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Open Access Publications from the University of California

"A Time of Great Tension": Memory and the Malaysian Chinese Construction of the May 13 Race Riots


On May 13th 1969, decades of political and ethnic pressures exploded after a contentious general election, changing Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur from a bustling cityscape into a racialized battleground. Majority Malay and minority Chinese would clash for weeks afterward, leaving behind an estimated two hundred dead and a further five hundred wounded. This paper examines a variety of Malaysian Chinese constructions of the race riots in the decades afterward, piecing together the thoughts and feelings held towards an ethnically traumatic event that still holds sway in the current turbulent sky that is Malaysia's political sphere. Using essays, nonfiction, literature, and surveys from those who had lived through the riots, we see for all the lack of a cohesive narrative and general reticence regarding the riots that while the 'winner' may create history, the 'loser' can develop powerful, flexible lessons for the future.

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