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Reviewed by:
  • Voluntary Organizations in the Chinese Diaspora
  • Maria W. L. Chee (bio)
Khun Eng Kuah-PearceEvelyn Hu-Dehart, editors. Voluntary Organizations in the Chinese Diaspora. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2006. x, 295 pp. Hardcover $59.50, ISBN 962–209–776–6.

The coeditors of this volume define voluntary association generically as “those associations that originate out of the migrant communities and are controlled by them, hence not official and non-governmental” (p. 6). To the coeditors, “the 25 million or so peoples [sic] of Chinese descent living outside of China itself represent the Chinese diaspora” (p. 4). Given the long and wide dispersal of the Chinese people on planet earth, its diaspora seems to extend practically around the world. This volume comprises an introduction and eleven chapters authored by different contributors on various voluntary organizations in the Chinese diaspora, with four chapters on Southeast Asia, two on Australia, and one each on Canada, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Mexico, and the United States. Despite its uneven coverage of geographical regions, the strength of the volume lies in its underlying thematic organization. The chapters in this volume deal with various types of voluntary associations (VAs) formed through historical time and space, and their roles and characteristics. The VAs discussed in turn reflect the transformation, issues, and characteristics of the Chinese diaspora forged within the complex political economies in which it exists. [End Page 128]

Although the coeditors posit that the Chinese in the diaspora “and their ancestors cannot be said to have been forcefully expelled from China en masse” (p. 4), the formation of the Chinese diaspora arose largely from de facto expulsions based on the exclusion of Chinese from China by the political economy of their time with historical specificity: exclusion by the Qing government which prohibited emigration and penalized return migrants by death; the official control of China since 1949 by the Chinese Communist Party, which closed the border and nationalized private properties including emigrants’ land, houses, and businesses, if any. This was compounded by emigrants’ fear and distrust of that regime, followed by subsequent liberalization of formerly white supremacist immigration policies of such countries as Australia, Canada, and the United States. Emigrant Chinese take roots in the land where they set foot and become legal citizens. Still later, members come to rejoin families in the diaspora rather than return for reunification in the ancestral country. Since China opened its door in 1978, yet more migrants have left China to join the diaspora while others return to stay or sojourn. The formation and transformation of the Chinese diaspora are embodied in the changing characteristics and roles of its VAs discussed in this volume.

For the mostly male sojourners in the early years, voluntary associations in the form of hometown associations by place of origin or huiguan and the like provided mutual aid, social outlet, protection, and a family away from home. As adopted countries changed their policies, sojourners became settlers and citizens eligible for public assistance; family members reunited at home in the diaspora; and VAs morphed into more service-oriented entities such as elder care organizations. VAs also demonstrate the class distinction even among the sojourners. In turn-of-the-century Mexico, the Chee Kung Tong (Zhigongtang, meaning “Justice Society”) broke away “from the UF [Unión Fraternal], which they felt had grown too elite and removed from the base of ordinary, poor and working class Chinese” (p. 150). The colonial government used wealthy Chinese to help govern less fortunate ones as in the case of the Council of Chinese Officers in Indonesia (p. 77). VAs are multifunctional in that they serve different purposes and socioeconomic classes.

Yet more types of VAs point to the divergent experiences in the Chinese diaspora. In white societies with established capitalism as well as race and class hierarchy, Chinese entered mostly as low-paid laborers within a well-structured labor–capitalist relationship. They also became colonized internally by a racially defined hierarchy in law and customary practice in countries that supposedly practice democracy; racialized ideology further subjugated Chinese laborers under white members of the working class. In Southeast Asia, colonial administrators used Chinese as middlemen between colonized indigenous populations...