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Remembering the Roots
Xiamen's Overseas Chinese Museum stands sentinel to a remarkable chapter in the nation's history similar to Africa's
By Sudeshna Sarkar and Chen Ran | ChinAfrica VOL. 8 August 2016


Guo Huiping guides visitors through the Overseas Chinese Museum, Xiamen (CHEN RAN)

At 71 and after being diagnosed with diabetes, well-wishers asked Guo Huiping to take things easy. But the retired schoolteacher had other plans, instead taking up a new assignment that has become her mission.

Once every week, the sprightly Guo sets off in the morning, undertaking an hour-long bus journey during rush hour to arrive at the Overseas Chinese Museum, one of the cultural landmarks of Xiamen, the historical port city in southeast China's Fujian Province.

Rediscovering the past 

Since last September, she has been working there as a volunteer guide, steering visitors through the three exhibit-packed halls that chronicle the blood, sweat, tears and also victories of a resilient group of men and women who added a chapter to the story of China's development.

"My involvement started with the celebrations last year commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression," Guo said. "The Overseas Chinese Museum had a special exhibition remembering the Chinese in Southeast Asia who came back during the Japanese occupation to offer their services as drivers and mechanics."

Nearly 4,000 of them volunteered to transport supplies via the dangerous mountain highway known as the Burma Road, built to connect southwest China with what was then Burma, today's Myanmar, to resist Japanese occupation. Nearly one third of the volunteers died during the undertaking.

"The museum authorities were looking for volunteers for the exhibition and I said yes," Guo added. By the time the exhibition ended, she had found her mission and decided to stay on with the museum. "Before I started doing this, I knew only a little about the overseas Chinese though Xiamen has been a major point for people both going abroad and coming back," she said. "But after I started volunteering at the museum, my knowledge of history has increased. If you don't know history, you wouldn't know the overseas Chinese - the indescribable hardships they endured and the immense contributions they made. This is my way of showing respect to them."

As the nearly 7,000 photographs, dioramas, models and other exhibits at the museum show, Chinese emigration occurred in several waves. The earliest travelers were the monks who went abroad to share their religious knowledge. The traders were the next to set forth, followed by skilled professionals seeking to make their fortunes. The darkest waves occurred during times of war and instability. On one hand, there were refugees fleeing violence, and on the other, indentured laborers.

From fetters to laurels 

The model of a slave ship where life-sized figures sit, skeletal men, many of them dressed in tatters with despair and hopelessness writ on their faces, is one of the most disturbing sights at the museum.

After the First Opium War (1840-42), Chinese were forced to go out as indentured coolies, explains the exhibit label. "From mid-19th to 20th century, it was a page in Chinese history full of unprecedented humiliation."

From 1850-56, six ships went to Peru, Guyana and Cuba, carrying the virtual Chinese prisoners. They were shackled and kept in the suffocating hold of the ship and during the journeys, hundreds died. Those who survived were made to undergo slave labor. A cluster of copper coins at the museum stands witness to how they were used to keep the Chinese workers under the control of their overseas masters.

"These coins were not legal but devised by the owners themselves," the regular museum guide, who identified herself only as Chen, explained. "They could be exchanged only for food and other rations at the stores belonging to these owners."

By 2004, there was a sizeable Chinese community spread across the world. As a map at the museum shows, Indonesia had the largest recorded overseas Chinese population with 7.3 million, followed by Myanmar of over 1 million. In Africa, South Africa hosted the largest community with 40,000. The earliest African countries the Chinese headed to included Tanzania, Nigeria and surprisingly, Madagascar, which had a 28,000-strong Chinese presence.

An inspiring story unfolds from the sufferings and challenges. It's a story of resilience and dogged pursuit of progress. In the museum, the early Chinatown shanties give way to schools, hospitals, banks and companies started by the overseas Chinese.

"From coolies, cooks and peddlers they became teachers, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and scientists," the museum captions add. "Overseas Chinese opened up the virgin soil in their new home countries, creating civilization."

In 1957, Chen-Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee who had emigrated to the United States from Hefei and Shanghai cities respectively, became part of the band of men without borders who have contributed to the cause of global development. Jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, they became the first Chinese-Americans to win the honor.

Unperishable umbilical cord 

Wherever they went, the overseas Chinese stayed linked with their country of birth. During the Japanese occupation many of them took part in the resistance movement directly while others assembled funds, medicines and transport, including planes. In times of peace they built schools, colleges, hospitals and museums in China.

"This is the first museum on the overseas Chinese," said Zeng Ying, curator of the museum. "Since it opened to the public in 1959, it is visited by the overseas Chinese from all over the world. It was built by an overseas Chinese, Tan Kah-kee, with most of the exhibits coming from his personal collection."

Dubbed the Henry Ford of Asia, Tan built a rubber empire based in Singapore, gradually expanding into tin mining, shoes and cosmetics. He founded Xiamen University and the Jimei Normal School, which eventually became the Jimei University. While Xiamen has a Tan Kah-kee Memorial Museum, Singapore has a subway station named after him.

"Tan said museums are as important as schools and libraries," Guo added. "Students are encouraged to come here and learn their history. Once you enter here, you have an insight into all aspects of the Chinese who went overseas."

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