“I’M waiting for someone to call me a pendatang!” says Datin Mina Cheah-Foong. “I never thought to question my right to be here or my role as a Malaysian in the context of where my family came from.”
Indeed, why would she need to? Nation building runs in the family. Cheah-Foong may not be planting coconuts or building roads or serving in the police force as her father and ancestors did, but she is responsible for The Body Shop in Malaysia, which she has grown into a multi-million-ringgit business.
The franchise’s success aside, The Body Shop Malaysia has been acknowledged for its campaigns to raise awareness on HIV/AIDS, champion women’s and children’s rights, and save the Belum-Temengor forest.
In this 25 Jan 2011 interview in Subang Jaya, Cheah-Foong shares stories from her family and childhood, and surmises that she’s definitely Malaysian, not Chinese.
TNG: When and where were you born?
1960 in Sungai Siput, Perak.
And is this where you grew up?
No. I was born there because my father was the officer in charge of the police district in that area. Right after I was born, he was transferred to Kelantan. My mother followed him and I stayed with the babysitter in Ipoh because I was newly born.
Did you eventually move to Kelantan to be with your parents?
No, when my parents came back to Ipoh, I think about a year or so after that, that’s when I went to live with my family. I grew up in Ipoh until I went abroad to study.
How did your parents meet?
My father met my mother at a dance in [Kuala Lumpur]. My mother had moved to KL from Raub, Pahang, to work as a seamstress with her aunt.
And your dad at that time was already in the police force?
No, my dad at that time was a teacher. My mother always said that if he were a police officer, then they would not have married. Her parents would not have allowed it. Because in those times in the 40s or 50s, among the Chinese they said if you weren’t a bad hat, you wouldn’t join the police.
He joined the police force because it paid more. [The government] had a concerted effort to recruit Chinese police officers for their Special Branch because there was a communist insurgency then. And they needed Chinese-speaking police officers.
Do you remember 1969 and what it was like in Ipoh?
Yes. My mother was very worried about it. We knew early on that there was going to be some trouble obviously because my father was in Special Branch.
For the kids, I guess it wasn’t a big deal because it was just like school holidays. Schools were closed. And it was that keep-very-quiet, stay-in-the-house kind [of experience]. We lived in this housing estate in Ipoh called Canning Garden. Very middle-class.
Everybody knew everybody else. We never saw any violence where we were. And at that time I was nine. So the newspapers wasn’t something I was particularly interested in. I didn’t think very much about it at all. […] Because we were in Ipoh, we were quite far away from the actual violence in KL [and in Penang].
It might just be my recollection, but Ipoh was relatively quiet. At that time when I was growing up, Ipoh was still very much dominated by Chinese tin miners. I don’t even recall discussing it with my Malay friends in school. I think as an adult, if I was older, it may have made more of an impact. To the people who were affected, who had families hurt or killed, or businesses burnt, I’m sure it must be an indelible memory.
Can you trace your ancestry?
Yes. The first ancestor who came from Fukien province to Malaya, that I can trace back, was my grandfather’s grandfather. He was a Tan and he landed in Penang and worked as a labourer. And in his lifetime, apparently, he became very wealthy because at that time, they were trying to open up and develop Penang, and the British colonial government had this law that stated that if you cleared the land and turned it into a plantation, you owned it.
So apparently, this grandfather of my grandfather cleared huge tracts in Air Hitam, and planted them all with coconut trees. He used to own all the land in Jelutong from the mosque up to Air Hitam.
This was my father’s side. Then his daughter was my grandfather’s mother. Her name was Peacock Tan – Tan Khung Cheok.
A powerful name.
Yes, my mother was in awe of her because you had to be very powerful before you can be called Peacock. That time, they used to call all their children Little Dog or Piglet or Sow so that the gods wouldn’t be jealous and [send calamity].
So, anyway, she had three husbands!
(Chuckles) That was how powerful she was!
I knew this as a child because it was family lore. Wah! She had three husbands, and in those times. She came from a Hokkien family [and] Hokkien girls are all very valued. Her father was afraid she would be bullied. You know traditionally in Chinese families, you would become your husband’s property. You had to take his surname and you had to go live in his home and you had to serve the in-laws.
My great-great-grandfather decided that his daughter was not going to have this. So she married the first guy named Cheah [who stayed with her family]. That’s my grandfather’s dad. He died at a very young age, not sure what of.
Then, she married another one called Tan. He turned out to be an opium addict and also died young. And then she married a third fellow. Don’t know what happened to him.
So, your lineage comes from the Cheah line?
Yes, from the first husband. So my grandfather was Cheah Sin Bee. And he studied in school in Penang, and then he was sent to get his degree from Hong Kong University. And on his way back from Hong Kong University, he met my grandmother on the boat coming back. According to my mother, she was from Medan.
And when my grandfather came back to Penang, he was the first Chinese engineer employed by the Penang council to build all these roads in Penang.
And how about your mum’s side?
Her father came from China. So, from my mother’s side, I’m second-generation Malaysian. From my father’s side, I’m fourth-generation. My children are fifth-.
What is your strongest memory of the place where you grew up?
Cycling all over. I used to cycle to the Ipoh Swimming Club. It must have been at least six kilometres. Cycle there, then I’d swim for a couple of hours, then cycle back. Can you imagine!
And I’d cycle from my house all the way to Taman Seenivasagam because they had built the first roller-skating rink. So, I would cycle I think eight kilometres and then roller skate for two hours and then cycle back.
[When I was about five or six, because my parents were travelling around the world], I went back to Sungai Siput to be with my nanny. It was great. It was a real village. There were no roads. Coconut trees growing just next to your house. And then you had the big cinema with rows and rows of rattan chairs. Pay 15 or 20 sen to go in. And I remember the village kids, we used to all go in and have fun playing hide-and-seek in the dark. And no one would yell at us, you know. Can you imagine if someone were to do that now?
What are the stories you hold on to the most from your family?
I guess our holidays to Penang. My grandparents were still there. In fact, my grandfather’s house is still in Penang in Air Hitam.
There was a stream next to it. We used to go fishing. My parents would just drop us in the house and then we made our own fun. My grandfather’s house had all sorts of fruit trees in the garden. We’d just climb the trees, pluck the fruit and eat.
How do you connect these experiences you had to being a Malaysian today?
I never thought to examine it. I never thought to question my right to be here or my role as a Malaysian in the context of where my family came from.
What defined me more was when I first went to visit China with my husband, (Datuk) Simon (Foong). It was in the early 90s. And it shocked me, going to China. I felt very alien. We always say here, “You Chinese, ah?” and I’ll always say, “Ya, I’m Chinese.” I’ll never say, “I’m Malaysian.” Unless I’m abroad.
When I went to China, I was definitely not a Chinese. So, if anything defined me about where I belong, it was my trip to China! That was the moment that I really thought, “I’m not Chinese.” And the Chinese also knew I’m not Chinese. We go there and we speak different. We even look different from the mainland Chinese.
You know, when I’m in the country, I never think about it. And it wasn’t until this interview that I sat down and traced back who [in my family] first came to Malaysia. And then somewhere along the line, there must be some Malay blood in me as well because my father is a full Baba.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian, if at all?
(Pauses) I don’t, you know. I’m quite happy and secure that I belong here. That I have a right to be here. I’m waiting for someone to call me a pendatang!
I have no issues about being here. And I also have no issues about people wanting to come and make a life here whether they’re Indonesians, or Burmese or Filipinos. Because the thing is, at one stage or another, most of us migrated from somewhere else.
At some point or other, everybody is a pendatang. So, who are we to point fingers? Who are we to deny someone else the kind of opportunities that we ourselves long for and would have begged to have if we were in their shoes?
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
I want a Malaysia where we are allowed to identify ourselves by race but not just be defined by racial stereotypes. I want us to be comfortable saying, “Loshini is Indian. Mina is Chinese. And Jacq is Dan Lain-Lain.” And not be all hung up about it.
I want Malaysia to be a land where people can be free to choose, to enhance or emphasise their Chinese-ness by dressing in a cheongsam every day. And not be defined as, oh, Chinese extremist. And a Hindu girl can be dressed in saree all the time and not be seen as Hindu Sangam or Hindraf. I want us to be able to acknowledge our differences and to accept them. And to respect that other people have differences and to use them to our strength.
When you get down to it, when you’re eating together, when my friend’s son comes over, Adam is Adam. So what if he’s Adam bin Ismail. Why, when we get into the bigger context of things, [does] it become racial and politicised?
I want clever, honest, smart politicians. [I’m] fed up of having no one to vote for.
When do you feel most Malaysian?
I feel most Malaysian when I am at immigration counters. When I’m entering other countries or our country, I feel very Malaysian in terms of belonging to the country.
But when I feel most Malaysian is (pauses) … I think it’s probably when I’m at work. Because I’m always thinking about what the Malaysian consumer wants. The staff – we work with a whole bunch of Malaysians and always make sure we’re speaking in a language that everybody understands. And all our campaign materials are always in different languages that customers understand. And we work with local Malaysian NGO partners.
The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is now available at all good bookstores for RM45.