In the beginning, there was slavery. With its abolition, the British imperium constructed a globe-spanning system of labour movement. Coolies, both Indians and Chinese, were a product as were the Gujarati and Chettiar middlemen who helped ship their less fortunate countrymen around. Just feeding this system led to the creation of today’s rice bowls of the Irrawaddy and Mekong deltas. It also led to millions of Indians and Chinese migrants pouring into Southeast Asia during the 19th and early 20th century. Smaller numbers settled in each other’s countries. The story of this migration, the communities thus produced and cultural peculiarities that evolved, is the theme of this collection of academic essays.
The place where these two migratory flows found maximum confluence was the Malay peninsula. Between 1840 and 1940, eleven million Chinese settled there. They were joined by four million Indians. Indians came through a tightly controlled imperial contract system. The Chinese largely arrived to work in Chinese-owned enterprises. The Chinese were allowed more self-government and had more opportunities for social uplift. Mahatma Gandhi, on a visit to Singapore in 1908, noticed the gulf between the two. Contemporary observers found racial or cultural reasons for the disparity, but much of this book is about how circumstances — legal, political, economic and even historical accidents — shaped the future trajectory of, say, Indians in Burma or Chinese in Thailand.
Once they had finished their labour contracts, many Indian migrants in the colonial period did not stick around. “As much as 90 per cent of the Indians who went abroad in the colonial era eventually returned home,” writes Madhavi Thampi. Many Chinese who went overseas, however, were simply unable to return as their homeland disintegrated into civil war and then found stability in an oppressive one-party dictatorship. There are some excellent detailed studies on micro-issues like how the Chinese legal system treated its diaspora, why it’s a myth to talk of a trust-based and community-driven “Chinese capitalism” among its diaspora, and the almost comical problems British colonial judges had grappling with traditional Asian charitable concepts like ‘sinchew’ and the waqf.
Inevitably, given present geopolitical realities, there will be curiosity to know how Indians and Chinese compete or cooperate with each other when face-to-face. On the one side there is the enthusiastic Chinese participation in Thaipusam celebrations by Singaporean Tamils or Kali-worshipping Chinese in Kolkata — in one case supposedly because a Chinese-Indian was granted a Canadian visa, after two rejections, after he prayed before the goddess. On the other is the persecution and harassment Chinese migrants faced at Indian hands during and after the 1962 war. Thousands were transported in guarded railcars to a concentration camp in Rajasthan in an episode most Indians have conveniently forgotten.
One essay describes how a tradition of Indian gold jewellery has slowly become Sinicized — in ownership, not design — in Singapore. Another describes the travails diaspora of both ethnicities have had in Myanmar thanks to the racism and xenophobia of the dominant Burmans. A new development are the thousands of Indians who have settled in Guangzhou to pursue “the China Dream”, often marrying locals, setting up flourishing businesses and all praise for Beijing’s leadership. Example: Sagnik Roy, an exchange student to China from Kolkata, who married a Chinese business professional and made $ 600 million fortune in pharma.
At times, one wishes deeper explanations were provided for the Indian and Chinese diaspora experiences. One study, comparing how local movies portrayed their respective migrant experiences, notes “Indian films depict Indians overseas as mainly living very affluent lives, and this element of struggle to achieve as depicted in Chinese films is hardly ever a factor in Indian ones.” How or why this interesting difference developed is never explained.
The governments of India and China also treat their diasporas differently. “Independent India took time to review its policies towards non-resident Indians…governments of republican China after 1911 found value in the overseas communities.” Both republican and communist China maintained large offices in their major cities to manage and strengthen family and locality bonds. New Delhi has only begun to awaken to the merits of its diaspora in the past decade — and largely only its most successful overseas brethren. Given that India inherited a well-oiled migrant apparatus from the British while the Qing empire treated overseas Chinese as near-traitors, New Delhi’s seeming indifference deserved greater scrutiny. But in the authors’ defence it’s likely that a full account of two of the world’s largest and most successful ethnic migrants would fill a library — and their interactions an annexe.