Coming Home to a Foreign Country: Xiamen and Returned Overseas Chinese, 1843–1938

Christopher Cheng

Coming Home to a Foreign Country tells a story of Xiamen, a place that grew from a tea exporter to a migration centre. During the Republican era, it became a popular urban destination for infrastructure-building and accommodating Hokkien returnees from Southeast Asia.

In the 2000s, historians in China debated the merits of introducing the term “urban qiaoxiang.1 See, for example, the articles of Zhang Yinglong and Zheng Dehua, respectively: 张应龙. 2005. “都市侨乡: 侨乡研究新命题.” 华侨华人历史研究 3:41-49; 郑德华. 2009. “关于 “侨乡” 概念及其研究的再探讨.” 学术研究 2:95-100.  Zheng Dehua thought it was absurd to regard cities as the native place of emigrants, since the concept of “qiaoxiang” represents a distinctive transformation of China’s rural society. Besides, urban and rural China are fundamentally different, and it is difficult to determine the impact of population mobility on cities. But Zhang Yinglong pointed out that there are significant differences between cities and rural areas, and both deserve academic exploration; including how the overseas Chinese invest in cities, or how new migrants and old migrants interact. Ong Soon Keong addresses these issues in his book Coming Home to a Foreign Country, which tells the narrative of how returnees from Southeast Asia reshaped Xiamen into their ideal home.

A reliance on migration

Since 90 percent of Southern Fujian was mountainous, maritime trade has long become a substitute for agriculture. Since the late Ming dynasty, half of the populace had earned a living outside the home village. Migration was so integral to sustaining the economy that the native home became, in Philip Kuhn’s words, “a great school of emigrants,”2 Kuhn, Phiip A. 2008. Chinese Among Others: Emigration in Modern Times. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 52.  because it nurtured skills vital for mobility. So, like Hong Kong, Xiamen was another significant “in-between” node of migration in southern China, if we are to borrow from Elizabeth Sinn’s conceptualisation.3 Sinn, Elizabeth. 2012. Pacific Crossing: California Gold, Chinese Migration, and the Making of Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.  Ong acknowledged that while Hong Kong migration occurred during the city’s infancy, migration was much later in Xiamen’s development. The two-way traffic that helped Hong Kong grow would in turn rescue a failing Xiamen. But Xiamen was by no means a qiaoxiang. Then again, it did have an unquestioned place in the heart of Hokkien migrants. According to Ong, it was “the final stop where China ended, and their overseas journey began—and the first stop in China when they returned” (p. 127-8); and the book also claims that returnees chose to invest and finally settle there.

A new sense of self, a new sense of home

Coming Home to a Foreign Country chronicles how migration to Southeast Asia transformed Xiamen into a major migrant hub. Ong argues that every stage of migration made money for that city, so much so that “without Nanyang, we will not have the Xiamen of today” (p. 1). The knock-on effects of the migrant remittance economy meant that Xiamen transformed into a sort of “Nanyang resort,” or “Little Shanghai.” When would-be emigrants went abroad, they visited Xiamen, largely for the first time. It was also here that their identities were later defined: Ong notes that after travelling abroad and returning to Xiamen, returnees no longer felt that they were Chinese, as their frame of mind was caught between the ‘Old World’ of rural China and the ‘New World’ abroad. Acquired foreignness encouraged these returnees to settle in urban Fujian, where they could lead modern, commercial-driven lifestyles rather than retreat to the rural hinterlands, where everything from security to comfort and convenience was lacking. This view challenges the age-old notion of overseas sojourners’ place-attachment to a fixed physical home, such as a birthplace or village in China. Instead, Ong considers that returnees to Xiamen cultivated an alternative sense of home: one based on their newfound preference for familiarity but also comfort.

After being exposed to a world beyond rural Southern Fujian, the returning migrants recreated urban Xiamen based on their collective experiences abroad. By the 1930s, they brought electricity and modern entertainment, such as theatre, to the city and became its most avid consumers. They also improved the infrastructure: providing clean drinking water, building multi-storey reinforced-concrete shop-houses (qilou), and laying new roads. The latter, in turn, improved the rural economy whose access to the city and country has been difficult. By enhancing connectivity through new roads and public transport, it became easier for rural residents to distribute their produce and to leave the country. A new order and higher quality of life have become synonymous with Xiamen – a city that was once poor, crowded, and a breeding ground for flies and mosquitos. Its re-emergence as a migrant hub saw a boom in the retail trade, with returnees buying obligatory gifts for their relatives whenever they visited their home village. Information about the types of gifts and thriving businesses is however missing, but its inclusion in the book would certainly enrich our understanding.

Towards a richer engagement with the physical and social worlds

Although Coming Home to a Foreign Country does not engage in the urban qiaoxiang debate, Ong’s work proves that it was possible – even worthwhile – to study the impact of migrants on the city, as well as the interactions between rural and urban China, through return migration. Ong’s historiography also succeeds in chronicling the migrant cycle: The return of “old hands” perpetuated the cycle, and this ultimately re-made Xiamen the hub of Southern Fujianese migration. Still, the reviewer felt more could be done. For instance, Ong mentions the “feeling of estrangement” upon leaving China and “the sense of familiarity and comfort” (p. 128) upon returning to Xiamen, yet these ideas were disappointedly not elaborated on to complicate the condition of how urban modernity might have been manifested. In other words, how did the new setting the returnees reconfigured for themselves look and feel, and in the long run change behaviours, aspirations, and cultures? After completing Coming Home to a Foreign Country, readers might be inspired to do their own research. This includes how, for example, the ancient rural traditions and emergent urban lifestyles coalesced in the migrant-led cosmopolitan development of Republican Xiamen, and the diverse experiences of all those who had passed through and settled in Xiamen, including the Nyonya wives which were absent in Ong’s book. Addressing these day-to-day migrant accounts of how returnees grappled with the changing urban environment, in a physical and social way, would have made the book an even more stimulating read.4 Exemplary studies, such as Julie Chu, Cosmologies of Credit (2010) and Lu Hanchao, Beyond the Neon Lights (1999), illustrate how everyday interaction with changing material and social environments has been poignantly documented.