Wednesday, June 09, 2004

The Emissaries of Materialism

The Emissaries of Materialism

Tiziano Terzani, an Italian journalist, in his travelogue, A Fortune-Teller Told Me, calls the overseas Chinese the "emissaries of materialism". He wrote:
If one day all the Chinese of the region took it into their heads to stay at home, close up shop and not go to work, the Indonesians would have no cars to drive, or cigarettes to smoke, or paper to write on; the Filipinos would have no ships to ferry them between their thousands of islands; the Japanese would have no prawns in their pots. Most of the skyscrapers under construction would remain unfinished. The whole continent would shake in its boots, because it is the Chinese of the diaspora who are the fuel that drives the engine of the Southeast Asian economic micracle. And who are they exactly? Descendants of coolies and merchants, of the poor devils who for decades have emigrated to seek their fortune in the nanyang, the South Seas.
I myself am descended from these coolies and merchants too. Sometimes I wonder if I possess the qualities that make the diaspora Chinese so successful. If I do, then I don't seem to be making full use of them--I'm certainly not a "successful" Chinese!

The prosperity of the overseas Chinese has unfortunately made them easy targets of hate and jealousy everywhere. They are seen as selfish, arrogant and not willing to mingle with the natives but will not hesitate to take advantage of them as cheap sources of labour.

Terzani had this to say about the Chinese in Bangkok:
Here, thanks to the tolerance of the people and to Buddhism, they have found work, married and become citizens with full rights...the Chinese soon amassed huge wealth. The Thais (natives) have little aptitude for war and business; they are playful, always keener on fun than on work..."Mai ping rai" is their favourite expression. It means "Never mind", "It doesn't matter", "Why worry?"...The Chinese, with their innate practicality, have profited enormously from this Thai attitude, and have become masters of the city.
When I was living in Indonesia, I often asked the Javanese, Betawi and Sundanese people sensitive questions like: Are the Chinese people greedy and arrogant? They always answered me without fear or inhibition, because I was seen as a "Malaysian" who did not exhibit any of the characteristics of a "typical Chinese". I enjoyed listening to their frank views.

There are a lot of things about the Chinese that are worthy of emulation--for example, their frugality, hardwork and the high value that they place on education. I'd like to think that I possess these qualities too. At the same time, I am fond of observing fellow members of my race with the dispassionate eye of an antropologist; I find it interesting that such admirable traits, when manifested in the extreme, could also easily veer into the negative: stinginess, greediness, selfishness and kiasu-ism, to name a few.

Are such perceptions--both the positive and the negative ones--fair observations or just plain racial stereotyping? Well, this is an interesting and difficult subject, which I think shall be reserved as the subject of a future blog entry!

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