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The confidence of being Malaysian

Chee Sek Thim

CHEE Sek Thim used to be based in Petaling Jaya, shuttling back to Penang on a monthly basis. But over the past one year, the reverse has been happening after he moved back to his family home.

Chee, a theatre practitioner and art educator, is rediscovering his home state of Penang. The shift to Penang hasn’t just been a physical one. Chee, who recently turned 46, is also experiencing emotional shifts in his relationship to the place he was born and grew up in.

The member of theatre collective Five Arts Centre and founder of Reka Art Space says he grew up confident about his place in Malaysia. But today he is struck by how much others around him have always felt insecure, and how in recent times, he, too, has been made to feel that way about being a citizen in Malaysia.

TNG: Where were you born?

I was born in the Penang Maternity Hospital at 6.10pm on 16 Feb 1963, the fourth of five children. My mum kept meticulous records of our births. My sisters had baby books. I didn’t, but my birth was recorded in an exercise book!

Early training in religious rituals for two-year-old Chee (pic courtesy of Chee)

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Penang. I grew up between Pulau Tikus where I lived with my grandma and aunts, and China Street in George Town where my parents lived.

I had an accident involving my foot when I was a child. At that time, they thought it better for me to live with my grandma so she could look after me because both my parents were working. My mother was the headmistress in Convent Butterworth and my dad was a technical assistant with the Public Works Department.

Can you trace your ancestry? Where were your parents/grandparents from? What generation Malaysian are you?

Chee by the beach in Penang as a child. "What I preferred to do instead ... and still do." (pic courtesy of Chee)

I’m a second generation Malaysian on my father’s side. From my paternal grandfather, we can trace our ancestry back to long ways away (chuckles). I don’t know, I can’t tell you specifically but apparently we’re descendants of the ninth son of the third Emperor of China (Tchuen Chook) after Huang Ti.

My grandfather was brought out to run the cloth-dyeing business here in Penang. There is a handwritten book, in classical Chinese, which used to exist in [an ancestral temple in] my great-grandfather’s village.

When my paternal grandfather moved to Penang, he was 16. He made a copy of this book up to the 15th generation and brought it with him. We still have this copy.

The idea was that the family would return to China when it became possible to return, and have a sense of continuity. My aunt took my grandmother back to the village to look for the original document in 1974, but it was gone because during the Cultural Revolution, that temple in the village was destroyed. So, we only have the copy.

Our family originated from Cho Yuen hamlet in the village of Tan Cho, which comprises 24 hamlets. The village is located close to Jiang Men in southern China in the Pearl River Delta, close to Hong Kong.

My mother’s side is not so clear to me. Mum is either second or third generation Malaysian because I had a great grandmother in Malaya.

Chee's mum being fed by her dad on her wedding day (pic courtesy of Chee)

My father was Cantonese, my mother Hokkien. My mum was the sister of my father’s good friend, that’s how they met.

What is your strongest memory of the place in which you grew up?

Two spaces hold the strongest memories for me. My school (Penang Free School or PFS) and my grandfather’s house in China Street because of the psychological impact these spaces had on me.

A lot of conservatism and sense of values have been channeled through the presence of this building on China Street. While I was growing up, the meaning of the house was on the decline. My father was the last family to live there. It was past its glory by that time, from what it was as a hub for my grandfather’s business.

But what it meant in the past was constantly passed down to us. We [constantly heard] of the standing of grandfather’s business in Penang and the respect one would be accorded when associated with the name of the business, Choy Sung.

So, we were brought up on this diet of prestige, and real or imagined moral authority of the business. And it was probably because my grandfather was such a straight businessperson that he never got rich (chuckles).

Chee's father (extreme left) at work (pic courtesy of Chee)

The business involved importing cloth from the Lancashire Mills in England and dyes from Germany. My grandfather would go to the harbour, put his hand all the way in the dye pot and wipe his fingers on his legs. If it appeared green, he would know it was mixed up with mud and would reject the dye. Grandmother would always know grandpa had gone to the harbour when he came home with stripes on his legs. That was how the company built up a reputation, because the quality of the dye and cloth was very good. (The war interrupted the supply of dyes and the business couldn’t continue thereafter.)

So, we grew up with this sense of values. Not that these stories meant anything. They were abstract to me. I’d never seen my grandfather or his cloth. All I knew as a child was that we lived in his house which was actually smelly, damp and had cockroaches and swallows.

The other institution which had an impact on me was PFS.

At home, we were always told who had attended the school before us. My family reinforced this by saying all my uncles also attended PFS. There was a sense of lineage and privilege attached to attending PFS.

1971. Receiving a prize for doing well in school from the Sun Wooi Association on Bishop Street, of which Chee's grandma was a member (pic courtesy of Chee)

And this would be further reinforced by very big personalities who would appear once a year. Every speech day, I anticipated the arrival of (first prime minister) Tunku Abdul Rahman and Captain Haji Mohd Nor (a member of the school board and an ex-master with a stern reputation). Tunku’s presence would drum into us that we belonged to the “best school in Malaysia”.

It made me feel I could take on the world! Because I had this sense of confidence which essentially fed and became a part of my psyche in whatever I did.

On school assembly days, we would wear ties and recite the Rukun Negara, sing the national anthem and Muhibbah (sings out the song)…the words were so incredible. They were so patriotic and nationalistic, words like “Hapuskan jurang perbezaan, hormatilah perlembagaan.”

What are the stories you hold onto the most from your parents/grandparents/uncles?

As a child, the story I most remember was my grandmother’s story about her childhood in China, about how she was a farmer. She loved to demonstrate how to plant rice. She would get out of her chair to demonstrate how to plonk the shoot into the earth. She would constantly forget that she’d told me the story before.

I also remember that she told me how, at every meal time, she would eat two bowls of vegetables. She said it was the secret to her long life and good health. She lived till she was 94!

Chee on a neighbour's balcony at great-grandfather's village in China overlooking the fish pond, 1996 (pic courtesy of Chee)

My aunt’s stories were different. They weren’t so much stories but explanations of why she does certain things. For example, she continues to maintain my great grandfather’s house in China and goes there once in a while. I think she does that because deep inside her, she feels that she needs to be prepared to leave the country. We have relatives all over the world — Australia, England, Canada and she says, “Now, we have a place to go to in China.”

Her second brother told her once, “Don’t give up the ancestral house in China. You must always remember that we are settlers here. You never know when you will be forced to leave Malaysia.” My aunt has lived all her life here and will die here. But she’s put in place the infrastructure to support her and her family should she be forced to leave the country.

It seems like even way back then, they could already sense they would never feel that they would be total citizens of this country. But the irony is, if you grow up here as a child, that sense of confidence of belonging to the country is unmatched. Only as an adult, can I see outside of this propaganda of “goodness” that was fed to me as a child.

I don’t have any negative memories of being Chinese in Malaysia. I was not discriminated against politically or socially as a child.

How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?

I don’t know because now, the notion of being Malaysian is such a complex one depending on where you are geographically and what experiences you had growing up.

Chee performing in Encore (pic courtesy of Five Arts Centre)

But these stories keep me reminded of my immigrant roots. I myself take it for granted that I’m Malaysian, it’s not even a question. I’m certainly not going anywhere, and I don’t feel I’m very different from everyone else although it does seem like I’m constantly reminded about my Chinese-ness or non-Chinese-ness.  It’s confusing.

In Penang, I don’t think twice about using Hokkien, English or Malay. But in KL, on the street, I get spoken to in Mandarin which offends me. I mean, “Why do you assume I can speak Mandarin?” If you’re born and bred in Malaysia, surely you would know that not every Chinese Malaysian speaks Mandarin. I’m not sure why I should find this offensive but I do.

I never get asked, when I’m in Penang, whether I’m Chinese or “local”. But in KL, I get asked, “Are you Malay [Malaysian], Chinese [Malaysian], Burmese?” And the worst, “Are you local?” In Penang, at least in the early days, everybody was just Malaysian.

Circa 1978. Speech Day, Penang Free School. Getting instructions from Tan Teong Kooi, Chee's art teacher, before performing with the school choir (pic courtesy of Chee)

It’s strange because of the kind of childhood I had growing up, with this institution of a school, the family’s business, and my grandfather’s stake in the business community in Penang — all the elements that promoted a sense of belonging and security … and then to hear my aunt’s stories about the worries of being displaced … of course I can only understand it intellectually, whereas I think she understands it from a gut level.

She experienced 13 May 1969. She would have seen people then responding in particular ways. She lived through nation-forming, the Emergency, the war (World War 2). She lived through the uncertainties of where they should be because of all these major historical events that happened.

There is no way I can fully understand it but I can respect her point of view. My understanding of that threat (of being forced to leave the country) is only intellectual because I didn’t live through the events that defined these fears. I feel different kinds of threats.

What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian? Gender/age/work/race/religion, etc.?

The hardest part is when I’m asked, “What do you do?” I don’t know what I do. I do a bit of everything. Right now, the only thing I’m actively involved in is theatre directing.

Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.


I would like a Malaysia that is fair. And I would like a Malaysia that respects Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So, yes, a Malaysia that is fair that respects Article 24 i.e. everybody has a right to rest and leisure. That would prevent unscrupulous bosses!

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5 Responses to “The confidence of being Malaysian”

  1. mark choo says:

    What a interesting story and lovely collage of riveting images. But can’t understand why one should feel offended if spoken to in Mandarin; Penangnites speak to me in their local Hokkien and Mandarin too.

    After all, Kuala Lumpur is rather diversified and still a magnet for international tourists and businesses – count it a blessing that someone, be in a foreigner or local, speaks to us in their mother tongue.

  2. Erin says:

    Love it!

  3. Samantha says:

    A refreshing piece in The Nut Graph. And brilliant. At least now I get to know Chee Sek Thim a little more. Saw him perform a few times and thought he was good, now I know why he’s so good – it’s what he holds firm inside.

    Yeah, KL is such a melting pot that has all kinds of people, lonely people – it’s becoming Hong Kong and many other big metropolises in the world. But seriously, I too, get annoyed by artistes from HK, Taiwan, Japan or Korea when they say “terima kasih” when the entire audience is Chinese. Keep it up, Chee Sek Thim.

  4. din haron says:

    What amazing experiences. Malaysian Malaysia, that ‘s it.

  5. I love Sek Thim. He is highly intelligent and a very intuitive person.

    Kudos on a good piece, Sek thim and Jackie.


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