Forget being ‘Fujian people’ or Cantonese – we in Southeast Asian diaspora should see ourselves as citizens who happen to be of Chinese ancestry
- Southern Fujian was historically one of China’s most outward-looking places, and most ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asian countries trace their ancestry to Fujian
- However, after generations of intermarriage it is to be hoped ethnic Chinese identify as citizens of those countries, not as Fujian people, Cantonese or Teochew
In June, the Chinese navy launched its third (and first locally designed) aircraft carrier, Fujian, as part of the country’s drive to modernise its military and reduce its dependence on foreign military suppliers. Some observers find it significant the vessel is named after the province that lies directly across the waters from the island of Taiwan.
Like other coastal provinces in southeast China, Fujian in ancient times was not part of the Chinese cultural heartland. Its natives were considered “barbarians” who “cut their hair and tattooed their bodies”.
When the Qin dynasty unified China in 221BC, this remote region was incorporated into the newly established empire as a local administrative division. However, its relationship to the central government was much like a vassal state, and it was left to its own devices.
Over time, with more centralised control of the empire’s far-flung areas, and more frequent movements of people between the interior and the region, it lost its autonomy and peripheral status, eventually becoming an inalienable part of the Chinese nation.
With mountains covering 90 per cent of its area, Fujian’s population had always been concentrated along its extensive coast. Linguistically and culturally, the coasts of the northeast (Mindong) and south (Minnan) are quite different.
The former is centred in the provincial capital, Fuzhou; the latter the port city of Xiamen. The Mindong and Minnan (also called Hokkien) dialects, and their sub-variants, are mutually unintelligible.
Perhaps because of its coastal population centres, Fujian was historically renowned for its shipbuilding technology and maritime culture. The English word “junk” was derived, via the Portuguese, from the Minnan word for ship, joon.
Fujian was also a major source of Chinese migrants, especially to Southeast Asia. Most of the ethnic Chinese citizens in modern nation states like Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore are of Fujianese ancestry.
An ancestor of my paternal grandfather left the district of Tongan (today a suburb of Xiamen) some time in the mid-19th century and sailed to the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, where he settled and thrived. Marrying local women, he and his descendants were fruitful and they certainly multiplied.
I know less about my paternal grandmother’s antecedents except that her forebears hailed from the city of Quanzhou and ended up in Singapore, where she was born and raised.
For most Chinese Southeast Asians today, where our ancestors came from no longer has much significance. Most, in fact, do not even know. Despite my Fujian forefathers, I have no particular affinity to the province, its people or its culture. Apart from a few choice words in the Minnan language, all of which are unprintable, I can’t speak it to save my life.
With the prevalence of intermarriage across different Chinese language groups – for example, my father married my Cantonese mother, whose parents were born in Guangdong – it is no longer tenable for Chinese Southeast Asians, nor does it make sense to us, to say that we are “Fujian people”, or indeed Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka, Hainanese and so on.
I would like to think that most of us identify as the citizens of our own countries, whose ancestors happened to be born in China.