Published: Book review

My review of Indian and Chinese immigrant communities edited by Jayati Bhattacharya and Coonoor Kripalani for ASEASUK News, 59(Spring 2016)

Indian and Chinese people have been migrating for centuries. Through the ages, their migration flows have encompassed trade migration, large scale indentured labour migration (especially during the colonial period), refugee migration, voluntary labour migration of all skill levels, marriage migration, student migration, and others. As a result of the cumulative migration flows, there are now established and new Indian and Chinese diasporic communities scattered across the globe. The size of the overseas Chinese and Indian communities are currently estimated to be 40 million (p. xiii) and 22 million (The Economist, 2011) respectively. The recent rise of India and China as economic and political powers in the global arena has further fuelled academic and policy interests on Indian and Chinese immigrants who are residing in various host countries worldwide. Seen in this broader context of global migration, shifting international relations and political economy, this volume is a timely contribution towards a better comparative understanding of Indian and Chinese immigrant communities and their migration histories.

Although migration flows in the Global South is not a new phenomenon, it is arguably only recently that migration scholarship has started to turn its attention to South-South migration flows. This has been in part informed by the fact that South-South migration is now larger than South-North migration (KNOMAD, 2015). While it is relatively common to find edited volumes examining South-South migration flows of a particular immigrant community, it is relatively rare to find works that compare two ethnic immigrant communities. It is even rarer to find interdisciplinary volumes that interrogate the intersections and interactions between two large ethnic immigrant communities. It is here that this book differentiates itself. In focusing its attention on the overlaps and interactions between the Indian and the Chinese communities in different geographical locations, this book highlights how common issues faced by migrants – such as identity and belonging, nationality and citizenship rights, adaptation and integration, discrimination and exclusion, conflicts and contestations, diaspora and transnationalism – materialise and pan out in nuanced and complex ways for these two ethnic diasporas.

This book is the outcome of a similarly titled workshop held in 2010, jointly organised by the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre at the Institute of Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore, and the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (incorporating the Centre of Asian Studies), University of Hong Kong. The workshop takes as a precedence a forum held in Hong Kong a decade earlier in 2000, organised by the Centre of Asian Studies, Hong Kong University, in collaboration with the Consulate-General of India in Hong Kong, which resulted in an edited volume entitled Chinese and Indian Diasporas: Comparative Perspectives (Wong, 2004). This connection probably explains this book’s focus on the Indian and Chinese immigrant communities, as well as the adoption of a comparative approach towards the collective analysis of these two ethnic diasporas. Notwithstanding this precedence, and as the editors explain, this book’s comparative approach is more specifically aimed at highlighting ‘the sociocultural, economic and religious spaces … created by [these] transnational communities … and the resonances of transition and accommodation that were then experienced in different spheres of activity’ (p. xiv).

Organised into four sections, this volume contains 16 chapters, in addition to an introduction and a postscript chapter. The first section, consisting of 3 chapters, covers historical antecedents and the raises the question of nationality. The second section – the largest section consisting of 7 chapters – focuses on Southeast Asia as the meeting ground for Indian and Chinese immigrants. The third section, consisting of 4 chapters, examines Indians in China and Chinese in India. The fourth section, made up of only 2 chapters, takes a global perspective and examines Indian and Chinese diasporas.

Despite the slightly unequal geographical representation of this volume, the editors have carefully selected and juxtaposed chapters in a way that facilitates the comparative gesture. Chapters focusing on one ethnic immigrant community in a specific location (e.g. Edmund Terence Gomez’s chapter on Chinese business in Malaysia) are sandwiched between chapters that compare the two ethnic immigrant communities – either in the same location (e.g. Jayati Bhattacharya’s chapter on Indian and Chinese jewellers in Singapore) or across two temporal periods (e.g. Hanashita Takeshi’s chapter on Indian and Chinese migrants’ remittance systems in nineteenth and twentieth centuries). There are also chapters that examine one ethnic immigrant community in two or more locations (e.g. Jayani Bonnerjee’s chapter on Hindu spaces in the Chinatowns in Kolkata and Singapore, and Zhang Xing’s chapter on Chinese Indians in Kolkata, Sihui and Toronto).

This volume is a useful resource for scholars interested in understanding the migrant experience – especially from the perspectives of migrant and diasporic communities. Drawing from the disciplines of history, geography, political science, anthropology, sociology, and film studies, the chapters in this volume showcase strong parallels and divergences in the Indian and Chinese immigrant experiences. More importantly, this book highlights the resilience of Indian and Chinese immigrant communities as they migrate and build their new homes wherever they may settle. As the world becomes progressively borderless and transnational, and new migrations map onto old paths and established communities, this book brings home the fact that migration is an increasingly complex phenomenon that requires renewed approaches and methodologies for us to fully comprehend.


2015 Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD). Migration and remittances factbook 2016. Washington D.C.: World Bank Group. Retrieved 24 Dec, 2015, from

2011 The Economist (2011, 17 Nov) Mapping migration: where are the world’s biggest Chinese and Indian immigrant communities? Accessed 24 Feb 2016, at

2014 Wong, S.-l. (ed.). Chinese and Indian diasporas: Comparative perspectives. Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong.


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