Timor-Leste has been just about the most geographically and politically remote corner of East Asia, a distant second to Macau in Portugal’s one-time East Asian possessions, diminutive compared to the Dutch East Indies and later Indonesia. And the Chinese community there, as far as the Chinese diaspora goes, one of the less substantial. Perhaps for those reasons, the development of Cina Timor—the Timorese Chinese—offers a case study in intra-Asian immigration and identity.
In Cina Timor: Baba, Hakka, and Cantonese in the Making of Timor-Leste, Douglas Kammen and Jonathan Chen go back to the 17th-century, but the story really only picks up the 19th. At the turn of that century
there were probably fewer than two hundred “Chinese” on the island of Timor, and of these no more than fifty were in the eastern half of the island claimed by the Portuguese crown. At the start of the nineteenth century, these individuals probably had no notion of being Chinese. Instead, they were from village A or county B, they belonged to clan C…
The notion of being “Chinese” was a product of classification by colonial authorities:
It was only in—and through—the eyes of Dutch colonial authorities in Kupang and Portuguese officials in Dili that they were irreducibly “Chinese.”
The story they tell is relatively straightforward and not terribly surprising. The upheavals in China through the 19th and first part of the 20th century lead to increased immigration, while the Macau authorities use Timor as a dumping ground for a certain number of undesirables. As they had elsewhere, the Chinese tend to dominate both external and internal trade, setting up temples and, in particular, schools, while floating between the various political authorities—Dutch, Portuguese. The Portuguese authorities treated the Chinese with as much disdain as was possible considering that the latter were an irreplaceable cog in the commercial viability of the territory. The advent of a Republican Government in Lisbon in 1911 did not, ironically, signal much better treatment:
in the Portuguese outpost of Macau it also prompted a new, more systematic policy of exiling convicts, most of whom were Cantonese-speakers, to Timor.
On the other hand, “the establishment of a modern Chinese school and calls for the formation of a branch of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) in Dili” immediately followed the fall of the Qing in China. The KMT/CCP conflict had its echoes in East Timor, as it did elsewhere: the Chinese in East Timor largely associated with the KMT and, after 1949, Taiwan. The Portuguese were able to successfully resist decolonization after WW2 and maintained relations with Taiwan until 1975—but by then, the Indonesian invasion was imminent:
Across Southeast Asia, the overseas Chinese have long been portrayed as inscrutable but industrious sojourners, as exploitative but innocent victims, and as law-abiding residents but a potentially dangerous fifth column… So too in Portuguese Timor. And at no time were these stereotypes and contradictions wielded more openly or more tragically than in 1974 and 1971.
The development of a distinct Chinese Timorese identity dates from later:
there is now general agreement that people of Chinese descent who lived in Portuguese Timor and continue to live in present-day Timor-Leste are Cina Timor—Chinese Timorese… In Australia, where the largest number of … refugees settled, there emerged Chinese-Timorese identity, guardedly distinct from both the generic notion of being Chinese Australian.
The question of identity is one that has played out in most if not all the Chinese diaspora populations from the 19th century on, and one that continues today. Cina Timor, by looking at a quite isolated case, is a helpful guide to what is common, and what is dependent on local conditions.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.