Once Upon a Time… The China Story Outside China

If you ask for a café con leche (the Spanish equivalent of a latte) in one of the many neighbourhood bars of Barcelona, there is a high chance that you will be served by an ethnic Chinese who runs the place with her or his family. If you walk around Francistown, a medium-sized town in Botswana, you will be very likely to bump into one of the seventy Chinese-run sundry stores scattered across the urban area (McNamee 7). And if you are wandering across Lima, Peru and wonder what you could eat that is really, unequivocally local, one of your best bets would probably be to step into a chifa and order yourself a hearty portion of arroz chaufa. Both terms come from Chinese expressions and refer to Chinese Peruvian eateries (chifa, from chi fan 吃飯: to eat) and their flagship dish, Chinese-style fried rice with a South American twist (arroz chaufa, from chao fan 炒飯: fried rice) respectively. Nowadays, they have become a national symbol of Peruvianness. They are also mouth-watering proof of the Chinese presence in the Andean country which, with an estimated 1.3 million people of Chinese background hosts the third largest such community in the Americas, after the United States of America and Canada.

These are just random examples to show that there is an everyday China outside the People’s Republic and Taiwan that makes it to the headlines only in rare and mostly unfortunate occasions, such as the outburst of atrocious violence against ethnic Chinese in post-Suharto Indonesia (May 1998) where around one thousand people of Chinese background were killed, tens of ethnic Chinese women were raped and Chinese businesses were burnt down; or the 2007 ethnic riots in Milan which involved the local Chinese community.

One of the many places where the local and global China story unfolds: the Hainan Association in Kuching, Malaysia. Photo: Antonio Paoliello

This everyday China which has flourished outside of the Greater China borders for different reasons is a global phenomenon present virtually anywhere, from small-town America, to rural Malaysia, from Chinatowns in major urban areas to the tiny Australian Territory of Christmas Island, where they constitute roughly seventy percent of the total population of slightly less than 1,500.

The conditions of this ‘China outside China’ have been discussed extensively from an economic, sociological and political point of view in specialised publications as well as in more popular articles. The cultural, especially literary, achievements of writers of full or partial ethnic Chinese background outside China have also earned themselves a certain degree of public attention, provided that they are part of a globally literary environment: the works of Anglophone writers Amy Tan, Ha Jin, and Tash Aw for example, or those by ethnic Chinese Francophone writers such as Dai Sijie, Shan Sa and Ying Chen for instance, are widely read and discussed by critics and readers alike.

However, there is a part of this China story that despite being beautifully told in many languages (mother tongue, adopted languages, heritage language…), remains mostly beyond the reach of a global readership, thus impeding the access to different perspectives on the ethnic Chinese life experience. Probably the main reason why this ‘China outside China’ remains unread is an economic one: put out on the market mostly by small publishing houses with limited resources and rather weak commercial and advertisement power, writings by ethnic Chinese authors from geographic locales as diverse as Malaysia or Peru, for instance, only seldom reach readers outside of their specific geographic, linguistic or ethnic communities.

In a country like Malaysia, for example, where more than twenty percent of the population traces its roots back to China, there are writers of ethnic Chinese background like Soo Cham who write in Bahasa Malaysia, the national language, and there is an even greater number of authors like Tan Cheng Sin who write in Chinese. In Malaysia there are also small publishers, magazines, festivals and prizes that cater to the small but thriving local Sinophone literary community. Chinese Peruvians such as fiction writer Siu Kam Wen or poet/narrator Julia Wong mainly use Spanish as their medium for artistic expression and they have their works issued by Peruvian publishing houses who distribute them locally.

Different languages, different geographies, different life experiences… . What do authors such as Soo Cham, Tan Cheng Sin and Siu Kam Wen have in common, then? Is there more to their works than the simple fact of being of ethnic Chinese background? Of course, there is more to their writings then the mere fact of sharing an ancestral land and yet so much in their production is tangled to the issue of identity, of feeling or not feeling Chinese, of wanting or not wanting to feel/be considered Chinese.

In Air Mata Ibu (A Mother’s Tears, 2007), Soo Cham recounts the sorrows of an ethnic Chinese mother who witnesses how her two sons embrace Islam and eventually marry two Malay women. The old woman hopelessly asks herself: ‘Why do Chinese people want to be Malays?’

Similarly, in El tramo final (The Final Stretch, 1985), a Spanish-language short story contained in a collection by the same name, Siu Kam Wen describes the Peruvian experience of Ah Po, a mother stubbornly anchored to her Chinese heritage, and of her family, which eagerly and rapidly adjusts itself to mainstream Peruvian society relinquishing most traces of ‘Chineseness’ in the process. All the other stories in El tramo final are centred on the Chinese experience in the Limean Barrio Chino (Chinese Quarter): they are stories of sojourners, stories of recent immigrants, stories of tusan (locally-born Chinese, from the expression 土生 tusheng), stories of interaction between ethnic Chinese and mainstream Peruvian society.

In his short story Hun de Zhuisu (Tracing Back the Soul), Tan Cheng Sin takes the international dimension of ‘Chineseness’ and the ethnic Chinese quest for identity to China as his Chinese Australian and Chinese Malaysian main characters embark on a spatial and highly emotional journey across the country. Tan’s short story, unique in its portrayal of a phenomenon that in the last decade has seen a growing number of people of Chinese background settling in China in search of their roots, but also – and mainly – of unprecedented opportunities of economic development, tells us how much of China there still is in the lives of many ethnic Chinese living outside of China.

Ethnic Chinese patrons in a kopitiam (traditional coffee shop) in Malaysia. Photo: Antonio Paoliello.

The characters portrayed by Soo, Siu and Tan are definitely representative of the many identities, and possibilities, that people of Chinese background have at their disposal. Whether they choose to retain their Chinese identity or to relinquish it, whether they decide to integrate into the mainstream of the societies in which they live or not, whether they decide to travel to China in search of their original ethnic and cultural identity is ultimately a matter of personal choice. But it is also a choice conditioned by external factors such as the specificities of the society in which they live and the changing role of China on the global stage.

The pens of Soo, Siu, Tan and other ethnic Chinese authors like them write stories of identities, stories of being or not being Chinese, stories of ethnic marginalisation and acceptance. Somehow they are stories about ‘ Chineseness’ away from China. In a world that is witnessing the rapid internationalisation of China, works by ethnic Chinese writers from somewhat peripheral literary systems should be made more readily available to general readership not only for their outstanding artistic value, but also because they can help us understand something more about the ethnic Chinese barman who pours our café con leche in the morning, the shopkeeper who sells us the pan that we will use to cook, or the waitress who will serve us our arroz chaufa during a lunch break. In other words, they are relevant, because they recount their own, individual, unique version of the China Story, a story that takes place right next door, a story that is so quintessentially local and at the same time so unequivocally Chinese.


Antonio Paoliello is a Teaching Fellow in Chinese Studies at the University of Edinburgh.


Works Cited:

Terence McNamee, Africa in Their Words: A study of Chinese Traders in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia and Angola, Johannesburg: The Brenthurst Foundation, 2012, online at: http://www.thebrenthurstfoundation.org/files/brenthurst_commisioned_reports/Brenthurst-paper-201203-Africa-in-their-Words-A-Study-of-Chinese-Traders.pdf

Siu Kam Wen, El tramo final, Lima: Lluvia Ed., 1985.

Soo Cham, Air Mata Ibu, Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2007.

Tan Cheng Sin, ‘Hunde zhuisu’, Sin Chew Jit Poh, Wenyi Chunqiu, 20 September 2009, pp.16-18.