It was a task to teach me responsibility, and how to be a part of the team. See, you do it this way, my father would say. You have to use the fingers of both hands, and you have to stroke each note, each sheet of the bills. He was patient and unhurried, and I was a quick learner. The trick, I discovered, was to hold the notes between the thumb and the index finger of both hands just tight enough to feel the papery surface. To start counting, the right index finger flipped up a note, the left index finger and thumb gripped and gave it a light rub to make sure it’s a single sheet. It called for coordination and dexterity of the fingers. Later when I got good at it, I could do it blind, without looking. With a slab of ten or fifty-ringgit bills, I put the notes through the deft fingering, while my head made the silent count: ‘One, two, three, four, five, six ....’ Each count summoned, as it would for the blind, the grimy feel of an old note, and once in a while, the surprising crispness of a new one. The feel was everything: the worn notes a soft drag on the fingertips, the new notes a coarse tingling, like pages of a new book.
I did this each evening with my father, when we emptied the cash register and entered the daily take in the ledger. I had a lot of practice; I honed my skills through the high school years and later when I came home during the university vacation. It is an art all but useless in these days of internet banking and cashless transaction. Yet, the habit has been drilled into me, and I find it hard to shake it off. Decades on, in another country, it astonished my fellow shoppers when, given a bundle of bills at the Woolworths supermarket cash-out, I began to wet my fingers and fly through the notes right at the counter. The checkout lady stared, and the people in the queue were amazed. Deeply embarrassed I instantly stopped. I was sure everyone was sniggering at me, at my skill that tagged me as a Scrooge or one with a vulgar fondness for money. I grabbed the money and, near the trollies outside, took a deep breath to recoup my dignity. Secretly, though, I could not help but feel a sense of pride at the skill so quaintly out of date. It was a social blunder, but it called up for me the golden hours I spent working with my father on the great ironwood table at the High Street shop. I was never so close to my father as I was during those evening hours. We counted the take for the day, we went through the ledgers and we were two comrades behind the barricade facing the common enemy. Our hopes were adhered to those precious notes. They were, like the family, the bastion against the duplicitous world. As I reached the final note, I felt I had entered the centre of a mystery which had consumed my parents and left its mark on their children.
Money enters the family, and fear and corruption do their devil’s work.
But this came to me later. In those years in the seventies, money was everything to us. Living in a Chinese shophouse was a lesson in the value of money. Like the poor, we did not rave about the moral hollowness of money, a presumption we could not afford. What paid the bills, what kept the wolf—and the creditors, more literally—from the door, and later what sustained my brothers and I at the university, were those grimy notes. Practicality ruled the way we thought about money. The lack of it, not its corrupting power, was the source of our worries. For money never seemed to stay long enough with us to cause us problems, to stir up the moral issues.
Each evening after we had entered the day’s taking in the ledger, my father would consult the account books and allocated the money accordingly. This 800 ringgit would go to Hegemeyer, the wholesaler of the ever popular Eagle Medical Oil; the Tiger Balm salesman was coming the next day, this 1,000 ringgit would be for him; the rest was to be deposited in the bank for the cheques my father had written. Putting the neat bundles of cash in the safe was the first step of a vanishing act. Money felt to us like the stuff of floating life, to use a Chinese expression, short-lived and without substance. But it dominated our lives; it measured our successes; and the lack of it gauged our failures.
Against these sorry tales, what of the happier ones? I suppose they count, too, as part of the story about Chinese petite capitalism. My parents had, in all appearances, a good marriage. They were devoted to each other, and they had made their marriage work. They squabbled about this and that, but they were a team in raising the family and in running the shop. There was love in the family. Against the moral shambles and financial shortfalls, there were triumphs and ambitions realised. Ours were tiger parents before the term was invented. They invested in their children’s education. Three of the five children went to the university. Our parents made us study hard, with the refrain: have a good education; no one can take that away from you. Against the gloom of petite capitalism, I am glad how things have turned out for me and my siblings. I have hung on to the memory of the family business and of my father’s deft financial management that gave the family a modicum of prosperity. We were, in the miracle of miracles, realisations of a cliché. For its many shortcomings, Chinese petite capitalism felt to us like a blessing. Sometimes I even think we were lucky to be born in a Chinese shophouse, with parents as astute and undefeatable as ours. We have thrived and we have been made prosperous. But our parents barely survived it.
The ‘petite’ of petite capitalism suggests sins and deficiencies of various kinds. ‘Petite’ points to the ‘littleness’ of a shop’s capital, the ‘littleness’ of its scale of production, the ‘littleness’ of its level of profit and cash saving. Petite capitalists are small merchants, self-sustaining peasants, tradesmen, weavers, ironsmiths, the self-employed. The conventional terms are ‘petty capitalism’ and ‘petty capitalists’, each with its unhappy prefix. Petty gives petty capitalism unflattering connotations: conservative, traditional, lacking in innovation. And with ‘petty capitalists’, you are aware of the social disparagement: they are regressive, they tend to identify with the status quo and those in power. In either case, it is a quick descent from ‘small’ or ‘quaint and attractive’, to ‘contemptibly trivial’.1 With petty capitalism, it is hard not to associate it with another term of denigration: ‘petty bourgeoisie’ or the adjective ‘petty bourgeois’. Raymond Williams in Keywords gives a historical account of the term ‘bourgeois.’ It had its origin as a ‘juridical category’ of residents in French feudal society, whose ‘stable and solvent’ mode of life invited the aristocratic judgement of ‘mediocrity’.2 From the French usage emerged the current social disdain for the bourgeoisie—the classic middle class—with their small-mindedness, philistine taste, self-obsession. The petite bourgeoisie—and the petite capitalists—are not passionate, romantic figures given to wild speculations and lurid fantasies.1
James C. Scott. 2012. Two Cheers for Anarchism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 112.2
Raymond Williams. 1985. Keywords, New York: Oxford University Pres, 46.
It is quite a lot to put on the modest family shop and the people who own and run it. The question is with the littleness in all its aspects: what kind of capitalism is petty capitalism?
For a start, let us revert it back to the more useful ‘petite’. ‘Petite’ of the original French describes the economic form; it is more moderate while it retains a touch of the derogatory. ‘Petite capitalism’ allows us to examine the structural limits of the small family enterprise and reminds us to spurn the easy vilification.
When we look around any town or city, petite capitalism seems everywhere. It is the all-hours corner shops, the food takeaways, the Asian groceries, the shoe repairs and tin smiths and hawkers in the streets, it is the family-run small workshops making mobile phone covers, rubber slippers and plastic indoor plants at the back alleys of any Third World city. With these businesses, the owner-operator is the family whose members work for free, they do not draw wages and there is no talk of opportunity costs of this ‘free labour’. Besides the family, the lifeline of petite capitalism is the network of friends and kin; these are its customers, its labour recruiters, its money lenders, its marketing agents. This marriage of social relations and their economic use is complicated and alluring. For people like my father, it called up the practices in the past when financial dealings were personal, when economic affairs were conducted with an awareness of their impact on others. With petite capitalism, economic affairs are more often than not social affairs. Contemporary petite capitalism is a boilerplate capitalism where making profits and making—and keeping—friends are deemed possible.
Maybe petite capitalism is a kind of pariah capitalism, not quite the real thing. My father spoke of the village way of doing business. For him doing business with kin involved a certain ethics; you did not apply the law of the jungle when you dealt with your relatives. He believed business transactions should be ethical and socially considered. The anthropologist James Scott roots for the petite bourgeoisie. Scott casts a wide net; petite bourgeoisie include the army of shopkeepers, smallholding peasant, hawkers and peddlers, self-employed professionals; petite capitalists all. He praises their sense of autonomy; he sees them as fighting for freedom against the state and its public bureaucracies. Their need for independence and for the freedom to work in their own time, in their own place, makes them ‘anarchist heroes’.33
Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism, 85.
Petite capitalists are also praised in other terms. Instead of ‘heroic rebelliousness’, Alan and Josephine Smart credit petite capitalists with efficiency and flexibility, qualities that earn their enterprises a place in the global economy. The Smarts are concerned with small-scale export-oriented manufacturers, larger and grander than the corner shops and takeaways. Nonetheless they all share similar social and cultural characters. With petite capitalist enterprises, the owner-operator and labour are congealed in a single institution, the family. Or, as the Smarts write, ‘Petite capitalists regularly operate in the ambiguous boundaries between capital and labour, cooperation and exploitation, family and economy, tradition and modernity, friends and competitors.’4 The advantages of these family-owned manufacturers are clear.4
Alan and Josephine Smart (eds.). 2012. Petty Capitalists and Globalization: flexibility, entrepreneurship, and economic development, New York: SUNY Press, 2.
Small entrepreneurs can operate in a global economy in ways that would not have been feasible a few decades ago. ... Brokerage across borders provides opportunities that appeal particularly to those with little capital but high risk tolerance. At the same time, international migration and study abroad create kin and friendship ties that can facilitate taking advantage of opportunities created by local difference.55
In this depiction, petite capitalist enterprises are efficient and innovative, where the traditional is in sync with the modern and the contemporary. The whole family works together in harmony and observes no conflict or contradiction.
Yet structural limitation and financial shortfalls are the bird’s heartbeat of petite capitalism. Rest your fingers there, and you can feel the pulsating vulnerability that plagues every small family business. My siblings and I had lived through the disasters and the prodigious hope of a Chinese shophouse. Sometimes I think a lot of the good stories about petite capitalism are bunk. At any rate, you can approach it any way you like: as a nest of anarchy, as an efficient flexible economic formation, as a place of family love and collective striving. But what is left out are the emotional costs of those working and living in it, and the fact petite capitalism is prone to failure.
The Chinese or East Asian communities’ commercial genius is so legendary that it comes across as an Orientalist fantasy. Who would want to disparage the financial success of the Asian model minority, as they are called in the United States? But then who would care to know the hand-to-mouth existence that goes on in an Asian corner shop or takeaway? Look deep enough, however, and you’ll find plenty that satisfies the pessimists. The bad story of petite capitalism often tells the wrong investment decisions, the struggle in the family over control and ownership, the infighting that causes the demise of the enterprise itself. But this is the stuff of soap operas compared with what is truly tragic. If petite capitalism is a form of capitalism, however distorted and unformed it tends to be, then it also falls prey to the evolutionary processes that affect capitalism as a whole. Capitalism is continuously transforming itself, forced by wider structural circumstances and voluntarily. Even the modest High Street shop could not escape this fundamental truth. We had faced the boom and bust of the wider economy, and we had kept an eye on the changing opportunities in order not to miss out. As I try to understand what happened to our family business, I find an echo in The Communist Manifesto, and in Schumpeter’s thesis of ‘creative destruction’, works that lay out the ever-transformative nature of capitalist production. Nothing stood still. We thought the High Street shop should not have failed. After all we had worked hard, we had been a team, and our father had schemed and planned to prop up the business. We didn’t deserve to fail, when others less tenacious than us had succeeded and thrived.
And we had more to lose than others. We knew it was a dangerous game to compare ourselves with others. However, as far back I could remember, everything about the family business, everything about our collective labour, had this singular quality: the need to show the world who we were and what we were made of. My father talked of giving the family a more secure financial future. He was thinking of the family, but he was also, in a sense, thinking of himself. He wanted the family to prosper, and his children to be educated, but he also needed to show the world he could be more than a shopkeeper. The social disparagement of the petite bourgeoisie runs deep.
My father, in the way of encouragement, urged us to study hard, to show them we were from a good family. But who were them to whom we had to account for our life except ourselves? As for my father, he seemed to be bedevilled by the feeling that he had somehow failed to measure up to the standards of his wealthier kin and associates. It was a mixture of truth and self-perception—and even a touch of fantasy. But it explains his restless ambitions and his need to seize the opportunities that rewarded the bold and the nimble-minded.
Chinese immigrants took their traditional medicine with them wherever they went. The ancient healing art was a part of their cultural heritage; when sick they wanted to avail themselves of a cure they had enjoyed in the home country. The feel of the doctor’s hand on the pulse, the solicitous tone of his voice, his sensitive probing of the symptoms, and later, the pure bitterness of the herbal brew—they were familiar and reassuring. It was emotional therapy met medical prognosis and cure.
When my grandfather, a Hong Kong-trained herbalist, arrived in the 1930s in Ipoh, a rich mining town in the Perak state, British Malaya, he was one of the few learned men in the community. He was sought after for his medical skill and other services. As my grandmother told it, during a joyful event like a wedding he would be asked to choose a propitious date for the ceremony. And when a baby was born, the parents would approach him to pick a good name—‘Big-Prosperity’ for the plump male tot, ‘Fragrant-Jade’ for the baby girl sure to grow up into a beauty. Afterwards, he would be fighting the happy couple over the ‘red packet’ good luck money they pressed on him to accept. He made a bit of money, so it seemed. He later opened a pawn shop which had a liquor licence, and the corner of the shop became a bar of sort, serving beer and reconstituted brandy and whiskey for poor Indian workers. From Chinese medicine he had branched out into the lending business and selling shoddy alcohol beverages, because there was more money in them.
The family legend stretches far back, but grandmother tended to get a bit tongue-tied when she got too close to those years. Grandfather, she said, was restless, the cover-all word that describes his temperament; he was a man not easy to please. I had in my head the image of staid healer, immersed in tradition, deep in the communal affairs; but grandmother’s telling dispelled the cliché. But what kind of man was he? She once told me that grandfather had a mistress, a local Chinese woman, a young schoolteacher; and grandmother had threatened to go back to China where grandfather had bought land and built a grand house. She also told me her husband had cared deeply about what happened in China; and he had taken part in the boycotting of Japanese goods in Malaya when Japan invaded the Chinese mainland in 1937. I was a little stunned and puzzled. A Chinese doctor, well-read and with a social reputation to match; a loving husband who shacked up with a young woman from the tropics; a traditionalist and a nationalist with modern thinking: they all described the man. Grandmother and I talked over the years, but the veil over my grandfather was not lifted.
A few years back I took my children to see Once Upon a Time in China when it had just come out in a local cinema in Singapore, the city where I had taken a university job. And I thought: grandfather would be just one more generation after Master Wong Feihong; he would have shared Wong’s values and nationalist sentiments. Once Upon a Time in China converted my kids into lifetime fans of Jet Li and his martial art epics. In the film, Wong Feihong, the kung fu master and traditional healer, is a bold and wise figure, expert in the ‘no shadow kick’ of the Wing Chun school, doing battle with opium-trading foreign devils and Chinese religious cult followers alike. Wong is even made to fall in love with Thirteen Aunt, his stepmother’s youngest sister, a San Francisco-educated, skirt-wearing modern woman, but the incestual joke was lost to my kids. I told them Master Wong was closest to what their great-grandfather was like. Like Master Wong, he was a traditional healer edging towards modernity in the pre-war years of the late 1930s. He had found love outside marriage, and he was a fervent cultural nationalist. In some ways grandfather’s temperament explained something of my father. For he too was ‘restless’; and like grandfather he was confident and ambitious, yet with a keen eye for the unexpected and the perilous.
I was close to my father. From my teenage years until the time I left for university in Adelaide, Australia, I worked in the shop and he gave me what jobs I could do. I helped keep the accounts and handle the cash. He wanted to toughen me and to give me a feel of the herbal business. I also believe he was trying to cultivate a father-and-son rapport he didn’t have with his father. Like people self-taught—he was taken off from the second year in high school to help in the Ipoh pawnshop—he had a fondness for reading and learning. His mind was fed by books from the World Bookshop in Petaling Street in Chinatown, the popular purveyor of traditional and modern texts from Hong Kong and China. When he talked, he gave the impression of trying out ideas, to see if what he had read had any purchase on his present life. He was a person whose character implied a certain fluidity. I shall describe him as an ‘innovative conservative’, a ‘petite capitalist with a modern outlook’, a ‘figure of male authority who valued daughters over sons’—labels that best describe the man I knew.
My father was a stickler for ethics, for what he called proper behaviour, which he brought into all his dealings. It was for him a matter of practice and personal conviction. His counsel of the importance of honesty, trustworthiness and respectability was drummed into me. In my teenage years, my response was often a sense of cynical incredulity. He spoke of trust and honesty, but his was a world of cut-throat competition and not infrequently, distrust and betrayal. So my father’s approach to business seemed near impossible. It is as if he wanted the material gain, but he also yeaned for the approval of others. Unless, of course, personal trust and social approval have economic significance, something useful in business. In that case, social capital is just another form of capital, one from which a person can expect to draw benefits from it over time. After my first-year at university, I had the language: the market is objective; self-interests and competition are natural. There’s no bad behaviour in the Smithian realm of freedom to trade.