Getting By: Class and State Formation among Chinese in Malaysia

DONALD M. NONINI is Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of British Colonial Rule and the Resistance of the Malay Peasantry, 1900–1957, coauthor of Local Democracy under Siege: Activism, Public Interests, and Private Politics, and editor most recently of A Companion to Urban Anthropology.

SIRD (First Edition for SEA, 2017)
348 pages including References and Index


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Getting By: Class and State Formation among Chinese in Malaysia is an ethnographic and historical study of the cultural politics of class conflict and state formation among Chinese citizens in peninsular Malaysia over a period of several decades. It is based on several years of research in the northern region of Malaysia from 1978 to 2007. In this book, the author interprets how the processes of class, ethnic, and state formation all interact in complex ways to constitute the contemporary infra-politics of everyday life among Chinese in Malaysia.

How do class, ethnicity, gender, and politics interact? In what ways do they constitute everyday life among ethnic minorities? In Getting By: Class and State Formation among Chinese in Malaysia, Donald M. Nonini draws on three decades of research in the region of Penang state in northern West Malaysia, mainly in the city of Bukit Mertajam, to provide an ethnographic and historical account of the cultural politics of class conflict and state formation among Malaysians of Chinese descent.

The first chapter recounts the formative years in Bukit Mertajam during the Japanese occupation of Malaya, the return of the European colonials at war’s end, and the British counterinsurgency campaign against the Malayan Communist Party.

Chapter 2 describes the flourishing commercial and industrial activity around which the city’s economy was organized, the relationships between the two major ethnic groups living in the area—Chinese and Malays—with particular reference to the role of the Malaysian state in mediating these relationships, and the economic stratification and inequalities among the Chinese residents of the city and the surrounding district of Seberang Prai Tengah (previously Central Province Wellesley).

Chapter 3 sets out the cultural styles as these varied among those who claimed to “do business,” and those relatively select few who were recognized as towkay—Hokkien for “head of (family) business”—or as “men of position,” and the even fewer referred to as “celebrities” among the Chinese population living in the city-the local mercantile elite.

Chapter 4 describes the intimate and quotidian relationships that men in the business said they had with state functionaries.

Chapters 5 and 6 continue the analysis of classed and gendered styles but turn to the peculiarly ambiguous condition of collectivities of working-class men and to the marginalized and largely invisible performances of their classed and gendered styles. Chapter 5 points to the profound scholarly neglect of working-class Chinese among scholars, business pundits, and local elite Chinese alike and argues that the neglect arose from the inability of working-class men to enunciate their class or ethnic identities in public-in contrast to towkays and men of position.

Chapter 6 analyzes the conflict between truck owners and the truck drivers they hired in Bukit Mertajam not only over material wealth but also over authoritative representations of the conflict, and of who won and who lost within it.

Chapter 7 returns to the mercantile elite of Bukit Mertajam and reconstructs a dispute among the leaders of the city’s Chinese society from 1979 to 1980.

Chapter 8 follows the process of class formation reconstructed in part I in terms of the experiences of three different classes among Chinese in Bukit Mertajam, as these were affected by state formation in a period of globalization: the class of capitalists (the met cantile elite or celebrities), the working class, and the class of petty capital own’ ers and professionals.

Chapter 9 describes how Chinese men (and to a lesser extent women) reacted to the new forms of state enclosure and control described in chapter 8. Chapter 10 describes the very different stylized class strategies of transnational travel of men of property and working-class men in Bukit Mertajam.

The epilogue sketches out changes over the decade from 1997 to 2006 among the residents of Bukit Mertajam that the author was able to reconstruct during fieldwork in the summer of 2007 and looks forward to the present.

Weight0.53 kg
Dimensions22.8 × 15.2 × 1.7 cm




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