Wandering China

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Being Chinese in South-east Asia [Straits Times] #RisingChina #OverseasChinese

Once overshadowed by ethnic branding and stereotypes…

This book disproves the lie that the Chinese cannot be integrated because of their racial exclusivity, their loyalty by default to China, and the cultural insecurity of indigenous South-east Asian societies.

– – –

Being Chinese in South-east Asia

Ethnic community in this region is as deeply embedded as any other today
By Asad Latif For The Straits Times
Source – ST, published Jul 06, 2013

An enactment of a Peranakan wedding at the Peranakan Museum. The book’s value lies in extending its analysis of the contribution of the Baba to Singapore and Malaysia, to ethnic Chinese in South-east Asia. — ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Golden Dragon And Purple Phoenix: The Chinese And Their Multi-ethnic Descendants In Southeast Asia
By Lee Khoon Choy
Singapore: World Scientific, 585 pages

AMONG the more than 60 million ethnic Chinese settled around the world, 33 million live in South- east Asia.

Their identity was once overshadowed by the idea that wherever there are Chinese, there is China. That assertion incorporated them into the Sinic sphere of influence, questioned the possibility of loyalty to the lands of their birth, and undermined their claim to the region.

Ethnic Chinese became targets of a deadly stereotype: To be Chinese meant to be clever, rapacious, inscrutable and suspect. They were envied for their industry and thrift, but their business success was imputed to the clannish networks that cornered commercial power. Perceptions of racial exclusiveness tinged with chauvinism threatened to turn them into eternal outsiders in South-east Asia.

The community paid a terrible price for that ethnic branding. It was the chief victim of the Japanese invasion and occupation of Malaya and Singapore during World War II.

Please click here to access the entire article at the Straits Times.

It was brutalised at native hands as well, during subsequent convulsions in South-east Asia. Among the most notable instances are the suppression of the post-war Hukbalahap movement in the Philippines, the massacre of Indonesian communist sympathisers in the mid-1960s, the 1969 riots in Malaysia to silence demands for racial equity, the eviction of entrepreneurial Chinese from revolutionary Vietnam in the late 1970s, and the violence unleashed on middle-class Chinese as Suharto fell from power in the late 1990s.

Through all these eruptions, the Chinese paid a price for their ethnicity disproportionate to their numbers and irrespective of the ideological side they were on.

In this book, however, veteran diplomat Lee Khoon Choy tells the story of another kind of Chinese. They are the migrating children of the Golden Dragon, a mythical status often ascribed to Chinese emperors. Their marriage to natives produced descendants who integrated themselves well enough into their societies to rise to the top of the economic, political and social ladder. Thus, over time, migrants were transformed into the Purple Phoenix, the mythological bird which rises from its own ashes and whose complexion attests to the mixture of red and blue in the bloodlines of South- east Asian Chinese.

This book disproves the lie that the Chinese cannot be integrated because of their racial exclusivity, their loyalty by default to China, and the cultural insecurity of indigenous South-east Asian societies which do not have millennia of recorded history to match China’s historical depth.

Lee documents how the descendants of Chinese sojourners and immigrants, themselves characterised by a great deal of dialectal and occupational diversity, have woven themselves seamlessly into the rich tapestry of a multi-ethnic and culturally eclectic region. Today, the ethnic Chinese are a South-east Asian community as deeply embedded in the region as any other.

Lee’s understanding of the community is enhanced by his own roots – he was born into a Peranakan family in Penang in 1924 – and his first-hand understanding of both China and South-east Asia. This knowledge was cultivated over his 14 years as a journalist and almost three decades as a politician and a diplomat, during which he served as Singapore’s ambassador to Indonesia in the 1970s.

This book combines several approaches in telling the story of Chinese integration. The first is that of biographical sketches of business, political and cultural leaders. Their lives are inserted into larger historical and social trends. Then, the author employs an anecdotal style when recalling his encounters with prominent purple phoenixes such as former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid and the Thai statesmen Kukrit Pramoj and Thanat Khoman.

The value of this book lies in extending its analysis of the contribution of the Baba to Singapore and Malaysia, with which Singaporean readers would be familiar, to ethnic Chinese in every other country in South-east Asia. In an extensive study of Indonesia which discusses tensions between settled Peranakans and newly arrived Totoks, the author assesses also the social impact of the Wali Songo, the Sufi saints of Java who were overwhelmingly Chinese.

Almost encyclopaedic in scope, this volume describes the role of the Thai monarchy in the integration of the Thai-Chinese Lokjins. The study of the Minh Huong (mixed blood) of Vietnam includes a vignette of former South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. The book shows how the Konkat-Cen (Chinese-Khmer) produced notable politicians but also the Khmer Rouge despot Pol Pot, who, in spite of his Chinese blood, initiated draconian measures against the Chinese in Cambodia. There is also a discussion of the Hmongs of Laos.

Lee traces the evolution of the Tayoke Kabya (Chinese-Burmese) community of Myanmar, which produced many distinguished politicians, and describes the contributions of the Kapitan Cina to Brunei. He examines the careers of Jose Rizal, the iconic Filipino nationalist, and former president Corazon Aquino as instances of the political rise of Mestizos, those born to Chinese immigrants and indigenous Filipinos.

This book is an important contribution to the knowledge of the ethnic Chinese past in South-east Asia. But since every past has a future via the present, it has implications as well for the region in the coming years.

Although China is accused unfairly of wanting to recreate the imperial tributary system in its dealings with Nanyang, or the lands adjacent to the South China Sea, its rise will place ethnic Chinese in South-east Asia in the political limelight again.

It is not impossible that self- declared nationalist forces in South-east Asian countries under economic or ethnic strain will turn, as they once did, against the ethnic Chinese and make them convenient scapegoats as fifth- columnists. Holding back the tide will be the embankments of integration, built out of the concrete, day-to-day achievements of multiracial living and interaction.

Lee celebrates Thailand – liberal, tolerant, open-minded and able to treat people equally irrespective of their race – for being the region’s most successful country in integrating its ethnic Chinese minority. In Singapore, of course, the Chinese constitute the majority.

Ethnic Chinese fortunes will depend on what happens along the spectrum of South-east Asian polities between Thailand and Singapore. This book shines a discerning light on that spectrum.


– – –

The writer, a former Straits Times journalist, is an associate fellow of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.


This book disproves the lie that the Chinese cannot be integrated because of their racial exclusivity, their loyalty by default to China, and the cultural insecurity of indigenous South-east Asian societies.


Filed under: Beijing Consensus, China Dream, Chinese Model, Communications, Culture, Domestic Growth, Economics, Education, Ethnicity, Greater China, Ideology, Influence, International Relations, Mapping Feelings, Overseas Chinese, Peaceful Development, People, Social, Soft Power, Straits Times, Tao Guang Yang Hui (韬光养晦), The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities, Uncategorized

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