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Pamphlet encouraging foreigners
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In addition to the 1.4 billion Chinese in mainland China, 23.57 million in Taiwan, and 8.2 million in Hong Kong and Macau, there are about 55 million Overseas Chinese, the majority of which are Han Chinese. The countries with the largest number of Overseas Chinese are: Thailand (9,300,000); Malaysia (6,712,000); United States (4,143,982); Indonesia (3,200,000 (includes ancestry)); Singapore (2,570,000 (includes ancestry)); Canada (1,769,195); Myanmar (1,560,100); Philippines (1,350,000); Australia (1,213,903); South Korea (1,070,566); Japan (922,000); Vietnam (749,466); France (700,000); United Kingdom (466,000). [Source: Wikipedia]

Overseas Chinese have been counted in 140 countries. Chinese who have spent time in the West are known as "hai gui" — a pun on ‘sea turtle" and “returnee from the sea.” China is the biggest source of migrants to Australia, surpassing New Zealand for the first time in 2009. Between July and October 2009, 6,350 migrants arrived in Australia from China, compared to 5,800 from Britain and 4,740 from New Zealand.

Overseas Chinese who live outside of China are citizens or permanent residents of the countries they live in not China. They are found in mostly in cities, often living together in Chinese communities or neighborhoods. Chinese in cities have traditionally been involved in business, often as merchants or shop owners, with their places of business and residences grouped together in distinctive "Chinatowns."

Chinese Go Abroad in the 19th Century

Beginning in the mid-1800s and continuing to the early-1900s, large numbers of Chinese, mostly from the Guangdong Province around Canton, emigrated to the United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia. They were lured to these far away places by stories of gold and opportunities and were prodded out of China by war, famine, chaos and poverty. Most of the Chinese found in Chinatowns today around the world still speak Cantonese.

Fujian Province was another source of overseas Chinese. So many people left Fujian for Southeast Asia during the late 18th century and early 19th century that the Manchu court issued an imperial edict in 1718 recalling all Chinese to the mainland. A 1728 proclamation declared that anyone who didn't return and was captured would be executed. Scholars attribute the mass exodus to a population explosion in the coastal cities of Fujian and prosperity and contacts generated by foreign trade.

Many of the rich Chinese that now control the economies in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and other places in Asia are descendants of illiterate, landless peasants. The rich landowners and educated Mandarins stayed in China.

Society, Religion and Customs of Overseas Chinese

Hakka couple in the Philippines in the 16th century

Customs regarding extended families, kinship, marriage, funerals, inheritance have remained the same or close to same as those practiced by Chinese in China. Descent is along patrilineal lines. Children are taught Confucian values of respect towards elders and filial duty. Women do most of the child rearing but sometimes grandparents help out so women can work. Marriages tend to follow the Chinese pattern. They are arranged or have a fair degree of parental input and couples tend live the groom’s parents after they get married. Overseas Chinese are more likely to marry a partner with different religious beliefs or from a different hometown area than Chinese in China. Intermarriage with local people varies from place and place.

The religion observed by overseas Chinese is the generally the same mix of Taoism, Buddhism and folk beliefs practiced by Chinese in China. They perform rites to ancestors and celebrate Chinese lunar calendar festivals and visit temples. .In some cases their beliefs are stronger than Chinese in China because their religious beliefs were not discouraged by a Communist regime.

Social stratification tends to be based on income levels in the country where the Chinese live rather than on class distinctions from back home. This is at least partly because most overseas Chinese are descendant of poor peasants. Social unification is based on bonds created by “dialect” groups, business associations, and shared surnames. Leaders tend to be selected in the basis of merit, connections and economic influence rather than family background.

Overseas Chinese generally use the legal and political systems in their home countries to settle disputes and further their aims. In some cases they may turn to Tongs (secret societies) for some help. Tongs have their roots in fighting societies created when rival Chinese communities fought one another. They have traditionally been involved in “underground economies,” gambling and prostitution; often had their own “police force” of thugs; and had links with Triads (organized crime groups).

Chinese in Apartheid South Africa

In her book “Paper Sons and Daughters: Growing up Chinese in South Africa”, Ufrieda Ho’s compelling memoir describes with intimate detail what it was like to come of age in the marginalized Chinese community of Johannesburg during the apartheid era of the 1970s and 1980s. The Chinese were mostly ignored, as Ho describes it, relegated to certain neighborhoods and certain jobs, living in a kind of gray zone between the blacks and the whites. As long as they adhered to these rules, they were left alone.

Ho describes the separate journeys her parents took before they knew one another, each leaving China and Hong Kong around the early1960s, arriving in South Africa as illegal immigrants. Her father eventually became a so-called “fahfee man,” running a small-time numbers game in the black townships, one of the few opportunities available to him at that time. In loving detail, Ho describes her father’s work habits: the often mysterious selection of numbers at the kitchen table, the carefully-kept account ledgers, and especially the daily drives into the townships, where he conducted business on street corners from the seat of his car. Sometimes Ufrieda accompanied him on these township visits, offering her an illuminating perspective into a stratified society. Poignantly, it was on such a visit that her father—who is very much a central figure in Ho’s memoir—met with a tragic end.

In many ways, life for the Chinese in South Africa was self-contained. Working hard, minding the rules, and avoiding confrontations, they were able to follow traditional Chinese ways. But for Ufrieda, who was born in South Africa, influences from the surrounding culture crept into her life, as did a political awakening. Paper Sons and Daughters is a wonderfully told family history that will resonate with anyone having an interest in the experiences of Chinese immigrants, or perhaps any immigrants, the world over.

According to Word Etc: “Paper Sons echoes the domestic realism in Amy Tan’s best-selling The Joy Luck Club; we taste the food and we are educated in all things Chinese such as the observance of rituals. For the Ho family, the strong adherence to ancient traditions gives meaning and comfort when the silence of stigma proves too oppressive.”

Author David Medalie wrote: “In the years since apartheid ended, many of South Africa’s formerly hidden histories are being uncovered. These are the stories of communities who were forced to evade the public gaze; living lives, in Ufrieda Ho’s words, of ‘shadows and scars’. In Paper Sons and Daughters, Ho unfolds the story of her family and, more broadly, of the Chinese community in South Africa in the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s a deeply moving narrative, filled with love, pain and a delicate wistfulness.”

Book: “Paper Sons and Daughters: Growing up Chinese in South Africa” by Ufrieda Ho, Ohio University Press Swallow Press, 2012]

areas of China where most overseas Chinese originally come from

Rich Overseas Chinese

Among the 20,000 Chinese with at least 100 million yuan ($15 million) in individual investment assets, 27 percent have already emigrated and 47 percent are considering it, according to a report by China Merchants Bank and U.S. consultants Bain & Co. published in April.

Getting a foreign passport is like “taking out an insurance policy,” said Rupert Hoogewerf, who compiles the Hurun Rich List, China’s version of the Forbes list. “If there is political unrest or suddenly things change in China — because it’s a big country, something could go wrong — they already have a passport to go overseas. It’s an additional safety net.” Nearly 60 percent of the people surveyed said worries over their children’s education are a reason for wanting to leave.

Forbes’ Panos Mourdoukoutas, though, pointed to American institutions as the root of the country’s allure: “What America possesses is the right cocktail of institutions. Over the course of its history, America has developed and maintained a good (if not ideal) combination of free markets and government, with each institution deployed in areas of society it excels: Free markets in allocating economic resources efficiently and effectively in the production of private goods and services, and government in creating a “general equality of condition among the people,” as graphically described in Alexis De Tocqueville Democracy in America. The government protects civil liberties and economic freedoms, and takes care of the “commons,” sectors of the economy where free markets are inadequate or fail altogether: the provision of public and semi-public goods, and the protection of the public from health, traffic, occupational, and environmental hazards.”

“The bottom line: China’s post-1978 economic regime has produced what the country was lacking, economic growth. But it has yet to create the right combination of institutions that will make this growth sustainable, allowing its citizens to enjoy the quantity of life provided by an efficient and effective market system, and the quality of life assured by a fair, efficient, and effective government. Until such a system is created, China’s citizens, rich and poor, will reach to America to find it.”

Modern Chinese Emigrants

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times, “According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, 800,000 Chinese were working abroad at the end” of 2011, “versus 60,000 in 1990. Many are in small-scale businesses — taxi driving, fishing or farming — and worried that their class has missed out on China’s 30-year boom. Even though hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted from poverty during this period, the rich-poor gap in China is among the world’s widest and the economy is increasingly dominated by large corporations, many of them state-run. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, October 31, 2012 +/]

Inside a Overseas Chinese Temple

Many Chinese who lived outside of China formed societies within societies and retained an intense loyalty "to family, village and the clan," and were generally more interested in events in China than the were in what was going on in the countries where they lived. Descendants of Chinese who arrived abroad generations ago still send large amounts of money back home and remain attached to their home villages.

Chinese living outside of China endured discrimination without complaining, partly out of fear that they would only make the situation worse if they rocked the boat. They attended their own schools, read their own newspapers, attended their own operas and set up their own banks. They formed community associations called Tongs and tried, when ever possible, to trade with each other

China emigration is “driven by a fear of losing out in China,” Biao Xiang, a demographer at Oxford University told the New York Times. “Going abroad has become a kind of gambling that may bring you some opportunities.” Johnson wrote: “Zhang Ling, the owner of a restaurant in the coastal city of Wenzhou, is one such worrier. His extended family of farmers and tradesmen pooled its money to send his son to high school in Vancouver, Canada. The family hopes he will get into a Canadian university and one day gain permanent residency, perhaps allowing them all to move overseas. “It’s like a chair with different legs,” Mr. Zhang said. “We want one leg in Canada just in case a leg breaks here.”“ +/

Chinese in Vancouver and Canada

There are so many wealthy Chinese in Vancouver, British Columbia anxious to raise their families in the West they are bidding up the city's limited number of properties in fashionable West Vancouver to record prices. Between 2009 and 2011 prices soared more than 50 percent. AFP described one man, Su Yi Bin, a trader by profession, who was looking to buy a 450-square-meter (4,800-square-foot) house in the area for his family and ready to pay as much as $4.5 million. Su splits his time between Vancouver and Shanghai. While he's in China, he wants his family to be comfortable while they adapt to their new country. "For my child, growing up and going to school here will allow him to integrate fully into the world, into an international lifestyle," he said. [Source: AFP, July 18, 2011]

There are enough Chinese in Canada that Chinese is now the third most widely spoken language there after English and French. Chinese immigrants in Canada have a reputation for assimilating quickly. There are examples of Chinese who speak both Mandarin and Cantonese that choose to speak English when the meet. When asked why she preferred speaking English to Chinese-speaking customers, a Chinese-speaking waitress told AFP, “That’s what we speak here.” In a study by Canada Statistic in 2003, 76 percent of Chinese immigrants said they felt strongly attached to Canada and 58 percent said they also strongly identified with their own ethnic and cultural group.

In Vancouver, one in five of the city’s 1.9 million people come from China. In the nearby town of Richmond, nearly half of the residents are of Chinese origin. Contrary to popular relief, not all Chinese come to North America for economic opportunities. One Richmond resident who had to borrow money from relatives to buy a house in Canada told AFP, “Our level of living is worse. We had no financial problems in China.” On why she came, she said, “I wanted to change my life.” She said she was “quite happy” with her new life in Canada.

Chinese tomb in Malaysia

Italy's Little China

Chinese migrants work illegally in Italy producing many of Italy’s fine leather goods and textiles. One of the densest concentrations of Chinese in Europe is in Prato, a historic Italian city with a medieval cathedral, a large textile industry and bustling Chinatown. Many are from Wenzhou.

John Hooper wrote in The Guardian, “You only need to walk a few hundred yards down Via Pistoiese, a narrow road out of Prato, to feel you have travelled several thousand miles. Beyond the bakery, at number 29, Italy all but evaporates... The supermarket shelves offer dried lily flowers, bags of deep-frozen chickens' feet and jars of salted jellyfish. There is a Chinese herbalist, a Chinese jeweller, Chinese restaurants and bars, even a Chinese ice cream parlour.” AFP reported: “Few Italian shops remain in Prato's Chinatown, located just next to the town's historic centre. The area is dotted with Chinese restaurants and supermarkets and almost all the signs are written in Chinese.” [Source: AFP, December 19, 2010, John Hooper The Guardian, November 17, 2010]

Chinese immigrants began arriving in Prato — a Tuscan textile city wit around 188,000 people in the early 1990s. First they worked for Italian companies and then set up their own businesses. According to the foreign ministry in Beijing, Prato its surrounding province has the highest concentration of Chinese in any administrative district outside China itself. Silvia Pieraccini, a local journalist and author of a book " L'Assedio Cinese" (“The Chinese Siege”), reckons there are 50,000 Chinese in Prato, and that they make up about 30 percent of the city's population. But no one knows, because so many — well over half, says Pieraccini — are there illegally.

“All but a few are from around of Wenzhou, a port in south-east China, and are drawn to Italy by an industry created from scratch in less than 20 years,” Hooper wrote. “Pronto moda involves importing cheap fabric, usually from China, and getting it made up to order at breakneck speeds into high-fashion garments that are then sold with "made in Italy" labels. Surong Badeng from Xinjiang, a police interpreter, said the Chinese community worked hard through choice not exploitation. "They come to Italy to make money and have no time to integrate. They are ready to make huge sacrifices to get rich," he said.

Chinese Textile Businesses in Italy's 'Little China'

Describing the town Ken Endo wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “A group of factories and warehouses are located a short distance from Chinatown. Here. Many Chinese basically live in their work places, sharing tiny rooms with many others. At peak production times, they don’t stop working except to eat and sleep. Coupled with their low wages, these practices have caused clothing costs to significantly drop in the last 10 years...Italians and Chinese rarely interact it seems, with most Italian residents not daring to venture near Chinatown.”

Though Chinese workers are now involved in every stage of production — even the cloth is imported because it costs 10 times less than Italian fabric — the companies can legally sell their clothes with the "Made in Italy" label. The clothes are sold wholesale “at around five euros (6.6 dollars) for a dress or 10 euros for a coat — and bundled into vans from eastern and northern Europe that come and go seven days a week. [Source: AFP, December 19, 2010]

Pieraccini told AFP the workers live in the warehouses because they labor 18 hours a day and sleep where they drop. "The Chinese work a great deal, they are very quick to understand where the market is going, but they work in deplorable conditions, without contracts and in buildings that are unsafe and often unhygienic" she said. "The Chinese textile sector makes a huge profit and it's obvious that the possibility to make large amounts of money is bound to attract criminals."

Chinese Temple in Ipoh Malaysia

"We, by which I mean the Chinese, are causing a lot of problems," Chan told The Guardian. But, he adds, many arise from mutual incomprehension. "I find Italians friendly — if you speak a bit of Italian. Most of the Chinese here are from the countryside. They have difficulty with their own language, let alone someone else's. In any case, most don't have time to study. "A lot say to me, 'Why should I integrate? I'm here for maybe 10 years to save up and send back my money so I can go back to China and enjoy it.''" [Source: John Hooper The Guardian, November 17, 2010]

“At the main hospital in Prato, 32 percent of the children born have Chinese mothers,” John Hooper wrote in The Guardian. “Whatever their legal status, those children will grow up Italians. Already, you can see around town Italianized Chinese teenagers, the girls particularly conspicuous in their chic, often provocatively cut outfits and heavy makeup.” "The ones who are born here dress like Italians, eat like Italians and don't speak much Chinese," says Hu Qui Lin.

“Rock-bottom prices are a function of rock-bottom wages and materials,” John Hooper wrote in The Guardian. “In workshops scattered around Prato, Chinese employees put in 15 to 16 hours a day in conditions and for wages no Italian would contemplate.” Yen Chow Chan, a missionary from a US-based organization, Evangelical Mission and Seminary International, has been inside many of these workshops. "Most employ about 10 people who don't just work in them," he told The Guardian. "They live in them — they cook, eat and sleep in them." However normal that may be in China, it is against the law in Italy.”

Dislike of the Chinese in Italy's Little China and Police Raids

"What we have here is an organized illegal system", Roberto Cenni, a local businessman and the city's first rightwing mayor since the second world war, told The Guardian . "In the year to end-May, police carried out 152 inspections on Chinese-owned premises with the result that 152 firms were put under judicial administration." Cenni's slate, endorsed by Silvio Berlusconi's Freedom People movement and allied to the xenophobic Northern League, surged to victory last year on a tide of unease about the Chinese presence. The situation remains tense. [Source: John Hooper The Guardian, November 17, 2010]

Cenni — himself a textile business owner — was voted in as mayor in 2009 on promises of tackling the Chinese community's monopoly of the textile industry and cracking down on Chinese-related crime. Police raids in what Italian media calls "Little China" have increased hugely since Roberto Cenni's election, including investigations of mafia groups involved in money-laundering, loan-sharking and human trafficking.Dutch-born Yun Yin Lee, visiting Prato as a tourist, says: "The police here look at me in a way I've never been looked at in Holland."

Describing a police raid in Prato in Tuscany, AFP reported: “Italian police officers sweep through the mosquito-infested clothes workshop, rifling through personal belongings and cracking jokes about the foreign food as six Chinese laborers look on in fear. Boxes filled with sparkling black shrugs and red party dresses spill onto the floor of the warehouse — one of 3,400 small Chinese businesses in Prato in central Italy that produce clothes for companies including Zara and H&M. [Source: AFP, December 19, 2010]

The raid on Giujir's workshop was for a much smaller infraction — workers were living illegally inside the building in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. "There are at least six Chinese living here illegally," said Lina Iervasi, head of immigration affairs for Prato's police, pointing to made-up sofa beds, a rice-cooker, a Wii games console and the toys that littered back rooms. "We have no choice. We'll have to evict the workers, seize the merchandise and lock up the building," she said. "Their relatives get them over to work, they live closed up in the warehouses and never learn to speak Italian."

"I don't understand what the problem is, we did everything correctly," said Giujir, who declined to give her surname because of the police investigation. "There isn't much work this year because of the crisis, and we have to pay the rent. I know the police have to carry out lots of controls but it just makes the situation worse.”

Cenni, Prato's mayor, insists that the police crackdown to clean up the textile industry is about protecting exploited Chinese. "We want to get closer to those who are being exploited in the hope that we can persuade them to rebel," Cenni said. That is not the way the Chinese embassy sees it. "It's wrong of Italy to carry out raids with helicopters and dogs, it's completely over the top. We're not at war, this is a civil country," Tang Youjing, a counsellor at the Chinese embassy, told AFP in an interview. Referring to the city's struggle to regain its status as the main center for the Italian textile industry in the wake of the financial crisis, Tang said: "The Chinese are helping Prato to resolve its economic problems."

Image Sources: Tales of Shanghai, University of Washington; Shrimp boy picture San Francisco Examiner

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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