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‘The Turbulent But Commercially Valuable Chinese’ A Comparison of French and British Colonial Policies Towards the Chinese in Southeast Asia

  • K. Vtviane Frings


All over Southeast Asia, the perception that the European colonizers had of the Chinese was characterized by a fundamental ambiguity. On the one hand, the Chinese were recognized to be very useful, and even indispensable to the economic development/exploitation of the colonial territories, as they were hard-working labourers, possessed needed entrepreneurial, commercial and technical skills and had already established trade contacts with the indigenous populations. But, on the other hand, the Chinese were perceived as a potential political threat because of their strong communal organization and solidarity, their secret societies and their frequent clan fights.



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1 See Purcell, , The Chinese in Malaya (Kuala Lumpur 1967) 194195; Jackson, R.N., Pickering, Protector of Chinese (Kuala Lumpur 1965) 5964; Campbell, Persia Crawford, Chinese Coolie Emigration to Countries within the British Empire (reprint, London 1971) 27.

2 The new immigrants had little to say about the choice of occupation on their arrival since they were generally disposed of by the recruiters to an employer who spoke the same speech. See Lau-Fong, Mak, The Sociology of Secret Societies: A Study of Chinese Secret Societies in Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur 1981) 4546; Warren, James Francis, At the Edge of Southeast Asian History (Quezon City 1987) 84.

3 Campbell, , Chinese Coolie Emigration, 7.

4 Purcell, , The Chinese in Malaya, 196; Jackson, R.N., Immigrant Labour and the Development of Malaya, 1786–1920 (Kuala Lumpur 1961) 7275; Campbell, , Chinese Coolie Emigration, 911.

5 Jackson, , Pickering, 6465; Blythe, W.L., ‘Historical Sketch of Chinese Labour in Malaya’, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 20 (1947) 76.

6 Jackson, , Pickering, 69.

7 Blythe, , ‘Historical Sketch’, 7677.

8 On Chinese coolie labour conditions in Singapore at the end of the nineteenth century, see Warren, James Francis, Rickshaw Cooties: A People's History of Singapore (1880–1940) (Singapore 1986); on Chinese labour in the Malay States at the beginning of the twentieth century, see for example Jackson, , Immigrant Labour, 147157.

9 Parmer, J. Norman, Colonial Labour Policy and Administration: A History of Labour in the Rubber Plantation Industry in Malaya, c. 1910–1941 (New York 1960) 30. See also Sadka, Emily, The Protected Malay States, 1874–1895 (Kuala Lumpur 1967) 313.

10 Parmer, , Colonial Labour Policy, 30.

11 Jackson, , Immigrant labour, 7576, based on the Labour Commission Report for 1890. Those figures show that 16.12% of the Chinese who landed at Singapore during that period were classified as ‘unpaid passengers’, as compared to 33.80% of those who landed at Penang.

12 Quoted in Campbell, , Chinese Cootie Emigration, 13.

13 Parmer, , Colonial Labour Poticy, 31.

14 Sadka, , The Protected Malay States, 309.

15 Ibidem, 308–309.

16 Ibidem, 303, 306–308.

17 Ibidem. 181.

18 Mills, Lenox L., British Rule in Eastern Asia: A Study of Contemporary Government and Economic Development in British Malaya and Hong Kong (London 1942) 3637; Yoong, Ng Siew, ‘The Chinese Protectorate in Singapore, 1877–1900’, Journal ofSoutheast Asian History 2 (1961) 96.

19 Freedman, Maurice, ‘Immigrants and Associations: Chinese in Nineteenth-Century Singapore’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 3 (1960-1961) 34; Siang, Song Ong, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (London 1923) 55.

20 Mills, , British Rule, 29.

21 Quoted in Parmer, , Colonial Labour Policy, 19.

22 Proceedings of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements, 1887, C199.

23 See Jackson, , Immigrant Labour, 116123.

24 Parmer, , Colonial Labour Policy, 36.

25 Except in Kelantan where local conditions secured an extension of two years (Campbell, , Chinese Cootie Emigration, 25).

26 Mills, , British Rule, 238; Ee, Joyce, ‘Chinese Migration to Singapore, 1896–1941Journal of Southeast Asian History 2 (1961) 4142.

27 Parmer, , Colonial Labour Policy, 99100.

28 Jackson, . Immigrant Labour, 120; and Ee, , ‘Chinese Migration’, 38.

29 Mills, , British Rule, 241242; Purcell, , The Chinese in Malaya, 203204.

30 Parmer, , Colonial Labour Policy, 94; Mills, , British Rule, 4344.

31 Parmer, , Colonial Labour Policy, 92.

32 Ibidem, 242.

33 Ibidem, 241–242.

34 See Ee, , ‘Chinese Migration’, 38.

35 Ibidem, 97.

36 Coulet, G., ‘Les Chinois en Indochine’, Extreme-Asie, Revue Indochinoise Illustree, New Series 35 (1929) 461; quoted in Willmott, William E., The Chinese in Cambodia (Vancouver 1967) 69.

37 Forest, Alain, Le Cambodge et la colonisation francaise: Histoire d'une colonisation sans heurts (1897–1920) (Paris 1980) 465.

38 Forest, Alain, ‘Le Cambodge, la Chine et les Chinois’, Critique 32 (1976) 1202.

39 Art. 7; Hoeffel, , De la condition juridique des étrangers au Cambodge (Paris n.d. [c. 1932]) 61.

40 The best source on this complex juridical matter is Ernest Hoeffel, a doctor in law and former Resident Superior in Indochina, De la condition juridique, 60,92–95; see also Nicolas, Louis, Les trangers et le domaine cambodgien (Paris 1934) 8890; and Dubreuil, Ren, De la condition des Chinois et de leur role economique en Indo-Chine, Ph.D. thesis, University of Paris, Faculty of Law (Bar-sur-Seine 1910) 53. The decree of 17 May 1895 provided that the French courts in Cochinchina and Cambodia would exercise two different jurisdictions, depending on the nationality of the parties. In some cases, they would apply French Law; in others, Annamese Law and laws specially passed for the Annamese. All law suits involving a French citizen would be under the jurisdiction of French Law. Litigations between French subjects and protected persons from Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin, Laos and the territory of Kouang-Tcheou-Wan, and ‘alien Asians’ (Asiatiques etrangers) assimilated to the indigenous French subjects enumerated in the presidential order of 23 August 1871 would be tried under the jurisdiction of Annamese Law. The ‘alien Asians’ who, according to this presidential order, were subjected to Annamese law were: ‘the Chinese, the Cambodians [in Cochinchina, but not in Cambodia], the Minh-Huong, the Siamese, the Mois, the Chams, the Stiengs, the half-caste (Malays of Chaudoc)’.

41 Hoeffel, , De la condition juridique, 6263. This policy erected barriers between the Chinese and the Cambodians which previously did not exist, and made it difficult for the Chinese to assimilate into the indigenous society. As a consequence, French policy slowed down the process of assimilation which was under way. In Malaya, on the other hand, the process of assimilation, which was more difficult because of the Islamic religion, was hindered by the large number of the Chinese community rather than by the British government methods.

42 Art. 5; Bulletin Administratif du Cambodge (B.A.C.), 1891, 362.Tsai Maw-Kuey, writing on Vietnam, affirmed that the Chinese who spoke another dialect were included in the Hakka congregations (Maw-Kuey, Tsai, La Chinois au Sud-Vietnam, Ph.D. thesis, University of Paris, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, 1968, 34).

43 A decree of 3 August 1922 stipulates that the Minh-huong are assimilated to the Vietnamese for all administrative, police and tax purposes (Nicolas, , Les étrangers el le domaine cambodgien, 149150).

44 Art. 6; B.A.C., 1891,362–363.

45 Willmott, William E., The Political Structure of the Chinese Community in Cambodia. London School of Economics, Monographs on Social Anthropology, 42 (London 1970) 1920.

46 Art. 10 of the Royal Ordinance of 31/12/1891, B.A.C., 1891, 364; Art. 7 of the decree of 7/9/1912, B.A.C.. 1912, 635.

47 Art. 9; B.A.C., 1891, 364 (author's translation).

48 Ibidem, 367.

49 Art. 12 of the 1891 Ordinance; B.A.C., 1891, 365.

50 Art. 23 of the 1891 Ordinance; B.A.C., 1891, 368. See also Willmott, , The Political Structure, 2527.

51 Art. 17; B.A.C., 1891, 367.

52 Art. 1; B.A.C., 1913, 10.

53 Art. 1; B.A.C., 1925, 586.

54 Art. 23; B.A.C., 1891, 368.

55 Art. 31; Ibidem, 371.

56 Art. 9; B.A.C., 1912, 636.

57 Dubreuil, , De la condition des Chinois, 38.

58 Dinh, Nguyen Quoc, Les congregations chinoises en Indochinefrancaise (Ph.D. thesis, University of Toulouse, 1941) 119.

59 Menetrier, E., Monogmphie de la circonscription residentielle de Kampot (Saigon 1926); quoted in Pourtier, Roland, ‘Les Chinois du Cambodge littoral’, Les Cahiers d'Outre-Mer 24 (1971) 50.

60 Pourtier, , ‘Les Chinois du Cambodge littoral’, 50.

61 Boudet, Paul, ‘Les Chinoisen Indochine’, Extrme-Asie, Revue Indochinoise Illustre 35 (1929) 458.

62 Dubreuil, , De la condition its Chinois, 37.

63 Levasseur, G., ‘La situation des Chinois en Indochine’, La Revue Indochinoise Juridique et Economique 3 (1937) 117.

64 Two following years according to the decree of 7 September 1912, Art. 41, BA.C, 1912, 643; twice in a period of five years according to a decree of 15 November 1919, Art. 44, B.A.C., 1919, 883.

65 Vigier, Daniel, ‘Le statutjuridique des Chinois en Indochine’, L'Asie française 341 (1936) 181182 (author's translation).

66 Nguyen, , Les congregations chinoises, 135.

67 Art. 7, BA.C, 1891, 363.

68 Art. 2; B.A.C., 1912, 635. A decree of 15 November 1919 stipulated that the candidates had to belong to die exceptional category or to one of the First five classes of the business tax (out often determined according to the type of business) or pay an equivalent land tax (Art. 2; B.A.C., 1919, 872). A decree of 6 December 1935 specified that the candidates had to pay a business or land tax of 40 piastres in Phnom Penh, 30 piastres in the other towns and 15 piastres in the interior of the country (Art. 5; B. A.C., 1936, 2021).

69 In 1910, Dubreuil had written that: ‘in order to avoid that an always possible dismissal comes and makes him lose face, today the big Chinese personage does not solicit any longer the vote of his fellow countrymen, he makes appoint to hold the post of chef of the congrgation some man of straw or other’ (De la condition des Chinois, 37–38, audior's translation).

70 Nguyen, , Les congregations chinoises, 9899.

71 Art. 1 and 2; B. A.C., 1913, 185.

72 Art. 3 and 4; Ibidem.

73 Art. 1 and 2; B.A.C., 1913, 446.

74 Art. 28, 30 and 34 of the 1891 Ordinance, B.A.C., 1891. 370371; Art. 37, 38 and 34 of the decree of 7 September 1912,BA.C, 1912, 642643.

75 Author's estimation from the figures of the 1921 census and the revenues to the local budget of Cambodia; Annuaire slatistique de I'Indochine 1, 34–35, 270.

76 Forest, , Le Cambodge et la colonisation française, 469. These duties were rated at 8 and 4 piastres in 1924 (De Galembert, J., Les Administrations et les services publiques indochinois (Hanoi 1924) 785).

77 Nicolas, , Les elrangers et le domaine cambodgien, 132.

78 Hoeffel, , De la condition juridique, 64; see also Forest, , Le Cambodge et la colonisation franaise, 468469.

79 An income tax was in force for two years, from 1920 to 1922. It was abolished because it was highly unpopular among the Chinese and European merchants and planters and because a high percentage of those who were liable to pay managed to evade it (Mills, , British Rule, 81).

80 Purcell, , The Chinese in Malaya, 188; Mills, , British Rule, 81; Heussler, Robert, British Rule in Malaya: The Malayan Civil Service and Its Predecessors, 1867–1942 (Oxford 1981) 156.

81 Purcell, , The Chinese in Malaya, 76.

82 Ibidem, 193.

83 The railways ran between the mining districts and the coast and, according to Sadka, the Chinese were the people most frequently in the courts and their disputes involved the largest sums (Sadka, , The Protected Malay States, 298299).

84 Ibidem, 299, referring to the Appendixes to the Annual Report of Perak for 1895.

85 For example, in 1894, in Upper Pcrak, a 93%-Malay district, the revenue was $ 4,432 and the expenditure $ 25,655 (Ibidem, 299).

86 Willmott, , The Chinese in Cambodia, 15.

* The author wishes to thank Dr C.W. Watson of the University of Kent (U.K.) for encouraging her to write this paper and for his comments on previous drafts.

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‘The Turbulent But Commercially Valuable Chinese’ A Comparison of French and British Colonial Policies Towards the Chinese in Southeast Asia

  • K. Vtviane Frings


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