Examining the Intersection of Cultural Identities The Malaysian Chinese Experience

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Helen Guek Yee Mei


This essay aims to present the intersections that constitute the cultural identity of Malaysian Chinese and suggest how their migration and settlement experiences have shaped their sense of who they are and who they are becoming through personal and family histories. I utilise a methodology analogous to the microhistory framework, where the individual assumes an active role in the process of memory formation and exercises agency in the selection, alteration and transmission of memories. This perspective encourages “understanding people in light of their own experience and their reactions to that experience.”1

Most scholarly publications on Malaysian Chinese identity use a macro-level approach, emphasising the study of social and political institutions while giving less attention to personal introspection and micro-level research. A September 17, 2022, New Straits Times article quoted Danny Wong, a Malaysian historian from Sabah, as saying that family history, tales and memoirs help people comprehend both their past and their future trajectory. Wong believes that scrutinising one’s personal history through the medium of family narratives can lead to a critical evaluation of the interconnectedness of familial, communal and national dynamics.

My artworks, reproduced in this article, aim to visually portray these submerged and accumulated layers of intersecting identity through a microhistorical perspective. Through my art, I present the intersecting and multi-layered inner reality that has accumulated traces of lived experiences. This inner reality is distinguished by its multicultural, multi-religious, multi-lingual character and multiracial experiences that combine to influence identity formation, under the impact of constantly changing social environments. The evolution of these inner realities is conveyed using visual assemblages combining printmaking, photography and digital manipulation in order to visually represent the socio-cultural formation of a Malaysian Chinese individual. The artworks reproduced
convey the mutable nature of ethnic identity in conjunction with variables such as geographic location, degree of interaction, era, and age group.

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Author Biography

Helen Guek Yee Mei, Sunway University

Helen Guek Yee Mei is currently a lecturer at Sunway University. She is a graduate of the Malaysia Institute of Art. She obtained her Bachelor of Fine Art from Victoria College of Arts, University of Melbourne, Australia and her Master of Fine Art from the University Pendidikan Sultan Idris, Perak, Malaysia. She was the Malaysian representative for the Asian Art Biennale in 2001 and 2023.