Walk through the brightly-lit hallways of the newly-opened Malaysian Chinese Museum at Wisma Huazong in Seri Kembangan, Selangor, and you can feel the weight of centuries of Chinese culture, tradition and heritage bearing down upon you.
Visitors will immediately get a feel of the place. Go through an ornate pair of doors, beneath two red lanterns, and soak in the sights.
There are miniature replicas of Chinese envoys being received by the Melaka Sultanate on display in one room, a hall area designed to look like the hull of a Chinese trade mission ship, which sailed as far away as Canton, China, to visit Melaka.
In another corner, stand two shirtless men, their hair tied in pigtails, taking on each other with handheld weapons. As we learn, they are members of the Ghee Hin and Hai San secret societies that clashed ferociously over the spoils of the tin mining business in 19th century Perak.
Walk further along, and you may end up at the table of a old fortune teller. Or you might find yourself within the cramped quarters of a poor, tired Chinese coolie, who were mostly unskilled, and formed the early backbone of British Malaya’s labour force.
This is only a small sample of the exhibits on display at the Malaysian Chinese Museum, tucked on the first floor of Wisma Huazong, the headquarters of Huazong (the Federation of Chinese Associations of Malaysia).
Wisma Huazong, which cost an estimated RM80mil, opened in early 2016.
The Malaysian Chinese Museum, which opened in mid-May this year, is a non-profit institution believed to be the first major museum in Malaysia to represent the nationwide history and current narrative of the Malaysian Chinese community.
In Sarawak, there is the Chinese History Museum, which opened in 1993, in Kuching, but it only traces the history of the Chinese community there.
“Our country had been independent for so long. But we didn’t have a space to celebrate the (nationwide) history of the Malaysian Chinese, which we feel is important. So when they built this building, for Huazong, we said we had to have a space in it for this museum,” says Lim Kah Hoe, the museum’s curator during a recent walkthrough of the museum’s galleries.
“If we don’t know where we came from, or who we are, we cannot do our part as Malaysians. We won’t know how we belong in this country. We need to know our roots. Our ancestors fought for so much, and made so many contributions to build up Malaysia. You can’t tell us to ‘balik tongsan’ (go back to China). We need to appreciate what our forefathers left for us, and keep doing our part for the country,” he adds.
The museum, measuring nearly 1,000sq m, boasts hundreds of artefacts, records and documents chronicling the history of Chinese immigrants to Malaysia and their integration here. There are also sections on Malaysian Chinese education, politics, culture, language and way of life.
For certain, the Malaysian Chinese Museum is equal parts educational and accessible. If anything, it is a fun experience for everyone.
One room has exhibits of famous Chinese people from every state in Malaysia, while another display is devoted to food ... yes, there is yong tau foo, Ipoh bean sprout chicken, bak kut teh and other popular Chinese dishes. Don’t visit on an empty stomach.
There’s plenty to investigate at the museum, from lion dance outfits to family altars. An old time sundry shop, a shoe shop selling tiny pairs of silk-embroidered bound feet shoes, a tailor shop and even the iconic Greenland record shop (that used to be located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur) have been recreated at the museum.
There is also a stop at a Chinese New Village – settlements created by the British in Malaysia in the mid-1950s. Further on, the Communist insurgency of the 1960s is not forgotten. Just don’t be held up by a roadblock by the Home Guards in the Malayan Emergency section.
The museum was the brainchild of former Huazhong president and Malaysian Chinese Museum chairman Tan Sri Datuk Dr Ng Teck Fong, who proposed its construction in November 2011. Work on building the museum began in August 2017, with Tan Sri Datuk Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah, the founder and chairman of Sunway Group, as its main sponsor.
Many of the museum’s artefacts were donated by various parties, with a majority of them coming from the Ng Teck Fong Jewellery Museum.
The Malaysian Chinese Museum also contains many models, replicas and figures, which were created in collaboration with KL-based sculpture studio Sculptureatwork.
“The research team collected photos from decades ago, and passed them to us to make them as accurate as possible. We put a lot of effort into the details, to create images that were as correct as possible,” says Suan Yuan Theng, Sculptureatwork Business Development director, who is also the museum’s main design and build contractor.
“The exhibits are not all arranged only in a timeline. We also wanted to show the transformation of the Chinese (community). How they first came for trading, but later settled down here, and made contributions to the country,” she adds.
The museum truly celebrates the Malaysian Chinese, who are the second largest community of overseas Chinese in the world (after Thailand).
Lim recommends that visitors check out the exhibits pertaining to the Hokkien Siam. This is a small Malaysian community, created when Hokkien immigrants to Kelantan intermarried with Thai residents in the East Coast state about 500 years ago.
Another exhibit worth checking out are some of the country’s first bank notes, signed by Tun H.S. Lee, a Malaysian Chinese politician and businessman who served as the first Finance Minister of the Federation of Malaya and co-founded the Malaysian Chinese Association.
These notes were in circulation between 1959 and 1967.
For Suan, another museum highlight is a display of the “Harmony Streets” in Melaka, Penang and Johor, where the houses of worship of various faiths are all located in close proximity of each other.
“It’s a good way to show that Malaysia is a place which absorbs everyone’s culture, and accepts everyone’s differences. When our ancestors came here, they melded into the culture, we became Malaysian Chinese. It’s part of the reason why this museum was founded. To promote the muhibbah spirit of the country, and how we all do better by working together,” says Suan.
While it is devoted to the past, this museum is very in touch with modern technology. Displays light up, with some even moving, as guests approach them. The Japanese Occupation zone plays the drone-filled sounds of air raid sirens as you walk through it. You can also download the museum’s app and gain access to special videos at certain spots in the museum.
You can also use it to take photos with the legendary Admiral Cheng Ho, if that’s something you’ve always wanted to do.
“We are trying to change the way that people think about museums. Some feel that museums are boring, but we want to show this is not true.
“Some will also visit mostly for Instagram opportunities. But then hopefully, they can read the exhibit texts and learn something,” says Suan.
The most popular spots in the museum, no surprises, are the most Instagram-friendly spaces. There is an area designed to look like a traditional Chinese coffeeshop, and there is also a Chinese food stall area, where guests can pretend to be hawkers.
“We even had some confused people asking us where the coffeeshop is, thinking it is real,” says curator Lim with a laugh.
There are plans for a museum giftshop to open soon, and next year, the museum will introduce an interactive AR (augmented reality) game for children.