Chinese Business in the Making of a Malay State, 1882-1941: Kedah and Penang

Chinese Business in the Making of a Malay State, 1882-1941: Kedah and Penang

Chinese Business in the Making of a Malay State, 1882-1941: Kedah and Penang

Chinese Business in the Making of a Malay State, 1882-1941: Kedah and Penang

Synopsis

This book examines how Chinese family and business networks, focused around activities such as revenue farming, including opium, the rice trade, and pawn-broking, and related legal and labor organization activities, were highly influential in the process of state formation in Malaya.

Excerpt

Wu Xiao An’s study of Chinese families in Kedah is a welcome breath of fresh air in the sometimes over-heated atmosphere of Overseas Chinese studies. It is also a sign of the growing maturity of this field. Once authors tended to focus on over-essentialized ideas of the ‘Bamboo Network’, which could be seen as either a positive extension of an immutable culture, or else an alien element in the body politic of emerging nations. Now, as soundly based empirical studies accumulate, the complexity of the interactions between newcomers, sojourners and settlers is becoming increasingly understood.

This book makes a valuable contribution to the field. With his careful collection of data from archives, libraries and interviews in a number of countries, Dr Wu has reminded us of both the limitations and the possibilities of research which questions the usual categories. in particular, in an approach that is increasingly relevant, he shows the limitations of a geographical field of study that is defined by the borders of the modern nation state. By examining linkages between China, Penang, Kedah and Singapore, we are reminded of the centrality of networks in shaping societies, particularly in periods of economic change and political integration. At the same time, his study shows yet again that any retrospective ethnicizing of standard historical narratives, by according privileged status to any particular group, gravely distorts the past. This is particularly so in maritime Southeast Asia, where mobility and the rise and fall of polities, ports and settlements are central themes.

From studies like this, the reader can gain new insights into the nature of ethnicity, the ways in which it can be both situational and opportunistic, on the one hand, and, on the other, an enduring and useful source of social capital. the book is also an important contribution to the histories of diaspora communities in the modern period, and of entrepreneurship in Malaysia. Dr Wu’s detailed reconstruction of family histories is yet more evidence of the ways in which this approach, so ably used by, for example, the later Jennifer Cushman, can fruitfully explore the intricate links between institutional and individual change. in societies where personal . . .

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