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 huaqiao studies based on nation-state perspectives have "neglected or misinterpreted evidence of continuing links with the [End Page 68] qiaoxiang," and assume "one-way entry, migration, settlement, and assimilation" (p. 15). Instead, the author believes that his "qiaoxiang perspective" enables him to focus on the links between the villages and huaqiao destinations. He rightly shows that early studies, both governmental and academic, on Chinese abroad tended to see them as a "problem," or as a target of popular or state racism. Even Chinese studies in the 1920s and the 1930s preserved the framework of the nation-state, but in their case that of China, with little attention to the overseas destinations. Late-twentieth century studies focused critically on discriminatory immigration laws and the fight against them, rejected as racist the application of the term "sojourner" to Chinese overseas, and tended to see Chinese overseas as victims of white hostility. Even in China, the concentration of huaqiao studies at provincial level in Guangdong and Fujian has, according to Williams, led to an obscuring of the diversity of qiaoxiang experience.
Here, one might question his conclusion that the variety of qiaoxiang experience has been kept out of sight, given the large number of Chinese local studies carried out at all levels in the qiaoxiang. Williams himself seems to concede the vigor of "bottom-up" research, not necessarily by established scholars, including oral histories done in Australia and the United States, but appears to miss the essays in "mass history" carried out in the early years of the People's Republic and the recent upsurge of oral history in Chinese. Even recent studies by Adam McKeown, Madeline Hsu, and Yong Chen that adopt a global or trans-Pacific perspective fail, according to Williams, to give sufficient weight to the qiaoxiang and "qiaoxiang-related motivations" (p. 31). However, he recognizes that some of the latest work on Chinese Pacific crossings, particularly Yow Cheun Hoe's Guangdong and the Chinese Diaspora, have finally begun to come to grips with the role played by the qiaoxiang in overseas-Chinese affairs.
Chapter 3 reviews the chronology of qiaoxiang developments in the century covered by the book, as context for the remaining chapters. The century's overriding characteristic from a huaqiao point of view was the determination of the mostly male huaqiao to achieve a final return in triumph, although the intention was not always realized. The maintenance of qiaoxiang ties was influenced more by domestic developments in China and the homeland pull than by the restrictive measures imposed on huaqiao by white settler states.
Chapters 4 and 5 look at Longdu's qiaoxiang ties in order to "establish a 'qiaoxiang perspective,'" by exploring the huaqiao impact on qiaoxiang family life and local economy, society (especially education), and politics. The ties survived even the devastations of the Japanese occupation, although they were fatally undermined by the coming to power of the Communists in 1949. The inflow of remittances and the interflow of information and people between the [End Page 69] qiaoxiang and the Pacific ports resulted in a transformation of life in the qiaoxiang, particularly in the 1920s and the 1930s. Given that huaqiao wives and children largely stayed at home, the focus of family life remained in the village and there was little incentive for huaqiao to settle overseas. Institutions such as tongxiang hui 同乡会 (native-place associations) and shops and businesses set up by huaqiao overseas helped preserve qiaoxiang identity and facilitated correspondence (through remittance shops) and return visits. Chapter 5 has a path-breaking account of the trade in remittances (known as yinxin in the Zhongshan-Siyi region and as qiaopi elsewhere) in Australia and America.
Chapter 6 asks what, beyond material considerations, motivated huaqiao to preserve their ties to the qiaoxiang, and finds that the main motivation was income and prestige. In the context of society and economy in the destination, few huaqiao had much of either, but in qiaoxiang terms, which was what mattered for most huaqiao, relative wealth ensured recognition by the family and community and enabled the "return with glory" with which Williams titles his study.
Chapter 7 looks at huaqiao intentions and their outcomes, recognizing rightly that results are not necessarily evidence of intent. The choice of whether to settle and sever qiaoxiang ties, which Williams guesses was made by a minority, or to keep them going depended on many factors. Importing a qiaoxiang family or marrying abroad did not have to mean a clean break, although it could do so, despite original intentions. Disturbances and hazards in sending regions could also lead to what Williams calls "destination settlement" (p. 149). So could restrictive immigration laws in the destinations, but here again a "qiaoxiang perspective" shows that racism led some huaqiao to return to China. Williams shows, convincingly, that studies with a nation-state perspective often ignore this fact or oversimplify what was a highly complex picture.
Chapter 8 looks chiefly at the destinations, where Chinese were perceived as "refractory" and inassimilable, a widespread stereotype. Here, Williams returns to his discussion of the "sojourner" idea, which he sees as both a fundamental huaqiao stereotype, used to justify discrimination, and—from a qiaoxiang perspective—an undeniable truth. The chapter strives to distinguish between the three "Pacific ports," while nevertheless insisting on the supremacy of the Longdu perspective in all of them.
Chapter 9 concludes by asking why qiaoxiang links ended in their old form in 1949, even though remittances continued (with one or two gaps here and there). The author's answer is that the new measures undertaken by Beijing and the provincial authorities put a stop to the translation of huaqiao efforts in the destinations into prestige and status in the qiaoxiang. He goes on to restate with even greater clarity the thesis that underlies the entire study: [End Page 70] that analyses "built around concepts such as nation-states, diaspora, or even transnationalism have a tendency to focus on movement to and outcomes in a specific location […,] to the neglect of motivations and relationships with other places," principally the qiaoxiang. Instead, he explains that he has sought in this book to explore the historical context of a single qiaoxiang, "the specific 'native place' within China of those who travelled," an angle that in his view diaspora studies often neglect, together with the "huaqiao ideals and intentions" (p. 199) that explain and legitimize much huaqiao behavior.
This is a powerful, original, and creative study, clearly argued and meticulously researched over a period of many years (most of the chapters have previously appeared as articles). It will be interesting to see how the scholars Williams criticizes react to his book, which fearlessly and systematically takes issue with all previous studies in the field and proposes a new approach to Chinese migration and settlement overseas.
Gregor Benton is an emeritus professor of history at Cardiff University specializing inter alia in Chinese diaspora studies.