The Chin family, 1955. William and Betty Chin owned and operated a laundry in downtown Baltimore, Maryland, after moving to the United States in the 1940s. PHOTO BY THE CHIN FAMILY.
Throughout the past two centuries, Chinese have migrated to different places for different reasons. The terms for these groups have varied as well, and their profile in economic markets has changed from unskilled to highly skilled. Although descendents of older generations of Chinese migrants might have fewer emotional ties to China, they share a common bond of interest in their heritage.
The migration of Chinese from different regions in China to different parts of the world is a phenomenal process in globalization that has demographic, socioeconomic, and political implications both worldwide and in China. Numbering between 30 million (lowest estimate) and 40 million (highest estimate) worldwide, not including Chinese living in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao, the overseas Chinese are minorities in some countries, making up as little as 3 or 4 percent of the population, but form significant percentages of the population in others (78 percent of Singapore’s population, for instance, and 28 percent of Malaysia’s). Although the highest concentration of overseas Chinese is in Southeast Asia, the United States has the largest absolute population with 2.5 million, a number expanding due to the continuous flow of Chinese migrants into the country from China and other parts of the world.
Today most overseas Chinese are visibly urban, and many are engaged in the business, professional, and service sectors. There are also many Chinatowns around the world, whether remnants of historical niches of Chinese communities or new creations for attracting tourists.
The term overseas Chinese loosely refers to all Chinese who reside outside China, including both citizens of China and citizens of other nations. The Chinese term for Chinese migrants who settle outside China is huaqiao or “Chinese sojourners” and is generally interchangeable with the English term overseas Chinese. When these Chinese and their descendants identify themselves by their local nationality as, for instance, Malaysians or Americans, they prefer to use the more neutral term huaren, literally Hua people, which refers to the Chinese ethnically without any implication of nationality. The term huaren is today commonly used by Chinese of different regions and nationalities, including those in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, instead of the term zhongguoren, which also means Chinese but is derived from the root word zhongguo, which refers to the country of China (literally as the Middle Kingdom). In fact even in China, when politicians and other individuals wish to emphasize Chinese worldwide, huaren rather than zhongguoren may be used, although often they are collectively referred to as huaqiao/hauren. In China today, hauqiao refers only to citizens of China living abroad, and so it is technically incorrect to refer to Chinese of other nationalities as huaqiao.
Such distinctions are not addressed by the English label overseas Chinese. Because of this, many scholars who study them prefer to use the terms Chinese overseas or Chinese of different nationalities (CDN) to refer to Chinese who are citizens of other countries worldwide. These terms are more comparable to the Chinese term haiwai huaren, meaning, simply, the Chinese outside China, and they are commonly used by Chinese scholars in China. Although overseas Chinese are also described as Chinese diaspora, especially by scholars in the West, some Chinese scholars take issue, perhaps with “forced exile” implicated in the term diaspora as it was originally used, since overseas Chinese departures from China have been voluntary. But for simplicity in this discussion in English, the term overseas Chinese refers to all Chinese living outside China, without any disrespect to those who wish to stress their new national identities. Regardless of the labels they are given, these populations have their Chinese origins in common, even if their regional backgrounds are diverse.
Since there is no consensus on a label that can cover all Chinese in different parts of the world, it is worth pointing out one aspect of a Chinese term about which Chinese scholars agree: huaren, or Hua people, or more specifically haiwai huaren excludes Chinese living in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao. Scholars and politicians in China refer to these Chinese as jingwai huaren, or Chinese in the territories outside mainland China, in contrast to huaqiao and CDN. Also worth noting is that overseas Chinese are often assumed to be Han Chinese, although in the term overseas zhongguoren, non-Han Chinese, such as the Uighur in Turkey, who originally migrated from Xinjiang should also be included. There are Koreans, Russians, Mongolians, Huis, and other non-Han zhongguoren (Chinese) who live overseas. The Huis, for example, either form a distinct population of Chinese Muslims or merge with the local dominant Muslim population.
Migration and Distribution
Southeast Asia, known to the Chinese in the past as the South Seas, had long been visited by Chinese traders and pilgrims. But when Admiral Zheng He made various expeditions to Southeast Asia (and further west) in the first part of the fifteenth century, there were few Chinese in the region; it was not until the end of the eighteenth century that there were significant Chinese settlements in different Southeast Asian ports. These earliest Chinese settlers were traders.
In the nineteenth century, many Chinese migrated to Southeast Asia and the Americas. Most of them were recruited as coolies or indentured laborers. This was the time of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) in China, which had brought about much suffering in South China; many peasants from the region were willing to migrate overseas to secure a better livelihood, while a number of colonial economies welcomed Chinese labor. In the Americas, slave trade had just ended after a civil war, and coolies were needed to replace slaves. In places like Cuba, British Guiana, and Peru, coolies were in fact treated like slaves to work in sugarcane and other agricultural plantations, build railroads, and even dig guano. In North America, Chinese coolies were recruited for railroad construction in the United States during the 1860s and in Canada during the 1880s. The earliest Chinese migrants in Panama were indentured laborers recruited to build the Panama Railroad in the 1850s.
The migration of Chinese in the nineteenth century to North America, as well as to Australia and South Africa, was also linked to the gold rush. For example, Chinese migration to Canada began with the Fraser River gold rush in 1858. The early Chinese immigrants to North America, however, suffered from white racism and opposition from local organized labor. The United States introduced the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 to restrict and discriminate against Chinese immigration. Not until 1965 did the New Immigrant Act abolished quotas of immigrants based on national origins. And the introduction in 1967 of Canada’s universal points system—in which immigration officers assigned points for certain criteria such as education level, the availability of suitable employment, age, and fluency in English or French—helped to prevent racial discrimination against immigrants entering Canada.
to the migration to North America, there were relatively less Chinese who migrated to Europe in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the Allied Forces in World War I recruited more than 100,000 laborers from Shandong, Shanghai, and Zhejiang to serve on the war front in such roles as cooks and trench diggers. In Russia, Chinese laborers were recruited also during World War I to build railways. The more affluent European countries attracted Chinese migrants from their former colonies. The United Kingdom attracted Chinese from Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, both students and professionals. Many of the migrants from Hong Kong established and worked in Chinese restaurants. Chinese from Indonesia and Suriname were attracted to the Netherlands, where they are still very visible in the twenty-first century. After the defeat of the Americans in Vietnam in 1975, many Chinese from Indochina migrated to France.
The 1920s and 1930s saw another surge in Chinese migration overseas, especially from Fujian and Guangdong, as young men sought to escape kidnapping by bandits or recruitment by soldiers to fight in the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. Migration from China subsided after World War II, however, as the independent new states in Southeast Asia restricted Chinese immigration. There was a further surge before the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949; after which migration became extremely difficult. With the opening of China in 1979, Chinese were again freer to migrate, especially to the richer industrial West. There were also Chinese who “re-migrated” from the poorer south to the richer north, such as from the Caribbean to Canada. The years preceding the British handover of Hong Kong to Communist China saw the migration of many Chinese from Hong Kong to the United States, Canada, Europe (especially the United Kingdom), Australia, and New Zealand.
Today overseas Chinese of similar regional origins in China often settle near each other outside of China (such as the Hokkiens, Hakka, Cantonese, and Teochius in Southeast Asia, the Taishan Chinese in America, or the Hakka in Calcutta and Jamaica). Although they might assimilate the diverse cultures of their new locales (by learning to speak Tagalog or Malay or Spanish, for instance) many of them, bonded by their national origin, still share a common interest in various aspects of Chinese symbolism and civilization. While most overseas Chinese originated from the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, today many of the migrants in Europe are from Zhejiang, especially Wenzhou. There has been overland migration from Yunnan to mainland Southeast Asia, especially Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, where there is a significant population of Yunnanese Chinese. There are small numbers of Chinese who migrated from elsewhere in China; for instance, there is a small community of Chinese in Sabah, Malaysia, whose forebears migrated from Hebei and Shandong.
Overseas Chinese and China
Chinese migrants have always maintained some ties with qiaoxiang, their native region in China. This included returning to China to visit relatives or to marry. The early migrants were generally men, while women were left behind in China. There was thus a large number of “living widows,” wives who were visited by their husbands once every few years and who were dependent on them for remittances. The unlucky ones never saw their husbands after some years passed, as the men married local women in the lands where they settled. By the end of the nineteenth century, more and more women emigrated from China, resulting in overseas Chinese communities with a more balanced ratio of men to women, especially after World War II. While the women also suffered from patriarchal restriction in the early period of migration, most eventually were able to receive a modern education, and many contributed significantly to running family businesses. But the lack of women in the early period of migration resulted in many men marrying local non-Chinese women, giving rise to some racially mixed populations, such as the Chinese Mestizos in the Philippines and the Creoles in the Caribbean. Although originally racially mixed, the Chinese Peranakan in insular Southeast Asia eventually married intensively among themselves and with Chinese migrants, and they have remained Chinese, albeit with a localized identity, such as the Babas in Malaysia and Singapore.
There always had been transnational networks between overseas Chinese and their relatives in China. With the opening of China since 1979, the advance in transportation and Internet technologies, and the expansion of global capitalism, today’s transnational networks are even more intense and frequent. Overseas Chinese have contributed significantly to investments in China, although the bulk of the investors are usually the Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The Chinese, because they speak Mandarin or a relevant Chinese language and have contacts through the wider Chinese networks, may be in an advantageous position to establish the guanxi (personal relations) so necessary in business ventures. At the same time the overseas Chinese are able to play a part in attracting investment from China to their respective countries.
The migration of Chinese today also takes the form of overseas Chinese re-?migrating to China, since the expanding economy and the presence of international investments offer many business and professional opportunities. These returnees, called haigui, are different from the returning overseas Chinese called guiqiao, who were mostly Chinese from Southeast Asia who went back to China to study either before or soon after the establishment of the PRC, as well as those who left Indonesia because of anti-Chinese policies. Many of the latter returnees were sent to overseas Chinese farms (huaqiao nongchang); many of these returnees later migrated to Hong Kong in the 1970s, some even earlier.
Unlike the early migrants, now it is common to find these entrepreneurial Chinese leaving their families outside China while the men (usually) return to work in China or in both China and their newly adopted countries. This so-?called astronaut family strategy came to prominence after many Chinese from Hong Kong migrated prior to 1997, when the British relinquished the territory to China, although the men later returned to work or do business in Hong Kong after finding that Hong Kong had remained relatively unchanged and stable. Worth noting are the many new migrants who left China after 1978, both legal and illegal: Among these are the illegal migrants brought by the snakeheads (smugglers) to Europe and North America. Most current migrants, in contrast to migrants of the past, are students and professionals. Many of them continue to identify strongly with both China and their new country, negotiating their identities as both, for instance, Australians and Chinese. So significant in number are they that the Chinese government has attempted to gain their support for nationalistic Chinese causes, especially by influencing new migrants’ associations. Indeed, with its emergence as a big power and an economic giant, China is also seeking to have political and cultural influence among overseas Chinese and the local societies. The establishment of Confucian institutes (kongzi xueyuan) worldwide is an example, and so are the roles played by the Chinese embassies and the overseas Chinese organizations in keeping close contact with leaders of Chinese associations inside China. While the descendants of older migrants may not have the same emotional attachment to qiaoxiang or China in general, the curiosity about their ancestors’ homeland and the religious links with the lineages and temples in China continue to preserve their cultural ties with China. After all, China is the land of Chinese civilization, and it is always culturally relevant to the Chinese, whether in
China or overseas.
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Source: Tan, Chee-Beng. (2009). Overseas Chinese. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1675–1679. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
The Chin children pose in front of the family car in downtown Baltimore. PHOTO BY THE CHIN FAMILY.
Overseas Chinese (Huáqiáo ?? Huárén ??)|Huáqiáo ?? Huárén ?? (Overseas Chinese)