The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 74/No. 21      May 31, 2010

Conference discusses
role of overseas Chinese
Participants from 20 countries attend
int’l gathering in Singapore
(feature article)
SINGAPORE—Emigration of millions of Chinese around the globe over the last two centuries was the focus of an international gathering here that drew almost 300 people from some 20 countries. The seventh international conference of the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas (ISSCO) convened May 7 for three days of plenaries, panel discussions, and other activities.

Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and the Chinese Heritage Centre, located on the university campus, were the sponsors of the conference along with ISSCO. Most participants came from countries in Asia, including China, India, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand. Others hailed from countries in Europe and North America, and from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Given the site of the conference and the substantial participation from across Southeast Asia, developments in this region were a particular feature of the event.

ISSCO held its founding conference in 1992 in San Francisco, noted Leo Suryadinata, ISSCO president and director of the Chinese Heritage Centre, at the opening session. Subsequent international conferences were held in Hong Kong in 1994, the Philippines in 1998, Taiwan in 2001, Denmark in 2004, and Beijing, China, in 2007. Numerous regional conferences have been organized as well, including in Cuba in 1999, South Africa in 2006, and most recently in New Zealand last year.

Conference participants were welcomed by Grace Fu Hai Yien, senior minister of state in Singapore’s government. After keynote addresses by professors Philip Kuhn of Harvard University and Tan Chee Beng of the Chinese University of Hong Kong—given in English and Mandarin, respectively—participants got down to the main work of the conference: a series of some 70 panel discussions, conducted in English or Chinese. More than 200 papers were presented, some 90 of them in Chinese. Almost half of those were by participants from universities in China.

Along with the formal sessions, one of the most valuable aspects of the gathering was the many hours of informal discussion and exchange that took place—over meals, cultural activities, and a post-conference tour of Singapore—among the participants who had come together from around the globe.

Papers addressed a wide range of topics, from literary criticism and the changes in spoken Chinese among the diaspora, to the impact on overseas Chinese of industrial development and increasing class differentiation in China over the past two decades, to the conditions facing Chinese workers, small traders, students, capitalists, and others around the world, from Brunei to India, South Africa, and Peru.  
Chinese in Southeast Asia
A number of panels looked at the substantial Chinese populations in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and more broadly in Southeast Asia. With a total population of around 560 million, the region is home to about 30 million ethnic Chinese—about three-quarters of all those who live outside China.

The extent of Chinese settlement varies from country to country. About 29 percent of Malaysia’s population of 28 million is Chinese. In Indonesia, Chinese comprise some 3 percent of the country’s 240 million people. Most of the Chinese migrants to this region have come from the coastal regions in China’s south, including the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong (historically known as Canton), and Hainan Island.

In many countries throughout the region, Chinese communities grew up over the centuries as trading outposts with settlers often subject to exclusionary laws and discriminatory practices, which today’s propertied classes find useful to adapt. In Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia, land purchase by those of Chinese descent continues to be limited, maintaining restrictions first imposed by the British and Dutch colonial powers.

The Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia—which came to power through the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, and a bloodletting that targeted the Chinese minority in particular—lasted from 1965 to 1998. It forbade the teaching of Chinese and the public display of Chinese culture, among many other brutally repressive measures. Indonesia’s capitalist rulers, often acting through the military, have frequently set up the Chinese community, especially merchants, as scapegoats to deflect anger against their exploitative rule. Anti-Chinese pogroms, with a harsh toll of murders and rapes, occurred in the last years of Suharto’s “New Order” regime and its aftermath.

Over the centuries many Chinese have, of course, married into and become part of the peoples and cultures of the region in which they settled. In Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia those of mixed ancestry and culture are known as Peranakan Chinese (peranakan is an Indonesian and Malay word referring to the offspring of a native woman and a foreign male). A collection of essays on the subject, Peranakan Chinese in a Globalizing Southeast Asia, edited by ISSCO president Suryadinata, was launched on the second evening of the conference. Teresita Ang See, from the Kaisa Heritage Center and Ateneo de Manila University, herself a former president of ISSCO, presented the book. She noted that in her home country, the Philippines, people of similar mixed ancestry and culture are called Mestizos.  
Impact of Chinese Revolution
Few presentations discussed, or more than incidentally touched on, the sharp class struggles throughout the modern history of the region—the capitalist colonial conquests and powerful 20th century independence struggles against European colonial powers; the national liberation wars against Japanese imperialism leading up to and through World War II; the socialist revolutions that overturned capitalist rule in China and parts of Korea and Indochina in the aftermath of that war; U.S. imperialist domination in subsequent decades; and the historic victory of the Vietnamese people in 1975. World-shaking events such as the 1949 Chinese Revolution and the 1965 slaughter of workers and Communist Party supporters in Indonesia—led into the bloody trap by the class-collaborationist policies of the Indonesian CP guided by the Maoist regime in Beijing—were in most cases treated as backdrops to specific studies of Chinese communities and their relationships to their new and ancestral homes.

One session did sketch the impact of the 1945-49 Chinese civil war on the Chinese population in Singapore and the class polarization around these revolutionary events. Jason Lim of the National University of Singapore noted that as the Red Army, led by the Chinese Communist Party, won ground against the imperialist-backed Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) forces, some prominent bourgeois figures and one major newspaper were neutral or even sympathetic to the Communist Party forces. At one point, he said, some 120 organizations claiming 100,000 followers called an action against Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek.

In the same panel discussion, John Wong Teck Yenn, from Nanyang Technological University, noted that the attraction of the Chinese Revolution led one successful restaurant owner in the 1950s to dub his Hainan Chicken dish “Communist Chicken” in expectation that its popularity would increase!

In a talk entitled “Communists, China Missionaries, and Chinese New Villagers: Battle for ‘Hearts and Minds’ in Malaya,” Lee Kam Hing of the University of Malaya described how during the late 1940s and the ’50s, the British colonial rulers of what is now Malaysia acted brutally and effectively to cut off links between Chinese peasant villages and the pro-Beijing Malayan Communist Party. Half a million people, most them Chinese, were forced into virtual prison camps called “New Villages.” The move helped to cut off “food supplies and information to insurgents operating at the fringes of the jungle,” Lee observed, and became the prototype for similar tactics used by the U.S. military in Vietnam.

Numerous panels also looked at the impact of the Chinese diaspora in other parts of the world. Three examined recent Chinese immigration to a number of African countries, including Mozambique, Tanzania, Namibia, Lesotho, and Zambia. The expanding presence of Chinese traders throughout vast areas of southern Africa and the growing numbers of Chinese construction and mining companies, along with substantial numbers of workers brought under contract to Africa by Chinese companies as a ready-trained low-paid workforce, are phenomena that have stoked resentments among local populations and are often played on by demagogic bourgeois politicians in those countries.

Another session, entitled “Interconnection between Chinese Overseas,” included descriptions of Chinese neighborhoods in Boston around the turn of the 20th century, and the Chinese community of about 8,000 in India’s Calcutta, which has historically been centered on the tanning industry.

In her talk at that session on “The Intertwined History of Chinese in Cuba and the United States,” Mary-Alice Waters, president of Pathfinder Press, discussed the impact of the introduction of large numbers of Chinese workers into both countries during the mid-19th century. She outlined the bourgeois-democratic revolutions that marked the following decades in the two countries—the wars for independence and abolition of slavery and indentured servitude in Cuba, and the Civil War and subsequent period of Radical Reconstruction that crushed the slavocracy in the United States—and the place of Chinese laborers in both.

Waters pointed to the lessons that Cuba’s socialist revolution provides today for working people around the world seeking to defend their class interests—lessons presented in Pathfinder’s book, Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution.

Along with a few other Pathfinder titles, this book—in English, Chinese, and Spanish—was available to conference participants in the display area. Publishers and booksellers represented there also included the Chinese Heritage Centre, Select Books bookshop, and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, all based in Singapore, as well as the Netherlands-based Brill publishing house.

At the ISSCO membership meeting that concluded the conference, Leo Suryadinata and Teresita Ang See were reelected president and secretary-treasurer of the organization, while Tan Chee Beng, editor of ISSCO’s Journal of Chinese Overseas, was elected vice president.

Suryadinata announced that regional ISSCO conferences are planned in Hong Kong for June 23-24, 2011, and in Seoul, South Korea, in June 2012. He reported on tentative plans to hold the next international conference in either Vancouver or Toronto, Canada.

Martín Koppel, Mary-Alice Waters, and Linda Harris contributed to this article.  
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