During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Chinese people fled poverty, civil wars and political instability back home to search for greener pastures in foreign lands. Many of them died along the journey, or found conditions overseas to be not much better than back home. However, a lucky few managed to amass substantial wealth, with many of them returning to their homelands to engage in philanthropy, and bringing many foreign influences back with them. This article will aim to explore destinations where you can explore their legacy.
While Chinese people have been travelling overseas for millennia, most notably along the Silk Road, the first significant wave of Chinese emigration took place in the wake of the Voyages of Zheng He, who established a tribitary relationship with the Malacca Sultunate in the early 1400s. Many Chinese men emigrated to Malacca and married the local Malays, giving rise to the Peranakan (or Straits Chinese) community whose culture is a unique fusion of Chinese and Malay cultures.
In the latter stages of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China was being picked apart by foreign powers, while domestically it was plagued by corruption and incompetent governance, resulting in political instability and numerous civil wars. The Republic of China (1911-1949) also had internal problems such as warlordism, plus a Japanese invasion and then a civil war which it lost to the Communists. During these periods, many Chinese people left their homelands to search for greener pastures, putting down roots in foreign lands to establish overseas Chinese communities, most notably in Southeast Asia, but also with smaller pockets of settlement in Latin America, the Caribbean, India, South Africa, Mauritius, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Japan, Korea and Western countries.
The 18th and 19th century China trade certainly had its positive side; many legitimate commodities were traded and some merchants, both Chinese and foreign, amassed large fortunes. However, it also had a negative side revolving around "pigs and poison", indentured labourers and opium. In both Canada and the US, the first large influx of Chinese were workers to drive transcontinental railroads (see Rail travel in the United States and Rail travel in Canada) through the Rocky Mountains. These workers were treated quite badly and died in large numbers; the same could be said of the mainly Irish workers who built the eastern parts of the railroads. Some of the oldest and still largest Chinatowns in North America — in San Francisco and Vancouver — arose at the western ends of these railroads.
Since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, as well as the start of the decolonisation process following the end of World War II, the overwhelming majority of Chinese emigration has been to Western countries, including much "secondary emigration" of non-Western overseas Chinese to Western countries. In particular, many of the "boat people" who fled Vietnam and Cambodia after the end of the Vietnam War were ethnic Chinese. While many of the defeated Nationalist troops fled to Taiwan, a group of Nationalist soldiers from Yunnan and their families instead fled by land into Myanmar and later, Thailand, eventually settling in remote mountainous villages on the Thai side of the border, where they would be granted Thai citizenship in exchange for help in fighting communist insurgents in Thailand. Moreover, many of the rich and well-educated upper class Chinese fled persecution at the hands of the communists following the Chinese Civil War to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Western countries, with more waves to follow during the upheavals of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Following the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1985, in which the British agreed to return Hong Kong to China in 1997, many rich Hongkongers fled to English-speaking Western countries in the face of uncertainly over impending Chinese rule, with cities like London, Sydney, Melbourne, Vancouver, Toronto, San Francisco and New York City having many Cantonese speakers who fled from Hong Kong during that period. Following the imposition of the National Security Law in 2020, a there has been a new wave of pro-independence Hongkongers fleeing to and seeking political asylum in Western countries, with the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Australia being the most popular destinations.
Despite being ethnically Chinese, many immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan and their descendants reject the "Chinese" identity, and instead identify solely as overseas Hongkongers/Taiwanese.
Many cities around the world have a Chinatown district, some quite small and others with a population in the hundreds of thousands. These are often known in Chinese as táng rén jiē (唐人街), street of the Tang people. Wikivoyage has a list at Chinatown.
- Fuzhou — capital of Fujian province, and a major port city for centuries, it was the source of much Chinese emigration to Southeast Asia, such as the Malaysian cities of Sibu, Sitiawan, Yong Peng, and Miri where their diaspora is known as the Hokchiu, and later, New York City in the United States. Today, the city is home to a museum showcasing letters from the diaspora to their families back home.
- Fuqing — another significant source of much Chinese immigration to Southeast Asia, in particular Indonesia, with their diaspora known in Southeast Asia as the Hokchia.
- Putian — a source of much immigration to Southeast Asia, where their diaspora is known as the Henghua.
- Quanzhou — historic port city in the South Fujian region, and ancestral homeland of many of the overseas Chinese in Manila, as well as most people from the city of Lukang in Taiwan. The Chinese ancestors of Malacca's Peranakan community are also believed to have left from here. There is a Museum of Overseas Chinese History.
- Xiamen — home to Xiamen University, one of China's premier universities built with funding from Tan Kah Kee, a native of Xiamen who emigrated to Malaya and made his fortune in rubber. Today, the city is considered to be a major centre of Hokkien culture. Also home to an Overseas Chinese Museum.
- Zhangzhou — ancestral homeland of many of the overseas Chinese in Penang and Medan, as well as most people from the city of Yilan in Taiwan.
- Kinmen — although controlled by Taiwan, it is officially considered to be part of Fujian by both the Chinese and Taiwanese governments, and was a source of much emigration to Southeast Asia. Today, there is an overseas Overseas Chinese Culture Museum, and several historical buildings in a Chinese and Western fusion style that was built with funds from the diaspora in Southeast Asia.
- Shantou — largest city and main port of the Chaoshan region, where most of the Teochew emigrants embarked on their journeys to distant lands.
- Chaozhou — main centre of Teochew culture, and home to several schools built with donations from the diaspora. Teochews are the majority dialect group among the ethnic Chinese of various Southeast Asian cities such as Johor Bahru, Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Pontianak, and are a prominent and significant minority in others such as Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore.
- Meizhou — the main centre of Hakka culture in China, and the source of much Hakka immigration to Southeast Asia, with Kota Kinabalu being an example of a Southeast Asian city with a Hakka majority among the Chinese population. Most of the ethnic Chinese in Kolkata, India are also of Hakka descent. Today home to an Overseas Chinese Museum, and several statues on the river front commemorating the last steps the emigrants took in their homeland as they headed off to search for greener pastures.
- Guangzhou — main centre of Cantonese culture, capital of Guangdong province, and third largest city in modern China. It was a major trading city and port for centuries, and where many Cantonese people embarked on their voyages to distant lands. Today, the majority of ethnic Chinese from English-speaking Western countries and South Africa are of Cantonese descent, and Cantonese people also form the majority among the ethnic Chinese in some Southeast Asian cities such as Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Sandakan.
- Foshan — ancestral homeland of many Cantonese people, including the famed Chinese-American martial artist Bruce Lee. Fittingly, it is also the one of main centres of martial arts in southern China, being the birthplace of Ip Man, Bruce Lee's martial arts teacher.
- Taishan — homeland of the Chinese labourers who were brought to the United States and Canada to build the railroads. Also a source of much immigration to the Burmese city of Yangon during the colonial era, where Taishanese people form one of the largest Chinese dialect groups alongside the Hokkiens.
- Kaiping — home to the Kaiping Diaolou (castles), which were built in a unique style incorporating Western and Chinese influences using money sent back from emigrants to what are today the United States and Canada.
- Wenchang — the main centre of Hainanese culture, famous for Wenchang chicken, the original dish that inspired Hainanese chicken rice in Malaysia and Singapore, khao man kai in Thailand, and com ga hai nam in Vietnam. Returning overseas Hainanese from Southeast Asia also introduced the Hainanese coffee shop, selling milk tea and coffee with a selection of various dishes. Also home to several schools built with donations from the diaspora.
- Qionghai — another major source of Hainanese immigration to Southeast Asia, the surrounding villages are home to several houses built in a Chinese and Western fusion architectural style using money sent back from Southeast Asia.
- Xinglong — the heart of Hainan's coffee-growing industry, originally set up by returning overseas Hainanese from Thailand.
- Tengchong — the ancestral homeland of most overseas Yunnanese. Unlike those from the aforementioned three provinces, most of the Chinese emigrants from Yunnan did not leave by sea, and instead left by land into what is today Myanmar and Thailand, with the majority of the ethnic Chinese in Mandalay, as well as those in some remote mountainous Thai villages along the Burmese border such as Mae Salong and Ban Rak Thai tracing their ancestry to Yunnan.
- 1 Golden Dragon Museum, 1/11 Bridge St, Bendigo, ☏ . Home to the largest Chinese dragon in the southern hemisphere, and has a lot of other things about Chinese immigration to Australia during the gold rush.
- 2 Guangdong Overseas Chinese Museum (广东华侨博物馆, Guangdong Museum of Chinese Nationals Living Abroad, Chinese Emigrant Museum), Yuexiu District, Guangzhou. Documents China's diaspora principally in the Americas.
- 3 Jiangmen Wuyi Overseas Chinese Museum (江门五邑华侨华人博物馆), Pengjiang District, Jiangmen. Museum built in 2010 to commemorate the overseas achievements, lifestyle and journeys of the Jiangmen (Wuyi) region's massive number of overseas migrant Chinese in countries as diverse as Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Africa, the United States and Vietnam in fields including agriculture, architecture, aviation, engineering, tin and gold mining and railways. Also houses an early Polish steam locomotive that was sent to the region by boat on a now defunct railway line deconstructed in the anti-Japanese war designed in part by a local Chinese America-returnee railway engineer after raising funds from the overseas community.
- 4 Overseas Chinese History Museum of China (中国华侨历史博物馆), Dongcheng District, Beijing. A comprehensive museum about the history of the Chinese diaspora.
- 5 Overseas Chinese Museum (华侨博物院), Xiamen. A museum of Overseas Chinese culture and history, started by Tan Kah Kee who made his fortune in Malayan rubber, and also founded Xiamen University, as well as numerous other educational institutions in Singapore and Xiamen.
- 6 Quanzhou Museum of Overseas Chinese History (泉州华侨历史博物馆), Quanzhou.
- 7 Kobe Overseas Chinese History Museum (神戸華僑歴史博物館), Kobe. A museum about the many Chinese merchants and tradespeople who settled in Kobe following the opening of the Port of Kobe to foreigners in 1868.
- 8 Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum, Malacca. Formerly the residence of a wealthy Peranakan family, it has today been converted into a museum celebrating the unique culture of the Peranakan community.
- 9 Fuk Tak Chi Museum, Chinatown. Formerly a temple dedicated to a traditional Chinese deity built by the Hakka and Cantonese communities, it has since been converted into a museum showcasing the lives of the early Chinese immigrants in Singapore.
- 10 Chinese Heritage Centre, Jurong. Located on the campus of Nanyang Technological University, this museum showcases the history and heritage of overseas Chinese communities around the world.
- 11 Peranakan Museum, Fort Canning. Museum dedicated to the Peranankan community.
- 12 Chinese Culture Center, Chinatown, San Francisco. The center was established in order to promote understanding of Chinese and Chinese American history, art, and culture in the US. They have a small gallery with changing Chinese art exhibitions.
- 13 Chinese Historical Society of America Museum, Chinatown, San Francisco. This is well worth a visit, with exhibits on the history and experience of Chinese immigrants to San Francisco over the past 150 years. Free.
- 14 Museum of Chinese in the Americas, Chinatown, New York City. Exhibits on the history and culture of Chinese-Americans.
- 15 Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, Chinatown, Chicago. Exhibits Chinese-American history, with a focus on the Chinese immigrants who settled in the Midwest.
Eat and Drink
Chinese immigrants often brought their culinary traditions with them, but also adapted their cooking to the tastes of locals in their destination countries and availability of ingredients, thus resulting in entirely new cuisines developed. For most Westerners, the most familiar type of overseas Chinese cuisine is American Chinese food, with virtually identical cuisines also having developed in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.