In June 1985, forty historians, economists, anthropologists and political scientists gathered at the Australian National University in Canberra to reexamine current thinking about the parameters of identity for people of Chinese descent who live in Southeast Asia today. The symposium, 'Changing Identities of the Southeast Asian Chinese since World War II' (June 14-16) marked the end of a three-year project organized by Wang Gungwu which sought to explore various aspects of Chinese community life in Southeast Asia. ANU scholars who had been involved in the project and scholars from universities elsewhere in Australia, North America and Southeast Asia were invited to share their research into the complex issues that overlapping categories of identity raise.
Because country of residence has been critical in shaping Chinese perceptions of themselves in relation to those around them, we had hoped to include papers from across the entire region. We found, however, that most current research interests seem to centre on Chinese in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines and, that with few exceptions, there was little being written about the Chinese in Burma, Vietnam, Kampuchea, Laos or Thailand. The papers in this volume may therefore appear unduly weighted towards problems of Chinese identity in these four ASEAN countries; our intention was to have covered broader ground and we hope that the abstracts of contributions dealing with mainland Southeast Asia may provide directions for further research.
Not all Southeast Asian Chinese live in the region. Chinese migrants who have settled in North America, Europe and Australia have taken with them their Southeast Asian identities as well as their Chinese. Identity in such circumstances becomes even more multi-faceted and cultural boundaries less certain. Three of the participants address the question of how much of the content of Canadian and Australian Chinese identity is specifically Chinese or whether it has been modified by their Southeast Asian sojourn.
Identity was chosen as the focus of the symposium because in our discussions during the course of the project about what was happening in Chinese society outside of China, everything seemed to come back to perceptions of self--whether by others or by the individual Chinese concerned. It also became clear that identity wears many guises and that it is pointless to talk about a single Chinese identity when identity can be determined by the different political, social, economic or religious circumstances an individual faces at any given time. Wang Gungwu's introductory essay and Charles Hirschman's comment on his paper explore some of the ways these multiple identities interact and intersect in the context of the considerable literature on ethnicity.