Sunday, June 28, 2020

Land of Opportunity: Chinese Migration to Southern Vietnam.

                                                                      by Jim Goodman

modern Chinese temple in Chợ Lợn, Hô Chi Minh City
       With the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, many Chinese who were not confident about their future under their new Manchu overlords, opted to leave China altogether for overseas relocation.  A popular choice was Faifo, today’s Hội An, a thriving port in Central Vietnam that already had a resident Chinese community since the mid-15th century.   In 1567 the Ming Court legalized overseas trade to the south, though not to Japan, and more Chinese arrived to set up trade, joining the Japanese and Vietnamese already there.

street in old Hội An
       The new wave of immigrants after 1644 made the Chinese community the largest in Faifo.  Known as the Minh Hương (Ming loyalists), they first moved into Trần Phụ and Lê Lợi Streets  and later organized themselves into separate communities linked by place of origin in China.  Each built its own temple and communal house, still in use and among the city’s main tourist attractions.  The principal Chinese trade item was silk, which mostly went to the Japanese in exchange for silver. 
       At that time Vietnam was divided.  Though the Lê Emperor was the figurehead ruler of the nation, two families, both from Thanh Hoá province, formed competing governments.  The Trịnh Lords ruled the north down to what is now Quảng Bình, while the Nguyễn Lords governed the lands south all the way to Nha Trang.  Hostilities between the two sides broke out periodically for two generations.  Four Trịnh invasions failed and one Nguyễn counter-invasion also failed.  In 1672 the two sides signed a truce and established a boundary between them that remained intact for over a century.
Chinese assembly hall in Hội An
       Faifo was the Nguyễn regime’s first and most important port.  During the trading season the city hosted great fairs featuring both luxury goods like silk, aromatic woods and jewelry and local products like sugar, pepper, rattan, cinnamon, musk, eaglewood, lac and gold.  Taxes collected on Faifo’s commerce, while deliberately moderate, nevertheless were the single biggest source of state revenue.
       Meanwhile, back in China, though the Manchus had declared a new dynasty, they did not yet directly control all of the country.  In the south they made agreements with ex-Ming generals to rule on behalf of Beijing with a large degree of local autonomy, even the right to collect taxes of their own and keep their armed units.  Eventually the local governors decided they could ignore the Qing Court entirely and revolted in the 1670s.  Under the young, untested new sovereign the Kang Xi Emperor, Qing forces subdued all the revolts and extinguished the last Ming restoration attempt.
Chinese temple courtyard, Hội An
       In the waning years of the revolt a group of 3000 armed Ming soldiers arrived in the Nguyển Lords’ realm seeking asylum.  For security reasons the Nguyễn Court did not want them settled anywhere near the capital.  And to refuse them asylum was to invite trouble.  So the Court split them into two groups and dispatched them to Biên Hoà and Mỹ Tho in the Mekong Delta.  It didn’t actually have any authority to do this, for the Nguyễn state’s borders then were only as far south as today’s Khánh Hòa province.

Hà Tiên harbor

Nominally, the Delta was part of Cambodia, but it was largely swamp back then, with most Khmer settlements near the mouth of the Mekong, too far for direct government control and so autonomous from the beginning.  Moreover, instability at the Cambodian Court was the norm, as royal factions fought each other for power.  Too weak to prevail on their own they sought allies from Siam or Vietnam.  In 1679 a pro-Vietnamese king ruled in Udong, Cambodia’s capital, so getting permission to settle the Chinese in Biên Hoà and Mỹ Tho was no problem.
       Now that the truce with the Trịnh regime was in effect, the Nguyễn Lords began turning their ambitions to the south.  Vietnamese had just started clearing land in Đông Nai and the Nguyễn Court hoped the admission of Chinese settlers would enhance river commerce and provide stability for further Vietnamese immigration.  In Biên Hoà this worked out according to expectations, but in Myỹ Tho Yang Yandi set up a pirate regime that preyed on all commerce.  He was later killed by his subordinate Huang Jin, who built a fort at Mỹ Tho and continued to harass river traffic.

Chinese temple in Hà Tiên
imported deity--the Jade Emperor, Hô Chí Minh City

       In 1686 the Nguyễn Court dispatched 6000 soldiers to defeat Huang Jin’s forces and took control of the fort, which became their base for eliminating the piracy threat.  In 1698 they demolished it.  That year the regime also took formal control of Biên Hoà and Prey Nokor, to be renamed Saigon, while more Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants arrived.  Many of the Minh Hương took Vietnamese wives and learned to speak Vietnamese, while retaining their Chinese identity and customs. 
Tuê Thánh Chinese temple, Hô Chí Minh City
       A large proportion of the Minh Hương came from Fujian, one of the provinces in the Revolt of the Three Feudatories.   Another group of Ming Chinese exiles, from Guangdong and led by Mạc Cưu, at first settled in eastern Cambodia and in 1700, with the permission of the Cambodian Court, Mạc Cưu founded a new city, called Hà Tiên, at what is now the southwestern tip of Vietnam.  With an excellent harbor, a mixed population of Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Malay and Siamese, Hà Tiên became the most important port in the Gulf of Thailand.
temple interior, Chợ Lợn
      The third group of Chinese immigrants, called the Thanh Nhân, came during the 18th century, from different parts of south and central China.  They maintained the hair braids and clothing style of Qing China, did not intermarry with Vietnamese, nor learn their language.  They organized themselves in associations called bang, based on regional affiliations, and raised military units to keep the peace.  Saigon drew a great number of them and they were responsible for the city’s commercial growth.
       Among the three groups, the Minh Hương came closest to assimilation.  Some of them rose to become ministers and advisors in the Nguyễn Lords’ government.  Mạc Cưu’s faction from Guangdong became an early and faithful ally of the Nguyễn Court.  While the Thanh Nhân group stayed aloof from Vietnamese society, they were reliable Nguyễn allies.  Their armed units even put down an uprising led by a renegade messianic Lao prince near Mỹ Tho in 1731.  The Chinese had less interaction with the indigenous Khmer, but in general got along with them. 

herbal medicine ship, Chợ  Lợn
residential neighborhood, Chợ Lợn

The Mekong Delta continued to lure immigrants in the 18th century.  Chinese set up shops in other towns, like Sóc Trăng, Trà Vinh and Cần Thơ, while Vietnamese continued to migrate from Central Vietnam to drain swamps, build canals and clear new farmland.  They did not attempt to displace the Khmer, just moved into vacant land in their vicinity.  The Khmer were still the largest community in the Delta, but they had always been autonomous, self-contained communities.  Even when the Nguyễn took administrative control of the Khmer areas the Court left them pretty much as they were.
       The same could be said for the Vietnamese and Chinese communities.  The Delta, still largely wild land, was a patchwork of little autonomous areas, with their own military units that sometimes cooperated with the Nguyễn Lords’ regime, sometimes ignored it entirely.   Even the regime’s own military units often acted according to their own interests.
local commerce on the Saigon Rive

By allying with Cambodian royal factions in the endless succession quarrels, the Nguyễn regime could extract greater territorial concessions whenever their side won the contest.  But it never established the direct authority in the Delta that it enjoyed in central Vietnam.  Subject to its own palace intrigues, the Nguyễn system began collapsing in mid-century.  In 1771 the Tây Sơn Revolt commenced, named after the village in Bình Định province that was home to the three brothers who commanded it—Nguyen Nhạc, Nguyen Huệ and Nguyen Lữ.
       The Tây Sơn forces steadily advanced north, but halted short of Phu Xuân, the Nguyễn Lords’ capital near modern Huế.  Meanwhile, the Trịnh Lords broke the truce and in 1774 captured Phu Xuân.  The Nguyễn family fled to the Mekong Delta.  But the Trịnh forces retreated north later and the Tây Son took over the city.  In 1777 they sent an army into the Delta, shattered the Nguyễn defenses, captured and publicly executed every member of the Nguyễn royal family except for 14-year-old Prince Nguyễn Ánh.  After that the invaders returned to Phu Xuân.

modern architecture in Hô Chí Minh City
skyscrapers dominate Hô Chí Minh City

       For the next 25 years Nguyễn Anh patiently organized his restoration campaign.  His family had not really established a strong base in the Delta and he could only win support by arousing loyalty to him personally.  He did this by cultivating personal relationships with regional commanders and keeping promises to those who joined his cause, even surrendered Tây Sơn officers.  He had several reverses along the way, barely escaped with his life at one point, but eventually united the Mekong Delta people and marched north, took the Tây Sơn capital and established the new Nguyễn Dynasty in 1802.
       To a great extent the Tây Sơn aided his cause by their extremely harsh rule when they occupied the Delta.  Learning of his survival, in 1782 Tây Sơn forces invaded the Delta, advanced into Saigon and slaughtered at least 10,000 Chinese residents.  Their purpose was to crush the Nguyễn economy (Portuguese merchants in Saigon then were also murdered).  They’d done that before in Hội An and Đà Nẵng, but after this incident Chinese in the south threw all their support behind Nguyễn Ánh. 
the Chinese-built Clay Pagoda in Sóc Trăng
       Three years later the Tây Sơn returned to defeat a Siamese naval expedition in support of Nguyễn Ánh.  This time they left a residual military force to administer the region, so brutally as to alienate those parts of the population that had previously been unaffected.  Regional militias from all three major communities joined the Nguyễn side and helped expel the Tây Sơn in 1788 and marched all the way to Hanoi for his final victory.
       The new emperor took the name Gia Long and appointed one of his southern commanders to govern the Delta.  Chinese businesses revived and grew, though the Delta was still very under-populated and the Vietnamese not a majority there until well into the 19th century.  When the French took Cochinchina, as they called the Delta provinces, they promoted policies that favored the Chinese.  Along with the British and Russians, they had already forced on China the First Convention of Peking, which permitted Chinese to seek overseas employment, especially to their colonies.
       The colonial regime also sponsored the internal migration of northern farmers to unoccupied lands in Cochinchina to make new farms.  Chinese immigrants came to set up commerce in the new towns, though most 19th century immigrants settled in northern and central Vietnam.  But in the 1920s and 30s, around 600,000 Chinese fled the civil war and moved to Vietnam, mostly in the south. 
Chinese temple in Trà Vinh
opera  performers, Hô Chí Minh City

They thrived in their new locations, thanks to French favoritism, and continued to dominate business and commerce with the creation of South Vietnam.  With the northern conquest in 1975 and the imposition of a state-run economy, the Chinese community suffered enough to lead many of them to try to escape, like the ‘boat people’, especially after the Vietnam-China War in 1979, when all Chinese residents’ loyalty to Vietnam was under suspicion.
       That suspicion disappeared after the 1990 normalization of ties between the two countries.  Vietnam had already launched its new, semi-capitalist economic renovation program and the Chinese in the south were quick to take advantage.  Hô Chí Minh City, ex-Saigon, became the most prosperous city in Vietnam, with towering skyscrapers comparable to other Southeast Asian metropolises like Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.. 
Chinese opera performance, New Year in  Hô Chí Minh City
       It’s still the most modern-looking city in the country, even while development has sponsored similar changes throughout Vietnam’s cities.  Hô Chí Minh City has a few old temples, but no real Old Quarter like Hanoi, just some remaining European buildings from colonial times.  Chợ Lợn, the city’s main Chinese quarter, (the name means Big Market) has also modernized, but is still a tourist attraction for its very Chinese atmosphere, food, market, Buddhist temples and Catholic Church.  The Chinese temple to the Jade Emperor, in another part of the city, still attracts devotees and visitors.
       Vietnam’s Chinese, officially the Hoa minority, are now fully integrated into Vietnamese society.  While they may retain many Chinese customs and practices, the exclusivity that used to mark the Thanh Nhân Chinese has vanished.  Vietnamese have historically been wary of China, often with good reason, but in general accept the Hoa community as fully Vietnamese.  Relations between the two countries flare up at times, usually over competing offshore sovereignty claims, but local anger tends to target recently established Chinese business enterprises and not the home-grown Chinese community.  
       The Hoa are the main engine driving Vietnam’s industrial and commercial growth.  The government is not likely to upset their role, no matter what happens with China.  Vietnam’s Chinese, in turn, are not going to do anything politically to undermine their enhanced economic condition.  To them, more than ever, Vietnam is a Land of Opportunity.

Chợ Lợn Market, Hô Chí Minh City
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