Ethnic Chinese from Vietnam: “floating between different worlds”?

Today Plaza in Little Saigon, Westminster, California, where Lieu did most of her research. Not only is the sign for the plaza in Chinese as well as Vietnamese, but on the left you see United Commercial Bank (聯合銀行), a Chinese American bank that has since been acquired by another Chinese American Bank, East West Bank (華美銀行). Photo: Nate Gray (Flickr/Creative Commons).

I just finished reading cultural studies scholar Nhi T. Lieu‘s first book, The American Dream in Vietnamese, which explores the identities and aspirations of Vietnamese Americans as reflected through popular culture. Lieu takes a close look at cultural forms that have not previously been the focus of scholarly attention, such as variety shows and beauty pageants.

What most caught my attention was her second chapter, in which she discusses the conflicts between ethnic Chinese and ethnic Vietnamese refugees. She argues that the ethnic Chinese and ethnic Vietnamese form an “overlapping diaspora”, and that the negotiation of conflicts with ethnic Chinese helped form Vietnamese American cultural identity, and vice versa.

The concept of the overlapping diasporas does not preclude ethnic Chinese from their past as immigrants and refugees from Vietnam. Nevertheless, because ethnicity is deployed strategically in an overlapping context, the politics of affiliating through ethnic and cultural identification takes precedence over shared historical experiences.

(Kindle location 612-614. Frustratingly, the Kindle edition of the book does not have page numbers. Step it up, University of Minnesota Press!)

Vietnam has long had troubled relations with China and Chinese people. China once colonized Vietnam, and later under French rule ethnic Chinese continued to maintain the upper hand in the Vietnamese economy. Unsurprisingly, ethnic Chinese were one of the primary targets of the Communist government. Many of the “boat people” who fled Vietnam during the war were ethnic Chinese. (My father’s family was part of this wave of refugees.)

Although the war and the refugee crisis seemed to give everyone the same status as penniless foreigners, ethnic and class distinctions never disappeared, and eventually re-surfaced:

Though the ethnic Chinese consisted of only 3 percent of Vietnam’s population at the end of the war in 1975, they make up one-quarter of the emigres in California and reportedly own “a disproportionate share of ‘Vietnamese businesses'” in the United States. (Kindle location 797)

As far as identification is concerned, most ethnic Chinese from Vietnam identify themselves as such. In Chinese, the term is 越南華僑 (Yuènán huáqiáo), 越南 meaning “Vietnam” (indicating place of origin) and 華僑 meaning “overseas Chinese” (indicating ethnicity). The Chinese are fond of four-character terms and idioms (四字格) because of their inherent symmetry. 越南華僑 is “Vietnam” and “overseas Chinese” in equal parts.

English terms for this community are often clunky. We have “ethnic Chinese from Vietnam,” a clear but awkward turn of phrase, and Sino-Vietnamese, a term that I choose not to use because of its vague meaning and emphasis on the Vietnamese, to which many community members would object. This objection to being classified as Vietnamese largely stems from ethnic pride and a desire to reinforce the link between oneself and a larger Chinese community.

Lieu also sees a practical, instrumental motive in this choice of identification. She writes of controversial Little Saigon developer Frank Jao (趙閥), who is of Chinese descent. Jao notably changed the spelling of his surname from Sino-Vietnamese Triệu to something that sounds more Mandarin or Cantonese:

Many ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam believed that affiliating with the Chinese diaspora opened economic doors to the East and the Pacific Rim. Jao’s flexible identification granted him access and the ability to float between different worlds and succeed financially. (Kindle location 811-813)

This identificational flexibility and ambiguity is why I am so interested in the members of the Chinese diasporas of Southeast Asia and Latin America who settle in “multicultural” western nations like the US and Australia. In a diverse, multi-ethnic society, where do these groups fit in? Do they side with Chinese co-ethnics from other regions of the world? Do they feel more comfortable with the majority group of the countries from which they came? Or do they “float between different worlds”? If so, what are the social, psychological, and material consequences of floating?
Lieu, Nhi T. (2011). The American Dream in Vietnamese University of Minnesota Press Other: 978-0-8166-6570-9

  1. Jen

    PlaidBag great post and thanks for the review. You’d be interested in my breakdown of Australian ABS stats for 2006. Almost 146,000 identified as born in Vietnam. Of these just over 41,000 of Chinese ancestry. Means 25.8% of Vietnam born living in Australia self-define as of Chinese ancestry.

    • Thanks for that! I haven’t had a chance to scrutinize/learn to scrutinize the US 2010 Census data yet, but I’m sure there’d be a similar figure. And these figures don’t count children and grandchildren of these refugees and immigrants!

  2. Ana

    I find it perplexing that ethnic Chinese from VN choose to identify with VN culture only when it benefits them. Otherwise, there is such disdain for the VN people and culture as a whole despite living and profiting in VN for many years before the end of the war. You also see this type of behavior in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. This is especially apparent by the emphasis and insistence on being Chinese rather than Vietnamese. I am Vietnamese and I am American, in ethnicity and culture respectively, so when asked if I am American bc I grew up there, perhaps even born there, I don’t make a huge deal about being ETHNICALLY Vietnamese. There have also been occasions when I am told that Vietnam used to be China and so I am actually Chinese, thereby not even acknowledging that Vietnam has its own identity. I believe that it is more than just ethnic pride that is demonstrated in the fierce objection to behind identified at Vietnamese and you did allude to the history of conflict between the two groups above. Would be interested to know if the book speaks about the Vietnamese perspective.

    It also happens to be that I am actually a quarter Chinese on my fathers side and many Chinese ppl I encounter do not understand how would rather identify with being Vietnamese over Chinese.

    I suppose I am generalizing but I have encountered this behavior so many times that I just thought it is worth mentioning a polar viewpoint.

    • Many Chinese from Vietnam (huáqiáo) refuse to be identified as Vietnamese because many of the Hoa (huáqiáo) arrived in the US from a perceived persecution of the Chinese in Vietnam, by the Vietnamese. The perceived persecution is demonstrated in that many of the Boat People were actually ethnic Chinese. The tension was greatest around the Sino-Vietnam war around 1979.

      >In a diverse, multi-ethnic society, where do these groups fit in?
      Chinatown. When the Chinese lived in Vietnam, they overwhelmingly lived in the cities, and like my parents, in Chinatown. Assimilating to a Chinatown across the world is much easier, than to the rest of society.

      >Do they side with Chinese co-ethnics from other regions of the world?
      There was tension with the ‘local’ Chinese, yes. How couldn’t there be? Chinese has many dialects that are mutually unintelligible. Many of the Chinese from Vietnam spoke a Min Nan dialect, while some like my family spoke a Yue/Cantonese dialect. The previous originally occupants of LA’s Chinatown were the Taishanese, who speak a Yue dialect, and they represented the first wave. The next arrivals were those from Taiwan, who generally prefer to speak Mandarin — although speak the native Min Nan/ Taiwanese-Hokkien.

      I can’t recall any of my family friends marrying outside the (Yuènán huáqiáo) circle. Most Taiwanese usually married Taiwanese. Most Taishanese marry Taishanese.

      Min Nan/ Taiwanese-Hokkien
      Min Nan/ Teochew

      Each family shows mutually intelligibility about (40-60% comprehension). Each member of families have relations that are generally mutually untelligible (10-30% comprehension). Each wave represent different economic groups. The Taishanese originally escaped because of social strife at home (Taiping Rebellion). The Taiwanese, HKers, and Mainlanders out of economic mobility. The Chinese from Vietnam moved to the US because they (for some time) were not allowed a return to Vietnam.

      For the author:
      >Today Plaza in Little Saigon, Westminster, California, where Lieu did most of her research
      The Ethnic Chinese refugees from the Vietnam Wars didn’t settle in Westminster or Orange County, but in Chinatown, Los Angeles, and then later in the San Gabriel Valley. This represents the ‘third-wave’ of Chinese immigrants.

      The Ethnic Vietnamese refugees from the Vietnam Wars settled in Westminster and Orange County.

      Recapping: Southern California’s Chinese according to waves
      1st: Taishanese – Railroad builders.
      2nd: Taiwanese – Business owners
      3rd: Chinese-Vietnamese (1976-1988) – Automechanics and Seamstresses
      4th: Hong Kongers (post 1998) – Large business owners
      5th: Mainlanders (post 2005) – Wealth is already established at home

      >Do they feel more comfortable with the majority group of the countries from which they came?
      No. Chinese from Southeast Asia generally have poor relations with the majority group they live/lived with. Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, the relationship is low. The Chinese in the Philippines have low-to-moderate relationship.

      >Or do they “float between different worlds”? If so, what are the social, psychological, and material consequences of floating?

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