Chinese in Southeast Asia - Orientation

Identification. The Chinese in Southeast Asia once referred to themselves as "Huaqiao" (Chinese sojourners) but now describe themselves as "Huaren" (Chinese people). Another common ethnonym for Chinese, "Zhongguo ren" (people of the Central Kingdom), is avoided in Southeast Asia because it holds overtones of political allegiance to China: the Overseas Chinese live outside the political boundaries of China and are citizens or permanent residents of a variety of Southeast Asian nations. The southern Chinese, who form the core of immigrants to Southeast Asia, also refer to themselves as "Tangren" (people of Tang), alluding to the fact that their ancestors migrated to southern China at the demise of the Tang dynasty in the tenth century A.D. In the Philippines they are called "Sangley," from a Southern Min word referring to "[those who] do business."

Location. Overseas Chinese are found in cities throughout Southeast Asia, and although populations may be found in rural areas, the Chinese are overwhelmingly urban. In Southeast Asian cities they are visible in their capacity as merchants, with shops sometimes clustered in distinctive "Chinatowns."

Demography. Migration to Southeast Asia originated primarily in the coastal area of southeastern China, in particular Fujian, Guangdong, and Hainan, and reached its peak in the second half of the nineteenth century, spurred by new opportunities created by the opening of treaty ports after the First Opium War. The only predominantly Chinese population in Southeast Asia is that of Singapore, where an estimated 2 million Chinese form 76 percent of a population of 3 million. In Malaysia, the Chinese form a large minority, currently estimated at 34 percent of a population of 18 million. In Indonesia, where the Chinese are only 3 percent of the total population of 195 million, there are 5 to 6 million Chinese; in Thailand, the Chinese population has been recently estimated as 5 to 6 million or more in a total population of 57 million; in the Philippines there are 600,000 in a population of 62 million; in Cambodia, 300,000 in a population of 8.5 million; in Laos, 25,000 in a population of 4 million. In Vietnam in the mid-seventies there were perhaps 2 million Chinese, but many have since become refugees. Demographic statistics do not always reveal the extent of the Overseas Chinese presence, since partially assimilated Chinese may not be counted as "Chinese" in a census report even though they maintain Chinese identity.

Assimilation. Chinese who settled in Southeast Asia before the mid-nineteenth century were likely to intermarry and become assimilated to local populations, or to develop new social forms syncretized from elements of Chinese and local cultures. Examples include the mestizos of the Philippines, the Peranakans of Indonesia, and the Baba of Singapore and Malaysia. In contemporary Indonesia and Malaysia, cultural assimilation is now less common: the practice of Islam is now an important expression of ethnic and national identity for "peoples of the soil," and this tends to form an obstacle to intermarriage and full assimilation. By contrast, Chinese have tended to assimilate more readily in the Buddhist countries of mainland Southeast Asia. In Thailand, for example, assimilation has been relatively easy for Chinese; at the same time a population of "Sino-Thai," who have maintained distinctively Sinitic cultural practices while adopting the Thai language and Thai names, has persisted. On the one hand, assimilation has resulted from the relative absence of barriers to intermarriage into a population that shares a common world religion in Buddhism, and on the other hand it is the result of government policy, which since 1948 has restricted Chinese-language instruction in formerly Chinese-medium educational institutions. In Vietnam, it was once axiomatic that Chinese found low barriers to assimilation, since Vietnam had been deeply influenced by Sinitic culture, adopting Chinese characters, Mahayana Buddhism, and for a time a bureaucratic structure of government in which candidates for high office were selected through an examination system modeled on that of imperial China. However, colonial rule and its political aftermath have had an impact on the position of Chinese populations in Southeast Asia. For example, in the period of French colonial rule, French regulations discouraged Vietnamese but encouraged Chinese participation in commerce, and in 1970 it was estimated that while Chinese Vietnamese were only 5.3 percent of the total population, they controlled 70-80 percent of the commerce of Vietnam. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Chinese Vietnamese became a political target, and many fled or were driven out of Vietnam. The Chinese Kampucheans were labeled urban "exploiters" by Pol Pot, and it is estimated that 200,000 perished between 1975 and 1979.

Linguistic Affiliation. Overseas Chinese speak a variety of Sinitic regional languages, drawn from three language groups that are not mutually intelligible. Major regional languages include Min (Northern and Southern), Yue, and Hakka. Within Overseas Chinese communities, Chinese also identify themselves by their topolect of origin (misleadingly termed a "dialect"). Topolects of Southern Min include Fujian (Hokkien, Fukien), Chaozhou (Chaochow, Taechew, Teochew), and Hainan. Topolects of Northern Min include Fuzhou (Foochow, Hockchew), Xinghua (Henghua), and Fuqing (Hockchia). Speakers of Yue (Cantonese, Guangfu, Yueh) and Hakka (Hokka, Ke, Kechia, Kejia, Kek, Kheh) are also widely found in Southeast Asia. A single urban community in Southeast Asia might include speakers of eight or more Sinitic topolects, and in such situations, one topolect tends to become the lingua franca for that community. For example, the Fujian topolect of Southern Min (Hokkien) is dominant in many Overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines, whereas another Southern Min topolect, Chaozhou (Teochew), dominates in Thailand. There are also long-resident Chinese populations who speak Southeast Asian languages as the language of the home: an estimated 65 percent of Chinese Indonesians speak Indonesian in the home; an estimated 80 percent of Chinese Thai speak Thai. In some cases, Chinese has been creolized with Southeast Asian languages: Baba Malay, formed from Hokkien and Malay, is spoken in Singapore and Malaysia; Peranakan Indonesian, formed from Indonesian, Javanese, and Hokkien, is used in Indonesia. The Chinese regional languages share a single written language, which was once learned through diverse literary registers of the regional languages. Since the Republican Revolution of 1911, the written language has been learned through Mandarin-medium education, which was for a time a force for Chinese nationalism in Southeast Asia as well as in China. With the exception of Singapore, Southeast Asian governments have in the postcolonial era promoted national languages at the expense of Chinese-medium education, thus eroding one important base for the continuation of Sinitic culture in Overseas Chinese communities. For example, the Indonesian government promotes Bahasa Indonesia as the medium of education and public discourse, and it has restricted Chinese-medium education and the Chinese-language press. In Malaysia, mastery of the national language, Bahasa Melayu, is increasingly indispensable to public life. However, Mandarin Chinese continues to be a medium of instruction in Chinese-medium primary schools and private secondary schools, and the Chinese-language press has persisted. In the Philippines, Chinese-language instruction has been restricted since 1973, and the new generation of Chinese Filipinos is considered more Filipino than Chinese in outlook. The command of Chinese languages is useful in business, and allows Chinese to maintain ethnic ties across national boundaries; this is one important motive for the maintenance of Chinese-language ability in the context of Southeast Asia.

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