Global Chinese Diaspora

  • Zhifang SongEmail author
Living reference work entry


The Chinese living outside Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau form one of the biggest diasporic populations in the world. With more than 40 million people of diverse backgrounds distributed all over the world, the Chinese diaspora challenges any efforts of generalization and essentialization. This chapter starts with a brief overview of major theoretical themes in researches on the Chinese diaspora, followed by examinations of historical transformations of overseas Chinese communities in various parts of the world. The focuses are placed on Southeast Asia and North America, which claim the largest shares of diasporic Chinese population. It then goes to address two most important issues that define Chinese diaspora: Chineseness and transnationalism. The chapter concludes by suggesting some potential areas that call for more attention in future researches.


Southeast Asia Settler societies Chinese exclusion Multiculturalism Chineseness Transnationalism 


Chinese people have a long history of emigration, and today overseas Chinese form one of the largest diasporic populations in the world. According to the most recent data, there are about 43 million people of Chinese ancestry living outside Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau in 2011, distributed in 148 countries (Poston and Wong 2016, p. 362). But this diasporic population is not evenly distributed, with Asia, especially Southeast Asia, claiming the largest share (73.3%) and America, especially North America, the second largest share (Poston and Wong 2016, p. 362). Today, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are the four main host countries for new Chinese emigrants (Poston and Wong 2016, p. 369), while a significant increase of Chinese population has also been seen in nontraditional destinations for Chinese emigrants, including Africa (Poston and Wong 2016, p. 369).

Having emigrated during different historical periods, for different reasons, and living in countries of diverse social and political systems, the overseas Chinese form a diaspora that is highly heterogeneous and challenges any effort of generalization and essentialization (Thunø 2007). Through decades, scholars from different disciplines have proposed many theoretical frameworks to understand the diverse diasporic experience. Early researches adopted an assimilationist perspective toward immigration, emphasizing the sojourning nature of Chinese migrants that sets them apart from emigrants from other nations, but this exceptionalism of Chinese emigrants has been challenged by recent scholars (Thunø 2007, p. 45). Gungwu Wang (1991, pp. 3–21) tried to capture this diversity from a historical perspective and proposed four patterns of Chinese emigration: the trader pattern (huashang), the coolie patter (huagong), the sojourner pattern (huaqiao), and the remigrant pattern (huayi) (Wang 1991, pp. 3–21). But as McKeown has pointed out, it is not clear whether these patterns refer to “social structures or the orientation of individuals” (McKeown 1999, p. 313). In addition, these words, especially huaqiao and huayi in their Chinese versions, are very easy to be confused with their everyday usage that might have different connotations in different contexts.

The identity of overseas Chinese was the core of academic attention from the 1980s to the turn of the century. Wang points out that overseas Chinese have multiple identities that overlap and change through time and across contexts (Wang 1988). Tu (1994) proposed a model of cultural China consisting of three symbolic universes: the societies populated predominantly by ethnic Chinese, the Chinese who live as minorities in societies of their residence, and the community of scholars, journalists, teachers, etc., who try to understand Chinese culture.

Since the late 1990s, a diasporic perspective toward overseas Chinese has got the momentum. Rather than seeing overseas Chinese communities as isolated and immigration as a unidirectional process in which migrants are uprooted and transplanted to another society, this new perspective emphasizes transnationalism and deterritorialization in the migrating process and the global networks formed by diasporic Chinese (McKeown 1999). In examining the transnationality of Chinese diaspora, Aihwa Ong (1999) highlights the flexibility of Chinese subjects in practices, strategies, and disciplines in navigating the global system of capitalism, whereby flexible citizenship and identity are constituted by three interrelated regimes: the nation state, the market, and the family.

As the Chinese diaspora has caught more scholarly attention, a broad range of aspects of this diasporic experience has been brought under academic scrutiny. Women’s experience in early and contemporary immigration history, interactions between Chinese immigrants and the colonized minorities, and literature as well as other forms of representation in identity construction are only a few of the numerous perspectives that have been added to the field in recent decades.

Due to the heterogeneity of the Chinese diaspora and numerous researches that have been conducted, this essay does not aspire to be a thorough coverage of the field. It will give more weight to the history and transformation of Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, North America, and Australasia, which have larger shares of the overseas Chinese population. It will also cover some thematic issues that are relevant to all diasporic Chinese communities.

Maritime Trade and the Chinese in Colonial Southeast Asia

European colonial expansion to Southeast Asia in the sixteenth century expanded maritime trade across the South China Sea. Chinese traders, especially the Hokkien (people from southern Fujian province), took advantage of this commercial expansion. Chinese communities sprang at colonial trading ports such as Manila, Batavia, and Malacca, as well as port cities of Siam, West Java, and Cambodia not yet controlled by Europeans (Lockard 2013, pp. 768–769). The Chinese were needed by Europeans as middlemen in “trading with China, extracting wealth from the natives, and servicing the colonial cities,” but were not fully trusted by Europeans, who never hesitated in using violence to bring the Chinese under control (Kuhn 2008, pp. 62–64).

As few of these Chinese brought women with them, it was common for them to marry local women. Under colonial legal and political systems, descendants of Chinese men and local women formed communities distinct from both newcomers from China and native populations: the Mestizos in the Spanish colony of the Philippines, the Peranakans in the Dutch Java, and the Babas in the British Strait colonies (Skinner 2001, pp. 51–59). They spoke creole languages that were mixtures of Minnan and indigenous languages, and their clothing, cuisine, and kinship system showed a mixture of Chinese traditions and indigenous features (Skinner 2001, pp. 59–64). Before the massive migration from China in the second half of the nineteenth century, these creolized Chinese were dominant both in size and power in the Chinese population in European colonies in Southeast Asia (Skinner 2001, pp. 55–58).

Not all Chinese came to Southeast Asia as traders. In West Borneo, the Hakka Chinese miners gradually dominated the mining industry from the mid-eighteenth century. They organized their communities and mining businesses in the form of kongsi, an organization based on partnership and shares (Heidhues 1993, p. 68). Some of the kongsi confederated into larger political and economic systems (Heidhues 1993, p. 71). Such kongsi kept their relative autonomy for quite a long time, until the second half of the nineteenth century (Heidhues 1993, pp. 70–73).

The defeat of the Qing Empire by the British at Opium Wars initiated 100 years of massive Chinese emigration. From the 1850s to the 1950s, Southeast Asia saw increasing expansion of Chinese population. Massive emigration also diversified the Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. Among the migrants were not only Hokkien, but also Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka, and Hainanese (Yen 2014, p. 24). Different Chinese organizations sprang, and among them three types were important: dialect associations, clan (surname) associations, and secret societies (Yen 2014, p. 25).

These five dialect groups formed the major dialect associations, often called bang. Under these large dialect groups, there were also associations whose membership covered smaller regions in China. Each of these dialect and regional groups had its own temple, which housed Chinese deities for members to worship and served as the meeting place for the association (Yen 2014, p. 25). These associations also provided welfares to their members. In French Indochina, they were more institutionalized and were legally recognized as quasi-governments to help the colonial administration to rule the Chinese (Barrett 2012).

There are two types of clan associations: localized and non-localized (Yen 2014, pp. 26–30). The former was based on proved kinship connections, while the latter was based on sharing the same surname or several surnames considered related in ancient past.

Secret societies were usually known as brotherhood, hui or kongsi. In Southeast Asia, secret societies were not necessarily anti-society organizations. They might represent a political order that competed with the colonial regimes for authority among the Chinese (DeBernardi 1993, p. 230).

Chinese migrants also brought with them their religions. Guanyin and Tianhou were popular deities worshipped by the Chinese in Southeast Asia (Yen 2014, p. 37). Many religious sects found their places among the Chinese in Southeast Asia, but polytheism was one of the most important features of Chinese religious life there (Yen 2014, pp. 37–38). It was common to see Buddhist and Taoist deities, as well as immortals of folk religions, share the same temple.

Together with the population expansion was the cultural development within the Chinese communities in the first half of the twentieth century. Modern Chinese education began to develop (Wang 1991, p. 276). In Malaysia, the first modern Chinese school was founded in 1904 in Penang. This happened in all the important Chinese communities in Southeast Asia between the two world wars (Yen 2014, pp. 40–41). This helped to cultivate a consciousness of Chineseness and boosted the Chinese nationalism among the Southeast Asian Chinese.

One of the most important features of Southeast Asian Chinese was their economic success. There were many Chinese starting from very poor background and rising to owners of big businesses. During colonial time, ethnic Chinese businesses played an important role in the economies in Southeast Asia (Yen 2014). But rich tycoons were still few in number. Many Chinese were owners of family-based small businesses.

Decolonization and the Chinese in Southeast Asia

After WWII, the colonies in Southeast Asia won their independence one after another. As part of the colonial legacy, they all had non-native populations of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds within their boundaries. Defining citizenship rights was an important aspect of the nation building process. The citizen status of the Chinese posed a challenge to the new nation states. China’s citizenship law had always been based on the principle of jus sanguinis, recognizing all the Chinese living abroad as Chinese citizens, and thus most of the Chinese living in these new states had Chinese citizenship by default (Suryadinata 2007, pp. 89–108). Due to the jus soli principle adopted by colonial authorities, many Chinese were also subjects of the colonial powers, particularly in Dutch and British colonies. When these colonies won their independence, such a tie to China was seen as a potential threat to the sovereignty of the new nations and thus was a problem to be solved. In 1955, Indonesia and China reached an agreement and signed a treaty, requiring the local-born Chinese to make a choice between the Indonesian and Chinese citizenships (Willmott 2009, pp. 63–88). That means, the Chinese who were born overseas could no longer claim Chinese citizenship by default. This was a policy that China has followed ever since and has been incorporated into subsequent citizenship laws (Suryadinata 2007, pp. 95–98). This treaty set precedence for other countries to deal with the dual citizenship status of residents of Chinese descent within their boundaries and also played a role in encouraging the Chinese born and living overseas to take the citizenship of their country of residence.

The experience of obtaining local citizenship varied from country to country. In Indonesia, the political turmoil in the 1960s created many difficulties for the Chinese to get their citizen rights despite the treaty signed with China (Tan 1997, pp. 35–38). The Philippines denied citizen rights to most Chinese residents until the 1970s (Suryadinata 2007). Situations in Vietnam were complicated by the postcolonial political chaos, the subsequent Vietnam War, and the changing international relations with Taiwan and Mainland China. Although the Chinese in Vietnam were unwilling to give up their Chinese citizenship, they were not given much choice before or after 1975. In Thailand, local-born Chinese had been seen as legitimate citizens of Thailand from the early twentieth century. Chinese in Cambodia were granted citizen rights in the 1950s, thanks to the good relationship between Cambodia and China. It was also relatively easy for the Chinese to get Malaysian citizenship (Suryadinata 2007).

Even after obtaining local citizenship, the Chinese soon found that their rights and interests were compromised by laws, government policies, and bureaucratic practices prioritizing the interests of the natives. As Suryadinata points out,

Southeast Asian countries are indigenous state-nations, in which “the nation is defined in indigenous group terms” (Suryadinata 1997, pp. 5–6). The concepts of pribumi in Indonesia and bumiputra in Malaysia both refer to indigenous groups, who are seen as the basis of the new nations and thus enjoy more rights than nonindigenous groups, such as the Chinese. In Indonesia, the Chinese were denied political participation for a long time and had to confine themselves within the economic domain. In Malaysia, the New Economic Policy adopted in 1970 institutionalized the privileges that were granted to the Malays (Yow 2017, pp. 281–282). Malays and other indigenous groups enjoy better business opportunities, job opportunities, educational opportunities, etc.

Most Southeast Asian countries see the indigenous cultures as their national cultures, taking various discriminatory policies toward the Chinese culture (Suryadinata 1997, pp. 11–13). For a long time, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines adopted assimilationist policies, trying to reduce the ethnic cultural characteristics of the Chinese population. Chinese schools, Chinese media, and Chinese organizations, three pillars of overseas Chinese culture, were either been closed or reduced to the minimum. Malaysia has adopted an accommodationist policy, recognizing cultural rights of the Chinese, but they were not treated equally as their indigenous counterparts.

It needs to be pointed out that policies on Chinese cultures have always been changing in these countries, due to changes in the domestic and international politics. For example, Indonesia changed from a liberal policy in the 1950s to a harsh policy in the 1960s. In recent decades, a more liberal policy has been adopted, and many Chinese cultures have been resumed to a certain extent. This has happened in many of these countries.

The economic disparities between the Chinese and the indigenous populations became a political issue in most Southeast Asian countries after their independence. Many introduced policies to curtail the economic advantages of the Chinese. In the 1950s, the Soekarno government introduced the Benteng program which required importing companies to have 70% of their shares owned by the pribumi, the indigenous people (Suryadinata 2007, p. 231). In the subsequent decades, different policies and programs were introduced, encouraging joint ventures between the indigenous people and the Chinese and requiring the indigenous people to own at least 50% of the shares (Suryadinata 2007, pp. 232–233). Ironically, such policies enhanced rather than weakened the economic power of the Chinese. By collaborating with powerful figures, the Chinese businessmen turned the policies to their own advantage (Suryadinata 2007, p. 233).

In Malaysia, the government introduced the New Economic Policy in 1971. One of its two goals was to redress the economic imbalance between the indigenous Malays and the ethnic Chinese (Woon 2012). As a race-based program, it did give indigenous people advantage and helped to create a middle class of the indigenous people. While the Chinese were kept out of state-dominated sectors, they still prospered in the manufacturing sector (Lee 2012, pp. 52–56).

Surviving Exclusion in White Settler Societies

The United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were all previous British colonies, populated by immigrants from Europe and their descendants, with indigenous people marginalized both in power and population size. The historical and contemporary experience of Chinese immigrants was quite different from what their peers have had in Southeast Asia.

The first sizable Chinese immigration was part of the mass emigration out of China after the 1840s. When news of gold rushes in California (from 1851), Australia (from 1854), British Columbia (1860), and New Zealand (1865) reached China, many people from Pearl River Delta of Guangdong Province exited via colonial ports of Hong Kong and Macao to seek fortune in these foreign lands (Kuhn 2008).

After gold mines were depleted, many returned to China, but some did stay. In Australia and New Zealand, the Chinese became self-employed or were employed by their countrymen in farming, shopkeeping, and hawking (Chan 2001; Boileau 2017). In American West, railroad construction employed many Chinese and attracted more immigrants from China. In the 1880s, Chinese laborers formed 25% of the labor force of California (Kuhn 2008, p. 205). In 1881, there were estimated 38,533 Chinese living in Australia (Chan 2001, p. 69).

As Chinese population increased, anti-Chinese sensation grew in these societies. The physical and behavioral differences of the Chinese reinforced the already existing cultural prejudices against the Chinese. The ticket-credit form of immigration arrangement was often mistakenly perceived as a kind of slavery. The media often emphasized prostitution and gambling in the Chinese communities as morally threatening to the American society. In the United States, all these factors, intertwined in a complex ways, contributed to the development of an anti-Chinese sensation from a regional phenomenon to a nationwide political movement, with the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882 (Gyory 1998). Australia, New Zealand, and Canada all have head taxes imposed on Chinese immigrants and took legislative measures to restrict Chinese immigration.

All these legislative and bureaucratic measures had similar impacts on Chinese immigrants. These facts have been well known in works on Chinese American history: it was difficult for the Chinese to bring their women over, and most people were males in the Chinese communities; many occupations were closed to them, confining them to a limited number of trades such as laundry and Chinese restaurants; legislative and social discrimination confined their residence to racially segregated Chinatowns (Zhao 2010). In Australia and New Zealand, many Chinese were employed in market gardening and shopkeeping (Chan 2001; Boileau 2017).

Negotiating a Niche in Multicultural Societies

After WWII, all the four countries gradually changed their racially discriminatory immigration policy. The United States gradually removed discriminatory policies toward Chinese immigrants and implemented an immigration reform in the 1960s (Zhou 2009). Canada introduced a points system that was race-neutral, giving priority to those with the skills, educational background, and other qualities that the country desired (Hawkins 1991). Similar policies were later adopted by Australia (1989) and New Zealand (1991). These reforms removed the barriers for Chinese immigration, and all four societies saw dramatic increase of Chinese population subsequently. In the United States, the population of Chinese Americans doubled every 10 years, reaching 2.9 million at the turn of the century and 3.5 million in 2006 (Zhou 2009, p. 46).

The change of immigration policies brought about diversity among Chinese immigrants (Zhou 2009, pp. 46–51). New immigrants after WWII have come from many different places, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China, and Southeast Asia. Among them were students, entrepreneurs, refugees, illegal immigrants, and many more. Some of them were wealthy and brought with them abundant capital, while others had already obtained their college or even advanced degrees before they moved.

Such demographic changes have also led to different spatial distributions of the Chinese. In the United States, although some traditional Chinatowns are still prosperous Chinese neighborhoods, most new immigrants prefer to live in suburbs of major metropolitan areas. The concept of “ethnoburb” has been proposed by geographer Li Wei to theorize this new trend (Li 2009). An excellent example of “ethnoburb” was Monterey Park and other small suburban cities in San Gabriel Valley east of downtown Los Angeles. Since the 1970s, this area has been transformed from dominantly white communities into multiethnic communities with high percentage of Chinese population (Li 2009). Different from traditional Chinatowns that were self-contained, racially segregated, economically disadvantaged, and densely populated, these ethnoburbs are suburban communities of low population density, with a thriving ethnic economy that is not only closely connected to the mainstream economy but is also part of the transnational network that facilitates the global flow of capital, commodities, and personnel (Li 2009, pp. 45–47). Such ethnoburbs provide job opportunities for both high-skilled and low-skilled new immigrants who might be disadvantaged on the mainstream job market. They also serve as niches for Chinese immigrant entrepreneurs to develop their own businesses, tapping skills and talents within the community (Li 2009).

The socioeconomic status of the Chinese in these countries has greatly improved after WWII. For example, the data of 2010 American census show that over half (50.3%) of American Chinese (excluding Taiwanese) ages 25 and over has at least a bachelor’s degree, much higher than the national level (27.8%) (APIAHF 2011). The Chinese (excluding Taiwanese) have an average median household income of $68,420 compared to the national average median household income of $51,369 (APIAHF 2011). Taiwanese had even higher figures. Many factors might have contributed to these achievements, but the selective immigration policy and the domestic and international factors behind it have helped the United States to attract immigrants from greater China with good educational background and the skills needed. This is a key factor behind the transition of the Chinese from the “yellow peril” to a “model minority” in the mainstream discourse.

Behind the positive figures of education attainment and economic achievements, class distinctions and poverty exist among the Chinese in these societies (Zhao 2010). While many well-educated professionals hold high-paying jobs, there are also many Chinese unskilled immigrants toiling in sweat factories and earning meager wages. The undocumented immigrants are vulnerable and often subjective to excessive exploitation by ethnic businesses. The life and experience of these disadvantaged Chinese Americans are overshadowed by the hegemonic discourse of a model minority, which deprived them of their right for social support.

Since the 1960s, seeing Asian Americans, including Chinese Americans, as a “model minority” has become a popular discourse in American media and the mainstream society, and has also been accepted in Canada and Australasia (Ip and Pang 2005; Chow and Feagin 2016). The rise of this discourse in the 1960s was not coincidental. As many scholars have pointed out, portraying Chinese Americans as industrial, disciplined, and docile, this discourse was a political weapon that the white adopted to counterattack the African Americans and Latinos’ protests against discrimination in the civil rights movement (Chow and Feagin 2016). It is a stereotype imposed on the Asians not necessary to their benefit, as it assumes an illusionary homogeneity of Chinese Americans, ignoring the diversity among them and leaving the needs of disadvantaged Chinese Americans unheeded by the government and the society.

Currently these societies all claim to uphold the ideal of multiculturalism (in New Zealand’s case, a biculturalism that recognizes the rights of the indeginous Maori people in a society that has been dominated by Pakeha, descendants of white immigrants from Europe). But how to carve a comfortable niche within the racial and cultural landscape in these societies is still a challenge to the Chinese. In all these societies, the Chinese are caught between the mainstream white population and the disadvantaged minorities. “Yellow peril” or “model minority,” these imposed stereotypes all convey the sense of “otherness,” although in different ways. Although statistics might look good, in-depth analysis shows that the Chinese still earn less than white people with the same qualifications and experience (Zhao 2010). That means glass ceilings still need to be broken for the Chinese.

The Chinese in Other Societies

The massive emigration starting from the 1850s to the 1950s also brought the Chinese to other parts of the world. Coolies were transported from Pearl River Delta to Latin America and the Caribbean to meet the labor shortage caused by the abolition of slavery in the second half of the nineteenth century (Lai and Tan 2010). Gold miners and coolies went to South Africa to work at the mines there (Zhou 2017). Chinese seamen came to port cities of Europe very early, and peddlers from Qingtian and Wenzhou of Zhejiang province traveled along the trans-Siberia railway all the way to many parts of Europe in the early twentieth century (Benton and Pieke 1998). During WWI, many Chinese were recruited to work in France and Russia. Most of the Chinese in Europe eventually returned to China. Thus the number of Chinese there was small before WWII. But Chinese communities developed in many countries of Latin America and the Caribbean before WWII century (Lai and Tan 2010). South Africa also saw a small Chinese community there (Zhou 2017).

After 1949, China closed its door for lawful emigration. Immigration from China to South Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean was cut short, and for a time few new immigrants arrived. In Europe, Chinese residents began to grow after WWII, as the first wave of postwar Chinese immigrants moved from Asian colonies to colonial metro centers in Europe. Rural residents from New Territories of Hong Kong came to the United Kingdom and developed the Chinese catering industry (Benton and Gomez 2007). Early Chinese immigrants from Indochina and Dutch East Indies to France and the Netherlands were generally well educated and thus were able to enter mainstream occupations and businesses (Benton and Pieke 1998).

In the 1970s, the economic boom in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia sent another wave of Chinese immigrants to Europe, South Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean (Benton and Pieke 1998; Lai and Tan 2010; Zhou 2017). They were well educated, and some were well funded and thus were able to enter mainstream occupations in the host countries. In South Africa, these new immigrants played an important role in securing an unofficial “honorable white” status for the Chinese (Zhou 2017).

Vietnam War refugees further expanded Chinese communities in Western Europe (Benton and Pieke 1998). France, due to its connections with Indochina, received a significant share. These refugees generally lacked education and skills. Their socioeconomic status still lags behind even today.

After China reopened its door for emigration, new immigrants expanded existing Chinese communities in all these places and established new communities in new locations (Zhou 2017). In South Africa, new immigrants significantly increased the Chinese population. In Spain and Italy, Chinese communities have been dominated by new immigrants from Qingtian and Wenzhou since the 1980s (Thunø 2007; Zhou 2017). These new immigrants came through chain immigration based on kinship and family ties. In Italy, the Chinese were initially mainly engaged in the fashion manufacturing industry, but now have shifted to commercial businesses selling imported goods from China (Thunø 2007). In Spain, retail and wholesale businesses selling imported Chinese goods have been the main Chinese economic activity (Zhou 2017). In Russia and other East European countries, most Chinese there have come after the collapse of the communist regimes (Nyiri 2007). Initially these Chinese came from North and Northeastern China as traders selling Chinese goods. They soon established a niche in the transition economies as cheap goods from China met the needs of the local market. In Latin America and the Caribbean, many Chinese came through kinship or other ties (Lai and Tan 2010).

In recent decades, the increasing investments from government-owned and privately owned Chinese businesses have brought many Chinese to Africa (Zhou 2017). Individual migrants looking for economic gains have followed their steps. Many of these Chinese stay there for profits, without a plan to stay long, although some of them do bring their families over. In this sense, they are similar to early Chinese traders going to Southeast Asia. As in many places of Africa, sizable Chinese populations appeared just in the last decade, they have not been integrated into the local societies and also lack communality among themselves (Zhou 2017). They are just foreigners from the perspectives of the local people. It is still too early to predict what will happen to them and how Chinese communities in Africa will develop in the future.

New immigrants after the 1980s have also dramatically expanded Chinese communities in South Korea and Japan. Currently, there are about one million Chinese nationals living in South Korea, forming three distinct groups: old Huaqiao, Chaoxianzu (ethnic Korean Chinese), and Xin Yimin (han Chinese new immigrants) (Zhou 2017). Both the latter two groups arrived after the 1980s. Chaoxianzu enjoy some legal advantages due to South Korean policy toward overseas ethnic Koreans. But like han Chinese new immigrants, they are also faced with discrimination from the mainstream society.

The community of Chinese immigrants in Japan has grown from a small size in the 1970s to 694,974 people in 2014 (Zhou 2017). Most of these people have moved to Japan after the 1980s. Compared with old immigrants who mainly lived in Chinatowns and worked as cooks, hairdressers, and tailors, these new immigrants are more diverse in occupations, with a significant percentage of them employed as professionals. As Japan has become more open to foreign immigrants, many of these Chinese immigrants have obtained their permanent residency, and some have already been naturalized. Visible and invisible barriers still exist in workplace. Chinese students and trainees are vulnerable groups that remain at the bottom of the society.

From Huaqiao to Huayi: Constructing Chineseness Outside China

Apparently, there is a great diversity in the historical and contemporary experiences of the Chinese living in different countries. Even in the same country, those coming during different time periods and from different places might show significant cultural and language differences. The colonial history of Hong Kong and the political separation between Mainland China and Taiwan have added another dimension of complexity to the already complicated landscape of identity construction. To what extent and in which ways does such a large population of diverse experience and backgrounds identify as Chinese? How has this Chineseness changed through history?

Early Chinese emigrants might have had what Gungwu Wang termed a historical identity of Chineseness (1988, p. 2). But in everyday life, they often identified more with their own regional and kinship groups. The boundaries between them and local populations were not fixed. Thus, the diasporic Chinese at that time lacked a conscious awareness of a unitary identity, and their identity was in a state of multi-strandedness with shifting boundaries (Duara 1997, p. 41).

The consciousness of a unitary Chinese identity among the overseas Chinese was produced by political developments both inside and outside China in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. The Qing state initiated a change in its policy toward Chinese overseas. The ban on emigration was lifted in 1893 (Duara 1997, p. 43; Kuhn 2008, pp. 240–241). A citizenship policy based on the principle of jus sanguinis was adopted, seeing all Chinese living overseas, whether born in China or overseas, as citizens whose loyalty should be cultivated. The Qing state also extended its cultural and political influence to overseas Chinese communities, establishing consulate overseas, granting imperial titles, sponsoring the Confucian revival movement among the Chinese, and helping overseas Chinese consolidate their organizations divided by dialects and places of origin into ones incorporating all Chinese. As Duara points out, “the Qing effort to install a gentry model of Chinese community amounted to an effort to construct a Confucian nationalism” (Duara 1997, p. 45).

At the same time, the political mobilizations of revolutionaries led by Sun Yat-sen and reformists such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao played an important role in cultivating a modern nationalism among the overseas Chinese and turning the cultural China into a nation state that deserved loyalty from its citizens overseas (Kuhn 2008, pp. 239–282). An identity of huaqiao, unified by Chinese nationalism and loyalty to China, was created out of the otherwise apolitical huashang (Chinese traders) and huagong (Chinese coolies) (Wang 1991, pp. 6–8).

The political development in the first half of the twentieth century further consolidated the Chinese community overseas. After the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937, relief fund associations were organized in overseas Chinese communities throughout the world within months, raising funds to support the Chinese war efforts (Kuhn 2008, pp. 239–282). Such mobilization efforts required close cooperation among overseas Chinese, with dialect or class boundaries transcended. A unitary identity of huaqiao was constructed on the global landscape, holding together all who were willing to accept this discourse.

This identity based on political loyalty to China became a problem when new nation states arose in Southeast Asia after WWII (Wang 1988, pp. 2–3). The agreement the communist China signed with Indonesia in 1955 symbolized a major shift of Chinese policy toward overseas Chinese, who were encouraged to take the citizenship of their countries of residence. In subsequent decades, most Chinese living in Southeast Asia became citizens of their countries of residence. In the white settler societies, many Chinese were also allowed to be naturalized. Now, the majority of the overseas Chinese is no longer huaqiao, but has become huayi (foreigners of Chinese ancestry).

This change does not mean the complete loss of the Chineseness among diasporic Chinese. Just as the identity of huaqiao was a product of particular historical contexts, the postcolonial politics in Southeast Asia and multiculturalism in Western societies have created new contexts in which the identities of overseas Chinese are reconstructed. As Gungwu Wang (Wang 1991, pp. 198–221) has pointed out, overseas Chinese all have multiple identities that are highlighted in different contexts for different purposes. They are culturally and ethnically Chinese, but are also nationals of their own countries.

As Stuart Hall has pointed out, “identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past” (Hall 1990, p. 225). The different historical and contemporary social contexts in which the Chinese live have created different senses of Chineseness between the Chinese living in white settler societies and those in Southeast Asian countries.

In Indonesia, an assimilationist policy once tried to suppress anything symbolic of Chineseness (Suryadinata 1997, pp. 11–13). In Malaysia the accommodationist policy put the Chinese and their culture in a subordinate position (Suryadinata 1997, pp. 13–14). In face of suspicion, harassment, and violence, the Chinese living in these countries are sharply conscious of their ethnic Chinese identity (Armstrong and Armstrong 2001, p. 4).

In white settler societies, Chineseness was once symbolic of “the other” that needed to be excluded. Although the ideal of multiculturalism has made these societies more culturally inclusive, this “otherness” is still something the Chinese need to overcome. The image of a “model minority” is an identity imposed on the Chinese by the mainstream discourse in the past decades, against which the Chinese have an ambivalent attitude. The Chinese are also active agents in constructing their identities out of their cultural heritage. Chinese language schools, Chinese newspapers and magazines, and Chinese cultural events are all efforts of the Chinese to retain their Chineseness in multicultural societies. Chinese food and restaurants have also become an important aspect of the Chinese identity (Mendelson 2016). Literary works, both in Chinese and in English, music, dance, art, and popular culture, have also become arenas where the Chinese fight to define their own cultural and ethnic identities (Zheng 2011; Fusco 2016).

At the same time, we should also recognize the “critical points of deep and significant difference” behind the Chineseness (Hall 1990, p. 225). Even in the same society, different background might produce different positioning toward their Chinese heritage. The Chineseness might mean different things to different people, particularly when political factors are involved. An immigrant from Taiwan might emphasize his/her identity as Taiwanese while downplaying or even denying their Chinese identity (Williams 2003). Recent achievements of China has cultivated a sense of pride among new immigrants from China and has contributed to the rise of a new Chinese nationalism in Chinese diaspora (Liu 2005). For many people, Chineseness is more cultural than territorial. Although it means different things to different people in different contexts, this Chineseness in its cultural sense is something that helps to define the Chinese diaspora.

Transnational Network, Globalization, and the Chinese Diaspora

One of the most important changes in the postwar global economy was the economic boom in Asia, in which Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore played important roles. Mainland China began to catch up after the 1980s and has now become the second largest economy in the world. International investments and transfer of technology from developed countries played an important role in the success of these economies. Overseas Chinese with their connections to both sides were important players in the process. Thus, the Chinese diaspora has been an important part of the network through which capital, technology, commodity, and population flow transnationally.

With the rise of these economies, business firms of ethnic Chinese, with their personal and business connections, are playing a more and more important role in the global economy (Yen 2014). Traditional connections such as kinship ties and regional and language associations can all be mobilized for business purposes. Businessmen are behind many regular international conferences of ethnic Chinese associations, which provide platforms for building business networks. With Mainland China becoming a new player in international investment, the ethnic Chinese become precious assets that the Chinese capitalism can use, and this Chinese capitalism can also provide opportunities for the ethnic Chinese (Santasombat 2018). But whether the ethnic Chinese identity and Chinese cultural values have played an important role in the success of ethnic Chinese businesses has also been debated by scholars (Gomez and Hsiao 2013).

Transnationalism is not limited to cross-border business connections. In fact, it has become an important feature of population flow and kinship ties in the past decades. For many Chinese immigrants, immigration is not a unidirectional movement to new homes but an ongoing multidirectional process. Facilitated by modern transportation, a transnational Chinese might do business at home, leaving family overseas for educational opportunities of kids. Obtaining the citizenship of a host country is not necessarily out of political loyalty but in most cases out of business or family needs. “Flexible citizenship” has become an important feature for many Chinese immigrants (Ong 1999).

Cultural transnationalism has also been an important aspect of Chinese diaspora. Chinese religions might have been pioneers of cultural transnationality. From in the early twentieth century, Chinese Buddhist institutions actively sought cross-border connections, creating transnational network of clergies and devotees. Such transnational networks helped to get Buddhism established in Southeast Asia and North America and have also played an important part in the revival of Buddhism in twenty-first-century China (Ashiwa and Wank 2005). In recent decades, Buddhist institutions in Taiwan have been active in building transnational networks of temples, clergies, and devotees.

The rise of Sinophone studies in recent years provides a new perspective of this cultural transnationalism (Shih 2011). Bringing Chinese diaspora from the margin of the Chinese culture to the core, such studies examine cultural products of Chinese diaspora in both local and global contexts. Although cultural products such as films, literary works, and arts created in Chinese diaspora are not necessarily intended for the whole Chinese diaspora, Sinophone studies do help to paint them with a brush of transnationalism.

Conclusion and Prospects

Since the 1990s, there have been numerous researches published on Chinese diaspora, covering many different aspects of diasporic experience of overseas Chinese. The last two decades has also been a period that sees dramatic changes in China and Chinese diaspora. As a result, there are many new aspects of Chinese diasporic experience that are not yet or not sufficiently examined.

Although the heterogeneity of Chinese diaspora is a well-known fact, some aspects of this heterogeneity have not been thoroughly researched. The political heterogeneity within the Chinese diaspora is especially a field that calls for further research. Chinese Americans, for example, consist of many groups: descendants of old immigrants, immigrants from Taiwan, immigrants from Mainland China, and immigrants from Southeast Asia. Although we might label all of them as Chinese Americans, there are significant differences among them. The recent rise of Taiwanese nationalism has prompted some immigrants from Taiwan to distance themselves from the ethnic Chinese identity. Immigrants from Southeast Asia are also differently positioned in their relationship with China and the Chinese identity. How do these different groups compete and cooperate in the political and social contexts of the host societies need to be examined.

The rise of China in the last couple of decades and its impact on Chinese diaspora began to catch scholarly attention. But so far, there are still few researches conducted in this area. The growing cultural conservatism in Western countries increasingly sees the rise of China and the expansion of Chinese diaspora as a threat. This is not only reflected in the current politics of the United States, but is also explicitly or inexplicitly expressed in politics of Australia and New Zealand. What impact this will have on Chinese diaspora? Will this Sinophobia turn Chinese in these countries into the “yellow peril” again? How shall the Chinese position themselves in the politics of these societies and fight for their own political interests?

Another area that needs more research is the emerging Chinese communities in nontraditional destinations of Chinese emigration. For example, Chinese investments have brought many Chinese to Africa in recent decades. How will Chinese communities thus created develop in the future? What kind of ethnic relations these Chinese forge with the local populations is also yet to see.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of CanterburyCanterburyNew Zealand

Section editors and affiliations

  • Melani Anae
    • 1
  1. 1.Pacific Studies, Te Wānanga o WaipapaUniversity of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand

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