By Liao Bowen
First-time visitors to Malaysia, a country near the equator, are often first impressed by the hot atmosphere. From climate to local customs, everything there is tropical.
It’s summer year-round in Malaysia, but it cools off a bit after a shower. Every morning the rising tropical sun heralds another sweltering day with intense humidity. To escape the scorching heat, the best choice is to stay indoors with an air conditioner to eat an iced coconut. Within minutes, the fruit will be consumed and sweat will dry.
In September 2016, I arrived in this wonderful country to start my year-long term at the University of Malaya.
Located in the heart of Southeast Asia, Malaysia is an important nexus along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, part of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative. Thanks to a comparatively stable political environment and consistent policies, the country has established sound legal and financial systems as well as relatively complete infrastructure. Malaysian society also features diverse culture. Thanks to these favorable conditions, Malaysia is expected to serve as a bridge connecting China with ASEAN member states, West Asian and South Asian countries along the Belt and Road as well as deepening bilateral and multilateral economic and trade relations. This is why Dr. Wee Ka Siong, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department of Malaysia, declared that Malaysia is playing a big role in the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative.
During my study in Malaysia, I was invited to an international forum related to Sojourn and its cultural significance in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative. As part of the event, a seminar on the subject of cultural affinity was held and presided over by Malaysia’s Second Minister for International Trade and Industry Ong Ka Chuan. Well-known scholars Lee Yow Ching, Oh Ei Sun and Lee Yip Lim gave lectures on topics such as Zheng He’s role in the history of Malaysia, the history of Sino-Malaysian relations and cooperation between China and Malaysia under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. A book titled History and Legend : Zheng He in Malaysia, published by the Malaysian Chinese Cultural Society, was released during the forum.
During the reign of the Yongle Emperor of China’s Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Admiral Zheng He, also known as Cheng Ho, was commissioned to make expeditionary voyages to the western oceans, writing a new chapter in the history of maritime navigation. During his expeditions, Zheng visited the Malacca Sultanate, a kingdom largely in the present-day state of Malacca, Malaysia, and helped its ruler stabilize the regime in the early years of the country. Because Malacca controlled the Strait of Malacca, a major shipping channel linking the East and the West, it served as a port during the admiral’s far-reaching ocean voyages. Zheng built storehouses for goods, food and vaults and established close trade relations with Malacca. Aided by an opening-up policy, Malacca grew into a powerful kingdom in the region and became an important port for foreign trade with Ming China.
Today, parks and museums honoring Zheng and his voyages have been built in some port towns in Malaysia. Since the Belt and Road Initiative was proposed by China, the ancient shipping route has again earned the spotlight. The friendly exchange, mutually beneficial trade and peaceful diplomacy practiced by Zheng are worth learning for today’s generation.
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1974, China and Malaysia have promoted exchange in fields of politics, economics and culture. As the second largest ethnic group of the country, Malaysians of Chinese origin play an important role in advancing the country’s economic growth and social progress. They also serve as a bridge between the two countries in implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Organized by Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education, the International Student Language Strengthening Program aims to enhance international students’ understanding of Malay and their traditional culture and rural life. I participated in the program on behalf of the University of Malaya and visited a Malay village.
Contrasting big cities, the countryside features a strong aroma of Malay civilization characterized by cottages of distinctive rural architectural style, free-range troops of monkeys and kris (a culturally-iconic dagger symbolizing power) hanging on the walls.
During the two-day trip a variety of cultural activities were organized including making ketupat (a type of rice dumpling) and Malay pastries, weaving bamboo baskets, reciting pantun (a Malay poetic form) in antiphonal style and watching silat (an indigenous martial art) performances and mock Malay wedding ceremonies. To me the experience of making batik (a cloth made by wax-resistant dyeing) was most unforgettable.
Batik features vibrant colors, simple patterns and varied styles. Flowers with strong Malay characteristics, especially the national flower of Malaysia, the Chinese hibiscus, are often displayed on the fabric. Influenced by religious factors, animal images are rarely used except for butterflies and birds.
A craftsman started by showing us some finished work and then walked through the entire process of making the fabric with the traditional technique of wax-resistant dyeing. First, patterns are drawn on a cloth using hot wax. Then the cloth is a dyed with a pen and special paints. Finally the dyed cloth dries in a cool place.
Although it was difficult for first-timers like us to control the humidity during the dyeing process, the batik seemed surprisingly easy to present a beautiful spell. If patterns outlined by the wax were smoothly drawn, the fabric transformed into a piece of exquisite art after being dyed. For my first attempt, I selected the most typical theme of batik, the Chinese hibiscus flower. Instead of displaying actual real-life colors, patterns can be treated with different colors in accordance with the overall tone and the color of the cloth.
Today, the Malaysian government has endorsed Baju Batik, clothes made of the fabric, as the national dress, and civil servants are encouraged to wear it to work on the first and the fifteenth day of every month. Malaysians also wear the dress for formal occasions such as banquets and evening galas.
I left Malaysia with so many beautiful memories. From local people to customs and cultures, everything in this country of tropical charm seems to call: Welcome to Malaysia!