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The terms Chinese diaspora and overseas Chinese refer to people of Chinese descent living outside of China. According to a 2003 estimate (MA 2003), the “Chinese living overseas” include migrants from mainland China and Taiwan and consist of about 33 million people living in 107 countries worldwide. Of this total, the largest populations live in Southeast Asia (76 %), North America (11 %), and Europe (6 %), followed by decreasing numbers in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean; East Asia outside China; Oceania; and Africa. The majority of Chinese who have left China to go overseas have gone as laborers or traders.


It would be surprising if a society such as China—with more than 2,000 years of imperial dynastic history and characterized by several centuries of geographic expansion—did not have a political-ideological order that established a fundamental distinction between those who were loyal and orthodox subjects and those who were not. Indeed, differential moral valuations of groups were based on this distinction between “people of culture” and “barbarians” (called fan in Chinese). This distinction was erected around perceived differences that indexed the presence or absence of political loyalty, as measured by obeisance to the emperor, acceptance of imperial administration and law, payment of taxes, residence in lowland sedentary settlements, and worship of the gods of the Buddhist-Daoist-Confucian pantheon, including one’s ancestors. To show these attributes was to be, by definition, a member of the Han, China’s largest ethnic group. Whether such perceived traits were strictly cultural or were associated with physical traits within imperial discourse is unclear. Still, the explicit criteria could be fulfilled by anyone, and in this sense “barbarian” status need not be inherited. To the Han Chinese, peoples living within the empire but not belonging to the Han were associated with color—sometimes skin color, and sometimes colors associated with occupations or dyes used in clothing. Moreover, some groups enslaved by the Han in the twelfth century were called “devil slaves” and identified by skin, lip, and teeth color, and by their inability to eat cooked foods or to speak Chinese (Dikotter 1992). These distinctions were those made by Chinese elites (officials, scholars, and merchants), and it is unclear whether such distinctions were employed by non-elites in everyday life.

During the premodern and early modern periods, the distinction between people of culture and barbarians was employed to distinguish subjects of the emperor from those living within the territories of the empire whose traits indicated they were disloyal or suspect, as well as those living beyond the empire with whom Chinese came into contact. The extension of the Asia-wide Chinese tribute system until the seventeenth century, however, meant that peoples whose rulers swore loyalty to the emperor might themselves be, if not Chinese, not barbarians either. Within this group were Koreans, Ryuku Islanders, Vietnamese, and Siamese. The Chinese viewed those within Asia but not encompassed by the tribute system (with its administered trade) as barbarians, as were all peoples beyond the reach of the tribute system.

Beginning in the early sixteenth century, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English merchants, sailors, soldiers, and explorers ventured into the seas within the Chinese maritime tribute system, which extended throughout the insular East and Southeast Asia. Chinese merchants and imperial officials who came into contact with these foreigners classified them as barbarians, as inferior people without learning or culture.


The Han Chinese whose descendants make up the vast majority of the Chinese diaspora in the early twenty-first century came from the coastal regions of southern and southeastern China, and particularly from southern and eastern Guangdong Province, southern Fujian Province, and Hainan Island. One stream of emigration began in the late eighteenth century and crested in the 1880s through 1930s and was associated with the European colonization of Southeast Asia. Most emigrants came from Han subethnic groups, or “speech groups,” living in regions of coastal southern Fujian; inland Fujian, Jiangxi, and Guangdong; eastern coastal Guangdong; and southern Guangdong and Hainan. Chinese from these regions had widely varying customs and spoke mutually incomprehensible Chinese languages. Among Chinese immigrants to Southeast Asia, these speech-group affiliations were overriding, and most viewed people belonging to other speech groups as essentially different from and inferior to their own—as indeed they had within China itself.

The British, Dutch, and French who came to actively colonize Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century faced an enormous deficit in labor, which they needed to “open” the lands they had conquered to administration and exploitation. Laborers were in demand to build roads, railways, harbors, and government buildings, and to clear land for urban settlement, plantations, and mines. This work would supply raw materials for the Industrial Revolution and its new consumers in Europe and North America. Prior experiences of Amoy, Guangzhou, and Shantou merchants in the maritime trade accompanying the tribute system provided the vessels and shipping connections linking the port cities of southern and southeast China to Southeast Asia. Beginning in the 1840s, overpopulation, social disorder, and violence in southern China led large numbers of young Chinese men to flee the hinterlands for these cities, from which they would seek their livelihood and fortune on to the “Southern Seas.” The result was the “pig trade,” in which Chinese shippers and labor brokers based in these coastal ports transported hundreds of thousands of impoverished laborers to Singapore, Penang, Batavia (now Jakarta), Bangkok, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Early in the years of the pig trade, hostilities and even outright violence were frequent between hierarchically organized speech groups of migrants struggling over control of territory and markets in the colonies.

European colonial rule of immigrant Chinese relied on a combination of indirect rule via Chinese leaders (“Kapitans”), on coercion through the police and army, and on a unique form of subjugation via the colonial state’s provision of opium, to which many Chinese laborers became addicted. However, from the 1890s onward—as increasing numbers of Chinese migrants became successful “middlemen” merchants, planters, miners, and labor bosses within the colonial economies—the Chinese came to pose a major competitive threat to European commerce and industry. The early 1900s were marked by two features: (1) the implementation by colonial states of laws that limited the economic opportunities of Chinese (e.g., prohibiting their owning land or conducting business, on the ethnocentric grounds that Chinese methods were “primitive” or “backward”), and (2) the creation of the institutions of the colonial color bar (e.g., racially exclusive clubs, schools, railroad cars, and services limited to Europeans) specifically targeting the Chinese immigrants. Although the effects of the former were more encompassing over time, the latter were more personally felt by many Chinese. These laws and institutions continued through the end of the colonial era in the 1950s. Rivalries between speech groups abated, but animosities between Chinese and indigenes (whom they viewed as barbarians but with whom they traded) increased due to the harshness of colonial arrangements for extracting surplus from those ruled.


A second stream of emigration from China was associated with the rise of new European settlements in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and the islands of Polynesia. This period began in the 1840s and ended by the 1890s. Most of these Chinese migrants were from the Pearl River delta region near Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Chinese migration to the Anglophone “New Europes” dates from the late 1840s and 1850s, when gold was discovered in California, Australia, British Columbia in Canada, and New Zealand. This situation led large numbers of Chinese emigrants to leave Hong Kong to seek their fortunes in the gold fields. Others migrated to Hawaii and Tahiti as plantation laborers. By the 1860s, declining yields in the gold fields led migrants to seek work elsewhere as manual laborers, and they played major roles in the inland development of western North America and the building of transcontinental railroads in the United States and Canada. Chinese immigrants also became small retailers and commercial farmers in Australia, the United States, Hawaii, Canada, and New Zealand.

From the 1860s to 1900, racially motivated animosities against the Chinese by insecure members of the European diasporic working classes, who saw themselves as “white” for the first time, emerged in most of the European-ruled settlement colonies. From the 1860s through the 1880s, racially motivated strikes against Chinese, some organized by labor unions, occurred in the United States and Australia; head taxes and loss of the vote were imposed on Chinese in British Columbia; and the first of many national exclusion acts prohibiting entry to Chinese immigrants were passed in the United States (1882), Canada (1923), Australia (1901), and New Zealand (1881) in the name of racially pure “white” nations. The period from the early 1900s until the 1960s was one of continued legal restrictions on Chinese immigration and voting rights, as well as low-level extralegal violence and anti-Chinese discrimination in these countries.


With the exception of Thailand, which was never colonized, postcolonial independence from the European powers took place in Southeast Asia from the 1940s through the 1960s by way of active nationalist struggles in Malaya, Indochina, Indonesia and Burma. These struggles were protracted, at times violent, and pitted indigenous majorities against the European colonizers.

In most Southeast Asian nations, the leaders of the independence movements succeeded Europeans as rulers of the new postcolonial states. In Thailand, leaders from the largest ethnic group, the Thai, continued to govern. The new rulers saw themselves and their followers, who were the majority of the population, as indigenous and having the legitimate right to define who did and did not belong to the nation-state. An ideal citizen of the nation showed loyalty to indigenous rule, a certain religious identity (e.g., Muslim), spoke a certain language (e.g., Malay), and adhered to indigenous custom. Indigenist ideologies placed Chinese citizens outside the nation, for they were considered politically disloyal, immoral, and exploitative toward indigenes in their business practices—despite the fact that many Chinese were not in business or had only petty roles in it. For instance, Indonesian indigenist ideology applied the term pribumi (of the earth) to the members of all ethnic groups descending from ancestors who lived in the distant past on islands of the Indonesian archipelago—with the exception of Chinese.

Thus, from the 1950s onward, as indigenist regimes came to power in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Burma, they implemented policies that discriminated against Chinese in business, employment, land ownership, university entrance, cultural expression (e.g., Chinese-language schooling and the Chinese-language press), place of residence, and access to religious facilities. During periods of economic and political crisis, Chinese were particularly subject to state expropriation and extralegal indigenist violence, as in the May 13, 1969, riots against the Chinese in Kuala Lumpur, the exiling of Chinese (Hoa) from socialist Vietnam in 1978, and the horrific violence against Chinese lives and property (including rapes of several hundred Chinese women) in Jakarta on May 13–14, 1998.

Hearkening back to earlier categories of race in China, but also in response to discrimination and state-sponsored racist violence, Chinese in Southeast Asia have at times expressed racist discourse and practiced discrimination against indigenes in these countries. In Malaysia, for instance, one derogatory word used by Hokkien speakers to refer to Malays was huana (barbarian), or huan ( fan in Mandarin) with diminutive “-a” added. Some spoke of Malay “consciousness” as “backward,” and Chinese merchants at times discriminated intentionally against Malay customers and business people.


Since the 1960s, globalization, multiculturalist policies, and public awareness of the rise of the economies of Asia to world prominence have, compared to the past, led to more positive images and treatment by majorities of both local-born Chinese and new migrants from China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia to the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Many citizens of Chinese descent born in these countries have become economically wealthy and socially prominent, and some occupy prestigious positions in academia and corporate life. New migrants have been attracted to the social stability, economic opportunities, and high levels of education, research, and technological development in these countries. Both groups have benefited from reforms stemming from the civil rights movement in the United States, and from avowedly multicultural policies vis-à-vis immigrants in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Part of globalization has been the advent of neoliberalism, or market fundamentalism, as a prevailing logic of governance in the governments of these countries. As interpreted in immigration policy, neoliberalism has promoted the idea that “economic migrants” bring globally scarce capital, business skills, and technological knowledge into a country and help advance its “comparative advantage” in the “global competition” for resources for economic growth. Within the circles of political elites in these countries, ethnic Chinese migrants with capital, business skills, and scientific education have come to be seen as particularly attractive “economic migrants.” Following on prior legislation in the 1960s and 1970s (which repealed the exclusionary laws passed between 1880 and 1910 and allowed for family reunification for Chinese migrants), immigration laws since the 1980s have not focused specifically on Chinese as a group, but rather on this category of economic migrants. Taking advantage of these provisions, wealthy Chinese from Taiwan and Southeast Asia have readily attained permanent residency status in the United States, Canada, and Australia. From the perspectives of the non-Chinese majorities, given that many of the recent migrants are also highly educated, they have melded with populations of citizens of Chinese descent (some of whom have lived in these countries for several generations) to form new “model minorities.”

Since the 1980s, in contrast to wealthy and highly educated economic migrants, other Chinese have migrated illegally from China to the United States, Canada, and Australia. These migrants have either been smuggled in or illegally overstayed their visitors’ visas. Indentured to transnational labor brokers working in both China and these countries, they have been forced to find work in the new sweatshops of Los Angeles and New York (where they are highly exploited), or they have sought “off-the-books” jobs as cabbies, factory operatives, and dishwashers in Sydney and Toronto, in order to pay off loans made to them for their passage from China.

Does the advent of the discourse of economic migrant and model minority mean the disappearance of racial discourse and racist discrimination against Chinese in these countries? This is unlikely. Now that past racist discourses of political elites have been transformed into the new language of market performance, which sorts out the winners from the losers in the new global economy, what is more likely is that the growing xenophobic resentment felt by the majority of “losers” against the new Asian “winners” will lead to new social tensions and racist violence in the years to come.


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