Book Review: TIN MAN September 4, 2020 – Posted in: Reviews


I see Tin Man by Yin, as a local Malaysian story with a ‘wake-up’ call to fellow citizens irrespective of race, to not take lightly the racial discourse faced in the country. In what is viewed as growing intolerance amongst Malaysians, Yin, a Malaysian Chinese, makes a timely and conscious attempt in Tin Man to historically reflect upon the struggles of the early Chinese migrants and their current state of welfare.

Spanned across three generations, a typical Chinese migrant’s family history unfolds alongside Malaysia’s history narrated by the grandfather ‘ah kong’ Lee Ah Ming to his favourite grandson, Lee Kuan Sang. Ah Ming is a Chinese migrant who came to Malaya as a ‘jyu jai’ piglet and many upheavals later becomes a ‘towkay’. While he did not forget his roots in China, his heart was set to make Malaysia his home.

As the author Yin states, not all Chinese migrants were willing participants in the great exodus; many were merely ‘jyu jai’, sold to settle debts or just to ensure the survival of the family. In the 19th century, tin mines in Larut, Perak were a major attraction to thousands of Chinese migrants who came to Malaya – merchants, fortune hunters, fugitives and coolies. Whilst many were sojourners yet many others like Ah Ming remained in Malaya and continued to contribute towards nation building.

Ah Ming speaks of the harsh realities of life in the tin mines where he narrowly escapes death himself during a horrific stand-off between Chinese clans. As described in Tin Man, clans are indeed the integral makeup of Chinese communities which identifies – place of origin, kinship and dialect which is useful as a foundation to establishing ‘guanxi’ (personal relationships) a concept embedded in Chinese culture.

As mentioned by the author, the Chinese migrants brought with them clan rivalry which often ended up in clan wars resulting in large numbers of deaths but also the disruption of commerce (particularly the tin trade). This concerned the British who intervened to safeguard their commercial interests and ended up colonising Malaya.

Tin Man, laments that the cycles of migration seems to be reoccurring as many local Chinese born and bred in Malaysia continue to send their children away to seek ‘greener pastures’ as their forefathers had. These reasons aside, the underlying fact is that many today leave because they also feel unwelcomed in their homeland, and resent being labelled pendatang, immigrants even after over 50 years of independence. Why is this occurring in a country that brands itself as 1Malaysia?

Then again much has changed, life was simpler then; for the new comer, the ability to adapt to local customs and speak the language of the locals was enough to be accepted into the mainstream. As in Tin Man, Ah Ming (a Chinese migrant) befriends Ahmed (a Bugis); a genuine friendship is sealed based on hardships faced together. Indeed, there was a time in history when communities found it necessary to watch each other’s backs and it was common to share their wealth with their friends irrespective of race and religion as in the case of Tin Man.

The author has as in his debut book, Postcards from a Foreign Land and now in Tin Man, brought to life stories of ordinary Malaysians, their unique cultures and norms. Local stories that are often taken for granted asks to be noticed when craftily lined in history – provides for an interesting read with learning included. Tin Man certainly has a deeper set of messages to deliver and in a nation that claims to be impartial to racial differences, the book begs to differ.

Tin Man is a recommended read, in particular, by every Malaysian Chinese Perakean – it may rekindle thoughts to hold on to the legacy left behind by your forefathers who toiled with dreams of a better life in the tin mines of the State.

The author dedicates Tin Man to those who came from near and far to make this land (Malaysia) their home.

Chelvi Murugiah

This review originally appeared on 16 October 2010 in The Ipoh Echo.

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