Deep roots and many routes – Rebecca Choong Wilkins
Between 1850 and 1940, almost 20 million people journeyed from mainland China to Southeast Asia across the South Seas, known in China as the Nanyang or “Southern Ocean.” Mostly hailing from coastal cities and villages in southern China – including Amoy (now Xiamen), Swatow (Shantou), Hainan and Hong Kong, over ten million of these migrants travelled to Malaya (now Malaysia), and roughly three million headed to the islands of the Dutch East Indies in modern-day Indonesia.
When they arrived in Southeast Asia, they were called sinkeh (xīn kè 新客) – “new guests” – or the more derogatory cheena gerk (“low-class Chinaman” in Baba Malay) by Chinese settlers with much deeper roots in the region. These earlier Chinese communities formed in the 15th century, when Chinese merchants emigrated to Southeast Asia and married into indigenous families. Forming sui generis cultures that embraced Chinese and Southeast Asian traditions as well as contemporary colonial trends, they developed their own distinctive clothing, cuisines and languages.