A review of the Qiaopi Museum (侨批文物馆) (Shantou, Guangdong, China).
Qiaopi as Memory of the World
Qiaopi are remittance receipts in the form of family letters from overseas Chinese to their families in China. Qiao means “emigrants” and pi means “letters.” Qiaopi are also known as yinxin (“money letters”) in the Wuyi areas in Guangdong. Most of the surviving qiaopi have been preserved by archives in Guangdong and Fujian. In light of their uniqueness, qiaopi and yinxin were recognized in June 2013 as the world’s documentary heritage on the list of the UNESCO Memory of the World.
For my research, I am interested in investigating how migrants experienced “home” while away from home, and how they constructed “home” through the writing of family letters and sending of remittances. Methodologically, archival research of qiaopi enables me to explore migrants’ ideas of home from their experience of recognition or expression of home that was inscribed and retained in those letters (Shuhua Chen, Making Home, Making Sense of the World: Archival Research with Qiaopi Letters. In press). There are over 160,000 pieces of qiaopi preserved in China (UNESCO, Memory of the World: Qiaopi and Yinxin Correspondence and Remittance Documents from Overseas Chinese). So far, over 120,000 pieces of qiaopi have been collected in the Qiaopi Museum in Shantou city, Guangdong province.
Visiting the Qiaopi Museum in Shantou
The Qiaopi Museum in Shantou was founded in April 2004 within the building of Chaoshan History and Culture Research Center in Jinhu Road, Jinpin district. In July 2013, the new Qiaopi Museum was relocated to the old city centre. The new address is: 18 Waima Road, Shantou (汕头市外马路18号). It is accessible from bus lines 2 and 33. It is open on Wednesday and Saturday, 9:00am-11:30am and then 3:00pm-5:30pm. No access is permitted during the last half hour of opening time. Usually, it is closed on public holidays. Visitors must show their identity cards (passports are required for foreigners) and sign in at the reception desk. For group visits, it is highly recommended that appointments be booked prior to the visits. The telephone number for reservations is: +86-754-88280066.
The new Qiaopi Museum covers an area of 2,000 square meters over three floors. There are four sections to the exhibition. On the ground floor, the first section, Special Background, is dedicated to the history of international migration from the Chaoshan region of northeast Guangdong to Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia; and from there onwards to Australia, the Americas, and Europe, particularly from the late Qing dynasty (1840-1911). It is mainly a photographic exhibition focusing on the hardships faced by overseas Chinese in their migratory journey by sea, the difficulty of the lives they led abroad, and their efforts to save every penny for their family in China. Objects that were brought from overseas by shuike (“individual couriers by sea”) are also selected by the museum to illustrate the history.
The second section, Special Operation, shows us how qiaopi business came into being by shuike delivery through a collection of objects and some early qiaopi in the late Qing dynasty. On the first floor, the third section, Special Ties, captures the development of qiaopi business over a century – operated by privately-owned overseas Chinese remittance bureaus – eventually incorporated into the Chinese national baking system in 1979. This is sourced from many original pieces of qiaopi. This part section also tells individual stories narrated through qiaopi. On the second floor, there are two exhibits. These consist of the fourth section, Special Heritage, demonstrating the recent journey of how qiaopi archives came to be assessed by UNESCO as part of the world’s documentary heritage; and a fifth, used as storage for qiaopi archives, which is not open for public access.
Qiaopi archives in the museum
There are more than 120,000 pieces of qiaopi in the archive section, including over 40,000 pieces of original manuscripts and the other scanned copies. The principal means of cataloguing is by the mailing address of qiaopi recipients, arranged by county, town, village, and then family. Most of the qiaopi were sent by overseas Chinese from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, and Burma. This section will be of greatest interest to scholars interested in qiaopi studies. To access the archives, visiting researchers should provide official recommendation letters from their research institutes. In some circumstances, access to original documents may be restricted depending on the physical condition of the documents. If the physical condition of some original pieces is fragile, digitized documents, or photocopies are made available for researchers. However, a computerized index system has not yet been set up for the qiaopi archives. There is no copy service/machine in the museum. Archivists may be willing, however, to scan a few pieces and send them to the researchers by e-mail on request. The staff is very friendly and helpful. Though it is permitted to take photos in the exhibition halls within the museum, visiting researcher will need to request permission to take photos within the archives.
The published volumes cataloguing the contents of the archive also serve as a great research tool of qiaopi studies. These include, Chaoshan Qiaopi Cuibian (“Chaoshan Qiaopi Anthology”) [3 volumes], Chaoshan Qiaopi Dan’an Xuanbian (“Chaoshan Qiaopi Archives Selection”) [5 volumes], and Chaoshan Qiaopi Jicheng (“Chaoshan Qiaopi Collection”) [72 volumes, including the first and the second series]. The third series of Chaoshan Qiaopi Jicheng [over 60 volumes] is currently in the process of production. All of these volumes are compilations of qiaopi copies, mainly arranged according to the mailing address of the recipient, that is, by county, town, village, and family, sourced from over 100,000 pieces of qiaopi.
There is no website for the Qiaopi Museum. To know more about qiaopi through the Internet, you may visit http://www.teochewletters.org, a website set up and maintained by the Cheung Kong School of Journalism and Communication, Shantou University. In addition, Shantou University Library has set up a digital database with about 30,000 pieces of qiaopi, available for computer catalog search.
Department of Social Anthropology
University of St Andrews
Image: Qiaopi archives. Photograph by author.