Episode 151      25 min 49 sec
Fortune and fortitude: Stories of the Chinese diaspora

Social scientist Prof. Pookong Kee looks at the successive waves of migration from China and how Chinese identity has evolved among ethnic Chinese in their adopted homelands. With host Jennfier Cook.

"As countries in South-East Asia attempt to negotiate their relationships with an increasingly influential China, as they attempt to export more to China, as they attempt to attract more Chinese investment, the Chinese diaspora is increasingly being seen as an asset." -- Professor Pookong Kee





           



Prof Pookong Kee
Professor Pookong Kee

Professor Pookong Kee joined the University of Melbourne in October 2010 as Director of the Asia Institute

He was previously Professor of the Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies and Director of the Centre for Asia Pacific Studies at the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU) in Japan.  This was preceded by a three-year appointment as Director of the Chinese Heritage Centre in Singapore.
Before his return to Asia in 1999, he had worked in academe and the public sector in Australia.  He was Director and Professor of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies at the Victoria University from 1994 to 1999, following a stint with the Senior Executive Service of the Australian Public Service.  He was founding Assistant Director of the Bureau of Immigration and Population Research (Assistant Secretary, Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs). His earlier posts included: Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne (1987-1989); Research Fellow then Senior Research Fellow, Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs (1981-1987); and Research Fellow, East West Population Institute, East-West Center, Honolulu (1980-81).

He has a PhD degree in Psychology from the Australian National University, a First Class Honours BA degree in Psychology and a BA with majors in Economics, Politics and Psychology from the University of Adelaide.

His recent teaching and research interests include the causes, processes and consequences of the global movement of people, Asian Diasporas, and Asian-Pacific affairs generally.

Born and raised in Malaysia, he is a naturalized Australian citizen.

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

JENNIFER COOK
 I’m Jennifer Cook. Thanks for joining us. The word diaspora comes from the Greek dia speiro and means to scatter seeds. And it’s this journey to new lands and a longing to return home that seems to capture something so essential to the human condition. Today, the word is used to capture any form of a real or imagined community situated far from its cultural, linguistic or genetic origins. In this episode of Up Close, we’re going to examine the Chinese Diaspora and ask what the immigration of more than 37 million Chinese people tells us about China itself and the markets people have made in all regions of the world outside the Middle Kingdom. Also, we ask what are the feelings towards China among the so-called overseas Chinese.  Joining us in the studio to help us answer theses questions is Professor Pookong Kee, director Asia Institute here at the University of Melbourne. Kee, thank you so much for joining us. 

POOKONG KEE
Thank you. 

JENNIFER COOK
Now, first of all, Kee, I’d like to ask you what is a diaspora and what are the some of the essential characteristics?

POOKONG KEE
Well, diaspora historically was a problematic concept in that for a long time the word was associated with the Jewish experience, the forced dispersion of members of the Jewish group and for a long time the longing to return. In more recent times, the concept was associated with the African slavery experience. And for a long period of time, Americans of African background were basically deprived of any links to their homeland. And from the 1960s, one started to see a popular culture developing in North America that tells us the story of the African dispersion and literature about longing for their homeland and so on and so forth. But increasingly the concept has become rather loose in its usage. And now one hears about, for instance, gay diaspora, soccer diaspora and so on and so forth. And in my personal view, the less disciplined use of the term unfortunately loses the academic and the intellectual meaning of the concept. 

JENNIFER COOK
So there's different kinds of diasporas. But the Chinese Diaspora, that’s essentially a migratory one, isn’t it?

POOKONG KEE
In the case of the Chinese it was mostly migration and often voluntary migration and comparable stories would be the Italians, the Greeks, the Indians and perhaps, to some extent, the Japanese and the Koreans. 

JENNIFER COOK
So let’s just talk about how big the Chinese Diaspora is. And the figures we have are from 2003, of 37 million, with 80 per cent of them being from South-East Asia. Now, it could be much bigger than that, couldn't it? 

POOKONG KEE
It could be much bigger than that. It depends on how one defines a diaspora. It’s often one gets in the political debates as to whether one should consider Hong Kong and Taiwan be part of the Chinese Diaspora. If we were to include Taiwan and Hong Kong, the commonly cited figure is well over 50 million. If not, perhaps about 35 million Chinese are overseas, meaning Chinese outside of mainly in China, Hong Kong and Macau and Taiwan. 

JENNIFER COOK
So can you tell us a little bit about the history of the Chinese Diaspora? Well it begins as far back as the 15th Century, doesn’t it?

POOKONG KEE
Indeed. Chinese immigration started probably in significant numbers from the 15th, 16th century. And in the early days they were mostly trade migration. But large scale emigration only started towards the later half of the 19th century and in particular the first half of the 20th century. And the emigration was mostly labour migration, where millions of Chinese left mostly southern China, going mostly to South-East Asia. And it is in South-East Asia where about 80 per cent of the Chinese outside of China are now located. 

JENNIFER COOK
And from 1882 we have the Chinese Exclusion Act in the US, 1901 we have the White Australia Policy and 1923 the Chinese Immigration Act in Canada. So there's efforts to limit Chinese immigration. 

POOKONG KEE
There was. And as a result we find that the overwhelming majority of Chinese are located in South-East Asia, partly because of the western attempts to stop or to reduce the number of Chinese arriving in the respective western countries. And this is an interesting contrast with other diaspora groups. And a comparable one is that perhaps the Indians, where their members are more widely scattered. In contrast, the Chinese are very much in South-East Asia and remain so. 

JENNIFER COOK
I was going to ask you what can studying the Chinese diaspora teach us and why it’s important. But talking to you now it comes down to this very basic thing of being human and talking about who we want, who we don’t want, where we live, where our home is. And you can see, with these western countries of shutting the gates and others opening the gates, it can teach us a lot.

POOKONG KEE
It does. I think perhaps the best way to learn about it is how a group of our people who had to emigrate under circumstances of adversity, poverty mainly, has ended up being seen as a global asset that members of the Chinese Diaspora, having been scattered in different parts of the world and over time have been successful in different walks of life, are now very much part of the globalisation or perhaps regionalisation process. What was seen as an experience of adversity is increasingly regarded as an asset, not just for the Chinese themselves, but for international trade, for international relations and for international linkages.

JENNIFER COOK
Yes. You do talk about diasporas having a special relevance in a globalised world, this global production networks, the Chinese Commonwealth and the benefits of it. 

POOKONG KEE
Yes. The term the Chinese Commonwealth was coined by a psychiatrist at Harvard University, Professor John Kao, to suggest how the Chinese in different parts of the world perhaps unintentionally have become very well connected a network, not just in production, but in the distribution of goods and services and also in the ability to understand the international market. And he coined the term the Chinese Commonwealth. It’s a term that Chinese scholars themselves are a little bit worried about because the modern history of Chinese international migration has been that there has been a considerable amount of a suspicion about the Chinese minority, in particular in South-East Asia. To talk about a Commonwealth as if it’s a group that has a certain vested interest has been somewhat of a problematic concept. In the period when nation states were important, when nations and states were jealous about their own interests, having to think about such a global network was at times seen as a national threat. But increasingly with regionalisation and globalisation, such a network is regarded as a national and international asset. 

JENNIFER COOK
Fascinating how words become so loaded, how they’re always so loaded. Now Kee, you talk about reversing the three Ds of migration. What are they and what does it mean?

POOKONG KEE
Often, when one learns about migration, the three Ds is a good shorthand of the migration experience, the need to migration, essentially poverty or political instability. Most of the migrants ended up working in three D jobs, three Ds standing for dirty, dangerous and demanding. But international organisations, including the United Nations, in recent times have been trying to turn the three Ds into a more positive way. The three positive Ds of migration is migration contributing to the democratisation process, migration of course contributing to development through remittances and so on and so forth. And in places like Japan, Singapore, the more developed economies and societies, migration is a way of redressing the demographic imbalance, meaning in cases where women are not marrying or women are not reproducing, migration is a way of overcoming that demographic deficit. 

JENNIFER COOK
This is Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne Australia. I’m Jennifer Cook. And our guest today is professor Pookong Kee. And we’re talking about the Chinese Diaspora. Kee, can you tell us a bit about this so-called informal Chinese women’s liberation movement, in the late 19th and early 20th century. What I mean is there were many women who chose not to marry and they left their homes in southern China to seek a new life in South-East Asia and Hong Kong. Now many worked as domestic servants, known in Singapore and Malaysia as Amah or black and whites, meaning their black trousers and white blouses. Some ended up as labourers, the Samsui women in Singapore and Malaysia. What about this aspect of the diaspora? 

POOKONG KEE
The liberation is perhaps the downstream effect rather than the reason for them emigrating. They emigrated out of sheer poverty. Most of the women who emigrated initially took places like Hong Kong, nearby places, and subsequently to more remote destinations, mostly South-East Asia, were women from very poor families, from villages that were struggling to survive. The common occupations that they ended up in were working as housemaids in homes of the families. A small group in the case of South-East Asia ended up in construction sites, hard labour work. In the case of one particular group, often referred to as the Samsui women, who ended up working mostly in Singapore and Malaysia. The Samsui women, the word Samsui comes from, in the Chinese, meaning three rivers. They basically came from that part of Guangdong province in southern China, where three rivers meet. When they working in construction sites in Singapore, the women were distinctive in that their dress was always black in colour and square cloth hats that they wear is always in red. Because many of them were very poor, they could not afford to buy proper shoes. What they often did was they make their shoes or sandals out of old tyres. Really a group of very hardworking women, whose aim in life is to save as much money as possible, in order to send back to China to help their families back in China. Many of course died without children. Their welfare was basically something that members - they look after each other. 

JENNIFER COOK
Almost like soldiers or sisters in arms. It’s almost like a warrior ethos. 

POOKONG KEE
There is even a claim that they would take a pledge among themselves that they would not get married in their lifetime. When they get old in times of need, it’s a sisterhood that provides the help to do them. That generation of women migrants has basically disappeared. Increasingly they is a greater recognition of their contribution. In Singapore, for example, a small museum has recently been set up to commemorate the very important contribution of the Samsui women to the early development of Singapore. The other interesting aspect about the early women emigrants and how they contributed to the migration experience is this recent observation that, if one were to think about international migration now, there's a very, very distinct feminisation of international migration, meaning that, in places like South-East Asia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, you are seeing a large number of women migrants who either worked in homes as domestic helpers or who work as nurses in hospitals, who work in different areas of industry. But historically with the Chinese migration experience women have always played a very important part. It’s not just a recent phenomenon. 

JENNIFER COOK
Kee, could you talk to us a bit about Singapore and the fascinating situation we have there where the Chinese are the majority ethnic group, but there's a schism within that group, isn’t it, for those who have received western education and those who have had a Chinese education?

POOKONG KEE
Yes. The Chinese experience in Singapore is very interesting and some would say rather ironic, in that this is the only country outside of Chinese that has a majority Chinese population. Just over 70 per cent of Singapore’s population could raise Chinese ancestry. And yet in Singapore’s modern history there has always been somewhat of a tension between what used to be described as the Chinese educated and English educated or rather people who are Chinese, in their thinking,  in their ideology and Chinese who have received a western education and who, either by religion or ideological inclination, identify with the West. Some would argue that dichotomy in Singapore political history has continued. But if it does, if the dichotomy, if the tension continues, I think it has been greatly eroded by the rise of China, the fact that Singapore as a relatively small society, as a small country, is very much exposed to China. Singapore’s economic wellbeing is very closely linked to its economic interest with China. As a result, the historical divide between the Chinese-educated and the British or English-educated has somewhat been eroded. So many would argue the differences remain. I, as a social scientist, cannot help but being amazed by how, in the popular media, one only has to read The Straits Times, the main newspaper, English newspaper in Singapore. They would refer to, for instance, new immigrants from mainly in China who have come to work in Singapore as China girls, China men, China whatever, which, as a social scientist, we have a long time ago learned to avoid because of the negative stereotypes associated with those terms. 

JENNIFER COOK
You’re listening to Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia. I’m Jennifer Cook. And we’re talking about the Chinese Diaspora and we’re joined by Professor Pookong Kee. Now, there are some that say there are question-marks around the loyalty to China among overseas Chinese and the Chinese Diaspora as seen by others. We’ve got the so-called fifth column phenomenon. Is it real or imagined? What is it and how has this affected integration into new countries? 

POOKONG KEE
In the case of the Chinese Diaspora experience, most of the Chinese and perhaps with the other trans-national groups, there has always been I think some political doubts about their loyalty. The Chinese experience has been accentuated by China’s own political development, that China, in 1949, became Communist. Then the whole Chinese Diaspora experience got caught up in the Cold War ideology. In South-East Asia, where over 80 per cent of the overseas Chinese are located, many of the South-East Asian countries were in alliance with the West. They saw China as a political threat. In places where the Chinese form significant minorities, places like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, depending on the political persuasion of the government of the day, they had at times very harsh policies on the Chinese. The other aspect of course is, among the millions of Chinese in South-East Asia, they’ve always been some Chinese minority members who were politically inclined to the Left. And in Indonesia, in Malaysia, in Singapore, when those countries were struggling for political independence, when the left and right wings of politics were contesting for power, the Chinese minority unfortunately at times was seen as sympathetic to the Left. It resulted in hundreds of thousands of Chinese, some claim, in Indonesia perishing as a result of suppressions of the Chinese. In the case of Singapore and Malaysia, a significant minority were subsequently sent back to China, either voluntarily or forcefully. So it complicated the overseas Chinese experience. As a result, even until now both the mainland Chinese government and the government in Taiwan are very cautious whenever the topic, the subject of the Chinese in South-East Asia is brought up, for fears that they may upset governments in South-East Asia and that the Chinese minority in South-East Asia is seen as a potential political threat to the government of the day. 

JENNIFER COOK
Now, let’s talk about some of the benefits of return migration. Return to China is not always easy. There are some barriers which I’d like you to talk about. But there are also some facilitating factors. Basically who returns and why?

POOKONG KEE
In the past, in the case of the Chinese Diaspora experience, the return was an experience associated with a life cycle, that people wanted to return to the ancestral land in order to die. It’s a very Chinese concept because the Chinese culture, partly perhaps Confucian, has always been a very land-based culture. When one dies, one needs to be buried in the ancestral village. So the longing to return was a life cycle stage experience. More recently, as a result of political and other considerations, at different points in Chinese history, governments were very keen to make use of what has been referred to as the diaspora option, that to promote national development you have this overseas asset, meaning people of your same ethnicity, who have succeeded in life in other parts of the world, either becoming very wealthy or becoming very knowledgeable in different professions. They become a very useful national asset in the promotion of a national development. So increasingly both China and other countries had, at different points in time, looked to the overseas compatriots as a resource for national development. It’s something that the Chinese have done over the years. More recently countries like India and others have also been actively promoting the diaspora option. It’s very much part in parcel of the globalisation process. 

JENNIFER COOK
Kee, I’m just really interested in your view. If we look at the Chinese Diaspora as a story, you seem to be quite positive about the future. 

POOKONG KEE
I’m positive about the future with the Chinese Diaspora experience partly because of the trend and the characteristics of globalisation and also, at another level, regionalism, regionalisation, in the south-east and east Asia parts of the world. Increasingly, the Chinese, with their cultural heritage, meaning their language, their Chinese language, skills, their knowledge about the Chinese society, Chinese economy, those are attributes increasingly regarded as an asset. As countries in South-East Asia, where the majority of Chinese are located, as they attempt to negotiate their relationships with an increasingly influential China, as they attempt to export more to China, as they attempt to attract more Chinese investment, the Chinese diaspora is increasingly being seen as an asset, as a bridge that respective countries, economies could use as they attempt to relate to China. 

JENNIFER COOK
Thank you so much, Professor Kee, for your time today.

POOKONG KEE
Thank you. 

JENNIFER COOK
I’m Jennifer Cook. We’ve been talking to Professor Pookong Kee about the Chinese Diaspora. Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia. This episode was recorded on 5 July, 2011. Our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel. Audio engineering is by Gavin Nebauer. Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. Until next time, goodbye. 

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close.  For more information, visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2011, the University of Melbourne.


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