When I was 14, my best friend’s father – a Swedish businessman in Davao del Norte – handed to me a book which greatly altered and expanded my view of the world. It was Sterling Seagrave’s Lords of the Rim: the Invisible Empire of the Overseas Chinese. Part economic analysis and part chronicle of fortune within the Pacific Rim, the book explores the waves of migration and the extraordinary course taken for centuries by Overseas Chinese, over 55 million of them, now dominating Southeast Asian economies through their “unusual ethnic solidarity, underground networks, political pragmatism, exceptional information, and adaptive capacities”. These qualities, according to Seagrave, enabled Chinese expatriates to build an “opaque and invisible” empire of conglomerates that now rule, financially and organizationally, all over the Pacific Rim.
Reflective of what I read almost 10 years ago, A Bit of Earth, as a historical novel, depicts the same intricate system of cultural, linguistic, and trade alliances an Overseas Chinese must tread his way through, cautiously and tenaciously, in order to survive and ultimately acquire wealth and power in a foreign soil. An offshore Chinese, like Wong Tuck Heng, was born out of China’s long and dark history of civil wars, corruption, disasters, and extreme tyranny. It is not surprising, consequently, that an instinct for survival and an aim for prosperity is central to China-born, first generation migrants of Malaya.
Overseas Chinese operate without “border, national government, or flag” – hence, to navigate their way through the tumultuous times during the onset of Western colonization, they are demanded to: 1.) adhere to hierarchal structure of families as they are the basic and most reliable economic and social units; 2.) form solidarity with clans, kongsis, secret societies, and organizations as they are vital for building financial linkages and social connections; 3.) maintain dual cultural and political allegiances depending on the more potent cultural force in the country; and 4.) employ cultural flexibility by adapting the ways, language, and useful practices of both the native population and the colonizing power.
By maintaining plural identities, both China-born and Straits Chinese act as “cultural chameleons” in order to ensure the survival and welfare of their own cultural group. However, what separates them is the degree of transculturation, which relies on the attachment over the patch of earth one roots on. In other words, the extent of hybridization for Straits Chinese, based on the novel, is more pronounced in their adoption of foreign language, customs, and even religion than China-born migrants, primarily because they are rooted on the land which gave them “identity, stability, and family” (275).
Nevertheless, nothing is fixed and complete, according to Stuart Hall, when it comes to cultural identity for diasporic cultures, only “constant positioning and repositioning in the politics of identity and in the politics of position” – such that Tuck Heng assured his son that the present identity assumed by their Baba side of the family is subject to constant change and is highly dependent on the present cultural force controlling their adopted nation. With this insight, we can only assume that Overseas Chinese nowadays, with the evident rise of China, are once again directing their gaze towards the land where, centuries ago, their ancestors planted their lives, hopes, dreams, and memories.