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Published in Asia Times (Australia) 13th October 2006




It is crucial to distinguish Nationality and ethnicity. An American Chinese, Australian Chinese, British Chinese, Indonesian Chinese, Malaysian Chinese, Singaporean Chinese, Vietnamese Chinese would be an American, Australian, British, Indonesian, Malaysian, Singaporean, or Vietnamese citizen or resident of Chinese origin. However a Malaysian Chinese migrating to Australia would be statistically classified as a Malaysian but consider himself as ethnic Chinese. An Indian born in India who has acquired U.K. citizenship but living in Western Australia would be a U.K. citizen, Australian resident of Indian ethnic background.



As ethnic groups the Asians are highly visible; quite easily distinguished from Caucasians. Some of them are fast emerging as a respectable group in the fields of academic, business, and professional communities. The group is increasingly recognised as useful promoters for trade, cultural and political endeavours with Asia.


Contrary to common perception, it is impossible to profile the Asians. It is also not easy to profile a sub-group of Asians such as the Chinese or Indians.


Take for example the Chinese community[1]. It actually comprised of several sub-groups, without many common denomination. Profiling the Chinese would undoubtedly be a challenge for any anthropologist as the Ethnic Chinese do not share many identifiable traits. For example:


Country of Origin Over the centuries migrants from China have settled in “South China Sea” [Nányáng] ??, where eighty percent of overseas Chinese reside.

An ethnic Chinese could come from any country or region. As these are independent countries, the country of origin, other than China, does not imply that the migrants are ethnic Chinese. The picture is further complicated by migrants coming from a third country to resettle in another country. A case in point would be an ethnic Chinese in Singapore, migrating to U.S. or U.K., finally deciding to call Australia home.


Name: Many people could be surprised to find out that ethnic Chinese from countries such as Indonesia or Thailand does not necessarily have a Chinese sounding name. Due to political needs ethnic Chinese have been discouraged to keep their Chinese names.


Language: Language is certainly not a criterion to determine whether someone is an ethnic Chinese. While the first generation migrants from China or Chinese speaking families speak and write Chinese, the same cannot be said for subsequent generations. The situation varies from country to country. In Singapore Mandarin is one of the official languages, while in Malaysia parents are free to send their children to Chinese primary and secondary schools. In Indonesia however, until recently the teaching of Chinese was officially banned, signifying that most ethnic Chinese there would not speak the language. Nevertheless they might understand or perhaps speak one of the dialects at home.


Religion: The Chinese community does not have a dominant religion unlike the Europeans or Arabs. Depending on educational background, family heritage, etc, an ethnic Chinese could be a Buddhist, Taoist, Confucianist, Christian, Muslim, or Bahai. There are many Christians amongst the ethnic Chinese.


Cultural heritage: Cultural heritage is not a criterion for Chinese ethnicity. Depending on their educational background, in particular their understanding of the Chinese language and culture, the practice of culture vary tremendously, there being no “typical” sets of rules to be followed to the full.


Political doctrine: Coming from such a diverse background, ethnic Chinese certainly do not subscribe to any collective political doctrine. As a whole ethnic Chinese are adaptable and pragmatic, adapting themselves quite easily from one political system to another.


Physical Features: It is true that most ethnic Chinese have broadly similar physical features such as black, relatively straight hairs, various shades of “banana” colour skins, etc. However in terms of these features they could resemble the Japanese or Koreans.


A Chinese Profile?

It is doubtful whether a typical Chinese profile could be established, taking any of the ethnicity criteria, or a combination of them. Other than the Chinese nationals, it is increasingly difficult to typify the ethnic Chinese. This is particularly so when marriages between ethnic Chinese and other races are becoming more common.


It is important to note that overseas Chinese ?? [Huáqiáo] do not identify themselves as ??? [Zhongguórén], the term used for Chinese from China. They would call themselves ?? [Huárén], ??[2] [Hànrén], or ?? [Tángrén]. As you would have guessed, ? [rén] means people.


In general terms ? [huá] or ?? [Zhonghuá] refers to China or Chinese. The almost 100 year old Chung Wah Association in Perth, for example, is the Cantonese version of the Mandarin words for “Chinese Association” [Zhonghuá huìguan] ????.



[1] Information taken from the book “The Chinese Dimensions – their roots, mindset and psyche” by Y. S. Yow, 2006

[2] The dominant race in China. Of course the minorities do not regard themselves as Hans.

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