“Getting By”: Class and State Formation Among Chinese In Malaysia, written by Donald Nonini

In: Journal of Chinese Overseas
Rachel Leow Cambridge University

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“Getting By”: Class and State Formation among Chinese in Malaysia. Cornell University Press. 2015.

Getting By seeks to draw attention to ways in which class has been drained from our understanding of the Chinese diaspora. It suggests that elite, entrepreneurial Chinese have become “the ne plus ultra figures required for the understandings of overseas Chinese culture” (6), and that this is a bad distortion. The tendency to regard the huaqiao as quintessential businessmen — wealthy, economically dominant in their host societies, male, culturally Confucian — has rendered invisible other important elements of diasporic experience, above all those of the Chinese working class.

This is an important argument, and overdue. Much hinges on Nonini’s understanding of class. For him, class is not only the control over your means of production, but also control over the means of authoritative discourse: the power to say who you are in public. Over the course of the twentieth century, he suggests that only certain elite Malaysian Chinese retained this power, and he attributes this to history: in particular, the systematic violence it took to make Malaya safe for decolonization. In a scene-setting opening chapter, Nonini shows how the anti-communist Malayan Emergency (1948-60) disproportionately targeted Chinese laborers and trade unionists, who were often the most visible spokespersons of the politics of class consciousness. In Nonini’s account, they channeled class anger, but were construed, perhaps perniciously, as ethnic chauvinists. Working-class politics — Chinese or otherwise — did not survive long beyond the 1950s. Speaking about class publicly became punishable by detention, banishment or death, and, fatefully for the Chinese, raised hoary specters of national disloyalty. What was not accomplished by violence in the Emergency was completed through state persecution of left-wing multiethnic parties and organized labor (136). This crush of postcolonial hegemonies and the concomitant rise of the Malay ethnocratic state comprise the decades covered in Part i (1969-1985), a period dominated by martial law and the developmental imperatives of the New Economic Policy, which effectively drove class out of the public realm, rendering it unspeakable and thus unthinkable (39).1

Part ii turns to the remaining years of the twentieth century and how the politics of developmentalism continued to shape Chinese class formation. From the 1980s onward, economic liberalization and globalization allowed many to share in the robust growth which characterized these years, but also widened the gap between those able to take full advantage of its promises, and those who were not. One of the strengths of Getting By is that it tacks deftly between domestic politics and these more global developments, showing how both worked in tandem to essentialize Chineseness into an uncritically celebratory capitalist paradigm (127). Much of the financial gains of these decades accrued to a new economic elite: a thin, privileged layer of so-called “New Malays,” their often politically corrupt umno patrons, and a few fabulously wealthy Chinese tycoons complicit in capital domination (213-4), all of whom remain equally divorced from Malaysians of all races.

Nonini thus suggests that it is this particular set of circumstances that matters. We cannot, he says, understand Chinese overseas in terms of “essences of Chinese culture” (110). Rather, certain cultural traits were given salience in “dialectical interactions” (16) between wealthy mercantile Chinese and a postcolonial Malaysian state which sought to consolidate power in racial idiom. This collusion produced a dominant discourse about Chineseness: all Chinese either are businessmen or should be. Public Chineseness aligned with the possession and display of wealth, property and manners (limao), speaking Mandarin Chinese, and attaining celebrity status: being valorized by peers for their business acumen, being anointed with titles by the state in exchange for their donations and gifts (76-78). But this was a disproportionately loud performance of a certain style of Chineseness. There were other classed “cultural styles”⁠:2 those of petty capitalists, who make a great show of modesty in styling themselves as merely “getting by” (guoliao) in their businesses; but importantly for Nonini, those of the working-class, whose identities were elbowed out of public discourse altogether into “fugitive spaces” (227-34), and fashioned into the opposite of the commercially-oriented norm. Thus to be working-class came to mean speaking vernacular or dialect languages rather than Mandarin Chinese, being culu (crude) or jijiao (disputatious) (167), engaging in rowdy and hyper-masculine, sexualized banter, and being very definitely not philanthropic businessmen.

Part of Nonini’s project is to recover these stigmatized working-class cultural styles from their marginality, and in doing so, to give voice to a “class dismissed.” His methodology is classically anthropological: immersive fieldwork conducted across several decades among male Chinese truck drivers in the town of Bukit Mertajam in Penang, set amidst the story of the relentlessly developmental Malaysian state. Nonini is clear about the limitations his male subjectivity places on access to female working-class experiences, but even so, has assembled a beautifully detailed picture of Malaysian Chinese non-elite classes across several crucial decades of political and economic transformation. Perhaps most compelling for me are chapters 9 and 10, which read class styles into the new mobilities of the globalized 1990s and 2000s. Increasing numbers of Chinese sought exit from Malaysia via transnational travel, as revenge for years of extreme chauvinism of the Malay ethnocratic state, but their transnational trajectories were circumscribed and complicated by class. Thus there were, too, “classed stylistics of exit and return.” For the wealthy, globalization enabled actual exit from Malaysia, through capital flight, overseas resettlement and sending children to Europe and America for education. The petty capitalists and working-classes also desired and emulated the transnational styles of business tycoons, but ultimately could not escape the vulnerabilities of their positions. Thus, they enacted what Nonini calls “middling transnationalisms” (266-76), or engaged in much less prestigious forms of mobility, such as the “airplane jumping” of labor contract migration to Japan (276-82). Class also determined the capacity to move at all. A certain segment of Bukit Mertajam Chinese were “stuck,” their “covert globalities” consisting of mere transnational dreams discussed vicariously in coffee shops, or consumed through the glamorous pop media emanating from the centers of Chinese cosmopolitanism, Hong Kong and Taiwan (chapter 9).

The attention to the complexities of the afterlives of mobility is one of the signal strengths of this book.3 Indeed Nonini ends his study on an open-ended meditation about the usefulness of “diaspora” in describing the phenomena at hand (284-5). Chinese diasporic afterlives have tended to be narrated in terms of assimilation (luodi shenggen) or ever-eventual return (luoye guigen). Getting By is a serious attempt to consider what it really mean for a diaspora population to become “rooted.” For Nonini, Chineseness cannot exist “in potentio within … an internalized Chinese culture” (16), but emerges as a “social fact” dialectically produced under particular conditions. Nonini has more than convinced me that, among other things, attention to class makes a mockery of “re-sinification,” a concept which uncritically smuggles in either cultural essentialism or a desire for a hegemonic version of it.

Nonini is, however, less convincing elsewhere, precisely because of the success of his particularistic approach. He wants to say that the omission of class in our understanding of overseas Chinese subjects goes beyond the case of the Chinese in Malaysia, and is symptomatic of a wider complicity in a celebratory capitalist discourse about Chinese overseas communities. But this elision is more problematic. If class formation and suppression was so particular to the convergence of historical circumstances in Malaysia, what cause have we to consider the case of the Chinese there as being part of the larger story Nonini argues for? Given their greater size and heterogeneity compared to every other major receiving country of the Chinese diaspora, one might be tempted to argue that Chinese Malaysians formed classed identities under exceptional, not representative, circumstances. How far does Nonini’s analysis apply to, say, Indonesian or Philippine contexts, where the Chinese comprise a much smaller proportion of the population, and have arguably had more cause to collude in ethnic solidarity against violent anti-Chinese sentiment than in Malaysia? Some comparative commentary, and more history, may have sharpened the argument here, if the general assertion about the sociology of knowledge of class in the Chinese diaspora is to be sustained.

I have only a few other minor quibbles. Getting By makes little reference to other studies of Chinese in Malaysia, particularly pioneering anthropological work by Tan Chee Beng, Sharon Carstens, and Jean DeBernardi,4 even and especially where they complicate the class argument. To take one example, Carsten’s work suggests the possibility that in styling themselves as gentlemanly Confucians, successful Hakkas might be signaling a desire to escape the cultural stigma of being Hakka as much as marking economic class.5 Finally, a book thirty years in the making is bound to have structural shortcomings. Discerning as it is, it’s also a tough read: eloquent but jargonistic, repetitive in places. Its narrative is more fragmentary than I prefer, and sometimes drowns the reader in detail. Nevertheless, it is well worth the effort. Those concerned with Malaysia’s past, present and future, with Chinese transnationalism, and with global capitalism, will find much wisdom in its pages.


On the creation of the ethnocratic state, see Geoff Wade, “The Origins of Ethnocracy,” in Misplaced Democracy: Malaysian Politics and People, ed. Sophie Lemiére (Petaling Jaya, Selangor: sird, 2014).


A concept drawn from James Ferguson, Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).


An important literature in this vein has emerged in recent years; see e.g. Biao Xiang et al., ed. Return: Nationalizing Transnational Mobility in Asia (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013) and Glen Peterson, Overseas Chinese in the People’s Republic of China (London: Routledge, 2012).


Tan Chee Beng, Chinese Minority in a Malay State: The Case of Terengganu (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2002); Sharon Carstens, Histories, Cultures, Identities: Studies in Malaysian Chinese Worlds (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2005); Jean DeBernardi, Rites of Belonging: Memory, Modernity and Identity in a Malaysian Chinese Community (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).


Sharon Carstens, “Form and Content in Hakka Malaysian Culture”, in Guest People: Hakka Identity in China and Abroad, ed. Nicole Constable (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014).

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