Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Introduction: The Hawai'i Chinese: Their Experience and Identity over Two Centuries

Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Introduction: The Hawai'i Chinese: Their Experience and Identity over Two Centuries

Article excerpt

How have people of Chinese descent fared in the Hawaiian Islands over the past two hundred years? What has become of them? And who exactly are the Hawai'i Chinese today? Questions of this sort were raised at our 1988 conference on the Chinese in Hawai'i and voiced on occasion during the Chinese Bicentennial celebrated throughout the state in 1989. Such basic questions are appropriate at this juncture. The Chinese were the first Asians to reach Hawai'i, and interest in their long and continuous presence in the Islands has invariably resulted in inquiries about the background and makeup of their group. In recent years, however, these matters have taken on greater relevance for the Hawai'i Chinese as they have become more keenly aware of their roots. As a result members of their community are evidencing renewed interest in their own cultural background and ancestral ties with China and more concern as to what it has meant to be sojourners, settlers, and citizens in a multicultural society overseas.

In this introductory essay we attempt to address these interests and concerns by focusing on the experience and identity of the Hawai'i Chinese over two centuries. These themes of experience and identity are the focuses of this volume. The theme of historical experience enables us to depict the events and situations that the island Chinese have taken part in or witnessed, and to trace the changing conditions they have encountered and the adjustments they have accordingly made. The theme of cultural identity, on the other hand, allows us to conceptualize from historical and empirical data. This helps us to analyze changes in the makeup of the group and gain insights as to how the island Chinese have distinguished themselves and been perceived by others over time. By means of these dual themes we endeavor not only to present a historical overview of the Hawai'i Chinese, but also to ascertain the identity of the group at different periods and under various conditions.

The themes of experience and identity have led us to visualize the Chinese in Hawai'i from broader perspectives as well. The island Chinese have been affected by affairs in China and North America and by transpacific contacts. They have also been influenced at times by regional and national issues. Concerns relating to the Chinese in Southeast Asia in recent decades, for example, have had a bearing on the island Chinese, particularly those island Chinese who immigrated from Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia. Moreover, the current issue of what "being Chinese" basically means, both in China and elsewhere, involves global matters of significance and has renewed scholarly interest in the present state of the Chinese diaspora around the world. We also attempt briefly to relate the recent experience and changing identity of the Hawai'i Chinese to this far-ranging issue.

In this short introduction we are not able to develop these dual themes fully in their many dimensions. Our discussion of the Hawai'i Chinese experience over such a long time span is necessarily limited to historical or diachronic summaries, along with references to specific episodes and events. We likewise treat the broad theme of cultural identity in a selective manner, for the cultural and ethnic variables are complex. The island Chinese, in fact, have never formed a homogeneous community, and over time their group has become more diverse and acquired multiple identities.

A number of factors account for this diversity. To begin with, intrinsic subcultural differences, stemming primarily from distinctions in dialect and local Guangdong provenance, have always tended to set portions of the group apart from one another. In recent decades the influx of new arrivals from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and provinces of China other than Guangdong has made the community more heterogeneous. Meanwhile, intermarriage between the Chinese and other ethnic groups has long taken place in Hawai'i. …

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