If you’ve ever been to Singapore and hung out at a coffee shop below a block of flats or a hawker centre, you’re bound to have heard a local order a “Michael Jackson.” It’s quirky vernacular for a concoction of grass jelly (black) and soy milk (white), playing on the late pop star’s changing skin colour over the years. Some say it could also be a reference to his hit single, Black or White.
Biracial neologisms are staple repertoire in this country where there are four recognized national ethnic groups – Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others (comprising mainly Eurasians from around the region). For starters, the Malay-Chinese are commonly termed Chinlays, and the Indian-Chinese, Chindians.
Around the world, social groups have produced creative neologisms for mixed race persons in their cultural milieu. For instance, mestizo refers to Latin Americans of Native American and European ancestry; African-Europeans in Brazil are known asmulato; Sri Lankans who historically descended from local women and the British colonialists are termed burghers; South Africans who are multiracial are usually referred to as coloureds; and persons of Japanese-Anglo heritage are known as hafu.
Singapore is a diverse society comprising four official languages and four main religions. Just as “Michael Jackson” is a familiar and convenient reference to a locally concocted beverage, racial shorthand is more a matter of cultural understanding than haphazard labelling.
A body’s visual markers allow for a quick assessment and situation of a person’s identity and status. A visibly racialized body thus informs other people on how to negotiate cross-cultural sensitivities with them in a shared social space.
For instance, this visibility may help inform others of an appropriate choice of mother tongue to be adopted in conversation with a stranger, or whether to extend non-halal food to a “Malay-looking” – and by extension, in most parts of South East Asia, Muslim – person.
Some biracial people have corporeal features that distinctly signpost their mixed heritage to others. These individuals are likely to receive the staple repertoire of “questions of origin”; you know, the “Where are you from?”, “Where are you really really from?”, “Where are your parents from?”, and “What are you?” types.
While these everyday identity politics pose their own set of issues, biracial people who do not look distinctly “mixed” deal with a different problem all together. These are the individuals who find themselves not readily acknowledged or accepted in situations where either of their ethnicities manifest homoethnically, unless they intentionally assert their communal belonging or solicit homophilic affect in some form or another.
I interviewed five Malay-Chinese women in Singapore who felt that their ethnicities were not always recognized in social groups. While “Michael Jackson” does appear on the menu of some eateries, these biracials obviously do not prance and parade around with a “Chinlay” or “Malay-Chinese” label on their foreheads.
As such, they have devised innovative ways of marking their racial master status through the careful calibration of language and bodily practice. In-depth interviews with them reveal that biracials selectively conceal or emphasize different elements of their mixed corporeality depending on the social groups or situations in which they want to position themselves favourably.
Some of these Malay-Chinese persons felt outcast even in their early schooling years. One of them tells me that her language competency was seldom recognized because the Mother Tongue did not appear congruent with her skin tone:
“I used to be quite tanned in Primary School, quite Malay-looking… during Chinese lessons, the teacher always explained [difficult things] to me in English, as if I don’t understand Mandarin. But I even took higher Chinese…”.
Another Malay-Chinese woman candidly recalls her childhood best friends being of Indian and Eurasian heritage because her Malay and Chinese peers had difficultly placing her:
“The Malay kids thought I hung out with the Chinese, and the Chinese kids thought I hung out with the Malays, so I ended up hanging out with every one else!”
How did these biracial persons manage this ambivalence as young children? Well, remember the customary act of shyly introducing yourself to a class of brand new peers and teachers every school year (thankfully, in more than 140 characters IRL)? It seems that tracing one’s family tree and “having to explain your strange hybrid name” is crucial to Malay-Chinese to explain their life history to assert their master racial status.
Some biracials may only be fluent in one Mother Tongue, while others choose to announce their religious affiliations and practises to pre-empt any cultural faux pas to come. So while these annual introductions may be awkward rituals for some of us, they are actually more practical than ceremonial for biracials.
Although these Malay-Chinese persons reported speaking English (the main official language of the country) more so than any other language or dialect, they would selectively sprout a few lines of the Mother Tongue they were not fluent in to underscore their racial hybridity.
One biracial individual whose Mother Tongue was Malay would often find herself among Chinese friends who occasionally slipped into Mandarin. Instead of speaking up, or requesting that they conversed in English, she would instead pepper the conversation with the few broken Mandarin phrases she knows partly to solicit an affective response when they tease her for “trying,” and also to subtly remind them of her desire for acknowledgement and inclusivity. It proved to be a soft but effective prompt to her peers who would quickly code switch to English.
Physical gestures are another element that constitute a racial code. They are mirrored and socialised among children during their upbringing, since these designate one’s bodily boundaries and limits of exchange. Thus, while unseen by outsiders, insiders of the racial group may appropriate subtle gesticulations to demarcate and legitimate each other’s membership. One Malay-Chinese person tells me:
“We [the Malays] always salaam* each other when we first meet, it’s like a signal to show that we are ‘the same’ you know, so as long as I ‘act’ Malay, then my [colour] doesn’t really matter.”
*[The salaam is a salutation of Islamic origin, signifying “peace to you.” It usually involves taking the back of the hand of a senior and bringing it to one’s forehead, heart, or lips. It is commonly practiced among Malays and Muslims. However, when a body’s phenotypic markers do not adequately signify racial identity, insiders may not extend such affective body language to them.]
However, these bodily practises require positive feedback in the form of reciprocation to be deemed successful. Another biracial woman laments:
“When I first came to uni, the Malay kampong [literally translates into ‘village,’ but figuratively stands for a social group in which reciprocal Malay cultural relationality is attached] couldn’t tell I was one of them… when I tried to salaam one of [the boys], he asked me why I was shaking his hand!”
Ethnic identity is not innate or a given, but instead established, learned, and systemically performed through a sustained repertoire of acts. One disciplines their body (and tongue!) into stylizing after dominant racial cues in order to mark their ethnic identity.
But this performance has to be convincing enough so that an audience who witnesses it accepts and recognizes a person as Malay, Chinese, or both. For their lifetimes of cumbersome introductions and awkward manoeuvring of ethnic spaces, biracials have taught us that racial practice is in fact a flamboyant regime that, when rehearsed and naturalized over many years, becomes perceived as second nature and natural.
After all, the vernacular “Michael Jackson” only earned its title after years of circulating in the local imaginary. Bless the first person who ever thought to mix grass jelly and soy milk.