Hybrid Communities in Southeast Asia: Identity Formation, Evolution, and Transformation





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When nation-states in Southeast Asia began to take shape, ethnic identity emerged as a prominent concern on the very eve of independence. While the dominant indigenous ethnic group quickly assumed the role of leadership, it did not take long for more fundamental questions to surface, such as who or which group(s) constitute the indigenous and on what grounds (lineage? language? religion? ethnic affiliation?). In his Imagined Community, Ben Anderson argues that all nations are creole in nature, highlighting the hybrid nature of nations ranging from the United States to Brazil all the way to Southeast Asia.

In the region of Southeast Asia, hybridity has tended to be interpreted in terms of contrasts: groups on the one hand who are indigenous, local, home-grown and on the other, non-indigenous or foreign-infused groups whose ethnic ‘purity’ was doubtful. Yet in the process of settlement, some of the ethnically hybrid came to be accepted as part of the newly defined indigenous communities, while others were disfranchised or placed in positions of disadvantage owing to their distinctive non-indigenous ways and identity.

Hybrid communities in Southeast Asia vary from country to country as do their processes of hybridization. The peranakan in Malaysia are indigenous communities who were infused with either Arab, Chinese or Indian blood. The same term is also used in Indonesia, especially among those with Chinese blood. But among Indonesian Chinese, the same term also means those who were born locally and adopted the indigenous way of life. Malaysia and Singapore also have the baba and nyonya, whose hybridity initially sprang from mixed marriages between Chinese men and indigenous women and later shifted toward the adaptation of indigenous cultural practices, including the use of the indigenous language, Malay. In East Malaysia, the Sino-Native who had long existed in the country, became a new category in the 1951 census. In the Philippines, the infusion of Spanish as well as Chinese blood created a distinctive community known as the mestizo, whose ranks included some of the most illustrious Filipino nationalists such as Jose Rizal and Emilio Aguinaldo, who helped establish the Filipino nation.

Changes began to take place in the post-colonial era when indigenous elites began to assert themselves and in the process, marginalized those who were categorized as non-indigenous, including many of hybrid background. This led to a feeling of disenfranchisement and loss among some hybrid communities. Nonetheless, certain hybrid communities who were able to adapt to the changes were accorded indigenous status. As post-colonial states commenced a life as independent nations, new ethnic policies were put in place, creating new challenges for hybrid communities, including space for negotiation and adaptation. Some hybrid communities were able to thrive under the new national government as changes in the identity of hybrid communities took place and new categories emerged while old ones underwent transformation.

Despite their long standing cultural heritage and their long residence in their respective countries, the hybrid communities continued to face new and complex challenges. The question of acceptance by both indigenous and non- indigenous communities dominated much of their existence. Tussles of identity between indigenous and non-indigenous status also remains a recurring problem, which has resulted in different treatment and reactions from different hybrid communities.

This panel on hybridity in Southeast Asia hopes to trace the origins and development of selected hybrid communities, namely, the Chinese Peranakan in Indonesia, the Sino-Kadazan of Sabah; the Chinese-Filipino in Binondo, and the Chinese-Peranakan in Kelantan. It is hoped that through the investigation on these four communities, some of the questions raised on hybridity in Southeast Asia could be answered.