Doing Business Over Tea

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Hun Lye pou red from a tiny clay pot as we sat in his Chambers office, adorned with various statues of deities and spirits, including one of Yoda. “It’s nicer doing business over tea,” Lye says.

“I have a big god collection in a cabinet at home,” says Lye, a native Malaysian who joined the faculty in 2008 as an assistant professor of religion. Deities figure prominently in his summer plans, which are to travel with three Davidson students to Malaysia for a month of research, funded by a grant from ASIA Network.

The summer project is framed within the context of a global resurgence of religion, but he and his students— Brian Leahy ’11, Zach Herron ’12, and Whitney Webb ’12 —are working in the more localized context of contemporary Chinese Malaysians and their experience of religion.

“Chinese Malaysians have an eclectic set of beliefs,” says Lye, pouring more tea into our tiny china cups. “Not by the book.” In addition to worshipping a Chinese “locale god,” or Tudi Gong, they may turn for “extra help” to Datuk Kong, a Chinese- Malaysian god related to Islamic keramat, or saint worship. “They literally worship these two distinct deities side by side,” he tells me.

For four weeks, Lye and his students will be immersed in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious but Malay-Muslim-dominant Malaysian culture, exploring this mélange of religiosity. Herron’s focus is on Datuk Kong; Webb is studying spirit-possession; Leahy is researching Chinese Malaysians’ participation in Tibetan Buddhism. Lye hopes that they will gain an appreciation for complex issues of identity and religiosity in our contemporary world—and the challenges of capturing and
representing this complexity in the academic context.

Lye was drawn to the mystery of religion and its deific manifestations as a child, poring over the Encyclopedia Britannica that his father bought for his children. “I went directly to the sections on mythology—right to the Greeks and the Romans.”

He began as a communications major at Allegheny College, but after a junior year in London studying religion, Lye found his academic home. “The joke at college was that I would become the first Malaysian televangelist!”

Lye smiles, pouring one last cup. “But that didn’t happen. At least, not yet.”

—Meg Kimmel

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