An IT Veteran's Fresh Start in Chinese Studies at XMUM


After 36 years of working in IT industry, in November 2020, 59-year-old Yap Siew Wah submitted his application to the MA in Chinese Studies at Xiamen University of Malaysia, once again embarking on his journey of learning.

Yaps deep affection for China & Chinese culture originated from the books he read and his grandfather's oral storytelling. A decedent of Hokkien immigrant from Anxi, Quanzhou, Yap started reading stories about Chinese history since childhood, which brought him closer to mainland China along with his grandfathers bedtime stories.

As he said, "I have a China complex."

To promote Chinese language and Chinese studies, Yap has worked in many Chinese education organizations since 1997. Today, he still serves as the Secretary General Board of Governors at Confucian Private Secondary School, as well as the Honorary Deputy Secretary of Centre for Malaysian Chinese Studies.

"These are all voluntary work - Just to give back to the community," Yap talked about the reason behind his passion.

In 2020, half-retired Yap Siew Wah decided to do research systematically and submitted an application to Xiamen University Malaysia. As his background was not Chinese-related, the Department set a short essay as an assessment, which he successfully passed and was officially enrolled in the next year.

Recalling his postgraduate experience, Yap laughed, "Actually, I almost wanted to give up in the very first month."

Away from the campus for over 3 decades, Yap had to learn everything from the beginning. Peer pressure also worried him - his classmates were all young fresh graduates with bachelor's degrees, able to keep up with the lecturers easily. He, on the other hand, as a beginner, was still very confused when he was told in the third week that he should start working on his dissertation proposal. 

Luckily, "seriousness" and "toughness" saved him. 

"The idea of giving up kept going through my head. Then I thought no, I have never failed in my life - I won't allow myself to fail." 

By going through academic papers and other materials, Yap gradually adapted to the intensity of the master's study and mastered the necessary research method. In the end, he chose a topic that closely related to his own experience: the origin and spread of the belief in the Yap clan's ancestral god, Huize Zunwang.

As Yap introduced, Huize Zunwang is enshrined by all the Yap clans who migrated to Malaysia from Nanan. Since the written documents are very limited, most of the information has to be obtained through field study, esp. visiting temples around Malaysia, as well as talking with the local Yaps elders and listening to their stories.

For Yap Siew Wah, conducting the field study is more like meeting townee. The shared dialect greatly shortens the distance between him and the interviewees, and even gives him a sense of homecoming.

"The rank of my branch is high in Yaps clan. I was very amazed when an elder called me grand uncle," Yap Siew Wah laughed.


Yap Siew Wah during the field trip

Field studies also allowed Yap to see more of the family's legacy. He now fully understands the importance of oral history - History that exists only in the memories of people will eventually be lost. 

"It often occurs to me that if I could do the research ten years ago, more histories would be preserved. When I visit those elders, I always heard that 'he/she has passed away', leaving a lot of regrets," Yap Siew Wah lamented, "A lot of things are being lost every day."

When asked about his future plans, Yap Siew Wah said that he will continue to serve in the Chinese education industry, and stay at Xiamen University Malaysia to pursue his PhD degree in Chinese Studies.

"Defending and promoting Chinese education is a mission that has a long way to go, Yap summarised, which urges me to keep working.

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