Rise of Anglo-Chinese

March 3, 1995

In this part of the world, it is commonplace to argue that English is important to the Chinese because of its usefulness in trade and finance. Anyone who is bilingual in Chinese and English can probably trade easily in most corners of the world. This, however, does not recognise the increasing social and cultural importance of English for Chinese people worldwide, the fact that English is the most widely used language of science and intellectual discourse today.

Before the mid-19th century, few Chinese knew a foreign language. The coastal traders of South China who traded in Southeast Asia probably found that the most useful language in the region was Malay, the parent language of Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia.

From the middle of the 19th century, China-coast Chinese had more to do with the English and the Americans, both in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Also, the peasants and workers who went out as coolie labour to western colonies were concentrated mainly in the British Empire, or went to California, Australia and Canada in search of gold. Within China itself, owing to the strong influence of British trade and American missionary education, the major foreign language of higher education during the first half of the 20th century was English.

Since 1949, emigrants have gone to the United States from mainland China; large numbers of students from Taiwan also went there. From the 1970s, they have been joined by migrants from Hong Kong and have also gone to Canada and Australia. Increasingly, the emigrants consisted of households, and not just students. Furthermore, there were thousands of Chinese re-migrants from regions like southeast Asia, Korea and southern Africa who were admitted to these English-speaking countries.

For lack of a better term, I would call these people Anglo-Chinese. The term came into use in the Straits Settlements and Hong Kong during the second half of the 19th century and referred to Chinese who had received an English education and were using the language at least in their work. This term could now be applied to a better educated group who not only know English but are likely to be fluent in Chinese as well. Hong Kong and Singapore had been major sources of such Anglo-Chinese. Most of them travelled on British ships to North America, Australasia, West Indies, south Pacific as well as Southeast Asia. Today all Chinese fluent in English might be called Anglo-Chinese.

There are no accurate figures for such people. Of the 25 million Chinese who live outside mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, nearly half live in English-speaking countries, for example, the US and Canada (about 2 million), United Kingdom (250,000), Australia (250,000), New Zealand (35,000), West Indies (40,000), the south Pacific, including Fiji and Papua New Guinea (30,000); and, in Asia, in Singapore (2.2 million). There are other countries where the ethnic Chinese are largely English-speaking like Malaysia (5.5 million) and the Philippines (about one million), parts of south and west Asia (200,000) and Africa (70,000) - altogether about 11.5 million.

One could add more to these figures. My estimate is that up to 10 per cent of the rest (another million) are literate in English, especially those on the European continent and various countries in southeast Asia, as well as some parts of the Caribbean and Latin America. And if we count Hong Kong as outside the China region, we might add another 20 per cent of its population to the total, that is, at least another million who are competent in English.

What about the people in China? China's first foreign language is now English and the demand for fluency is growing. In theory, the majority of those who graduate from high school know English. If only 1 per cent of the population is literate in English, as suggested by a recent estimate, that would be more than 10 million people, nearly as many as the total outside China.

If they should travel or study abroad or emigrate, the chances are that most of them would turn to the English-speaking world. And if they seek relatives and friends among the Chinese already overseas, again the bulk of them are likely to look to the English-speaking world. Furthermore, there are about a million guiqiao, or returned overseas Chinese, in China and a large proportion of them are related to ethnic Chinese in the English-speaking world.

All this has happened notwithstanding the ongoing contradictions in relations between China and UK for more than a century and a half, and between China and the US since the end of the Second World War. The love-hate relationship has not dampened the Chinese perception of the usefulness of the English language. Indeed, the better educated they are, the more they seem to value the language.

When Chinese coolies worked in foreign mines and plantations, they were easy victims of ill-treatment. Even the adventurous miners who flocked to the gold fields of North America and Australasia had to suffer from racial discrimination. Most of these were not known for their mastery of English.

But, at another level, many Chinese within China were targets for English-speaking missionaries. Such Chinese were also receiving aspects of western secular education, and many went on to colleges and universities to receive advanced training in modern science and the humanities. In other words, beginning with the hope of spiritual conversion, English-speaking missionaries educated several generations of Chinese to a new scientific and political culture. This prepared the ground for thousands of students to study in the west, especially those who went to the US. This developed the admiration of modern science and technology, which remains strong. Despite the tensions between China and the outside world, the foundations laid through education seem to have survived. The role of higher education among the widely dispersed Anglo-Chinese populations deserves closer attention. There has been a convergence of aspirations and activities among those who have shared modern tertiary education.

And as for the global market, the Anglo-Chinese who are also bilingual have found it easy to participate in international trade. We need only to look at the growth of Hong Kong and Singapore as commercial and financial centres and their links with other Anglo-Chinese cities like London, Manila, San Francisco, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, Sydney and Melbourne. They also bridge the business worlds of the Chinese overseas and the multinationals.

Then there is the place of bilingual education in advancing science and technology. Such an education enables a large pool of Chinese talent to tie in easily with the great education centres in the West, while also acting as communication channels with mainland China and Taiwan.

And, not least, we note the growing social and cultural sophistication of a majority of the Anglo-Chinese through their knowledge of two civilisations. They have access to the best of Anglo-American culture, and through that, most of western civilisation, as well as to both traditional and modern Chinese civilisation. This has been most marked in Hong Kong, but there are great possibilities in Singapore, where English is the main medium; and in Chinese cities like Taipei, Shanghai and Beijing. It is now past the time when these Anglo-Chinese were merely the channels for Anglo-American values to China. They can now also offer channels for Chinese traditions and values to be appreciated by the English-speaking world and beyond.

Wang Gungwu is vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong.

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