"The Migrant Speaks? Oral Histories and the Chinese Experience of ‘Rags to Riches’ in colonial Southeast Asia"

Over the last decade and a half, two revelatory strands have marked out the historiography of Chinese overseas. The work of Adam Mckeown and Philip Kuhn has opened up new understandings of the global connectedness of these communities over vast distances, and the manifold roots and repercussions of such connectedness. At the same time, scholars such as Lisa Yun have brought us to a more acute awareness of the often traumatic lived experience of Chinese migrants, as revealed through their own eyewitness testimonies.

Especially in the case of Chinese in Southeast Asia, however, a question remains over where these two lines of enquiry intersect. Drawing on personal testimonies collected by the Oral History Department of the National Archives of Singapore in the early 1980s, this paper will consider the lived experience, and the representations of that experience, of belonging to the Chinese diaspora in late-colonial Southeast Asia. Many scholars have noted the role of oral histories in the making of the ‘Singapore Story’, the official historical narrative of the island, in which the colonial port-city is portrayed as a land of migrant opportunity and ‘rags to riches’. Nevertheless, this paper will argue that, when read more closely, these same testimonies provide deeper insights which complicate and undermine the official picture of rapid upward social mobility and wealth accumulation that they have been deployed to project.