“Malaysian Crossings: Place and Language in the Worlding of Modern Chinese Literature” by Cheow Thia Chan

Han Suyin Han Suyin

Literature tends to be defined by language and place. For instance, Japanese literature is written in Japanese, or translated into another language, and written by Japanese authors. Chinese literature is however a little more complex because writers may also hail from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. In most of these places, citizens—a significant minority if not the vast majority—speak, read, and write Chinese. In the case of Hong Kong and Singapore, ethnically-Chinese writers may also read and write in English. But Malaysia is a case apart. Despite the Chinese being a minority that speak a variety of languages and dialects, there has been a robust Chinese literary tradition from Malaysia for almost a century. Cheow Thia Chan’s new book, Malaysian Crossings: Place and Language in the Worlding of Modern Chinese Literature, discusses the history and complexities of Mahua, or Malaysian Chinese literature, to show how it has developed and endures stronger than ever today.  

While Chinese Malaysian poets published work before 1936, it was that year in which Chan credits Lin Cantian as publishing the first Mahua novel, Thick Smoke, in Shanghai. An advertisement for the book marketed it as a story set in a foreign paradise, similar to the early 19th-century fantasy novel, Flowers in the Mirror, which includes a journey to foreign lands.


… the advertisement heightened the exoticism that mainland Chinese readers associated with Nanyang—the so-called South Seas region mapping primarily onto contemporary Southeast Asia, at the center of which is Malaya and Singapore. The ad promised a reading experience that would deliver vicarious pleasure and intense thought provocation: “The author has woven in many vignettes of Nanyang’s natural landscape and social customs. After perusing the novel, readers in China will feel that they have stepped into the setting of Flowers in the Mirror.”


Lin was born in Zhejiang province and moved to Singapore after graduating from university, all to escape an arranged marriage. After teaching in Terengganu on the east coast of the peninsula, followed by a short spell on the west coast, Lin settled in Kuala Lumpur and devoted his time to writing. But it was difficult for him to find a publisher in Malaya, so he turned to Shanghai on a trip back to China for his father’s funeral in 1935. But the intellectual curiosity about Nanyang—or Southeast Asia—at the time in China allowed Lin’s book to sell well.

Lin didn’t feel especially at home among the Chinese in Malaya. At that time, most of the Chinese population there had come from Fujian, Guangdong, and Guangxi provinces. Chinese like Lin with roots from other provinces were called waijiang ren.


Outnumbered by Chinese migrants in Malaya hailing from those regions, the waijiang ren constituted the margins within the ethnic Chinese community which was itself a minority group in the predominantly Malay region under British colonial rule. Given the rifts among the topolectal groups and native place associations in Nanyang, Lin could well have keenly felt his relatively isolated position as a waijiang ren writer living in the shadows of the southerners outside China.


Malaysian Crossings: Place and Language in the Worlding of Modern Chinese Literature, Cheow Thia Chan (Columbia University Press, December 2022)
Malaysian Crossings: Place and Language in the Worlding of Modern Chinese Literature, Cheow Thia Chan (Columbia University Press, December 2022)

But not all Mahua authors write in Chinese, as Chan explains in a chapter dedicated to Han Suyin. The physician-author wrote in English and made a name for herself with her 1952 novel, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, and later its 1955 film adaptation. But according to Chan, Han did not become a full-time writer until she moved from Hong Kong to Johor Bahru, also in 1952, with her husband Leonard Comber, who worked in British intelligence.


The Southeast Asian locale was where she transitioned from an amateur novelist to a professional author. And in the tropical British colony her writings and public image jointly projected her ideal of the culturally hybrid Asian writer to the world.


Chan also writes about the problems English writers like Han experienced in the Chinese-speaking communities of which was a part. When she taught at Nanyang University in Singapore while Lin Yutang was chancellor, she and Lin held differing opinions as to how English literature should be defined. Lin thought it should be traditional; Han thought it should include English translations from Chinese writers. Lin ended up leaving the university and Han was able to teach as she pleased.

Malaysian Crossings is largely an academic look at the origins and growth of Mahua literature, which is sometimes published outside of Malaysia, as contemporary Mahua writers live in places like Taiwan, England, and the United States. The book is probably best suited for university classrooms. But Chan’s case studies of writers like Lin Cantian and Han Suyin, among others, are interesting and show the paths these authors paved for contemporary Mahua authors, many of whom the Asian Review of Books have featured over the years.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.