Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Migrant Family Drama Revisited: Mainland Chinese Immigrants in Singapore

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Migrant Family Drama Revisited: Mainland Chinese Immigrants in Singapore

Article excerpt

Long, a thirty-eight-year-old man, came to Singapore in 1997. He had been an engineer in China. Through friends who were working in Singapore, he learned of a job opening there and relocated. A year later his wife Jian joined him. Jian, a doctor with more than eight years of medical practice, was unable to recertify herself in Singapore; she gave up her medical practice and now works part-time in a Chinese language school. (1) Their son, Guang, arrived with Long's parents, who had taken care of him since Jian's departure, the following year. Now eight, Guang attends a local primary school near their flat in the eastern part of the island. After school he is taken care of at home by Long's retired parents.

In 1992, Le, in his late thirties, came to Singapore from Australia, where he had studied and worked for three years. His wife joined him in Australia in 1988, a few months after his arrival there. Their daughter Lydia, who was then only a year old, was left in the care of her maternal grandparents in China. Le did not know about this childcare arrangement until he met his wife at the airport. (2) When he was recruited to work in Singapore, arrangements were made for Lydia to rejoin them. While Le continued to pursue his career, his wife gave up her job as a human resources manager. The woman, who never had any intention of becoming a full-time homemaker, was forced to become one.

Ling came to Singapore in 1997; her daughter En followed a year later. Her husband, the first in the family to move, had made use of his technical skills, which were in high demand in Singapore then, to facilitate his move out of China. Ling followed shortly, but while her husband had maintained his job status, Ling lost hers. Despite having a good degree from a renowned university and years of experience in teaching, she could not find a job in a field she was trained in. She later went back to school to "upgrade" her skills.

Zhen, twenty-seven, was engaged to a childhood friend, Shan, who came to Singapore in mid-1996 for his postgraduate studies. The two did not see each other again until Shan returned to China for their wedding in December 1998. They communicated via letters, e-mail, and telephone when they were making their marriage preparations. Within a-year-and-a-half they had a newborn son. They lived in a flat with their son and Shan's mother, who came over to Singapore to help out with the baby. This enabled Zhen to return to work after her one-month maternity leave. She works as an administrative clerk in an insurance company, a job that she felt fortunate to have found soon after arriving in Singapore. (3)

The Chinese have always been comfortable with migration. Each wave of migrants is the result of different circumstances, and has its own opportunities and constraints. The peak of out-migration occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, when massive numbers of people flowed out of China to all parts of the world during the "coolie trade", but Chinese migrations did not begin or end there (Pan 1998; Sowell 1996). (4) Migrations out of China have continued.

Compared with other countries, such as those in North America, Europe, Australia, and Southeast Asia, Singapore is a different sort of destination for Chinese migrants. Unlike places where the Chinese are a minority and live together in the same area as "foreigners", Chinese foreign-ness in Singapore, where the Chinese majority stands at 76.5 per cent, is relatively inconspicuous. This, however, does not mean that the divide is invisible. In fact, constant efforts to distinguish between each other are not only made by the Singaporean Chinese but also by their counterparts from China. (5)

Social distance is evident. Despite being so similar in physical appearance to the "natives" that nobody can tell the two apart, the migrant from China remains "foreign" and, therefore, at a distance. Like Simmel's (1908) stranger, the contemporary Chinese migrant works and lives in Singapore, and is therefore "fixed" here. …

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