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Reviewed by:
  • Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians
  • Linda Chong (bio)
Leo Suryadinata , editor. Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies; New York: St. Martin's Press; [Australia and New Zealand]: Allen and Unwin, 1997. xi, 308 pp. Hardcover $59.95, ISBN 0-312-17576-0 (United States and Canada). Hardcover, ISBN 981-3055-58-8 (Singapore). Paperback, ISBN 981-3055-50-2 (Singapore). Paperback, ISBN 1-86448-463-2 (Australia and New Zealand).

This book is a compilation of papers that served as the basis for a two-day workshop of the same name in Singapore in 1996. Participants at that gathering set out to study the situations of Chinese in various parts of Southeast Asia and to examine the ways in which the Chinese are perceived by members of their host societies. With more than 80 percent of the Chinese outside China living in Southeast Asia, concerns have been raised that China's renewed prestige and the investment in their ancestral land by ethnic Chinese might cause friction for the Chinese in "Nanyang," or the South China Sea region.

With a total of eight chapters, followed by commentaries, the book offers a broad-brush view of the circumstances faced by many of the Southeast Asian Chinese who have chosen to make their homes in countries that, with the exception of Thailand, emerged from colonialism in the middle of the twentieth century and are in the process of nation building. Chapters of the book deal with the varying histories and levels of assimilation experienced by the Chinese in Southeast Asia, from their relatively peaceful coexistence with their Thai hosts to their more controversial presence in Indonesia, where the conspicuous wealth of a handful of businessmen has fomented enough resentment among the indigenous population that the Chinese are often targets of violence during times of crisis.

Contributors and discussants include renowned scholars and experts in such fields as ethnicity, politics, history, economics, and anthropology, as well as that emerging discipline perhaps most aptly described as "diaspora studies" or "migration studies." Specific chapters of the book, edited by Suryadinata, a Chinese Indonesian, deal with the changing identities of the Chinese in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The message is clear: in countries where the Chinese population is small and the concept [End Page 543] of nation is more "inclusive"—to borrow Suryadinata's term—the Chinese can more easily identify themselves with their Southeast Asian hosts. This is generally considered to be the case in Thailand. But where a Chinese population is large and the concept of nation is more "restrictive," Suryadinata says, the local identity of the Chinese is more problematic. Vietnam provides a good example.

Suryadinata describes Southeast Asia as a region of "state-nations" rather than "nation states" because, with the exception of Thailand, the modern-day boundaries claimed by the relatively new governments were drawn by former colonial powers. As he puts it: "The state is created first and a new nation is built based on the state boundary." He also suggests that all Southeast Asian countries, by virtue of their ethnic diversity, with indigenous minority groups as well as immigrant minorities such as the Chinese, are in fact "multinational states" where "national identity is still weak and ethnic tension is often very high." Ethnic identification by any one group is thus regarded as a divisive force that could jeopardize political stability and place the integrity of the state at risk.

As if Beijing's claims that the Chinese are descendants of the Dragon Emperor are not enough to invite accusations of cultural arrogance, the Chinese living away from their motherland have established many institutions that reinforce their sense of uniqueness. With their distinctive script emblazoned across storefronts and signs, their celebrated education system indoctrinating youth in Chinese culture and the use of their ancestors' native tongue, and their perceived tendency to keep to themselves, the Chinese in Southeast Asia—indeed, in communities all over the world—are often accused of being unassimilable. Moreover, their roles in the colonial histories of many of these Southeast Asian countries—usually as managers or "middlemen" for the Europeans, who often awarded them with...


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