International History and Politics
10 May 2022

The In-betweenness of the Straits Chinese

In his master dissertation, Christian Jones investigates the Straits Chinese community and their positioning relative to the British Empire and the Chinese Empire around 1900, at the crossroads of East and West in colonial Southeast Asia. At a time when identity was bound to race and nation, the Straits Chinese found themselves not quite Chinese and not quite British, underlining tensions between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. Christian Jones demonstrates how, by virtue of their in-between position, the Straits Chinese found themselves relegated to the margins of the new world order in the making. His findings, which he details in this interview, won him the 2021 Prize of the Association Genève-Asie and are now published in open access thanks to the support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

I became interested in the Straits Chinese after attending a course on Chinese emigration taught by Dr Rachel Leow at the University of Cambridge. The following summer, I visited Malaysia and Singapore and I was fascinated by the mix of cultures that the Straits Chinese community represented. I realised that by researching them I could also speak to the wider themes that I was and remain interested in, namely cosmopolitanism and nationalism. As I began looking through primary sources, I was struck by how the Straits Chinese were constantly having to negotiate their own identity in relation to the colonial environment of British Malaya as well as their putative homeland, China. This chimed with my own experiences, growing up in a different country to that of my parents and feeling like I was straddling two cultures. As a result, I began to put a greater emphasis on the social/cultural dimensions of this story rather than approaching it solely as a question of the history of political thought. 

Can you describe your research questions and methodology?

My initial guiding question was how and why nationalism and cosmopolitanism coincided and interacted with each other in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular, I wanted to intervene in an ongoing historical debate about the non-inevitability of decolonisation and the nation-state form. In recent years, many historians have revisited this period and described it as one of globalisation, internationalism and cosmopolitanism rather than solely rising nationalisms. And yet, those nationalisms were certainly also present, and seeing them as necessarily opposed to cosmopolitan ideas ignores their coexistence and often overlapping interests. Numerous prominent nationalists also held cosmopolitan ideas and lived cosmopolitan lives. This was not necessarily contradictory. Furthermore, I felt that historians had paid little attention to the social worlds in which such ideas arose. Thus, instead of focusing solely on political texts, I decided to look at a specific community, the Straits Chinese, and think about cosmopolitanism as a lived experience wrapped up in questions of identity and belonging. The Straits Chinese offered an ideal way into these broader questions given their predicament between Britain, China and Malaya. How did the Straits Chinese position themselves between the three worlds they could claim to be a part of? Why, for example, did many Straits Chinese support the republican movement in China and proudly proclaim to be British subjects at the same time? How did racial discourses pollute legal claims to citizenship? My research into these questions was helped by the fantastic digitised newspaper archives from the National Library of Singapore which I made extensive use of given the limited opportunities to travel thanks to the pandemic. What resulted was a study that combines a social history focus on race, migration and identity with political and intellectual history.

What are your major findings?

The period in question, roughly 1890–1920, was critical in the refashioning of the international system from a world of empires to a world of nation-states. In my study, I stress the continued importance of non-national forms of political identification and demonstrate how this transition left more cosmopolitan individuals and communities behind. While in earlier decades, the Straits Chinese had been able to articulate multiple, overlapping identities that crossed oceans and states, by the end of the First World War, such ideas of belonging were becoming much harder to maintain. In political and legal terms, race and nationality were conflated such that being a British subject of Chinese race, born and raised in Malaya, was increasingly seen as problematic. In contrast to past historiography, I argue that both Britain and China offered potential for a kind of cosmopolitanism within or out of empire, but this promise was rarely matched by realities on the ground. Consequently, I show how the Straits Chinese struggled to find a place for themselves in an increasingly monochromatic world, unable to advance in the colonial civil service for example, or being viewed as imperialist collaborators in China. At the same time, my study suggests that spaces like the cities of the Straits Settlements were crucial for the flourishing of such communities and their political ideas. While hierarchy and exclusion may have been persistent problems, urban environments stand out as incubators for this kind of habitus, contra the nationalism we are perhaps more accustomed to. 

What are you currently doing? Are you continuing your research on the Straits Chinese?

To some extent, the story I tell in this study is incomplete, as many of its core issues continue to resonate in the decades up to and after independence. The history of decolonisation in Malaysia and Singapore has typically been written as a negotiation and compromise between each communal bloc (Malay, Chinese and Indian) but much less has been said about those who existed between those blocs, or in more than one at the same time. In my current PhD research, I am looking beyond the Straits Chinese to other hybrid communities in Malaya and uncovering their roles in decolonisation. Again, I want to combine this with more social and cultural history, looking at things like schools, newspapers and associational life wherein we often find that descriptions in colonial documents and life on the ground rarely matched. Uncovering this history seems especially important now as many countries grapple with questions of identity and belonging in the wake of rising migration. Malaysia and Singapore stand out as significant examples in the history of nation-state formation and multiracialism. I hope that my continued research in this area will shed light on these timely global themes. 

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The Straits Chinese between Empires: Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in Colonial Malaya, c.1890–1920 was published thanks to the financial support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation. It reproduces Christian Jones’ master dissertation (supervisor: Michael Goebel), which won the 2021 Prize of the Association Genève-Asie for the best Asia-related master thesis.

How to cite:
Jones, Christian. The Straits Chinese between Empires: Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in Colonial Malaya, c.1890–1920. Graduate Institute ePaper 45. Geneva: Graduate Institute Publications, 2022.

Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Justin Adam Lee/
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.