“Distant Shores: Colonial Encounters on China’s Maritime Frontier” by Melissa Macauley

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On 6 July 1860, a British consul by the name of George Whittingham Caine arrived at the nondescript port of Swatow, today’s modern Shantou. He “disembarked from a warship to the cacophony of a seven-gun salute” and, following the obligatory hoisting of the Union Jack atop the improvised consulate building, “triumphantly declared the treaty port of Chaozhou ‘open’.” Yet unlike other treaty ports scattered along the maritime fringes of the tottering Qing empire, the British found themselves from the outset outflanked by established Chaozhouese (otherwise known as Chiuchow or Teochew) trading communities and failed to gain a foothold in the profitable local commodity trade in rice, sugar, beancake and, most remunerative of all, opium.

In this deeply researched study, Melissa Macauley explores how the Chaozhouese emerged from a poor and ungovernable corner of Guangdong and joined the ranks of the Fujianese and Cantonese as major players in commerce and commodity production, not only along China’s southeastern littoral but across the different territories washed by the South China Sea. The story of the rise of maritime Chaozhou is set against the backdrop of state attempts to subdue and pacify China’s closest equivalent to the American wild west, the emergence of colonial states in Southeast Asia, and the booms and busts of the commodity trade.

But this is not only a book about overseas business ventures and contraband; from 1869 to 1948, around six million laborers departed from the port of Swatow and fanned out across the Nanyang (or “Southern Ocean”) to support their families back home. They worked in Chaozhouese-owned gambier, pepper, rice, sugar, rubber, and fruit plantations, toiled in the gold mines of West Borneo, and served as sailors in the intra-Asian junk trade. These overseas sojourners provided a steady trickle of remittances and in the process transformed the local economy while “a mosaic of familial, brotherhood, and commercial relationships” brought Siam, Malaya, Borneo, French Indochina, Hong Kong and Shanghai within the orbit of maritime Chaozhou.

The story of the heyday of maritime Chaozhou unfolds more or less chronologically and is bookended by two defining moments; the ascent, following the collapse of Ayutthaya in 1767, of the half-Chaozhouese king of Siam, Taksin, and the catastrophic collapse of the global economy in the 1930s. The first chapters explore the early connections linking Chaozhou to Southeast Asia but also scrutinize in great detail the impact of Ming and Qing attempts to subjugate China’s unruly southeastern littoral. A series of interdictions and measures, ranging from the forced depopulation of complete coastal areas in the second half of the seventeenth century to Fang Yao’s ruthless “pacification campaigns” in the 1860s, wreaked havoc but also buttressed anti-dynastic sentiments and reinforced Chaozhou’s maritime orientation.

These devastating campaigns triggered the mass migration of several generations of Chaozhouese men and reverberated across the South China Sea. Macauley shows, for example, how after a particularly harsh purge, Singapore’s authorities were overwhelmed by the arrival of “thousands of desperados whose expulsion from Chaozhou was having a deleterious impact on the social order.” The spike in crime triggered reform of the criminal justice system and worked as a catalyst for the British colonial project in the Straits Settlements.

 

Distant Shores: Colonial Encounters on China's Maritime Frontier, Melissa Macauley (Princeton University Press, May 2021)
Distant Shores: Colonial Encounters on China’s Maritime Frontier, Melissa Macauley (Princeton University Press, May 2021)

The second part of the book explores how Chaozhouese merchants navigated the emerging imperial world-order and wielded an informal form of commercial power that “achieved all the benefits of colonialism—land, resources, work and investment opportunities—without any of the cost, bother, and infamy of territorial administration.” Perceptive observers in Singapore had long noted that “the Europeans here raise all the cattle, but the Chinese get all the milk.” Although the bulk of revenues was reinvested in business ventures abroad, “Mexican dollars, Hong Kong dollars, French Indochinese piasters, Philippine pesos, Straits dollars and Japanese yen inundated local markets” and sustained a remittance-dependent Chaozhou economy that was always oriented towards the Nanyang and worlds removed from Beijing. Philanthropists stepped in where the state failed to provide; Chaozhouese merchants invested in factories and banks, constructed schools and hospitals, and could be relied upon to send disaster relief following recurrent natural calamities hitting the region.

But the steady influx of foreign-earned capital also had its shadows. Remittances exacerbated social divides and families with foreign ties became a prime target in the peasant insurgencies and civil wars that defined the tumultuous 1920s and 30s. Furthermore, the success stories of some protagonists, such as the Liu family whose fabulous wealth derived from their near-monopoly on gutta-percha during Malaya’s rubber boom, are matched by uncountable, and often irretrievable, stories of suffering and hardship. Thousands of migrants embarked penniless as “credit ticket coolies” and were shipped under trying conditions to far-flung places where they then toiled for months to earn their passage fare back.

While men were expected to make the best of opportunities abroad, women mostly stayed put and functioned as the filial anchor that tied sojourners to their ancestral lands. Exceptions included young girls such as Lin Qiumei who, abandoned by her mother and stepfather when she was 8 years old, was shipped from Swatow to Singapore. There she was sold to an old man for 250 dollars but managed to break free after resisting his repeated sexual predations. Following intervention by local authorities, she enrolled in a Church of England boarding school and lived to share her story in the autobiographical Sold for Silver, one of the first publications by a Singaporean woman to appear in English. The book is peppered with such vignettes that put a human face on the ebbs and flows of migration and provide fascinating glimpses of how individual Chaozhouese fared abroad.

 

Macauley has a way with words but occasionally the flow of this well-written monograph is interrupted by repetitive methodological observations and an information-overload. This is only a minor caveat and Distant Shores succeeds in its objective to further nuance the conventional narrative of China’s decline throughout the long 19th century by shifting the gaze to the southeastern littoral. While Qing authority was gradually eroded and eventually eclipsed in the wake of rebellions and foreign incursions, and the Lower Yanzi region “failed to industrialize”, maritime Chaozhou emerged as an economic power-house that controlled profitable segments of the intra-Asian commodity trade. Its leading merchants and brotherhoods competed as well as cooperated with colonial actors across Southeast Asia on their own terms and Chaozhou-controlled business ventures were crucial to the evolution of industrial capitalism both at home and overseas.

The book ends on a note of reflection and probes the shifting attitude of the Chinese state towards the legacies of maritime Guangdong in the twentieth century and leading up to the present. Contemporary state interest in the large localized Chinese presence in Southeast Asia marks a sharp break with the Janus-faced Qing policy of outright hostility and sublime indifference to any overseas ventures. But as we learn in this study, Chinese territorial strategies across the Nanyang, with the exception of an ill-fated attempt by Lin Feng and his motley crew of buccaneers to wrestle Manila from the Spanish in the 1570s, never aimed at establishing formal authority. Instead overseas sojourners relied on translocal social institutions such as native-place associations, gongsi partnerships, brotherhood societies and philanthropic organizations to maximize economic group benefits. Indeed, long before the South China Sea became an arena where nation-states compete for the holy grail of sovereignty, the Chaozhouese quietly built their own informal empire and established a form of commercial supremacy that has turned out to be highly adaptable, resilient and sustainable; whereas most colonial and state actors encountered in this book have vanished from the stage, the descendants of Chaozhouese pioneers continue to wield considerable economic and political influence across Southeast Asia.


Yorim Spoelder is a Dutch historian based at the Graduate Institute in Geneva (IHEID) and Free University Berlin, and the author of the forthcoming book Staging the Nation Beyond the Raj: Transcolonial Knowledge Networks and Visions of Greater India, 1800-1950s.