- What is a "Man from Greece"? — The Micro-dialectics of Ethnicity in 1920s and 1930s British Malaya
- Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
- ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
- Volume 33, Number 3, November 2018
- pp. 536-575
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Scholars such as G. William Skinner and Charles Hirschman have produced trenchant analyses of ethnicity in Malaya based on aggregated demographic data. Yet subjective attitudes towards ethnic identification within and among different social groups remain inadequately examined. The 1937 Chinese-language short story "Xila Ren" (The Man from Greece) serves as an example of what O.W. Wolters calls "local cultural statements". Analysis of that statement makes it possible to expound "micro-dialectics" of Chinese ethnic self-understandings in British Malaya in the late 1920s and early 1930s. These micro-dialectics elicit the finer stratifications of a creolized Chinese society beyond the Straits Settlements by analysing a meeting between a newcomer from China and an elderly Chinese migrant who has adopted the Islamic faith. In the literary text studied here, the Chinese Muslim says that Malays call him "the man from Greece". Evoking discordant views about the anomalous ethno-social status of Chinese Muslims in the locality, the conversation uncovers a grass-roots archive of lexical terms for ethnic classification that strays from colonial census categories. Arguably, the appellation "the man from Greece" arises from undepicted quotidian Sino-Malay encounters that involve a strategic equivalence of place-names. The word play implies a folk taxonomy of places mobilized by Malays to differentiate between Chinese who were Muslim from birth and those who later converted to Islam. In turn, the Chinese Muslim convert appropriates the "Greek" affiliation to counter the newcomer's didactic enframing of him as a "man from China". Highlighting situational performances of identity within inter-ethnic as well as intra-ethnic contexts, "The Man from Greece" offers insights into historical circumstances that complicate the entanglement of Chineseness and Muslimness in Malaya, and foregrounds place-based expressions of social belonging.