Chinese Migrant Communities in Colonial Burma


A review of Local and Transnational Institutions in the Formation of Chinese Migrant Communities in Colonial Burma, by Yi Li

The colonial presentation of Chinese as economically powerful, morally corrupt, and politically indifferent remains an enduring image in Burmese public consciousness, still perpetuated by modern media. In her thesis, the first major attempt to document the history of Burmese Chinese over a period of 116 years, from 1826 to 1942, Yi Li’s critically challenges this presentation. Through the analysis of business papers, criminal records, political movements, and communal festivities among different communities of Burmese Chinese, be they from Canton, Hokkien, or Yunnan, Yi Li captures the image of one of the most dynamic yet understudied migrant communities of Myanmar/Burma.

Chapter 1 outlines the major English and Chinese archives used for the research, with an emphasis on the work of several Burmese Chinese scholars, particularly Chen Yi-Sen. Here Yi Li discusses some empirical challenges she encountered and her efforts to overcome them. She focuses on her own interviews with the Burmese Chinese communities in Yangon, Mandalay, and Myeik to trace how these communities have sustained their image beyond the colonial era. Burmese Chinese tend to distinguish themselves from other minorities and from the Burman majority by virtue of their very strong work ethics, and stories abound in which Chinese parents disapprove of their children marrying non-Chinese because they fear that foreign spouses might not work as hard as the Chinese do, and would therefore not earn as much.

Chapter 2 traces the “rags-to-riches” stories of Chinese migrant merchants using two sources, Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources (1910) and Who’s Who in Burma (1926), as well as anecdotes from the Chinese communities themselves. It is particularly interesting here to observe how books such as Who’s Who in Burma, produced by colonial and commercial institutions, presented the image of contemporary Chinese to the English reading elites inside and outside the country. Short biographies of prominent Burmese Chinese such as Chan Ma Phee, after whom a bus stop still used today is named, are also included in this chapter.

Chapter 3 discusses Chinese immorality in Burma up to the late colonial period, along with the evolution of the British administrative mechanisms to oversee the Chinese affairs. The rationale behind the appointment of the Chinese advisory board and local Yunnanese Chinese such as Taw Sein Ko in the British administration is also discussed. The colonial government’s racialization of crimes has captured the imagination of cartoonists, and the Burmese public still associates certain crimes with particular ethnic groups. For example, crimes associated with marijuana or ganja are often linked to the Hindus, whereas those associated with opium are linked to the Chinese. This chapter explains how this racial profiling came about and discusses how two contradicting images of the Chinese immigrant—i.e., successful businessman and agent of vice—are produced and perpetuated by different institutions in the context of empire.

Chapter 4 will be of interest to those working on politics and political movements in the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, as Yi Li discusses how domestic organizations ranging from Tongmenghui to KMT have shaped the political and social movements of Chinese communities overseas. This chapter also criticizes the colonial regime’s misrepresentation of Chinese communities as politically indifferent, using community knowledge and local anecdotes to show, for example, how young people organized to solicit fund to support Dr. Sun Yat Sen. Also illustrated here are the rise of nationalism among Chinese communities in Burma and Aung San’s Amoy trip, a result of the cooperation between transnational political parties and anti-colonial forces inside Burma, including Chinese nationals.

Chapter 6 outlines a historical migratory route between Heshun of Tengyueh (present-day Tengchong) in Yannan and upper-Burma. Some of the most common words used in Heshun today, such as “drinking cup” and “soap dish,” are borrowed from the Burmese lexicon, and this chapter discusses the historical relations between the Chinese frontier and some major cities of Burma including Bhamo, Myitgyina, and Mandalay. Yi Li also addresses how the geographical boundaries of Burma and China have changed over time, and how overland and overseas migrations helped shape the identity of both Yunnanese and southern Chinese Burmese, as reflected by the heritage buildings these community erected inside Burma. The chapter also discusses how clan associations, temples, and secret societies help reinforce the unique Chinese-Burmese identity, focusing on rituals and ceremonies witnessed by the author during her visits to Burma.

In the concluding chapter, Yi Li explains why she has chosen the year 1942 as the close of the period under study: most of the actors in her thesis became no longer relevant to the post-war settings of Burma, many had fled into Yunnan, and, perhaps more importantly, upon the advance of Japanese troops many others had decided to actively integrate into the Burmese society for reasons of personal safety. Several people destroyed their own records and completely changed their appearance, adopting Burmese longyis instead of Chinese jackets and trousers. Finally, Yi Li restates the main points of her thesis and summarizes how the image of Burmese Chinese is produced by different institutions and by the Chinese communities themselves, and the influence of transnational institutions on the experiences and identities of Chinese migrants.

Though there exist numerous studies on the migration and experiences of Chinese communities overseas, particularly in Nanyang or Southeast Asia, Burma is often curiously overlooked.  Yi Li’s dissertation will spur many more comprehensive studies into the lives of this economically and now politically important group, and her sources and insights will help other scholars formulate sophisticated questions and nuanced approaches to better understand the unique communities of Chinese Burmese in Myanmar/Burma.

Tharapi Than
Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures
Northern Illinois University

Primary Sources
British Library, India Office Records and Private Papers
House of Commons Parliamentary Papers
Myanmar National Archives
Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas Libraries
Several English and Chinese language newspapers
Several Reports, Private Writings, Chronicles, and Publications of Community Associations  produced in London, Rangoon, Beijing, and other locations

Dissertation Information
Department of History, SOAS, University of London. 2011. 336 pp. Primary Advisor: Mike Charney.

Image: The Hokkien Yeos Clan House, central Yangoon. Photo by Yi Li, 2008.

  1. A very good review. The author of the dissertation as well as the reviewer has rekindled rigorous unbiased research. THE FUTURE OF WORKS on Myanmar polity, society, and history is on a good trajectory.

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