Category Archives: migration

Missionary Interrogators in the Pacific

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 3201-35, 3284-3321:

[A]mong the first wave of US Marines to hit the beach at Guadalcanal on August 8, 1942, was a man who had been a Congregationalist missionary to Japan for twenty-six years.

Sherwood F. Moran (1885–1983) had been home on furlough on December 7, 1941. Immediately, he went to US Marine headquarters in Washington. Volunteering for service, he told the Marines there that his idiomatic Japanese was probably better than any other American’s. The Marines sent him to the South Pacific, and put him in charge of interrogating POWs. He had radical ideas about how this task should be carried out: “By the expression on your face, the glance of your eye, the tone of your voice” you must “get him to know” that you really do regard all men as “brothers,” he instructed other Marines. He proved to be so good at extracting intelligence from captured soldiers that he was told to write an instruction manual for others assigned to this job. The resulting document systematically rejected the beliefs of many Marines that Japanese prisoners should be shot, if not tortured. The American interviewer, Moran’s manual advised, should speak to the Japanese prisoner “as a human being to a human being,” treating him with respect.

On Guadalcanal, Moran was by far the oldest man around. He was soon being called “Pappy” by the young men working under his supervision. Language fluency was what got Moran to the South Pacific, but what he did with his Japanese is what made history. Moran may have been, as his family liked to say of him, “probably the only Marine of his era who never took a drink, never smoked a cigarette, and never cursed.” He was much more than that. He was, among other things, a classic ecumenical Protestant missionary.

Educated at Oberlin College and at Union Theological Seminary, and inspired more by Jane Addams’s social work than by any ideology of religious conversion, Moran was a devoted follower of the Student Volunteer Movement’s greatest orator, Sherwood Eddy. Moran and Eddy were sometimes called “the two Sherwoods” because Moran served for a year as Eddy’s personal secretary, traveling with him and absorbing his liberal views about the missionary project. Worldly enough to have become an accomplished tap dancer, and to have considered a career in vaudeville before a trusted female friend warned him against the unwholesome characters he would meet in the New York theater milieu, Moran was anything but retiring in his ways and was far from orthodox in his theology. Moran married his Oberlin sweetheart, Ursul, and settled down with her in Japan to raise a family and exemplify what the two understood to be a Christian life, and to help local Japanese in whatever way they could. Moran quickly took a serious interest in Buddhism and in Japanese art—on which he published several monographs late in life—and became an outspoken critic of the militarism of the Japanese ruling elite.

Moran’s manual instructed the interrogators to speak to a Japanese prisoner not only as a brother, but almost as a seducer. In his very first paragraph Moran compared the “interviewer”—a label he preferred to “interrogator”—to a “lover.” Each interviewer must develop his own skills, so that each “will gradually work out a technique of his own, his very own, just as a man does in making love to a woman! The comparison is not merely a flip bon mot; the interviewer should be a real wooer!” Some Marines in their “hard-boiled” manner will “sneer that this is a sentimental attitude,” Moran predicted, but he urged resolution and persistence in the face of such banal scorn. The central theme of “Suggestions for Japanese Interpreters Based on Work in the Field,” as the manual was entitled, was the need to establish rapport with the prisoner. Moran insisted that “the Japanese soldier is a person to be pitied rather than hated,” a man who has been misled, deceived, and manipulated by his government and his officers. Every prisoner actually had a story he wanted to tell, and the job of the interviewer was to create an atmosphere in which the prisoner would tell it. The interviewer should learn as much as he could about Japan and its history and culture. Those like himself who had lived in Japan had a great advantage, yes, but others should do all they could to inform themselves so as to do a better job.

Of course one must never forget the goal of extracting intelligence.

The missionary foundation for Moran’s work with POWs becomes all the more significant when we recognize two counterparts in the army and the navy who adopted virtually the same approach, and who were both missionary sons. The notorious service rivalries in the Pacific war prevented Moran from knowing about it, but Army Col. John Alfred Burden (1900–1999) and Navy Lt. Otis Carey [sic] (1921–2006) were operating on the basis of the same instincts. That the anti-torture policies and practices of all three services in the Pacific War were instituted by missionary-connected Americans has gone unnoticed until now. A sign of just how thoroughly this episode had been forgotten by the 1980s is the fact that none of these three men is mentioned in two books written in that decade by the leading students of the war in the Pacific: Akira Iriye’s Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War, 1941–1945 and John W. Dower’s War Without Mercy.

“Otis Cary’s name,” reports Ulrich Straus, “was the only one cited repeatedly” many years after the war, when Japanese veterans “wrote up their wartime experience in prison camps.” Cary, who was remembered with respect, even affection, “was determined,” writes Straus, “to treat prisoners not as enemies but as human beings, individuals who deserved to have a bright future aiding in the reconstruction of a new, democratic Japan.” The son and grandson of Congregationalist missionaries, Cary, who always considered Japanese his native language, had come “home” in 1936 to attend Deerfield Academy and then Amherst College, as did so many missionary sons. He enlisted in 1942 and by early 1943 was the navy’s primary officer for interrogation. He was stationed first in Hawaii and then in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, where he led in the interrogation of POWs captured in the fighting there. Cary was first hampered by the army, which was in control of the American operation in the Aleutians and wanted nothing to do with the navy’s Japanese language specialists. Still, Cary managed to win acceptance when he had the astonishing luck of encountering, as his first POW, a soldier from his own hometown in Japan. Carey extracted information from this man that was deemed highly valuable by the top brass.

But Cary did not operate on a large scale until later in the war, in the Marianas, especially on Saipan in the summer of 1944. It was there that Cary, confronted with a flood of captives, made such a lasting impression on the soldiers he interrogated. “Following lengthy discussions,” notes Straus, many of the prisoners “eventually found persuasive Cary’s argument that [they] had given their all in the service of their country, had nothing to be ashamed of, and should look forward to contributing to the reconstruction of a post-war Japan.”

Cary’s successes in the Aleutians and the Marianas would be better known if he had written about his exploits in English instead of only in Japanese. As translated by Straus, Cary explained that the soldiers “were used to being coerced and knew how to take evasive measures,” but “if treated humanely, they lost the will to resist.” While there were rumors about high pressure methods used on the POWs, Cary insisted that nothing of the sort happened on his watch. The unanimous postwar testimony of the POWs in his charge vindicates the claim. Cary went back to Japan after the war and headed the American Studies program at Doshisha University, the close partner of his US alma mater, Amherst. Largely unknown in the United States, to which he returned ten years before his death in 2006, Cary was an important and widely celebrated figure in Japanese academia.

Cary apparently had no contact with his Army counterpart, John Alfred Burden, who was a medical doctor in Hawaii at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Burden immediately enlisted in the army, ready to use the language skills he acquired as a Tokyo-born son and the grandson of Seventh-day Adventist missionaries. He was able to speak the Tokyo dialect more fluently than most of the Nisei with whom he worked in the South Pacific. As a captain posted to Fiji in October 1942, Burden was frustrated that his superiors did not quickly send him into the combat zones where his language facility could be of immediate use. He finally persuaded them to send him to Guadalcanal in December, accompanied by two Japanese Americans who, Burden complained bitterly, had been stuck in a prejudice-filled atmosphere on Fiji driving trucks around the base. Burden went on to lead the first joint Caucasian-Nisei team of interrogators, eventually establishing an impressive record.

This very long extract will have to be my last from this book. Burden and Cary deserve their own Wikipedia articles, as do a few other missionaries who once worked for the OSS.

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Filed under education, Japan, language, migration, military, nationalism, Pacific, religion, U.S., war

Missionaries and the Growth of Area Studies

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4678-4717:

THE MAN WHO came to be called the “viceroy” of South Asian Studies had a high position in government during World War II and used it to promote the academic study of India. Missionary son W. Norman Brown (1892–1975) got to know Kenneth Landon in the Washington headquarters of the Office of Strategic Services. But unlike Landon, who had heavy policy responsibilities, Brown was in the research division, where he headed the South Asian section. In 1943, Brown convened a “private IPR roundtable” at Princeton to talk about India. The main item on the agenda was Brown’s memorandum, “Suggested Program to Promote the Study of India in the United States.” The memorandum called for the creation of institutes, teaching programs, and public lectures designed to advance knowledge of India.

That an officer of the OSS could run a private event under the auspices of the Institute of Pacific Relations highlights the easy back-and-forth between IPR and government officialdom. The roundtable also shows how an OSS officer could promote an academic cause not immediately related to the war effort. The roundtable is revealing, further, for the individuals who participated in it. Brown knew how to light a fire under people located in potentially relevant networks. The recently elected congressman Walter Judd was there. So was the prominent Asian affairs writer T. A. Bisson, who was then serving on the wartime Board of Economic Welfare. Present, too, was Harry B. Price, the lobbyist who had been Executive Director of the “Price Committee”—the American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression—and who by 1943 was coordinating the Lend-Lease program for China. Brown made sure that the Rockefeller Foundation sent representatives. The group also included journalist Varian Fry, already a legend in Washington circles because of his death-defying work for the Emergency Rescue Committee in Vichy France, smuggling more than two thousand anti-Nazi refugees out of Marseille. The presence of Judd, Bisson, and Price, all of whom were former missionaries to China, shows how Brown mobilized the missionary network for his own purposes, and how that network easily bridged different mission fields.

After the war the enterprising Brown established himself as one of the most successful empire builders in an academic generation legendary for its empire building. Whenever there was a committee related to his interests, Brown ended up chairing it. Whenever there was a center or an institute to be established, Brown was invited to serve as its director. Whenever there was an academic position to be filled, Brown’s advice was taken into account. Whenever there were funds to be distributed, Brown was part of the decision process. Whenever there was a major event concerning India, Brown’s views about it were quoted. Focused, efficient, and determined, Brown was the prototype of the academic operator.

Brown’s counterpart in postwar Japanese Studies was another missionary son, Edwin Reischauer. The Chinese Studies equivalent was John K. Fairbank, who was neither a missionary son nor a former missionary but whose formation as a scholar was heavily influenced by the missionary contingent. This chapter is devoted to the careers of these three men and the attendant growth of what came to be called Foreign Area Studies. By 1967, missionary son and Japan scholar John W. Hall was justified in claiming that the success of Area Studies in the previous twenty years had rendered obsolete the old charge that American academia was parochial. The universities of no other nation had achieved as wide a global range as those of the United States. This could happen as rapidly as it did because so many missionary-connected individuals were ready to make it work. In no other institutional setting was missionary cosmopolitanism more visible than in academia, and nowhere was its Asian center of gravity more consequential.

There were few American missionaries in Russia and Eastern Europe. Programs for that part of the world developed without significant missionary background. This was also true for programs focused on Western Europe and its sub-regions. Latin American Studies had no special need for missionary-connected individuals because Latin America was the subject of extensive academic study before the war and its major language—Spanish—was widely spoken in the United States. 3 There were plenty of missionaries in sub-Saharan Africa, but the Foreign Service and the OSS did little recruiting there because that region was not a major theater in World War II, and its strategic significance in the Cold War was not recognized until much later.

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Pearl Buck as Egalitarian Feminist

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 792-816:

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck was an extraordinary woman whose significance in the histories of the United States, of women, and of feminism remains to be fully registered. Luce’s importance has been clear for some time, even if rarely analyzed in relation to his missionary background. Buck is most often remembered as an overrated novelist and as a major influence on American images of China. She was both. But she was also more than that.

Buck was, as James C. Thomson Jr. has observed, the most influential interpreter of China to the West since Marco Polo. The Good Earth, published in 1931, was the first and foremost vehicle for her most widely disseminated message, which was that Chinese people were as fully human and endowed with dignity as the average American, and equally worthy of respect. Buck wrote more than seventy other books, fifteen of which were Book-of-the-Month-Club selections and many of which have been published in hundreds of editions. Her writings have been translated into at least thirty-six languages. She is one of the most famous American writers of any generation, and by far the most widely translated female author in American history.

Buck’s anti-imperialist, antiracist, and even feminist credentials are impeccable. She advocated independence for India well before it was achieved, opposed the confinement of Japanese Americans, campaigned for the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and criticized the Kuomintang without romanticizing the Chinese Communists. She demanded that women have access to birth control technologies and as early as 1941 had articulated most of the ideas about women later popularized by Betty Friedan’s 1963 volume The Feminine Mystique. Buck founded and financed the first adoption agency specializing in transracial adoption, and designed a program to rescue the mixed-race offspring of American soldiers—especially African Americans who fought in the Korean War—from neglect and rejection in Asian societies. She was a major figure in the reconsideration of the American missionary project itself. In these and other activities, Buck was “an evangelist for equality,” in the words of biographer Peter Conn. Buck was, for “three decades,” affirms another biographer, Hilary Spurling, a campaigner “for peace, tolerance, and liberal democracy, for the rights of children and minorities, for an end to discrimination on grounds of race and gender.”

Buck especially touched American women of her generation, above all those who read magazines like Reader’s Digest and Saturday Evening Post. As late as 1966 readers of Good Housekeeping voted her as one of the most admired women in America, surpassed only by Rose Kennedy, mother of the recently martyred president. In 2004, Oprah Winfrey renewed The Good Earth’s status as a best-seller by choosing a new edition for her own highly influential Book Club. In a typical reflection of 2010, the young writer Deborah Friedell observed that Buck was the favorite novelist of both of her grandmothers.

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Filed under China, democracy, education, Japan, Korea, migration, military, publishing, South Asia, U.S.

Are Missionary Children Special?

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 439-62:

The special circumstances of missionary children inspired widespread discussion within the churches beginning about 1930. A study of several hundred Methodist missionary children from India found that the sons and daughters of missionaries were much more likely to attend college and to obtain postgraduate degrees than other Americans, and that they “tend to become cosmopolitan in their interests.” More cosmopolitan, but also, it was often said, more traumatized by the cultural shock of adjusting to life in the United States, regardless of their age when they left the foreign mission field. From the 1930s to the present, missionary organizations have offered advice to missionary children on how to cope with the distinctive psychological traumas associated with a missionary upbringing.

It is far from clear that missionary children as adults were disproportionately subject to emotional problems and mental illness, more likely to be depressed or to commit suicide than others in their age cohort. Nor do I find reliable evidence that parental religious beliefs, parenting styles, the mission environment, encounter with “natives,” or any other specific set of factors correlate more than others with the psychological stress of missionary children. Yet that such risks were greater for them has been taken for granted. The memoirs of even the most successful of missionary children comment on the psychological challenges they experienced in adjusting to mainstream American life. Princeton University president and ambassador Robert Goheen felt his own experience was relatively easy, in part because he was a younger son and had the experiences of his older siblings to make the entry into American society less traumatic. So firmly established is this pattern in the self-representation of missionary children that John Hersey included the travails of an emotionally disturbed missionary son in The Call, a novel of 1986 designed as a panoramic commentary on the American missionary experience in China.

The literature on missionary children identifies a number of sources for this pervasive sense of psychological risk. Separation from parents to attend boarding school or to live with relatives in the United States was one. Another was the culture shock of immersion in American life as a teenager after having spent one’s childhood in a different environment. Alternating between one household abroad and another in an American community made some children feel that they lacked a single and stable home. Some missionary parents left the impression that their labors were so important (“I must be about my father’s business,” Jesus told followers who wanted his attention, according to Luke 2:49) that the needs of children became secondary.

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Weaponizing Famine in Ukraine, 1930s

From Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 194-221:

But the bourgeoisie had not created the famine. The Soviet Union’s disastrous decision to force peasants to give up their land and join collective farms; the eviction of “kulaks,” the wealthier peasants, from their homes; the chaos that followed; these policies, all ultimately the responsibility of Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, had led the countryside to the brink of starvation. Throughout the spring and summer of 1932, many of Stalin’s colleagues sent him urgent messages from all around the USSR, describing the crisis. Communist Party leaders in Ukraine were especially desperate, and several wrote him long letters, begging him for help.

Many of them believed, in the late summer of 1932, that a greater tragedy could still be avoided. The regime could have asked for international assistance, as it had during a previous famine in 1921. It could have halted grain exports, or stopped the punishing grain requisitions altogether. It could have offered aid to peasants in starving regions—and to a degree it did, but not nearly enough.

Instead, in the autumn of 1932, the Soviet Politburo, the elite leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, took a series of decisions that widened and deepened the famine in the Ukrainian countryside and at the same time prevented peasants from leaving the republic in search of food. At the height of the crisis, organized teams of policemen and party activists, motivated by hunger, fear and a decade of hateful and conspiratorial rhetoric, entered peasant households and took everything edible: potatoes, beets, squash, beans, peas, anything in the oven and anything in the cupboard, farm animals and pets.

The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger between 1931 and 1934 all across the Soviet Union. Among them were more than 3.9 million Ukrainians. In acknowledgement of its scale, the famine of 1932–3 was described in émigré publications at the time and later as the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger—holod—and extermination—mor.

But famine was only half the story. While peasants were dying in the countryside, the Soviet secret police simultaneously launched an attack on the Ukrainian intellectual and political elites. As the famine spread, a campaign of slander and repression was launched against Ukrainian intellectuals, professors, museum curators, writers, artists, priests, theologians, public officials and bureaucrats. Anyone connected to the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic, which had existed for a few months from June 1917, anyone who had promoted the Ukrainian language or Ukrainian history, anyone with an independent literary or artistic career, was liable to be publicly vilified, jailed, sent to a labour camp or executed. Unable to watch what was happening, Mykola Skrypnyk, one of the best-known leaders of the Ukrainian Communist Party, committed suicide in 1933. He was not alone.

Taken together, these two policies—the Holodomor in the winter and spring of 1933 and the repression of the Ukrainian intellectual and political class in the months that followed—brought about the Sovietization of Ukraine, the destruction of the Ukrainian national idea, and the neutering of any Ukrainian challenge to Soviet unity. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who invented the word “genocide,” spoke of Ukraine in this era as the “classic example” of his concept: “It is a case of genocide, of destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.”

Famine was also an effective weapon of mass destruction in Ethiopia during the 1980s.

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Chinese Overseas Labor Recuitment, 1800s

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2328-68:

During the nineteenth century, in seaports along the China coast, … it was not a good idea for a Chinese man then to walk alone along the waterfront, especially after dark. “To be Shanghaied” entered the English language to signify the kidnapping that occurred, not for service at sea—unless it were pirates desperate for additional crew—but for labor ashore. A ship would simply be the vehicle bearing the victim to his new life. He would be headed for some overseas destination, sometimes Singapore, as a contract laborer, and a virtual slave in many cases.

Customarily brokers would not resort to kidnapping. Instead they would advance a variety of approaches to their quarry: cajolery and threats. Crimps would receive a bounty for every victim delivered to a holding pen, the so-called barracoon, a word taken directly from the African slave trade. The Chinese shipped all the way across the Pacific received treatment as bad as Africans in the Atlantic Middle Passage. Many would die at sea….

In the barracoon, the man would be given a cursory physical examination and if passed, which was highly likely, he would be handed a contract to sign specifying the number of years he must work and the amount of pay he would receive. A governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, saw this process for himself: “hundreds of them gathered together in barracoons, stripped naked, and stamped or painted with the letter C (Cuba), P (Peru), or S (Sandwich Islands–Hawai’i) on their breasts .” They would be held there until a ship was ready for them. Some did escape from the barracoon, Bowring said, “by going through an opening in the water closet into the mud and water of the river,” which might mean survival—for those who could swim.

Driven by poverty, many Chinese also left the mother country voluntarily. The 1849 gold rush in California encouraged those looking for a new life promising prosperity. The mines and plantations of Southeast Asia beckoned others. Treatment of those bound for Singapore was marginally better than those heading for forced labor elsewhere. Their numbers were heavily male; the few females who came, often kidnapped or deceived, were mostly prostitutes whose services an all-male society craved.

From the China coast the seaborne flow of emigrants to Southeast Asia lay in Chinese hands. The official Qing attitude toward this human traffic, free or forced, was analogous to its attitude toward the opium trade. Many in authority deplored it; but no one took consistent action to stop it. Too many local officials found such activities personally profitable.

Those who went to mine tin in Malaya, tough as it was, were more fortunate than those taken across the Pacific, either to shovel acrid bird dung, guano, prized as fertilizer, in a treeless environment on a desolate island off the coast of Peru with hot sun beating down all day, or to equally disagreeable toil on sugar plantations in Cuba. The tin miners in Malaya were often able to complete a work contract and then find something better to do.

For them, Singapore served as a gathering spot, a free port for people as well as objects. Unlike so many other countries, Singapore welcomed immigrant Chinese, most of whom came as contract laborers who passed through the city to work in the nearby staple industries that were crying for labor. Those who stayed and failed to climb the economic ladder pulled the rickshaws, or carried sacks of rice on the docks, working a long day in the tropical heat. Immigrants were overwhelmingly male until the twentieth century. When females began to come in number after 1918 and the Great War, family life could begin, transforming the immigrant community.

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How Singapore Became Chinese

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 620-40, 679-703:

In this cosmopolitan but overwhelmingly Malay maritime world of the straits, how did modern Singapore become three-quarters Chinese and what does this mean? To begin to answer that question we can take a look at the motherland to see where the impetus came for the Chinese diaspora, a unique maritime-based mobile culture. This is one of the greatest and most consequential human overseas migrations in history, forming an engine for the flow of people, goods, and ideas, not simply to and from China but building a network of interconnected communities sprinkled throughout Southeast Asia, for which Singapore would function as a synapse, perceived as “the western junction of a Chinese commercial empire.”

Most emigrating Chinese ended up in Southeast Asia on the edges of the South China Sea. The Chinese called the region Nanyang or “Southern Ocean,” connoting both a saltwater space and its fringes. The concept was more commercial than political or geographical and applied to people, the ethnic Chinese of that region, as well as place. Leaving China, emigrants took their culture with them but usually abandoned their political attachments. Ultimately the diaspora would reach much farther than the Nanyang. Is there today anywhere in the world any major seaport city without its Chinatown?

The broken coast and many harbors of South China encouraged taking to the sea and spawned China’s continuing, unauthorized, and largely unrecorded maritime history in which many foreigners also participated. In south Chinese coastal towns, Arabs, Persians, and Indians, sailors and merchants walked the waterfront.

The Chinese government, preoccupied with nomad incursions on land frontiers to the north and west, paid little heed to these seaborne foreigners along the coast, content for them to govern themselves. Nor were local fishers, merchants, and pirates of interest, either to government officials or recorders of history at the capital. To the Chinese official grinding his ink and wielding his brush in Beijing, the imperial capital, the sea seemed both far away and a natural boundary, a great saltwater wall, useful only for keeping unwanted strangers away.

But local people readily leaped into maritime life, even to invest their skills and savings in overseas enterprise. Many Chinese would move to maritime Southeast Asia and become familiar figures along the Melaka Straits. Family ties and ancestor veneration tended to bind people to the homeland. Nonetheless many did leave China forever.

The junk furnished the vehicle for the Chinese overseas trading network, taking on an iconic identification with premodern maritime China. But the word is actually of Arabic or Malay origin, reflecting the influence of outsiders along the China coast where the ship type originated. Versatile vessels, junks carrying heavy cargo ventured out upon the open sea, but always chose if possible to hug the shoreline, taking advantage of seasonal winds, south in the winter, north in the summer.

The name “junk” would be applied to a wide range of vessels, large and small, which evolved over centuries of steady improvements. A familiar sight in the Melaka Straits and throughout Pacific Asian waters, these ships were sailing in some numbers until recent years. They were to be seen in commercial use moored in Singapore harbor as late as the eve of World War II.

More than a millennium ago, with the junk the Chinese had achieved a maritime technological complexity not equaled by Europeans until much later. Chinese mariners used rudders that could be raised or lowered to accommodate varying depths of water; they sailed ships with hulls of double-planked thickness and watertight bulkheads for compartmentalization. Fishers were the innovators there, wanting tanks to take their catch live to the market. Europeans did not build such compartmented ships until they began to use iron hulls in the nineteenth century.

Able to operate in rivers as well as on the open sea, brown water as well as blue, junks proved sturdy and versatile craft, joined together with nails, their timbers varnished with water-repellent tung oil, their sails slatted like Venetian blinds with bamboo battens; their sailors using compass and sounding lead. Characteristically the stern loomed higher than the bow. Whereas Europeans built their ships in the shape of a fish, bulging out from the bow and tapering to the stern, the Chinese built theirs in the shape of a water bird, swelling at the stern. Like today’s giant oil tankers, the superstructure rose far aft, well behind (“abaft” in nautical lingo) any masts, leaving ample space forward for freight stowage.

From the great population reservoir in south China, junks bore passengers who intended to stay abroad, perhaps for a while, perhaps forever. These people did not bring high culture with them; most were the underprivileged at home looking for a better life abroad. But those who settled permanently would form a nucleus for the Chinese community in Singapore, joining earlier arrivals, who might have lived along the straits for generations.

Although emigrants brought their culture with them, they had no reason to carry any political attachments. The imperial government had discouraged or even forbidden them to leave, seeing those who did so as disloyal, forever lost to the realm, and therefore of no future interest or responsibility. Had it been otherwise, Singapore, a city of immigrants, today might well be part of China, a far-flung overseas province chafing for independence from Chinese rule, just as at mid-twentieth century it would crave independence from British rule.

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