Unsettling Exiles: Prof. Angelina Chin Publishes Book on Chinese Migrants in Hong Kong and the Southern Periphery During the Cold War

Hong Kong skyline

In her second book, Angelina Y. Chin, chair and associate professor of history, explores the history of people who lived in limbo outside the borders of mainland China during a turbulent time. She addresses the many types of people who passed through or put down roots in what she calls the Southern Periphery. And she traces the development of democratic values and identity formations of the people in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau.

Your new book examines the experience of Chinese migrants who settled in or passed through what you call the Southern Periphery of China—Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan—during the Cold War. What got you interested?

I am a social historian who writes stories about marginalized people and how they have been affected by politics. In this book I examine exiles who left mainland China after 1949 but never found a sense of belonging even after their departure.

Hong Kong was quite integrated with the South China region before the Communist takeover. Migrant workers moved freely across that border until the Communist takeover in 1949. Hong Kong then became an exit to the Free World. I grew up in Hong Kong and wondered about the experiences of those who left mainland China and how their time in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) shaped their identities and political views after they left.

Hong Kong has also played a significant role in global history. By examining it in the context of the Cold War, we see how it was strategically important to both the Communist bloc and the so-called Free World. It is crucial that we not only view the Cold War as a history of international relations but also examine its social impact, including how it displaced people and altered their lives.

How did you develop your concept of the Southern Periphery and its unique role in modern Chinese history?

In Chinese Studies, Hong Kong—a former colonial city—is often considered a peripheral location. While living in Taiwan in 2012, I began to see many similarities between Hong Kong and Taiwan. Both share a colonial history and have had to grapple with the increasing dominance of the PRC. Yet, their histories were seldom included as part of the Chinese experience.

For many exiles from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau were the first place they landed but not their preferred destination. Their immediate goal was to cross the border to what they imagined to be a Free World. However, their experiences after crossing the border were often not as free or easy as they had imagined. Many continued to be marginalized by various governing regimes. “Southern Periphery” accurately captures the vast territories beyond China's borders as well as the marginalized experiences of these migrants.

Why is a small region such as Hong Kong so historically significant?

During the Cold War, Hong Kong served as a buffer zone for both sides of the Bamboo Curtain, which separated the communist states of East Asia, particularly the People's Republic of China, from the capitalist and non-communist states of the rest of Asia. It also provided refuge for those who fled mainland China. Some migrants used Hong Kong as a transit point to Taiwan, the United States or other destinations. Additionally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang/Nationalist Party (KMT) deported “undesirable” residents to Hong Kong. This history provides insight into the current political sentiments of the region’s people.

What groups of people arrived in the region during the Cold War?

Hong Kong was a place of arrival, departure and limbo after WWII. People living in Hong Kong included intellectuals who hoped to preserve Chinese cultural heritage, political activists who didn't support either the CCP or the KMT, and people who suffered during Land Reform and other political campaigns of the Chinese Communist Party. Others wanted to go to Taiwan, the U.S. or other countries but had to stay in Hong Kong for a while, or were fishermen working in the sea between mainland China and the Southern Periphery. Some individuals were unwanted by the KMT in Taiwan and the CCP in mainland China. Others wanted to start a new life in Hong Kong.

Did the democracy demonstrations of 2019 in Hong Kong have historical antecedents?

People tend to believe that the people of Hong Kong did not learn about democracy until the end of British colonial rule, but there were democratic aspirations in the early 1950s. Many migrants, intellectuals and poor refugees expressed their desire for a democratic China. In publications we find critiques of authoritarianism and active discussions about checks and balances and universal suffrage.

What can we learn about Taiwan from your book?

People’s identity and sense of belonging evolve over time. In the 1950s and 1960s, many people in Taiwan felt that the exiles on the island would return and retake China. That sentiment largely dissipated in the 1980s and 1990s. Some people across the Taiwan Strait then began to believe that Taiwan should reunite with mainland China under the “one country, two systems” framework, as Hong Kong did. However, recent events in Hong Kong have made this framework very unpopular with most Taiwanese, who now live in a functioning democracy.

Even in mainland China, many individuals are committed to promoting democratic values and institutions. While there may be challenges to implementing democracy in regions ruled by the government in Beijing in the near future, perhaps with the right conditions in the distant future, democracy could flourish.

What did you learn through your research about the meaning of being Chinese?

It is important to differentiate between the state and the people when we talk about China. I study China as a conceptual idea from the migrants’ perspectives rather than as a nation-state. Identity is complex and multifaceted. The term "Chinese" can have various interpretations. In the Chinese language, “Chinese people” can refer to Zhongguoren, meaning people of/from China, or huaren, meaning people of Chinese ethnic descent. Even though U.S. citizens of Chinese descent are not people of/from China, they are referred to as “Chinese Americans.” Those who left mainland China generations ago may identify as huaren rather than Zhongguoren because they are no longer affiliated with the PRC. People can also have multiple identities and belong to various imagined communities.