Chinese Muslims in Malaysia

History and Development

by Rosey Wang Ma


I.  Early presence of Chinese Muslims – Zheng He, the Muslim Eunuch 

II.  Under the British Rule  
III. The Yunnani Family of Terengganu
IV. The Koay Clan in Penang  
V.  The Tianjing Hui Hui in Sabah
VI.  Introduction of Islam in Chinese to the Chinese     
VII. New Settlers
About The Author



In the Southeast Asia region, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei are the three countries where Islam is the predominant religion.  Indonesia, with 90% of its’ 210 million people being Muslim, is also the largest Muslim country in the world.  In Malaysia, a multiracial, multi-religious, and multi-cultural country with a population of 23 million, Malay Muslims stand at a little more than half of the population, followed by Chinese and Indians, the other two large ethnic groups, and many other minorities from various ethnic origins.

Ethnicity and religion are closely related in Malaysia. In a very simplistic generalization, Malays are Muslim by constitutional definition, and people of other races are usually not;  the other races are free to practice their own religion.  This simple belief of ‘Muslim is Malay’ has often led to the undermining of the other Muslim communities in Malaysia who are not Malay, such as the Indians, Pakistanis, Thais, people of Arab / Iranian / Yemeni descent, part of the Melanaus, Dusuns and Kadazans in East Malaysia, and also, the Chinese Muslims.  

In Malaysia, Chinese Muslims may be very little in number.  The national census 2000 shows the number at more than 57000.¹ .  However, they have had a long history in this region, spanning at least 600 years, not only in today’s Malaysia, but the whole of the then Malay World.  From the original Hui Chinese who came here and settled during the 15th century, to the thousands of Chinese who converted into Islam, the presence and contribution of the Chinese Muslims have unfortunately not been recognized enough by Malaysian historians, scholars and politicians.  

The objective of this research is an attempt to highlight this presence: the Chinese Muslims in Malaysia, their history and development.

Chapter One

Chinese Muslim Settlers in Malaysia through different periods in history 

This chapter will present the few Hui Hui communities through various periods in history who have come and settled in the Malay world and Malaysia. 

I.   Early presence of Chinese Muslims – Zheng He, the Muslim Eunuch

The first Chinese Muslim arrivals on this soil can easily be traced to more than six hundred years ago.  As far back as the 15th Century, there were already records of Chinese Muslims in Melaka.  During the Ming Dynasty ( 1368-1644) in China, Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) [ ] sailed several times to the then Malay world, including Malacca, and went on until the Eastern coast of Africa.   Zheng  He, a Muslim originating from Yunnan, led seven naval expeditions on behalf of the Emperor, starting during the reign of Emperor Yong Le, with more than 300 ocean going vessels, and many Muslims among his crew of 200.000 to 300.000 men.  This article does not intend to explore in detail Zheng He’s exploits, but will just touch on the Islamic activities, influence and legacy left by him and his men on the shores of the Malay Peninsula and nearby areas in the 15th century Malay World.   

Much of the information on Zheng He’s  voyages were compiled by Ma Huan [ ], also Muslim, who accompanied Zheng He on several of his inspection tours and served as his chronicler / interpreter.  In his book Ying-ya Sheng-lan  [瀛涯勝覽] (The Overall Survey of the Ocean Shores) written in 1416, Ma Huan gave very detailed accounts of his observations of the peoples’ customs and lives in ports they visited.  One other book on Zheng He’s voyages Xing–cha Sheng-lan [星槎勝覽] (Description of the Starry Raft) (1436) was written by  Fei Shin [ ] who was also secretary / interpreter to Zheng He.   In his seven voyages, Zheng He sailed from China to all major ports in Southeast Asia and India, from Champa to Aden, via ports among which are Ayutthaya, Melaka, Palembang, Surabaya, Jakarta, Semarang, etc … .    

Described as an ‘explorer, conqueror, and trader’, and as an envoy of the Emperor of China, Zheng He’s visits to the Muslim Malay World had an undeniable impact as far as Islam is concerned.  Indonesian Islamic scholar Hamka wrote in 1961:  “The development of Islam in Indonesia and Malaya is intimately related to a Chinese Muslim, Admiral Zheng He.”² In Malacca he built granaries, warehouses and a stockade, and most probably he left behind many of his Muslim crew – because the local community was Muslim -- to take care of these interests.

Even though there is a vast choice of documents relating the Chinese Muslim connection to Indonesia, produced by Indonesian and foreign researchers, not much is found about ports on the Malay Peninsula.  This chapter will be an attempt to draw parallel situations and developments from records, of the impact of a mighty Chinese Muslim Admiral’s visits on the Chinese who lived in Muslim Indonesian states in the same frame of time, and in a space of close geographical proximity.

Zheng He had many Muslim Eunuchs as his companions.   At the time when his fleet first arrived in this area, there were already Chinese of the ‘Mohammedan’ faith living  there.  Ma Huan talks about them as Tangren [堂人] (Chinese) who were Muslim.3   At places they went, they frequented mosques, actively propagated the Islamic faith, established Chinese Muslim communities and built mosques.    

Parlindungan Mangaradja Onggang writes that when the Ming Dynasty’s fleet stopped in Semarang, Zheng He, Ma Huan and Fei Xin often went to the mosque to pray.  He adds:  “Under the influence of Zheng He between 1411-1416, in the Malay Peninsula, Java, Sumatra, and the Philippines, there developed many Chinese Muslim areas, and many mosques were built.”4

Claudine Salmon believes that “……...the expansion of Islam in the East Indies and the simultaneous formation of ‘Chinese’ communities ……… are two parallel developments.”   She cites Muslim dignitaries with Chinese origin, or Chinese who converted to Islam and married local women, who can be traced in various places from Aceh to Palembang in Sumatra, to Banten in Java, and further to the East in Semarang and Mojokerto.  Salmon gives well documented evidence of the Chinese Muslim presence, and their heavy influence on the social, political and economic scenes on the Indonesian islands.  “……….. the first Muslim kingdoms in Java, the extent to which the presence of the Chinese is perceptible everywhere.”  She adds that the Dutch and English sources provide plentiful information on Muslim dignitaries.   Many of them are mentioned with their Chinese surnames, such as Lim Lacco from Banten, who was the advisor of the Pangeran; So Bing Kong, a pepper trader from Kendal; the Han family from Surabaya, a well-known Chinese Muslim family for many generations 5 

Indonesian scholar Slamet Muljana 6 writes: “Zheng He built Chinese Muslim communities first in Ju Gang (Palembang), then in San Fa (West Kalimantan), subsequently he built same kind of communities along the shores of Java, the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines.  They propagated the Islamic faith according to the Hanafi sect and in Chinese language.

Amen Budiman narrates the story of Wang Jing-Hong [ ] , Zheng He’s vice commander.  He fell sick as the fleet arrived at the Northern shores of Central Java.  Zheng He ordered to stop at Semarang, to seek cure for Wang Jing–Hong.  Ten days later, Zheng He pursued westwards with his fleet, leaving behind Wang Jing-Hong and ten men.  Wang Jing-Hong loved this place; so when he recovered from his illness, he did not follow Zheng He.  He stayed and taught the local people and the Chinese who lived there agriculture and trade, and propagated Islam to them.7 

Tan Yeok Seong8 in his article Chinese Element in the Islamisation of Southeast Asia9 tells about the very interesting Great Lady of Gresik, Shih Ta Niang Tzi Pi Na Ti [Shi Da Niang Zi Bi Na Zhi]  [施大娘子俾那智 ], and their sibling squabble over the inheritance of power, in which Zheng He was asked to intervene.  She was Chinese Muslim.  In fact, many of the Chinese chieftains in that area were Muslim.  Tan, in his conclusion, affirms that “These early settlements were peopled by Chinese Muslims who had created a sphere of influence for themselves with the co-operation of Zheng He.  Religion and trade then went hand in hand. ………. Through Islam, the Muslims, in spite of their racial differences, became masters of trade; while, on the other hand, successful maritime trade helped to spread Islamisation.  The Chinese settlers of this period were pioneers of both these enterprises.  They had been Muslims and had established for themselves Islamic settlements at important trade centres, such as Palembang and Gresik.  From these centres a process of converting the indigenous people was begun”. 

The stone cave where Zheng He stayed during his visit to Semarang was said to be a center for the propagation of Islamic religion at that time, according to a legend recorded by Heru Christiyono. 9

Li Tong Cai, in his book ‘Indonesia – Legends and Facts’, writes : “in 1430, San Bao Tai Jian [The San Bao Eunuch] had already successfully established the foundations of the Hui religion [Islam]…… After his death in 1434, Haji Yan Ying Yu [ ] became the force behind the Chinese Muslim community.  He delegated a few local Chinese as leaders, such as Sun Long [ ], a trader from Semarang, and Peng Rui He [ ] and Haji Peng De Qin  [ ].    Sun Long and Peng Rui He actively urged the Chinese community to ‘Javanise’. They encouraged the younger Chinese generation to assimilate with the Javanese society, to take on Javanese names and their way of life.  Sun Long’s adopted son Chen Wen, also named Radin Pada is the son of King Majapahit and his Chinese wife.” 10

Among the ‘nine saints of Java’ a few were of Chinese blood.11 

In the Malay World 500 years ago, we see that there was already an active Chinese Muslim community dispersed over large areas, and distinguished enough to occupy high positions and marry local Muslim dignitaries.  This active presence was certainly encouraged and strengthened by Zheng He’s numerous visits to these places over nearly thirty years, and for the fact that, at that time, Islam was already a religion well established and practiced by the local people.   

However, after Zheng He’s death, Chinese naval expeditions were suspended.  After a lapse of 400 years, the Hanafi Islam that Zheng He and his people propagated lost almost all contact with Islam in China, and gradually was totally absorbed by the local Shafi’i sect.   When Melaka was successively colonised by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and later the British, Chinese were discouraged, (short of being declared illegal), to convert into Islam.  Many of the Chinese Muslim mosques became San Bao temples commemorating  Zheng He, the seafarer.  With time, the influence of Chinese Muslims in Malacca declined to almost nil.

II. Under the British Rule

During the British colonial times (1824-1957), the British companies imported large numbers of laborers, mainly from India and China, to work at the tin mines and plantations.  There were also traders from various countries..  The population was of extremely varied ethnicities:  Apart from the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Europeans and Eurasians, there were Bugis, Javanese, Bengalis, Arabs, Philippinos (Manila-man), Singhalese, etc… Among these, many were of Muslim communities, the largest group among Muslims being Malays.

In the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Penang, Wellesley, Malacca) and the Confederation of Malay States (Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and Pahang), census were taken every ten years.   In 1901, in the four confederated states, namely Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and Pahang, the number of Chinese stood at 299.739 Chinese.12

An article written by Mohammed Djinguiz, and published in 1908 in the Revue du Monde Musulman [ Revue of the Muslim World] gives the number of Muslims in different states of the British colonies according to ethnic classification.13  The number for Chinese Muslims tabulated against non-Muslim Chinese and non-Chinese Muslims are shown as such:



total population of chinese

Chinese Muslims

total  population of Muslims

Straits Settlements






4.920   (3%),(8.8%)*    


Penang & Wellesley


2.952   (3%), (2.2%)




   880   (4.5%), (1%)






Confederation of Malay States




Sultanate of Perak


4.479  (3%), (2.7%)


Sultanate of Pahang


   258  (3%), (0.3%)


Sult. of Negeri Sembilan


   987  (3%), (1.6%)


Sultanate of Selangor


3.251  (3%), (6.2%)






British North Borneo      
Sabah   200       (0.48%)   41.220
Sarawak & Labuan   a few  

*The figures in parenthesis are the ratio of Chinese Muslims to the total population of Chinese and total population of Muslims respectively.

From the above we can see that the number of Chinese Muslims shows 17.927, among a total Chinese population of 581.598, and a total Muslim population of other races of 661.216.  Chinese Muslims consisted of a mere 3% of all Chinese, and only 2.7% of all Muslims.  How many of these were original Hui Chinese who came from China, and how many had converted locally is not known.  Almost 18.000 does make up a good size community, even if they are a very small minority.  If these people had preserved their Chinese Muslim identities, by the most conservative estimate, there should have been at least 90 to 100.000 Chinese Muslim descendants from them in 4 or more generations.   Where are they?  How did they disappear?

Two logical assumptions would be that:

1.  As new waves of Chinese emigrants arrived on these shores, the Muslims among them married non Muslim Chinese women who did not convert to Islam, and with time, living in a majority Chinese community, they gradually left their Islamic practice.  An example is given below through the Kuok clan in Penang. 

2. They have assimilated through intermarriage with the local Muslim community, mainly Malay, and the Chinese blood and characteristics have diluted after a few generations, such as the Terengganu Yunani clan. 

Looking at another figure that shows the ratio of female against the male among the Chinese population mentioned above, there were 27.155 female against 272.582 male.14  That makes ten men to one woman in the Chinese community.  With such a huge shortage of female partners, it is logical to think that many of the Chinese Muslim men would have found it easier to marry local Muslim women.  There would have been no difficulty for those men who were already Muslim; they would eventually be assimilated into the local Malay Muslim community.  For those who were not Muslim, two differing happenings could be assumed: a number of them would have converted to Islam, also making up for the big number of Chinese Muslims in the 1901 census.  Children born of these intermarriages would mostly go on marrying Malays, taking one more step towards assimilation.  Thus, after a few generations, the descendants would not even be aware of a Chinese ancestor, not a thing they would have been proud of at that time anyway.  Many other Chinese men who married local Malay Muslims could have done so without converting. This way they remained Chinese, with a touch of Malay culture, and no Islamic religion – Peranakan --.  There is no clear documentation on what happened to these almost 18000 Chinese Muslims in Malaysia at the beginning of the 20th century.

It is a sociological truth that, even until a decade ago, Malays did not like to acknowledge that they had any Chinese blood in their veins, not so much because of the racial element, but because of the religious ‘impurity’ for which they would be teased.  As Huntington puts it:  “It is alright to be half French and half Algerian, but not half Christian and half Muslim.”15   So, if one had a Chinese parent or grandparent, one just kept it a secret, and hoped that nobody would inquire about the fairness of her skin or the slant in his eyes.  A young girl whose paternal grandmother is Chinese told of how angry her father would be when people mentioned that her sister had such ‘oriental’ looks: “Don’t ever say that.  We are pure Malay”;  the father would retort.  For long years he did not want to discuss with his children when they asked about their grandmother who had Chinese looks, but had become very Malay in her appearance and behaviour.  This attitude is not unique to one person or family.  

Times have changed.  Today, for various reasons, Malays are not ashamed or shy anymore to tell of their Chinese parentage. However, after a few generations of discretion, it is difficult to trace the lone Chinese Muslim ancestor.  The more known story of the Hui Hui of Terengganu shows a clear pattern of this kind of assimilation.   

III.  The Yunnani Family of Terengganu
A well recorded history:

        Below is the translation from Malay of the Foreword of the booklet WARISAN KELUARGA KE ARAH SILATURRAHIM [from family heritage towards spirit of togetherness]

“At the end of the 19th century, Pak Ali Yunan or Haji Ali bin Idris, after marrying Hajah Halimah, followed her parents, Muhammad Ali and Siti Maryam to Palembang, their hometown in Sumatera, Indonesia.

Around 1903, Pak Ali, his wife, his mother-in-law, and their little daughter Saa’diah, born in Palembang, went to Singapore in search of a new life.  In Singapore he met Pak Lah (Abdullah bin Sulaiman) and Pak Musa, both from Guangdong.  These three friends were also relatives.  Pak Musa and Pak Lah sold miscellaneous things such as tasbihs (prayer beads), decorative beads, perfumes and traditional medicine.  Pak Ali also sold medicine in Singapore.  The three of them met in Singapore at the home of an Arab merchant Sakafu, also known as As-Saqqaf, who liked to invite Chinese Muslims to his home for dinner after the prayers at the Jalan Sultan Mosque.  

In Singapore, Hajjah Halimah gave birth to a son whom they named Abu Bakar.  But the little boy died and was buried at the Muslim cemetery near Jalan Sultan.  This cemetery is today full of bushes and large trees. 

Pak Ali, Pak Musa and Pak Lah deliberated on where they should go to settle down.  They had heard that a person from Yunnan had been in Terengganu on the East Coast of Malaysia before.  They also knew that Terengganu was called Darul Iman because there were many faithful Muslims living there, and that Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He) had been to Terengganu during his voyages to Southeast Asia.  Therefore they decided to settle down in Terengganu..

Later Pak Lah went back to Guangdong to bring his wife Khadijah and his brother Pak Daud (Daud bin Sulaiman) to Terengganu.  They travelled by boat.

 Pak Musa was Khadijah’s (Pak Lah’s wife) uncle.  After marrying Midah, he moved to Kampung Paya Bunga at Jalan Tok Lam.  They travelled from village to village peddling medicine and giving treatment to sick people.  Pak Musa specialised in clearing and removing facial moles.  After Midah’s death he married Kalsom. 

Pak Daud married Fatimah binti Qassim in Terengganu, and started trading in various products at Jalan Kedai Payang.  They lived in Kampung Paya Keladi. 

Pak Lah (Abdullah bin Sulaiman) was also a small time trader.  Later he was asked to join a group of prospectors to mine for gold in Hulu Terengganu.    But their efforts proved fruitless.   While he was away, his wife and daughters started a laundry business in Terengganu.   The shop was called Kedai Abdullah Al-Yunani.  Finally when Pak Lah went back to Terengganu after failing in his gold mining prospects, he brought with him a second wife, Teh binti Muhammad Ali.  He started to sell books, religious books, and rice in the shop.  In the end, he stopped selling all other products except books; and his became the best known bookshop in Terengganu, specializing in religious books. 

Pak Ali sold medicine and retailed in other miscellaneous goods.   He also extracted a kind of pure medicinal oil from the roots of a certain plant; today some of his descendants are still in this medicinal oil business.  Later he stopped trading and concentrated on a hardware shop that was latere named Ali AlYunani in Jalan Kota.  He was related to Pak Lah and Pak Daud. 

Haji Hassan bin Salleh was given the name SiFu because he was a talented cook.  He married Meriam and lived in Kampung Hangus at Padang Maziah.  He worked as a cook and also helped in Pak Lah’s shop.  He was close to Pak Lah because they were relatives.  After  Meriam passed away, he married Lijah bte. Awang.

Later, Muhammad Yusof bin Salleh came to Terengganu.  He also was from Pak Lah’s family.  He started trading at Kampung Daik at the side of the canal (today in front of the Fire Station).   Then he moved to Pulau Kambing.  Later he married Pak Daud’s daughter. 

Haji Ibrahim bin Muhammad was also from the same family as Pak Lah and Pak Daud.  He came to Terengganu with his grandmother and her mother Hajar.  They lived in Kampung Banggol and did business in Kedai Payang.  Later he moved to Chabang Tiga.  He became Pak Lah’s son-in-law.

From these seven people, were born our generations, and increased to what we are today.” 


Haji Abdul Hamid Mohd. Yusoff

Jalan Air Jernih,

Kuala Terengganu

This is the story of the 7 Hui Hui (Chinese Muslim) who came from Guangdong and settled in Terengganu at the beginning of the 20th century, as told in the foreword of the family book published by the ‘Keluarga Al-Yunani’ (The Al-Yunani Family) in Terengganu.  Keluarga Al-Yunani is a sort of a clan association of which today, Mohd. Yacob bin Hj. Abdullah is the Chairman, and Abdul Majid bin Hassan is the Secretary.  The book gives an extensive picture of the family trees of the 7 Chinese Muslims of Hui descent who first settled down in Terengganu.  First Musa Li [李務初], Ali Zhang bin Idris [張連福], and Abdullah Dong bin Sulaiman [董盛泉], and later his brother Daud Dong and Hassan Liu [] bin Salleh came to Terengganu during the reign of DYMM Sultan Zainal Abidin III (1881-1918).  In the second or third decade of the 20th Century, two relatives of the Dong family, Muhammad Yussof Xiao [] bin Salleh and Haji Ibrahim Fu [ 守志] bin Muhammad came to Terengganu and also settled down during the reign of DYMM Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Syah (1921-1942).   

The history of the Terengganu Hui Hui is the best recorded recent history of Chinese Muslims in Malaysia.   Their descendants amount to hundreds and are scattered all over Malaysia.  In his article ‘A Note on the Orang Yunnan in Terengganu’, Tan Chee Beng gives a detailed account of their cultural, educational, social background and their acculturation and assimilation into the majority Malay community.16   Interviews with some of the members from this family provided the more personal aspects of this research. 

The 7 Hui Hui mentioned at the start of this article came to Terengganu at the beginning of this century. Between the 7 of them, they had 52 children and hundreds of grand and great-grand children.  Today there are the 4th generation for all families, and 5th generation for some.  For Ali Idris Zhang’s family, there are even the 6th generation, as the pioneers who first came to Terengganu were Ali’s parents-in-law, Haji Mohammed Ali and wife Hajjah Maryam.  The Al-Yunani family, as they are called, collectively number around 800 to 900 today.  Many of them still live in Terengganu, and others have settled in various states in Malaysia, and overseas.  

From these seven Hui Muslim ancestors, today there is this large Al-Yunani Family, related by blood and / or marriage, who wish to retain a common bond of kinship.  This clan association and the book with names and addresses of the family members could materialize probably because there still are 5 or 6 people (out of the 52) from the second generation who are alive, and at least two are still active.   From the third generation, amounting to more than 200, only a few have passed away until today.   There are not many pure Chinese Muslim intermarriage among this third generation, which means that most have intermarried with Malays.   But they still hear Chinese (mainly Cantonese) spoken by relatives of their parents’ generation, and they remember the Chinese grandparents.  This means that they still have some kind of firsthand Chinese connection.  Therefore  the forming of this association, and the publishing of the Al-Yunani Family book.   Looking at many of the 4th and 5th generations today, the common Chinese Muslim heritage may not be a bonding factor anymore, mainly because the children are not told much about it.  

A fact to notice is that, even though the 7 Hui forefathers were all Chinese, there is no mention of even one single name or surname in Chinese in this whole book.  The Chinese names in the above writing were included by this writer who took them from other sources11, or found them after interviews with members of the Al-Yunani Family.  One informant said that in his family, as well as his brothers’ families, children are all given Chinese names, but these names are not used.  The preference is to use the Muslim name.  

Was this assimilation designed or natural?  It is hard to give a correct answer.  Did these families try to quickly assimilate because they were such a minority among the Muslim Malays as well as the non-Muslim Chinese? Or did they think it was more important to remain in the Muslim community and much easier to preserve their Islamic way of life rather than their Chineseness, if and when the two did not go hand in hand.

There is no doubt that they needed to accommodate.  Most of all, they needed to be acknowledged by Malays as Muslims, as true Muslims.17  In Tan Chee-Beng’s words: “Thus, the label ‘Yunnan’ has become a convenient label for the Hui Hui themselves whenever there is a need to explain their identity to both the Malays and the non-Muslim Chinese.  ….. The label ‘Yunani’ is used to stress to the Malays that the Hui Hui are ‘Islam asli’ which in Malay means ‘original Muslims’.  

One interviewee explained in these words the source of the label ‘Yunnan’: “There used to be Chinese who went around to collect alms saying they were Muslim.  So the Malays did not trust them and called them ‘Muallaf’, meaning convert.  But they knew of Chinese people from Yunnan who were practicing Muslims, so they wished to call us ‘Orang Yunnan’ [people from Yunnan] to distinguish us from other Muslim Chinese.  The Terengganu Malays believe their own people came from Yunnan, they used to say: ‘Orang Yunnan, orang kita’ [Yunnan people, our own people].” 

These Hui families also needed to let the non-Muslim Chinese know, lest they be looked down upon, that their affiliation with Islam was a heredity from their ancestors, and not something newly acquired either by conversion or by close association with the Malays.  Therefore, being recognized as people from Yunnan, a province in China known for its large Muslim Hui population, they obtained recognition and retained cordial relationships with both majority communities, the Malays and the non-Muslim Chinese.

Each of these families, however, had differing steps towards assimilation into the Malay community.  In families where both parents (second generation) were Chinese, there was more resistance towards assimilation.   One of Ali Idris Zhang’s sons, Mohd. Yusof, married Abdullah Dong’s daughter Zubaidah.  Both were Chinese Muslim.  They had 5 daughters and three sons.  Three of the siblings married Chinese.  One son married a Chinese Muslim from Taiwan, another son a Chinese Muslim whose father is from Hong Kong.  One daughter’s husband is from Taiwan; another daughter married a Malay.  They still retain their genealogy tree (jia pu) which traces their Hui roots for more than 300 years back in China.   Haji Abdul Malik’s three grandchildren (6th generation down in Terengganu, but who live in Australia at the moment) are the latest additions to this family tree.  Haji Abdul Malik adds that they are very proud of their Chinese Muslim ancestry.

However for most of the families, assimilation with the Malays started as early as in the second generation.  In fact, out of the 7 pioneers, Pak Musa, Pak Lah, and Pak Hassan had already married Malay women as second wives or when their Chinese wife had passed away.  Mohd. Yusoff’s Chinese Muslim wife Aminah (Daud Dong’s daughter) married a Malay husband after her husband passed away.  Among the second generation, of course many married Malays, and in many of these mixed families, Chinese language and culture immediately took a back seat.  Many of them still spoke some Cantonese, their home dialect; but it was Malay that became the foremost communication language.   Some of the children were taught Mandarin at home in the evenings, while going to Arab religious schools in the morning, and at the same time learning Malay and English as well.   There were also children from the Yunnan families who attended the Chinese Primary Schools. 

Interviews with descendants of the Terengganu ‘Yunanis’ showed that most of them felt more comfortable to be known as Malay as they are almost totally in this community.   The most senior in age among my informants is one of Abdullah Dong’s (or Pak Lah) sons.   The 86 year old Haji  Mohd. Yacob Tung Foo Piew [ ] was tending to his plants in his quiet home in Kota Terengganu when I went to visit him.  He happily posed for photographs and answered questions. Still very clear in mind, Haji Mohd. Yacob recalled many details about their childhood in Terengganu.  He is the 7th child of Pak Lah.  He speaks perfect English, Malay, and Cantonese.   His parents, both from Guangzhou, did not speak any Mandarin, so none of the children ever learnt Mandarin either.  At that time, there was no Chinese school in town.  All 5 boys (the oldest brother Noordin passed away at six years old in China) were sent to English schools, while the two older sisters were not sent to school at all.  When Mohd. Yacob was 14 years old, his father asked Pak Musa to teach them Mandarin, but the lessons did not last long. 

He remembered that his father, who already spoke fluent Malay, was very often away up country for mining or business; he only came home once a month..  His mother was alone at home with the children.  She did not learn to speak Malay.  She wore Chinese clothes and cooked Chinese food at home; but, apart from this, they did not observe any other Chinese culture, and did not celebrate the Chinese festivals.   He used to help at his father’s bookstore.   He said at that time they all lived very close to Malays, and naturally assimilation was fast because of the common religion. Their family was respected both by Malays and Chinese and they enjoyed a cordial relationship with both communities. 

Haji Yacob brought out to show many items that were part of their history.   He talked about the close friendship between the Sultan of Terengganu and his father and the other Al Yunani heads of families.  He was proud to bring out the old, yellowed photographs, showing the Yunani head of families with the Sultan sitting in the middle.  One was taken with the three members of a visiting Chinese Muslim delegation led by Haji Ibrahim Ma Tian Ying.  When asked about the year the picture was taken, without the slightest hesitation, Haji Yacob replied “in 1940, before the Japanese invasion.” He also showed a well preserved piece of paper on which all the siblings’ Chinese names were written, but he could not read Chinese.  He was happy to know which one was his name when it was  pointed it out to him.   Haji Yacob married a Malay wife, adopted two Chinese girls, and today lives with many of his grandchildren, all totally Malay in their everyday life, with little or no trace of Chineseness.

 One of my interviewees from Kuala Lumpur (third generation) said that all her 8 siblings, and all her cousins married Malays.   When asked about her Chinese origin, she said her father was one of Abdullah Dong’s sons, and her mother is Chinese, adopted and raised as Malay.  With two Chinese parents, she certainly has very Chinese features, but always dresses in Malay costumes, cooks and eats Malay food, is very well versed in Malay customs, and observes them meticulously.  She speaks fluent Malay, and converses at home in both Malay and English with her family.   She does not speak any Chinese dialect, but calls her relatives by their Chinese titles in the family, such as ‘Er Sao, San Jie, Ye Ye (Second sister-in-law, third sister, grandfather) etc… 

She admitted not knowing much about her Chinese origin, but added that her late father used to tell them : “We all live among Malays, so we have to behave like Malays.  But when you think, think the Chinese way. ….. Do not ‘mewah mewah, boros boros, (do not go for luxury, and do not squander money away). Be like Chinese business minded in an honest way, be thrifty, and pay attention to cleanliness, etc…”    Her Malay husband’s mother is also Chinese, adopted and raised by a Muslim Malay family.  She says her two sons actually have ¾ Chinese blood; but because even the Chinese grandmothers were raised in Malay families, these boys identify comfortably with Malays.  Even though they usually have Malay attitudes, she says she has also inculcated in them her Chinese family values.  Combining the two, they are polite and humble, caring and respectful, and diligent and successful in their studies   The younger son, a college student now, is proud of his Chinese heritage and wishes to know more about it.  The older son took a Malay bride who is very interested to know more about Chinese Muslims.  Her husband is very supportive about keeping his wife’s Chinese heritage.  He has even come up with a genealogy tree of his wife’s Hui family. 

Another interviewee who lives in Kota Terengganu said she feels very much Chinese and Malay.   She says she feels Chinese because : “I look Chinese (she is a third generation Hui, no Malay blood), my grandfather is Chinese from China.  But I also feel very much Malay, I speak Malay like the Malays, I live the Malay life, I have many  Malay friends.  I blend very well.”   She feels comfortable in both shoes, even though she does not speak any Chinese at all.  Her father spoke fluent Cantonese, but she and her siblings grew up speaking Malay and English.  They lived like the other Malay children, and she received her education in a residential Malay school.  So she never had the opportunity to learn any Chinese.  Sensing the benefit her children would get from the knowledge of Chinese language, she sent her children to Chinese primary schools, and her Malay husband approved of it.  They all excelled, and later went on to further studies overseas on government scholarships. She says since their very young age, she instilled in her children the merit of hard work and honesty as taught by her parents:  “Even though they are eligible for scholarships reserved for Bumiputras, I wish them to obtain these on merit, and based on their achievements, so that they can be proud of it.  I wish my children to know more about their Chinese heritage , but, I don’t know much myself, how can I teach them?” 

Her daughter, a newly qualified undergraduate, expressed much interest in her Chinese background, yet feels ‘very Malay’.  She is also convinced that, even though she has many Chinese friends, she will eventually marry a Malay, because ‘it makes things easier, it’s the same religion and culture.”  Her older brothers all married Malay wives; and their children, fifth generation down from the pioneer Pak Lah, probably will not even know that they are descendants of Chinese Muslims. 

This lady, in her late sixties now, remembers how her grandparents and parents were all respected by both the Malays and Chinese;  by the Malays, because their families were original and practicing Muslims, and by the Chinese because they were well off.  When she was young, the grandparents still practiced some of the Chinese customs, such as eating special birthday long life noodles, burning incense on Friday nights; and among relatives they used to address each other in Chinese titles.  Their family ‘kubur’ (graveyard) had Chinese characteristics.   Many of these customs are not being practiced anymore.  

She took me around to see the old Kampung Cina in Kota Terengganu.  Today it is just one street.  At one end there was a Chinese temple, at the other end a mosque.  On this street there used to be all the 4 Chinese Muslim shops, selling books, medicine, and other miscellaneous goods.  Her grandmother operated a laundry shop and sold rice.  Her grandfather had a bookshop.  Kedai Buku Al-Yunani.    After her grandfather passed away, the sons operated it, and it became the most famous shop for religious books.  After her father passed away her uncle took over, and later passed it on to his Malay son-in-law.   She regrets that the shop, under the new owner, has done away now with its famous name, and with it, its Hui identity. Today it still stands there but the name is Alam Akademik Sdn. Bhd.  So the last vestige of the Chinese Muslim heritage in Terengganu has thus come to an end. 

How swift was this transformation?  From the second generation, the first acculturation began with the language.  As they grew up among Malay peers, the second generation children were already fluent in the Malay language, at the expense of Mandarin or their Guangzhou dialect. Most of the boys were sent to English schools while the girls were in Malay residential schools.  There was also preference for religious schools.  Then as they intermarried with Malays, no more Chinese names were given to the children.  This new generation (third) grew up almost like Malays.  By the time the fourth generation  came along, and with the demise of the first generation, there were almost no Chinese trait left.  Here it must be remembered that even though this happened for most families, there also are a few who preserved to varying degrees different aspects of Chinese heritage, such as language (Cantonese or Mandarin), Chinese names (registered at birth but not commonly used) and Chinese Muslim traditions like food, and festive days. 

Tan Chee Beng describes the assimilation of these Hui Hui in these following steps:“Identification with the Malays is not merely because of the small size of the community.  The absence of religious boundary ensures their greater interaction and eventual identification with the Malays who are Muslim too.”   So, if at first “Islam and acculturation have pushed them toward identification with the Malays, yet they still know their Chinese origin.”   Later, with “the loss of Chinese language, and not giving Chinese names to younger generation, …….. by the fourth generation, assimilation is almost complete.”18  If at first there were still some kind of acknowledgement that there is a common bond between these people resulting from a common origin different from the Malays, with each passing generation, “the increasing assimilation by the Malays is fast breaking the boundary.”     

Today, the formation of the ‘family association’ Keluarga Al-Yunani still points to the recognition of a certain kinship and common history.  However, for many of the fourth and fifth generation descendants, this may not mean anymore that they recognize their Chinese Hui origin.  In fact, many of them do not even understand the meaning of Hui.  One interviewee (third generation) asked me:  I remember they used to call us ‘Wei Wei’ (in her pronounciation), what does it actually mean?”  She was surprised to learn that it just means ‘Muslim’ in Chinese.   Many also did not know the origin of their clan name ‘Al-Yunani’.  Some actually believed that their ancestors must have originated from Yunnan.  When it was explained to them that this was a name taken by their forefathers to be better accepted by the Malay Muslim community who recognized that Yunnan is a province of China with a big population of Muslim, they were a little lost.  Living in a Malay community as a Malay today, they have no idea about some difficulties a Chinese Muslim may encounter, if he does not let his Malay peers know that he is a ‘Muslim asli’, or original Muslim. 

The last pages of the recent booklet on the Yunani families show 109 families’ names, telephone numbers and addresses.  This is by no means an exhaustive list of the descendants.  There are 19 families descended from Pak Musa Li, 30 from Haji Ali Idris Chang, 27 from Abdullah Sulaiman Dong, 9 from his brother Duad Sulaiman Dong, 10 from Hassan Salleh Liu, 5 from Yusoff Salleh Xiao, and 9 from Ibrahim Fu.  Among these, 64 families still live in Kuala Terengganu.    The others are dispersed in various states, with the biggest number (20 families) living in Selangor, and eight families in Kuala Lumpur.  However, for people who come across this book, apart from the foreword in Malay which tells the story of the Hui forefathers, nothing else notifies them of a Chinese heritage.  There does not figure even one single Chinese surname or name, and the pictures of these Hui ancestors can be easily confounded with Malay features.  Probably, a few decades later, except for a few families only, the Hui Hui of Terengganu will have left no trail in Malaysian history, similar to the Chinese Muslims from Zheng He’s time, and those reported in the 1908 census.

This is a perfect, most recent example of a Chinese Muslim community living in Malaysia who almost totally assimilated into the Malay Muslim community within a few generations, in just a little more than half a century, mainly though intermarriage, and because of the overwhelming Malay Muslim environment.  Below is an example of the opposite.  How a clan of Chinese Muslims remained Chinese by alienating themselves from their religion. 

IV.    The Koay Clan in Penang

The Koay [Guo] [] clan originates from Hui An  [ ], Fu Jian [ ]..    According to historian Ong Seng Huat who did a research on this unique community, they were Hui Muslims of Arabic descent.  Their Muslim ancestry can be traced 20 generations to a Muslim general who controlled Xinjiang and the western part of the Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty.  When the political climate became hostile towards Muslims, they suppressed their religious identity, and became more sinicized, easily assimilating into the dominant Han culture.   

This assimilation is explained in the following words in the Guo family tree record:  “First it is the slackening of religious tenets and regulations……many religious regulations are difficult to observe;  furthermore, as the Ming Dynasty superseded Yuan Dynasty, the minority ethnic groups were put in a difficult position.  The Guo clan was the only Hui family, immersed within the big ocean of Hans they could only lead a simple and humble life.  As time went by, step by step they became more like the Hans.   Secondly, it was the blood lineage; boys and girls from the Guo family became adults, they had to look for marriage partners, because of the change in situation, they took Han girls for wives, this resulted in the thinning of the Hui blood.   Thirdly, came the change in belief (faith) and traditions; Hui girls who married Han husbands, slowly took on Han traditions, so as to fit into the husband’s lifestyle; family life and customs changed; Buddha and other deity statues found place into their homes; in the end, they started to erect tablets for the ancestors, and worshipped them.”19

This original Hui clan, even though they did not practice Islamic tenets anymore, still retained many Hui ethnic customs.  For example, when they offer food for worship purposes, they will not use pork meat, or any food cooked in pork oil.  Many families have a set of ‘clean’ kitchen utensils to be used for specific occasions. 

The Koay clan came to Singapore and Penang in the late 19th century.  Here they found a big number of Chinese immigrants from Fu Jian who shared their language and culture.   Even though there were other Muslim communities, these Chinese Muslims found it difficult to integrate, being so different in language, culture, and even some Islamic beliefs originating from different traditions.  It was easier to survive among their compatriots who had a different religion, than with their co-religionists with different living habits.  They felt alienated from the larger local Muslim community, and closer to the mainstream Chinese community on whom they had to depend for support.         

Ong reports that the Koay community published in 1975 an edict to be hung in the house of every clansman.  The notice is a reminder of their religious identity as Muslims.  It stated that due to great differences in human relations and environment, they had gradually departed from Islamic teachings.  To honour their ancestors, however, they would strictly observe the halal food.  (STAR, 23rd March 2002) 

Interestingly, one parallel is found in Lugang, Taiwan.  Dru Gladney describes in these words:  “ The Guo  (Kuok / Koay) in Taiwan no longer claim they are Hui, ….. they are certainly not practicing Muslims, but that does not mean that Hui identity may no longer be relevant to them.  …..   They do not include pork in the food offerings to their ancestors, lest they “ruin their mouths”.   The maintenance of the pork tabu in ancestor worship indicates that, at the ritual level, there is still some significance attached to Hui identity among the Taiwanese Muslims.”

In Penang, the Kuok lineage, descendants from the same Muslim ancestor as their counterpart in Taiwan, live in this same dilemma.  Some families still abide by the decree, some do not.   They celebrate Chinese festivals, and generally have no remarkable difference in their lifestyle from other Chinese communities.  But they will observe a 49 days taboo from eating pork after a family member dies.     

One more family in Malaysia, the Ding  family in Ipoh, are also from a prominent Muslim clan in China, dating as far back as a thousand years, descending from a Muslim Arab ancestor.   They have a genealogy tree and an ancestor’s monument in Chuanzhou in China. Nested among other memorial monuments, the Dings’ has a very distinct Islamic look, with a small dome and a crescent, and they give no food offerings.   The Ding family members in China are still practicing Muslims, but the Ipoh Dings --- some in Melaka – have totally assimilated with the Chinese around them, and do not say that they are Muslim.  The younger generation very probably does not even know about their family’s old Muslim identity. 20 

V. The Tianjing Hui Hui in Sabah

They came as four families:  Wang [ ], Li [ ], Hong [ ] and Guo [].  They were the four Muslim families from TianJing among the 108 families of labourers imported from China by the British Charter Companies to work at the railways and plantations in Sabah.  This was in the year 1913.  The other families were from ShanDong.   

After almost 90 years, today there is in Sabah a small community of Chinese Muslims, descending from these four pioneer families.  No previous study has been found on this community. Quite contrary to the Terengganu Hui Hui’s descendants, even the fifth generation children speak fluent TianJing Mandarin, and are very well aware of their Chinese Hui identity.   

My interviewee, QC, Saleha Li QingChun, a lady from the 4th generation, works in a construction company owned by her uncle.  Her father Li De Xiang, at 66 years old, recalled well their life as children in Sabah.  They were ten siblings.  There was no doubt that the Chinese heritage was strong, and to be maintained.  Even in the second generation, there were already mixed marriages to Muslim Dusuns and Kadazans, and to non Muslim Chinese.  The Chinese had to convert, and the other races who came into the families soon learnt to speak Chinese with their children.    

QC’s mother is Hainanese.  She converted to marry her father.  Initially her family was against her becoming Muslim, but later it was accepted, and good relations prevailed. Her younger brother is married to a Dusun wife who learnt to speak Chinese.  Her sister married a Chinese convert.  They are still a big Chinese Muslim family. 

Today the descendants of these four families number in a few hundreds, (less than 500 hundred according to QC).  Only those who married local Malay Muslims did not give their children any Chinese surnames, and instead used bin / binte ….  

Trying to find the reason behind the preservation of the Chinese Muslim identity in such a minuscule minority group, the first thing that comes to mind would be the lack of a homogenous majority group like the Malay Muslims in the Malay Peninsula.  In Sabah, the Muslim community, rather than being almost all Malay, comprises many other races such as Dusun, Kadazan, Melanau, who have different cultures and languages than the Malays.  Among them, a Muslim of Chinese race would not find it hard to fit in with his Islamic background and a different culture and language.  They would just be one of many.   

One other reason is the solidarity shown to these few Muslim families by the other immigrant Chinese community, the ShanDong families who came together with them. This same sensitivity is not seen in the local Chinese community, such as for example, the Hakkas.  QC tells of the two different kitchens kept by some ShanDong families and the ShanDong Association.  These Muslims are not left out when there is a celebration such as a festive day or a wedding.  Their food comes out from the Muslim kitchen, but the celebration and the spirit of togetherness are shared. 

VI. Introduction of Islam in Chinese to the Chinese

In the more recent history of Malaysia, Haji Ibrahim Ma Tian Ying [ ] stands out as the person who contributed most in introducing Islam to the Chinese people, for the first time in the Chinese language. This writing will briefly highlight a few aspects of his life and work pertaining to propagating Islam.

Haji Ibrahim Ma, from a long-standing Muslim family in Beijing (originally from ShanDong) first came to Malaysia in 1938-1940 as head of a three member Chinese Muslim Goodwill Delegation to the Southeast Asia region.  The two other members were Wu JianXun [誤建勳] and Ma DaWu [馬達吾].  During one and a half year’s period, the delegation covered many places and met many people.  In Malaysia they went to all the States including Sabah and Sarawak.  Everywhere they went they were accorded warm welcome and grand receptions both by the Malays and the Chinese.  The local Chinese thus had first hand information about Islam and Muslims in China. During this successful trip, Haji Ibrahim secured many friendships among dignitaries and the general public which would prove to be very useful when he came again to this country.

Haji Ibrahim Ma came back to Malaysia in 1948, this time with his family and as the Consul General of Ipoh sent by the Kuomintang (Guo Min Dang) government.  He had with him his wife Feng Yun Xia [馮雲霞 ],   his three daughters and two sons.  During the short period of his tenure at this office, Haji Ibrahim Ma not only played with great success his role as a diplomat, but, at every occasion he also showed to the local Chinese a very positive profile of a progressive Chinese Muslim.  When China fell to communist rule, the Consulate closed down.  Haji Ibrahim chose not to go to Taiwan to join the government, and stayed in Malaysia.

After a few years trying his hand in rice mill and other businesses, he joined his two daughters in Singapore and lived there for a couple of years.  In 1957 Malaysia gained independence from the British.  In 1961, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj extended Haji Ibrahim an invitation to come back to Malaysia to assist him in an important aspect of nation building.  Tunku had the vision that if more Chinese were to understand Islam, or better still, became Muslim, this would help in bridging the racial gap between Malays and Chinese.

Thus, PERKIM [Pertubuhan Kebajikan Islam Malaysia], a welfare association for Muslims was born, with Tunku Abdul Rahman, Haji Ibrahim Ma, Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard, and Tan Sri Ubaidullah as the founding members.  With this, Haji Ibrahim Ma’s work in the path of Islam took another step, and did not stop until his last days.   

        With his position in Perkim, Haji Ibrahim started his rounds in every corner of Malaysia, giving speeches about Islam in Chinese.  He talked on radio, on television, in schools, in non-governmental associations, and even in prisons.   In a span of many years he wrote booklets in Chinese, introducing Islam in very simple language, easily understood by any non Muslim reader.  These booklets were not sold.  They were always, and even until today, are still given free in all the states, all the religious institutions.   The titles include: 益斯蘭教問答  [Questions and Answers on Islam],    爲什麽穆斯林不吃豬肉], [Why Muslims Don’t Eat Pork], 伊斯蘭教義與中國傳統思想   [The Teachings of Islam and Traditional Chinese Philosophy], 什麽是伊斯蘭教?   [What is Islam?].   His last book  ‘Muslims in China’, which he started to write at the age of 75,  was written in English. 

Apart from these publications, Haji Ibrahim also started a Chinese-English bilingual, bimonthly newspaper called ‘The Light of Islam’, or in Chinese, 回教之光  [Hui Jiao Zhi Guang], later changed to 伊斯蘭之光  [Yi Si Lan Zhi Guang].   He was not only the publisher, but at the same time, the editor, and the main contributor of articles.   Once every two months, when the new issue was ready, his gracious wife would sit with mounts of papers, address slips, sheets of stamps, scissors and glue, folding, cutting and sticking addresses and stamps to get them ready for posting to hundreds of subscribers within Malaysia and overseas. Many people will remember Haji Ibrahim and his wife, seated around the large dining table, engrossed in this labor for the love of God.  Often, grandchildren who came for a visit would also be enrolled to help in the task.  This first Malaysian Islamic newspaper in Chinese was a family commitment for Haji Ibrahim Ma’s family. 

In Perkim, Haji Ibrahim Ma was ably assisted by a few other Chinese Muslims, namely Zhao Guo Zhi [趙國治], Hu En Jun [胡恩君], Ma Zhi Bin, and a few others who came on shorter contracts …   They were recruited from Taiwan, Libya, Saudi Arabia or other Middle East countries.  They did missionary work, counseling for Chinese converts, and Islamic teachings in Mandarin. It is their combined work that is directly responsible to a very big extent, for a positive understanding of Islam by the Chinese in this country, and also for the conversion to Islam by hundreds or even thousands of Malaysian Chinese over the years. 

 Haji Ibrahim passed away almost two decades ago.  But the legacy of his work in Islam is carried on by his children.  His eldest daughter Aliya Tung Ma Lin [ ], a lecturer and writer, has published a few books on Islam and is still actively taking part, at the ripe age of 75, in Islamic conferences in various states in the United States where she lives, to give information on Chinese Muslims and Islam in China.    His third daughter Minuira Sabki Ma Min [ ] is actively involved with Wanita Perkim, the women’s branch of Perkim.   She served as President of this organisation for many years.  His elder son Mustafa Ma Chi [ ] is also active in Perkim, and is also currently the President of MACMA, the Chinese Muslims Association of Malaysia.  His younger son Nasir Ma Lee [ ] is often sought by Chinese friends with children who have embraced Islam, to give advice and clarification on the religion.  

In present day Malaysia, Ibrahim Ma and his children are known as a Hui Chinese family who have contributed to the advancement of Islam among the Chinese in Malaysia.   They are also a fine example of selective acculturation towards Malay culture, without bordering on assimilation.  All of them speak perfect Malay and Mandarin, in addition to English, and even Cantonese and Hokkian, and are very much at home among the Chinese as well as the Malays.  They are knowledgeable about the Malay traditions blended in the local Islam, as well as the Chinese, especially Beijing culture, including food. 

 Among Haji Ibrahim’s children, Ma Min is the only one who married a Malay.  Her husband speaks perfect Mandarin and is totally at ease within the Chinese community.  The children understand some Mandarin, the daughter more than the sons, even though they shy away from speaking.  Two of the sons and the daughter are married to Malays, and at their children’s level, assimilation may begin.  But at least three of her grandchildren take Mandarin lessons and are very familiar and fond of the special home cooked Chinese food.   However, they do not have any Chinese names. None of the other siblings’ children and grandchildren live in Malaysia, except for the younger son’s family.

The younger son Ma Lee’s children grew up in Kuala Lumpur with Mandarin as the mother tongue, and Chinese education at primary level followed by Malay secondary and high schools.  Only one among the six pursued Chinese education up to high school.  With both parents from Hui origin, and an environment that has become more favourable with time, these children may very well carry on the Chinese Muslim identity in Malaysia at least for a few more generations. 

VII. New settlers

 In the 1980s, when Malaysia started to receive Muslim students from Taiwan and China to study at the Institute Dakwah Perkim and later International Islamic University of Malaysia, requests for admission steadily increased by the year.   

Once these Chinese Muslim students arrive in Malaysia, they find themselves in a friendly, liberal Islamic environment with a good dose of Chineseness wherever they look.  For them this is an ideal place to study in a not so unfamiliar environment and to grow in Islam as well.     

Parallel to this, as trade increased between China and Malaysia, many Muslim traders from the Mainland came to try new markets and in quest of new partners; and in general, were satisfied with their Malay Muslim counterparts.  As word spread in Muslim communities in China about the accommodating reception in this modern, progressive Muslim country, there followed streams of more Muslim traders, Muslim art and culture groups, Muslim martial arts and Chinese medicine specialists.  Some of them came and went, many wished to stay for a longer period.  What is important is that almost all of them, when they went back, tried to encourage young Muslim Chinese students to choose Malaysian Islamic Institutions of higher learning to pursue further studies in different fields, in a modern Islamic environment. 

It is not difficult to see why Malaysia has become the preferred destination for Chinese Muslim students.  First, this is a Muslim country, and at the same time offering many aspects of Chinese life and culture. As Mandarin is widely spoken here, it is easy for them to communicate, make friends, and also find short term or part time work to supplement their limited scholarship.  The moderate cost of living and comparatively cheaper school fees makes studying in Malaysia more attractive than western countries for education in English medium. The use of English in IIU and other Islamic institutions besides Arabic is one factor to their advantage.   Another reason for their preference in coming to Malaysia is the progressive approach of Islam in the learning environment as compared to Universities in the Middle East or Egypt, and of course it is nearer to home.  

The shortest time each of the students stay would be at least 5 to 6 years.  One to two years to learn English / Arabic / Malay, and four years at least for a degree course.  Some of them, after obtaining their first degree apply for postgraduate studies.  This means at least another two years.  There are also a few who do their doctorate at ISTAC after their first degrees in other Islamic countries.  While studying here for long years, many of them married with their fellow Muslim compatriots and set up families; a few married local Malays, or,  Chinese who converted to Islam. 

In recent years, when the Islamic University put a limit to students they would accept from China, some Muslim families also started to apply to private colleges.  Today the Chinese Muslim students in Malaysia, most of them of Hui origin, number about 50 to 60.  The number may seem small, but their presence in the campus, at the markets, on public transports, in shopping malls, and assemblies, with the very distinct Hui look and unmistakable Muslim attire and comportment, has made an impact among the local Chinese and Malays as well.   Chinese Muslims are not a rarity or an oddity anymore for Malaysian public.   One of them commented:  When I first came here, people would look at me with surprise.  A Chinese in Muslim attire?  Now, even the taxi drivers are used to seeing us and they ask a lot of questions about Muslims in China, and are happy to know more about us.”    

Some of these students have been recruited to appear on Islamic programmes televised in Mandarin over various TV stations.  Pusat Islam has a special budget for these Mandarin programmes.  The person responsible for this department, Hajjah Mariam Ma, combines her deep knowledge on Islam with her fluency in Mandarin and Malay, to produce interesting programmes for the benefit of the Mandarin speaking Chinese community in Malaysia.  Some other Muslim students from China may also have temporary part-time work with religious institutions such as REISAP or PERKIM; they are also often seen at various functions held by associations such as DarulFitrah, bringing a different face to the local Muslim scene.  

Each student may stay here an average of 6 to 10 years.  But there will always be continuity.  For Malaysians who see them around, they are not identified as an individual, but, as Chinese Muslim. This presence and continuity should be encouraged by the Malaysian government, the learning institutions, and the public.  In a way, it helps to bridge the gap between Chinese and Malays.  It shows the Chinese that there are Chinese who are born Muslim and to the Malays that there are Muslims who are of Chinese origin.  It is also a very real way of showing the universal facet of Islam, which to some degree is still lacking in Malaysia. 

Today, these Hui students and some professionals or traders, albeit with a temporary status, seem to be the latest wave of Chinese Muslim presence in Malaysia.   But, the majority Chinese Muslims in this country will still be the Chinese converts.  They are the Chinese Muslims in Malaysia today.  



1. Malaysia, National Census 2000.  Figures given are: Total number of Chinese Muslims in Malaysia is 57221, which makes up just 1% of the total Chinese population of 5691908.  Selangor, with 17246, has the highest number of Chinese Muslims, followed by Sabah (8589), Kuala Lumpur (7991), and Sarawak (7287).   There are more women than men, numbering 32271 and 21850 respectively.

2. Quoted from an article by Hamca entitled Zheng He, in  Star Weekly, Indonesia,  8 March 1961.   Paper delivered by Kong YuanZhi at the Conference to Commemorate Zheng He, Kun Ming  1992.

3. Claudine Salmon, ‘Islam and Chineseness’. 2001 Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Sociological Research Institute.  Ma Huan, Zheng He’s faithful chronicler who accompanied him on his 4th voyage, (1413-1415) reports that through East Java the population was made up of natives, Muslims (Hui Hui), and Tangren (Chinese) many of whom were Muslims.   R.A. Kern, in ‘The propagation of Islam’also writes that Ma Huan, in describing the situation of Islam in Java, says there were three kinds of people: the Arabs who are

Muslims from the West, the Chinese, many of whom had embraced Islam, and the Hindu-Javanese, who are not Muslim (the natives).

4. Parlindungan Mangaradja Onggang, Tuanku Rao. [Imam Bonjol

5. Ibid.3  pp 184,186,188.

6. Slamet Muljana, Runtuknja Keradjaan Hindu-Djawa dan timbulnja Negara-Negara Islam di Nusantara (The Fall of the Hindu-Javanese Kingdom and the Rise of Islamic States in the Archipelago), 1968, Jakarta: Bhratara.   Muljana also reports that there was “influence of a certain Chinese art in the first Islamized monuments of Java’s northern coastal area”.

7. Amen Budiman, Indonesia ‘Times’ weekly,  14 September 1985.  Also see Budiman, Masyarakat Islam Tionghoa di Indonesia (The Chinese Muslim Community in Indonesia)  1979, Semarang: Tanjung Sari  p.75.  And Budiman, Semarang, Riwayatmu Dulu, 1978, Semarang: Penerbit Tanjung Sari p.26

8. Tan Yeok Seong,   Chinese Element in the Islamisation of Southeast Asia,  --A Study of the Story of Njai gede Pinatih, the Great Lady of Gresik --, in Journal of the South Seas Society  Vol.30, Parts 1&2, December 1975.  This is the story of this ‘grand old lady’, a member of the family of Shih Chin Ching, the Pacifier of Kukang installed by Zheng He in 1405.  She had been married to the regent of Madjopahit, and after his death, settled down in Grissee and adopted Islam as her religion.  Her tomb, with the writing  “Njai Ageng Pinateh” can still be seen in the mosque of Demak.

 9. Heru Christiyono, Perayaan Sam Poo Thay Jian: Ulang Tahun Klenteng Gedung Batu Semarang (Celebrating San Bao Tai Jian: Anniversary of Semarang stone house), 1982, in the magazine Selecta, no.1104.

10. Li Tong Cai, Indonesia – Legends and Facts, 1979, Singapore.  p.85

11. Nine Saints of Java, edited by Alijah Gordon  1996.

12. This number even surpassed the total Malay population which stood at 285.202, for the same four states.   Mustapa Mohamed, Kemelut Politik Melayu 2000, p.3 

13. Mohammed Djinguiz, L’Islam au Borneo Britannique septentrional’ (Islam in the British Northern Borneo), Revue du Monde Musulman, June 1908, Vol.V, no.6

14. Ibid.12   p.4

15. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order 

16. Tan Chee Beng,  A Note on the Orang Yunnan in Terengganu, 1991, Archipel No.42.  Tan talks about a few socio-cultural aspects of these people.  In appearance they look physically Chinese (2nd and 3rd generations).  Islamic education is emphasized together with formal education in an Arabic school.  Few attend Chinese schools.  Professionally, many of the descendants are teachers and government employees.   There are quite a number of Islamic specialists.  Their ethnic status now is Bumiputra, the transition facilitated by intermarriages with Malays.

17. Malays accept more easily an original Chinese Muslim (born to Muslim parents from China) than they will a Chinese who converted to Islam for any reason.  In actual fact, in Islam there is no distinction.  Any person who becomes Muslim is Muslim.

18. Tan Chee-Beng, A Note on the Orang Yunnan in Terengganu, 1991, Archipel No.62

19. Chen Shu Shi,          (Lift the Fog  to see Islam)  p.164 

20.  ibid.19   pp. 138-140