By Tash Aw
JAN. 7, 2016
KUALA LUMPUR — Shila Amzah is a Malaysian pop star famed as much for her fashion sense as for her powerful voice. Her vast collection of striking, multicolored hijabs has made her a style icon and a role model for young Muslim women across the country. These days, though, she sings primarily in Mandarin, and — as her 2.5 million followers on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo suggest — a majority of her fans are from mainland China.
In a country wary of Islam — the Chinese government has a fractious relationship with its ethnic Uighur minority in the western province of Xinjiang — Ms. Amzah’s popularity, which verges on superstardom, is remarkable. Xila, as she is known to her fans in China, is affable and relaxed in front of the cameras, conducting interviews in impeccable Mandarin after living only two years in China.
Yet her rise is attributable not just to her beauty, charm or wardrobe, or even to her mastery of the love ballads adored by Chinese of all ages, but to a rapidly evolving cultural relationship between China and Malaysia.
As China seeks to extend its influence in Southeast Asia, its presence is no longer confined to its economic power and military bases in the disputed South China Sea, but is expanding into the fields of culture, language and education. In so doing, China is reviving centuries-old links between the mainland and its network of ancient trading partners like Malaysia.
Malaysia’s sizable ethnic Chinese population makes it a natural cultural ally for China. About a quarter of Malaysians — nearly seven million people — are of Chinese descent, offspring of a long-established diaspora. The Chinese began to arrive in great numbers in the 19th century as part of the British colonial government’s policy of importing indentured laborers to work in the country’s tin mines and rubber estates.
Last year brought the conclusion of the Malacca-Guangdong development agreement, designed to secure future cooperation between the Malaysian state and China’s most populous province across virtually every domain — from trade and investment to land reclamation to green technology and museums and educational institutions. Although China’s primary interest is in Malacca’s potential as a maritime partner — the state occupies an enviable position halfway along the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes — the agreement also reflects how China’s interests are broadening beyond the traditional realms of trade, into those of culture and education.
The partnership is also calculated to appeal to Malaysia’s sense of history and identity: Malacca was the stage for China’s first significant commercial and cultural exchanges with Malaysia in the 15th century, when the Ming emperors forged alliances with the sultans of Malacca. More recently, Guangdong has been the province that has provided Malaysia with its largest number of Chinese immigrants, after the southern province of Fujian.
North of Malacca, in the city of Salak Tinggi in the state of Selangor, the Malaysian branch of China’s Xiamen University has just been completed. This is the first time a Chinese university has established a campus abroad and provides a clear sense of China’s ambitions. But the choice of Xiamen University, the seat of higher education in Fujian, also symbolizes the two countries’ entwined relationship, given that the university was founded in 1921 with funds sent to China from Malaya (as the country was then called) by Tan Kah Kee, an immigrant from Fujian who had made his fortune in the rubber industry.
Among Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese population, China’s influence on local tastes is perhaps most noticeable in the growing use and appreciation of Mandarin as a language of everyday usage, as well as a vehicle for popular culture among the young. In Kuala Lumpur, a city whose ethnic Chinese population is drawn heavily from a centuries-old Cantonese-speaking community with roots in Guangdong Province, Mandarin TV series from mainland China like “Red Sorghum” and “Reunion Dinner” are rapidly gaining in popularity at the expense of Hong Kong-produced Cantonese dramas that, until recently, dominated Chinese-language viewing in Malaysia. These shows, together with news and entertainment programs, which are available on a range of channels broadcast by CCTV, China’s official network, are often included in Malaysian cable and satellite subscriptions.
Most striking of all have been the inroads — principally through pop music — that Mandarin is making with Malaysia’s Malay-Muslim majority. Until now, this community had little engagement with Chinese culture and language since Malaysia gained independence in 1957. Primed over the last decade by the universal appeal of Mandarin-speaking singers from Taiwan like Wang Leehom and Jay Chou, young Malaysians of all backgrounds now enthusiastically follow popular mainland Chinese talent shows like “Asian Wave” and “I Am a Singer.”
Both featured Ms. Amzah: Singing principally in Mandarin, she won one and placed third in the other. As further proof of how important pop music is to the way China’s image is changing in Malaysia, Xila — resplendent in her trademark hijab — was invited to perform for China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his last visit to the country.
Keen to foster relationships with its partners in the region, China is even encouraging a two-way flow of culture. Tuning into local radio stations recently, I discovered China Radio International’s Malay-language channel, which broadcasts programs about both China and Malaysia, including a current series on Islamic culture in China. These programs were all delivered by Chinese presenters — in flawless Malay.
Tash Aw is the author of three novels, including, most recently, “Five Star Billionaire,” and a contributing opinion writer.
Source: New York Times
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