We recently explored the experiences – and in particular, the challenges – of Japan’s hafu demographic. But the experience of growing up biracial is by no means limited to the homogenous island chain. To the south, in melting pots like Malaysia and Singapore, the experience is quite different – yet also fundamentally similar.
Some cultures tend to mesh well, such as the Chinese-Malay hybrid Peranakan culture, while others are like oil and water. Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum comes about when Chinese and Indian marry and have children (commonly referred to as “Chindians”).
Kevin Bathman, a social entrepreneur based in Sydney, grew up in the middle of this cultural crossroad – his paternal grandfather, an Indian-Tamil, and his grandmother, a Chinese-Nyonya. Spurred by the desire to explore his own family tree, Bathman launched The Chindian Diaries project, a growing compendium of the experiences of this community.
Bathman spoke with The Diplomat about this project, essentially a collaborative work of ethnology; what it’s like to grow up Chindian, and the ways Chinese and Indian culture have both blended – and repelled each other – within this community.
First off, could you briefly describe the Chindian Diaries project?
The Chindian Diaries project is an arts and community project that captures the stories of individuals and couples who identify themselves as Chindians. “Chindian” is an unofficial term for those with a mix of Indian and Chinese heritage.
The project was born from the lack of documented Chindian stories. By capturing these stories and photos, The Chindian Diaries hopes that these stories will act as a resource for future generations, and ensure they are never forgotten. The stories vary from identity crises, cultural clashes, struggles and misunderstandings, to stories of love and acceptance.
The project aims to collect and document stories from Chindians in Malaysia, Singapore and other parts of the world. It is focused primarily on Chindian culture, but is open to stories from other mixed marriages as well. By gathering these stories, it is hoped that they will form a greater, overarching cultural narrative.
What inspired you to really start exploring your family history? How did this lead you to launch the Chindian Diaries?
I started this project in June 2012 after participating in a weekend storytelling workshop aimed at digging deeper into my ancestors’ story. It forced me to delve into my family history and I learned new things about my family.
Reflecting on my life, I was intrigued by my grandparents – my paternal Indian-Tamil grandfather and Chinese-Nyonya grandmother. My father used to tell me about their union and how my grandmother was disowned by her family for marrying my grandfather, a dark-skinned Indian man.
Initially, I started to write and share some of my own stories and eventually did a call out to others. It eventually spread to other networks.
What are some of the challenges unique to those growing up with mixed Indian-Chinese ancestry? Were there any stories that came forward through the Chindian Diaries project that really stand out for you?
This is one of my own stories:
“When filling in my School Report Card, my teacher wrote ‘Eurasian’ in the race section. When I took the card home for my Dad to sign, I remember him making a remark about the Eurasian race section. Being 8 years old, I had little understanding about race at that stage.
My teacher later had to white-out the section and write ‘Indian,’ as ‘Chindian’ was not a common term then. She had assumed I was Eurasian because of my surname and skin colour.”
Another one was this:
“Over the weekends, my mother would take me swimming at the Bukit Batok swimming complex. Dorothie, my maid, would also tag along with us.
I remember one incident when some people thought that Dorothie was my mother, and my mother, the maid. They had assumed that because I was darker in my complexion that my Mum couldn’t possibly be my Mum!
– Sai Amrita Balachandran, Perth
“As a child, I was always blamed and punished for things I never did by my aunts. I recall an incident when my brother and sister broke a fragile item but I was punished for it. Joey, out of love for me, finally admitted it was his fault but he didn't receive any punishment by them.
Being more Chinese looking, my aunts took better care of them. Another incident revolved around food. As a child, Joey loved seafood, even though I am allergic to it. During meal time, my aunts would cook prawns, fish and all sorts of seafood, knowing I could not eat any of it. I remember only being able to eat rice and vegetables then. It took a while before my Dad found out about it, and reprimanded my aunts about it.
I could tell I wasn't liked by them as after getting a scolding from Dad, they did cook something for me to eat. It turned out to be LIVER!”
– Nick Tay, UK
"In 1965, our Dad, Chandran met our Mum, Mary at a friend's party and they hit if off. They decided to start dating but it came with strong opposition from some family members.
For instance, she would often get reprimanded by Uncle Tony and Uncle Hector as soon as she walked into the house after meeting up with Dad.
They would often say:
"Going out with that Indian man again?
Mary, Indians are known to be wife-beaters and drunks.
They will spend all their money and won't help in the household.
Why don't you find a nice Eurasian fella?"
– Renee Marcia Chandran
Are there some key areas where you think Indian and Chinese culture clash? On the other hand, are there are any key areas where Indian and Chinese culture overlap and/or complement one another?
Some of the overlaps include:
1. Cultural norms like the color red. To Chinese and Indians, red is an auspicious color especially for weddings, whereas white is deemed inauspicious. Widowers of both cultures wear this color.
2. Family values, respect and looking after the elderly has high significance in both cultures.
3. General living etiquette (e.g. remove shoes before entering the house).
4. Roles of women and men in the marriage
I have yet to find any clashes between the two cultures other than maybe religion – Hinduism and Buddhism. However, one story stood out from Renee Marcia Chandran of growing up in a house with three religions: Hinduism, Buddhism and Catholicism.
You have said that children of Indian and Chinese parentage often associate more closely with the Indian side, as their fathers tended to be Indian and their mothers Chinese – especially from the 1950s to the 1990s. Is there any evidence that this has changed at all in the past decade? Further, do you think the challenges have lessened more recently?
Most Chindians lean towards Indian culture, only because there were more Indian men marrying Chinese women in the 1980s and 1990s. For families with an Indian father, it was common to see the children follow the more dominant paternal culture. There is no hard evidence to back this up, as Chindian culture has never been thoroughly researched.
This is mainly due to the fact that most Chindian marriages were "love marriages." It is hard to celebrate a culture when Chindian marriages, in those days, were frowned upon. Occasions that define a culture – such as birth, death and weddings – all contribute to cementing a culture.
I even know of one couple who had to flee their country to get married and start a new life elsewhere to get away from their respective families. In fact, in the 1930s, my Chinese grandmother was disowned by her family for marrying an Indian man. My father never had the chance to get to know the Chinese side of his family.
Although there are fewer and fewer taboos about mixed marriages – it’s not all smooth sailing either. Some families are still very traditional and insist on marriage within the same culture and religion. This project, in some ways, tries to dispel the myths and taboos around the subject.
We recently published a story on the experience of growing up hafu (“half”) in Japan. This experience seems to be universally challenging, but to varying degrees depending on the culture. Compared with a homogenous place like Japan (or South Korea, for example), what do you think the experience of growing up from mixed parentage is like in a more ethnically diverse place like Malaysia or Singapore?
I have been asked why the Peranakan culture (intermingling of Malay and Chinese culture in the 15th and 16th culture in Malaysia) flourished and that didn't happen with Chindian marriages.
Peranakans came about in the early 15th and 16th centuries as Chinese migrants began marrying Malay women. Many have lived for generations along the straits of Malacca, and exhibit their own Sino-Malay cultural traits. Written records from the 19th and 20th centuries also show that some Peranakan families imported brides from China. So arranged marriages were a common occurrence among Peranakans compared to Chindian marriages.
I don’t profess to know actual historical facts, but I do believe that Peranakan culture emerged a lot earlier than Chindian culture. Indian and Chinese workers were only brought into Malaysia in the early 19th century, which is when intermingling between both cultures started to happen. In addition, most of the early Chindian marriages happened between Indian men and Chinese women, so the paternal culture became more dominant in the lives of their children.
Looking over the interviews with Chindians, most of them do feel a sense of belonging to both. Whichever culture they resonate with more depends on their upbringing. With Chindian weddings, for example, most of them have the traditional Chinese tea ceremony and the Indian temple wedding to honor both sides of their heritage.
I have yet to meet a Chindian that has disregarded one side of his or her culture. Some of them have grown up without any cultural barriers or issues, but some of them have felt ostracized by one side, or worst, both.
As they grow up, they eventually find the beauty of coming from a mixed background and most of them are proud of their Chinese-Indian background.
Do you think in the longer term being “Chindian” will become less of a big deal in Singapore and Malaysia? Or, is there evidence that the more conservative elements of society are digging in their heels and resisting change even more strongly, the more inevitable it becomes?
In both countries, what you read in the media and what is being said by the politicians are completely different to what is happening on the ground. While we see a swing to a far right with Malay extremist views in Malaysia and with Singapore's ethnic population control, we also see a resistance coming very strongly from the people who are rejecting extreme, racist views.
Although Singapore has rightfully acknowledged "dual race" in birth certificates since 2010, we have yet to see the same in Malaysia.
To the average Malaysian and Singaporean, the concept of coming from a mixed background will become more and more accepted and the norm in society. And to me, the more governments of today use racial politics, the more back lash they will get from the public. In the end, I'd like to think that logic, common sense and love will triumph over all.