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Asian peoples were among those participating in large-scale migrations, often over long distances, between 4000 BCE and 1000 CE. During the past several centuries millions of eastern and southern Asians relocated to become a visible and vital presence in the population of many nations and the world economy.
Human migration is a central theme in world history and can be traced back to prehistory. Some of the movements after 1500 CE are well known, such as the migration of millions of Europeans to the Americas, Oceania, and southern Africa and the transport of many enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. The less well-known migrations of Asian peoples also began early and continued down to modern times. During the past several centuries millions of eastern and southern Asians relocated temporarily or permanently, some to nearby countries, others to faraway lands, making these migrants and their descendants a visible and vital presence in the world economy and in the population of many nations.
The Long History of Asian Migration
Large-scale migration, often over long distances, has been a pronounced pattern for thousands of years. Various Asian peoples were among those on the move between 4000 BCE and 1000 CE. Chinese spread from northern into southern China. Mobile Central Asian pastoralists migrated frequently. Some of them moved into China, western Asia, or Europe. Various peoples from western and Central Asia crossed the high mountains into northwestern India, where they mixed with the existing populations. Many Japanese descend from Koreans who crossed to the archipelago several millennia ago. Austronesians spread from Taiwan into the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. From there, some Austronesians, using advanced maritime technology and navigational skills, sailed east into the vast Pacific, settling remote islands and forming the Polynesian and Micronesian societies. The descendants of these Asians include the Hawaiian, Maori, Samoan, and Tahitian people. Other Austronesians sailed the other way, sojourning in East Africa and occupying the island of Madagascar. Thanks to migration, Austronesian languages are spoken today from the western Indian Ocean to the eastern Pacific. The ancestors of the closely related Thai and Lao peoples moved from southwestern China into Southeast Asia a millennium ago, eventually forming their own states.
In the eighteenth century, another large-scale migration of peoples from eastern and southern Asia began, mostly by sea to distant shores. The emergence of capitalism in Europe and the emergence of a truly world economy played a role. In a quest for resources and markets to be exploited, Western nations colonized most Asian, African, and American societies. The development of modern transportation networks, aided by the introduction of larger and faster ships and later by air travel, facilitated this movement. Some colonial powers looked to the densely populated Asian societies to provide a labor force for their plantations and mines. In more recent decades many Asians, some middle class, some refugees, and others impoverished workers seeking low-wage jobs, have migrated to Western nations legally or illegally.
Today perhaps 40–45 million Asians live outside, and often thousands of miles away from, their ancestral homelands. Chinese and Indians account for the great majority of Asian migrants. Many settled in Southeast Asia, but the two groups also established large communities in the Americas, Pacific islands, Europe, and parts of Africa. Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Indonesians moved to Pacific islands and the Americas. In the last thirty years of the twentieth century, several million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians fled war and repression for new homes elsewhere, particularly in North America. These varied diasporas of Asian peoples constitute one of the more important social and economic developments in modern world history.
The Chinese accounted for some two-thirds of the long-distance Asian migration between 1750 and 1940. More than 30 million people of Chinese ancestry or ethnicity, often known as overseas Chinese, live outside of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong today. Over 20 million of them reside in Southeast Asia. As a result, some 7 or 8 percent of all Southeast Asians have some Chinese ancestry. Three-quarters of Singapore’s population is ethnically Chinese, as is a quarter of the population of Brunei, a third of Malaysia’s population, and thirteen percent of Thailand’s. Three countries—Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand—each contain at least 4 million people of Chinese descent. More than a million ethnically Chinese people live in the United States. Several dozen nations or territories outside Southeast Asia also have sizeable Chinese communities. These include Japan, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Surinam, Panama, Costa Rica, Peru, Brazil, the Society islands (including Tahiti), Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Malagasy, Mauritius, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, France, and Russia. But most nations in the world have at least a few Chinese-run restaurants or other businesses, making the Chinese diaspora perhaps the world’s most widespread.
This emigration has a long history. Chinese merchants have sailed to Southeast Asia to trade for several thousand years. By the fifteenth century Chinese trade networks linked Southeast Asian trading ports to the southeastern Chinese coast. Beginning in the later 1500s Chinese settlers became dominant in the commercial sector in several Western colonies in Southeast Asia, including the Spanish-ruled Philippines and Dutch-ruled Java. Between 1750 and 1850 many Chinese settled in Thailand, Malaya, and Indonesian islands such as Borneo to trade or mine for tin and gold, sometimes establishing their own self-governing communities. The present royal family of Thailand descends from an eighteenth-century Chinese immigrant.
During the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wars with the Western nations and Japan, rebellions, corruption, population explosion, growing landlessness, and natural disasters in China prompted millions to emigrate, mostly to places where Western colonialism and capitalism were creating new economic opportunities. Some 90 percent of the emigrants came from two impoverished and overcrowded coastal provinces, Fujian and Guangdong, which were particularly hard-hit by Western military and economic intrusion. Between 1880 and 1920 several hundred thousand people a year left from the ports of Hong Kong, Guangzhou (Canton), Xiamen (Amoy), and Shantou (Swatow) for foreign destinations.
Many were recruited into the notorious “coolie trade,” which operated from the 1820s into the 1920s. Under this system, desperate peasants become workers (known pejoratively as coolies) in far away places, especially Southeast Asia, various South Pacific and Indian Ocean islands, Hawaii, Australia, Peru, Cuba, California, and South Africa. In order to repay their passage, the Chinese signed contracts to work as plantation laborers, miners, or railroad builders for a fixed period of time, often five or ten years. The system invited exploitation in an alien environment, where the laborers who survived the difficult voyages in crowded ships faced discrimination and harsh working conditions.
Not all Chinese emigrated as part of this trade. Some paid their own fares, usually to join relatives in business enterprises. Most immigrants dreamed of returning to their native village wealthy, and some did. But many stayed overseas permanently, some because they had failed to achieve their dreams, others because they had established small businesses with their savings, marrying local women or bringing families from China. But even those who settled abroad often sent money back to their home villages or invested in China. Today the overseas Chinese are an important source of capital for China.
Overseas Chinese Communities
Over time, the overseas Chinese were transformed from sojourners into settlers. Through enterprise, organization, and cooperation many Chinese in Southeast Asia became part of a prosperous, urban middle class that controlled retail trade. A few became fabulously wealthy businessmen or industrialists. Chinese commercial networks extended into the smallest towns. For example, many Chinese shops in small towns in Malaya and Borneo were linked through firms in larger towns to big companies in Singapore. Singapore, with a mostly Chinese population, became the major hub of Chinese economic and social networks in Southeast Asia, although Bangkok (Thailand), Jakarta (Indonesia), and Saigon (Cambodia) also played important roles. But some Chinese remained poor, eking out a living as commercial fishermen, smallholding rubber growers, or day laborers. For example, the men who pulled the rickshaws in the steamy tropical heat of Singapore and Malaya faced a difficult life and often died young, sometimes from suicide.
Today the majority of Chinese in Southeast Asia, as well as in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean islands, the Caribbean, and Latin America, are engaged in commerce. The ethnic Chinese have constituted the most dynamic economic sector in Southeast Asia, with their money and initiative the basis for recent dynamic economic growth in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. In North America and Europe many also opened businesses, often family-run restaurants, but many of their children gravitated to the professions or the high-technology industries. In the second half of the twentieth century many new emigrants fled Communism in China or lack of opportunity in Taiwan and Hong Kong for new lives in North America, Australia, Canada, or Europe. Most, especially the well educated, found success in their new homes, transforming the Chinese into one of the most affluent ethnic groups in these countries. But pockets of grinding poverty also remained, for example among the badly exploited immigrant workers in the small textile factories of crowded urban Chinatowns.
Many non-Chinese in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific resented the Chinese because of their enterprise, economic power, desire to preserve their language and culture, and their continuing ties to families or hometowns in China. Before the 1930s most Chinese in colonies such as Malaya and Cambodia were administered through their own leaders, usually powerful merchants, planters, or mine owners, perpetuating their separateness from local society. Conflict between descendents of Chinese emigrants and local people has been common in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines for several centuries, occasionally leading to anti-Chinese violence. Some governments have restricted Chinese political rights or curtailed economic activity. In the late 1970s many Chinese left or were expelled from Vietnam. Some of them joined a steady stream of Southeast Asian Chinese moving to North America or Oceania. But Chinese leaders run Singapore and have also played an active role in Malaysian politics. Politicians of Chinese ancestry have led Thailand and the Philippines at various times, as well as Papua New Guinea, Guyana, and Surinam.
The Chinese have adapted to local environments in varied ways. Many assimilated over several generations. Some mixed local and Chinese customs, beliefs, and languages. These people formed distinct sub-groups such as the Peranakans of Java, the Straits Chinese of Malaya, and the Sino-Thai of Bangkok, who linked the Chinese and local peoples and moved between both worlds. But the majority of Chinese maintained their language, customs, religion, and separate identity. Many such people live in or near the large Chinatowns of cities such as Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Manila (Philippines), Sydney (Australia), Vancouver (Canada), San Francisco and New York (United States), Lima (Peru), and Liverpool (United Kingdom). Most Chinese emigrants spoke one of a half dozen quite different dialects. Wherever they have settled, the Chinese have organized their own schools, temples, business associations, and social organizations, fostering considerable cooperation and solidarity, which has helped sustain the Chinese communities in so many diverse environments.
Conditions in India also stimulated emigration during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, producing an overseas diaspora of nearly 10 million today, around a quarter of the emigrant Asian population. British colonization spurred population growth but also increasing poverty for many peasants, with no industrial revolution to absorb the excess people. As a result of these mounting problems, many millions of desperately poor, often landless, Indians, mostly Hindus but also some Muslims and Sikhs, were recruited to move to other lands. Many originated from South India; the Tamils of the southeastern coast became the largest Indian group in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. Others originated in North India.
The abolition of slavery in the Americas and the needs of sugar or rubber plantations in tropical colonies created a market for indentured Indian labor. Governments in Sri Lanka, Malaya, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, and the Caribbean societies of Trinidad, Guyana, and Surinam recruited Indians in a system similar to the Chinese coolie trade. Other Indians built the railroads of British East Africa. Indian merchants, moneylenders, and laborers also flocked to British Burma (present-day Myanmar), Singapore, and East Africa. Some Indians settled on the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States. Between 1880 and 1930 around a quarter million people a year, both men and women, left India. The mortality rates were so high and the indenture terms so oppressive that critics considered the system another form of slavery. Later in the twentieth century several million South Asians moved to Britain, establishing growing communities in most industrial cities, emigrated to North America and Western Europe, or became merchants, service workers, and laborers in the Persian Gulf states.
Overseas Indian Communities
The resulting diaspora made Indians a recognizable group in countries around the world. Indian trade networks reach around the Indian Ocean and Pacific Rim, connecting the seaport of Aden in Yemen, Tanzania, Malagasy, and South Africa to Hong Kong, Japan, California, and British Columbia. The diaspora is reflected today in “little Indias” from Nairobi (Kenya) to Singapore to Trinidad. The great Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) experimented with nonviolent resistance to oppressive power while working with the large Indian community around Durban, South Africa.
Today people of Indian ancestry account for a majority of the population in Mauritius, at least half the population of Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam, and Fiji, a fifth of the population of Sri Lanka, a tenth in Malaysia and Singapore, and 5 percent in Kenya and South Africa. They number some 1.5 million in Great Britain, around a million in the United States and Canada, and some 2 million in the Middle East. Sizeable South Asian populations, mostly involved in commerce, also exist in several dozen African nations, most of Southeast Asia and Western Europe, many Caribbean islands, Australia, and New Zealand.
Indian experiences in the diaspora have varied. Some in Southeast Asia, Fiji, and the Caribbean have done well in business or the professions, while large numbers still labor on plantations, although often in conditions somewhat better than during colonial times. The majority in North America have become prosperous businessmen and professionals. Indian entrepreneurs and scientists are leaders in the high-technology sector. Indians in the United States enjoy the highest educational levels of all ethnic groups. In Great Britain many have achieved wealth as entrepreneurs and professionals, and others prosper as small shopkeepers. But some South Asians encounter discrimination and hostility in Great Britain and other Western nations.
Like the Chinese, overseas Indians have faced many challenges that have shaped their adaptation. Indians have been involved in bitter struggles for political power with the descendants of Africans in Guyana, Surinam, and Trinidad, and with Melanesian Fijians in Fiji. In these nations, Indians formed their own political parties, which have sometimes won elections and installed their leaders as prime ministers. But the ethnic rivalries have sometimes led to conflict, especially in Fiji. In Sri Lanka, some of the large Tamil minority have sought autonomy and more rights through violence, fomenting a civil war that has kept the nation in turmoil for several decades. Hostility against the Indian trading community contributed to their expulsion from Uganda in the 1970s; many of those expelled moved to Britain or North America. Indians have faced economic restrictions in Kenya and Tanzania.
Most Indians have adapted to the political and economic realities of their new countries, taking local citizenship and establishing permanent roots. Some have abandoned the traditions of their ancestors, but most remain conservative in culture. While caste identities and restrictions have often faded in the diaspora, most overseas Indians maintain their customs and religions, generally marrying within their own groups. Those who have emigrated more recently have forged a continuing connection to their families and ancestral villages in India, fostering the movement of peoples back and forth.
Japanese and Korean Emigration
Generally pushed by poverty, overpopulation, war, or repression, many people emigrated from northeastern Asia, forming cohesive communities in new lands. Many Japanese left their islands between 1850 and 1940. Some settled in Hawaii, many to work on plantations or in the canning industry. Today their descendants are the largest ethnic group in Hawaii. Other Japanese migrated to the Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada, some taking up farming in California. When the United States and Canada tightened their immigration restrictions on Japanese in 1907 and 1908, the emigrant flow turned to Latin America, especially Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. Many Japanese joined agricultural colonies or mining operations. Later the cultural networks they forged allowed many Japanese to leave wage labor for the ownership of businesses and farms. Leaving instability, Koreans also joined the flow overseas, especially to Hawaii between 1903 and 1905. During World War II many Japanese in the United States and Canada were interned in concentration camps, often losing their property.
By the mid-twentieth century emigration from northeastern Asia flowed again to the Americas. Today some 1.5 million people of Japanese ancestry live in Latin America, and another million in the United States. Japanese-Americans have become one of the most affluent and well-educated ethnic groups. In a reverse migration, thousands of Brazilian-born Japanese have started moving back to the land of their ancestors. Korean migration to North America began in the 1960s on a large scale, many immigrant families opening grocery stores in large cities such as New York and Los Angeles. The new arrivals increased the total Korean-American population to some three hundred thousand.
Southeast Asian Emigration
Emigration from Southeast Asia has also been significant in the past 150 years, spurred by colonization, war, and political turbulence. Between 1875 and 1940 Indonesians, mostly Javanese, were recruited to work on plantations in nearby Malaya and North Borneo but also in Surinam and, on a smaller scale, the Pacific island of New Caledonia. Some fifty thousand Javanese today live in Surinam. During the early 1900s the French shifted a few thousand Vietnamese to the South Pacific islands they controlled, mostly as plantation laborers. After the United States colonized the Philippines in 1902, Filipinos began migrating to Hawaii and the Pacific coast of the United States as laborers or farm workers. The migration has continued ever since. Today 2.5 million Filipinos live in the United States, many of them prosperous. Many Filipinos also work in the Persian Gulf, mostly in service industries.
The devastating wars in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s generated another major migration, this time mainly of refugees. Between 1970 and 1985 over 2 million people fled those countries, mostly for the United States, Canada, Australia, or France, the former colonial power in that region. According to 2000 U.S. Census figures, the United States is home to approximately 1.3 million Vietnamese, 400,000 Laotians, and 200,000 Cambodians— as well as 150,000 Thai, 63,000 Indonesians, and 20,000 immigrants from Malaysia and Singapore. The Southeast Asians were part of a total Asian population of nearly 8 million in the United States, a thirty-fold increase since 1940.
The emigrant flow from East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia to the Americas, Oceania, Europe, and the Middle East continues today, as people seek better economic opportunities, political stability, or personal security, continuing a human behavior— migration—that has a long history.
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