A Candid Conversation with a Fellow Researcher

Reshmi Banerjee talks with Li Yi about her new book on the Chinese migrant community in colonial Burma.

I have always appreciated the opportunity to learn about the varied research of colleagues, and March 17 was no exception – a day I found myself sitting across from a young, vibrant Chinese Scholar, Dr. Yi Li. It felt like good old days, when, as a research associate at SOAS, I would often end up having animated discussions with students and researchers from all over the world over a cup of coffee. Today seemed no different. I was looking forward to my conversation with Dr. Yi Li, whose new book Chinese in Colonial Burma – A Migrant Community in a Multiethnic State (Palgrave Macmillan 2017), had caught my attention. What began as a simple chat over the book turned into an engaging reflection over issues of migration, identity, intra-community relations and trans-national linkages. Yi Li’s experiences while writing this absorbing historical narrative are enthralling and give one a lot to ponder about in terms of the way migrant communities imagine, create, adapt and survive against all odds in an unfamiliar land. The book focuses on the journey of the Chinese community in Burma from the end of the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1826 to the beginning of the Japanese occupation in 1942. Scattered documentation, very few secondary books on the subject, and inadequate funding for research available in Myanmar made the doctoral thesis, which later became her book, a difficult yet worthwhile one for her. Field research was carried out in three different countries (Myanmar, China and India) over a span of seven years (2007 to 2014), giving us a glimpse of the cultures which emerged from colonialism.

Yi Li’s journey as a social scientist began in a non-conformist manner. She surprises me by quietly stating that in spite of being trained in computer science in Singapore, she was motivated by an interest in overseas Chinese migration and therefore pursued a career in history, despite it being a more unstable field than engineering. She enthusiastically describes the many fascinating interactions that she has had with the elderly Chinese men in Yangon’s China town, in the old library on Mahabandoola Street, in Chinese temples, and with the Chinese Cantonese associations that published the community’s legends and histories. “Old uncles playing chess and sharing stories along with myths about their community in colonial Burma” often proved to be a starting point for digging deeper into the past. When I ask Yi Li about the responses of Chinese women, she pragmatically states that Chinese society is still organized by men, with men being those in positions of authority, those with experience, connections and ready answers for her questions. The absence of Chinese women in positions of power in the past as well as in the present is quite evident in Myanmar. The only exception, she recollects, were the nuns in Mandalay who were expressive and talkative. Field trips, we agree, do have the capacity at times to leave researchers like us with a sense of bewilderment.

I ask her to elaborate on the narrative. She explains that the Chinese community in colonial Burma is one of the most under-researched subjects in the history of modern South-East Asia as the 1962 military coup in Myanmar followed by the anti-Chinese riots, not only destroyed many paper based materials and research sources, but forced many to leave for Taipei or mainland China. Historically, the development projects especially the opening of the rice fields in the Irrawaddy Delta and the final annexation by the British of Upper Burma in 1886 created conditions for the expansion of a migrant society for the Chinese (Upper Burma had seen the running of the cross-border caravan routes from Yunnan in China for centuries). The 1920s saw Rangoon as one of the largest immigrant ports in the world yet the Chinese always remained a minority, especially when compared to the Indians, with their population reaching slightly over 1% in 1931.

Yi Li talked about how the established Chinese communities in what are now known as Bangkok, Jakarta, Penang and Singapore provided support for those in Burma. The inevitable comparison drawn between the two ‘Foreign Asian migrants’ – the Indians and the Chinese (a theme which runs throughout her book) came up for discussion. The numbers, as she points out, made all the difference, with not much violence against the Chinese before independence. On one hand, she places Burma and its Chinese community at the cross-roads of an expanding and dynamic South East Asian Chinese maritime network, thereby exploring the trans-national territorial influences; on the other hand, she examines the two different Chinese migrant groups within Burma with its distinctive regional features and internal divisions. These two groups – the Yunnanese from the Sino-Burmese borderland and the coastal Cantonese along with the Hokkien – were transformed in the colonial state, giving rise to the category of ‘Burmese Chinese’. The process of community building and inter-mingling was clearly visible in the formation of Burmese Chinese social infrastructure (network of clan associations, temples, secret societies, occupational associations, festivals and ceremonies), thus creating familiarity and a mutual support system in an alien land.    

One of the interesting aspects of the book that both of us as ‘Asian Scholars’ ended up discussing was the stereotypes that were created in colonial Burma, both in imagination and in reality. She informs me about the existence of the ‘three great myths’ about the Burmese Chinese – they were successful traders, purveyors of morally corrupt vices and people with no interest in politics/apolitical. Yi Li tries to demystify each of these commonly accepted characteristics of the community in her book. Our canvas of discussion broadens from the existence of trans-national Chinese political networks, Aung San’s mysterious trip to China in 1940, anti-Japanese protests (boycott of Japanese manufacturing/products especially rickshaws) to the post-war period.

The three key contributions of the book to Myanmar history are: firstly that the post-war years reversed the de-regionalization process, so the Chinese community remains geographically divided with strong regional links; secondly, the ‘three great myths’ Yi Li references seem to be quite intact even today with rich Chinese investors exploiting natural resources with little knowledge for local culture; and, finally, the limited political space for an ex-migrant-non indigenous community in today’s Myanmar. At this point, I remember the famous phrase of scholar John. S. Furnivall on the nature of societies which emerged under colonial regimes (‘They mix but do not combine…There is a plural society, with different segments of the community living side by side, but separately, within the same political unit’) as it seems to me that the opposite might have been true for the Chinese in colonial Burma. Probably it was. As Yi Li writes in her book “People did interact in ways other than simple trade, and they did change because of the interaction” in the colonial period. The anti-colonial movement was more tolerant towards outsiders as the focus was on the biggest enemy: the British. More animosity was witnessed by outsiders from a hegemonic majoritarian discourse with the coming of the military rule. Was the past better in negotiating the multiple alternative communities and ethnic spaces of Myanmar? Do present times impose more restrictions on difference? Yi Li’s book provides a foundation for future historical work on these subjects.

When questioned as to what challenges she regularly faced while working on this book, she quickly responds by saying that people were not willing to talk to her. She was required at times to convince people that it was ‘safe’ to talk about their history. This cautious attitude, she reveals, is reflective of the political divisions inside Myanmar’s Chinese community, which in turn is influenced by the political discourse within mainland China. She humbly admits that her book is almost a first of its kind, connecting colonial Chinese history and cross-border linkages in Burma with present times, providing reflections on the ways in which new tensions in Myanmar can be traced back through history. She feels, however, that the Chinese-Burmese are very conservative vis-à-vis their Southeast Asian diaspora. The Chinese in Singapore are mindful of their colonial past; the Chinese in Indonesia are in transition but the Chinese in Myanmar continue to still live in the 1960s. It is seen in the way they talk and think, possibly a result of living for years in isolation. Can this ‘old era mentality’ handle the fast-paced changes occurring in the country? One seems to nowadays have only two options: either one swims with the tide or sadly drowns and disappears into oblivion. The old Chinese library in Mahabandoola Street again comes up in our discussion, with Yi Li stating that it is a perfect example of this struggle to survive.

I see myself slowly coming towards the end of our very exciting conversation. Can anything really be done for migrant communities? The logical answer, coming from her, is the embrace of inclusive policies. Yet, she also asks, whether one can really reconcile ethnicity when governments are uncomfortable with the existence of the ‘other’.

I am eager to know of her future projects. She unveils her two ambitious plans – Chinese construction workers in the Middle East in the First World War and the Chinese community in Myanmar in the post Second World War period. I am amazed as both seem to be quite difficult paths to traverse but her winning smile and spirited nature makes me quite confident that she will reach her destination in record speed! Her determined desire to study and diligently document these experiences would definitely be reassuring for the Chinese community (especially the senior members) who would love the younger generation to remain connected with their cultural roots and a multi-faceted community identity. The historian is ready to take her next big creative leap into the unknown.  

Dr. Yi Li is a Research Associate in the Department of History in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. 

Author: reshmioxford

Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is currently an Academic Visitor in the Asian Studies Centre in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. She was previously a research associate in the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) in SOAS, University of London where she worked on land conflicts in Myanmar and on the political economy of the Indo-Myanmar frontier. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations in the University of Indonesia (UI) and was a researcher in the Economic Research Center, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in Jakarta.She is a political scientist with specialization in food security and agricultural policies and has an M.Phil and Ph.D in the subject from the Centre for Political Studies (CPS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.