- Linking an Asian Transnational Commerce in Tea: Overseas Chinese Merchants in the Fujian–Singapore Trade, 1920–1960
This is an ambitious book but it reflects admirable research. Touching upon so many important themes and multi-disciplinary concerns, it is set against the background of two interrelated clusters of scholarship on the Chinese tea trade: the Sino–British trade and the Overseas Chinese merchants (mainly the major magnates). The book is focused specifically on Fujian–Singapore Chinese tea merchants, a merchant community of importers and exporters who were situated in between the major magnates and the marginalized working class. It looks into: firstly, how tea was produced in Fujian and then sold in Singapore; secondly, how tea merchants were organized; and thirdly, how the tea merchant community adjusted to the changing political and economic situation in China and Singapore. Research on the historical background of the period 1920–60 reveals three series of major events: i) war and revolution, colonial transformation, decolonization, nation-building and the Cold War; ii) a high rate of Chinese migration to Nanyang in the 1920s, the near termination of Sino–Southeast Asian interactions in the 1960s, and the change of emigrant Chinese identity from 'Overseas Chinese' to 'Chinese Overseas'; and iii) the decline of Chinese tea trade exports as a result of international competition, especially from India and Ceylon, and the adverse domestic political circumstances in China and Singapore. The Fujian–Singapore transnational commerce was in the hands of a specific Anxi tea merchant community. This is illustrated through case studies of Fujian tea production, of Singapore tea merchants and organizations, and of government trade policies and Chinese merchants' adaptation strategies. The book touches on various fashionable scholarly areas—commodity history, transnational linkage, Cold War history and overseas Chinese studies. It attempts a thematic examination of the Fujian–Singapore tea trade in the 1920–60 period. Nevertheless, 'the intention behind the book is to look into the political side of the Fujian–Singapore tea trade through the overseas Chinese merchants in Singapore' (see p. 189).
Part I of the book includes Chapters 1 and 2, looking at issues concerning Chinese migration to Singapore and tea production in Fujian. Part II moves to Singapore and deals with the tea merchant community, their trade associations and general environments surrounding them. Part III discusses the political aspect of the tea trade by focusing on the government policy changes (especially of the national government and the Fujian provincial government in China) and the responses of the Chinese tea merchants in Singapore. The main argument is [End Page 112] that in the framework of Fujian–Singapore trans-regional tea trade linkage, from 1920 to the mid-1950s, Xiamen functioned as the nexus, and Fujian tea production was a major concern for Singapore merchants; while from the mid-1950s onwards, the centre shifted to Singapore as family tea businesses gave way to state enterprises. The role and identity of tea merchants also shifted from the 'Overseas Chinese' to the 'Chinese Overseas' and the dependence on Fujian tea shifted to Taiwan tea due to the Cold War and nation-building.
Two outstanding perspectives deserve the reader's special attention. Firstly, the qiaoxiao (overseas Chinese trade) perspective: by contrasting the categories of Indian and Ceylon tea against Guangdong tea and Taiwan tea the study highlights the Fujian–Singapore tea trade. It is, more importantly, discussed as one specific niche of qiaoxiao in relation to the categories of neixiao (domestic trade) and waixiao (external trade) in China. Secondly, the Taiwan perspective: unlike most studies of China–Southeast Asian interactions which pay little attention to the Taiwan sector, Lim's study perfectly balances Fujian–Singapore trans-regional tea trade by incorporating the Taiwan sector.
Yet, several obvious points of unequal emphasis also occur throughout the book: China over Singapore, production over commerce, trade associations over business networks, Tieguanyin brand tea over Wuyishuixian brand tea, postwar period over pre-war period, and second-hand sources over archival...