by Hugh M. Lewis



Southeast Asia's 'primate cities' are generally undergoing rapid urbanization and development. They represent symbolically and materially as well as existentially the focal center of Southeast Asian modernization, westernization and 'secularization' of traditional religious values. They also constitute the focal concern of Southeast Asian problems of social inequality, economic poverty and crowding. Population densities skyrocket in urban centers--making plainly visible to the average tourist the social diseases of poverty, ignorance, exploitation which , though epidemic in these concentrated and severely limited areas, are but the tip of an endemic iceberg which remain hidden under the triple canopy of the tropical countryside. Squatter 'villages' surround the periphery of these urban centers of national economic growth. If one takes a train from a small agricultural town to a major urban settlement, say Georgetown, and then on to Kuala Lumpur and to the final destination of downtown Singapore, one will have taken a train to ride through history from a pre-colonial setting to a 'post modern' synthetic paradise. As one travels the rail gamut from rural to urban, the pace of living and dying picks up--the range and availability of contemporary western manufactured commodities become greater, as does the cost of living, the average per capita income, the screens of opportunity of a better income. The city is the center of the global marketplace--where modernization, development, 'civilization' is much more evident. It is also the place where ethnic and political issues come into clear focus and the future gets played out once and for all. At the gateway to the city, there is no turning back.

The Chinese are a particularly important segment of any urban setting--they are conspicuous and prominent in their habits of living up to their common stereotype of 'cosmopolitanness' and business.

From small town to major metropolis in Southeast Asia, 'Chinese' will be found at its center 'minding their own business'. Whatever their agricultural ties to the countryside and even though they may be found carried wherever civilization may take them, Chinese never stray too far from the 'city'. Not too surprisingly, their fate is the future of the SEA city. It becomes important therefore to look in detail and depth at the character of these 'Chinatowns' which span the gamut between rural and urban, small and large and old and new. Like it or not, the fate of the Nanyang Chinese becomes played out upon an urban stage.

What is the urban dimension of the political economy of Nanyang ethnicity?…and what are its possible implications for modernization, development, poverty, inequality and the process of 'civilization'?






The Nanyang Connection of the overseas Chinese of Southeast Asia is inextricably linked to their political economic success as a network of merchants, traders, middlemen and entrepreneurs. Historically this network expanded during the colonial period into an overseas, trans-national empire which culminated in political reverberations in 'old China'. Now their moment of monetary glory is waning--their moment in the marketplace of humankind as ephemeral as any. Since the end of WW11 their economic co-prosperity and 'peace' has been in decline in the face of burgeoning Nationalism, Nationalities and National Elites. In many nations of SEA their future has become one of ethnocide, genocide or enforced emigrations--their future has become as precarious and problematic as their past. The old colonial elite was replaced by a new nationalistic elite which is no longer sympathetic to the business and organizational qualities of the 'synthesizing' Chinese 'mind'. Now they are seen as either an obstacle to further progress as the Germans once saw the Jews, or else they are relegated into a post colonial latifundrial context of being merely the servants of development--as the White aristocrats viewed the Black Nursemaid. In the meantime the old colonial masters have simply turned their backs upon their plight, like they turned their backs upon all else 'colonial' except profits--now is the age of neo-colonialism.

But with the overseas Chinese, business is always business and money is the ritual religious guarantee of the success of future generations. Kong Xi Fai Cai--Happy and Prosperous Chinese New Year to you. Business has become more than a means to some capitalistic end--it has become a way of life. If the West invented and developed the idea of capitalism, then they certainly stole it from the original Chinese creation of business--'the state of being busy'. And if it means in the final analysis that there remains a billion over miracle mouths to feed and nurture in the Chinese idiom, then that has merely become the economic side of the political coin of 'Chinese-ness'--Janus faced as it may be--the simple rectification of names and the never ending 'mandate of Heaven'. Meanwhile many more will be born and suffer and perish an untimely death. EAN--this is fate.

What is the Chinese virtuosity of business, the knack of squeezing a dollar out of fifteen cents which has made him/her a success and a threat throughout Southeast Asia? What is the political economy of 'Chineseness' which spells both paradise and doom in contemporary Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia has long been a maritime region where trade and transaction ruled supreme--what is the measure and method of Chinese political cultural adaptation to a Southeast Asian environment? What is the merchant dimension of the political economy of Nanyang ethnicity?





Rubber and tin are Malaysia's leading export commodities. Southeast Asian political economy remains basically latifundian--agrarian inspite of the overemphasis of urban development. To find real, widespread poverty in Southeast Asia, one must venture off the beaten tourist track and get away from the short stops and hops of towns and cities--one must penetrate the real countryside to discover what it really means to remain poor and destitute in a multi-trillion dollar world economy. Unpleasant surprises await even the average urbanite of Southeast Asia brave new cities, who naively thinks he/she has seen it all.

The rural dimension is the other side of the coin of Chinese ethnicity--even though the Chinese remains always primarily a cosmopolitan city mouse, he always has connections with second country cousins who are hidden in the woodwork. The Chinese merchant maintains often long reaching vested interests in rural development. Indeed, they were historically the true pioneers and frontiersmen of the agricultural colonial economic development of Southeast Asia. The proud new National Bourgeoisie owe their debt of gratitude to their Chinese 'brethren under the skin--yellow or brown'. The countryside was the place where indigenous natives interacted with the global civilization via the Chinese middleman who developed his own kind of monopoly upon the real edge of modernity. This has been loosely referred to as the 'kongsi' or 'cheong tsu'. The Chinese secretly gains his/her strength in numbers which can be systematically well organized along many different lines--alone the Chinaman is at the mercy of the elements, but among his own kind he can move mountains and transact miracles, as long as there remains a profit of a bowl of broth in the morning, a bowl of noodles in the say, and a bowl of rice at night (not to mention a bowl of food to the spirits). "To classify a Chinese association according to is name is always misleading." (T'ien; 1953: 19)

What is the role of agricultural enterprise in Chinese ethnicity and what is the role of Chineseness in rural development--what is the rural dimension of the political economy of Nanyang ethnicity?






The Chinese 'kongsi' is given as the 'molecule' of Chinese social structure, and yet the only operative definition of 'kongsi' I have found is "a group of 2 or more unrelated persons of the same sex forming a household". (Barrington Kaye; 1960) The 'kongsi' however ill defined, is proffered by scholars as the 'secret' of Chinese organizational success in business, no matter whether this business is conducted in the city or countryside, on a plantation, mine, dock or shop, and yet the 'kongsi' itself remains only a polythetically described name for many different 'things' which have fallen under the stereotypical rubric of 'Chineseness'. My personal experience has taught me that kongsi has many different often totally unrelated realities, while it remains the 'basis' for the public 'Chinese Chamber of Commerce' or the private 'Chinese secret society'. Somehow it has accreted the quality of being automatic or somehow 'natural' in the ethnic Chinese stereotype, a part of a characteristic Chinese instinct for social organization like army ants.

And yet there remains something mysterious about the Chinese social organization in overseas communities which defies explanation, typifying what is stereotypically considered as characteristic 'Chineseness'. Ethnic group identity gains its strength from within, reinforced for survival from within as much or more than maintained negatively in structural political economic relationships from without. Indeed the Chinese can be said to fit 'comfortably' in a characteristic 'habitué' of being and doing which can be denoted loosely by the term of kongis--yet such as structure leaves unexplained the processes of time--historical contingency, human agency and circumstantial agency in the ongoing rise and demise of kongis social organizations. Such groups have a raison d'être which extend well beyond in time and place personality predispositions or characteriological sets shared in common by the individual members of such groupings. These groupings merge and function and then disintegrate with time, while new such groupings take their place, never exactly the same. The raison d'être is preeminently functional, practical, purposeful and arbitrarily instituted as any that every happened upon the face of the earth. The only thing natural about such organizations was their fictive origins among individuals without screens of opportunity, vulnerable in an alien environment, without makeshift family, strange and unfamiliar friends and distant partners for relationship. Such organizations were grass roots and sprung up in every suitable location which encourage the Chinese sojourner to begin thinking about once again taking up roots.

What ate the socio-structural dimensions of the political economy of Nanyang ethnicity?






Entrepreneurship and political economic leadership is consistently downplayed as a critical factor in the make-up of Nanyang success. Factors underlying entrepreneurial success of the overseas Chinese are given as 'cultural agents' or factors which serve to make them ethnically outstanding vis-à-vis less entrepreneurially 'oriented' indigenes, this despite the fact that as a whole the Chinese have never had a surfeited community leadership which provided, historically and culturally, direction, sense of purpose as well as 'orientation' and continuity. In other words, such 'orientation' was never ever 'culturally given' or 'naturally innate' in the character of 'Chineseness' but has always been willfully provided and promoted by key individuals usually operating 'behind the scenes'.

Furthermore, ethnic comparisons of 'achievement motivation' and the pulling factors of an established, ambitious elite, tend to obscure the blatant class differences and tensions which exists as much within ethnic groups as between different ethnic groups. It becomes the political economic advantage of all elite leadership to promote an ethnic orientation which sustains their own wealth and power--ethnicity then becomes a strategic smoke screen hiding the inequality and class tensions behind political economic development.

Education remains the ticket for socio-economic mobility and 'success'--it remains the human oriented motor behind developmental 'progress' of human civilization. Education and 'achievement motivation' must somehow be positively correlated--a kind of mutual symbiosis between mind, matter and spirit. It is small wonder overseas Chinese value education so highly--wherever they may find themselves they are found to compete strongly with other ethnic groups for success in education. And yet the interrelationships between educational success, socio economic success, entrepreneurship, achievement motivation and leadership have yet to be thoroughly or finally elucidated, no matter how much they might be suggestive of some kind of causal determinacy.

What are the entrepreneurial, educational, leadership and socio-economic variables underlying the political economy of Nanyang ethnicity? A Marxist interpretation of class differences among the ethnic Chinese has yet to be written, though it may prove enlightening in this regard.






Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, © 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05