Chinese Diaspora

15 April 2013

Museum remembers the tragedy and success of migrants

By Luo Xunzhi in Jiangmen

Picture this: A piece of red paper hangs on a wall, announcing the sale of a baby for 80 yuan. On the paper is written a contract documenting this extraordinary transaction whereby a pedlar of melon seeds sells his baby son to donate to the war effort against Japan.

The parents of one Zheng Chaojiong were killed by a Japanese air raid in his native Jiangmen. Living as a wandering pedlar in Malaya, he determined to take revenge.

When his fourth son was born, he offered him, against the wishes of his wife, to a Chinese family in Sandakan in Sabah. “If we win the war, he will be a Chinese man, whoever raises him,” said Zheng. “If we lose, he will be the slave of a dead nation.”

The contract is one of the many remarkable exhibits in the Jiangmen Wuyi Museum of the Overseas Chinese, in this city in western Guangdong. The museum opened in November 2010, after years of planning and preparation. The city government says it is the best museum in China devoted to the diaspora.

The district of Jiangmen, which includes five counties (the meaning of Wuyi), has produced more emigrants than any other part of China. Its current population is 4.2 million, and there are about the same number of people from the district (and descended from their ancestors) living in 107 countries and regions across the world.

Most emigrants went to Southeast Asia and North America, and some to Europe and Africa. There is a large community of Jiangmen people in Hong Kong and Macao.

The idea of the museum was first proposed in 1992, but the conditions were not right and funding was unavailable. In January 2002, the city government decided to go ahead; in 2004, it appealed for people to make donations and sent staff around the world to contact the migrants.

The response was overwhelming – they received over 30,000 items, including photographs, maps, letters, family trees and records, passports, bank transfers and other documents. The majority of them were donated free of charge. It is these items that make up the treasures of the museum.

Tragic beginnings

Jiangmen’s diaspora began life in the middle of the 19th century. The population was growing faster than the land available to feed it; the economy was devastated by the Taiping rebellion of 1850 to 1864. Those at the bottom of the social ladder – landless farmers and the unemployed – were desperate for an escape.

Australia and North America needed workers to mine gold, iron ore and other metals; Malaya needed hands for its tin mines and rubber and banana plantations.

The poor of Jiangmen sold what few possessions they had and borrowed money from family and friends to buy their passage: some went with contracts, some without. They often signed them with agents and middlemen without knowing what they were signing: most were illiterate. They spoke their local dialect, not Mandarin. On arrival, they had to learn the language of their new country.

The museum has a photograph of an agent from Taishan, a district of Jiangmen: he is stout and self-satisfied, twice the size of the workers he has hired. He is the 19th century equivalent of the snakehead who smuggles Chinese people today into Europe and North America.

The migrants travelled in primitive wooden ships, driven by sails, with no toilets and or washing facilities; they were packed in like animals. The journey to Southeast Asia took up to three months, and that to North America up to six. Many did not survive the trip: they died en route and their bodies were tossed into the ocean.

The life that awaited them was little better than slavery. In the most dramatic image in the museum a man stands in a field of sugar cane in Peru. His feet are manacled so that he cannot escape; he is cutting the cane beneath the hot sun.

“He worked a 14–20-hour day,” said Xiong Yaling, the museum guide. “He signed an eight-year contract and at the end of it was forced to sign another one. He never returned home. The average life expectancy of these men was 30–40 years old.”

There is also a photograph of a banana plantation in Malaya. “The workers had to get up at about three in the morning and complete the work before sunrise,” she said. The plantation managers – Europeans in their white suits – stand stiff and self-satisfied in front of a truck packed with their Chinese workers.

Building the railroads

Migrants from Jiangmen played a major role in building the Pacific railroads across the United States and Canada. The construction companies liked them because they worked hard, for little money, and did not complain.

But they were not welcome by the white workers, who saw them as cheap competition who threatened their jobs.

“They helped to complete the building of the US railroad in seven years, instead of the planned 14,” said Xiong. “But no Chinese person was invited to the opening ceremony. They found 20,000 Chinese corpses along the track. Of the 17,000 Chinese people who worked on the Canadian Pacific railway, 4,000 died.”

Between 1851 and 1860, some 40,400 Chinese migrants arrived in California for the Gold Rush. Over the next three decades, the arrivals numbered 64,301, 123,201 and 61,711 respectively. They came to build the railroads and work on the farms and fisheries of California. Ninety percent were men; they hoped to return home afterwards to get married and start a family. There were very few Chinese women in the United States.

But such was the opposition of ordinary white people, including leaders of the church, that in 1882, the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited immigration for 10 years. It was the only US law ever to prevent immigration and naturalisation on the basis of race.

This law was extended and broadened. The Chinese were not allowed to bring their wives and children from home – as other migrants could – and laws in many states prevented them from marrying white women. In 1924, all Asian immigrants were excluded by law, denied citizenship and prevented from owning land; the only exceptions were Filipinos, whose country was under US control.

Only in the 1940s, when the US and China were allies in World War Two, were these restrictions lifted, with immigration permitted in 1943.

The museum has a reconstruction as well as photographs of Angel Island in San Francisco, where immigration officers examined young Chinese men. Some migrants sold the birth certificates of their sons to others at home; the examination tested the new arrivals to see if they were the children of those they claimed to be. Because of the restrictions, many spent years on the island waiting for entry; they lived on bunk beds in prison conditions.

It also has models of the restaurants, barber shops and tailors that the migrants established in their new home.

A turn for the better

Life improved for later generations of migrants. They received an education in their new country and joined the mainstream, to work in business, the professions, the government and the military. Prejudice and exclusion diminished.

The museum records the success of some of the migrants. Private Chin G. Ngew was the first Chinese-American to receive a Purple Heart for bravery, while serving in Europe in 1944. He was one of about 20,000 Chinese-Americans who served in the US military during World War Two.

A large proportion of the Flying Tigers were migrants from Jiangmen. They were a unit of the Chinese Air Force, under American General Claire Lee Chennault, which helped to defend China against Japanese forces during World War Two.

There was also Edward C. Loo, a doctor who served as a medical consultant to Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

The museum records the enormous efforts made by the migrants to help their country during World War Two. It has cheques and documents showing the money sent back to help the war effort and a letter of appreciation from Song Mei-ling, the wife of President Chiang Kai-shek.

Pedlar Zheng was the most noteworthy migrant, with his exceptional story. He not only gave the 80 yuan from the sale of his son, but over several years he also collected 180,000 yuan for an overseas Chinese association. Meanwhile, he and his family lived in great poverty.

The museum also had a wax figure of Zheng made, which earned the praise of his children when they came to visit from Singapore. “He is a national hero,” said Xiong. “His wife is 104 and living in Singapore. A good person has a good destiny.”

In the same room is a replica of the first airplane built by a Chinese person. Feng Ru, born in Jiangmen in 1882, emigrated to California at the age of 12. He founded an aircraft manufacturing company in 1908 and, in September the following year, became the first Chinese person to fly in America.

He moved back home and built another plane. In 1912, in a test flight over Jiangmen, he was killed in a crash; he was just 30 years old.

Giving back

The migrants gave a great deal back to their native places. They funded schools, libraries, bridges and other public facilities. When they came home, they did not want to live in the poor villages they had left behind; so they built new ones, with good planning, wide roads and a proper water supply. They combined Western architecture and traditional Chinese culture. Many buildings and structures are still standing today.

The most famous of these are the 1,833 watchtowers of Kaiping, which were named by UNESCO in 2007 as a World Heritage Site. “They display a complex and flamboyant fusion of Chinese and Western structures and decorative forms,” wrote UNESCO in its citation.

The first buildings were built in the Qing dynasty, reaching a peak in the 1920s and 1930s, when there were more than 3,000. They were structures of four-five storeys, which the migrants built for their families, whom they could not bring with them; they were designed to resist floods and bandits.

They are the most dramatic symbol of the marriage of East and West caused by the emigration of so many people from the Jiangmen area.

Another remarkable project built by a migrant was the first privately funded railway in China. Chin Gee Hee left Jiangmen in 1860, at the age of 16, for the United States, and worked on railroads for 40 years.

In 1905, he returned home. He sold his house for US$70,000 and raised money from other overseas Chinese people to fund the construction of the Sun-ning railway; it ran across 133 kilometres through the Jiangmen district and did much to promote the prosperity of the area. The museum has a replica of a station, the steam engine and a carriage.

The first section began operations in 1909.

But the story did not have a happy ending. Guangdong warlords forced Chin to give up control and took it over; the new managers stole the money and the line ceased to operate. Chin died on 18 May 1930, at the age of 86, a broken man.

Bringing investment

In the era of reform and open-door policies since 1980, the migrants of Jiangmen have played a key role.

They have been major investors, putting millions of dollars into factories, shops, hotels and property and helping to make the city a major industrial and commercial centre.

It is a major producer of textiles and garments, sugar and other foodstuffs, machinery, electronics and petrochemicals. It is the second largest river port in Guangdong, dealing in flourishing commerce with other cities in the provinces as well as Hong Kong and Macao.

Photos by Luo Xunzhi in Jiangmen