I picked up a great little book, a 50-year-old report done by two peninsular Malays as an undergraduate honors project. The reprinting, produced by UNIMAS, is titled “Life in the Malay Kampongs of Kuching, Fifty Years Ago”. It’s a real gem. The students were geographers, and so payed special attention to the landscape of the Malay north bank. They did dabble in some social observation as well:
Children and a few adults were noted, however, who although calling themselves ‘Malay’ were clearly wholly or partly Chinese physically. The adoption by Malay families of Chinese children, particularly girls, is a common practice, even among Malays with children of their own. The adopted child receives no invidious treatment, is accepted without qualification, and is invariably Muslim. Exactly why such adoption is so common it is difficult to decide satisfactorily on the basis of our short period of work in these kampongs. The only widely expressed and openly accepted reason is the desire of those possessing no children at all to own them or of those families in which the children are all boys to possess a girl. This certainly fits in well with the practice of disposing of the girls rather than the boys by Chinese who feel that their economic position does not warrant the keeping of an extra girl. There is also the fear by Malay families in which all the children are boys, that when the sons follow the practice among the Malays of living with their in-laws after marriage, the parents will be deprived of their sons who are income earners and capable of looking after them when they are old or sick. A daughter means a potential son-in-law in one’s house.
However, Chinese baby girls are taken by some Malay families even though they already possess several children, including girls. The reasons for this kind of adoption are certainly partly explicable in term of differences between Chinese and Malay economic philosophies. Some reasons, never expressed however by the Malay himself, may be unpopular if openly admitted although generally and tacitly held. The light colouring and more delicate features of the Chinese girls are, we think, factors of some importance in many cases, making the child probably more marriageable in a community with more females than males, and thereby incidentally attracting a son-in-law into the house. In one house in a downstream Kampong a large number of people were found to be visiting the household to see a small baby Chinese girl who had just been purchased for $50 by the Malays. The villagers certainly appeared to be most interested in whether the colouring and general features of the child made it a good bargain.
My in-laws from west Malaysia have adopted Chinese girls in our family tree as well, so this was not limited just to Kuching, though it seems to have been more common here. Has this resulted in closer relations between the Chinese donor families and the adopting families? I’d be curious to know. In our own family, the Chinese relatives still show up for weddings and other major gatherings. At the same time, I’ve been told our late grandmother was rather resentful for having been given away as an infant. Anyway, perhaps due to the general rise in prosperity, I don’t think this practice is happening more today.