- Returning Home with Glory: Chinese Villagers around the Pacific, 1849 to 1949 by Michael Williams
This book appears in the Crossing Seas series edited for Hong Kong University Press by Henry Yu and Elizabeth Sinn, themselves highly regarded figures in the field of ethnic and migration studies. In their foreword, the editors summarize the purpose of the series Michael Williams' book inaugurates: to look less at the destinations migrants reached and the places they left behind, and more at the "journeys themselves, in multiple directions, and at different times, between multiple locations, and what these journeys meant to the migrants as they crossed the seas" (p. vii). What things and ideas did the migrants take with them and how did they stay in touch, often over vast distances and several generations? The editors proclaim that Williams' book "is a fitting start" to the conversation they seek to set going about the practices migrants use to overcome the constraints not just of space and time but of the sort set up by governments out to stop them or contain them. In some senses, however, Williams' book might be seen to constitute a critique of his editors' approach. [End Page 67]
The book is based on research carried out by Williams in Australian archives in Sydney, where he also interviewed migrants' descendants; and in the Pearl River Delta region of south China, Hawaii, and San Francisco, where he again worked in archives and interviewed local people. It reports on what the author describes as "a single case study" of eighty-odd villages in the Longdu 龙都 district or qiaoxiang 侨乡 (migrant region) near Zhongshan 中山 City in Guangdong, and of Longdunese in their three main places of overseas settlement (Sydney, San Francisco, and Honolulu). Why did the author narrow his scope to a single qiaoxiang? Because he felt that such an approach would allow him to develop what he goes on to call a "qiaoxiang perspective" while at the same time paying attention to groups like stay-behind women, permanent returners, and relative non-achievers neglected in more broadly focused studies. And why Longdu? Because it is distinct and easily identifiable (its inhabitants speak a non-Cantonese dialect) and a large proportion of its people emigrated to Australia and the United States. Moreover, despite its record of extensive overseas migration, its history of migration has been relatively neglected, compared for example with the nearly Siyi qiaoxiang, which has been widely studied.
In a brief opening discussion of the theoretical framework used in many existing qiaoxiang studies, Williams makes an interesting and convincing argument against the automatic application of the terms "immigration" and "emigration" to Chinese migrants, preferring instead the word "movement" and, for those who moved, huaqiao 华侨 (overseas Chinese). Terms based on the concept of migration are, he argues, drawn from the history of European population movement, with its implications of whole-family migration, permanent settlement, assimilation, and nation-building, whereas Chinese—especially Longdunese and other delta dwellers—generally intended to return to China (and, according to Williams' findings, in most cases realized that intention). He makes another interesting point about the need to conceptualize the Pacific destinations in terms of bu 埠 (ports, fow in Cantonese) and their hinterlands, for the Chinese Pacific in the century to 1949 was dominated by its ports, and the term fow was applied to huaqiao destinations, "including the entire state of Western Australia and the landlocked town of Atherton" (p. 7)! (In Britain, both Liverpool and London were commonly referred to as fow, which led me years ago to call them Chinaports in my work on the British Chinese community.) In establishing his theoretical framework, the author also takes issue with the concepts of diaspora and transnationalism, apparently on the grounds that his focus is the family and the village. Here it is unclear to me whether he sees his qiaoxiang perspective as a variant of or an alternative to transnationalism, an ambiguity he himself also signals.
Chapter 2 argues that...