooke of Sarawak promoted the migration of Chinese and Dayak people to interior Sarawak to develop the region. This resulted in the establishment of an administrative center and bazaar by the 19th century, primarily in Sarawak's First, Second, and Third Divisions.[49]

Rajah Charles invited Chinese black-pepper growers from Singapore to settle in Kuching in 1876, and they were later joined by local Chinese miners and others from neighbouring Dutch Borneo.[50][51] With the introduction of pepper to the kingdom, pepper cultivation in Sarawak's First Division Kuching-Serian region was dominated by the Hakka; Fuzhou and Cantonese people dominated cultivation in the Third Division Sarikei-Binatang region, making Sarawak the world's second-largest pepper producer.[51][52] After the British gained control of the four states of Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, nearly two million Chinese immigrated to Perak and Selangor.[53][54]

Children in a rickshaw pulled by a Chinese coolie in Kuching around 1919

After the discovery of tin deposits in British Malaya, many Chinese immigrants worked in the tin-mining industry.[55] As tin mines opened in Perak, many Chinese in neighbouring Penang became wealthy.[56] Many Chinese tin-mining communities were established in the Malay Peninsula by the 1870s, particularly in Ipoh (Kinta Valley), Taiping, Seremban and Kuala Lumpur (Klang Valley).[57][58] Each of the mining communities was governed by a Kapitan Cina, with duties and privileges similar to those in Johor's Kangchu system.[59] Chinese migration sprang from poverty in rural China and employment opportunities in the British colonies or protectorates, and an estimated five million Chinese had immigrated by the 19th century.[60] Despite economic prosperity after immigration, the new Chinese communities split into a number of secret societies. This exacerbated political unrest among the Malay aristocracy, which enlisted help from the secret societies.[59][61] Contemporary local Malay politics was characterised as anarchy and civil war between people from similar backgrounds, prompting alliances between senior Malay political leaders and officials from China and Europe who were protecting their investments.[62]

Divided nationalism and turbulence (1900–1945)

You can help shoulder the responsibility of saving our country by donating your money, while our comrades in our country are sacrificing their lives.

 —Sun Yat-sen at the 1910 Penang conference in the Straits Settlements of Penang[63]

Tongmenghui fundraising meeting in Ipoh for the Second Guangzhou Uprising, c.1911

Civil wars and other conflicts among the indigenous ethnic groups ended when the British gained control of Malaya and the northern island of Borneo by the 1900s. However, none of the Malay kingdoms fell under colonial rule. Their related entities were politically and economically stable. Economic prosperity was fueled by British capital and Chinese and Indian work forces who expanded and supplied tin and rubber production.[60][64] Before the 1911 Xinhai Revolution which overthrew the Qing dynasty in China, Tongmenghui leader Sun Yat-sen raised funds and organisational support from overseas Chinese communities (primarily in French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, Siam, British Singapore, Malaya and Borneo) and began Nanyang organising activities in Saigon, Hanoi, Pontianak, Manila, Bangkok, Singapore and George Town.[65] Competition arose among three groups, with each group targeting overseas Chinese (particularly in Malaya and Singapore) for support.[66] One group was a pro-Qing elite who targeted wealthy Chinese; the other two were reformists and revolutionaries who advocated constitutional reforms, the introduction of a parliamentary system, and the overthrow of Qing and Manchu influence on a modern Chinese nation.[66]

Chinese women working in a British mobile canteen during the Malayan Campaign, c.January 1942

After the revolution which established the Republic of China, branches of the Kuomintang emerged in British Malaya.[64] Kuomintang activities in British Borneo were coordinated by the Democratic Party of North Borneo, consisting of Chinese-educated towkays.[67] Patriotism among Chinese immigrant communities focused on China.[68] British colonial authorities initially did not object to Kuomintang membership.[69] A communist movement developed among overseas Chinese by 1925 with the establishment of the South Seas Communist Party in Singapore, followed by the Indochinese Communist Party, Communist Party of Malaya, Communist Party of Burma and Communist Party of Siam; the movement also maintained relations with the earlier, Southeast Asian Communist Party of Indonesia.[70][71] The Communist Party of Malaya followed the general communist policy of opposing Western democracies before World War II, increasing propaganda against the Malayan government and the colonial government of Singapore in 1940.[72]

Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) guerrillas during their disbandment ceremony in Kuala Lumpur after the end of World War II

At the beginning of the Sino-Japanese conflict and the Japanese occupation of Malaya and British Borneo, Kuomintang activities were ended.[73] When the Chinese Communist Party (under Mao Zedong) reached an agreement with the Kuomintang government (under Chiang Kai-shek) to put aside their differences and rally against Japanese aggression in July 1940, pro-independence sentiment led to bans on the Kuomintang and other Chinese organizations in Malaya.[72][74] Since the conflict with Japan also involved the British, Chiang Kai-shek urged Kuomintang members to fight alongside them; in return, British colonial authorities lifted their ban of Chinese associations (including the Kuomintang and the Chinese communist movement).[75] This, and British recognition of the Communist Party of Malaya, resulted in the formation of the guerrilla Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) in 1941.[76] The MPAJA (primarily consisting of ethnic Chinese in Malaya) waged a guerrilla war against the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) with 10,000 men in eight battalions, and contacted the British Force 136.[77] Local Kuomintang revolts, such as the Jesselton uprising in British Borneo, were suppressed by the Kenpeitai.[78][79]

Much Chinese underground anti-Japanese activity in North Borneo was part of the Nanyang Chinese National Salvation Movement, led by Tan Kah Kee; in Sarawak, activities were coordinated by the Sarawak Anti-Fascist League.[80][81] The MPAJA was disbanded after the 1945 Allied victory in the Pacific, and many of its leaders were commended by the British.[82] It began to massacre perceived collaborators (primarily Malay) after it was disbanded, however, sparking a Malay backlash.[83] The MPAJA also targeted British posts, with several grenade attacks on British troops.[82] In North Borneo, the Chinese co-operated with the British and pledged loyalty to King George VI when the Crown Colony of North Borneo was formed after the war.[84]

Postwar unrest and social integration (1946–1962)

British and Malayan police talking to a Chinese civilian about communist activity in the area in 1949

The answer [to the uprising] lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people.

 —Gerald Templer after his appointment as British High Commissioner for Malaya to deal with the 1952 Malayan Emergency[85]

With the MPAJA renamed as the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), communist insurgents used guerrilla tactics in the jungles, sabotaged transportation networks and attacked British plantations (assassinating several European plantation owners).[83] British intelligence estimated MNLA support at about 500,000, out of a total Chinese population of 3.12 million; battling the insurgents was difficult, since most hid in inaccessible jungles.[86] With the 18 June 1948 declaration of the Malayan Emergency, the early government response was chaotic; its primary aim was to guard important economic targets.[87][88] Most Malayan Chinese opposed the MNLA.[89]

New villages were established during the 1950s to segregate Chinese with connections to communist insurgents.[90]

The 1950 Briggs Plan, devised by British general Harold Briggs, intended to isolate the Chinese population from the insurgents. Independence was promised, and supported by the Malays; the Chinese population feared being treated as second-class citizens in an independent Malaya.[91] In addition to new villages, the plan included labour reorganisation, the deployment of troops throughout Malaya, and cooperation between the police, the army, and intelligence.[92] Under the resettlement scheme, more than 700,000 rural Chinese communities were relocated in 582 new government settlements.[90] After British high commissioner Henry Gurney died in a 1951 ambush, Gerald Templer are appointed as the new high commissioner for Malaya by Winston Churchill the following year; Templer preferred winning hearts and minds to military measures against the insurgents.[86][93][94] As part of his campaign, Templer incentivised rebel surrender and used strict curfews and tight control of food supplies in involved areas to flush them out.[95][96] Crops grown by insurgents were sprayed with herbicides and defoliants, and restrictions were lifted in areas free of insurgents by elevating them to "white status".[97][98][99] In the Batang Kali massacre, 24 unarmed Malaysian civilians suspected of providing aid to the MNLA were shot by a Scots Guard division in late 1948.[100]

Joint Chinese-Malay anticommunist demonstration in Semenyih, Selangor during the 1950s

According to Chin Peng, the success of Templer's campaign was primarily due to the Briggs Plan's resettlement programme;[101] Gurney also introduced a quasi-ministerial system, with a bill to increase the number of non-Malays eligible for citizenship after independence.[102] After the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution, foreign missionaries in China were forced to leave; Templer invited them to Malaya to provide spiritual healing, medical education and welfare measures to residents of the new government villages.[103] By September 1952, every person born in Malaya (includes 1.2 million Chinese) was granted full citizenship.[104]

George Town, Penang during the 1950s

When the Federation of Malaya gained independence from the British in 1957, there was still an insurgency.[105] Chinese communists who surrendered were given a choice of repatriation to China or declaring loyalty to the elected government of Malaya and renouncing communist ideology.[106] The anti-communist campaign continued until 1960, when the Malayan government declared the end of its state of emergency after Chin Peng demobilized his forces and left his hide-out in southern Thailand for Beijing via North Vietnam.[107][108] At a meeting of Chin and Deng Xiaoping in Beijing, China urged the Communist Party of Malaya to continue their armed struggle.[109] The establishment of a communist government in mainland China affected Chinese youth in Sarawak, who organized the pro-Beijing Sarawak Overseas Chinese Democratic Youth League (later the Sarawak Advanced Youth Association, which sparked the 1960 communist insurgency in Sarawak.[80] Malaysia's economy continued to prosper, dependent on tin and rubber industries dominated by a Chinese and Indian workforce.[110][111]

Struggle for equality in "Malaysian Malaysia" (1963–1965)

Early in 1961, when Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman outlined a "Grand Malaysian Alliance" of the British protectorate of Brunei and the crown colonies of North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore,[112] Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew supported the proposal. Lee's People's Action Party (PAP) rallied for the equality of all Malaysians, regardless of "class, skin colour or creed", known as "Malaysian Malaysia", in a multi-ethnic society without Malayisation.[113][114] Although Lee was seen by Malay extremists in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), as opposed to Ketuanan Melayu after the 1963 formation of Malaysia,[115][116] he had adopted Malay as Singapore's national language and appointed Malay Yusof Ishak as Yang di-Pertuan Negara.[117]

The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), led by Tan Cheng Lock and part of the Malaysian Alliance Party, refused to join the struggle for equality. The MCA feared that equality would disrupt an agreement between the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) in which Malays were politically dominant and the Chinese controlled the country's economy; Malaysian Indians played a smaller economic role, with the Malays promising to share future political power with the other two groups.[118] After two years as part of the federation and the enactment of Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia, Lee was joined by the Malay Peninsula's United Democratic Party and People's Progressive Party and Sarawak's United Peoples' Party and Machinda Party in the Malaysian Solidarity Convention to campaign for equality.[115] In a June 1965 speech at the MSC meeting in Singapore, Lee said:

It took a long time for us all to come to the same conclusions despite our differing experiences in Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. Our friends in Sabah are not here today officially, but I can assure you that we have many friends there. There is no doubt that it took us a long time to reach the inevitable conclusion that these people [referring to the racial politics in Malay Peninsula] were up to no good. You know the line they were taking with growing truculence on a heavy racial accent, the intimidatory postures and the snarling guttural notes on which they sent out their signals to their followers on the basis of the race lead us to only one conclusion -- that if this goes on, Malaysia will not belong to Malaysians. Since there are so many Malaysians, we decided that the time has come for us to speak our minds.[119]

Lee's call for a re-alignment of forces between those who wanted a "true Malaysian nation" and those who preferred a country led by a component of the Alliance Party, and his criticism of Malays advocating Malay dominance, led to bitter PAP–UMNO relations and the 1964 race riots in Singapore; Singapore was later expelled from the federation in August 1965, and became its own sovereign nation.[115][120][121]

Communist insurgencies and racial clashes (1965–1990)

The struggle for equality continued with the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which succeeded the PAP in 1965.[116] Many Malaysian Chinese began to view the Malaysian Chinese Association as more concerned with business and economic interests than social factors, although Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman considered the MCA the sole legitimate representative of the federation's Chinese community.[116] In 1968, communists supported by China began a new insurgency from their stronghold in southern Thailand.[122][123] The following year, the MCA was challenged by the DAP and the Malaysian People's Movement Party (GERAKAN). Of its 33 parliamentary seats contested in the election, the MCA retained 13 and lost control of the Penang state government to GERAKAN; Chinese-Malay tensions culminated in the 13 May incident.[124][125] Other clashes were also ethnic in nature.[126]

In the aftermath of the riots, Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman blamed the communists rather than racial issues and said that the Vietnam War in their neighbour was "not simply a civil war but communist-ideology expansion".[127] The Malaysian government introduced several policy initiatives in security and development, a neighbourhood-watch program and the People's Volunteer Corps.[128] The Communist Party of Malaya split into two factions during the early 1970s: a revolutionary wing in 1970 and a Marxist–Leninist wing in 1974.[129] Kuala Lumpur and Beijing established diplomatic relations in 1974; China ended its aid to the factions, prompting their 1983 merger into the Malaysian Communist Party before their surrender to Thai authorities four years later and the 1989 peace agreement ending the insurgency.[64][130] A Chinese communist insurgency in Sarawak, supported by neighboring Indonesia, ended with peace negotiations in 1990.[131]

1990 to present

Happy Valley in George Town, Penang
Petaling Street, a Chinatown in Malaysia's capital of Kuala Lumpur, at night

Issues between the Malaysian Chinese and the Malays remain unresolved.[132] The failure of Malaysia's social contract has led to a strong Chinese identity, in contrast to the Chinese communities in neighbouring Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.[132][133] After the 1969 racial clashes, the Malaysian New Economic Policy favouring the Malays from 1971 to 1990 increased Bumiputera economic control by 60 percent.[134] Malaysian Chinese remain the business sector's dominant players; equity ownership doubled from 22.8 percent in 1969 to 45.5 percent in 1990, and nearly all of Malaysia's richest people are Chinese.[135]

Since Malaysian Chinese manage the country's economy, most (75.8 percent in 1991) live in urban areas.[136] They generally do not speak Malay among themselves;[137] this contrasts with earlier Chinese communities such as the Straits-born Chinese of Baba-Nyonya, Kelantanese and Terengganuan Peranakans, Penangite Hokkien and Sabah Sino-natives, who mingled with local Malay and other indigenous peoples.[138][139][140] Chinese in East Malaysia in Sabah and Sarawak, particularly in small inland towns, interact more closely with the indigenous communities.[140] Integration issues in present-day Malaysia are largely inherited from Malayan racial politics, in which ethnic communities consolidated into a single political community.[141] Malaysia's contemporary educational and social policies has created a Chinese brain drain to developed countries, especially Singapore.[142][143] The country has experienced a slight wave of Mandarin-speaking immigrants from northeastern China and a smaller number of Vietnamese immigrants, however, with local men marrying women from China and Vietnam.[144]

Origins and social demographics

Map of the geographic origin of the present-day ethnic Chinese Malaysians since their early migrations from China to Nanyang region more than a hundred years ago.[144]

Since their early ancient trade connection and subsequent migrations, the majority of ethnic Chinese in Malaysia are ethnic Han from the historical areas of Fujian and Guangdong provinces in southern China.[145] Nearly all ethnic Chinese Malaysians living in the country today are either patrilineal descendants of these early immigrants, or new immigrants born in mainland China.[146] Among the first group from the first migration wave are the Peranakans in Kelantan and Terengganu, Sino-Natives in Sabah and Straits-born Chinese (Baba-Nyonya) in Malacca and Penang.[138][139][147] The Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century caused much chaos and suffering in southern China, which led many ethnic Chinese civilians to seek refuge overseas, particularly to the Nanyang region (Southeast Asia) in further south.[148] With the expanding British colonial ambitions in the region which led to the establishment of Straits Settlements, more migrants were attracted and the region became an important destination for Chinese emigration.[148]

An 1880 painting of southern Chinese merchant from Fujian (left) and Chinese official in Penang Island.

By the late 19th century with the second wave of migration through the British colonial rule, the Hokkien of southern Fujian led by many of their wealthy and powerful individuals with skills in finance and maritime shipping became the dominant immigrant group as the first group of ethnic Chinese to settle in large numbers with their language become a contact language among Chinese of different linguistics background.[149] The Cantonese from Guangdong follow suit and became well known as mineworkers, land reclamation, mechanics and their familiarity with cash cropping.[150][151] Another large group, the Hakka are mostly hill farmers originated from northeastern Guangdong and various southern China places who specialise in forest clearance, mining as well on metalworking.[150][151] Other groups like the Teochew from Chaozhou of eastern Guangdong are mainly on plantation agriculture,[150][151] the Fuzhou from central Fujian specialise in entrepreneurship,[152] while the Hainanese from Hainan as one of the ethnic Chinese minority saw themselves as sojourners with many of Hainanese chefs and waiters ruled the kitchen of local Chinese kopi tiam and restaurants.[153][154] The Henghua and Hokchia from eastern Fujian are usually managing family industries while the Kwongsai from Guangxi are employed in labour sectors.[155][156] Followed by the third wave of ethnic Chinese migration thereafter, this resulted from Malaysia as being one of the countries outside China and Taiwan with largest population of Chinese speakers in the world.[144][157] Following the establishment of diplomatic relationship between Mainland China and Malaysia in 1974, a joint communiqué was made between the two nations, which stated:

The Chinese government considers anyone of Chinese origin who has taken up his own will or acquired Malaysian nationality as automatically forfeiting Chinese nationality. As for residents who retain Chinese nationality of their own will, the Chinese government, acting in accordance with its consistent policy, will enjoin them to abide by the law of the Government of Malaysia, respect the customs and habits of the people there, and live in unity with them, and their proper rights and interests will be protected by the Government of China and respected by the Government of Malaysia.[158]

Ethnic distributions

Historical population
1970 3,555,879    
1980 4,554,664+28.1%
1991 4,623,900+1.5%
2000 5,691,908+23.1%
2010 6,472,300+13.7%
2020 6,713,540+3.7%
Note: Main census is released every ten years.
Source: Malaysian Population Statistics
Geographical distributions of ethnic Chinese Malaysians by majority in each cities or towns:
  Undetermined majority

The first census conducted in 1970 after Malaysia was formed in 1963 reported that there were 3,555,879 ethnic Chinese Malaysians, with the Hokkien or Min Nan (福建人 or 闽南人) being the majority at 32.4%, followed by Hakka (客家人) at 22.1%, Cantonese (广府人) at 19.8%, Teochew (潮汕人) and Hainanese (海南人) at 12.4% and 4.7% respectively.[159] This increase to 4,554,664 in 1980 and 4,623,900 in 1991.[160] In 2000, the census reported that ethnic Chinese Malaysians numbered at 5,691,908, which was approximately 24.45% of the country's population at the time, with 86% of them living in urban areas.[148] In West Malaysia, Hokkien became the leading group followed by Cantonese, Hakka and Teochew.[161] The pattern differs in East Malaysia where Hakka is the majority in Sabah and Sarawak followed by Hokkien and Cantonese in Sabah and the Fuzhou (福州人), Hokkien and Teochew in Sarawak.[162][163][164] In 2010, the population increase further to 6,392,636.[165]

The Hokkien are notably prominent in the states of Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Malacca, Penang, Perlis, Perak, Sarawak, Labuan and Terengganu while the Hakka is prominent in Sabah and the second largest sub-group in Labuan.[166] The Cantonese (including the smaller population of Kwongsais or Guangxi (广西人) people in states such as Johor, Pahang and Perak) are mostly concentrated in the cities of Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh, and to some extent in Bera, Kuantan, Muallim, Bentong, Kuala Kangsar, Lipis, Mersing, Raub, Cameron Highlands, Jerantut, Temerloh, Bahau, Kampar, Rompin, Gopeng, Maran, Tapah, Pekan, Bidor and Seremban in the peninsular as well as Sandakan and Keningau (Taishanese or 台山人) in Sabah, and to a lesser extent, Miri and Sarikei in Sarawak.[166] The Teochews are mostly found in Johor and Melaka, with a minority of them settling in pockets of Kedah, pockets of Penang and parts of coastal Selangor.

The Fuzhounese are numerous in Yong Peng, Sitiawan, Sungai Pelek, Miri, Bintangor, Sarikei, Bintulu, Kapit, and Sibu.[166][167] The population of Hainanese can be found in all cities and towns in Malaysia, numerously in Malacca and Terengganu and Henghuas or Putian (兴化人 or 莆田人) and Hockchia or Fuqing (福清人) in various other areas.[166]

There is also a small community of Huáběi-ren (Northern Chinese or 华北人) in Sabah whose ancestors coming from various parts of Hebei (河北) and Shandong (山东) provinces in China with most of them calling themselves as Tiānjīn-ren (天津人 or 津侨). Besides that, Sanjiang-ren (Chinese: 三江人) is a collective term used to categorise the group of people whose ancestors hailed from Shanghai (上海), Zhejiang (浙江), Jiangsu (江苏), Hubei (湖北) and Jiangxi (江西). It is a subgroup of mixed spoken dialects and has the fewest people as compared to other Chinese subgroups. The first San Jiang Clansmen Association or San Kiang Association was formed in Penang back in 1897.[168][166]

Although the ethnic Chinese population had been increasing since the 1970s, their proportion within the total population had been decreasing gradually, particularly caused by the lower birth rate among the Chinese community.[159]

Economic and political representation

Proportion of ethnic Chinese and Malay with indigenous voters in the 2018 Malaysian parliamentary constituency:
  Bright red indicates a higher proportion of ethnic Chinese
  Bright green indicates a higher proportion of ethnic Malay or indigenous people
  Mixed colour means that the ratio of the two is equivalent
  The brownish colour are the area with the higher proportion of other non-indigenous races (such as Indians)

Ethnic Chinese Malaysians have been traditionally dominant in the business sector of the Malaysian economy with large local Chinese enterprises involved in natural resources and food ingredients industries such as sugar and palm oil.[169] Almost every biscuits manufacturer in the country is dominated by ethnic Chinese Malaysians.[170] Up to the 1970s, their economic structure was intertwined with very much family and kinship ties.[171] By the 21st century with the rising of China's economic influence, their economy network are jointly connected with other Overseas Chinese through the bamboo network.[172] The local Chinese played a key role in facilitating China's capital to invest in Malaysia while in the process both benefited from expanded markets, lower labour costs and the introduction of different kind of technologies and managerial systems which resulted from Malaysia becoming the largest trading partner to China in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region.[173] Nevertheless, unlike the more transboundary business influence by neighbouring Chinese Singaporeans, a majority of Chinese Malaysian businesses are still seen as less concentrating on developing business ties with other Southeast Asian Chinese businessmen despite there have been few businesses made by several local Malaysian Chinese companies.[174]

Since the country's foundation in 1963, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) was the sole legitimate political representation for ethnic Chinese in Malaysia under the multi-racial political coalition of the Alliance Party (later expanded into National Front coalition).[175] However, the growing restriction of non-Malay interests in Malaysian society and politics since the 1970s caused deep dissension among Chinese Malaysians. The perception that their ethnic party representatives were unable to stand for their people's rights grew, and that decision-making was influenced by the Malay supremacists dominated party of United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). The UMNO was the most influential part of the existing political coalition, and also championed Islamic values.[176] Despite the coalition's multi-racial appearance, UMNO founding president Onn Jaafar has once said that their movement did not adhere to any ideology other than "Malayism", defined by Malay scholar Ariffin Omar as the belief that the interests of the Malay race must be upheld over anything else.[177] From 1968, the inability of MCA to preserve ethnic Chinese Malaysian interests, particularly with regards to their culture, education, and language, resulted in the formation of another ethnic Chinese representative party, the Malaysian People's Movement Party (GERAKAN) led by Chinese overseas-educated elite, although this party also joined the Alliance Party coalition in 1972.[178]

The growing Islamisation with "Islamic version of non-tolerant and open", increasing racism within the Malay party members throughout the coalition imposing further into the country social demographics as well as the government discriminative policies on their education and employment, caused further disenchantment among non-Malays, especially ethnic Chinese.[179][180] This subsequently caused dwindling support from ethnic Chinese Malaysians when many original strongholds of MCA constituents and even Gerakan turned to the Democratic Action Party (DAP) as the latter were seen as more vocal on their rights.[181][182][183] The recent country general election in 2018 saw the fall of National Front coalition following additional aid from Bornean parliamentary seats particularly in Sabah that were won by Pakatan Harapan coalition ally of regionalist Sabah Heritage Party (WARISAN) as well from another indigenous party of United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (UPKO) as a result of similar growing frustration over long-time manipulation of the state demographics and resources with lack of development through the administration of the Malay-led supremacists government of UMNO with frequent labelling as "fixed deposit state".[184][185][186] During the election, the DAP won a large amount of seats due to the support of many Chinese constituents and subsequently diminished MCA influence among ethnic Chinese Malaysians.[187][188][189]

Contributions towards local medical practice

An ethnic Chinese woman in Malaysia grinds and cuts up dried herbs to make traditional Chinese medicine.

Aside from their economic dominance, ethnic Chinese Malaysians are known for their contribution in the country healthcare sectors with their traditional health practice. Around 3,000 medicine shops in the country sell traditional Chinese medicine with development support also given by the country Health Ministry.[190] Chinese traditional health practice services in the country generally encompass the zhong yi (Chinese medicine), qigong (health), chiropractic care, acupuncture and several others.[191] In 2012, the Traditional and Complementary Medicine Bill (T&CM) was passed by the Parliament of Malaysia for the establishment of "Traditional and Complementary Medicine Council" to register and regulate traditional and complementary medicine practitioners, including traditional Chinese medicine practitioners as well Malay, indigenous and Indians traditional medicine which followed by the enforcement of T&CM Act in the following year.[192] Since most of the traditional medicine pharmacies are family-apprentice trade, most of the traditional medicine practitioners are not registered as a doctor under the health department despite the support given by the Health Ministry with most can practice the career without needed to be registered under government law.[190]


In educational aspects, Malaysia is the only country outside China and Taiwan with a comprehensive and complete Chinese education system and the only Southeast Asian country that has perpetuated the Chinese education system established since the colonial era as a result of heavy brokerage and lobbying efforts by ethnic Chinese Malaysians political leaders with continual funding from local Chinese communities.[193][194] The first Chinese schools had been established in the country in the 19th century during the British colonial administration.[195][196][197] At the same time, Christian missions from China also founded schools for Chinese students to nurture Church workers, this are most notable among many Chinese Christians of Hakka origin in Sabah and the Fuzhou in Sarawak.[198] Following the country's independence, some of the Chinese independent schools who were influenced by the new national agenda and desperately needed government financial support were willingly converted into English medium-schools. However, these schools were later scrupulously converted into Malay medium-schools following the massive elimination of English medium-schools by the Malay-dominated regime in the 1970s in an effort to impose the Malay language as the only medium of instructions in all schools in the aftermath of ethnic riots in 1969.[193][194] The following period was considered a dark time for local Chinese education and witnessed a growing belief in the idea that the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia had to proceed on a basis of self-reliance and vigilance in order to preserve their language rights as the national education policy was seen as exclusionary and discriminatory for non-Malays, summed up in the aphorism "non-Malays belong to Malaysia but Malaysia only belongs to the Malays".[193][199]

SMJK Confucian in Kuala Lumpur, an example of converted Chinese independent school to government-funded "SMJK" (literally Sekolah Menengah Jenis Kebangsaan).

Although other remaining Chinese independent schools were also included in the national school system in 1996, these independent schools still did not receive any financial assistance from the federal government and its United Examinations Certificate (UEC) is not recognised by the government, making students who finish their studies from the local Chinese independent schools unable to enrol in government-funded public tertiary institutions.[200] Since late 1970, ethnic Chinese Malaysians had expanded their own Mandarin-language primary schools where around 90% of their children were enrolled based on the figures from 2006.[201] These schools gained a reputation for not only maintaining good discipline but also providing the high-quality education that the Malay schools were seen by some to lack. This perceived superiority attracted significant interest among Bumiputera parents with various analyses placing the number of Bumiputera students enrollment in Chinese schools between 60,000 and 100,000 in 2000.[201] The federal government's failure to impose Malay as the sole unifying language throughout the country's educational systems unlike in China with Standard Chinese or Indonesia with Indonesian language are mainly attributed to the racial-based policy enforcement of ethnic inclusion and exclusion.[202] Some argue that the educational policies imposed by the federal government over the years in regard to minority language education have created negative consequences for Malaysian youth: a mounting brain drain in particular. A study from 2000 found that the country had lost an ample amount of talented and skilled youth to other more favourable countries as the result of students from the large non-Malay minority language communities being forced to go to university abroad because they did not attend Malay language schools.[203][204]


Inside the former house of a Peranakan (Baba-Nyonya or 峇峇娘惹) in Malacca which has now been converted into a museum, a Nyonya can be seen sitting inside wearing the traditional kebaya.

Chinese cultural influences made their mark when ancient trade relations were established with the Nanyang (南洋) region.[205] The massive ethnic Chinese migration during the British colonial period causing a subsequent strong influence on the country's culture, including in cuisine and the language.[206] Aside from the Chinese cultural influence on local culture, ethnic Chinese from the first wave migration before English arrival had mainly adopted a localised culture.[207] The Baba-Nyonya in Malacca had a very strong Malay influence in their clothing and food although still maintaining their Chinese heritage of religion, name, and identity.[208] Their food are made with Malay ingredients and recipes but produced using the Chinese method while their houses are constructed with the infusion of Victorian, Chinese and Malay elements.[208] Together with the Peranakans in Penang, both sides use a mixture of Hokkien and Malay despite the Penang Peranakans speak mainly Hokkien with some borrowed words from Malay words while in Malacca, the Peranakans have adopted Malay patois with some Hokkien words.[209] The food prepared by Penang Peranakans also infuses both Chinese and Malay elements, albeit with an additional Thai influence.[209] The Peranakans in the east coast of Malaysia in Kelantan and Terengganu have much closer ties with the Malay and Siamese community there since most of them has adopted the Malay and Siamese lifestyle.[210][211][212]

Na Tuk Kong (拿督公) shrine in West Malaysia.

Further, close blood relations between ethnic Chinese and local indigenous in northern Borneo since the early kingdoms period produced the "Sino-Natives" persons in Sabah as a result of inter-marriage between ethnic Chinese there and natives of Sabah.[213] Instead of speaking Chinese languages, these communities spoke the localized Sabah Malay dialect as their main lingua franca since the 14th century.[213] The close relations are marked with earliest records of the "Kina" term which is widely used by the indigenous Dusun to refer to the Chinese ethnicity including for the Dusun homeland mountain of "Mount Kinabalu" (Chinese widow mountain), "Kinabatangan River" (Chinese river) and several other places such as the Kinabalu mountain stream of "Kinataki", a small river in the northeastern coast of "Kinabañgun" and a Chinese land in Labuan Island, the "Kinabenua".[214][215] The Na Tuk Kong shrine for example shown another sign of assimilation with local culture, where it refers to local Malay guardian spirits worshipped by some ethnic Chinese in West Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore and Indonesia.[216] The term Na Tuk originated from the Malay word of Datuk (grandfather) which then merged with Kong (公, sometimes addressed as 'Kung' meaning elderly male), similar with Tu Ti Kung (Chinese: 土地公), an earth deity worshipped in East Asia.[217][218]


Some of the examples of ethnic Chinese influenced Malaysian cuisine, clockwise from top-right: grass jelly (凉粉) with Bandung, yong tau foo, Nyonya steamed layer cake (娘惹千层糕) and laksa noodle.

The ethnic Chinese cuisine in Malaysia is derived from the culinary traditions of their early immigrants and descendants, who have adopted or modified their culinary traditions under the influence of Malaysian culture as well as immigration patterns of Chinese to the country where Chinese cuisine has now become an inseparable part from the country cultural mixture.[219] When Chinese merchants sailed their junks across the South China Sea, they visiting ports in Borneo and Malacca which then have a profound influence on the region.[219] Chinese traders who visited Borneo always brought some good cooks with them since the local king on the island is very much liked Chinese food.[220] They introduced ingredients in Chinese cooking such as noodles, bean sprouts, tofu and soy sauce which is now widely used by every ethnic groups in the country.[221] Apart from introducing, these earlier traders also discovering worth ingredients among the local population along the coast, such as the expensive edible bird's nest with the best nests are claimed to come from Borneo than in China.[222][223] Since a vast majority of Chinese Malaysians today are descendants of immigrants from southern China, local Chinese cuisine roots is predominantly based from Fujian, Cantonese, Hakka and Teochew cuisines. Their technique of stir frying a portion of food ingredients in a little cooking oil over high heat in a wok (锅) are widely adopted.[221]

The Nyonya making various traditional kuih.

Chinese Malaysian cuisine developed a strong penchant for spices and chillies where any local Chinese kopi tiam or restaurant will offer pickled green or red chillies sambal for noodles and rice-based meals.[221] They borrowed curry leaves from the Indians and have since adapted English Worcestershire sauce and tomato sauce along with Indian and Malay spices to the cooking pot.[221] Among the notable Chinese dishes in the country including the bak kut teh (肉骨茶) (pork rib soup with Chinese herbs), char kway teow (炒粿条) (stir fried rice noodle), dim sum (点心) (ready-to-serve dishes), hae mee (虾面) (spicy prawn noodle soup served in savoury broth), Hainanese chicken rice (海南鸡饭), kai si hor fun (鸡丝河粉) (flat rice noodle soup with chicken slices, shrimps and bean sprouts), kolok or kolo mee (干捞面) (Sarawakian egg noodle served in dark sauce, tomato sauce or chilli sauce), lor mee (卤面) (thick yellow noodle served in dark sauce and thick broth), ngiu chap mee (牛杂面) (special Sabah mixed beef noodle), pan mee (板面) (handmade noodle soup served with pork balls, minced pork, dried anchovies, black fungus and vegetable), sang nyuk mee (生肉面) (special Sabah dry pork noodle or pork noodle soup), wonton mee (云吞面) (dry noodle or noodle soup served with BBQ pork, minced pork and pork or shrimp dumplings) and yong tau foo (酿豆腐) (tofu and mixed vegetables filled with ground pork mixture or fish paste). Many Chinese Malaysians also can cook Malay-style chicken or fish with most versions of laksa (叻唦) are prepared by them.[221] Some examples of basic Chinese Malaysians drinks commercially produced in the country including the black tea, chrysanthemum tea, grass jelly, green tea, jasmine tea, soy milk and white coffee while popular snacks including the cakoi (油炸鬼) (long deep-fried dough), egg tart, hum ji peng (咸煎饼) (circle shaped fried dough with or without fillings), ngoi sing tart (外星塔) (UFO shaped tart), ngo hiang (炸五香) (various spiced, minced meat rolls prepared in deep fried style and served with vegetables), pau (包) (steamed buns), popiah (薄饼) (fried or plain spring rolls filled with mixed vegetables), and tau sar piah (豆沙饼) (pastry biscuits filled with a sweet or savoury filling).[224] The legacy from the first wave migration created the Peranakan (土生华人) (including the Baba-Nyonya (峇峇娘惹)) ethnicity through a blend between Chinese and Malay which subsequently produced the Peranakan cuisine where they served Indian-style curries with eating etiquette different from mainstream ethnic Chinese society by following the Malay usage of fingers than chopsticks.[225] The Baba-Nyonya also specialized in making a variety of local snacks called kuih which require plenty of patience and skills.[226]

Dialects and languages

Map of the Sinophone world, where Chinese languages are spoken as a first language among ethnic Chinese in countries where their population is significant:
  Chinese-speaking majority (Coastal and central areas of China, Taiwan and Singapore)
  Large Chinese-speaking minority (Highland China, Malaysia and Brunei)
  Small Chinese-speaking minority (Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam)
Example of Chinese loanwords in Malay language
Loanword English description
bihun/mihun rice vermicelli
cakoi a long deep-fried dough
cawan cup
cincai carelessly, in a hurry, random
cincau grass jelly
ginseng root of herbal plants
kapcai underbone motorcycle
kuaci sunflower seed
kuetiau rice noodle
kuih snack and dessert
longkang drainage
mee/mi noodle
pau steamed bun
popia/popiah fried spring roll
samseng gangster
tauhu tofu
tauke big boss
teh tea
tongkang Chinese sailing ship
Source: Asmah 1975, p. 40 and DBP

The 1970 Malaysian Census reported the Southern Min dialects being the largest which accounting for 34.2% of the country Chinese population, followed by Hakka with 22.1%, Cantonese by 19.8%, Chaozhou (Teochew) by 12.4% and Hainanese by 4.7%.[159] In 2003, a more detailed statistics for each dialects reported the Hokkien with 2,020,914, Hakka with 1,092,835, Cantonese with 1,068,008, Teochew with 497,280, Fuzhou with 251,553, Hainanese with 141,045, Kwongsai with 51,674, Henghua with 24,654, Hockchia with 14,935 and different other ethnic Chinese with 202,977, for a total of 5,365,875.[148] The Malaysian Hokkien are divided into two localised dialects; the Penang Hokkien (northern) comprising Penang, Kedah, Perlis and Perak, and Southern Peninsular Hokkien in Johor, Malacca and neighbouring Singapore.[227] The northern Hokkien contains more Malay loanwords than the southern with the latter maintaining more of their original Hokkien words.[227] Many Hokkien living in Sarawak have been influenced heavily by indigenous language similarly with Hokkien in Kelantan where their language was heavily localised following close interaction with local Malays and Siamese.[227] Localised Hokkien also spoken primarily by the Peranakan community (Baba-Nyonya) in both Malacca and Penang.[228] Generally, Hokkien became a contact language among ethnic Chinese of different linguistic background in most parts of Malaysia.[229]

The Malaysian Cantonese became the contact language in the Malaysia's capital of Kuala Lumpur albeit with a distinct phonology and grammar from standard Cantonese spoken in Pearl River Delta region of China including in Hong Kong and Macau.[229][230][231] Hakka dialect assumes the role of contact language in Sabah but in the rest of the country the language are more commonly used as an intra-group language than a lingua franca within the Chinese community with about 66.2% of Hakka in Johor prefer localised Mandarin.[232][233] Similar studies on Eastern Min speakers of Fuzhou community in Sarawak also found a general shift of language choice from their own dialect to Mandarin Chinese and English.[234] The Chaozhou dialect despite being not a largest dialect group has become a bridge language for trade between Teochew exporters in China and wholesalers in Malaysia.[235][236] Hainan dialect is another minority and the sub-dialect of the Min Chinese dialect family although it is treated in the country as an independent dialect.[237] Several others like Henghua are also generally termed as "dialects", which in fact together with the rest are variety of Chinese languages from different Chinese ethnicity.[238] Mandarin, which is generally spoken by northern Chinese minority in Sabah become the main working language among all Chinese in the country with Standard Mandarin is used as the medium of instruction in local Chinese medium school and independent high school although the language still not necessarily spoken in their daily life practice.[239] Based on early Malaysian Census in 1970, around 41% of ethnic Chinese Malaysians are able to converse in Mandarin.[240]

Holidays and festivities

Lion dance in Malaysia's capital during the Chinese main festivity.

With the large presence of ethnic Chinese in the country nationwide, Chinese New Year is celebrated as a national public holiday. 11 states and three federal territories in the country celebrate with two days holidays while two remaining states of Kelantan and Terengganu only celebrate a one-day holiday.[241] During the New Year, many Chinese living with their family in the urban areas will celebrate together, while some who may have family in rural areas will return for family reunions. Traditional dinner with the entire family is the most important aspect of the celebration and may include a traditional food tossing of yee sang, especially among the Cantonese.[242][243] Elders will usually give the young a red envelope (ang pow or angpau). A variety of festival sweets are presented in the house for visitors. Most Chinese settlements and Chinatown streets will be decorated before the New Year with colorful lanterns. Dragon and lion dances will be performed with firecracker and fireworks shows also featured as part of the celebrations.[243]

Aside from mandarin orange, various other snacks are presented for visitors throughout the Chinese New Year.

Chingay processions are also being held as part of the New Year festivities especially in Johor Bahru and Penang.[244] Several other festivals are celebrated through the seasons in a year including the Dongzhi Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, Hungry Ghost Festival, Lantern Festival (Chap Goh Mei), Mid-Autumn Festival, Nine Emperor Gods Festival and Qingming Festival which originated from much of Chinese folk beliefs and traditional agricultural society.[245] Throughout the festivals, especially for major Chinese festivals such as the New Year, Hungry Ghost, and Mid-Autumn, Chinese temples will organize cultural and religious activities.[246] The Hungry Ghost Festival is generally not observed by most Dejiao (Zi) group in Malaysia which descended directly from Dejiao association in China, it is only mainly observed by three Zi associations in Kuala Lumpur (Zi Fang Ge), Pulau Ketam (Zi Bang Ge) and Butterworth (Zi Wei Gi) with the three calling the festival as Wanyuan Shenghui than Yulan Shanghui.[247] The Mooncake Festival is celebrated through the Mid-Autumn Festival where there people will exchange and eat mooncake.[248] Traditional Chinese weddings remain popular to some ethnic Chinese Malaysian couples even though most have preferred the Western-influenced wearing of white wedding dresses and black jackets.[249]


Religion of ethnic Chinese Malaysians (2010)[250]

  Buddhism (83.6%)
  Christianity (11.0%)
  No religion (0.8%)
  Islam (0.7%)
  Hinduism (0.2%)
  Unknown (0.17%)
  Other religion (0.13%)

Based on the 2000 Malaysian Census, 86.6% of ethnic Chinese Malaysians adhere to Buddhism and Chinese folk religion with numerous Chinese temples and shrines visible nationwide.[251] More detailed statistics in 2010 found a total of 5,341,687 ethnic Chinese Malaysians adhere to Buddhism, 706,479 are Christians, 218,261 practising Confucianism, Taoism and other Chinese folk religious sects, 49,320 were irreligious, 42,048 are Muslims, 14,878 are Hindus, 11,387 with unknown religion while 8,576 practising other different religion.[250] Among the common deities worshipped by ethnic Chinese Malaysians in temples are Lord Guan (Guansheng Dijun), Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy), Dabo Gong (Earth Deity) and Mazu (Goddess of Sea).[251]

Commonly found in ethnic Chinese homes and shops are altars installed for deities of their affinities together with ancestral worship. Most of the deities are of Chinese origin but it is still uncommon to sight a few local deities.[251] There are different types of Chinese Buddhist temples and societies in every Malaysian cities and towns with only Buddhist statues, although some may have one or two other Chinese deities.[251] Other Buddhist branches of Theravāda and various Tibetan traditions (Vajrayāna) also have Chinese members where it is not surprising that some of the other Buddhist branches buildings are built with the fund and philanthropic efforts of local Chinese Buddhists as exampled from the establishment of Buddhist Maha Vihara in Kuala Lumpur and Wat Chayamangkalaram in Penang.[251][252][253] Unlike the institutional religion of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, ethnic Chinese who follow traditional folk religion do not have separate name for their belief and practices which is similar to the country indigenous people such as Iban and the Orang Asli.[254] They describe their religious belief as either bai shen or bai fo (deities worshipping) which include the worshipping of Buddha since Mahayana Buddhist deities are also commonly worshipped by the followers of Chinese traditional religion.[254]

Malaysian Chinese Catholics during Palm Sunday at St Ignatius Church in Selangor.

Chinese Christians, including both Catholic and Protestants presence, are mainly visible with their active missionary activities especially among ethnic Chinese in East Malaysia with a large proportion than other regions.[255] The majority of Christians in West Malaysia also are of Chinese origin.[256] Most early Chinese churches including Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians have their origin from missionary migrants who introduced the missions established in China to Malaysia.[251] The number of Chinese Muslims are very small compared to Chinese Christians since the latter religion is seen as more tolerance and acceptance, mainly due to the general perception that embracing Islam in Malaysia is like to become Malayised in addition to the ethnic rivalry between Malay and Chinese that makes Islam as less desirable to ethnic Chinese Malaysians.[251] A majority of Chinese Malaysians, especially those who have received Chinese education, following Confucian values and to a lesser extent with Taoism while their ordinary people who are less educated expressing in their view of filial piety and social relations, consulting Chinese horoscopes as well on Chinese geomancy of feng shui.[251] Taoist activities gain increasing interests and significance among Chinese Malaysians although it is not deeply practiced.[257][258]

See also


  1. Of the 8,820 Malaysian-born people resident in New Zealand in 1991, only 1,383 were Malay; most of the rest were Chinese Malaysians. In the 2013 New Zealand census, 16,350 people were born in Malaysia. Of these, more than five-eighths gave their ethnicity as Chinese or Malaysian Chinese. The next most numerous were Malays, with smaller groups of Indians and other Asian peoples.[5]



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  • Oxford Business Group (2008). The Report: Malaysia 2008. Oxford Business Group. ISBN 978-1-902339-88-7. {{cite book}}: |author= has generic name (help)
  • Cheng, Guan Ang (2009). Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-135-23837-7.
  • Blussé, Leonard (2009). Visible Cities: Canton, Nagasaki, and Batavia and the Coming of the Americans. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-02843-2.
  • Ball, Martin J (2009). The Routledge Handbook of Sociolinguistics Around the World: A Handbook. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-135-26104-7.
  • Defillippi, Robert; Arthur, Michael; Lindsay, Valerie (2009). Knowledge at Work: Creative Collaboration in the Global Economy. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-4051-7269-1.
  • Koh, Jaime; Ho, Stephanie (2009). Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-0-313-35116-7.
  • West, Barbara A. (2010). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4381-1913-7.
  • Liow, Joseph Chinyong; Hosen, Nadirsyah (2010). Islam in Southeast Asia: Critical Concepts in Islamic Studies. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-48477-0.
  • Tong, Chee Kiong (2010). Identity and Ethnic Relations in Southeast Asia: Racializing Chineseness. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 978-90-481-8909-0.
  • Lee, Su Kim (2010). Kebaya Tales: : Of matriarchs, maidens, mistresses and matchmakers. Marshall Cavendish International Asia Pte Ltd. ISBN 978-981-4382-85-4.
  • Bauer, Robert S.; Benedict, Paul K. (2011). Modern Cantonese Phonology. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-11-082370-7.
  • Cartier, Carolyn (2011). Globalizing South China. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-4443-9924-0.
  • Gabaccía, Donna R.; Hoerder, Dirk (2011). Connecting Seas and Connected Ocean Rims: Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans and China Seas Migrations from the 1830s to the 1930s. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-19316-1.
  • Hamilton, Gary G. (2011). Asian Business Networks. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-11-088831-7.
  • Lai, To Lee; Hock, Guan Lee (2011). Sun Yat-Sen, Nanyang and the 1911 Revolution. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN 978-981-4345-46-0.
  • Nolan, Victoria (2011). Military Leadership and Counterinsurgency: The British Army and Small War Strategy Since World War II. I.B.Tauris. ISBN 978-0-85772-087-0.
  • Runciman, Steven (2011). The White Rajah: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-12899-5.
  • Ting, Hui Lee (2011). Chinese Schools in Peninsular Malaysia: The Struggle for Survival. Institute of Southeast Asian. ISBN 978-981-4279-21-5.
  • Wurm, Stephen A.; Mühlhäusler, Peter; Tryon, Darrell T. (2011). Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas: Vol I: Maps. Vol II: Texts. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-11-081972-4.
  • Armstrong, M. Jocelyn; Armstrong, R. Warwick; Mulliner, Kent (2012). Chinese Populations in Contemporary Southeast Asian Societies: Identities, Interdependence and International Influence. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-12346-7.
  • Gomez, Terence (2012). Chinese Business in Malaysia: Accumulation, Accommodation and Ascendance. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-11226-3.
  • Hartfield, James (2012). Unpatriotic History of the Second World War. John Hunt Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78099-379-9.
  • Hock, Guan Lee; Suryadinata, Leo (2012). Malaysian Chinese: Recent Developments and Prospects. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN 978-981-4345-08-8.
  • Hutton, Wendy (2012). Authentic Recipes from Malaysia. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4629-0539-3.
  • Lahoud, Nelly; Johns, A.H. (2012). Islam in World Politics. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-34716-2.
  • Suryadinata, Leo (2012). Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume I & II. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN 978-981-4345-21-7.
  • Tan, Chee Beng (2012). Chinese Food and Foodways in Southeast Asia and Beyond. NUS Press. ISBN 978-9971-69-548-4.
  • Wang, Xiaomei (2012). Mandarin Spread in Malaysia. The University of Malaya Press. ISBN 978-983-100-958-1.
  • Case, William (2013). Politics in Southeast Asia: Democracy or Less. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-87114-6.
  • Cheah, Boon Kheng (2013). Red Star Over Malaya. Flipside Digital Content Company Inc. ISBN 978-9971-69-736-5.
  • Diamond, Larry; Plattner, Marc F.; Chu, Yun-han (2013). Democracy in East Asia: A New Century. JHU Press. ISBN 978-1-4214-0968-9.
  • Douw, Leo; Huang, Cen; Ip, David (2013). Rethinking Chinese Transnational Enterprises: Cultural Affinity and Business Strategies. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-86195-6.
  • Gentile, Gian (2013). Wrong Turn: America s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency. New Press. ISBN 978-1-59558-896-8.
  • Hale, Christopher (2013). Massacre in Malaya: Exposing Britain's My Lai. History Press. ISBN 978-0-7509-5181-4.
  • Hamblin, Jacob Darwin (2013). Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-991159-2.
  • Josey, Alex (2013). Lee Kuan Yew: The Crucial Years. Marshall Cavendish International Asia Pte Ltd. ISBN 978-981-4435-49-9.
  • Lee, Khoon Choy (2013). Golden Dragon And Purple Phoenix: The Chinese And Their Multi-ethnic Descendants In Southeast Asia. World Scientific. ISBN 978-981-4518-49-9.
  • Leifer, Michael (2013). Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-135-12945-3.
  • Ramakrishna, Kumar (2013). Emergency Propaganda: The Winning of Malayan Hearts and Minds 1948-1958. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-60276-4.
  • Yong, Kee Howe (2013). The Hakkas of Sarawak: Sacrificial Gifts in Cold War Era Malaysia. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-1-4426-6798-3.
  • Curdt-Christiansen, Xiao Lan; Hancock, Andy (2014). Learning Chinese in Diasporic Communities: Many pathways to being Chinese. John Benjamins Publishing Company. ISBN 978-90-272-7024-5.
  • Jakobsen, Michael (2014). Ethnic Chinese Entrepreneurship in Malaysia: On Contextualisation in International Business Studies. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-317-59402-4.
  • Khoo, Boo Eng (2014). A Simple Approach To Taoism. Partridge Singapore. ISBN 978-1-4828-9531-5.
  • Mizushima, Tsukasa; Souza, George Bryan; Flynn, Dennis O., eds. (2014). Hinterlands and Commodities: Place, Space, Time and the Political Economic Development of Asia over the Long Eighteenth Century. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-28390-9.
  • Ong, Weichong (2014). Malaysia's Defeat of Armed Communism: The Second Emergency, 1968-1989. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-317-62688-6.
  • Singh, Bilveer (2014). Quest for Political Power: Communist Subversion and Militancy in Singapore. Marshall Cavendish International Asia Pte Ltd. ISBN 978-981-4634-49-6.
  • Stevenson, Xutian; Tai, Shusheng; Yuan, Chun-su (2014). Handbook Of Traditional Chinese Medicine (In 3 Volumes). World Scientific. ISBN 978-981-4571-34-0.
  • Reid, Anthony (2015). A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-631-17961-0.
  • Garver, John W. (2015). China's Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People's Republic, revised and updated. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-026107-8.
  • Ooi, Keat Gin (2015). Brunei – History, Islam, Society and Contemporary Issues. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-65998-3.
  • Comber, Leon (2015). Templer and the Road to Malayan Independence: The Man and His Time. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN 978-981-4620-10-9.
  • de Vienne, Marie-Sybille (2015). Brunei: From the Age of Commerce to the 21st Century. NUS Press. ISBN 978-9971-69-818-8.
  • Razak, Abdullah (2015). China-Malaysia Relations and Foreign Policy. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-57197-1.
  • Brezina, Corona (2016). Zheng He: China's Greatest Explorer, Mariner, and Navigator. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. ISBN 978-1-5081-7149-2.
  • DK Travel (2016). Malaysia and Singapore. Eyewitness Travel Guides. Dorling Kindersley Limited. ISBN 978-0-241-25431-8.
  • Kaur, A. (2016). Economic Change in East Malaysia: Sabah and Sarawak since 1850. Palgrave Macmillan UK. ISBN 978-0-230-37709-7.
  • Landa, Janet Tai (2016). Economic Success of Chinese Merchants in Southeast Asia: Identity, Ethnic Cooperation and Conflict. Springer. ISBN 978-3-642-54019-6.
  • Roy, Kaushik; Saha, Sourish (2016). Armed Forces and Insurgents in Modern Asia. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-23193-6.
  • Yamaguchi, Toshiko; Deterding, David (2016). English in Malaysia: Current Use and Status. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-31430-6.
  • Wong, Bernard; Tan, Chee Beng (2017). China's Rise and the Chinese Overseas. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-351-86660-6.
  • Lin, Francis Chia-Hui (2017). Architectural Theorisations and Phenomena in Asia: The Polychronotypic Jetztzeit. Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-58433-1.
  • Arokiasamy, Christina (2017). The Malaysian Kitchen: 150 Recipes for Simple Home Cooking. HMH Books. ISBN 978-0-544-81002-0.
  • Ma, Hailong (2017). The History of Chinese Muslims' Migration into Malaysia. King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS). ISBN 978-603-8206-48-5.
  • Dayley, Robert (2018). Southeast Asia in the New International Era. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-429-97424-3.
  • Tan, Chee Beng (2018). Chinese Religion in Malaysia: Temples and Communities. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-35787-7.
  • Tyson, Adam (2018). The Political Economy of Brain Drain and Talent Capture: Evidence from Malaysia and Singapore. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-429-77316-7.
  • Wade, Geoff; Chin, James K. (2018). China and Southeast Asia: Historical Interactions. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-429-95212-8.
  • Zhang, Quan (2018). Pacific Rim Objective Measurement Symposium (PROMS) 2016 Conference Proceedings: Rasch and the Future. Springer Singapore. ISBN 978-981-10-8138-5.

Further reading

  • Carstens, Sharon A. (2005). Histories, Cultures, Identities: Studies in Malaysian Chinese Worlds. NUS Press. ISBN 978-9971-69-312-1.
  • Tan, Teong Jin; Ho, Wah Foon; Tan, Joo Lan (2005). The Chinese Malaysian contribution. Centre for Malaysian Chinese Studies. ISBN 978-983-9673-95-1.
  • Sim, Rita (2012). Unmistakably Chinese, Genuinely Malaysian. Centre for Strategic Engagement. ISBN 978-967-10773-0-6.
  • Chan, Rachel Suet Kay (2013). "The Impact of Cultural Globalisation on Identity Formation among the Malaysian Chinese". Academic Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. 2 (9).
  • Hayes, Elizabeth S. (2013). Spices and Herbs: Lore and Cookery. Courier Corporation. ISBN 978-0-486-13782-7.
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