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Reviewed by:
  • Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia by Sunil S. Amrith
  • Karen M. Teoh
Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia. By Sunil S. Amrith. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 240 pp. $85.00 (cloth); $27.99 (paper); $22.00 (e-book).

In narrating 150 years of migration in Asia, Sunil Amrith reflects the broad, fluid, and boundary-crossing spirit that animates the subjects about whom he writes. This book surveys the history of human movement and its powerful impact on communities and nations across the continent. Amrith’s account echoes the multifaceted, circular, and sometimes involuntary nature of this movement. It traverses geographic space from the Middle East to South Asia, from maritime Southeast Asia to East Asia, crossing from European empire to Asian nation-state and back again repeatedly. Thematically, Amrith argues that migrants have been “central to enduring and significant changes in modern Asian history” (p. 1), in areas from the economy to the environment, in politics and religion, and in social and demographic change. His book balances an ambitious scope with fine-grained analysis to give this argument undeniable credence.

Acknowledging that the intellectual borderlines around “phases of Asian migration” (periodization) and “Asia” (abstraction of geographic spaces) can be disputed, Amrith nonetheless posits that there were four distinct phases in modern Asian migration. To locate the divisions between these phases, Amrith focuses on moments of intensification [End Page 991] and suspension in Asia’s “mobility revolution,” which were determined by the vicissitudes of political upheaval, uneven economic development, colonial expansion, and environmental insecurity, and shaped by major changes in technologies of transportation and communication, as well as attitudes and norms regarding migration.

This framework constitutes the organizing sequence for the chapters in this book. From 1850 to about 1930 is the first migratory phase, marked by the rise and peak of mass migration in Asia, leading to the formation of wholly new societies and the redistribution of populations across the region. The second phase from the 1930s through the 1940s interrupted long-standing migrant flows altogether, while also prompting involuntary migration due to war and economic crises. It is in this period, Amrith points out, that growing nationalist movements and post-1945 new states begin to place pronounced pressure on what they perceived as “problematic” migrants and outsiders. A third phase from the 1950s to the 1970s is called a “golden age” of the nation-state in Asia, with reduced international migration but vigorous movement of peoples within national borders, especially from rural to urban areas. Bringing the story up to the present, Amrith identifies a fourth and ongoing phase, from the 1970s on. Here, both international and internal migration in Asia seem to be reattaining their peak levels of the 1920s, though their contours are now shaped by forces of contemporary globalization. These forces include the growth of a global service industry, the declining economic importance of agriculture in Asia, and rapidly accelerating transport and communication technologies.

Because this book is designed as an introductory survey, its strength lies in its wide-ranging synthesis of multiple histories that are interconnected but also unique. Amrith combines his own expertise in South and Southeast Asian migration—his narrative emphasizes South Asian and Chinese migrant peoples, though this also reflects the dominance of these two diasporas in Southeast Asia—with the research of other leading scholars in the field. Although parts of the book offer direct access to primary sources, such as a close look at an Indian migrant’s passport or the oral testimony of a Chinese villager who moves to the city, the text mostly focuses on descriptive narration built on secondary scholarship, with historiographical context and theoretical discussions reserved for the introductory and concluding chapters. This is by no means a negative. It is no small feat to gather into one slender 217-page volume an all-encompassing view of most migrant flows across the Asian continent over one and a half centuries, while also capturing the nuances of social composition, economic adaptation, and cultural transformations in these mixed, mobile, and often undocumented [End Page 992] communities. Throughout, the author must also continuously track how these transnational populations interacted with political authorities ranging from...


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