Roasting racial stereotypes

People who sneer that 'the natives' are 'lazy' may have forgotten how Indonesian construction workers slave under the hot sun.

We each have pet prejudices about certain ethnic groups, but can’t we just laugh about them instead of getting all uptight?

YOU Chinese all, ah, ask many questions, but never buy. The Malays come here, they see, they like, straight buy,” an Indian shop lady at Pertama Complex in downtown Kuala Lumpur told me once.

Should I have felt insulted? Or was she actually giving the Chinese a backhanded compliment about us being canny with money?

When I posted this on my Facebook page, two other Chinese friends commented, “It’s much easier to do Malay business than Chinese business.”


Could some Political Gourmet Organisations or PGOs, which serve regular buffets of street drama, seize upon that remark as “insulting the Malays” for being spendthrift? But wait. Maybe it’s actually praising them for having a generous and easy-going (read: less calculating) spirit....

Several friends agreed that we Chinese were the most fastidious and finicky about getting “value for money”. One of them confessed: “I am every salesperson’s nightmare. I am Chinese and, horror of horrors, a female. I love jewellery and am willing to walk to 10 shops to compare prices! I never fail to get the best deal.”

But before anybody can gleefully declare “Aha! Told you, izzenit!”, another friend described how the rich Chinese from China waltz into luxury watch and handbag shops in high-end KL shopping malls: “They don’t even speak, they just point here and there to choose their stuff and pay CASH ... up to RM200,000. How do you think these shops can afford such high rentals?”

So, did the Pertama Complex Indian lady have the right or wrong racial prejudice about the Chinese, after all? Are the Chinese stingy or spendthrift? Such is the Chinese dilemma... are we looked up to, or down upon?

Take the very fact that I was in Pertama Complex. It’s an old and rather dingy shopping mall – and also one of the cheapest places in the city for watches, sports shoes, phones and hiking bags.

To those who “want to believe” the worst, my presence there, of course, only accentuates their preconceptions that Chinese are thrifty. But hold up ... the main customers there are Malays. So which race is counting their ringgit and sen?

It’s always tempting to over-generalise things along ethnic lines, but this is really a lazy way to analyse the complexities of society.

For instance, the Chinese are said to be industrious, but is that just because immigrants need to work harder to establish themselves? Yet when China was really communist, restaurant waiters there wouldn’t bother serving customers simply because there were no financial incentives to work harder.

Similarly, some people think that “the natives” (Malaysian Hokkiens and Tamils use this term) of this region are “laid-back” (the euphemism for “lazy”) but is that due to a system that rewards hard lobbying rather than hard work, or “know-who” rather than “know-how”?

Yet “the natives” from Indonesia slave under the hot sun on construction sites and oil palm estates, much harder than many Malaysians. Is that because those “natives” are actually struggling immigrants in Malaysia?

There are countless factors that motivate people. Yet, all too often, we humans like to oversimplify things – and joke about it too – because it’s the easiest, most convenient thing to do.

In the song Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist from the hit Broadway musical Avenue Q, the character who plays Gary Coleman gets all upset when two white people crack a joke about blacks – until he himself admits that he likes to make fun of “stupid Polish people”. As the lyrics go:

It’s sad but true!

Everyone’s a little bit racist

Bigotry has never been

Exclusively white

If we all could just admit

That we are racist a little bit,

Even though we all know

That it’s wrong,

Maybe it would help us

Get along.

Prof Dr Syed Husin Ali once told a group of us Universiti Malaya students back in the 1980s that what matters in racial relations is the ability to maintain a “joking relationship”. That means that we can poke fun at each other’s racial peculiarities and still remain friends.

Where we can not only (to use that horrible word) “tolerate” each other, but actually accept and celebrate each other – warts and all – and laugh about it, together. This is just like how our own family members have their own irritating quirks which turn out to be endearing.

However, what is not funny, is for certain PGOs to respond to a YouTube parody (about essentially political issues) by offering money for violent acts and spilling innocent chickens’ blood ...

Imagine ... what if they had instead decided to counter the video in an intelligent yet humorous way? Say with a dikir barat or balas pantun lampoon about the weaknesses of Penang’s leadership? That would have enriched Malaysia’s cultural life much more – because we all love to laugh at politicians, don’t we?

Take Chris Rock, the black American stand up comedian who satirised George W. Bush’s War on Terror ( He pointed out that what started out as “patriotism” after 9/11 soon turned into “hate-triotism”, as shouts of American pride slowly became twisted into White Supremacist calls to bomb Arab-Muslims, with nig**** being next on the list.

“I ain’t scared of Al-Qaeda, I’m scared of Al-Cracker,” he joked, using the slang term for the white slave master, reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, who “cracks” the whip.

Yet nobody in America slaughtered chickens and accused Chris Rock of “insulting the whites”, because people could see he was taking the mickey out of Bush’s policies. And if anything, he wasn’t roasting a race, he was roasting racists – there’s an important difference there.

So, can we learn to lighten up?

Going back to the Indian lady at Pertama Complex, perhaps what she said about us Chinese customers has a grain of truth. If so, why don’t we just laugh at ourselves? And hopefully improve our behaviour too.

As J, a friend who owns a shop in Penang commented: “As a retailer, I find the Penang Chinese consumer the worst. They will shamelessly ask many questions over half an hour, try many things, bargain and bargain and in the end, amazingly, just walk away.”

J, who is a Penang Chinese himself (and therefore entitled to self-racism!), continued: “Am I insulted? Nope. I realise they do it without realising how bad it looks. To them bargaining is just a sport, the adrenalin of getting a good deal.

“I’m afraid these are traits we’ve inherited from our ancestors. Here’s a confession – I was once like that too! But after starting my own shop, I realise how it feels like to be at the other end. So now I remind myself to be gracious when I am doing the buying.”

  • Andrew Sia prefers full-bodied teh tarik over weak-tasting English tea any day. Feedback is welcome at
  • The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

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Roasting racial stereotypes


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