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Transnationalism and Community Building: Chinese Immigrant Organizations in the United States

Transnationalism and Community Building: Chinese Immigrant Organizations in the United States

Martin Lavicka17 Apr 2015Leave a comment


Written by Adam Horálek

ZHOU, Min – LEE, Rennie (2013): Transnationalism and Community Building: Chinese Immigrant Organizations in the United States. The Annals of the American Academy, No. 647, pp. 22–49.

The paper by professors Zhou Min and Rennie Lee is a unique insight into the Chinese overseas community organizational structure which is a widely acknowledged but rarely studied in depth phenomenon. Professor Zhou Min is a well-known specialist on the issue of overseas Chinese and currently is based at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, partially as the head of the Chinese Heritage Centre, the world’s leading research institution in the field. Also, Rennie Lee is a well-established sociologist at the University of California Los Angeles, where she collaborated with Professor Zhou on several papers.

The Chinese overseas community is a world phenomenon, constituting the largest so called “diasporic” population in the world. It has been a subject for intense and longitudinal research for several decades, though has still not successfully been covered. Overseas Chinese communities are, unlike other immigrant groups in the U.S. or Europe, quite marginalized in the research. Compared to the Indians or Pakistanis in the UK, Turkish in Germany, North Africans in France, etc., or Latino Americans in the U.S., the Chinese are much less represented in migration and community studies. Still, the Chinese Americans constitute by far the largest Asian community in the U.S. and are an older immigrant group than most of the Slavic ethnic groups. Their socio-economic position, at least in the case of the U.S., is also much higher than the average, both among ethnic groups as well as the whole population (Zhou – Lee 2013). The lack of appropriate number and intensity of studies on Chinese Overseas can be therefore interpreted as a result of the specifics of a closed community as well as due to language barriers.

“Research to date has emphasized the effects of transnationalism on the development in sending countries rather than receiving countries, focused on immigrant groups from Latin America rather than Asia, and examined individuals rather than immigrant organizations as units of analysis” (Zhou – Lee 2013: 22). Even though the paper focuses on both transnationalism together with community building and its organizations, in the latter lies the core and added value of the paper. The three major analytical frameworks are ethnic enclaves, institutional completeness and transnationalism.

Ethnic enclaves refers to “…urban clusters of immigrants from the same sending country” (Zhou – lee 2013: 24). They are usually associated with the country of origin (Chinatown, Little Italy, etc.), but they can also be identified by generic names, such as the Vietnamese enclave in New Orleans called Versailles Village. In the tradition of assimilation theories, ethnic enclaves are seen as temporary settling grounds. They are also “…often conflated and used interchangeably with immigrant neighborhoods” (Zhou-Lee 2013: 24). The current ethnic migrants, however, tend to move to non-ethnicized and open immigrant neighborhoods in the suburbs of cities called ethnoburbs – middle-class suburbs dominated by new immigrants of different ethnic backgrounds.

Institutional completeness is quite an old concept used by Raymond Breton in 1964 and re-implemented by the authors of the study. This framework works with the idea that the more institutionalized a community is the less it is open and the more it prevails with its original ethnic and cultural heritage of the original homeland. However, it is the institution that can also transnationalize the community in a longitudinal perspective.

The authors use the definition of transnationalism by Linda Basch, who understands it as “the process by which immigrants forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement” (Zhou-Lee 2013: 25). However, as Alejandro Porter points out, “it is the intensity of exchanges, not just the occurrence themselves (trips, occasional contacts, or activities), that becomes a justifiable topic of investigation” (Zhou-Lee 2013: 26). The major weakness of studies on transnationalism to date is that they focus on the effects of transnationalism on development in the sending countries and on the processes rather than individuals, and that only little attention is paid to community building – the major contribution of the paper to this discourse.

Because the Chinese Americans started to establish their settlements on the western coast already in the 1840s, a few decades before the immigration wave of the Slavic peoples, there is a long tradition of traditional organizations and institutions that the Overseas Chinese have kept to date within the U.S. Therefore, the authors have had to distinguish between the traditional and the modern ones. Their research includes almost 1400 organizations in the U.S., and to understand the development of these institutions, their organization and role in the contemporary communities, the authors analyse each period of Chinese immigration to the U.S. and its specifics. A major divide can be made around the year 1965, when the immigration policy reform of the Hart-Cellar Act was introduced hand in hand with the opening and development of US-Chinese relations. The traditional institutions, mainly based on kin, place of origin or clan structure, are typical for the settlements of immigrants before 1965. Since then, modern organizations, which are more open, regionalized and socially flexible, have emerged. Both types of Chinese overseas organizations which structure and develop communities coexist to date and have their specific roles.

As the authors carefully describe, both types of organizations help to create institutional completeness in Chinese societies which make them very stable and partially closed to the outside world. At the same time, the organizations are the major “bridges” across the Pacific which help to create, maintain and boost the US-Chinese economic as well as social exchange. There are several roles of each organization and in general all of them tend to keep a sense of community among its members, and do so by advancing and maintaining relations, both economic and social. A further deep analysis of the types of organizations as well as their roles and circumstances they work with and on, shows the very meticulous competence of the authors.

Chinese communities and their organizations and institutions can be found all around the world. The purpose or structure of these institutions can differ country from country or region from region, however, in general, they are the key factor which maintains Chinese consciousness among the Chinese overseas for generations, including their language. It is a very relevant paper also for the Czech and Central European situation, even though the circumstances are completely different. The Prague Chinese community-building is in progress and institutionalization and organization of the community are two major aspects which can enable further development. That the Chinese society has different types of institutions than other ethnic groups is obvious. To understand them properly helps to understand the Chinese themselves and to better incorporate them into the majority. The paper shows how proper use of methodologies and analytical frameworks can help to understand and disclose such “hidden ethnicities” as the Chinese. Their identity and community, despite contemporary trends in social research, will remain one of the challenging topics for social scientists, though more and more urgent.

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