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Investigating the Grey Areas of the Chinese Communities in Southeast Asia

Arnaud Leveau


Historical memorandum on the Chinese communities in Southeast Asia

Alain Forest

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1As an introduction to the second day, Alain Forest warns against the unfair association that can be made between the Chinese presence on the one hand, and illegal or underground activities on the other.

2That all the Chinese more or less belong to mafias is an old cliché, arising particularly from the existence of an organization (sometimes under colonial impulsion as in French Indochina) of congregations generally based on the origin of Chinese immigrants; a cliché that is obviously reinforced by the very real existence and activities of secret societies.

3We must not forget, however, that Chinese immigration in Southeast Asia is a very old phenomenon- attested as early as the late 13th century at Angkor, by Tcheou Ta Kouan. And that it has prevailed from that time in the whole of Southeast Asia. In itself, such immigration was apparently not illegal. Also, we hardly find any trace of massive extermination attacks on the Chinese quarters by the local population, the great exterminations recorded by history are those by the Spanish in Manila, and the Dutch in Batavia, both fearing the dynamism and the arrival of new immigrants as well as a threat to their political and economic power. On the contrary, the Chinese were well received by the local authorities who thus maintained an economic duality that they found entirely profitable: for the people of the country, agriculture and administration; for the Chinese – and other foreigners –, business, the profits from which they shared with the local chief who consequently gained considerable more income and hence power.

4As suggested above, for a long time, the Chinese were not the only foreign traders in the Southeast Asian countries. The business initiative was shared mostly with Muslim traders from Indian Ocean countries and with European traders, until the Dutch gained control of the islands, for one thing, and the power of the English and French grew in India, for another. This led to the eviction – rapid, from the late 17th century – of the Muslim traders. Hence the Chinese were more or less the only ones to "monopolize" business activities. In reality, they mainly operated low-profit business lines – even in Batavia where the Dutch let them operate not very profitable business lines for the Westerners, such as the Batavia-Tonkin line… The Chinese specialized in business in Southeast Asia, not because of an atavistic inclination for all sorts of trafficking – as western clichés lead one to believe – but rather because of local chiefs’ interests for commercial operations as also the lack of interest on the part of Westerners for low-profit businesses (in this case, the western powers found it more interesting to tax the Chinese traders…).

5Let us not forget that, in parallel, there were major immigration movements of Chinese agriculturists – who, for example, developed river-bank cultivation along the Mekong or pepper cultivation in the Kampot-Hatien region…

6As the immigrants were essentially men at a time when, despite their hopes, it was difficult to find ways and means to return to their own country, there was a lot of inter-marriage. It was essentially under the impulsion of the Westerners that the Chinese presence would be made instrumental, by the clear differentiation (in the form of census, of grouping into congregations, special taxes or even via a massive immigration of labor for plantations) between natives and Chinese, which allowed to put the Chinese into non-native categories, that is, “temporary", “profiteers” and "potential danger".

  • 28 General studies on the Chinese in Southeast Asia: V. Purcell, The Chinese in Southeast Asia, Londo (...)

7For an analysis of the mafia and underworld systems to be truly relevant, it must avoid repeating clichés that evoke fantasy and coercion techniques through discrimination28.


28 General studies on the Chinese in Southeast Asia: V. Purcell, The Chinese in Southeast Asia, London, Oxford University Press, 1965; G.W. Skinner, Chinese Society in Thailand. An Analytical History, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1957; W.E. Wilmott, The Chinese in Cambodia, Vancouver, University of British Columbia, 1967.


Professor at the Paris VII University
Historian and professor at the University Paris VII makes a Historical memorandum on the Chinese communities in South-East Asia.

© Institut de recherche sur l’Asie du Sud-Est contemporaine, 2007

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