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Chinese Residents of Burma as Refugees, Evacuees, and Returnees: The shared racial logic of territorialization in the regulation of wartime migration*

  • TINA MAI CHEN (a1)


This article analyses how, at the time of the Japanese military expansion across Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, the category of ‘Burma Chinese’ and notions of ‘Chineseness’ acquired meaning through the movement across Chinese and Indian borders of residents of Burma identified as Chinese. Focusing on the terminology utilized by various reporting organizations to refer to evacuees, refugees or returnees, this article asks what we can learn from bureaucratic exchanges and practices of documentation about the wartime migration of Burma Chinese. I argue that a shared racial logic of territorialization operates across divergent sets of correspondence concerned with the repatriation of Burma Chinese to Burma. Multiple acts of iteration and practical implementation of categories naturalized this racial logic with respect to Burma Chinese in the latter half of the 1940s. Understanding how the work of repatriating Burma Chinese rested upon a shared racial logic is important because the regulation of Asian wartime migration was foundational to the emerging international refugee regime and post-Second World War world order.



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1 For this article, names are romanized through Mandarin pronunciation, unless individuals have indicated another dialect. Place names reflect the internationally accepted name at the historical moment under discussion, so that 缅甸 (Miandian) is referred to as Burma rather than Myanmar.

2 陈樽 (Chen Zun), ‘厦门缅甸归侨1980年自动雅集至今历32年。相聚不易,爰缀芜词咏之’ (Commemorating 32 Years of the Xiamen Burma Returned Overseas Chinese) 。 2012.07.18 题于厦., [accessed 9 September 2014].

3 陈樽 (Chen Zun), ‘中国人新时代’ (A New Era for Chinese People),, [accessed 9 September 2014].

4 The Xiamen Burma Returned Overseas Association was formed in 1980 and is thus a product of the post-Mao period, although other guiqiao (returned overseas Chinese) organizations and the terminology have a longer history, dating from the 1950s in relation to People's Republic of China narratives. Significantly, contra dominant periodization of guiqiao, the phrase guiqiao was used to refer to Burma Chinese in the 1940s from a variety of political positions.

5 Vasantkumar, Chris, ‘What is this “Chinese” in Overseas Chinese? Sojourn Work and the Place of China's Minority Nationalities in Extraterritorial Chinese-ness’, Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 71 No. 2 (May), 2012, pp. 423446.

6 Karl, Rebecca, Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002).

7 In this case 侨 stands in for 華僑 and thereby folds the ethnic/racial signifier into the territorial term. Other scholars have analysed the terminology of huaqiao so I do not address it here, except to note that the phrasing 缅甸归侨 supports the analysis in this article about naturalization through the disappearance of ‘Chinese’. In the racialized order of return migration to China, Chineseness is assumed so that 華 (as shorthand for China) does not need to be stated.

8 Peterson, Glen, China and the Overseas Chinese (London and New York: Routledge, 2011); Barabantseva, Elena, ‘Who are the “Overseas Chinese Ethnic Minorities?” China's Search for Transnational Ethnic Unity’, Modern China Vol. 38 No. 1 (January), 2012, pp. 78109.

9 The naming of the war for the purposes of this article is also an issue for consideration. The China-Burma-India Theater prioritizes experiences and territorial frameworks derived from British colonial, Guomindang, and American geopolitical perspectives, as well as temporal designations related to these war efforts. For Chinese residents in Burma, equally important is the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance fought within China, with its distinct dates, experiences, and narratives. Because this article argues that racial logic increasingly inscribed Chinese residents of Burma into the territorial spaces of mainland China, thus moving them from one framing of the war to another, we should also approach the terms conventionally used to refer to the war years in the region as part of the larger processes explored in this article and therefore also worth critical examination rather than simple reiteration as descriptive categories.

10 Accession No. 264, File No. 48, Office of the Deputy Commissioner Bhamo. Subject: Chinese Immigrants and Immigration of Foreigners, pp. 1–2, National Archives of Myanmar.

11 To Deputy Secretary, Government of Burma, Foreign Affairs, Rangoon. Dated 13 February 1948. Accession No. 264, File No. 48, p. 15, National Archives of Myanmar.

12 Accession No. 264, File No. 48, especially pp. 1–15, National Archives of Myanmar.

13 Tina Mai Chen, ‘The Burma-China Road as Orientalist Intersection: An Analysis of Conceptualizations of the Road in Relation to Immigration Controls on Chinese Residents of Burma, 1937–47’, Unpublished paper delivered at the Orientalism at War conference, Oxford University, 15–17 June 2010.

14 Accession No. 264, File No. 48, Office of the Deputy Commissioner Bhamo. Subject: Chinese Immigrants and Immigration of Foreigners, National Archives of Myanmar.

15 Notably the ‘Chinese elder’ referred to has a Burmese name and honorific, thus signifying a relation of interiority to Burma.

16 Many thanks to Nick Simon who provided research assistance with these files at the Yunnan Provincial archives.

17 Tina Mai Chen, ‘Asian Boundaries, Documentary Regimes, and the Political Economy of the Personal’, positions: asia critique Vol. 20 No. 1, 2012, pp. 179–207.

18 State policies and infrastructure devoted to the overseas Chinese is also part of competing claims to legitimacy and authority between the Guomindang/Republic of China and Chinese Communist Party/People's Republic of China. See Chang, C. Y., ‘Overseas Chinese in China's Policy’, The China Quarterly No. 82 (June), 1980, pp. 281303.

19 File No. 239 FMB48, Accession 2265 (paper file; also available in Microfilm as Accession No. 27). Dated 27 April 1948. From Burma Embassy, Karachi. National Archives of Myanmar.

20 Charges of misappropriation directed at the Chinese Relief and Rehabilitation Agency were also part of the institutional context of aid to Chinese refugees and are related to how organizational structures and practices created ‘Chineseness’ at this historical moment.

21 Letter dated 27 April 1948 from U Zaw Win, First Secretary, Burmese Embassy, Karachi to Secretary, Min. of Foreign Affairs, Gov't of Burma, p. 25. National Archives of Myanmar. Emphasis in original.

22 In the case of the British evacuee camps, British Chinese appear as a separate category. It is unclear if these people were primarily Chinese with British citizenship from Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. or if those enumerated included Chinese residents of Burma who held British citizenship. From Office on Special Duty, Government of India, Home Department, New Delhi, to Secretary of State of India, Home Dept, New Delhi, 13 September 1943. ‘Maintenance of Evacuees Accommodated in India’. India Office Records (IOR) M/3/1258/B257/42 (British Library).

23 Racial logic is, of course, intrinsic to British colonial governance. The important point in this article is that: (a) racialized logic requires constant reiteration and thus seemingly common-sense bureaucratic iterations are historically significant; and (b) in the linked processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization associated with wartime migration, racial logic continued to be central to the post-war order even as race as a determination of citizenship was being delegitimated by ideologies mobilized by Germany and Japan.

24 A lakh is a unit in South Asian counting equal to 100,000.

25 B/P&G, 1946, dated 24 June 1947. Letter from Gilchrist. IOR M/3/1258/B257/42 (British Library).

26 POL 6376/47. Government of India, Dept. of Commonwealth Relations, New Delhi, 22 January 1947. To: HM Under Secretary of State for India. Signed M. Nagar (for Principal Refugee Officer). ‘Expenditure incurred in Assam on Non-Indian evacuees’. IOR M/3/1258/B257/42 (British Library).

27 Ibid.

28 The payment of bills can also be interpreted as claiming people as part of a geopolitical strategy in the post-Second World War period. I thank Meredith Oyen for this point, based on her research on American payment of refugee bills.

29 When one meets with the Burma Returned Overseas Chinese in Xiamen today, they interweave into one narrative the idea of ‘returned Chinese’ from the 1940s with those who returned in the 1950s and later. Given the political dimensions of these two periods, this narrative of return that bridges 1949 will be analysed in another article. On the People's Republic of China's 1950s policy, see: Peterson, Glenn, ‘Socialist China and the Huaqiao: The Transition to Socialism in the Overseas Chinese Areas of Rural Guangdong, 1949–1956’, Modern China Vol. 14 No. 3, 1988, pp. 309335; also Godley, Michael R., ‘The Sojourners: Returned Overseas Chinese in the People's Republic of China’, Pacific Affairs Vol. 62 No. 3 (Autumn), 1989, pp. 302306.

30 Xiamen Municipal Archives, Fond A21, Index 1; File 45. Subnumber 11, 12, 13.

31 Xiamen Municipal Archives, Fond A21, Index 1; File 45. Subnumber 0036–37, No. 827. Lu Ching Hsien letter dated 9 July 1948.

32 See Chen, ‘Asian Boundaries’.

33 Letter from UN International Refugee Organization, Far East, Amoy Sub-Office to Overseas Affairs Office in Amoy, dated 26 October 1948. Xiamen Municipal Archives, File 0075 No. 1251.

34 Xiamen Municipal Archives, Fond A21, Index 1; File 45. Subfiles 0020–21, 003, No. 442. Dated 23 April 1948.

35 Xiamen Municipal Archives, File 0104, No. 0107. Dated 27 May 1948; File 0109, No. 0111. No date.

36 Xiamen Municipal Archives, File 0012, No. 405. Dated 12 April 1948.

37 Xiamen Municipal Archives, File 0076, No. 1283. Dated 2 November 1948. My thanks to Yilang Feng for drawing my attention to the stationery used and for his research assistance on the Xiamen Municipal Archives files.

38 This approach informs much of Zolberg's work. See Zolberg, Aristide, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008). Zolberg's work has inspired other scholarship in this vein. For example, Caplan, Jane and Torpey, John (eds), Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Green, Nancy L. and Weil, Francois, (eds), Citizenship and Those who Leave: The Politics of Emigration and Expatriation (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2007). Also, Martin, David Cook, ‘Rules, Red Tape, and Paperwork: The Archaeology of State Control over Migrants’, Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 21 No. 1, 2008, pp. 82119.

39 Interviews with group members in July 2011.

* Research for this article is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Canada. Many thanks to Yilang Feng for his work as a research assistant on the project.


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