Chinese Migrants and the Realities of Belonging

Tracy C. Barrett

The tales of Chinese merchants who traveled abroad in search of fortune are familiar enough to have become global stereotypes, but what roles did their qiaoxiang (侨乡 native place) play in the lives of Chinese abroad? What was life like for the women and children who were left behind? How did remittances from abroad help or hinder Chinese migrants in maintaining ties with their home villages? What characteristics made Chinese migrants successful and what happened to those who failed? These questions form the backbone of Michael Williams’s book, Returning Home with Glory: Chinese Villagers around the Pacific, 1849-1949.

While this book touches upon many topics familiar to those with an interest in overseas Chinese history, the strength of it lies in its careful retracing of the networks and relationships tying Chinese migrants who lived in the three great Pacific port cities of San Francisco, Honolulu, and Sydney through Hong Kong and into their home villages in the Long Du district of Guangdong. Williams’s descriptions of these multidirectional pathways of remittance – whether monetary, political, or relational – help to illuminate the foggy landscapes of human connection and intention that played such pivotal roles in the lives of countless huaqiao (华侨 Chinese migrants). In particular, Williams’s use of carefully-compiled charts outlining patterns of migration, the relative values of international remittances to the qiaoxiang, and the population statistics from various Pacific locales provides clear evidence of the social and historical events that governed perceptions of migrant success or failure in the qiaoxiang. While some work has been done on these subjects in the past (for example, Madeline Hsu’s Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home, Stanford University Press, 2000), the book represents a valuable addition to scholarship on qiaoxiang communities.

This book also makes significant contributions to our understanding of familial relationships among the huaqiao, as well as the lives of the qiaoxiang wives and children left behind. The pathways to qiaoxiang success all required returning to the home village, first to marry, then to buy property, then to buy land, and finally to contribute to the development of village or provincial health, education, or transportation infrastructure. As huaqiao sought their fortunes abroad, qiaoxiang families patiently waited for news, money, or loved ones to return home. During this time, they lingered in economic or emotional purgatories, the duration of which was governed as much by international geopolitics as by the success or failure of the huaqiao. Village realities for left-behind wives, whether Chinese, indigenous Pacific, or Caucasian, are an understudied phenomenon, and Williams’s foray into this topic opens up a fascinating new arena for historical research. The juxtaposition of material wealth and personal loneliness, of social prominence and susceptibility to banditry, of the feast of the late 19th and 20th centuries and the famine of the war and interwar years, all serve to clarify the precarious lives of 20th-century qiaoxiang villagers. The way these geopolitical circumstances reverberated back and forth across familial financial networks allows the author to infuse his narrative with a human poignancy that more politically and economically-focused studies typically overlook.

While Returning Home with Glory has a number of valuable strengths, its somewhat nascent argument could benefit from firmer grounding in a broader corpus of scholarship. Chapters 4-7 of this book abound with valuable contributions to the research on overseas Chinese, but the framing of this discussion is more problematic. In particular, the first two chapters of this book are unnecessarily polemical, or even self-promoting. Decades ago, works such as Frederic Wakeman and Yeh Wen-hsin’s edited volume, Shanghai Sojourners (IEAS Publications, 1992), or William Rowe’s two-volume series Hankow (Stanford University Press, 1992), established solid ground for guild (tongxianghui), centered studies in mainland China. The oft-mentioned Elizabeth Sinn, Madeline Hsu, and the late Adam McKeown have all worked to produce scholarship sensitive to qiaoxiang connections and relationships. This space would have been better used, in the opinion of this reviewer, by a more generous siting of the topic in the context of existing scholarship, not just on overseas Chinese in the United States and British settler colonies, but in Southeast Asia and even among the sojourners of Imperial and Republican China.

Beyond the arguable failure of the tropes of ‘nation-state’, ‘transnationalism’, and ‘diaspora’ in previous scholarship, Williams’s main idea centers upon the truth that huaqiao traveled back and forth between their Pacific destinations and the qiaoxiang. While this statement is not subject to debate, Williams emphasizes heavily the role of ‘intentions’ as a defining characteristic for huaqiao populations. Yet, intentions that are between 60 and 150 years old are quite difficult for historians to quantify convincingly, especially in the face of a chronological and statistical narrative that seems to suggest that deteriorating economic and political conditions in China dramatically impacted the decision-making processes of huaqiao who debated whether or not to permanently leave the qiaoxiang.

Ultimately every work of history exists as a tangled web of scholarly successes and missed opportunities. While Williams’s book asserts the primacy of ‘intentions rather than outcomes’ (p. 197) with questionable success, it finds much more solid ground by successfully broadening the scope of our understanding of both life in the qiaoxiang, and the impact of huaqiao activities upon the family members left behind in China. Returning Home with Glory is a thought-provoking addition to the field of Overseas Chinese history.