Conjunctural Reversals, Capital Accumulation and Family Adjustments in Chinese Trans-Pacific Migration

  • Anne-Christine Trémon


Over the twentieth century, Chinese migrants and their descendants in colonial Tahiti (today French Polynesia) mobilized kin transnationally to accumulate capital. Families were shaped by successive changes and reversals in legal-political and economic events and conjunctures. Using a multigenerational perspective, this chapter examines their transnational practices of ‘flexible kinship’—strategies of flexible (re)location and gender-selective legal recognition of family members in response to fluctuations both in legal and political immigration regimes and in economic opportunities. Transnational practices are not necessarily translocal. In making this distinction, the concept of ‘flexible kinship’ moves beyond the preoccupation within transnational studies with movement or dispersal in space. The shift highlights the importance of addressing practices that involve not just a spatial extension of networks but also practices that cross legal boundaries within the host locality itself. These legal manoeuvres are temporal in that they seek to evade constraints and also to accumulate a variety of resources—different kinds of capital—through the exploitation of differentials in regimes of citizenship and mutating economic contexts. The practices of flexible kinship can be analyzed at the juncture and disjuncture of two temporalities: the migrants’ own, that is, their perspectives, life trajectories and family dynamics across generations; and the global temporality of capitalism and hegemonic relations in the world-system, which influences regimes of citizenship and policies towards migrants and their descendants. I show how the discrepancies between temporalities and the migrants’ resulting strategic adjustments delineate three periods in a history of distancing and rupture with the Chinese homeland. I further argue that successive changes and reversals in conjunctures have shaped a habitus that maximizes economic and legal security for families and individuals, especially women. Today, flexible kinship practices by descendants of Chinese migrants are less oriented to the country of origin than to other destinations. The concept of discrepant temporalities is therefore also a useful guide to the progressive shift and reorientation from a migratory to a diasporic transnationalism.



This is a shortened and modified version of a paper that appeared under the title “Flexible Kinship. Shaping transnational families among the Chinese in Tahiti” in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2017, 23, 1, 42–60.


  1. Barth, Fredrik. 1988. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, the Social Organisation of Culture Difference. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.Google Scholar
  2. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990 [1980]. The Social Uses of Kinship. In The Logic of Practice , trans., R. Nice, 162–199. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  3. Bruguière, André. 2002. Les sciences sociales et la notion de solidarité familiale. In Les solidarités familiales en question, ed. D. Debordeaux and P. Strobel, 19–40. Paris: Maison des Sciences de l’homme.Google Scholar
  4. Bruno, Anne-Sophie, et al. 2006. Jugés sur pièces. Le traitement des dossiers de séjour et de travail des étrangers en France (1917–1984). Population 61 (5): 737–762.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cohen, Myron. 1970. Development Process in the Chinese Domestic Group. In Family and Kinship in Chinese Society, ed. M. Freedman, 31–36. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. ———. 1976. House United, House Divided. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  7. De la Pradelle, Géraud. 1995. La distinction entre droit public et droit privé en matière de nationalité. In C.U.R.A.P.P., Public/privé. Paris: PUF.Google Scholar
  8. Dirlik, Arif. 2004. It Is Not Where You Are from, It Is Where You Are at: Place-Based Alternatives to Diaspora Discourses. In Worlds on the Move, ed. J. Friedman and S. Randeria, 141–166. London: I.B. Tauris.Google Scholar
  9. Fitzgerald, Stephen. 1972. China and the Overseas Chinese: A Study of Pekin’s Changing Policy 1949–1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Friedman, Jonathan. 1994. Cultural Identity and Global Process. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  11. ———. 2004. Globalization, Transnationalization, and Migation. In Worlds on the Move. Globalization, Migration and Cultural Security, ed. J. Friedman and S. Randeria, 63–90. London: I.B. Tauris.Google Scholar
  12. Glick Schiller, Nina, Basch Linda, and Blanc-Szanton Cristina. 1992. Towards a Transnational Perspective on Migration: Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism Reconsidered. New York: New York Academy of Sciences.Google Scholar
  13. Greenhalgh, Susan. 1994. De-Orientalizing the Chinese Family Firm. American Ethnologist 21 (4): 746–775.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Herrera, Javier, and Sébastien Merceron. 2010. Les approches de la pauvreté en Polynésie française, Working Paper Series No 103. Paris: Agence française de développement.Google Scholar
  15. Hoe, Yow Cheun. 2005. Weakening Ties with the Ancestral Homeland in China: The Case Studies of Contemporary Singapore and Malaysian Chinese. Modern Asian Studies 39 (3): 559–597.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Laurens, Sylvain. 2008. ‘1974’ et la fermeture des frontières. Analyse critique d’une décision érigée en turning-point. Politix 82: 67–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Moench, Richard U. 1963. Economic Relations of the Chinese in the Society Islands. PhD thesis, Unpublished Manuscript, Harvard University.Google Scholar
  18. Morawska, Eva. 2001. Immigrants, Transnationalism, and Ethnicization: A Comparison of This Great Wave and the Last. In E Pluribus Unum? Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on Immigrant Political Incorporation, ed. G. Gerstle and J. Mollenkopf, 175–212. New York: Russell Sage.Google Scholar
  19. Noiriel, Gérard. 1988. Le creuset français: histoire de l’immigration XIXe–XXe siècles. Paris: éditions du Seuil.Google Scholar
  20. Nonini, Donald M. 2003. All Are Flexible, But Some Are More Flexible Than Others: Small-Scale Chinese Businesses in Malaysia. In Ethnic Business: Chinese Capitalism in Southeast Asia, Routledge Curzon Studies in the Growth Economies of Asia, 50, ed. K.S. Jomo and B.C. Folke, 73–91. London, New York: Routledge Curzon.Google Scholar
  21. ———. 2005. Toward a (Proper) Postwar History of Southeast Asian Petty Capitalism: Predation, the State, and Chinese Small Business Capital in Malaysia. In Petty Capitalists and Globalization. Flexibility, Entrepreneurship, and Economic Development, ed. A. Smart and J. Smart. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  22. Nonini, Donald M., and Aihwa Ong. 1997. Introduction: Chinese Transnationalism as an Alternative Modernity. In Ungrounded Empires: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Transnationalism, ed. A. Ong and D.M. Nonini, 1–33. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  23. Nyíri, Pal. 2002. From Class Enemies to Patriots. In Globalizing Chinese, ed. Migration P. Nyíri and I.R. Saveliev, 208–241. Aldershot: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  24. Ong, Aihwa. 1999. Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Panoff, Michel. 1997. The French Way in Plantation Systems. The Journal of Pacific History 26: 206–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Portes, Alejandro, Guarnizo Luis, and Landolt Patricia. 1999. Introduction. Pitfalls and Promise of an Emergent Research Field. Ethnic and Racial Studies 22 (2): 217–238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Rouse, Roger. 1991. Mexican Migration and the Social Space of Postmodernism. Diaspora 1 (1): 8–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Smith, Michael P., and Luis E. Guarnizo, eds. 1998. Transnationalism from Below. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  29. Trémon, Anne-Christine. 2009. Cosmopolitanization and Localization. Anthropological Theory 9 (1): 103–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. ———. 2010. Chinois en Polynésie française. Migration, métissage, diaspora. Nanterre: Société d’ethnologie.Google Scholar
  31. Waldinger, Roger, and David Fitzgerald. 2004. Transnationalism in Question. American Journal of Sociology 109 (5): 1177–1195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Wang, Gungwu. 2000. The Chinese Overseas: From Earthbound China to the Quest for Autonomy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anne-Christine Trémon
    • 1
  1. 1.Laboratoire d’anthropologie culturelle et sociale, Institut des sciences socialesUniversité de LausanneLausanneSwitzerland

Personalised recommendations