- Chinese Capitalism in Colonial Malaya, 1900–1941 by William Tai Yuen
William Tai Yuen
Bangi, Selangor Darul Ehsan: Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) Press, 2013, including bibliography and index, 508 pp, ISBN 978-967-412-021-4.
This is an ambitious historical overview of Chinese business in British Malaya in the period 1900–1941. Dr. William Tai has presented and highlighted it under the rubric of a fashionable and controversial term ‘Chinese capitalism’, which neither valorizes the superior brand by emphasizing its Chinese cultural uniqueness, nor denotes the inferior brand of Chinese capitalism by emphasizing its Chinese ‘ersatz’ or ‘client’ features. In a neutral sense, it refers to the Chinese sector of the overall economy of colonial Malaya, which formed a part of world capitalism. According to Tai: ‘The components of this Chinese sector included a wide range of trades, industries and services, such as mining, plantations, raw material processing, manufacturing, transport, building and construction, engineering, finance and banking, shipping, craft workshops, insurance, imports and exports, commission agencies, down to the small shops in the rural areas. Some components, such as pawnshops or sundry shops, did not by themselves represent capitalism, because they might well fit into or were derived from a pre-capitalist mode of production. Nevertheless, they were part and parcel of a colonial capitalist economy’ (p. 16). Exactly because of this, in engaging current debates on Chinese capitalism, throughout the book Tai has concentrated on the historical narrative and [End Page 101] delineation of Chinese business development. The book is hence organized along the above-mentioned major sectors and structured into nine chapters: tin mining, rubber planting, the secondary industries, the entrepreneur Tan Kah Kee, the shipping, pawnbroking and banking, and Chinese compradors, together with an Introduction and Conclusion.
Tai has done a truly admirable job by consistently tapping an extensive secondary literature and rich archival sources. First, the book is a thorough and truly large-scale survey of various Chinese domains of the colonial economy. It surveys the emergence and development of Chinese businesses in British Malaya in the period under review. The structure is balanced and well-organized and the writing is clear. Second, the richness of the data is amazingly detailed in the case studies of Chinese businesses highlighted. Tai’s good sense and better understanding of the topic is because he is not only a local-born Southeast Asian Chinese, but also a serious committed and independent scholar in the field. Third, the valued-added chapter on Chinese compradors especially deserves praise. The discussion on the scholarly debates on the Chinese comprador institution in colonial Malaya is well documented and richly contextualized. Based on the HSBC Group archives, Tai has unravelled the various aspects of the Chinese cornprador system and practices in British Malaya, including their origins, major groups, personal attributes, family dynasty, departmental organization, income, responsibilities and liabilities, security and guarantor operations, their rise and fall, and their dynamics. Throughout the book, Tai has argued that Chinese capitalism in colonial Malaya was not an autonomous system, nor an extension of China’s economy. Rather, it was ‘the creation of a historical process of evolution’ (p. 420), originating from its prehistory of Chinese migration to the Malay World centuries prior to European colonialism. However, Chinese capitalism in colonial Malaya grew and took shape substantially within the framework of British colonialism and became a component part of colonial capitalism. In other words, a combination of ‘Chineseness’ and ‘colonialiality’ in the local Southeast Asian context had generated the historical development of Chinese capitalism in Malaya, which was multi-layered and multi-dimensional. While acknowledging the roles of Confucian tradition, kinship and family ties, trust and connections (guanxi), Tai especially emphasizes that entrepreneurship and technology were important elements in shaping Chinese capitalism. Moreover, in search of Chinese capitalism, Tai attaches importance to the production sector in comparison to commence and trade, and distinguishes Chinese capitalism in British Malaya by ‘the concentration of capital and employment in production, while commerce had a much higher weight in the Chinese economies in all other Southeast Asian territories’ (p. 423).
Due to the grand subject that the book chooses...