Ohio State University
In this essay, I propose to examine the question of cross-cultural identities in the context of diasporic cultures focusing in particular on the history of the Chinese diaspora. Before considering the Chinese diasporic experience, I will first discuss some new ways of thinking the diasporic condition as articulated in postcolonial and cultural studies in the West. In these works the term "diaspora" or its adjective "diasporic" often share the same semantic field with words such as "borderland," "hybridity," "in-betweenness," or "multicultural," terms that are said to constitute the postcolonial condition.
In the postcolonial context, the term "diaspora" refers mainly to the political and cultural situations arising from Western colonialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries since diasporic moves are defined invariably as a displacement from the underprivileged former colonized Third World to the metropolitan centers of the formerly colonialist West. For example, in Diasporic Mediation Between Home and Location, Rajagopolan Radhakrishnan evokes "diasporic subjectivity" from the vantage point of his personal history as a professor of American literature from India who, "interpellated by the ideology of Western humanism," (xvi) chose to go West where he switched to the teaching of theory and postcoloniality. The diasporas in question are what he calls "metropolitan diasporas", that is, "diasporas that have found a home away from home in the very heartland of former colonialism" (174). In the introduction to Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identities, Smadar Lavie and Ted Swedenburg are likewise concerned with the diasporas that result from "massive migrations by racialized non-white subjects into the heart of Eurocenter"(2). Accordingly, borders and diasporas are said to offer "new frames of analysis that resist and transcend national boundaries through their creative articulations of practices that demonstrate possible modes of corroding the Eurocenter by actively Third-Worldling it" (15). Lavie and Swedenburg's view of diasporas rests on an often unquestioned assumption commonly held by many postcolonial critics that there is something inherently subversive and therefore liberating about diasporic practices since in their opinion, non-white subjects' presence in the Eurocenter necessarily challenges the homogeneity of whiteness and "from heterogeneous ethnic enclaves, the minority strikes back, resisting the center's violent attempts to assimilate or destroy it" (10).
In the theoretical-academic formation of postcolonial discourse, there is a tendency to read a sameness into minority groups that are presumed to exert similar kinds of subversive effects on the existing power structures. Characteristics such as deterritoriality, heterogeneity and hybridity which are predicated on the diasporic condition are often celebrated for their counter-hegemonic and transgressive power and effect. What has seldom been taken into account is that different minorities entertain different power relations to the hegemonic group depending on a vast array of historical, political, economic and cultural factors. A case in point is the conception of new ethnicities which Stuart Hall articulates within the British-Caribbean context. Using examples of the works of black British film-makers, Hall shows how a new Caribbean ethnicity grounded in "positional, conditional and conjectural" difference (447) may challenge the hegemonic conception of "Englishness." Yet as the discussion in the second part of this essay shows, certain diasporic Chinese also have recourse to this kind of positionality-identity, described in the Southeast Asian context as "situational ethnicities," not to subvert any authority, but to consolidate their links with the local ruling class.
Postcolonial and cultural studies on diasporic identities no doubt chart an important phenomenon in the movements of populations from former colonies to the West and their subsequent impacts on Western societies in the form of multicultural challenges to Western hegemony. Yet by framing their discussions of diasporas within the binary terms of First World/Third World, colonizer/ colonized, these critics may not do justice to the heterogeneity of diasporic experiences many of which straddle multiple spheres beyond the West/Rest divide. In this essay, using the example of the history of the Chinese diaspora, I show that managing cross-cultural identities is a highly complex balancing act involving negotiations of different kinds that are informed and influenced by the interests of the group, the host and the home countries.
In his book China and the Chinese Overseas, Wang Gungwu distinguishes four patterns of Chinese migration: the coolie pattern (Huagong), the trader pattern (Huashang), the sojourner pattern (Huaqiao), and the re-migrant pattern (Huayi). Each pattern has its specific history, development, and characteristics. The coolie pattern derived from the migration of large numbers of laborers most of whom were landless peasants or urban poor. The emergence of this pattern was initially propelled by the abolition of slavery in the West. Indentured Chinese and Indian laborers were used as replacements for African slaves on plantations in the Caribbean or shipped to the Americas, Australia and parts of Southeast Asia (e.g. Java) to work in the mines, the railroads, and farms. As a group, these Chinese coolies suffered extreme discrimination and exploitation in the United States.  The segregation policy of white Americans made it impossible for them to learn the local language and social norms. For their physical and psychological survival, the Chinese at the time had to group together to build their own ethnic cultural space, which came to be known as Chinatowns. Among those who survived the hardship of indentured labor, many returned to China.
While the coolie pattern was relatively short lived ending in the early part of the twentieth century, the trader pattern has a much longer history and as a result involves a much larger number of people. The trader pattern refers to merchants and artisans who went abroad to set up bases at ports and trading cities. Members of this group, mostly men, would often settle down and establish their families in their host countries. The region which attracted the migration of the largest number of traders was Southeast Asia. Within the Chinese diasporic merchant communities, trading success is often attributed to their maintaining their "Chineseness" which is said to function as a form of symbolic capital essential for any kind of business negotiations. The close connection between trade interests and cultural ethnicity partly explains the strong incentive for trader communities to maintain their Chineseness through participation in different local Chinese cultural and social voluntary associations.
The third pattern, the sojourner pattern, is not defined by any specific occupation, and refers to all overseas Chinese. According to Wang, the term "Huaqioa" came into being at the end of the nineteenth century as a result of the political turmoil and changes within China which led to the birth of Chinese nationalism. The force behind the sojouner pattern was the nationalist ideology that started making headway in China under the leadership of Sun Yat-Sen. In order to secure the loyalty of the overseas Chinese, in particular their support in the form of money and expertise, the Chinese nationalist government put in place different measures to raise and politicize the national consciousness of its overseas members.
The fourth pattern which Wang calls Huayi is the re-migrant pattern. Examples of this pattern are the Southeast Asians of Chinese descent or Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan who re-migrated to Western Europe, North America and Australia, a migratory phenomenon whose importance has greatly increased in the last 30 or 40 years. The re-migrant pattern is made up mostly of highly educated professionals such as doctors, engineers, scientists, lawyers, and business executives. Due to their more privileged background, these cosmopolitan diasporic Chinese develop yet another kind of relationship to their ethnic identity as some of them, Wang notes, leave behind the Chineseness issue and seek to make their mark in the outside world free from the weight of their ancient heritage.
Given the specific circumstances that gave rise to their emergence, the four patterns entertain different relations to their cultural identity. While the Huayi, empowered by their Western education, can afford to, in the words of Rey Chow, "unlearn that submission to [their] ethnicity... as the ultimate signified" (25), members of the other three patterns either choose or are forced to maintain Chinese cultural practices for different reasons such as self-defence, economic advantage, ideological commitment, or even nostalgia.
Because the history of the Chinese diaspora is so deeply entangled with events within China as well as changes in their host countries, which also have gone through important political transformations such as colonialism, decolonization, the rise of nationalism and communism, diasporic Chinese have had to devise for themselves diverse cultural, ethnic and political identities to meet the multiple challenges from both their native and adopted homelands. In his study of Chinese identities in Southeast Asia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Wang finds among Southeast Asian Chinese the co-presence of multiple identities which include local national identity, communal identity (very important in Malaysia where ethnic Chinese make up one third of the population), ethnic identity, nationalist identity (that nurtured by the Chinese nationalist government), past-oriented historical identity (based on a certain grandiose view of ancient Chinese civilization), cultural identity (often referred to as "Chineseness"), and class identity. The manipulation of these identities is determined by political, economic, social, professional and class factors.
Besides developing and deploying these different identities to meet the demands arising from their specific situations, diasporic Chinese also devise different identity strategies in their negotiations with the ever changing politics and expectations in the different host countries. In "Changing Chinese Identities in Southeast Asia: An Introductory Review," Peter Gosling describes a whole spectrum of cross-cultural identity management strategies among Southeast Asian Chinese ranging from adaptation through accommodation, acculturation to assimilation. Many factors determine what particular attitude to adopt vis-à-vis the culture of the host country. In places with small Chinese communities with little economic power and limited Chinese marriage partners, accommodation or even assimilation may be a necessity whereas in countries with large and economically powerful Chinese communities and easy access to Chinese marriage partners, diasporic Chinese tend to maintain more strongly their Chinese identity. Ranging between the two extremes one also finds what Gosling calls "intermediate" Chinese such as the Sino-Thai or the Baba (Malay born Chinese). What characterizes the intermediate Chinese is their practice of what has been described as "situational ethnicities." By mixing elements of Chinese and indigenous cultures, the intermediate Chinese create different intermediate identities according to the demands of the moment and the types of audience available, which dictate whether they should act on their "backstage" or "frontstage" identity.  For example, in his study of the Baba in Melaka, Tan Chee-Beng shows that the Baba expression of the various levels of their identity "depends on whether they interact with fellow Baba, with non-Baba Chinese, with Malays or with individuals of other ethnic groups" (67). In accordance with the needs of the situation, a Baba can emphasize or de-emphasize the Chinese, Baba, and Malay cultural traits he/she carries within him/her in order to show solidarity or not with a certain group.
The extent to which diasporic Chinese can choose what identities to assume depends largely on the very delicate balance between them as a group and the social and political climate in their host societies. In his study of overseas Chinese, Wang points out that during the colonial phase in many of the Southeast Asian countries, the "historical" identity which drew on the glorious Chinese past and promoted traditional family values was very much endorsed by the colonial officials and the indegenous elites. There were two reasons for their tolerance of this particular Chinese identity : first, the Chinese historical identity was perceived as backward looking therefore non threatening to the host country, and secondly, the "traditional" Chinese values were thought essential to the economic and entrepreneurial success of both the Chinese and the dominant classes of the colony. Yet starting in the 1920s and 1930s with the rise of nationalism in China, the overseas Chinese were more and more persuaded into adopting the new Chinese agressive and forward-looking nationalistic identity. This new identity came to be viewed with increasing alarm by the governments of their host countries, in particular after the 1950s when many Southeast Asian countries obtained their independence and were on the road to developing their own nationhood.
The degree of success of the cross-cultural negotiations undertaken by diasporic Chinese in their host countries also varies greatly according to the way they interpret the relation between the host culture and the home culture. For example, in many Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam or Thailand where there is a recognition of the historical dominance of Chinese culture in the region, the assimilation of the diasporic Chinese to the indigenous culture is seldom accompanied by a violent rejection or denial of their Chinese identity. In contrast to this relatively smooth process, the assimilation of diasporic Chinese in the United States was quite a painful experience for many first-generation American-born Chinese who internalized the negative image the white dominant society had of Chinese. In "Roots and the Changing Identity of the Chinese in the United States," Ling-Chi Wang describes some of the extreme measures of self-denial the first generation of American-born Chinese had to resort to in their effort to gain acceptance by white society during the pre-World War II period. Some felt it necessary to reject their parents' language and culture which, they perceived as far inferior to the Western counterpart. In order to erase all traces of their Chineseness, they had to anglicize their names, dissociate themselves from their Chinese relatives and friends, move out of Chinatowns, and suppress their Chinese accent. A number of them even went to the extent of changing their physical appearence by dyeing their hair and undergoing plastic surgery so as to eliminate any visible sign of their ethnicity. The tragic irony was that these American-born Chinese never succeeded in achieving the integration into white society that they yearned for.
What further complicates the status of diasporic Chinese in their places of settlement is the comprador role Chinese played during the colonial period in many Southeast Asian countries. Because of their entrepreneurial skills and their knowledge of indigenous languages and norms, many Chinese were recruited by the British and the French to act as middlemen between the colonial administration and the local people. In French Indochina for example, the French granted the Chinese monopolies of rice-spirit and opium as well as exemptions from military service that were denied to the indigenous population. On the colonial hierarchy, the Chinese found themselves placed between the colonizers and the colonized subject.  Given this kind of situation, it is no surprise that as a minority ethnic group diasporic Chinese, whether accultured or not, have a rather ambiguous status within their adopted countries.
The highly complex nature of their relationships to their host societies may partly explain the widespread perception that ethnic Chinese are ultimately inassimilable, a view that has been voiced by Alain Marsot in his study of the Chinese in Vietnam: "however long they remain in a foreign country, and even if they settle for good, intermarrying with the local population, they mingle with the host peoples without ever becoming indistinguishable from these.... The inassimilable character of these Chinese colonies inevitably posed problems for local authorities" (103). Even if the ethnic Chinese partially or totally embrace their host cultures, they are still perceived as not being really "sincere" in their desire for assimilation, a view that Gosling evokes apropos ethnic Chinese in Malaysia and Thailand: "Intermediate Chinese are often seen by indigenous Southeast Asians as being "tricky", their use of identity ... a strategy, shifting their identity to suit their convenience or for economic gain, using select attributes of the indigenous culture, but not abiding by all its provisions"(3).
Being a fourth-generation Southeast Asian diasporic Chinese myself, I am certainly not in a good position to pronounce on the validity of these criticisms. The only comment I would venture to make here is that these criticisms seem to rest on the premise that it was totally up to the Chinese to decide which cultural identities they should or could adopt whereas we have seen that in fact a vast array of factors determine their intercultural management strategies. Furthermore, in many cases, in particular in times of political and economic crises, diasporic Chinese, no matter how assimilated they thought they were, find themselves treated differently from the "sons of the soil". A case in point is the Baba in Malaysia many of whom have been settled in the country for several generations and speak only Malay, yet are still not considered by the government and the society at large as "the sons of the soil." As a result, in order to survive economically, the Baba have to seek assimilation back into the non-Baba Chinese population by becoming re-sinicized and relearning the Chinese language and culture. 
What this brief survey of the Chinese diaspora shows is that diasporic identities undergo constant transformations. Yet these transformations are not always undertaken with a view to subverting hegemonic power. Depending on the given circumstance, Chinese ethnicity is sometimes affirmed as a survival strategy to withstand the violent hostility of the host population as in the case of the Chinese coolies in the United States. At other times, a particular version of "Chineseness" is deployed to promote business interest as exemplified by the diasporic trader culture. Still, in some situations cultural heterogeneity and hybridity is embraced in order to gain acceptance by the host society albeit with varying degrees of success. While it is true that a diasporic culture can subvert the existing hegemonic structure, very often diasporic groups like the Chinese merchants have in fact collaborated with state powers, be they the indigenous ruling class or the Western colonisers, to discipline the native population. The complexity of the Chinese diasporic experience is such therefore that we cannot account for it adequately by reading it solely in terms of the postcolonial counter-hegemonic and anti-Eurocentric discourse.
For a description of the lives of
Chinese coolies in the New World, see Lynn Pan. Sons of the Yellow Emperor.
A History of the Chinese Diaspora.
For case studies of cultural identities
among Southeast Asian Chinese, see volume 2 of The Chinese in Southeast
Asia. L.A. Peter Gosling & Linda Y.C. Lim (eds).
For a history of the ethnic Chinese
communities in Indochina, see William Willmott. the Chinese in Cambodia;
Tsai Maw-Kuey. Les Chinois au Sud-Vietnam; and Tran Khanh. The Ethnic
Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam.
For a discussion of Baba identity, see
Tan Chee-Beng "Acculturation and the Chinese in Melaka: The Expression of Baba
Rey Chow. Writing Diaspora. Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary
Cultural Studies . Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.
Stuart Hall. "New Ethniticities" in Stuart Hall. Critical Dialogues in
Cultural Studies , eds. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen. London: Routledge,
1996, 441-49. Rept. ICA Documents: Black Film, British Cinema , ed.
Kobena Mercer, 1989.
Peter Gosling & Linda Y.C. Lim. The Chinese in Southeast Asia .
Volume 2 Identity, Culture & Politics . Singapore: Maruzen Asia,
Peter Gosling. "Changing Chinese Identities in Southeast Asia: An
Introductory Review." in Gosling & Lim, 1-14.
Smadar Lavie & Ted Swedenburg. "Introduction: Displacement, Diaspora,
and Geographies of Identity" in Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of
Identity , eds. Smadar Lavie & Ted Swendenburg. Durkam: Duke UP, 1991,
Alain G Marsot. The Chinese Community in Vietnam Under the French .
New York: Edwin Mellon Press, 1993.
Lynn Pan. Sons of the Yellow Emperor. A History of the Chinese
Diaspora . London: Little, Brown & Company, 1990.
Rajagopolan Radhakrishnan. Diasporic Mediation Between Home and
Location . Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1996.
Chee-Beng Tan. "Acculturation and the Chinese in Melaka: The Expression
of Baba Identity Today." in Gosling and Lim, 56-78.
Khanh Tran. The Ethnic Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam .
Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1993.
Maw-Kuey Tsai. Les Chinois au Sud-Vietnam . Paris:
Bibliothèque Nationales, 1968.
Gungwu Wang. China and the Chinese Overseas . Times Academic Press,
Ling-Chi L Wang. "Roots and the Changing Identity of the Chinese in the
United States." in The Living Tree. The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese
Today , ed. Tu Wei-Ming. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994, 185-212.
William E Willmott. The Chinese in Cambodia . Vancouver: University
of British Columbia Publication Center, 1967.
Myriam Warner-Vieyra. Juletane. Paris: Présence africaine,
Dr. Marie-Paule Ha is Assistant Professor in the Department of French and Italian at Ohio State University. Among other things, she is interested in crosscultural studies, French literature and colonial history. Recent articles comprise "Reengendring French Colonial History: The case of Indochina" Historical Reflections / Reflexions historiques, forthcoming; Relations of Cultures" Special Issue "Multiculturalism" Research in African Literatures 28-4, 1997, pp.154-164 and "The cultural Other in Malraux's Asian novels" French Review 71-1, 1997, pp.33-43. Her book Figuring the East in Segalen, Malraux, Duras, and Barthes (New York, State University of New York Press) is in press.
Back to [the top of the page] [the contents of this issue of MOTS PLURIELS]
For a description of the lives of Chinese coolies in the New World, see Lynn Pan. Sons of the Yellow Emperor. A History of the Chinese Diaspora.
For case studies of cultural identities among Southeast Asian Chinese, see volume 2 of The Chinese in Southeast Asia. L.A. Peter Gosling & Linda Y.C. Lim (eds).
For a history of the ethnic Chinese communities in Indochina, see William Willmott. the Chinese in Cambodia; Tsai Maw-Kuey. Les Chinois au Sud-Vietnam; and Tran Khanh. The Ethnic Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam.
For a discussion of Baba identity, see Tan Chee-Beng "Acculturation and the Chinese in Melaka: The Expression of Baba Identity Today."
Rey Chow. Writing Diaspora. Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies . Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.
Stuart Hall. "New Ethniticities" in Stuart Hall. Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies , eds. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen. London: Routledge, 1996, 441-49. Rept. ICA Documents: Black Film, British Cinema , ed. Kobena Mercer, 1989.
Peter Gosling & Linda Y.C. Lim. The Chinese in Southeast Asia . Volume 2 Identity, Culture & Politics . Singapore: Maruzen Asia, 1983.
Peter Gosling. "Changing Chinese Identities in Southeast Asia: An Introductory Review." in Gosling & Lim, 1-14.
Smadar Lavie & Ted Swedenburg. "Introduction: Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity" in Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity , eds. Smadar Lavie & Ted Swendenburg. Durkam: Duke UP, 1991, 1-25.
Alain G Marsot. The Chinese Community in Vietnam Under the French . New York: Edwin Mellon Press, 1993.
Lynn Pan. Sons of the Yellow Emperor. A History of the Chinese Diaspora . London: Little, Brown & Company, 1990.
Rajagopolan Radhakrishnan. Diasporic Mediation Between Home and Location . Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1996.
Chee-Beng Tan. "Acculturation and the Chinese in Melaka: The Expression of Baba Identity Today." in Gosling and Lim, 56-78.
Khanh Tran. The Ethnic Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam . Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1993.
Maw-Kuey Tsai. Les Chinois au Sud-Vietnam . Paris: Bibliothèque Nationales, 1968.
Gungwu Wang. China and the Chinese Overseas . Times Academic Press, 1991.
Ling-Chi L Wang. "Roots and the Changing Identity of the Chinese in the United States." in The Living Tree. The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today , ed. Tu Wei-Ming. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994, 185-212.
William E Willmott. The Chinese in Cambodia . Vancouver: University of British Columbia Publication Center, 1967.
Myriam Warner-Vieyra. Juletane. Paris: Présence africaine, 1982.