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September 17, 2014

Salt and Pepper

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – The search for Ali (not the world famous boxer) continues. For those who have not been following this column, a bit of a recap.


Alfred Russel Wallace, the man who came up with the theory of evolution with Charles R. Darwin, was the person who travelled throughout the archipelago with a Malay boy named Ali. We know he was from Kuching, the place where I live; and there is the possibility that he returned to the town and led a prosperous life. The trouble is finding him.


This is important because the Chief Minister wants to honor him as a significant person in history. Here we have four Brookes, the last one is now cataloguing the first one’s papers, and those of Alfred Wallace; but local heroes are hard to come by.


I had a discussion with the Chief Minister. At the time he was a special minister to the Chief Ministers Department. I told him I would take on the job. The search has been fun, although frustrating, because my wife, Suriani, has to do the translating for me. We have been going house to house in the kampungs (villages) across the river. We also write down the genealogy of the people, which I will donate to the library.


Unfortunately, the genealogy rarely goes beyond the grandparents’ generation.


One thing I did notice is that many Chinese were adopted into the Malay world. Almost every family had embraced a baby from the other side of the river.


To give an example, twin girls were born to a Chinese lady. She could not take care of both of them so she sold one to a Malay man, Tahid bin Mohammed, a barber, who paid MYR 50 and a piece of cloth. They much later reunited when, at the Electra Shop, a small shopping center, they recognized each other. It's hard not to notice your own twin even though it was 60 years later.


There is a vast difference between the Chinese and the Malay world. The Chinese are the shopkeepers of the Orient, mainly because they are not allowed to own much land. They are called the overseas Chinese. They form a vast network with members of their own family group. An example would be the Hawkins stay with the Hawkins, the Foo Chow with the Foo Chow, and the Mandarins with the Mandarins. They will rarely go beyond these family units. Businesses are handed down and they somehow survive.


The Malays are entirely different. They are the fisher people who extract the fish from the river and seas. They farm the land with rice and orchards. They also provide for the royal families who govern the area.


"So why would they want a Chinese baby," I wondered. The reason was to lighten the skin of the gene pool. The British had become the rulers and light skin was fashionable. Unfortunately for the Malays, their skin was dark and the only way to get the skin lighter was to infuse the skin genetically.


The sale of the Chinese babies was one of practicality. The girls were useless in that they did not carry the family name, so important to the Chinese. They also did not contribute to the family business except in a menial way. It was better to sell them to the Malays than to keep them.


This was one generation ago and the practice is now unheard of except in the rural areas. The birth control pill has stopped the Chinese from reproducing when they have a son or a couple of sons. The daughters are sent to Australia or England to study and – most importantly – find a white husband to further the prospects of the family business. They target the boys who are in the computer field, usually the ones who are withdrawn. I have met a few here.


The Malays are slowly returning to the dark skin of their forefathers. I have noticed it in this generation of boys and girls and probably, in the next one, the evidence of the Chinese will be small.


I really don't care. Suriani and Dzul go out on the beach and within 20 minutes become the color of coffee with a little bit of cream while I lather up with #30 sun tan lotion. I love the dark skin of the Malays and the almost white skin of the Chinese.


...Life is good. . . . .


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