Licence to criticise your own race and country

‘American Born Chinese’ is a graphic novel by Chinese American comic writer Gene Luen Yang. The comic contains a character called Chin-Kee (as in “Chinky”) who displays many American racial stereotypes of the Chinese in terms of accent, dress, hairstyle, physical appearance, eating habits, academic performance, and hobbies (Photo:

There is a word used in Singapore that I couldn’t possibly speak in polite company. It begins with “ch” and ends with “y”.

You might also want to add some “ink” to the middle of it. Got it?

It is a word those who are more familiar with American slang or the American culture would know. The one I can’t possibly say (or, for the record, would want to).

But it is used by my Singaporean Chinese friends, from whom I hear it often, and when they use this pejorative descriptor, it can be said with utter impunity.

“It’s very Chinky,” he might say. Or she might say, “He’s very Chinky.”

The first time I heard it — it was years ago now — it fell casually from the mouth of a Singaporean Chinese friend of mine. My reaction was: “What did you just say? Did you say that? Can you say that?”


Of course, being ethnically Chinese, there was no problem. Her race indemnified her from saying such a thing. It gave her a licence to condemn her own kind; hers was a perennial open season for intra-racial abuse.

When you disparage your own race, you are protected by a cloak of racial immunity. This is an all-weather cloak, one that will protect you whether you’re having a dig at someone for being too enamoured with another race (so called “reverse racism”; the term “banana” comes to mind here), or when you’ve flamed someone for being an exemplar of the worst aspects of your race (“internalised racism”).

“Chinky” is a prime example. The website for Urban Dictionary, the go-to source for the lazy linguistic, offers this definition: “A racist term, derived by (sic) the word ‘chink’ to describe anyone of Eastern Asian descent… the word usually doesn’t have the same racial effect when used by two Asians as opposed to the exchange of someone of another race.”

The hugely informative ‘Coxford Singlish Dictionary’ (Angsana Books, 2009) offers various definitions of “chinky”, such as “cheena”, “ching-chong”, “cheenagerk”, “cheenapiang”, “Chinaman”.

They do not all mean the same thing. “Ching-chong”, for instance, is infused with a little more levity than the dismissive “cheena”. The ‘Coxford’ provides an example: “His father very ching-chong Chinaman one, always wear pyjama at home.”

If any of these terms were used by me, they would be considered derogatory, but not when spoken by a Singaporean Chinese.


The colour of your skin determines what can or cannot be spoken in acceptable society. “Chinky” is the equivalent of the N-word, another term I couldn’t possibly say, but which African-Americans can say as much as they like about others in their race.

A cousin of “chinky” is “MIC” (made in China), a term used by Singaporeans to disparage visitors from mainland China who lack sophistication. Again, the ‘Coxford’ provides an illustration: “Piang! How come these MIC always talk so loud, one?”

Chinese Singaporeans aren’t the only intra-racial stone-throwers among the Chinese diaspora. The Hong Kong equivalent of “MIC” is “locust”, and when Hongkongers recently started organising “locust protests” aimed at mainland Chinese, it prompted South China Morning Post columnist Charlton McIlwain to ask whether “mainland Chinese (are) our new niggers to the East?” Only an African-American like McIlwain could get away with saying that.


As a “white” though, I must be careful with my colour palate. Much more careful than if I were “black” or “brown” or “yellow” or “red”. This is because being “white” brings with it a truckload of historical baggage.

In recent centuries, “we” have been the subjugators, the colonisers of lands where indigenous peoples (the aforementioned “blacks”, “browns”, “yellows” and “reds”) have been downtrodden, treated as third-rate citizens in their own homeland.

This had nothing to do with me personally. I wasn’t responsible for it – I come from a former colony myself – but I share the collective taint of history with my fellow “whites”.

I’m not complaining. I like being “white”. Which is just as well because I am stuck with it.

“White” is the prism through which I see everything. It is my Greenwich Mean Time, my point of reference to which all else is compared.

It has benefitted me on occasions, being “white”. Especially when I was living in Singapore. I lost count of the number of times Singaporeans would complain to me about the poor service they received on Singapore Airlines. But I was treated like royalty simply because of my pigmentation.


At other times, it made me feel like Switzerland; a neutral bystander caught in the middle of an internecine dispute between two bickering neighbours.

I have had Chinese taxi drivers complain to me about Indians, and Indian taxi drivers complain to me about Chinese. A grievance common to both sides was smell, particularly cooking smells, and I can’t help but think that if only this olfactory issue could be resolved, there would be peace between these two great races.

Colour liberates and limits. Kumar and Russell Peters can impugn Indians mercilessly, and Chris Rock can do the same to African-Americans, but when the Caucasian ventriloquist Jeff Dunham takes out his alter ego, Achmed The Dead Terrorist, he is accused of stereotyping Mulims. What one can say with impunity because of the colour of his skin, another cannot for the same reason.

Kumar, in particular, makes observations about race that are brutally funny, devastatingly insightful and uncomfortably true. He gets away with it, which says a lot about the sophistication of modern Singapore and the state of race relations in a country where it once caused violent division.


As a guest in another’s country, I must be more circumspect with what I say. No one likes a guest who criticises the furniture. On one of his recent visits, the writer and (alleged) philosopher Alain de Botton described my hometown of Brisbane as “one of the world’s ugliest cities”.

My immediate thought wasn’t that he was wrong, but that he had encroached on my turf. It’s my right to bag my city (and I do), not his. My bone of contention wasn’t so much disagreement with what he had said, but a demarcation dispute over his entitlement to say it.

It is the same when visiting journalists deride Singapore. ‘Disneyland with the Death Penalty’ (William Gibson, Wired, Sep/Oct 1993) and ‘The Prisoner in the Theme Park’ (Stan Stesser, originally published in The New Yorker as ‘A Rich Country Gone Wrong’, 1989) are two examples that seem to have stuck in the craw of Singaporean friends of mine, though some (begrudgingly) accept the accuracy of it.

When Singaporean blogger Stephanie Koh (Steph Micayle) unleashed her discursive diatribe “I’m NOT proud to be Singaporean” on YouTube in January, some Singaporeans agreed and some didn’t, but none questioned her entitlement to say it.

Though perhaps she didn’t know it, she had claimed the one true inalienable right of one’s own tribe: the right of self-criticism.

JFK Miller is an Australian journalist and regular visitor to Singapore where he lived from 1997 to 2002 and 2011 to 2012. He trained as a lawyer and has worked in London, Shanghai and Singapore.