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  • Diaspora’s Homeland: Modern China in the Age of Global Migration by Shelly Chan
  • Ong Soon Keong
Diaspora’s Homeland: Modern China in the Age of Global Migration, by Shelly Chan. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2018. US$26.95 (Paperback). ISBN: 9780822370543.

With the publication of her monograph, Diaspora’s Homeland: Modern China in the Age of Global Migration, Shelly Chan has taken a major step forward in the study of Chinese migration. Chan is a bold and imaginative writer. Compared with most scholars of overseas Chinese history, who rarely engage with or question the very concepts and theories that define the field, Chan attempts to revitalize the oft-criticized term of “diaspora,” and uses it as the keystone for her arguments in the book.

According to Chan, until now, “diaspora” has mainly been understood as a spatial concept and as such, criticized or rejected by leading scholars including Wang Gungwu, Ien Ang, and Shu-mei Shih for seemingly homogenizing the diverse Chinese migrants worldwide and condemning them to be forever outsiders in their land of settlement. Chan, however, argues that “diaspora” is not only still relevant but useful if we instead place a new emphasis on diaspora as multiple and fragmented temporalities (p. 11).

For her, diaspora is crucial as it helps to answer the fundamental question of the book: How did Chinese migration change China? To illustrate her point, she introduces two concepts: “diaspora time” and “diaspora moments.” According to Chan, “diaspora time” describes “the diverse, ongoing ways in which migration affects the lifeworlds of individuals, families, and communities,” while “diaspora moment” arises “when diaspora time interacts with other temporalities and produces unexpectedly wide reverberations” (pp. 12–13). This is to say, a “diaspora moment” emerges when the history of Chinese emigration intersected with other major historical trajectories, and as leaders and institutions were forced to respond to such encounters resulting in long-term consequences, Chinese history was subsequently changed (p. 13). Chan supports her argument by focusing on five key “diaspora moments,” which she discusses in five separate chapters.

In Chapter 1, Chan identifies Qing attempts to curb the trade of Chinese coolies in the mid-nineteenth century as one such diaspora moment. After the Qing’s defeat in the Opium War (1839–1842), Europeans openly flaunted the imperial court’s long-standing prohibition on overseas migration and recruited Chinese indentured laborers to work in their colonies in the British West Indies, Cuba, and Peru. Called the [End Page 176] “buying of men” or “the selling of piglets” in China, the abuses of Chinese indentured laborers by their foreign employers—from the recruitment processes, to the cross-pacific voyages and the working conditions in the mines and plantations overseas alerted the Qing court after they were widely reported by the world press (p. 18). The Qing court thus sought to protect the coolies and played a significant role in eventually ending the notorious trade. According to Chan, in its efforts to protect the emigrants, the Qing produced “new institutions, conventions, and actors,” which set China on the path towards “a sovereign nation in a global system” (pp. 14, 20). While most scholars tend to focus on events at the turn of the twentieth century for China’s transition into a modern nation-state, Chan argues that the process actually started several decades earlier and was initiated by the state’s encounter with the coolie trade.

The second diaspora moment that Chan analyzes in Chapter 2 erupted in the 1920s and 1930s when Chinese scholars at Shanghai’s Jinan University produced a corpus of historical and geographical studies on the Chinese in Southeast Asia (p. 15). For Chan, this development is momentous because these “Jinan intellectuals” departed from the traditional stereotype of overseas Chinese as forced and reluctant travelers, and instead portrayed them as colonialists, albeit not very successful ones. More importantly, the writings of the Jinan intellectuals not only showed the depth of their engagement with European and Japanese works and thoughts, they also “produced a Chinese national identity inextricably tied to Chinese emigrants” (p. 50) and suggested that Chinese abroad were integral to the nation building of modern China.

Chapter 3 focuses...


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