On Saturday, police officers showed up unannounced at a Chinese restaurant in Penang, Malaysia. The target of their raid? A wallpaper featuring Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong.
In a Twitter video, the police officers are seen peeling the wallpaper off the wall.
The move was apparently motivated by a public tip-off, local news outlet The Star reported. In addition to ridding the place of its wallpaper, the police also confiscated four small cups featuring Mao’s face and detained the restaurant’s 23-year-old manager.
The restaurant, Xiang Ge Li La, serves cuisine originating from Hunan province in southern China. However, the wallpaper in question was satirical and did not actually include communist slogans. When contacted by VICE, a spokesperson from Xiang Ge Li La said that they have handed the matter over to a lawyer.
The restaurant owner told local news outlet Malaysiakini that although the wallpaper’s design resembled Chinese communist propaganda, the Chinese words printed on the wallpaper are far from communist. Among other elements that are characteristic of 20th century Chinese communist propaganda posters, the wallpaper features Mao dressed in his distinctive military uniform, as well as grinning people holding on to their Little Red Books. But instead of communist slogans, its bold red writing subverts expectations with amusing alternatives like “Comrades, please come to this shop often!” and “There is glory in being a glutton.”
However, this tongue-in-cheek restaurant concept was lost on many who did not appreciate the flashy communist elements.
“Don’t stay here if you still love your homeland,” commented one Facebook user. “Hopefully investigations will be carried out in this restaurant, because it is promoting communist agenda,” wrote another.
Penang’s criminal investigation department chief Rahimi Ra’ais told the Malaysian National News Agency that the restaurant is being investigated for allegedly publishing propaganda of an “unlawful society” and circulating content that may alarm the public. He said that another Xiang Ge Li La outlet — run by the same owner and similarly decked with communist-themed decor — also had their wallpaper taken down. If found guilty of the offenses, the restaurant owner may be fined and/or jailed up to two years.
However, some believe that the police have overreacted. In a Facebook post, vice president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, Tan Teik Cheng wrote: “I think that the way the police handled the matter was honestly uncalled for. There is no need to harm friendly Malaysia-China relations over a wallpaper,” he said, adding that the wallpaper is just “decorations.”
Malaysia is home to a large Chinese diaspora, with ethnic Chinese accounting for about 22 percent of the local population. This, coupled with the nation’s long-drawn-out struggle against communist insurgencies during the Cold War era, has made anything communist-related especially touchy among the Malaysian public and authorities. In 2019, Malaysians were divided over the ashes of a late local communist leader who had spent over 50 years in exile. When his ashes were secretly brought back to Malaysia and scattered at sea, many deemed the act disrespectful to the country’s historical fight against communism.
“At the popular level and especially among the Malay community, there continues to be some degree of association between China and communism,” Shahriman Lockman, a researcher at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, told VICE. “China’s increasingly intense engagement with the overseas Chinese community under President Xi Jinping, especially in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, can be quite counterproductive.”
Indeed, such sensitivities against communism and China seem to be experiencing a revival in recent years, as the Chinese government seeks to reach out to the vast Chinese diaspora. From censoring posts on WeChat to allegedly interfering in domestic affairs, many think that the Chinese government has become increasingly active in shaping Malaysian political discourse.