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Vol. 77/No. 32      September 9, 2013

Chinese communities around world
discussed at int’l conference in Malaysia
(feature article)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — This Southeast Asian nation was a fitting place to hold the eighth International Conference of the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas (ISSCO) Aug. 17-18. Out of a population of close to 30 million, Malaysia is home to 6.5 million people of Chinese ancestry, more than 20 percent of the total.

The conference was organized in collaboration with students and teachers at the Institute of Chinese Studies and other departments at the Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR), a university in Kuala Lumpur named after Malaysia’s first post-independence prime minister. The successful event attracted some 200 people from 20 countries. With 50 panel discussions and plenary sessions over two days, participants delved into various aspects of the centuries-old settlement of Chinese migrants in virtually every country of the globe.

ISSCO was established at a 1992 conference in San Francisco sponsored by the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Since then international conferences, held every three years, have been organized in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Taiwan, Denmark, China, and Singapore. In between there have been regional conferences in Cuba, South Africa, New Zealand, and several other countries.

For the first time at ISSCO gatherings, a majority of papers this year — more than 100 of the total 167 — were presented in Chinese. Most of the rest were in English, but nine were presented in Malay, another first. While numerous students and teachers from China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) took part, the largest number came from universities in Malaysia. Others traveled from near-neighbors Indonesia and Singapore, as well as the Philippines, Japan, Canada, the United States, Europe, South Africa and Australia. Conference organizers were especially pleased with the larger numbers of students presenting papers at this year’s event. Welcoming the participants, a representative of Malaysia’s deputy minister of education Mary Yap Kain Ching noted the role of Chinese laborers, whether indentured or “free,” in building railroads and working the country’s tin mines under British colonial rule in the 19th century.

Introducing the keynote speakers at the same session, ISSCO’s founding president Wang Gungwu of the National University at Singapore spoke of his experiences growing up in Ipoh, the capital of Perak, one of a number of federated states during British colonialism that are now part of Malaysia. Modern Malaysia was consolidated under that name and in its present form in 1965 when Singapore, which had joined the federation two years earlier, withdrew and became a separate nation. Sabah and Sarawak on the northern coast of Borneo (Indonesian Kalimantan) also joined the federation in 1963 and remain part of Malaysia today.

Independence struggle

Wang Gungwu recalled the invasion by Japanese forces in December 1941, in the days following the attack on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Within a few weeks the British colonial masters of what was then called Malaya were expelled as the Japanese army swept south. When the tide of war turned and the Japanese troops were defeated in 1945, however, that did not usher in Malayan independence, as many had expected. Instead, a new period of British domination and war began.

Throughout the 1940s a growing movement for national independence took shape, with labor actions, popular protests and military actions led by the Malayan Communist Party.

In response to this growing political and military threat to their rule, British generals herded half a million poor farmers and farmworkers, most of whom were Chinese, into so-called New Villages — later used as a model for the “strategic hamlets” established by U.S. forces in Vietnam in the 1960s. Recalling the independence struggle in Malaya and its long-lasting aftermath, Wang Gungwu said he had “lived through times where every Chinese was considered a communist.”

By 1952 more than 32,000 troops — from the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, as well as from other British-dominated regions of Asia and Africa — were battling the independence movement in Malaya.

The imperialists crushed the armed insurgency, but were forced to concede independence in 1957. Their legacy of divide and rule — pitting the indigenous Malay population against Chinese and Indian communities — has deeply marked Malaysian government policies ever since.

“Malaysia is a very good place to understand the questions” facing overseas Chinese in many countries, concluded Wang Gungwu as he introduced the two keynote speakers, Leo Suryadinata and Ling-chi Wang.

Suryadinata, director of the Chinese Heritage Center of Singapore and outgoing president of ISSCO, spoke in Chinese on “Reflections on Chinese Migrants and Their Descendants in the Modern and Contemporary Eras.” In the following presentation in English, “Chinese Americans in Science and Technology since World War II,” Ling-chi Wang — retired professor of Asian American and ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley and, along with Wang Gungwu, the principal initiator of ISSCO — reviewed his research on the contributions of Chinese-born scientists and engineers and the discrimination they continue to face.

Rich history and culture

The rich cultural, economic and political history of the Malay Peninsula was touched on in numerous panels, especially those conducted in Chinese and Malay. At one session Tan Ai Boay of the University of Malaya spoke on “Chinese Citizenship in British Malaya before World War II.” Since the British at the time had divided the territory into the Straits Settlements, Federated Malay States, and Unfederated Malay States, she said, Chinese residents seeking citizenship had to contend with both colonial officials and the sultans who headed most states in the country, as they still do today.

At another session, Aloysius Yapp and Anita Abas spoke of the struggle for recognition by the Sino-Iban, descendants of Chinese who had intermarried with the indigenous people of Sarawak. Speakers from the Philippines described their efforts to encourage young Tsinoys, or Chinese-Filipinos, to learn Chinese. Since English and Tagalog are the official languages of education, “we are working to preserve culture so we don’t forget,” said Lily Rose Tope from the University of the Philippines. Chinese make up 1.5 percent of the country’s population of more than 100 million. Tope stressed that Tsinoys are not a single, undifferentiated group but are divided along class lines. At a session on “Chinese in Africa and Java,” the University of Pretoria’s Karen Harris discussed a struggle waged by the Chinese in South Africa. In 2008, 17 years after the official abolition of apartheid, the High Court finally “corrected an historical wrong,” Harris said, ruling that Chinese are “Black.” The decision, she noted, is a belated recognition that, like Africans, Indians, and other oppressed nationalities the Chinese were included as “non-whites” under the hated racist system and still suffer under its legacy. Before the court’s decision, Chinese were ineligible for affirmative action measures under South Africa’s current “equity” laws.

In his keynote address the opening day of the conference, Ling-chi Wang had spoken about the discrimination faced today by Chinese in the United States. He pointed to the record of more than 160 years of racist attitudes toward Chinese there.

Wang cited an 1854 decision by California’s Supreme Court overturning the admissibility of evidence brought against “a free white citizen of this State” who had been “convicted of murder upon the testimony of Chinese witnesses.” The judges ruled that “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point,” should not have “the right to swear away the life of a citizen” or “the privilege of participating with us in administering the affairs of our Government.”

Increasing restrictions on the Chinese, especially in California, were enacted in the decades following the 1854 ruling. These included limitations on immigration, business activities, areas where they were allowed to live, and rights to work and own property. In 1882, almost a decade into a deep nationwide post-Civil War economic depression, the U.S. Congress adopted the Chinese Exclusion Act, halting all immigration from China for 10 years. That bar was subsequently extended indefinitely, made still more stringent, and expanded to include immigration from Hawaii and the Philippines. It remained in force until 1943.

That experience of Chinese immigrants in the U.S., and the origins of anti-Chinese agitation and government policies there, were later the topic of a lively discussion and debate at a panel on “Chinese in the Americas.” Among some 20 participants were three guests from the Cuban Embassy in Malaysia: Ambassador Rubén Pérez; Cultural and Administrative Affairs Officer Ileana García; and Third Secretary Yanila Reyes.

In his closing address to the ISSCO gathering, conference convener and UTAR professor Ho Khai Leong noted the breadth of questions addressed in the different sessions. He pointed to “the situation of the Sino-Iban people of Sarawak and the question of the Chinese in Cuba,” which was addressed in the panel on “Chinese in the Americas,” as experiences “not often discussed in Southeast Asia” and about which he had learned a great deal.

He also saluted the UTAR students and staff who had helped to organize and run the conference. Their friendly efficiency, esprit de corps and interest in the sessions were evident to all participants.

At an ISSCO membership meeting held at the conference’s conclusion, Tan Chee Beng of the Chinese University of Hong Kong was elected the association’s new president. Outgoing President Leo Suryadinata announced that Panama will be the venue for a regional ISSCO conference in 2014, to be followed in 2015 by a regional gathering in Seoul, South Korea. The next international conference will be held at the University of British Columbia in Canada in 2016.

Baskaran Appu and Mary-Alice Waters contributed to this article.
Related article:
Panel debates fight against anti-Chinese racism in US vs. Cuba
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