Diaspora, Q&A

Singapore with a Republican Accent

Rebecca Choong Wilkins interviews Jannis Jizhou Chen about the Sinophonic voice

Jannis Jizhou Chen was born in Chengdu and left China in his teens. Since then he has sojourned in Singapore, Germany and the United States. His publishing debut is a collection of short stories in Chinese, The Stories of Eng Watt Street (永發街事), released in January. Rebecca Choong Wilkins sat down with him as part of her Diaspora column for the China Channel to talk about the controversies of the Sinophonic voice, in all of its varieties.

Can you tell me about your debut work?

It is a collection of 12 short stories taking place in Singapore on Eng Watt Street. I had lived there for six years and got to know many lovely neighbors. I started writing some of the stories while there, and turned many of my dear neighbors into fictional characters. Each story focuses on one household, but when read together, they form certain connections with each other.


Who Are the Peranakan Chinese?

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.


Follow the Signs

In Search of Chinatown in Panama City – Susan Blumberg-Kason

My mother is one of the most worldly travelers I know. Mention any city or country around the world, and she’s either been there or is game for going. “What about Panama City?” I asked. She agreed immediately.

Panama City had been on my mind since reading Cristina Henriquez’s The World in Half and Come Together, Fall Apart. Both books are set in the city. Panama City also boasts one of only six or seven Chinatowns in Latin America. I’d been to the Chinatown in Havana 14 years earlier, had spent most of the 1990s in Hong Kong, and am interested in the Chinese diaspora. Plus, my oldest son from my first marriage is Chinese, so I’m raising all of my kids with Chinese culture and working out what that means along the way. Cristina Henriquez had told me the Chinese community in Panama arrived long before the construction of the canal (both the French and United States’ iterations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).


China out of China

A new column on the Chinese diaspora – Rebecca Choong Wilkins

China and Chinese are slippery terms. As a political entity, ‘China’ can refer to the People’s Republic Of, or at least twenty-four different dynasties before it. It can be a geographic territory, an empire, or even its most famous porcelain export. ‘Chinese’, meanwhile, is used to describe an ethnicity, a nationality, and a cuisine. Multivalent and polyphonic, eventually these terms always require qualification.

This year, 16 out of 39 of The Economist’s front covers so far have featured one of these terms. Their use assumes geopolitical definitions of a cold war monolith. But we know that alongside mainland China’s Han majority, the Chinese Communist Party recognizes 55 other ethnicities. Other than Mandarin, there are 300 living languages spoken on the mainland, many of which remain unacknowledged. Even within the Han Chinese ethnicity, we find linguistic and cultural diversity among Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew and Hoochew-speaking communities.