CHINESE DIASPORA (Western Colonialism)

The Chinese diaspora was initially directed toward the countries around the South China Sea. Chinese mariners or ”junk” traders from the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong had been frequenting the ”Nanyang” (i.e., the South China Sea and the countries surrounding it) since the Song dynasty (960-1279), and some individuals had settled in the port cities of the region. Most were wealthy traders who dominated commerce with China, some serving as tax farmers.

Following the Qing takeover during the 1600s and the rising Chinese demand for pepper and tin, Chinese laborers were sent to the region to produce them. By the 1780s, there were important settlements of Chinese miners and planters scattered throughout the region. They numbered about 100,000 and came mainly from parts of Fujian near Xiamen and Guangdong near Shantou. The settlers included speakers of Kejiahua, Chaozhouhua, and Minanhua.

This emigration of coolie labor was the distinctive mark of the Chinese diaspora for the next century. Their labor drove the emerging economy of colonial Southeast Asia. After 1819, the British colony of Singapore became the major center for the coolie trade. From there, Chinese traders, brokers, and crimps managed the dispatch of this important resource to the mines and plantations of Southeast Asia. At the same time, cities, such as Bangkok, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Manila, Batavia (Jakarta), and hundreds of smaller towns in the region grew as they filled with thousands of Chinese workers, hawkers, craftsmen, and traders. By the mid-nineteenth century, the population of laborers continued to increase, but the products began to flow increasingly to the West.

In 1848, with the discovery of gold in California, and later in Australia, Chinese labor, both Cantonese and Hakka, primarily from the Guangzhou area, began to move across the Pacific. This migration flourished until the 1880s, when both the United States and Australia enacted Asian exclusion policies. Nonetheless, significant settlement nodes had developed along the west coast of both North and South America and in Australia.

Before the twentieth century, very few Chinese women had emigrated, and those that did were often kidnapped and fated to lives of prostitution. During the 1920s, however, significant numbers of Chinese women began to emigrate, following their menfolk to the large Chinese settlements throughout Southeast Asia and the United States. This migration saw the establishment of family life among the Chinese working classes of the diaspora, as well as the stabilization of communities, the growth of schools and newspapers, and a rise of political and social awareness and activity. For the first time, new migrants were from China’s intellectual classes. Fleeing political persecution in China, they worked as teachers and writers and revolutionary activists. Indigenous Southeast Asians and colonial governments both came to view this growth of Chinese nationalism as a threat.

With the economic depression in the 1930s, Chinese migration slowed dramatically and was even reversed in many areas. World War II and the subsequent disorder of the Chinese civil war brought waves of refugees out of China. Some went to Hong Kong, others to Taiwan, with many others fleeing to already established communities in the Nanyang and the United States. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, however, legal emigration from China completely stopped, except for a small flow of refugees through Hong Kong.

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