The Chinese diaspora during China’s transformation from Empire to Republic: experiences in five different regions

“The China Critic.” The China Critic, vol. V, no. 18, 1932, p. 417. China from Empire to Republic, Accessed 21 Sept. 2017.”

China from Empire to Republic is an ongoing Gale publishing programme aiming to digitise China-related primary source collections from libraries and archives around the world. Two collections have been released in this programme so far: Missionary, Sinology and Literary Periodicals (1817–1949) and the recent Records of the Maritime Customs Service of China (1854–1949). While the dominant topics covered in these two collections are Chinese diplomacy, foreign relations, economy, politics, Christianity, sinology, education, imperialism, and globalisation, we must not overlook another important topic – ‘overseas Chinese’ or the Chinese diaspora.

A quick search for ‘overseas Chinese’ in Gale Primary Sources returned about 600 results in China from Empire to Republic. This is not a small number, ranking third among all Gale newspaper and periodical collections after The Financial Times Historical Archive and the International Herald Tribune Historical Archive. This discovery prompted me to take a closer look at the surfaced results.

Most of the results are found in Missionary, Sinology and Literary Periodicals (1817-1949), a collection of seventeen English periodicals published in or about China. Of these, The China Critic stands out with a far wider coverage of the topic than any others, accounting for about two thirds of all the search results. Among other periodicals covering overseas Chinese, The Chinese Recorder offers some very informative articles thanks to its wide network of missionaries based across Asia. All examples given in this blog piece are taken from these two periodicals, unless otherwise specified.

In fact, The China Critic established a special column in May 1932 called ‘Overseas Chinese’, edited by Mr Lin Yu, 林幽, the younger brother of the famous Chinese writer Dr Lin Yu-tang.

With a view to promoting ‘the welfare of our overseas brethren,’ the column was dedicated to covering overseas Chinese people’s ‘glorious achievements,’ ‘grievous treatments,’ the ‘actual conditions, under which they now live,’ and ‘the problems which they are now facing.’ According to the editor, the column was intended to become ‘a forum for Chinese scholars at home to present their research into Chinese overseas issues, as well as for Chinese overseas to present their own opinions concerning their achievements and struggles abroad.’

Yu, Lin. “Oversea Chinese by Way of Introduction.” The China Critic, vol. V, no. 18, 1932, p. 432. China from Empire to Republic, Accessed 21 Sept. 2017.

As far as the regional distribution of the overseas Chinese population is concerned, Southeast Asia is a region we cannot ignore, as it is home to over 20 million Chinese [1]. Let’s look at how the periodical covered the Chinese residents in Southeast Asia.

1) Overseas Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia

Below is an article from 1932 reporting on the ‘oppressed overseas [Chinese]’ living in the Dutch East Indies (now known as Indonesia) and British Malaya (now Malaysia). It reports that the editor of a Chinese newspaper published in Java was arrested and interrogated because the paper had published an article on the boycott of Japanese goods in Fukien (Fujian), China, which might ‘create ill-feeling between the Chinese and Japanese residents.’ In Kuala Lumpur, principals of two Chinese schools were arrested simply because of the discovery of three copies of the ‘Party Song’ of the Chinese Nationalist Party and an alleged violation of the regulation of textbooks.

Yu, Lin. “Oversea Chinese.” The China Critic, vol. V, no. 20, 1932, p. 488+. China from Empire to Republic, Accessed 21 Sept. 2017.

2) Overseas Chinese in Singapore

Like Malaya, Singapore was also a British colony where the Chinese community was subject to all kinds of discriminatory treatments. As this article from The China Critic shows, some hotels or restaurants did not admit Chinese customers and stringent regulations were imposed on Chinese hawkers and peddlers.

Yu, Lin. “Oversea Chinese.” The China Critic, vol. V, no. 27, 1932, p. 684. China from Empire to Republic, Accessed 21 Sept. 2017

3) Overseas Chinese in Thailand

What about the Chinese in Siam or Thailand? According to The Chinese Recorder, the Siamese government had been worried about the influx of Chinese immigrants as early as 1888, and wanted to adopt a restrictive policy by imposing a higher tax. This was echoed half a century later in a 1932 article in The China Critic, titled ‘The Chinese in Siam and the Recent Coup d’Etat.’

“The Chinese in Siam.” The Chinese Recorder, vol. XIX, no. 6, 1888, p. 287. China from Empire to Republic, Accessed 21 Sept. 2017.
Yu, Lin. “Oversea Chinese.” The China Critic, vol. V, no. 27, 1932, p. 684. China from Empire to Republic, Accessed 21 Sept. 2017.

4) Overseas Chinese in the Philippines

The year 1933 saw the Philippine islands embroiled in a business depression, causing many schools to close down due to the ‘financial stringency of the government.’ However, the Chinese are known worldwide for their near monomaniac attention to the education for their children. The Chinese businessmen in Manila were no exception. They convened a fund-raising meeting and successfully raised ‘over seven thousand pesos.’ Despite this effort, the number of Chinese female students was reduced significantly, reflecting indirectly the fact that Chinese society had been patriarchal for thousands of years.


Yu, Lin. “Oversea Chinese.” The China Critic, vol. VI, no. 22, 1933, p. 549. China from Empire to Republic, Accessed 21 Sept. 2017

5) Overseas Chinese in Australia

The Chinese diaspora also reaches far beyond Southeast Asia. Today, Australia is among the most attractive destinations for Chinese immigrants. What was it like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? According to an 1881 article in The Chinese Recorder, Australians were divided in their attitude toward Chinese immigrants. However, the Christian Church took a very positive stand, seeing it as an opportunity to convert Chinese immigrants – and through them the whole nation.

Gordon, A. “Work Among the Chinese in Victoria, Australia.” The Chinese Recorder, vol. XII, no. 2, March-April, 1881, p. 115+. China from Empire to Republic, Accessed 21 Sept. 2017

In 1936, The China Critic published an article, providing some very useful information on the population and life of Chinese immigrants in Australia. There were about 3,000 Cantonese living in Sydney; less than 1,000 Chinese in Melbourne; and only a little over 30 living in Tasmania. Despite this small population, four Chinese-language weekly newspapers were published to cater to the local Chinese-reading community.

Yu, Lin. “Oversea Chinese.” The China Critic, vol. XV, no. 9, 1936, p. 208+. China from Empire to Republic, Accessed 21 Sept. 2017

Further exploration to come!

There is particularly notable coverage of the Chinese diaspora in North America in China from Empire to Republic, such that it deserves a separate blog piece – so stay tuned for further examination of this fascinating topic in The Gale Review!

[1] Li, Peter S., and Eva Xiaoling Li. “Changes in the Chinese overseas population, 1955 to 2007.” Canadian Review of Sociology, vol. 48, no. 2, 2011, p. 137+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 21 Sept. 2017.

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About the Author

Yang Liping is a member of the Gale primary source publishing team. Based in Singapore, he focuses on acquiring and developing Asia-related products, including print, eBooks, and digital archives.