Book Review— The Transformation of Chinese Society in Postwar Singapore: Localizing Process, Regional Networking, and Global Perspective

Yow Cheun Hoe

The Transformation of Chinese Society in Postwar Singapore: 
Localizing Process, Regional Networking, and Global Perspective
刘宏(Liu Hong)
Xiamen / 厦门大学出版社(Xiamen Daxue Chubanshe) / 2003

Liu Hong’s recent Chinese-language monograph, published in the Xiamen University Press series on Southeast Asia and the Overseas Chinese, is rich in theoretical discussion and empirical investigation. The book focuses on Singapore, a country with a majority Chinese population originally composed of labor migrants from South China in the nineteenth century. After a period of nation building in the mid-twentieth century, Singapore has in recent years attracted new migrants from broader sources in China

Southeast Asian history has seen some ethnic Chinese sink roots into their countries of residence, while others maintain links and activities stretching beyond national boundaries – not merely to ancestral homelands in China, but also to other countries in the region and in other parts of the world. The nation-state system has successfully constrained those lacking resources, but failed to influence those with the capacity to be regionally and globally mobile. Liu Hong argues that to understand the complexities of the Chinesediaspora in Southeast Asia in general and in Singapore in particular, we need to free ourselves from the nation-state framework (p. 5). Instead, he proposes the three perspectives of localization, regionalization, and globalization with which to study the activities and identities of the Singapore Chinese from 1945 to the present.

These three perspectives refer to three different forces that influence – and are influenced by – members of the diaspora. Where appropriate, Liu Hong reminds us that these forces are not mutually exclusive and at some points can take place concurrently. However, to facilitate the discussion, his book is structured so that each chapter focuses on one of the three forces. Drawing on primary sources such as government files, social organization documents, interviews, and participant observation, he critically analyzes ethnic Chinese of a country that has been finding the means to forge national identities while meeting global challenges.

From Chapters 2 through 4, the author focuses on how localization took place in the two decades after World War II and the immediate postwar period. Chapter 2 discusses internal divisions within early Chinese communities, which were separated along the lines of dialects and ancestral origins. Liu demonstrates how postwar political change forced the different groups to cooperate and address urgent issues like citizenship and education, thus breaking down the separations and engendering localization. Chapter 3 discusses Chinese businessmen who played a role in the independence movement and nation building. Chapter 4 studies how the huiguan (locality associations) ran the Chinese schools and subsequently accepted students from other ancestral origins. Opening up student enrollments and training teachers locally helped the Chinese to identify more with the local soil.

While localization involved a wide strata of Singaporean Chinese, Chinese businessmen strived to expand their networks beyond Singapore in search of larger markets and greater profits. In Chapter 5, Liu discusses how, from the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Chinese social organizations drifted away from China in a move to attach themselves to Singapore. However, commencing from the mid-1950s, Liu argues that businessmen rebuilt linkages with China and strengthened networks with Malaysia. This perspective of regional networking is related to the Chinese business networks that have drawn journalistic and scholarly attention in the past two decades. In Chapter 6, Liu evaluates the existing literature on Chinese business networks and its contribution to the study of Singapore.

Globalization, in Liu Hong’s words, is “the extension and deepening of regionalization” (p. 12). Facing globalizing forces and domestic needs, Singapore opened up in the late twentieth century to receive new migrants from China who fall largely into one of two extreme categories of social stratification – professionals and students on one end, and laborers on the other. Coining the term “transnational Chinese” to differentiate from huaqiao (Overseas Chinese), Chapter 7 discusses the greater mobility, flexibility, and hybridity of these new migrants.

The book is supplemented with the author’s views on the contribution of Professor Wang Gungwu, a prominent scholar in the field and himself a member of the Chinese diaspora. Also appended are selected documents of Chinese social organizations in Singapore. With the publication of this book, Liu Hong contributes a work of extensive research and deep insight into the Chinese diapsora.

Yow Cheun Hoe
Yow Cheun Hoe is a research officer in the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 5 (March 2004). Islam in Southeast Asia