Home is Everywhere10 min read

Rachel Leow reviews Home Is Not Here by Wang Gungwu

“No matter where you live in the world, we all share one origin. There is a place for all of you here at home.”

In so many words, this is the single message which the People’s Republic of China’s Overseas Chinese Office (Qiaoban) channels to ethnic Chinese across the world. It is a relatively new sentiment. The idea that ethnic Chinese of foreign nationality (huaqiao) are not ‘blood traitors’ (hanjian) but patriots-in-potentia – talent (rencai) to be lured ‘back home’ to contribute to China’s wealth and power – has not long been in gestation. But since the 1980s, it has been written with ever more depth into the PRC’s long-term visions. Conceived under the KMT and established by the new PRC in 1949, the Qiaoban languished in the Cultural Revolution and was revived by Deng Xiaoping, who saw in the huaqiao a source of support for reform and opening. 

Three decades later, Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ counts huaqiao, not just Chinese citizens, among its dreamers; his One Belt One Road strategy is designed with huaqiao in mind, as business collaborators with critical local knowledge. The recent proliferation of Confucius Institutes signal a new soft power drive through culture and language. ‘Roots-tracing’ tours organised by Chinese local governments bring thousands of children of émigré families to China every year to jog their cultural memories, and awe them with China’s technological and economic achievements. In this era of ‘new Chinese migration’, all state instruments of persuasion have been mobilised to say that for all Chinese everywhere and everywhen, home is in China.

Generalities die by a thousand particular cuts. History, fortunately, is the domain of the particular. A new memoir by historian Wang Gungwu, Home Is Not Here, has given us one beautiful, incisive cut against any general idea of Chinese belonging.

By all measures, Wang is as ‘Chinese’ as they come, or as Chinese as Beijing might like its Chinese to be. A historian and world authority on both China studies and overseas Chinese historical scholarship, Wang has straddled what are often regarded as two separate fields, and has maintained a lifelong professional, intellectual and emotional commitment to the Chinese world. His voluminous body of history and policy writings concerning China since the completion of his doctoral research in 1957 testify to his rencai, and would fill a small library. He is an inescapable point of reference in any writings about the Chinese overseas. His innumerable scholarly prefaces and forewords alone, in both Chinese and English, are an index by which one can track the explosion of huaqiao scholarship since the 1990s.

And yet the overwhelming sense one gets from his memoir is of a China, and a relationship to Chineseness, which the Qiaoban might not be quite so keen to celebrate. The facts of Wang’s life speak for themselves. Wang was born in 1930 to well-educated parents of literati families from Jiangsu and Zhejiang. His father had only just married his mother, and arrived in the Dutch East Indies to take up a teaching post at a Chinese high school in Surabaya, Java. Wang remembers nothing himself of the culturally textured life his parents lived there, not even his own Javanese nanny. Only two years later, his family moved to British Malaya. Crucially, they went not to the Straits Settlements, the crown colonies whose British colonial character was far more pronounced, but to Greentown in Ipoh, a northwestern town in a federated state still notionally ruled by a Malay sultan, and dominated by Chinese mining interests. Ipoh was a second-tier place in the colonial administration, “exclusively built to house non-European government officials,” and was peopled less by white Europeans than by a mélange of Ceylonese, Indians, Malays, other Chinese and Eurasians.

Wang thus grew up in a complex, plurilingual milieu, in which a surfeit of improbable languages jostled up against each other in a small geographical space. It is a milieu I know vividly from my own youth, so utterly familiar to me that I had to write a book about it to truly know its strangeness. His memoir is dominated by the theme of language. Wang speaks of growing up with his parents’ native mandarin (guoyu) and his father’s insistence on transmitting to him a ‘cultural core’ via classical Chinese texts; with Cantonese from his nanny and the cacophony of other Chinese languages in Ipoh; with the colonial Englishes of his European, Ceylonese and Indian primary school teachers; with the freewheeling English patois of the playground; and curiously too, with the English of his father’s resolutely Victorian library, which, in agreement with a literatus’ notion of textual civilisation, contained nothing published after Charles Dickens.

Later, the Japanese Occupation deepened the confusion of tongues. For those formative teenage years, he spoke “nothing but Mandarin and the various dialects of Chinese that I was beginning to pick up,” necessitated by the upheaval of wartime living and its levelling social effects: Henghua, Hakka, different inflections of guoyu, and no English at all – though also, very little Malay or Japanese. These opened his eyes to ‘different kinds of plurality’ and to a Greentown different from the one he had known before the war: one that “fragmented the classical Chinese world that my father had wanted me to appreciate,” but also one which forcibly left his colonial education behind. And, as it did for many others of that generation, the years of war in Malaya made it possible for him to begin, as he had not before, to “look at Ipoh with fresh eyes, and find a sense of belonging there.”

This was a hard-won belonging, for reasons that are clear within the first few chapters. His childhood was shadowed, determined by an ever-present expectation of ‘return’. “We were always waiting to return to China,” he writes, preparing to go ‘home’. The early decision to send him to an English primary school was taken as a temporary opportunity for colonial education before the inevitable return to China. The decision to remain a small, one-child family was made in view of the need to return quickly and cheaply to China when the time came, as they knew it would. These decisions helped create the small, isolated Chinese world that defined Wang’s home life. “I realised later why our family was different,” he wrote. “It was in part because my parents had no interest in becoming local.” These decisions compounded his alienation from the Greentown community, his constant sense of his own as well as his parents’ oddity: a young boy always only partially occupying a multitude of worlds without feeling truly at home in any of them.

The end of the war brought a window of opportunity to fulfil these lifelong expectations of return, which Wang was beginning to relinquish, but to which his parents still held firm. Thus in 1947 Wang left home to go home, to China. He went to Nanjing, which, he writes, “was not China, nor was it our home. But it was where my father found work, and where I hoped to get into university.” It turned out to be not at all the China he had been raised to expect, nor the one his parents had idealised and tried to transmit to him in the form of heritage, culture, duty, and memory. Arriving into the maelstrom of a country ravaged by civil war, Wang witnessed up close the deepening chasm between the stories his father told of the great inheritances of China’s ancient and modern pasts, and the “corrupt and demoralised government” he saw unravelling before his eyes. In his second year at university, as tensions between the Communists and Nationalists worsened, war reached the banks of the Yangzi, and his school was ordered to shut down. “We were all told to go home.” But where now, for Wang, was that? Inevitably: Ipoh, to rejoin his parents, who nine months earlier had abandoned their lifelong expectations, fled the escalating conflict, and anxiously awaited his safe passage from a China now so reconstituted by war and modernity that it had become all but unrecognisable.

“I was,” Wang reflects, “neither the kind of Chinese this new China wanted, nor the kind that my father hoped I would become in order to be a useful citizen.” This is, in one sense, a deeply generational story: the gulf between one generation and the next, which widens especially in times of dramatic historical change. Yet it is worth noting here that neither the dislocation of expectations, his chequered upbringing, nor the vicissitudes of history, condemned him to rootlessness. His liberation from this came in his childhood. At age ten, a birthday gift from his father of a world atlas provided unexpected deliverance from the deep unease “about who or where I was.” The discovery of a worldspace immeasurably larger than any of the multiple worlds he occupied in Ipoh was not terrifying, but rather a profound comfort. “I was overwhelmed,” he recalled, “by the sense of discovery and wanted to examine every corner of the globe.” If home was not ‘here’, nor was it in China, it was also not nowhere. Faced with the unknowability of his own home, history, and roots, he learned to take refuge in the world. There, through geography, literature, and eventually history itself, he arrived at a capacious world-mindedness in which “all places and people had become knowable.” For Wang, home became, in that sense, everywhere.

At the close of the book, which ends in 1949, we learn that Wang never lived in Ipoh again. “Ipoh taught me that nothing was permanent…and that people could easily be cut off from their root.” Wang left home, and beyond the last page of the book, went on to live in Singapore and Britain, eventually becoming an Australian citizen. The sense of civic duty his parents expected of him – the need to be a ‘useful citizen’ – never left him; it simply reoriented according to the many homes he accumulated in his lifetime. In the turbulent decolonisation struggles of the 1950s and 60s, he worked to harness the new politics of nationhood into building Southeast Asia-centered historical research in Singapore. At the ANU in the 1970s, invigorated by the Nixon rapprochement and other major developments in China’s international relations, he wrote prolifically on China for global audiences and worked to develop institutional Sinology in Canberra; he would later ‘return’ from Australia to serve Vice-Chancellorships at the Universities of Hong Kong and Singapore, stewarding their intellectual pursuits from the fringes of a China that would never be his home.

One cannot doubt that Wang is ‘Chinese’, perhaps even also a ‘Chinese overseas’. But it’s not surprising that he has written so strongly against the reckless use of the concept of diaspora, warning of its susceptibility to unhistorical co-optation. If Beijing is trying to bring ‘its’ sons and daughters ‘home’, it may well be worth asking, with historical empathy and particularity, exactly what home has meant, where it is meant to be – and whether, in our complex and plural 21st century world, we can really be right to speak of origins and homes so resolutely in the singular. ∎

Wang Gungwu, Home Is Not Here (NUS Press, 2018). Republished with the kind permission of Mekong Review, where this review first appeared.