Regular readers will know that I love museums that feature old black-n-white photographs of times gone by; and thanks to a colleague of mine at work who recently moved in to the Dongzhimen area of Beijing, I recently discovered the existence of a newish museum that does exactly that.
The Overseas Chinese History Museum of China started its construction in September 2011, with the museum opening in October 2014. If you wander along DongzhimenBeiLu it’s hard to miss. In all, it cost around 220 million RMB, funded mainly by the government, with the aim of “serving as a new base for patriotic education, as well as a window for overseas Chinese to express their feelings and cultural identity towards the motherland”.
The official blurb tells you that the Overseas Chinese History Museum was “the first to fully display the history of Chinese immigrants… The museum was first proposed by Mr Tan Kah Kee in 1960, then started to build in September 2011…” But according to the Xinhua News Agency in 2004 another Overseas Chinese Museum in Xiamen “was founded by the eminent overseas Chinese philanthropist Chen Jiageng (Tan Kah-kee) in 1958 and opened to the public in May 1959”, before going on to tell us in the same article that the “museum was established in 1956”. Other web sites such as english.dbw.cn refer to “around 10 museums, exhibition halls and memorial halls on overseas Chinese across China”. Confused? You’re not the only one!
But let’s not nit-pick… This permanent exhibition shows more than 800 items (or 1,000 artefacts, if you read the Chinese version) and almost 1000 photos, presenting the history and living conditions of overseas Chinese around the world.
The first thing one sees on entering is a bell inscribed in English, German and Chinese which sets the underlying tone of the museum: “On July 26, 1945 the Potsdam Declaration ... blah blah blah... reiterated to the world that the Japanese sovereignty be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido blah blah blah... the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese such as Manchuria (northeast China), Formosa (Taiwan), and the Pescdores (Penghu Islands) shall be restored to China.... This bell of peace is cast and erected in Berlin Germany on the occasion to mark the 70th anniversary of the global war against fascism to make clear to the world the will of our Chinese nation to cherish and safeguard world peace and our faith in and expectation for the peaceful reunification of our motherland.”
The official blurb continues to tell us that the museum “has seven exhibition halls and a lecture hall”; the free handout tells us instead that there are “many exhibition halls and a multi-function room” while the rest of the handout continues to describe the “four exhibition halls”. Your favourite blogger does indeed manage to find four halls… but not more. And indeed, the exhibition itself is divided into four parts. Maybe it is still work in progress?
Ah… another clue… Xinhua – again in 2004, and carried by china.org.cn – tells us that “Construction on a national museum on history for overseas Chinese (sic), the first ever of its kind to be built in the country, is expected to start in the national capital at the end of the year, said a source with the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese. The museum, to cover an area of 10,000 square meters, will display more than 200,000 pieces of exhibits…”
WTF! I give up!
According to Wikipedia, the Chinese language has various terms equivalent to the English "overseas Chinese" which refer to Chinese citizens residing in countries other than China, such as Huáqiáo (华侨); whereas haigui (海归) refers to returned overseas Chinese and guīqiáo qiáojuàn (归侨侨眷) to their returning relatives. Huáyì (华裔) refers to ethnic Chinese residing outside of China; while the PRC government uses Hǎiwài Huárén (海外华人) to refer to people of Chinese ethnicities who live outside the PRC, regardless of citizenship. Overseas Chinese who are ethnically Han Chinese, such as Cantonese, Hoochew, Hokkien, or Hakka refer to overseas Chinese as Tángrén(唐人), literally, Tang people, a reference to Tang dynasty China when it was ruling China proper. The term shǎoshù mínzú (少数民族) is added to the various terms for overseas Chinese to indicate those in the Diaspora who would be considered ethnic minorities in China. Cross-border ethnic groups (kuàjìng mínzú– 跨境民族) are not considered overseas Chinese minorities unless they left China after the establishment of an independent state on China's border.
Phew, I’m glad we got that sorted out!
It is obvious a lot of time and thought has gone into this museum, not to mention the cost.
But let us first get one minor annoyance out of the way: Throughout the museum we are told about the Chinese immigrants travelling to the four corners of the globe. Grrrrr. Let me quote from wisegeek.org, for I would hate you to think I’m the only pedant… “The terms emigrant and immigrant are often incorrectly used, creating confusion at best, and annoyance of English teachers at worst. In general understanding the proper usage can help dispel confusion or quell the rage of would be wordsmiths. An emigrant leaves his or her land to live in another country. The person is emigrating to another country. An immigrant is a person who once resided somewhere else and now lives in your country.”
The first exhibition hall outlines the history of Chinese emigrating overseas in chronological order in ancient times before 1840; from 1840 to 1949; and contemporary overseas emigrants since 1949.
The Chinese people have a long history of migrating overseas. One of the migrations dates back to the Ming dynasty when Zheng He (1371–1435) became an envoy, sending people – many of them Cantonese and Hokkien – to explore and trade in the South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean. Zheng He's voyages were under the command of Emperor Chenzu, involving over 200 ships, over 27,000 people and visiting over 30 countries and regions. The furthest journey even reached as far west as the Red Sea. These voyages took place dozens of years earlier than those of many European maritime powers.
Ah. Now I get it! This must be part of the historical background to why China now thinks it owns most of the South China Sea, which we get to hear about practically every single week in our news bulletins. But I digress…
Back then, Brunei was chosen as a point of reference in determining whether an area belonged to the Eastern or Western ocean. According to historical records, overseas Chinese grew in number quickly in Luzon, Java, Malaya and other regions. In fact in Luzon there were over 30,000 overseas Chinese in Manila alone during the late Ming Dynasty.
The Manila galleon was a name given to any wooden ship which sailed between the latter half of the 16th century and the early 19th century to convey goods between Manila in the Philippines and Acapulco in Mexico. These galleons generally carried several hundred to one or two thousand tons of goods. Back then overseas Chinese merchant ships brought Chinese made silk, porcelain and cotton to Manila where Spanish merchants maintained a monopoly there to transport these goods to Acapulco. The ships returned carrying Mexican silver dollars to purchase more products.
This blue and white porcelain bottle from Emperor QianLong's reign was typical of the kind of things exported around the world.
Moving on a while, when China was under the imperial rule of the Qing Dynasty, subjects who left the Qing Empire without the Administrator's consent were considered to be traitors and were executed. Their family members faced consequences as well. However, the establishment of the Lanfang (蘭芳共和國) Republic in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, as a tributary state of Qing China, attests that it was in some cases possible to get permission. (This republic lasted until 1884, when it fell under Dutch occupation as Qing influence waned.)
Under the administration of the Republic of China from 1911 to 1949, these rules were abolished and many migrated outside the Republic, mostly through the coastal regions via the ports of Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan and Shanghai. These migrations are considered to be among the largest in China's history. Many nationals of the Republic of China settled down in South East Asia (Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia) as well as Taiwan, after the Nationalist government led by the Kuomintang lost to the Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Most of those who settled in Singapore and Malaya automatically gained citizenship in 1957 and 1963 as these countries gained their independence.
In the 19th century, however, the age of colonialism was at its height and the great Chinese Diaspora began. Many colonies lacked a large pool of labourers, while in the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, there was a surge in emigration as a result of poverty and widespread famine. The Qing Empire was forced to allow its subjects to work overseas under colonial powers.
North America and Australasia needed great numbers of labourers for the dangerous tasks of gold mining and railway construction and many Cantonese went to work in these countries to improve the living conditions of their relatives.
In 1984, Britain agreed to transfer the sovereignty of Hong Kong to the PRC and this triggered another wave of migration to the UK, Australia, Canada, the USA, Latin America and other parts of the world. The protests of 1989 further accelerated the migration.
A century earlier, Chinese workers, we are told, suffered a high mortality rate in destination countries as they were subject to cruel exploitation and onerous labour. Typically they would survive only five years after arrival. This picture shows Chinese workers arriving in South Africa.
Talk about overcrowding! This was an image recorded of workers on board a boat leaving Xiamen port…
The second exhibition hall shows images of Chinese workers abroad, showing off how they lived and how they made their livings. Here, for instance, are some Chinese working in a fish canning food plant on the west coast of America…
…while here, we are told, they are seen “basking raisins” – whatever that may mean.
This was a typical Chinese grocery store in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 19th century;
while those who had been deprived of education sold oysters by the sides of the street in 1880.
The 19th century Chinese immigrants were mainly men, of course. Here's a street scene in Chinatown in San Francisco. Not a woman in sight!
Not all Chinese emigrants ended up poor, of course. Some thrived by seizing opportunities that they would never have had back home. And this is the theme of the third exhibition hall, which demonstrates the contributions made by overseas Chinese to where they lived.
Here, for instance, is a group of Chinese female students studying in Japan in 1902.
The Chinese in Southeast Asian countries established themselves in commerce and finance, while In North America, Europe and Australasia, the successful emigrants achieved significant success in medicine, the arts, and academia.
In countries with small Chinese minorities, the economic disparity with the rest of the population could be remarkable. For example, in 1998, ethnic Chinese made up just 1% of the population of the Philippines and 4% of the population in Indonesia, but they had wide influence in the economies of both countries. This asymmetrical economic position incited a great deal of anti-Chinese sentiment among the poorer majorities that sometimes turned violent, such as the May 13 Incident in Malaysia in 1969 and the Jakarta riots of May 1998 in Indonesia, in which more than 2,000 people died. Anti-Chinese legislation was included in the Indonesian constitution until 1998.
Indonesia's 2010 census reported more than 2.8 million self-identified ethnic Chinese – equivalent to 1.2 percent of the country's population, though according to Wikipedia, other sources stated that there are about 10 to 12 million Chinese living in the country, making up 5-6% of Indonesia’s population. Most of the Chinese resided in big cities and towns around the east coast of Sumatra, the north coast of Java and the west coast of Kalimantan.
Here’s a passport of an ethnic Chinese in Indonesia issued in 1953.
Many overseas Chinese in North America speak some variety of Chinese. In the United States and Canada, Chinese is the third most spoken language.
In Richmond, Vancouver in Canada, 55% of the population is Chinese, while in the broader Vancouver Census Metropolitan Area, 18% of the population is Chinese. Similarly in Toronto, which is the largest city in Canada, Chinese people make up 11.4% of the local population with higher percentages of between 20-50% in the suburbs of Markham, Richmond Hill and Scarborough.
Economic growth in the People's Republic of China has given mainland Chinese more opportunities to emigrate, mostly to the USA or Canada. The EB-5 Investment Visa allows many powerful Chinese to seek U.S. citizenship, and recent reports show that 75% of applicants for this visa in 2011 were Chinese.
Back in the ’50s, with the strong anti-communist sentiment of the McCarthy era in the US, travel to the mainland of China was discouraged; and those who wanted to return to the PRC had to travel via Hong Kong, where they then had to apply for new papers, since the US State Department would not give passports for travel “to that portion of China controlled by the Communist Regime” – as this letter shows..
From the 1950s to the 1970s a total of 0.9 million mainlanders fled to Hong Kong via coastal areas such as Shenzhen. The phenomenon was especially acute in 1960-2 and led the central government to reflect on its governance, which to a certain degree acted as a catalyst for the adoption of the Reform and Opening Up policy in China.
Many parts of Hong Kong saw the rise of slum housing, as a result of the mass migration…
In Myanmar, although the Burmese Chinese officially make up three percent of the population, the actual figure is believed to be much higher, due in part to those who registered themselves as ethnic Bamar to escape discrimination, and illegal Chinese immigrants that had flooded Upper Burma since the 1990s. The Burmese Chinese dominate the Burmese economy today, and also have a very large presence in Burmese higher education, and make up a high percentage of the educated class. Most speak Burmese as their mother tongue, together with Mandarin and/or English, although the use of Chinese dialects still prevails.
Here’s a certificate issued by the Burmese government in 1964 for an ethnic Chinese who was unable to get a passport, since she had not been registered at birth in the old capital, Rangoon.
As in other parts of Southeast Asia, Chinese Cambodians have historically played important economic and political roles in the country and are still often overrepresented in Cambodian commerce. As a vast majority of the group emigrated from Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge, the community has assimilated greatly into Cambodian society and many now speak Khmer as their main language.
But in Cambodia, from 1965 to 1993, people with Chinese names were prevented from finding governmental employment, leading to a large number of people changing their names to a local, Cambodian name.
Here’s a refugee certificate issued to a Chinese Cambodian in Paris in September 2000.
As well as photographs and artefacts on display, there are also a number of dioramas that, unlike many to be found in China’s other museums, have been well made and add to the experience of the museum visit.
Here’s a typical scene of an early restaurant used by SE Asian Chinese…
… while this represents a typical drugstore…
And this beautiful creature (the tiger, not the girl!) is advertising – what else! – the Tiger Medical Hall in Singapore.
Barbers, tailors and cooks were the main occupations of early emigrants; and because their tools all have the word 'dao' (knife) incorporated, they were known as 'the three knives'.
The level of detail in the models is also impressive. See how many makes of cigarettes this girl is selling…
Here’s an advert dating back to 1880 for Chinese laundry services. Cute!
In general, only wealthy Chinese could afford to raise children in the US. This photo shows a wealthy Chinese businessman and his locally born sons walking in Chinatown in San Francisco…
This Chinese bride is seen in a traditional Chinese wedding dress in the US in 1927.
There has always been a close relationship between the overseas and China. In the fourth exhibition hall (shown everywhere as 'forth') , there are displays of how overseas Chinese relate to the motherland.
I was somewhat amused that this even incorporates musicals in the US catering to popular American taste of the time…
… not to mention pictures of Yu Rongling (1882-1973…here performing a Butterfly Dance) who was a prominent dancer in the late Qing dynasty. She was the first Chinese studying European and American dance, as well as Japanese dance in modern Chinese dance history and the only Chinese to study dance with Isadora Duncan, often referred to as the creator of modern dance.
Many of the overseas Chinese who worked on railways in North America in the 19th century suffered from racial discrimination, both in Canada and the United States. Both countries had at one time introduced statutes that specifically barred Chinese from entering the country, for example the United States Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (repealed 1943) or the Canadian Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 (repealed 1947).
But Chinese Americans were assimilated into all walks of life in the US including the armed forces – such as is shown on the cover of this edition of Life Magazine in 1942.
Perhaps one of the most momentous changes that took place regarding overseas Chinese was when Deng Xiapoing told a meeting of Hong Kong and Macau delegates in 1977 that “Some people consider overseas relations as complicated and untrustworthy... Now the overseas relations we have are not too many, but too few...The Gang of Four talked the nonsense of the landlord, the rich, the counterrevolutionary... Their remark is totally wrong and shall be corrected. We need to make more effort to popularise our policies across the country. The Central Government has made the decision – for Chinese who would like to go abroad, we shall not place strict limits on them of inheriting legacy, marriage etc. They can go abroad and will be welcome when returning to China."
Which all brings us back to why this museum was established in the first place. My hunch is that with the ongoing disputes that China has with practically all its maritime neighbours over the ownership of reefs and islands in the South and East China Seas, education of China’s rich emigrant history has been sorely lacking, and this museum is a small part of trying to put that right.
I may be wrong, and it is interesting that there are practically no displays of why China now claims so much of the region as its own. This, for example, is all I could find on China’s claims to the Diaoyu Islands – also known as the Senkaku Islands, which are a group of uninhabited islands controlled by Japan in the East China Sea. They are located roughly due east of Mainland China, northeast of Taiwan, west of Okinawa Island, and north of the southwestern end of the Ryukyu Islands.
Following the discovery of potential undersea oil reserves in 1968 in the area and the 1971 transfer of administrative control of the islands from the United States to Japan, the latter's sovereignty over the territory has been disputed by both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China (ie Taiwan).
China claims the discovery and ownership of the islands from the 14th century, while Japan had ownership of the islands from 1895 until its surrender at the end of World War II. The United States administered the islands as part of the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands from 1945 until 1972, when the islands returned to Japanese control under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement between the United States and Japan.
So maybe this museum is indeed ‘work in progress’. And maybe exhibition halls 5, 6 and 7 will soon be trying to educate us as to why all those disputed islands really do belong to China. Time will tell. Watch this space!
Dongzhimen station on Lines 2/13, exit A; Walk west along Dongzhimen Inner Street, then right up Donzhimen North Alley. The museum is 100 metres up on your left