A casual Chinese New Year visit to an uncle’s house at Kampung Pasir Parit in Pasir Mas, Kelantan in 1994 sparked a retired teacher’s desire to find out more about the Kelantan Peranakan community which he is a part of.
Wee Chong Joi, who was then teaching at a school in Kelantan, found himself drawn to his 80-year-old uncle Koh Boon Chok’s vivid account of his family ancestry. Koh, a fourth-generation Kelantan Peranakan Chinese, could even recall the names of his ancestors with ease.
“He told me and my family about our ancestors’ sea voyage from the southern part of mainland China, that is, Fujian and Hainan, before settling down in Kelantan.
“Listening to my uncle’s chronicles left me and my wife feeling amazed at how the ancestors of Kelantan’s Chinese community learned to assimilate into the local cultures while still holding on to their religion and customs,” said Wee, who is now 92.
Peranakan is a term that describes the descendants of the early Chinese immigrants who settled in South-East Asia and partially adopted Malay customs in an effort to be assimilated into the local communities.
About 10 years after the eventful visit to his uncle’s house, Wee and his wife Tam Lye Peng, who both retired as teachers at Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Chung Hwa, Kota Baru in 2005, embarked on their quest to dig up the history of the Kelantan Peranakan Chinese community.
“We knew it (the research) was not going to be easy as we had to identify the settlements of the Chinese community in Kelantan as well as get the help of our friends and relatives to create a list of people from whom we could source information,” said Wee.
Visiting the villages
The couple met with all kinds of challenges in their journey to gather the necessary information for their project. In fact, in the sixth year of their research, Wee’s wife was diagnosed with cancer but she continued to help her husband with his research until she passed away in November 2016.
Now, more than 15 years after embarking on the research, their findings have been documented in Mandarin in a book that was released last September. Work on the Bahasa Malaysia version of the book, titled Jejak Penghijrahan Awal Orang Cina Di Kelantan (Early Migration Of The Chinese To Kelantan), is now in progress.
“Among the challenges we faced was not being able to interview some of the people on our list as they had already passed away. In some instances, the houses were vacant when we arrived there to interview the inhabitants. There were also families whose lineages were incomplete as they didn’t have enough information,” said Wee.
As part of his research, he visited over 50 Chinese villages in Kelantan located on the banks of Sungai Kelantan, Sungai Pengkalan Datu and Sungai Kemasin.
“The migration of the Chinese from southern mainland China to Kelantan can be traced back to 300 years ago and they were well received by the local Malays.”
Besides interviewing the descendants of the early Chinese immigrants and collecting archaeological artefacts, he also managed to trace the lineages of some of the families with the help of the wooden plaques displaying the names of the ancestors of each family.
“In the villages we visited, we also studied the origins of the temples located there and the structures of the people’s dwellings,” he added.
Significance of temples
The visits to the villages were deemed incomplete without making a stop at the local temples, many of which were over 200 years old.
Each Chinese village in Kelantan surely has a temple which is a symbol of the local community’s beliefs and background,” he said, adding that the Chinese also believed that every area, before settlers move in, has a “landlord” whose permission must be sought before the land is cleared for settlement purposes.
Pointing to Kampung Pasir Parit in Pasir Mas, he said the Chinese villagers there still conduct a ceremony called “koi hoi”, which is a 300-year-old Taoist tradition linked to the existence and influence of supernatural forces in one’s daily life.
“The villagers come together to conduct the koi hoi ceremony to seek the blessings of their guardian deity and request the deity to protect them against worldly ills and disturbances by supernatural beings,” he added.
Wee also said the ancestral plaque of every Chinese family in Kelantan provided a glimpse of their migrant family’s history and genealogical tree.
“For example, during a visit to Kampung Balai in Bachok, we came across a plaque on the graves of a Chinese-Siamese family that had engravings of Thai and Mandarin characters.
“This showed the existence of Siamese influence due to mixed marriages and assimilation of their cultures,” he added.
Wee also said that although the Kelantan Peranakan Chinese observe a mix of Malay, Chinese and Siamese cultures, they still adhere to the customs and beliefs of their ancestors.
In terms of the dialect they speak and their food, way of dressing and leisure activities, they share a lot of similarities with the Malays.
Like the Malays, the Kelantan Peranakan Chinese also live in stilted houses, with the men and women also wearing sarongs.
Wee said currently, there are over 60 Peranakan Chinese villages in Kelantan, each having a population of 500 to 2,000. The Peranakan Chinese comprise 3.01% of the state’s population with most of them involved in trading, fishing and farming activities.
To improve the documenting process, Wee established the Kelantan Chinese Historical and Cultural Association in 2009.
Meanwhile, Wee’s daughter Alison, who helped her father with the research process after the demise of her mother, said both of them now reside in Seri Petaling, Kuala Lumpur, and only visit their now vacant ancestral home in Kampung Cina, Kota Bharu, during festivals.
“We hope to turn our ancestral home into a mini museum to exhibit the artefacts and reference materials we collected during our 15-year research,” she added. – Bernama