The Chinese Diaspora in South-East Asia: The Overseas Chinese in Indochina

The Chinese Diaspora

Author(s):  Tracy C. Barrett

ISBN:           978 1 78076 134 3

Publisher:  I.B. Tauris

Year:           2012

Price:           £62.00

Reviewed by Francis Chia-Hui Lin, Lecturer, Taylor’s University, Malaysia.

This book is one of few contemporary colonial studies, not to say colonial histories, that focuses on the overseas Chinese communities in Asia, and probably the most careful study of Indo-China’s overseas Chinese, in English, in the present literature. This work is a supplement to two relative weak fields in scholarship of Chinese studies and colonial studies – one, of the overseas Chinese within Asia and the other, of the Chinese communities involved in colonialism. The author, Tracy C. Barrett, examined the archives in France and Vietnam to observe the Chinese congregations in present-day Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam that not only determined the population of overseas Chinese in then French colonised Indo-China but also assisted the colonial authorities in disciplining social and cultural-political behaviour and regulating business industries.

As the book title suggests, the diasporic representations of two external forces – the French and the Chinese – in Indo-China are the immediate task that needs to be identified. As the French and the Chinese in Indo-China are non-natives, how to position them, particularly the later, in the context is first addressed. Barrett in the book questions the positioning of the overseas Chinese in Indo-China from three standpoints – of the China-centric ‘subject as sojourner’ model, of scholars of Asian American history, who promote the ‘overseas Chinese as settler’ model and of a transnational approach to history treating the overseas Chinese as ‘global citizens’. These standpoints are examined through the geopolitics of the overseas Chinese in Indo-China, which was embodied in huiguan, or Chinese congregations. This book therefore is an examination of Chinese congregations in Indo-China in terms of Indo-China’s overseas Chinese, their Indochinese lives and the nature of their belonging to the larger overseas Chinese world.

The author in the book first addresses the history of the Chinese congregations in French Indo-China. As one of a set of officially approved congregations, French law mandated their existence, their organisational and leadership structures and their official roles within the colonial society. To a certain extent, this evidenced a representational form of passive colonial hybridity which characterised the congregations in Indo-China to differ from typical overseas Chinese huiguan. As a pattern of French colonisation, the overseas Chinese congregation also reflected a clear geographic hierarchy. First, Paris stood unchallenged at the top of this hierarchy, which was followed by the colonial government centred in Saigon, and later in Hanoi after 1887. The overseas Chinese congregation, as a bottom organisation that had been fitted into the hierarchy by the authority, played a tricky role in the French colonisation. On the one hand, the Chinese had established pre-existing trade networks and relationships throughout Indo-China and had a long tradition of competition with the locals for economy supremacy. In other words, the overseas Chinese congregations in French Indo-China would help foster and grow the economy to the benefit of the colony. On the other hand, the autonomic form of the congregations also revealed a threat to French economic and political authority. This highlights one standpoint of the examination in the book – seeing the overseas Chinese congregations as systematic institutions rather than loose ‘congregations’.

In the next chapter, the author discusses the political functions of the Chinese congregation. In terms of power relation, the president of the congregation physically determined the number of the overseas Chinese population in Indo-China. Immigration to Indo-China or departure from it could not occur without the approval of the president. In terms of societal class, wealth as a prerequisite for leadership enjoyed nearly unrivalled prominence as a determinant for status in overseas Chinese communities. Congregation leaders with long histories in the region were viewed as more likely to support the goals of the French regime than to risk the loss of their livelihood. The overseas Chinese congregations’ geopolitical status in the then French colony was therefore unchallengeable.

The nature of congregational leadership is also scrutinised in the book. This is reflected from both avoidance and confrontation between the congregations and the colonial authority. Within the paradigm of colonialism, the overseas Chinese were subordinated to colonial will, making the question of confrontation or avoidance equally applicable to them. For instance, in order to avert confrontation with the colonial authority, Indo-China’s most powerful Chinese avoided French control by ostensibly remaining outside the official congregation structure.
Selected as representative cases, Barrett in the book analyses one prominent Cantonese merchant, the operation of Chinese hospitals and overseas Chinese education in Indo-China. First, the analysis of the Cantonese merchant, Ly Dang, questions whether the position of overseas Chinese business in Indo-China is considered as a part of so-called ‘foreign’ firms or of ‘Chinese’ networks. This is sorted by the author in a pyramid of colonial hierarchy. In this hierarchy, informal Cantonese communities served as the first and most basic building blocks of an overseas Chinese business empire in Indo-China. Formal Cantonese networks and hierarchies, in the middle part of the pyramid, mediated with French authorities to protect the Chinese communities as a whole. Hierarchies under French colonial rule, as the top blocks of the pyramid, played substantial roles in overseas Chinese business life. For example, although kinship and particularistic ties within overseas Chinese business endeavours maintained an enduring importance that colonial authority could not overshadow, the French colonial government possessed he authority to restrict the effectiveness of local business ventures, which essentially limited Chinese networks to the realm of personal significance as opposed to corporate. Second, the case study of the operation of Chinese hospitals highlights the role of the overseas Chinese congregations in Indo-China in terms of the public good of the overseas Chinese. The congregations, based on this ‘responsibility’, worked closely with their congregants and with the French to find the solutions most beneficial to their community. Lastly, from a cultural perspective, although the general attention is usually paid to cultural sites, such as temples, the author’s focus in the book is on education – schools set for the overseas Chinese in then French Indo-China. As a remarkable phenomenon, Chinese schools operated by the overseas Chinese congregations in Indo-China were treated as a ‘local Chinese site’ that maintains the Chinese cultural continuity. Chinese schools in Indo-China obviously were not located in China, but they were also intentionally separated from colonial and local schools in the then French colony. This phenomenon represents a strong diasporic imagery that ideologises a non-native place into a native one.

The role of Chinese congregations in Indo-China between 1862 and 1954, the then French colony, as a mediator between the overseas Chinese, natives and the then authority is then a clear point highlighted in the book. There are different forms this mediation had taken between the French, local administrators and other congregations. On the one hand, the overseas Chinese congregation played the role of an intermediary that mediated domestic affairs either between Chinese communities or between Chinese communities and local communities. On the other hand, it was also involved with international mediation, mainly with the French authorities, with either the colonial governor or the government in Paris, in terms of financial and commercial disputes. These forms characterised the reciprocal behaviours between the overseas Chinese, local and French administrative communities.

In a broader context, the author then examines the disciplinary system imposed by the French and its interaction with the congregations in terms of the colonial power’s relationship with the then failing Celestial Empire – China. This was reflected from the level of French surveillance in the border regions and different attitudes of the colonial government towards the overseas Chinese.

Finally, as a concluding point argued by the author, colonialism takes an inevitable position. Barrett borrowed a French term ‘cercle’ to depict the special type of Chinese organisation in the late 19th century Indo-China. This term is often translated as ‘association’, which is used to represent organisations held together by shared interests or personal characteristic. Particularly, this term is underlined as referring to any officially-sanctioned group of overseas Chinese who are bound together by commonalities other than dialect, i.e. referring to the overseas Chinese congregation to huiguan. This is argued by the author as a phenomenal rise of the Chinese diasporic power in terms of economic, political and cultural influence, while the power and splendour of China declined. This is a representational imagery of locational identity that reflects the ‘settler or sojourner’ debate. The adaptations made by communities to ameliorate the difficulties of life in a foreign lad do not necessarily supersede national self-identification as a defining characteristic – Chinese-ness. The key to answer this debate depends on money and prominence of the overseas Chinese. The huiguan is argued by the author as a representation of public sphere, proposed by Jürgen Habermas, that mediates various forces, and this piece of history represents the internationalisation of the overseas Chinese in then French colonised Indo-China that allowed the Chinese to survive in the colonial milieu.

This book plays a pivotal role in the field of Asian studies that locates the diasporic position of overseas Chinese; even the major attention of current scholarship has been paid to the localities in other continents. This work shall be appreciated by those who are interested in Asia’s colonial trajectories with interdisciplinary perspectives.

Suggested citation:

Tracy C. Barrett (2012). Review of “The Chinese Diaspora in South-East Asia: The Overseas Chinese in Indochina” edited by Francis Chia-Hui Lin, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no.9, Internet file: