In this cosmopolitan but overwhelmingly Malay maritime world of the straits, how did modern Singapore become three-quarters Chinese and what does this mean? To begin to answer that question we can take a look at the motherland to see where the impetus came for the Chinese diaspora, a unique maritime-based mobile culture. This is one of the greatest and most consequential human overseas migrations in history, forming an engine for the flow of people, goods, and ideas, not simply to and from China but building a network of interconnected communities sprinkled throughout Southeast Asia, for which Singapore would function as a synapse, perceived as “the western junction of a Chinese commercial empire.”
Most emigrating Chinese ended up in Southeast Asia on the edges of the South China Sea. The Chinese called the region Nanyang or “Southern Ocean,” connoting both a saltwater space and its fringes. The concept was more commercial than political or geographical and applied to people, the ethnic Chinese of that region, as well as place. Leaving China, emigrants took their culture with them but usually abandoned their political attachments. Ultimately the diaspora would reach much farther than the Nanyang. Is there today anywhere in the world any major seaport city without its Chinatown?
The broken coast and many harbors of South China encouraged taking to the sea and spawned China’s continuing, unauthorized, and largely unrecorded maritime history in which many foreigners also participated. In south Chinese coastal towns, Arabs, Persians, and Indians, sailors and merchants walked the waterfront.
The Chinese government, preoccupied with nomad incursions on land frontiers to the north and west, paid little heed to these seaborne foreigners along the coast, content for them to govern themselves. Nor were local fishers, merchants, and pirates of interest, either to government officials or recorders of history at the capital. To the Chinese official grinding his ink and wielding his brush in Beijing, the imperial capital, the sea seemed both far away and a natural boundary, a great saltwater wall, useful only for keeping unwanted strangers away.
But local people readily leaped into maritime life, even to invest their skills and savings in overseas enterprise. Many Chinese would move to maritime Southeast Asia and become familiar figures along the Melaka Straits. Family ties and ancestor veneration tended to bind people to the homeland. Nonetheless many did leave China forever.
The junk furnished the vehicle for the Chinese overseas trading network, taking on an iconic identification with premodern maritime China. But the word is actually of Arabic or Malay origin, reflecting the influence of outsiders along the China coast where the ship type originated. Versatile vessels, junks carrying heavy cargo ventured out upon the open sea, but always chose if possible to hug the shoreline, taking advantage of seasonal winds, south in the winter, north in the summer.
The name “junk” would be applied to a wide range of vessels, large and small, which evolved over centuries of steady improvements. A familiar sight in the Melaka Straits and throughout Pacific Asian waters, these ships were sailing in some numbers until recent years. They were to be seen in commercial use moored in Singapore harbor as late as the eve of World War II.
More than a millennium ago, with the junk the Chinese had achieved a maritime technological complexity not equaled by Europeans until much later. Chinese mariners used rudders that could be raised or lowered to accommodate varying depths of water; they sailed ships with hulls of double-planked thickness and watertight bulkheads for compartmentalization. Fishers were the innovators there, wanting tanks to take their catch live to the market. Europeans did not build such compartmented ships until they began to use iron hulls in the nineteenth century.
Able to operate in rivers as well as on the open sea, brown water as well as blue, junks proved sturdy and versatile craft, joined together with nails, their timbers varnished with water-repellent tung oil, their sails slatted like Venetian blinds with bamboo battens; their sailors using compass and sounding lead. Characteristically the stern loomed higher than the bow. Whereas Europeans built their ships in the shape of a fish, bulging out from the bow and tapering to the stern, the Chinese built theirs in the shape of a water bird, swelling at the stern. Like today’s giant oil tankers, the superstructure rose far aft, well behind (“abaft” in nautical lingo) any masts, leaving ample space forward for freight stowage.
From the great population reservoir in south China, junks bore passengers who intended to stay abroad, perhaps for a while, perhaps forever. These people did not bring high culture with them; most were the underprivileged at home looking for a better life abroad. But those who settled permanently would form a nucleus for the Chinese community in Singapore, joining earlier arrivals, who might have lived along the straits for generations.
Although emigrants brought their culture with them, they had no reason to carry any political attachments. The imperial government had discouraged or even forbidden them to leave, seeing those who did so as disloyal, forever lost to the realm, and therefore of no future interest or responsibility. Had it been otherwise, Singapore, a city of immigrants, today might well be part of China, a far-flung overseas province chafing for independence from Chinese rule, just as at mid-twentieth century it would crave independence from British rule.
07 September 2017
How Singapore Became Chinese
From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 620-40, 679-703: