Letters Home From Chinese Migrants9 min read

Rachel Leow reviews Dear China by Gregor Benton and Hong Liu

In the opening scene of Ang Lee’s 1994 movie Eat Drink Man Woman (飲食男女), a silent father caresses a banquet into being. Moving amidst bubbling soups, smoking oils and steaming baskets, he lavishes upon the array of dishes a tenderness he will go the whole movie without once matching in words. The diners to whom this feast is borne – his three daughters – meet it with a different quality of silence: blank looks, tinged with boredom, even exasperation. They sit to eat. Conversation stutters. Family news is stiffly exchanged: wretched, half-spoken words. Dinner is cut short by a phone call, an abrupt exit. At any rate it had been criticised – “father, the ham is over-smoked.” We learn only later of the daughters’ fears for their father’s deteriorating health, marked by his declining sense of taste – fears that ran so deep that they could hardly be spoken at all.

This scene captures an emotional core to what many would recognize instantly as Chinese family life. Not all Chinese families experience it in this form, and it is not unique to Chinese culture – yet some version of this uncomfortable, unsayable love sits at the heart of so many family interactions, including those of my own childhood. Actions and things were proxies for emotion. We spoke love with money, piano lessons, clothes, and above all food. Feelings, as Chinese-American food writer Frank Shyong put it, were folded, mutely, into dumplings and lah mian, even as we grasped in vain to find words adequate to their expression.

Though writing in academic rather than cinematographic idiom, Gregor Benton and Hong Liu’s new book, Dear China, is in some ways also about this brand of emotional silence and its odd, material proxies. Drawing on over a decade of research, Liu and Benton have produced the first English-language study of the phenomena known as qiaopi (侨批), or Chinese migrant letters (qiao means ‘sojourner’, and pi is ‘letter’). Their study of the qiaopi system reveals an elaborate ecology of letters and cash or credit, a dance of call and response between Chinese sojourners in Southeast Asia and their families in China.

A rather different genre of letters to the Montesquieuan or Woolfian sort, the qiaopi comprise an enormous archive of terse, utilitarian notes that accompanied money remittances sent home to a migrant’s family in China. The archive is a gift to social history and world heritage (recently recognized as such by UNESCO). The majority of these letters are written by labourers, rubber tappers, agriculturalists – people far from inclined to leave formal records of their lives, and far removed from the world of globetrotting cosmopolitans whose undertakings have driven much of global history writing.

Remittances are, of course, not uniquely Chinese. Every major migrant group, from Italian to Filipino to Arab, has practiced some version of sending money home; to this day, India remains the largest receiver of remittances from its own sprawling diaspora. Still, the impact of these remittances on modern China have been of extraordinary historical significance. Over the late 19th and 20th centuries, remittances from abroad transformed southern China, creating a whole new class of Chinese migrants, and whole villages that came to specialize in migration as a way of life. These villages, commonly known as qiaoxiang, are characterized by their dependence on flows of money from abroad – in some cases remittances have comprised nearly 80% of the total income of the village.⁠ The scale of remittances to China burgeoned over the first decades of the 20th century: by one estimate, money sent home by migrants rose from around 113.4 million yuan a year in 1905 to over 600 million yuan a year by the time of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937.⁠

Scholars of the remittance trade have emphasized the foundational role remittances have played in the development of the modern Chinese economy itself”

The qiaopi system evolved over time. The earliest letters were borne across the seas by individual couriers called shuike (水客) or “water guests.” These men, “part courier, part itinerant entrepreneur, part village hero,” ferried money and notes to and from China, and sometimes expanded opportunistically into related services, transmitting not only letters, but also clothes, food, and even people. Acquiring and keeping clients meant forming bonds of deep trust: the shuike’s trade relied on robust kinship connections, personal contacts and knowledge of the villages in which they worked. But over time, new, formal institutions developed which absorbed these functions. An individual shuike might appear erratically over the year, depending on availability, and the comings and goings of the monsoon; he might ply his trade from a makeshift table in a choice spot under a tree, or visit regular clients informally in their houses. By the turn of the century, a growing demand for more reliable services prompted the emergence of the piju: a professional remittance office with greater capacity, regular schedules, and lower overheads.

Even the piju were eventually absorbed by other modern institutions able to offer the same services at an even greater scale. Such was the flow of letters that China’s emergent state institutions, post offices but above all banks, eventually muscled into the market. By the 1930s, the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) and the Bank of China, had between them come to dominate and grow fat on it, jostling to invent and supply the money orders and other remittance mechanisms on which the piju themselves came to depend. It is no surprise, therefore, that scholars of the remittance trade have emphasized the foundational role remittances have played in the development of the modern Chinese economy itself.

Benton and Liu are quick to stress, though, that there was no simplistic transition from one to the other, so often couched in hoary ‘tradition-to-modernity’ narratives. Despite the proliferation of letter offices, banks and remittance conglomerates, shuike continued to coexist in this crowded ecosystem, filling in gaps that the piju did not reach, and offering a range of flexible and personalised services that big banks could not. One did not simply replace the other. Rather, the sheer ubiquity of these money-letters throughout much of the twentieth century, whether transmitted by hand or by wire, attests to their cultural centrality: a network of lifelines that nourished and sustained transnational Chinese families across space and time.

More flowed along these networks than simply money. In Benton and Liu’s telling, the qiaopi embody not one but two major ties linking sojourners with China: the financial alongside the emotional. Scans of selected qiaopi, offered with translation in the appendix, reveal how the material nature of these letters shaped their content. Little more than notes on slips of paper – barely tissue fragments in some cases, since they were paid for by weight – the qiaopi format ruthlessly prevented lengthy exposition. Letter-writers crammed their sheets to the margins with characters; there was little space for extraneous sentiment. Love, care and worry were distilled into curt pleas for money and the dispensation of stern familial advice. As one mother wrote with characteristic severity to a son in Vancouver in 1903:

“It’s important that you avoid drinking, visiting prostitutes and gambling…and that you are not idle…be sure to send three or four letters a year to stop me worrying. For household expenses, things are tight, the money is not enough, be sure to send more money for use at home. It’s not possible for me to tell you everything.”

These words stand in contrast to the high emotions galvanised by the appearance of a shuike back in the village, distributing letters to anxious villagers who pounced upon the fragments with desperate eagerness. “Beneficiaries wept upon the shuike’s arrival,” Benton and Liu write, “and there was often a communal celebration.” Those who received no letters “looked on in envy, wondering why they had been passed over, fearing the worst.”

The worst, it turned out, was yet to come. China’s war with Japan in the mid-twentieth century was a moment of cataclysm. In the brewing chaos, the intricate networks along which qiaopi flowed came loose, untethering families on either side of the diasporic divide from each other, setting them adrift. “A fateful new term entered the language,” Benton and Liu write: piduan (批断), the breaking-off of the letters. Yet the connections that bound family at home and abroad proved too robust, and too lucrative, for even war to fully disrupt. Benton and Liu write that the war instead “wonderfully concentrated the minds” of the ruling Kuomintang. Out of self-interest, starved of funds in the escalation of hostilities, the KMT ramped up their support of the qiaopi system. They simplified remittance procedures, strengthened existing networks, and devised new financial products, all to attract more money from abroad, and to lubricate transnational capital trying desperately to find its way through to loved ones at home – if they were still alive.

In doing so, financial and emotional objectives came into perfect alignment. Far from being severed, the inflow of remittances actually peaked in 1940, amounting to some 329% of China’s national trade deficit. Ironically, as Benton and Liu suggest, the KMT’s efforts to sustain the qiaopi paved the way for an even greater state institutionalisation of its operations after the war by the Chinese Communist Party when it took over, and thus brought about the end of the qiaopi ecosystem itself, when all elements of the remittance industry were transferred in 1979 to the monopoly of the Bank of China.

Few other communication technologies of the age could have been more perfectly tailored to Chinese migrants than the qiaopi system. The medium, Marshall McLuhan might have said, was perfectly suited to the message. Qiaopi were eminently practical documents, full of curt discussions about money, indispensable for the foundations of the Chinese economy and the development of modern Chinese banking. But, reading between their cramped lines, they also reveal a wealth of feeling so untroubled by space and distance that it generated an entire communications system designed to materialise transnational Chinese family love. For nearly two centuries, underpinned by couriers, banks, and reams of tissue-thin paper, the qiaopi roiled on the surface of a care and connection so deep that, in the end, no words were truly adequate to its expression. ∎

Gregor Benton and Hong Liu, Dear China: Emigrant Letters and Remittances, 1820–1980 (UC Press, July 2018). Images courtesy of the author.