The Chinese in Southeast Asia: Generations Migrate for a Better Life

1967 photo of Indonesian-Chinese family from Hubei ancestry, the second and third generations

Chinese have been migrating to Southeast Asia for centuries. The thirteenth century diplomat Zhou Daguan, during an official visit to the Angkor Empire of what is now Cambodia, recorded the presence of Chinese who had settled there for some time. The process has certainly occupied thousands of years.

Reasons for migration are many. In some cases it results from the desire to flee oppression or danger. When Kublai Khan’s armies smashed the Nanchao Kingdom based in Yunnan Province, it greatly stimulated the movement of Chinese and non-Chinese alike further south, east and west. In other cases, it was the search for a better life that was the motive – it is, above all, a function of the fact that differences exist between different places: some places offer better climate or the presence of certain resources which make them attractive places to move towards and live.

Much of the landscape of China, especially the interior, is quite difficult for agriculture and the people are not just poor but might be subject to the depredations of foreign raiders and unjust mandarins. Moving to the sunshine of Southeast Asia, with its exotic fruit and plentiful vegetables and meat must surely seem a desirable outcome. Of course, registration systems of various sorts were put in place to prevent just this kind of movement of the poor. Much of the practical details had to be managed secretly and this is one of the reasons why the regional associations that eventually came to be known as triads first came into assistance.

The coasts of much of Southeast Asia are dotted with Chinese temples that were built by migrating Chinese who wanted to show their gratitude for a safe landing. It is not surprising that this would be the first impulse of so many people when the risks of travelling by sea are considered. Uncountable numbers of people have been lost at sea over the years. Pirates, hunger, adverse weather and disease were all among the dangers that had to be met.

Once landfall had been made, the reception of other people to the Chinese also varied. Sometimes resentment led to open confrontation – sometimes there would be generations of festering resentment which could spark into violence given a suitable pretext, as happened to the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in the wake of the 1997 Financial Crisis, as well as the many thousands of Chinese attacked or exiled during the Khmer Rouge revolution in Cambodia or the Communist victory in Vietnam.

To avoid such problems, most Chinese have sought to integrate themselves into local society and to stay away, by and large, from politics. The avoidance of party politics is now changing in several countries.