Donald Nonini“Getting By”: Class and State Formation Among Chinese in Malaysia

Cornell University Press, 2015

by Nick Cheesman on July 31, 2015

Donald Nonini

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"Getting By": Class and State Formation Among Chinese in Malaysia (Cornell University Press, 2015) is a powerful and multilayered book that upbraids overseas Chinese studies for their neglect of class. Bringing class struggle and identity firmly to the centre of his analysis, Donald Nonini argues that scholars of the overseas Chinese have not accounted for class and its role in state formation adequately. Instead, an abiding concern for articulating an imagined essential "Chinese culture" causes scholars to disregard the radical dialectics of state formation and antagonism that crisscross time and space in Southeast Asian postcolonies. Nevertheless, class relations have been fundamental to Malaysian society, and especially, to the making of meaning among its racially differentiated citizenry.

Drawing on over three decades of fieldwork, from 1978 to the 2000s, "Getting By" is full of detail yet highly readable. Sometimes provocative but always reflective, it is throughout concerned with rethinking premises and questioning assumed knowledge–both of the state in Malaysia and of the academic discipline. In parts political history, in other parts political ethnography, at each point the book couples Nonini's concern for historical contingency and insularity with larger debates on hegemony, struggle and domination.

At a time that it seems to be the fashion for academics to hobnob with policymakers rather than hang out with petty traders or lorry drivers, to demonstrate competencies rather than take up causes, and to produce thought bubbles rather than do deep longitudinal research, "Getting By" is a beautifully unfashionable book that reminds its readers of how much can be learned from staying put, and from thinking and writing plainly about people and things that clearly matter.

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