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A ceremony to celebrate the opening of a temple in Qiguan, in China's Fujian Province (Photo by CK Tan)
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Ethnic Chinese step up the search for their roots

The diaspora reconnects with the ancient homeland in the digital age

Ethnic Chinese in Malaysia are a distinctive lot among the diaspora.

Their ancestors fled China to escape poverty, and found prosperity in their adopted country. In the early days they would toil for long hours on rubber plantations and in tin mines, working in a malaria-infested climate and facing the challenges of being foreign laborers. They persevered and contributed to the development of the economy.

Such accomplishments can be found elsewhere, especially in Southeast Asia. What sets the Chinese in Malaysia apart is their endurance of actions by the Malay ethnic majority that have worked against them in everything from winning scholarships to securing business contracts. They are also protective of their culture, sending children to vernacular schools to drill them with the teachings of Confucius.

I am a fourth-generation Chinese, born and raised in Malaysia and had never set foot in the ancestral village back in China until recently. Along with some 20 relatives, many bearing the same surname "Tan," or "Chen," I visited Qiguan (or "Wonder Village") in mid-January. The trip was to celebrate the restoration of a Taoist temple, one of a handful of landmarks that helps to hold the close-knit community together.

"Qiguan Village Welcomes You," reads a stone inscription at the entrance to the hamlet of about 3,000 people in Fujian, a southern province to which many like me can trace their Chinese roots. The region is also famed for tea production.

The recent rise of China has given many ethnic Chinese a sense of pride. They revel in the shared cultural traits of diligence, entrepreneurship and filial piety. Some are also looking to reconnect with their kinfolk and contemporaries to relive the lost years -- and perhaps seek business opportunities in an increasingly interconnected world.

My ancestors' village in Anxi County, amid the rocky terrain of Fujian, sits on a mountain and is separated from a trunk road by a river. Villagers only got a concrete bridge, about 200 meters long, in 1975, partly funded by donations from overseas Chinese. In the early days, river crossing was made possible using simple sampan boats pulled by ropes.

One could imagine the difficulties of life almost a century ago that forced many peasants to leave in search of a better life. Village records show that the exodus took place in the 1930s at the height of the civil war between the Kuomintang forces of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Party of China. Qiguan itself was a battlefield.

My own great-grandparents took the leap, traveling by ship from Xiamen to settle in Malaya, Malaysia's old name as a British colony. They later became rubber traders, owning some plantations on the outskirts of the capital.

Relatives who thrived after inheriting the enterprise visited Qiguan in the 1970s and 1980s, often bringing money, electrical appliances and even motorbikes for their poorer cousins.

But today's Qiguan, like the rest of China, has developed. Muddy slopes have been replaced by concrete paths, and communal toilets are a thing of the past. The villagers, many of whom shared my surname, warmly welcomed our presence, referring to us as huaqiao, or overseas Chinese. They asked not for material offerings but for more exchanges through visits.

This explained the reconstruction of the village's main temple, home to the two deities, Qingshui and Zhanggong. It has served for generations as a place of worship for those seeking solace.

The late Lim Goh Tong, the founder of Malaysia's sole casino operator Genting, also hailed from Fujian. His familiarity with hilly terrain led him in the 1960s to the Genting Highlands on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, where he developed an entertainment resort. To evoke memories of his ancestral home, Lim built a temple dedicated to the deity Qingshui in the highlands.

The writer's ancestral home now turned into a memorial (Photo by CK Tan)

Mochtar Riady, the founder and chairman of Indonesian property conglomerate Lippo Group, also has roots in Fujian.

My own family, in Malaysia and Singapore, turned our ancestral home into a memorial hall back in 2013. Villagers and visitors are bound together through our mother tongue, the Fujian dialect, the temple and the few memorial halls built from contributions by overseas Chinese.

Huang Huikang, the former Beijing envoy to Malaysia, said the Mandarin spoken in Malaysia was the best outside China and Taiwan. Malaysia has 60 privately run Chinese high schools, whose formation can be traced back to 1954.

These schools, backed by clan associations and with an independent curriculum, were established with the sole purpose of providing mother-tongue education to the offspring of the Chinese community, which now accounts for about 25% of Malaysia's population. According to news reports, these vernacular schools have seen sharp rises in their enrollments, from a total of 53,258 students in 2000 to 85,304 in 2016.

Increasingly, many of their graduates are choosing to continue their tertiary education in China, a trend that has grown in recent years to tail the traditionally popular Taiwan.

A concrete bridge connecting Qiguan village to the main road constructed in 1975 (Photo by CK Tan)

This has worked well for bilateral trade and investment between China and Malaysia. China re-emerged as the country's largest trading partner in 2017, continuing a trend that began in 2009 when Najib Razak became prime minister.

But not all ethnic Chinese are firmly rooted in Malaysia. Many have gone to neighboring Singapore in search of better opportunities. Robert Kuok, the billionaire founder of Kerry Group, was one of the first to leave, moving his commodity trading business to Hong Kong in the 1970s.

"I had seen a picture developing all along of a train moving in the wrong direction," the 94-year-old wrote in a memoir published in January, referring to Malaysia's implementation of Malay-centric policies. From Hong Kong, Kuok's group, with several listed companies that include hotel operator Shangri-La Asia, expanded further into the mainland through Chinese connections.

Such contributions from overseas Chinese are welcomed by the mainland, especially under President Xi Jinping, who is advocating a new era of greater international involvement. From February, Beijing has made it easier for foreigners of Chinese origin to apply for work visas. The move is aimed at attracting talent to participate in China's economic development, according to a recent China Daily report.

For now, the mobile phone has certainly made communication easier for me and my relatives in China, unlike in the 1970s when a letter would take months to arrive. After the January trip, contact is just a button-push away through WeChat.

The descendants of the Tans, now featuring the family's sixth generation, are spreading beyond Malaysia to Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Australia, Canada, the U.S. and a few more countries.

CK Tan is a Nikkei staff writer in Kuala Lumpur.

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