KOTA KINABALU, Sept 14 — Yunus Lee sometimes gets strange looks when he walks into a mosque, most likely because he looks distinctively Chinese but wears the kopiah and baju Melayu.
But once he starts speaking, any potential misunderstanding is cleared up because of his fluent Malay.
Very often he gets asked when he converted to Islam but Lee was born a Muslim. His family has been Muslim even before his ancestors moved to Sabah, then called North Borneo, from northern China in 1913.
“Sometimes I get weird looks. Not so much in Sabah, but in West Malaysia when I used to live there. But it’s not a problem, I can get along with anyone, ” he says with a smile.
Lee is a fourth generation Chinese Malaysian whose ancestors were part of a group of 108 Chinese families brought over from northern Chinese districts like Shandong, Tianjin and Hebei to Sabah by the British North Borneo Chartered Company.
The first wave of Northern Chinese settlers in Sabah
“This was the pioneer group of northern Chinese who came here. Previously, there were groups of Southerners or Hakka Chinese who came as labourers or part of the Basel Church’s mission but this was the first time they had people from northern Chinese districts like Shandong, Hebei and Tianjin,” said historian Danny Wong.
The University of Malaya-based professor said that the 108 families were also among the first from the northern region to leave China for South-east Asia.
“This group of migrants from China differed from other diasporas as they came as settlers, along with their families at the invitation of the British North Borneo Chartered Company and were offered various incentives as part of the agreement,” he said.
The agreement included free passageway, a grant of 10 acres of land per family, rent-free for two years in exchange for labour for public works.
Back then, there was already a sizeable Chinese community from southern districts like Guangdong and Fujian living around Kota Kinabalu, then known as Jesselton.
“There were about five or six Shandong families, while the others were from Hebei and Tianjin — these group were different from the Hakka people here. They have different surnames like Zhang and Ding, and their cuisine were different, using flour-based food as staples,” he said.
Even smaller still was the number of Muslim families that were part of that group, which he estimates at “four or five.”
Holding on to their heritage
Most of the 108 families have stayed on in Sabah and Lee is proud of how his community, known as the Shandong, but pronounced as “Shantung” has assimilated over the decades. Many have married local natives, but they keep part of their culture alive.
“I think it’s really a joining of culture. They get to know ours as well, celebrating Chinese New Year, the food, the language, that way the culture prevails,” he said, adding that he himself married a native Iranun, and while they speak Malay at home, she has shown a lot of interest in getting to know his culture.
“In many ways, we are like any other Malaysian Chinese, but for the religion. We have to tutup aurat, abstain from alcohol and gambling during Chinese New Year,” he said.
The community, though small, has maintained a presence over the decades, having a road named after them where the community first settled down upon arrival, and they even have their own cemetery.
Jalan Shantung Baru in Penampang used to be the settlement for all the families but as they moved out over the years, it has been developed into a modern housing estate of semi-detached and terraced houses.
Their cemetery, along the back hills of another upper-middle housing area near Damai in Luyang, is just adjacent to the Buddhist cemetery within the same gated area. Take a closer look at the tombstones and you will see Jawi inscriptions.
Lee said that as a minority group, the Shandong community are tightly knit and hold their traditions and values close, a trait not so common with other Chinese Malaysians who do not necessarily relate to their ancestral roots.
“The brotherhood is very strong among the Shandong-ren. The families remain close, and we have big families, as they used to have, seven, eight, nine, 10 children back in the day,” he said, adding that weddings and special occasions see gatherings of some 800 family members sometimes.
“We have to stay close, to maintain our identity. In our culture, it is customary for the oldest to teach and instill the youngest generation with a sense of belonging and their family history,” he said.
One of the ways they have been able to do this is through their local Tianjin dialect.
“Even the younger fifth and sixth generation can speak the language. It’s an important part of our culture to us,” said Lee, who himself speaks about five languages fluently — Mandarin, Tianjin, Malay, English, Hakka, plus a smattering of local Sabahan languages.
And even though Lee is camera-shy, but keenly showed off photos of his family gatherings, of which there are many. Most take place in seafood restaurants, his personal favourite.
Using food to keep ties alive
The Shandong cuisine Lee enjoys is usually only eaten at home as not many restaurants in Sabah specialise in northern Chinese cuisine; Cantonese, or Hakka food is more predominant in Sabah.
He names several types of foods they often have at home: mantou, a type of steamed bread; lao ping — a flaky pastry filled with meat and Shandong dumplings being the most common. Relatives will often come together to cook up a feast.
“My aunts know all the recipes and can teach it to the next generation. But me, not so much,” he said sheepishly.
For Monica Chu and husband Malik , food is how they keep their culture alive.
Monica and Malik can both trace their roots back to northern China but Monica only converted to Islam when they got married 18 years ago.
They both grew up eating Shandong food made from hand-me down recipes from their ancestors but admitted it has been watered down into regular stir-fried dishes and some pickled dishes over the years.
But the one thing they cherish is their handmade dumplings.
“This is one must-have dish, especially during festive occasions. It is a family activity you could say. The women of a family, and sometimes the kids, would get together over a big table and make the dumplings together.
“We have different fillings like ground beef or chicken, sometimes minced lamb, and vegetables too, like cabbage or tomatoes and egg. By the end of the day, we have over 100 dumplings to feed the family, it’s a huge dumpling fest,” she said.
Some are boiled while others are pan fried, and sometimes cooked in broth, so there is enough variety from the dumplings alone.
Her family elders tell her that dumplings are a big part of their cuisine back in China, where it features in almost every meal, all year round, or can be found as a popular street food in Xinjiang, where part of the family is from.
Wuotie, or sui jiao can be found at some food courts and Chinese restaurants around Kota Kinabalu, but are often of the pork variety.
Some Chinese migrants have started up a Chinese Muslim la mian — hand-pulled noodles — chain which has gained popularity among the Muslim population as well. They offer some halal Chinese delicacies, including dumplings.
“But for us, making the dumplings with our children, siblings, aunts, in-laws, nieces and nephews is part of sharing our culture. We are a bit more multicultural now, but we still want to keep our cultural heritage alive,” she said.
Monica is fluent in Mandarin, Malay, English and can speak some of her native dialect and has been trying to pass as much of her mother tongue down to her two children, aged 11 and 14 years.
But Monica explains it is a struggle to keep many aspects of their traditions alive, as the family elders pass away and what is left are stories and word-of-mouth that can be easily be forgotten.
“We want to try to have them appreciate their ancestors’ origins as much as possible but we also know that it is not their roots. I can only pass to them what my grandparents tell me, and it will not be the same over the years, ” she said.
But despite his keen knowledge of his origins and history, Lee said he has never ventured back to his ancestor’s hometown in Shandong.
“I wouldn’t know where to go, or who to look for anymore. Most of the family has moved away. My home is Sabah,” he said.