Malaysian Chinese

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Malaysian Chinese
马来西亚华人 / 馬來西亞華人
Orang Cina Malaysia
Ke Lok Si Illuminations 01.JPG
Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang, during the Chinese New Year celebration.
Total population
23.4% of the Malaysian population (2016)[1]
Regions with significant populations

Malaysia Malaysia
Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Johor, Perak, Selangor, Sarawak
Australia Australia
Christmas Island

Malay, Mandarin, English, Cantonese, Foochow, Hakka, Hainanese, Hokkien, Teochew, and Hinghua; Manglish (creole)
Predominantly Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism (Chinese folk religion), significant Christianity, minorities Islam and Hinduism [3]
Related ethnic groups
Singaporean Chinese, Peranakan, Han Chinese, Southern Chinese, Overseas Chinese, Chinese Indonesians

The Malaysian Chinese or Chinese Malaysian (Chinese: trad 馬來西亞華人, simp 马来西亚华人, pin Mǎláixīyà Huárén) consists of people of full or partial Chinese—particularly Han Chinese ancestry who were born in or immigrated to Malaysia. Most are the descendants who arrived between the early and the mid-20th century.[4][5]

Malaysia is home to the second largest community of Overseas Chinese in the world, after Thailand. Within Malaysia, they are usually simply referred to as "Chinese" and represent the second largest ethnic group in Malaysia after the ethnic Malay majority.

Malaysian Chinese are a socioeconomically well-established middle-class ethnic group and traditionally dominate the business and commerce sectors of the Malaysian economy. However, institutional racism and discrimination has led many Malaysian Chinese to emigrate out of the country in recent decades, thus contributing to an intense brain drain problem.[6][7][8]



Strait Chinese or Baba-Nyonya are descendants of the first wave of Han Chinese. Image c. May 1941.

First wave[edit]

The first wave of Han Chinese settlers came during the Malacca Empire in the early 15th century. The friendly diplomatic relations between China and Malacca culminated during the reign of Sultan Mansur Syah, who married the Chinese princess Hang Li Po. A senior minister of state and five hundred youths and maids of noble birth accompanied the princess to Malacca.[9]

Admiral Zheng He had also brought along 100 bachelors to Malacca.[10]

The descendants of this wave are called baba/nyonya and of Hokkien ancestry[11][12]

Second Wave[edit]

A Chinese puppet show exhibited in front of a Chinese Temple in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. National Geographic Magazine, c. 1919.

Chinese immigrants, mainly from the controlled ports of Fujian and Guangdong provinces, were attracted by the prospect of work in the tin mines,rubber plantations as well as the possibility of opening up new farmlands at the beginning of the 19th century until the 1930s in British Malaya.[13]

The main reason for Chinese immigration was economic hardship after Britain defeated China in the Opium Wars and to a certain degree the Chinese Civil War. Their immigration to British Malaya and Straits Settlements was encouraged by the British.[14] This group was responsible for establishing the many Chinese-medium schools in Malaya and are mostly Chinese-educated.[15]

Some such as Koh Lay Huan escaped from China due to rebellious activities against the Qing dynasty.[16] Some Nationalist refugees also fled to Singapore, Sarawak, North Borneo and Malaya after the Nationalists Kuomintang lost the civil war to avoid persecution or execution by the Communist party of China.[17]

Third Wave[edit]

A much smaller wave came after the 1990s and they were mostly Mandarin speaking Chinese from northern China. These were mostly foreign spouses married to Malaysian Chinese.[18]

Some national sports coaches such as badminton coach Han Jiang could only obtain permanent residency after repeated rejections of their citizenship applications.[19] However, diving coach Huang Qiang managed to obtain his Malaysian citizenship.[20]

China is the largest participant in Malaysia's foreign residency scheme called 'Malaysia My Second Home'.[21][22]

Ancestral origin[edit]

According to department of statistics Malaysia July 2003,[23] the composition of each dialect are as follows.

Branch Dialect Millions
Min Hokkien 2.020
Min Teochew 0.497
Min Hokchiu 0.251
Min Hainanese 0.141
Min Henghua 0.024
Min Hokchia 0.015
Yue Cantonese 1.068
Yue Kwongsai 0.051
Hakka Hakka 1.092
Other Wu and Mandarin 0.203


Main article: Min Chinese

The largest dialect group are the Min people with a total of about 2.947 million.[24]

The Min dialect group consists of the following subgroups.[25]


Main article: Hokkien people

The southern Hokkien (福建人) from Quanzhou, Amoy, and Zhangzhou is the largest Chinese language group in Malaysia.

The first wave of Hokkien settled primarily in Malacca where they constitute a mere 3 percent of Malacca's Chinese population and are called Peranakan.[26]

The second wave of southern Hokkien Chinese settled in Malaya from the 19th century onwards and dominated the rubber plantation and financial sectors of the Malayan economy[27] and formed the largest language group in many states.

The Zhangzhou Hokkien migrated to the northern part of the peninsula including Penang, Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu whereas the Quanzhou Hokkien migrated to the southern part of the peninsula, including Malacca and Johor.[28][29] The Quanzhou Hokkien also migrated to larger towns in Sarawak.[30][31]


Main article: Teochew people

Teochew immigrants (潮州人) from the Chaoshan region began to settle in Malaya in large numbers from the 18th century onwards, mainly in Province Wellesley and Kedah around Kuala Muda. These immigrants were chiefly responsible for setting up gambier and pepper plantations in Malaya. More Teochew immigrated to Johor at the encouragement of Temenggong Ibrahim in the 19th century, and many new towns were established and populated by plantation workers from the Chaoshan region. The Teochew constitute a substantial percentage within the Chinese communities in Johor Bahru[32] and principal towns along the coasts of Western Johor (notably Pontian, Muar, and – to a lesser extent – Batu Pahat) as well as selected hinterland towns in the central regions of the state.[29] Many of them are the descendants of plantation workers who came to set up gambier and pepper plantations, following the administrative pattern of their countrymen in Johor.[33] Smaller communities of Teochew can also be found in other states, notably in Sabak Bernam in Selangor, where many Teochew settled down as rice agriculturalists,[29] as well as in the hinterlands of Malacca.[34]


Main article: Hainan people

Chinese immigrants from Hainan (海南人) began to migrate to Malaya and North Borneo from the 19th century onwards, albeit in much smaller numbers than the aforementioned speech groups. The Hainanese were employed as cooks by wealthy Straits Chinese families, while others were engaged in food catering business or the fishery business and formed the largest language group in Kemaman district of Terengganu[35] and Pulau Ketam (Selangor) as well as sizeable communities in Penang and Johor Bahru.[36] Smaller communities of Hainanese are also found in Sarawak and Sabah, where they work as coffee shop owners and are mainly found in large towns and cities.[37]

Heng Hua[edit]

Main article: Putian people

The Henghua (莆仙人), part of the Hokkien people, came from Putian. Their numbers were much smaller than the other Min Chinese from Fujian and they were mostly involved in the bicycle, motorcycle, and automobile spare parts industries.[38]

Min Dong[edit]

Main article: Fuzhou people

Min Dong (閩東人) settlers from Fuzhou (Hokchiu) and Fuqing (Hokchia) also came in sizeable numbers during the 19th century and have left a major impact on the corporate industry in the 20th century.

The Min Dongs form the largest language group in Sarawak – specifically in areas around the Rajang River,[39] namely the towns of Sibu. They also settled in large numbers in a few towns in Peninsular Malaysia, notably Sitiawan[40] in Perak, Yong Peng in Johor and Sepang, Selangor.[41][42]

Yue Chinese[edit]

Main article: Yue Chinese

The second largest group are the Yue Chinese comprising around 1.119 million.[43]

The Yue dialect group consists of the following subgroups[44]


Main article: Cantonese people

The Cantonese people or Gwong Fu people (广府人) came from the area around Guangzhou. They settled down in Kuala Lumpur (part of Klang Valley), Ipoh (part of Kinta Valley), Seremban (Old name is Sungai Ujong)[45] and Sandakan.[15] They started development and turned these early settlements into principal towns. Most of the early Cantonese worked as tin miners.[46][47]

Kwong Sai[edit]

The Kwong Sai people from Guangxi who speak Pinghua came in much smaller numbers than those from Guangdong. The largest concentration settled in Bentong, Mentakab and Raub, Pahang.[15][48]


Main article: Hakka people

The third largest group are the Hakka comprising around 1.092 million.[49]

Descendants of these miners formed the largest community among the Chinese in Selangor[50] and very large communities in Perak (specifically Taiping and Ipoh),[51] Sarawak, Sabah, and Negeri Sembilan.[52] As the gold and tin mining industries declined in economic importance in the 20th century, many turned to the rubber industry, and large numbers of Hakka settled in Kedah and Johor (principally in Kulai and Kluang).[53]

In Sabah, where the majority of ethnic Chinese are of Hakka descent, many of them were involved in agriculture. According to the 1991 census, 113,000 Sabahans identified themselves as being of Hakka descent. This is a clear majority over the Cantonese, of whom there were 28,000, making them a distant second.[54]

Wu people[edit]

Main article: Wu Chinese

The second smallest group of people who came during the second wave are the Wu people from Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanghai. They were mostly involved in Chinese education, tailoring and construction.[15]

Northern Chinese[edit]

The smallest group of people are the Northern Chinese who speaks Mandarin. In Sabah, there is a small community of Chinese whose ancestors migrated from Hebei and Shandong.[48]

Together with Wu people, these two groups are referred to as San Jiang people in Malaysia. San Jiang means the three northernmost rivers of China i.e. Yangtze River, Yellow River and Amur River.[15][55] They established the San Kiang Association.[56]


Whole country[edit]

An early census of ethnic groups in the British Malay states, conducted by the British in 1835, showed that ethnic Chinese constituted 8 percent of the population and were mainly found in the Straits Settlements, while the Malays and Indians made up 88 percent and 4 percent of the population respectively.[57]

Malaya's population quickly increased during the 19th and 20th centuries, although the majority of Chinese immigrants were males rather than females.[58] By 1921, Malaya's population had swollen to nearly three million, and the Chinese constituted 30 percent while the Malays constituted 54.7%, the population growth being fuelled by immigrants from neighbouring Indonesia (the Indians made up most of the remainder). While the Chinese population was largely transient, and many coolies returned to China on a frequent basis, 29 percent of the Chinese population were local-born, most of whom were the offspring of first-generation Chinese immigrants.[59]

The British government began to impose restrictions on migration during the 1930s, but the difference between the number of Chinese and Malays continued to decrease even after World War II. The 1947 census indicated that the Malays constituted 49.5% of the population, compared to the Chinese at 38.4%, out of a total population of 4.9 million.[60] According to Lete, the population of Chinese were 38% out of total population of 6.3 million[61] in 1957.

Historical table[edit]

Malaysian Chinese historical demographics (%)
1835 1921 1947[62] 1957[62] 1970[62]
(8.0%) (30.0%) 1,871,000(38.4%) 2,398,000(38.0%) 3,274,000(36%)
1980 1991 2000[63] 2010[64][65] 2016[1]
(33.9%) 4,623,900(28.1%) 5,691,900(26.1%) 6,400,000(24.6%) 6,650,000(23.4%)

By state & territory[edit]

The 2010 Population and Demography Census Report gives the following statistics (excluding non citizens):[66][67]

State Chinese Population % of Population
Johor 柔佛 1,206,566 33.6%
Kedah 吉打 255,628 13.6%
Kelantan 吉兰丹 51,614 3.4%
Malacca 马六甲 207,401 26.4%
Negeri Sembilan 森美兰 223,271 23.2%
Pahang 彭亨 230,798 16.2%
Perak 霹雳 693,397 30.4%
Perlis 玻璃市 17,985 8.0%
Penang 槟城 1,008,122 53.0%
Sabah 沙巴 295,674 12.8%
Sarawak 砂拉越 577,646 23.4%
Selangor 雪兰莪 1,888,760 31.1%
Terengganu 登嘉楼 26,429 2.6%
Kuala Lumpur 吉隆坡 655,413 43.2%
Labuan 纳闽 10,014 13.4%
Putrajaya 布城 479 0.7%

States with large Chinese population[edit]

As of 2012, the majority of Chinese people are concentrated in the west coast states of west Malaysia with significant number of Chinese (more than half a million in each state) such as Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Johor, Perak, Selangor, Sarawak.[68]

Penang island, Bukit Mertajam

Year Total population Malay Percentage Chinese Percentage
1812[69] 26,107 9,854 37.7% 7,558 28.9%
1820 35,035 14,080 40.2% 8,595 24.5%
1860 124,772 71,723 57.4% 36,222 29.0%
1891 232,003 92,681 39.9% 86.988 37.5%
1970[70] 775,000 247,000 30.6% 436,000 56.3%
1990[71] 1,150,000 399,200 34.5% 607,400 52.9%
2000 1,313,449 48.5% 40.9%
2005[72] 1,511,000 624,000 41.3% 650,000 43%
2010 1,561,383 642,286 43.6% 670,400 45.6%

Kuala Lumpur

Year Total population Malay Percentage Chinese Percentage
1931[73] 111,418 68,000 61.0%
1947[74] 12.5% 63.5%
1957[74] 15.0% 61.9%
1980[75] 33.0% 52.0%
1991[76] 37.0% 46.0%
2000[77] 38.0% 43.0%
2010[78] 1,520,000 45.9% 655,400 43.2%


Year Total population Malay Percentage Chinese Percentage
1931[79] 505,311 46.4% 41.4%
1947[79] 738,251 43.8% 48.1%
2000 2,740,625 57.1% 35.4%
2010 3,348,283 1,811,139 58.9% 1,034,713 33.6%


Year Total population Malay Percentage Chinese Percentage
1891[80] 94,345 44.0%
1901[80] 329,665 150,239 45.6%
2000 2,051,236 54.7% 32.0%
2010 2,352,743 1,302,166 57.0% 693,397 30.4%


Year Total population Malay Percentage Chinese Percentage
1891[81] 81,592 23,750 50,844
1931 [79] 533,197 23.1% 45.3%
1947[79] 710,788 26.4% 51%
2000 4,188,876 53.5% 30.7%
2010 5,462,141 2,877,254 57.1% 1,441,774 28.6%
2011[82] 5.46 Million 1.45 Million 29 %


Year Total population Malay Percentage Chinese Percentage
2013[84] 2,583,000 599,600 23.2% 596,100 23.0%

Predominant languages by region[edit]

There is a need to have a lingua franca to facilitate communication among the Chinese of different ancestral origins in the same region.[85] The de facto lingua franca is usually determined by the predominant ethnic Chinese group in that region and also the prestige of that particular Chinese dialect.

Malaysian Chinese are able to speak the regional prestige dialect beside their ancestral dialect.[86] The regional prestige dialect for each region are:


Northern Peninsular Malaysia Penang,[87] Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu, Taiping are predominantly Penang Hokkien speaking.[88]

Southern Malaysian Hokkien is the lingua franca in Klang, Malacca, Johor[89][90] and Kuching.


The Chinese population in the central region of Peninsular Malaysia, including Klang Valley (Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Subang Jaya), Seremban, Kinta Valley (Ipoh, Kampar) & Kuantan are predominantly Cantonese speakers.[48][91]

In East Malaysia, Cantonese is also the lingua franca spoken among the Chinese in Sandakan. The only district dominated by Cantonese in Johor is Mersing.


Hakka Huiyang (惠阳) variant, is the lingua franca among the Chinese in most major cities in Sabah[48] except Sandakan.


The Teochew dialect was the lingua franca of the Chinese community in Johor Bahru until the 1970s.[92]

Education system and languages literacy[edit]

Most Malaysian Chinese are multilingual in at least one Chinese dialect, English and Bahasa Malaysia. However, the level of proficiency in each language is different and depends on which education stream and education level they have received.

Education stream[edit]

Malaysian Chinese can be categorised to be educated in three different streams of education: English-educated, Chinese-educated and Malay-educated.

English educated[edit]

During the British colonial period (before 1957) and for years after independence (1957-1969), English schools originally established by the British colonial government were regarded as more prestigious than the different vernacular schools. As a result, a significant number of older Malaysian Chinese who attended school before the 1970s are English-educated.[93][94]

All classes, including Maths, Science, Geography and History were conducted in the English medium of instruction. Most Malaysian Chinese of older generations are English-educated and have the highest English language proficiency of all three groups. However, they can't read Chinese characters or speak any Chinese dialects proficiently. Most of them can't write or speak Malay as proficiently as the Malay-educated.

Beginning in the 1970s, English-medium teaching were gradually replaced with Malay-medium teaching in English national-type schools, which became Malay-medium national schools.[95] Since then, most parents send their children to Chinese primary schools.

However, there are mainly two options for a small percentage of Malaysian Chinese to get a complete English primary and secondary education after the year 1970. Some send their children to private English international schools in Malaysia which teach a syllabus to sit for the IGCSE exam, while others send their children to Singapore where all the courses are conducted in English except for mother tongue language.

As of 2012, it was reported that up to 10% of Malaysian Chinese were primarily English-speaking.[96]

Chinese educated[edit]

Chinese-educated Malaysians are those who attended Chinese schools for at least the primary school level who can at least read and write Chinese simplified characters. In Chinese schools, Mandarin Chinese is a compulsory subject for all students with Chinese primary school background. This group has the highest Chinese language proficiency of all three groups.

Due to many lexical and grammatical similarities between Mandarin and Chinese dialects, some of them might also be proficient in their own ancestral Chinese dialect and/or Chinese lingua franca in the region they grew up in.

The older generation were completely educated in traditional Chinese characters, that is, they can read and write traditional Chinese characters, because the simplified characters were only introduced in the 1980s. The older generation Chinese educated might not be well versed in simplified Chinese characters.

In 2003 to 2011, the Malaysian government introduced an experimental policy of using English as the language of instruction for science and mathematics at primary and secondary schools. A compromise was reached that Chinese primary schools would teach science and mathematics in both Chinese and English. In July 2009, the education minister announced that the medium of instruction for science and mathematics would revert to the original languages of instruction starting from 2012.[95]

Malay educated[edit]

Those who attend Malay-language national schools are Malay-educated and have the highest proficiency in the Malay language of all three groups after 11 years of Malay language education. Those who attend Malay national schools speak very little Mandarin Chinese though most are able to converse in other varieties of Chinese like Hokkien and Cantonese at the elementary level and not proficiently.[97]

All courses are conducted in Malay except for the English language. Those who started their standard one education in government schools after the year 1970 have poorer command of English proficiency on average due to the lower standard of English as compared to the British colonial period. The English proficiency level of the Malay-educated and Chinese-educated Chinese is generally lower and they speak a form of English-based creole called Manglish. English is also not a compulsory subject to pass for the secondary school public exam Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia.

Education level[edit]


Today, about 90%-95% [98][99][100] of Malaysian Chinese children in Malaysia go to Mandarin-medium primary schools, while only a small group of 10% (or more) attend Malay-medium primary schools.

The first Chinese school began in Malacca in 1815.[101] There are 1293 Chinese primary schools in Malaysia as at year 2012.[96]


About 95% [99] of the Malaysian Chinese switch to Malay-medium schools for their secondary education. The reason is that Malay-medium secondary schools are free while Chinese independent high schools are not.[102]

Only 5% [99] of Malaysian Chinese attend either the Chinese national-type schools like Chung Ling High School, Jit Sin High School, Heng Ee High School and Catholic High School, Malaysia or the Chinese independent high schools like Foon Yew High School and Sabah Tshung Tsin Secondary School, where all (if not 90%) of the students are Chinese after attending the Chinese primary schools.

There are 61 Chinese private independent schools and 78 SMJK (C) Chinese secondary schools in Malaysia as at year 2012.[96]

The switch from Mandarin-medium primary school to Malay-medium secondary school for the majority of Malaysian Chinese has resulted in many school drop-outs as students are unable to cope with the differences in the medium of instruction. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) pointed out an estimated 25% of Chinese students drop out before reaching the age of 18; the annual drop-out rate is estimated to be over 100,000 and worsening. Certain drop-outs become apprentices in workshops, picking up skills like plumbing or motor repair. Others eager to make a quick buck find themselves involved in illicit trades, such as peddling unlicensed DVDs or collecting debts for loan sharks.[103]

However, in October 2011, Deputy Education Minister Wee Ka Siong indicated that the 25% drop-out rate may not be accurate as many Chinese students choose to pursue their studies at private schools (including Chinese independent high schools) or overseas such as in Singapore, while the Malaysian government only collates student data from the national school system, giving a false impression of a high drop-out rate.[104]


At the tertiary level, most bachelor's degree courses offered at public universities are taught in the national language, that is, Malay, while post-graduate studies are usually conducted in English.

English is used as the primary medium of instruction at most private higher educational institutions.[97] Many Malaysian Chinese also do twinning programs with overseas universities in UK, USA, Australia and Canada where all the courses are conducted in English.

For those who chose to have their tertiary education in Chinese, there are three private Chinese colleges as at year 2012.[96] There are those who do their Chinese tertiary education in Taiwan or China.

However, there are no statistics conducted to determine what percentage goes to which of these three different medium of instructions for their tertiary education.


Name format[edit]

Main article: Chinese name

Before Mandarin gained popularity among Malaysian Chinese in the late 20th century, Malaysian Chinese romanised their names according to their respective Chinese varieties. For example, the Hakka name would be written "Yap Ah Loy", and the Hokkien name 林梧桐 would be written as "Lim Goh Tong".


In line with the rise of Mandarin as a lingua franca among Malaysian Chinese in the later half of the 20th century, younger Malaysian Chinese tend to retain the pronunciation of their surname in their mother tongue while using the Mandarin pronunciation for their given name.

For example, the Cantonese name 陳永聰 (s 陈永聪, p Chen Yongcong) is romanised as Chan Weng Choong.

Still more recently, the given name will be written in the official pinyin romanisation, although often retaining the Malaysian Chinese tendency to treat each character as a separate word. Chan Yung Choong might start writing his name as Chan Yong Cong.

Some people do not adhere strictly to particular pronunciations and choose to modify the spelling. For example, a Mandarin pronunciation of a name can be "Chen", but some people like to spell it differently. Others also have surnames misspelt since colonial times.


Some Malaysian Chinese also adopt an English given name. English given names are normally written before the Chinese name. For example, goes by the name Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng.


Non-Muslims who marry a Muslim in Malaysia must convert to Islam. Such converts normally adopt a Muslim name to use in addition to their original name. These are not usually the long Arabic names but just a shorter one – e.g., Abdullah Tan Yew Leong.


Malaysian Chinese has strong attachment to explore new food choices, including Chinese, Indian, Malay, Japanese, Korean, Western cuisines and so on. Quite a number of Malaysia Chinese are turning themselves into vegetarians. Some who do are usually devout adherents of Buddhism; whereas the rest are mainly health concerned individuals. Malaysian Chinese food contains similarities and differences with the Chinese food in China/Taiwan/Hong Kong. However, many Northern Chinese food was assimilated and localized to Indian/Malay style, which the food choices are normally spicy.

Traditional Chinese cuisine[edit]

Malaysian Chinese food is similar to the food in Southern China as it is primarily derived from the Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka and Teochew cuisines. This includes Wonton noodles, Dim Sum, Taufu Fa and Hainanese chicken rice which can be found in southern China.

Bak Kut Teh from Klang

Localised Chinese cuisine[edit]

A number of traditional Chinese dishes have been developed, either by the use of local ingredients or through fresh invention, into local speciality without spicy Malay ingredients.

  • Penang Char kway teow was invented in Penang and is the most popular version with cockles, beansprout and chives. This localised dish is quite different from the one in China.[105]
  • Klang Valley Hokkien mee (dry dark thick noodles) and Loh Mee (滷面) (thick noodles in clear gravy), was reputedly created by the owner of a stall named Kim Lien Kee (金連記) in Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur.[106]
  • During Chinese New Year, Malaysian Chinese will also eat Yu Sang which is unique to Singapore and Malaysia. The origin of this dish is still under debate; it was reportedly created in Singapore in 1964,[citation needed] then a part of the Federation of Malaysia.
  • Klang Bak Kut Teh, said to have been invented by the owner Lee Boon Teh of a shop named Teck Teh (德地) in Klang, Selangor. The dish name comes from pork(Bak), bone(Kut) and the creator 'Teh'(地).[107]
  • Ampang Yong Tau Foo was invented by a restaurant named Chew Kuan (兆群) in Ampang.[108][109] This dish is different from China's Hakka Yong Tau Foo[108] as it includes stuffing fish paste into a multitude of fresh vegetables besides tofu and all served on a hot and brown gravy.

Malay-Chinese cuisine[edit]

Influences from the spicy Malay cuisine can be found in local inventions such as Curry Mee, Curry Chicken and Chili Crab.

The influence of the Peranakan cuisine can be found in dishes such as Laksa and Mee Siam.


Religions of Chinese Malaysians[110]
Religion Percent
Chinese Buddhism
No religion

Chinese Buddhism[edit]

The largest group and majority of Chinese Malaysians identify themselves as Buddhists and Taoists. Chinese Buddhism was brought over from China and has been traditionally embraced by Chinese and handed down over the generations in Malaysia. Chinese Buddhism incorporates concepts from both Buddhism and Taoism.


The second largest group are Christian (Protestants and Catholics).


The third largest group professes Islam, primarily as a result of conversion through marriage to Muslims. If a person of sole Chinese descent convert to Islam, they are still considered ethnic Chinese and retain much of their culture.[111] Contrary to popular belief, they do not become ethnic Malay after converting to Islam.

There are a number of Chinese Malaysians who were born Muslims, meaning born to Muslim family of Chinese blood and whose ancestors are Muslims by faith.[citation needed]


A very small percentage are Hindus and they visit and pray in Hindu temples, and even participate in Thaipusam.

Places of worship[edit]

These are the places of worship that are frequently visited by Malaysian Chinese according to their religion.

Chinese Buddhist temples[edit]

Kek Lok Si
Thean Hou temple

The Chinese temples actually have a mix of both Taoist and Buddhist deities. The Guan Di temple[112] in Kuala Lumpur has Guan Di, the Taoist god of war and also Guanyin.

The Kek Lok Si temple in Penang is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia.[113] Dharma Realm Guan Yin Sagely Monastery is a famous Buddhist temple near Petronas twin towers.[114][115]

Christian Church[edit]

Calvary church in Bukit Jalil

The Calvary church in Kuala Lumpur is the biggest church in Malaysia.

Chinese Mosque[edit]

The Malacca Chinese Mosque, the third mosque built in a Chinese-style in Malaysia.

The Malacca Chinese Mosque is a Chinese-style mosque in Malacca.

Malaysian Chinese festivals[edit]

Malaysian Chinese festivals are passed down through the generations from their ancestors in China but localised elements have been mixed with the original.

The festivals can be broadly categorised into two groups i.e. cultural and religious. Cultural festivals include Chinese New Year, Qing Ming festival, Dragon Boat festival, Mid Autumn festivals.

Religious festivals include Hungry Ghost festival, Nine emperor gods festival, Wesak day and Christmas.

Chinese New Year celebration[edit]

Chinese New Year celebration is done slightly differently than in China.

Reunion dinner[edit]

Family reunion dinners are held on the night of the eve of Chinese New Year and red packets of money are given out during family and relatives' visits. The dishes for the reunion dinners are different for each Chinese ethnic groups. Family members from abroad will also try to come home for this reunion.

Tossing good fortune[edit]

During the first 15 days of Chinese New Year, Malaysian Chinese will also toss Yee Sang to symbolise abundance for the coming new year.

Hokkien new year[edit]

The Hokkiens celebrate the ninth day of the new year with long sugarcane stalks to thank the Jade Emperor for saving their ancestors during a massacre by the Manchu army in 1652.[116]

Lion dances[edit]

A Lion Dance performance in Kuala Lumpur

Martial artists are hired to perform lion dances in front of owners' shops when Chinese businesses open for the first business day of the coming new year.[117] The purpose is to ensure an abundance of customers for the coming year by 'plucking the greens' and handing them over to the business owner.[118]

High pole lion dancing was pioneered by Malaysian Chinese.[118]

Chinese valentine[edit]

On the last day of the Chinese New Year, single young girls will toss mandarin oranges with their phone numbers into the river in hope of finding the right prospective husband to scoop up their oranges.[119][120] Single young men may also throw bananas with messages into the river in hope of finding a prospective wife who will scoop up their banana.[121] The tradition has been practised in Penang for over 100 years.[122]

Cultural exports[edit]

Lion head making used in Chinese lion dances has become one of the unique export item for Malaysia.[123][124] These lion heads are unique in that it is made of rattan instead of traditional bamboo.[125] The lion heads are exported to many countries around the world with large Chinese population.

Duan Wu festival[edit]

Glutinous rice dumpling[edit]

Different varieties of glutinous rice dumplings are eaten during this festival. Varieties not found in China include the spicy Nyonya rice dumpling.[126]

Dragon boat racing[edit]

Penang has been holding annual international dragon boat racing since 1956.[127] It was the first time that the race had ever been held outside the shores of China in 1956. Paper dragon boat decorations are also made during this festival. [128]

Mid-Autumn festival[edit]

A Chinese Mooncake in Malaysia


Different varieties of mooncakes are eaten during this festival. Varieties not found in China include local flavors such as durian, coconut and pandan mooncakes.[129][130]

Lantern parade[edit]

Adults and kids roam around the streets with lanterns in the shape of animals basking in the bright full moon day of the 8th lunar month.[131] This lantern parade is considerably different from the lantern parade held in China on the 15th of first lunar month.

Qing Ming[edit]

Christian Chinese pray to their ancestors, clean the graves and place flowers and fruits on Qing Ming.[132] However, Buddhist Chinese place joss sticks and offer food to their deceased ancestors besides cleaning the graves.[133] Houses, cars, shirts, toys made from paper and cardboard are sometimes burned for their relatives to enjoy in the afterlife.[134]

Vesak day[edit]

Vesak day in Malaysia and Singapore is celebrated on full moon of the fourth lunar month which is one week later than Hong Kong and Macau. It is celebrated by Malaysian and Singaporean Buddhists, majority of which are Chinese. Candlelight procession, offering alms to monks, bathing of the Buddha, eating vegetarian meals, lighting oil lamps, offering flowers and incense are the main activities.[135]

Hungry ghost festival[edit]

Hungry ghost festival is celebrated by both Taoist and Buddhists in Malaysia but for different reasons although it originated from a Buddhist story.[136] However, sexy singers performing on stage is unique in Malaysia and Singapore.[137]

Nine emperor gods festival[edit]

Nine emperor gods festival is a Taoist festival and is celebrated with colorful processions carrying imperial boat and eating vegetarian food in Malaysia.[138][139] The celebration is mainly held at the Nine Emperor Gods temple in Ampang, KL,[140] at Tow Boo Keong temple on Noordin Street, Penang [141] and Sam Siang Keng temple on Jalan Yahya Awal, Johor Baru.[142]



Overall ethnic share of total employment in Malaysia is roughly proportionate to the number of Chinese in the Malaysian population.[143] The Chinese are more likely to be involved in commerce and the modern sectors of the Malaysian economy. Between 1970 and 1995, Malaysian Chinese share of the white-collar labour force fell from 62.9% to 54.7% in the administrative and managerial category.[144]

Despite comprising nearly a quarter of the Malaysian population, 54.7% of Malaysian Chinese work in administrative and managerial jobs, while their presence in professional and technical fields was proportionate to the percentage of Chinese in the Malaysian population.[145] In 1988, Chinese Malaysians made up 58% of the Malaysian white-collar workforce, providing a disproportionate percentage of Malaysia's doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, accountants, and engineers well exceeding their respective population ratios compared to Bumiputera, however this is not the case anymore as Bumiputera do currently accommodate a proportionate amount of the white-collar workforce as do the Chinese today.[146] According to a February 2011 study, by Albert Cheng, in 2000, 25.8% of Chinese Malaysians worked as registered professionals compared to 63.9% for Bumiputera following close with proportion to their respective population rates.[147]


In terms of housing affordability, Chinese Malaysians could afford houses priced between 120,000 RM and 180,000 RM.[148]

In 2012, Chinese Malaysians had the lowest poverty rates among major ethnic groups in Malaysia, with a rate of 0.3% compared with the Bumiputera rate of 2.2%.[149] For the Malaysian Chinese community, the mean income rose from 394 RM in 1970 to 4,279 RM in 2002, a figure that was an increase of 90.8% and was 80.0% above Bumiputera (2,376 RM) and 40.5% above Malaysian Indians.[150][151] Income distributions show dramatic differences among the three main ethnic groups in Peninsular Malaysia (Malays, Chinese, and Indians) and between the rural and urban subgroups. Chinese incomes are larger, on the average or median, and are more unequally distributed than those of Malays or Indians. However, because relatively more of Chinese income is received from market activities, broadening the definition of income reduces the relative difference between Chinese households and the other two ethnic groups. Mean Chinese business income is almost five times as large as mean Malay business income, but median business income for Malay households exceeds median Chinese business income from business ventures.[152] Malaysian Chinese have the highest household income among the three major ethnic groups in Malaysia. According to Sulaiman Mahbob, as of December 2007, the monthly average household income was at 4,437 RM.[153][154][155][156]

Since early settlement during the 15th century, Chinese Malaysians are considered one of the wealthiest ethnic groups in Malaysia and have been more prosperous than other ethnic communities in Malaysia.[157] In February 2001, Malaysian Business released its list of the 20 richest Malaysians. Sixteen of the 20 and 9 of the top 10 were ethnic Chinese. A number of other wealthy Chinese outside the top 20 also control well-managed corporations.[158] According to a 2011 Forbes magazine list, eight out of the top ten richest Malaysians are ethnic Chinese.[159][160][161] According to economic data compiled by the Malaysian daily Nanyang Siang Pau in 2012, ethnic Chinese make up 80 percent of Malaysia's top 40 richest people.[162] In 2014, Forbes magazine reported that 8 out of 10 of the ten richest person in Malaysia are ethnic Chinese.[163]


Chinese are the largest taxpayers among the three ethnic groups in Malaysia. Only 10 percent of the total workforce pay any income tax.[164] Out of these 10 percent, Chinese make up 80 to 90% of the taxpayers.[165]

Trade and industry[edit]

Chinese Malaysians played a major role in the development of the tin, petroleum, and rubber industries and also continue to own 85 percent of Malaysian retail outlets. Chinese-owned mines produced nearly two-thirds of the tin in Malaysia. Many used their savings to open small businesses, where some grew into large enterprises. Typically, many of their enterprises have been family-controlled and family-run.[166] In 1964, Sino-Malaysians accounted for 91.7% of the private corporate holdings in Malaysia and ownership of the Malaysian gravel pump and small-scale tin mines were completely placed in the hands of ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs.[167] By 1970, glaring economic disparity between the Malays and Chinese was wide as Malaysian Chinese entrepreneurs were estimated to control 26% of the assets in the corporate sector, 26.2% of the manufacturing and 92.2% of the non-corporate sector.[168] Malaysian Chinese entrepreneurs operate as a more urban business community, dominating trade and commerce, primarily tin mining and agriculture.[150] Back in 1990, Chinese in Malaysia are estimated to control 50% of the construction sector, 82% of wholesale trade, 58% of retail trade, 40% of the manufacturing sector, and 70% of the small-scale enterprises.[169]

In 2002, the Chinese Malaysian share of the overall Malaysian economy stood at 40% since the implementation of the Malaysian New Economic Policy and the Chinese share in the non-agricultural sector fell from 51.3% to 45.9% from 1970 to 1980.[170][171][172] Chinese Malaysian businessmen are estimated to occupy 34.9% of Malaysia's LLC companies, the highest percentage of ownership among the three major ethnic groups in Malaysia.[145][147] To seek extra funding and seed money for potential business start-ups, many Malaysian Chinese entrepreneurs have turned to the Malaysian Stock Exchange for business expansion and potential IPOs.[173] In 1995, the seven biggest investors in the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange were all ethnic Chinese, with 90 percent of the smaller and younger companies on the second exchange of the KLSE are also Chinese controlled.[174] Malaysian Chinese businesses are part of the larger bamboo network, a network of overseas Chinese businesses operating in the markets of Southeast Asia that share common family and cultural ties.[175]

Home ownership and the utilisation of property as an investment is also prevalent in the Malaysian Chinese community.[170] Real estate investing is a common business and a source of wealth for Malaysian Chinese as it not only provides a steady source of monthly income from rental proceeds and a hedge against inflation, but also raises the standard of living for Malaysians who are not in the right economic position to purchase a home for themselves. In 2005, Malaysian Chinese owned 69.4% of the business complexes, 71.9% of all commercial and industrial real estate, as well as 69.3% of all the hotels in Malaysia, reflecting Chinese control over the various business and commercial establishments around the nation.[170]

However, the underprivileged section of the Malaysian Chinese continue to be excluded from affirmative-action programmes despite their genuine need for support in obtaining employment, government subsidised education, and housing. This perception of a zero-sum game amongst the races has unfortunately fuelled protests by frustrated sections of the hitherto quiescent community – who consequently faced a heavy-handed response from the authorities. Recently, the Malaysian government has at least pledged to change this by increasing assistance to needy Malaysians regardless of race, creed, or national origin.[176]



The Chinese in Malaysia maintain a distinct communal identity and rarely intermarry with Muslim Malays for religious and cultural reasons. According to Muslim laws, the Chinese partner is required by law to renounce their religion and adopt the Muslim religion.

Mixed-race children of Chinese and Malay parents are considered ethnic Malays in modern times and not Peranakan nor Chinese. Contrary to popular beliefs, some Baba/Nyonya maintained a pure Chinese bloodline while some others intermarried with Malay women.[177][178]


However, there are many who have intermarried with Malaysian Indians, who are predominantly Tamil Hindu. The children of such marriages are known as Chindians.[179] Some Chindians attend Chinese medium schools and can speak Chinese.[180] Chindians with Chinese father and Indian mother have Chinese names such as Keith Foo.[181]


In the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak, Malaysians of mixed Chinese–Native parentage ("Native" referring to the indigenous tribes in those states; for example, Iban and Melanau in Sarawak and Kadazan and Murut in Sabah) are referred to as "Sino" (e.g., Sino–Iban, Sino–Kadazan). Depending entirely on their upbringing, they follow either native customs or Chinese traditions. A small minority forgo both native and Chinese traditions, instead opting for a sort of cultural anonymity by speaking only English and/or Malay and not practising either Chinese or tribal customs. Offspring of such an intermarriage may or may not be considered Native, and those granted Native status may also have the status revoked at any time, as seen by the Sabah state government revoking the Native certificate of state opposition leader Jimmy Wong Sze Phin despite his grandmother being a native.[182]


Main article: Malaysian diaspora

Among emigrants, Chinese Malaysians form the largest outflow or brain drain amongst all ethnic groups in Malaysia. More than two million Malaysians have emigrated since the year 1957.[183] Around 49,900 Malaysian Chinese have migrated from 2006 until Apr 2016.[184]


Singapore received the highest percentage 57% [185] of Malaysian Chinese due to the similarities between the language and culture of both countries and also the very close distance. Malaysian Chinese comprises the largest percentage born outside of Singapore at 386,000 according to Census Singapore 2010.[2]

In year 2015, Singapore received the highest percentage of Malaysians at 47.2%.[186]


The second most favorite destination after Singapore is Australia with 18.2% migrating there in year 2015.[187]

Malaysian Chinese represent the largest group (10%) of Australian Chinese outside greater China. [188][189] They also make up the largest ethnic group of all Malaysians in Australia with 72% of Malaysians claiming Chinese ancestry and only 11% with Malay ancestry in the 2001 census.[190]

The largest number of Malaysia-born immigrants arrived in Australia after 1981, under the Family Reunion Program or as skilled or business migrants.[191]

Australians of Malaysian Chinese descent make up the majority (65%) of the population of the Australian external territory of Christmas Island.[192]

Other English speaking countries[edit]

Other favorite destinations include the English-speaking countries the UK, the USA, Canada and New Zealand.[193]

Greater China[edit]

In recent years, there is a small number of emigration back to China and Taiwan due to the rise of China's economic power.[citation needed]

Relationship with other Chinese[edit]


Malaysia has been China's largest trading partner in South East Asia since 2008 with bilateral trade totalling US$97.35bil (RM403.32bil) in 2015.[194][195] Whereas, China is Malaysia's largest trading partner in the world.[196][197] A lot of the trade is done by the large Malaysian Chinese community in Malaysia.

China is now the top country in the Malaysia My Second Home program.[21]

China’s ambassador to Kuala Lumpur, Huang Huikang, defended Malaysian Chinese during anti-Chinese rally held by a group of Malays on Sept 16, 2015.[198] Huang Huikang also presented a cheque of RM40,000 to eight Chinese medium schools in Johor.[199]


Singapore, Malacca and Penang share a common history as part of the British Straits Settlements and Singapore was also part of Malaysia from 1963-1965. This common history has affected both countries culturally, linguistically and socioeconomically.

Culturally, Chinese festivals and Chinese food are largely similar in these two countries. Linguistically, Chinese languages such as Singdarin and Malaysian and Singaporean Hokkien are spoken in both countries. Furthermore, English language variants known as Manglish and Singlish are similar and spoken with the same accent.

Socioeconomically, many Malaysian Chinese work or study in Singapore due to its close proximity to Malaysia. Many Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese have relatives on both sides of the border.



The political scene in Malaysia is strongly divided along racial lines, with people of different ethnic origin generally supporting politicians of their own racial origin. The Chinese population is represented in the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional mainly by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), although the support for the party among the Malaysia Chinese varies and at times weak. A smaller number support Gerakan. Other Chinese-dominated parties in the coalition include Sarawak United Peoples' Party.

A large number of Malaysian Chinese support the opposition Democratic Action Party which is particularly strong in the Chinese urban areas of Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Perak, Selangor, Johor and Negeri Sembilan. DAP was an offshoot of PAP of Singapore which stress on equality of rights among all ethnic groups.

There are however recent attempts at multiracial approach to politics with Keadilan.[200]


Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia grants the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King of Malaysia) responsibility for “safeguard[ing] the special position of the ‘Malays’ and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities” and goes on to specify ways to do this, such as establishing quotas for entry into the civil service, public scholarships and public education.[201]

Partly in line with the constitution, Malaysia has devised a long-standing policy of providing affirmative action to Bumiputeras (ethnic Malays and indigenous people of East Malaysia) which spans over four decades. Affirmative action is provided in the form of the Malaysian New Economic Policy or what is now known as the National Development Policy[202] Under such affirmative action, various concessions are made to Bumiputeras. Amongst many other concessions, 70% of seats in public universities are to be allocated to Bumiputeras, all initial public offerings (IPOs) must set aside a 30% share for Bumiputera investors and monetary support is provided to Bumiputeras for entrepreneurial development.[146]

Notable Malaysian Chinese[edit]

See also[edit]


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