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  • Chinese in Colonial Burma: A Migrant Community in a Multiethnic State by Yi Li
  • Wen-Chin Chang
Chinese in Colonial Burma: A Migrant Community in a Multiethnic State. By Yi Li. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. xviii+ 262 pp.

Publications on ethnic Chinese in Burma or Myanmar have remained relatively scarce in comparison to the plethora of works on the same subject for other Southeast Asian countries, especially Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Chinese in Colonial Burma is a valuable new publication which examines the lives of Burmese Chinese in a range of towns and cities from 1826 to 1942, a time of British rule prior to the Japanese occupation. A historian, Li makes use of a wide range of historical sources—colonial archives, media reports and travelogues, records of Chinese organizations in Burma, and materials on Sino-Burmese relations. In addition, the book references a wealth of information on colonial studies, Burmese history and Chinese diasporas. It is innovative in its breadth of coverage—dealing with both maritime Chinese (Fujianese or Hokkien, and Cantonese) and mountain or overland Chinese (Yunnanese)—and for raising several bold arguments that invite further research from other scholars for affirmation or challenge. Moreover, while providing structural contexts based on historical materials, Li skilfully integrates current ethnographic facts into her arguments to render a nuanced contrast between the present and the past.

With respect to the theoretical framework, Li draws on Adam McKeown's work (McKeown 1999 and 2001) to situate Chinese diasporas beyond nation-states' boundaries, and leads us to see how closely the lives of Burmese Chinese were interwoven with their homeland, the British imperial world and Southeast Asian Chinese [End Page 704] networks. Consequently, she presents their development in light of national, regional and global histories. While highlighting the transnational connectivity among Chinese (migrant) communities in Burma, the Malay world, Thailand and China, Li extends comparisons between Burmese Chinese and Burmese Indians, especially regarding their economic and political pursuits in relation to colonial rule. Although the author concentrates on the history of the elite class, and some arguments still require more evidence, the book provides a significant beginning to the study of ethnic Chinese history during the colonial period in Burma.

Chapter 1 presents the outline of the book, which is organized into two sections. Part 1 looks into the migration history and process of community building of mountain Chinese (chapter 2) and maritime Chinese (chapter 3). Part 2 discusses three major aspects that defined the Burmese Chinese as a migrant community in Burma—their economic and political engagements, and crimes (chapters 4, 5 and 6). These chapters explore how stereotyped images linked to these aspects were presented by the colonial government as well as by Burmese Chinese themselves. Consciously and modestly, Li acknowledges the limits of the book, in light of her inability to thoroughly examine English and Chinese archives, the loss of a great number of historical sources in the course of the Second World War and the anti-Chinese movements in the 1960s, and her scant use of Burmese materials.

Chapter 2 takes Yunnanese migrants as the start of the book's focus. This is a sensible approach, as Burma adjoins Yunnan, and bilateral interactions have been intense throughout history, especially via human migration. With regard to Yunnanese immigrants in Burma, the author limits this discussion to those who came from Tengyueh and settled in Bhamo and Mandalay. Bhamo was a significant frontier town, and Mandalay was the last capital of the former Burmese kingdom. By portraying Yunnanese lives in these two places, Li displays the complex border history characterizing multiple powers, and Yunnanese migrants navigating between the politics of imperial China and that of imperial Britain. Li argues that the British expansion into northern Burma and subsequent [End Page 705] civil establishment, economic development and border demarcation brought about the removal of the ambiguous identity that Chinese people—whether indigenes or migrants—had formerly retained. While endeavouring to establish their community by founding a series of organizations—native-place associations, temples and schools—these migrants continued to orient their loyalty towards their home country. Moreover, those who moved to Rangoon for economic opportunities associated themselves with...


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