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Overseas Chinese are people of Chinese birth or descent who live outside the territories administered by the rival governments of the People's Republic of Chinamarker (PRC) (mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau) and the Republic of Chinamarker (ROC) (Taiwan). People of partial Chinese ancestry may also consider themselves Overseas Chinese.

The term Overseas Chinese is ambiguous and inconsistent as to whether it can refer to any of the ethnic groups that live in China (the broadly defined Zhonghua minzu) or whether it refers specifically to the Han Chinese ethnicity, narrowly defined. Korean minorities from China who are living in South Koreamarker today are often included in calculations of overseas Chinese, because ethnic Koreans may also identify themselves as part of the Chinese nation . In Southeast Asia and particularly in Malaysia and Singapore, the state classifies the Peranakan as Chinese despite partial assimilation into Malay culture.

One study on overseas Chinese defines several criteria for identifying non-Han overseas Chinese: there is evidence of descent from groups living within or originating from China, they still retain their culture, self-identify with Chinese culture or acknowledge Chinese origin, although they are not categorized as ethnic Han Chinese. Under this definition, "ethnic minority" overseas Chinese number about 7 million, or about 8.4% of the total overseas population.


The Chinese language has various terms equivalent to the English "Overseas Chinese". Huáqiáo ( ) refers to Chinese citizens residing in countries other than China. Huáyì ( ) refers to ethnic Chinese residing outside of China. [7933] Another often-used term is 海外华人 (hǎiwài huárén), a more literal translation of Overseas Chinese; it is often used by the PRC government to refer to people of Chinese ethnicities who live outside the PRC, regardless of citizenship.

Overseas Chinese who are ethnically Han Chinese, such as Cantonese, Hokkien, or Hakka refer to Overseas Chinese as 唐人 (tángrén), pronounced tòhng yàn in Cantonese, Tn̂g-lâng in Hokkien, and tong nyin in Hakka. Literally, it means Tang people, a reference to Tang dynasty China when it was ruling China proper. It should be noted that this term is commonly used by the Cantonese, Hokkien or Hakka and Hokkien as a colloquial reference to the Chinese people, and has little relevance to the ancient dynasty.


The Chinese people have a long history of migrating overseas. One of the migrations dates back to the Ming dynastymarker when Zheng He became the envoy of Ming. He sent people to explore and trade in the South China Seamarker and Indian Oceanmarker, and many of them were Cantonese and Hokkien.

Waves of immigration

There were different waves of immigration which led to subgroups among overseas Chinese such as the new and old immigrants in Southeast Asia, North America, Oceania, the Caribbeanmarker, Latin America, South Africa and Russiamarker.

In the 19th century, the age of colonialism was at its height and the great Chinese Diaspora began. Many colonies lacked a large pool of laborers. Meanwhile, in the provinces of Fujianmarker and Guangdongmarker in China, there was a surge in emigration as a result of the poverty and ruin caused by the Taiping rebellion. The Qing Empire was forced to allow its subjects to work overseas under colonial powers. Many Hokkien chose to work in Southeast Asia with their earlier links starting from the Mingmarker era, as did the Cantonese. The city of Taishanmarker in Guangdong province was the source for many of the economic migrants. For the countries in North America and Australia, great numbers of laborers were needed in the dangerous tasks of gold mining and railway construction. With famine widespread in Guangdong, this attracted many Cantonese to work in these countries to improve the living conditions of their relatives. Some overseas Chinese were sold to South America during the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars in the Pearl River Deltamarker in Guangdong. Many people from the New Territories in Hong Kongmarker emigrated to the UK (mainly England) and the Netherlands in the post-war period to earn a better living.

From the mid-19th century onward, emigration has been directed primarily to western countries such as the United Statesmarker, Canadamarker, Australia, New Zealandmarker, Brazilmarker, and the nations of Western Europe; as well as to Perumarker where they are called tusán, Panamamarker, and to a lesser extent to Mexicomarker. Many of these emigrants who entered western countries were themselves overseas Chinese or were from Taiwan or Hong Kong, particularly from the 1950s to the 1980s, during which the PRC placed severe restrictions on the movement of its citizens. In 1984, Britain agreed to transfer the sovereignty of Hong Kongmarker to the PRC; this triggered another wave of migration to the United Kingdom (mainly England), Australia, Canada, USA, Latin America and other parts of the world. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989marker further accelerated the migration. The wave calmed after the transfer of sovereignty in 1997. In addition, many citizens of Hong Kong hold citizenships or have current visas in other countries so if the need arises, they can leave Hong Kong on a short notice. In fact, after the Tiananmen Square incident, the lines for immigration visas increased at every consulate in Hong Kong. More recent Chinese presences have developed in Europe, where they number nearly a million, and in Russiamarker, they number over 600,000, concentrated in Russian Far East. Chinese who emigrated to Vietnammarker beginning in the 18th century are referred to as Hoa.

It is estimated that only 26,700 of the old Chinese community now remain in South Koreamarker. However, in recent years, immigration from mainland China has increased; 624,994 persons of Chinesemarker nationality have immigrated to South Korea, including 443,566 of ethnic Korean descent.

In recent years, the People's Republic of Chinamarker has built increasingly stronger ties with African nations. As of August 2007, there were an estimated 750,000 Chinese nationals working or living for extended periods in different African countries. An estimated 200,000 ethnic Chinese live in South Africa. In a 2007 New York Times article, Chad Chamber of Commerce Director estimated an "influx of at least 40,000 Chinese in coming years" to Chadmarker. As of 2006 there were as many as 40,000 Chinese in Namibiamarker, an estimated 80,000 Chinese in Zambiamarker and 50,000 Chinese in Nigeriamarker. As many as 100,000 Chinese are living and working across Angolamarker. There are currently 35,000 Chinese migrant workers in Algeriamarker.

Russia’s main Pacific port and naval base of Vladivostokmarker, once closed to foreigners, today is bristling with Chinese markets, restaurants and trade houses. Experts predict that the Chinese diaspora in Russiamarker will increase to at least 10 million by 2010 and Chinese may become the dominant ethnic group in the Russian Far East region 20 to 30 years from now.


The Chinese in Southeast Asian countries have established themselves in commerce and finance. In North America, Europe and Oceania, occupations are diverse and impossible to generalize; ranging from catering to significant ranks in medicine, the arts, and academia.

Overseas Chinese experience

The Chinese usually identify a person by ethnic origin instead of nationality. As long as the person is of Chinese descent, that person is considered Chinese, and if that person lives outside of China, that person is overseas Chinese. The majority of PRC Chinese do not understand the overseas Chinese experience of being a minority , as ethnic Han Chinese comprise approximately 92% of the population.


Overseas Chinese have sometimes experienced hostility and discrimination (see Sinophobia). A major point of friction is the often their tendency to segregate themselves into a subculture. For example, the anti-Chinese Kuala Lumpur Racial Riots of 13 May 1969 and Jakarta Riots of May 1998 were believed to have been motivated by these racially-biased perceptions. In 2006, rioters damaged shops owned by Chinese-Tongansmarker in Nuku alofamarker. Chinese migrants were evacuated from the riot-torn Solomon Islandsmarker.

Ethnic politics can be found to motivate both sides of the debate. In Malaysia, Overseas Chinese tend to support equal and meritocratic treatment on the expectation that they would not be discriminated against in the resulting competition for government contracts, university places, etc., whereas many "Bumiputra" ("native sons") Malays oppose this on the grounds that their group needs such protections in order to retain their patrimony. The question of to what extent ethnic Malays, Chinese, or others are "native" to Malaysia is a sensitive political one. It is currently a taboo for Chinese politicians to raise the issue of Bumiputra protections in parliament, as this would be deemed ethnic incitement.

Many of the overseas Chinese who worked on railways in North America in the 19th century suffered from racial discrimination in Canadamarker and the United Statesmarker. Although discriminatory laws have been repealed or are no longer enforced today, both countries had at one time introduced statutes that barred Chinese from entering the country, for example the United States Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (repealed 1943) or the Canadian Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 (repealed 1947).


Overseas Chinese vary widely as to their degree of assimilation, their interactions with the surrounding communities (see Chinatown), and their relationship with Chinamarker. In Thailandmarker, overseas Chinese have largely intermarried and assimilated with their compatriots. In Myanmarmarker, the Chinese rarely intermarry (even amongst different Chinese linguistic groups), but have largely adopted the Burmese culture whilst maintaining Chinese culture affinities. Indonesiamarker, and Myanmarmarker were among the countries that do not allow birth names to be registered in foreign languages, including Chinese. But since 2003, the Indonesianmarker government has allowed overseas Chinese to use their Chinese name or using their Chinese family name on their birth certificate.

In Vietnammarker, Chinese names are pronounced with Sino-Vietnamese readings. For example, (pinyin: Hú Jǐntāo) would become "Hồ Cẩm Đào". Very often, there is no distinction between Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese. In western countries, the overseas Chinese generally use romanised versions of their Chinese names, and the use of local first names is also common.

On the other hand, in Malaysiamarker and Singaporemarker, overseas Chinese have maintained a distinct communal identity, though the rate and state of being assimilated to the local, in this case a multicultural society, is currently on par with that of other Chinese communities (see Peranakan). In the Philippines, many younger Overseas Chinese are well assimilated, whereas the older ones tend to be considered as 'foreigners'. The Chinese have also brought a cultural influence to some other countries such as Vietnam, where many Chinese customs have been adopted by native Vietnamese. A large number of Chinese people stayed in Vietnam and never returned to China.

Many second and third generation Chinese born overseas do not culturally identify themselves as being Chinese and identify by nationality (i.e., the state they are from or resident in) . Some no longer speak the original Chinese dialects and are monolingual in the language of their residential country.


The usage of Chinese languages by overseas Chinese has been determined by a large number of factors, including their ancestry, their migrant ancestors' "regime of origin", assimilation through generational changes, and official policies of their country of residence. The general trend is - increase of Mandarin-speaking Chinese among the new arrivals, making it the most common language of chinatowns.

Southeast Asia

Within Southeast Asia, the language situation of overseas Chinese vary greatly even amongst neighboring nations. On one hand, ethnic Chinese in Indonesiamarker and Thailandmarker had been subjected to official, and at times draconian, assimilation policies, and as a result many of them are no longer proficient in the Chinese language (particularly ethnic Chinese who lived in Java). Chinese who lived in Sumatra did not give up some of the dialects. Most of the ethnic Chinese in Medan are still able to speak creole Hokkien within their community. This is due to the amount of the generation who lived in Indonesia and exposed to the cultural assimilation. Most of the ethnic Chinese who live in Java have a long line (10 generations) of forefathers before them, where the ethnic Chinese who live in Sumatra have a relatively short generation of forefathers (4 or 5 generations).

On the other end, Chinese Malaysiansmarker speak a wide variety of dialects, their prevalence being concentrated around particular metropolitan centres: the Penangmarker, Klangmarker and Malaccamarker groups are predominantly Hokkien-speaking (Penang has its own version of Hokkien); the Kuala Lumpurmarker, Serembanmarker and Ipohmarker groups are predominantly Cantonese and Hakka-speaking; whereas in East Malaysia (Malaysian Borneomarker), Hakka and Mandarin are widely spoken, except in Sibumarker, where the Fuzhou dialect is predominant, and in Sandakanmarker, where Cantonese is spoken. Regardless of locations, however, younger generations tend to speak Mandarin, which is taught in schools. Most Chinese Malaysians can speak Malay, the national language and English, which is widely used in business.

In Singaporemarker, a nation with an ethnic Chinese majority population, Mandarin is recognized as one of its official languages, along with simplified Chinese characters, in contrast to other overseas Chinese communities which almost exclusively used traditional Chinese characters until the 1990s, when nationals of the PRC began to emigrate in substantial numbers. Although ethnic Chinese in Singapore are predominantly of Hokkien descent, the government of Singapore discourages the usage of non-Mandarin dialects through the Speak Mandarin Campaign. The official policy in Singapore also has an impact on neighboring Johormarker, in southern Peninsular Malaysia, where Mandarin is predominantly spoken among the Chinese communities there. As the Singapore government actively promotes English as the common language of the multiracial society of Singapore, younger Chinese Singaporeans are bilingual, with the tendency of speaking English.

North America

Many overseas Chinese populations in North America speak some variety of spoken Chinese. In the United States and Canada, Chinese is the third most spoken language. Cantonese has historically been the most prevalent variety due to immigrants being mostly from southern China from the 19th century up through the 1980s. However, Mandarin is becoming increasingly more prevalent due to the opening up of the PRC.

In New York Citymarker at least, although Mandarin is spoken as a native language among only ten percent of Chinese speakers, it is used as a secondary dialect among the greatest number of them and is on its way to replace Cantonese as their lingua franca. Although Min Chinese is spoken natively by a third of the Chinese population there, it is not used as a lingua franca because speakers of other dialect groups do not learn Min.

In Richmond (Greater Vancouver Area of Canada), 40% of the population is Chinese. Cantonese is the most used Chinese language there. Chinese words can be seen everywhere from local banks to grocery stores. In Vancouver, around 23% of the population is Chinese. Cantonese is still the most popular Chinese language followed by Mandarin.

The Los Angelesmarker area and Santa Clara Countymarker have particularly high numbers of Mandarin speakers, partly due to immigration from Taiwan.

Relationship with China

Both the People's Republic of Chinamarker and the Republic of Chinamarker maintain highly complex relationships with overseas Chinese populations. Both maintain cabinet level ministries to deal with overseas Chinese affairs, and many local governments within the PRC have overseas Chinese bureaus. Both the PRC and ROC have some legislative representation for overseas Chinese. In the case of the PRC, some seats in the National People's Congress are allocated for returned overseas Chinese. In the ROC's Legislative Yuan, there used to be eight seats allocated for overseas Chinese. These seats were apportioned to the political parties based on their vote totals on Taiwan, and then the parties assigned the seats to overseas Chinese party loyalists. Now, political parties in the ROC are still allowed to assign overseas Chinese into the Legislative Yuan, but they are not required to. Most of these members elected to the Legislative Yuan hold dual citizenship, but must renounce their foreign citizenship before being sworn in.

Overseas Chinese have sometimes played an important role in Chinese politics. Most of the funding for the Chinese revolution of 1911 came from overseas Chinese.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the ROC tended to seek the support of overseas Chinese communities through branches of the Kuomintang based on Sun Yat-sen's use of expatriate Chinese communities to raise money for his revolution. During this period, the People's Republic of China tended to view overseas Chinese with suspicion as possible capitalist infiltrators and tended to value relationships with southeast Asian nations as more important than gaining support of overseas Chinese, and in the Bandung declaration explicitly stated that overseas Chinese owed primary loyalty to their home nation.

After the Deng Xiaoping reforms, the attitude of the PRC toward overseas Chinese changed dramatically. Rather than being seen with suspicion, they were seen as people which could aid PRC development via their skills and capital. During the 1980s, the PRC actively attempted to court the support of overseas Chinese by among other things, returning properties that were confiscated after the 1949 revolution. More recently PRC policy has attempted to maintain the support of recently emigrated Chinese, who consist largely of Chinese seeking graduate education in the West. Many overseas Chinese are now investing in mainland China providing financial resources, social and cultural networks, contacts and opportunities.

According to Article 5 of the Nationality Law of the People's Republic of China: "Any person born abroad whose parents are both Chinese nationals or one of whose parents is a Chinese national shall have Chinese nationality. But a person whose parents are both Chinese nationals and have both settled abroad, or one of whose parents is a Chinese national and has settled abroad, and who has acquired foreign nationality at birth shall not have Chinese nationality". However the Nationality Law of the Republic of China, which permits dual citizenship, considers these persons to be citizens of the ROC.

Current numbers

There are over 40 million overseas Chinese , mostly living in Southeast Asia where they make up a majority of the population of Singaporemarker and significant minority populations in Indonesiamarker, Malaysiamarker, Thailandmarker, the Philippinesmarker, and Vietnammarker. The overseas populations in those areas arrived between the 16th and 19th centuries mostly from the maritime provinces of Guangdongmarker and Fujianmarker, followed by Hainanmarker. There were incidences of earlier emigration from the 10th to 15th centuries in particular to Malaccamarker and Southeast Asia.

Urban areas with large Chinese populations include Kuala Lumpurmarker with 612,277 (2000 census, city only), as well as the Greater Toronto Area with 486,300 (2006 Census, metropolitan area).


Continent/Country Articles about Chinese population Overseas Chinese Population Yearof the data % of local
% of Global Overseas
Chinese population
Asia   30,976,784 2006 0.8% 78.7%
Chinese Indonesian 7.5 million 2005 3.1% 11.7%
Thai Chinese 7.0 million 2005 14% 11.7%
Malaysian Chinese, Peranakan 7.1 million 2008 26.0% 12.1%
Chinese Singaporean 2.7 million 2009 74.2% 4.3%
Hoa, Ngái, San Diu 1.2 million 2005 3% 2%-3%
Chinese Filipino, Tornatras, Sangley 1.1 million 2005 2% 2.4%
Burmese Chinese, Panthay 1.1 million 2005 3% 2.1%
Chinese in South Korea 624,994 2009 0.2% 0.16%
Chinese in Japan 519,561 2005 0.1% 0.3%
Chinese Cambodian 343,855 2005 1.2% 0.2%
Chinese in India 189,470 2005 0.02% 0.5%
Laotian Chinese 185,765 2005 1% 0.5%
Ethnic Chinese in Brunei 43,000 2006 15% 0.1%
Chinese people in Israel 23,000 2001 0.3% 0.1%
Chinese in North Korea 10,000 2009 0.2% 0.1%
Chinese people in Pakistan 10,000 2009 -- --
Ethnic Chinese in Mongolia 1,323 2000 0.4% 0.03%
Americas   6,059,240 2008 0.6% 15.4%
Chinese American, American-born Chinese 3.5 million 2007 1.2% 6.8%
Chinese Canadian, Canadian-born Chinese 1.3 million 2006 3.9% 3.4%
Chinese-Peruvian 1.3 million 2005 4.56% 3.4%
Chinese Brazilian 151,649 2005 0.10% 0.4%
Chinese-Panamanian 135,000 2003 5% 0.4%
Chinese Cuban 114,240 2008CIA World Factbook. Cuba. 2008. May 15, 2008. />. 1% 0.3%
Chinese Mexican 23,000 2003 -- --
Chinese Nicaraguan 12,000 -- -- --
Chinese Jamaican 70,000 -- -- --
Chinese-Costa Rican 7,873 2009 0,14% --
Chinese Chilean 5,000 -- -- --
Chinese Trinidadian 3,800 2000 -- --
-- 2,722 1921 -- --
Chinese-Puerto Rican -- -- -- --
Europe   1,700,000 2006 0.2% 4.1%
Chinese people in Russia, Dungan people 998,000 2005 0.5% 1.9%
Chinese diaspora in France, Sino-Réunionnais 230,515 2005 0.5% 0.9%
British Chinese 500,000 2008 0.8% 1.3%
Chinese people in Spain 128,022 2008 0.27% 0.31%
Chinese people in Italy 156,519 2007 0.26% 0.2%
Chinese people in the Netherlands 114,928 2006 0.7% 0.1%
Chinese people in Germany 71,639 2004 0.1% 0.1%
Chinese people in Serbia 20,000 2008 -- --
-- 16,533 2006 0.39% --
Chinese people in Bulgaria 10,000 2005 -- --
Chinese people in Portugal 9,689 2007 -- --
Chinese of Romania 2,249 2002 -- --
Oceania   1,000,000 2003 1.9% 1.7%
Chinese Australian 669,896 2006 4.8% 1.3%
Chinese New Zealander 147,570 2006 3.5% 0.3%
Chinese in Fiji 6,000 2000 0.5% 0.01%
Chinese in Tonga 3,000 2001 3 or 4% --
Chinese in Samoa 30,000 -- 16.2% --
Africa   103,000 2003 0.02% 0.3%
Chinese South Africans 200,000 2008 0.2% 0.3%
100,000 2007 0.2% --
20,000 2003 0.18% 0.15%
Sino-Mauritian 30,000 2007 3% Unknown
Total -- 39,417,784 0.6% 100%

Statistics compiled using local country statistics or best available estimates. Note that the percentages may not add up due to varying census and estimate dates.


In the case of Indonesiamarker and Burmamarker, political and ethnic strife has cause a significant number of people of Chinese origins to re-emigrate.

Due to the growing economic strength and the influence on the world, many oversea Chinese have began to migrate back to China. The trend is expected to rise even more in the future.

See also


  1. The Story of California From the Earliest Days to the Present, by Henry K. Norton. 7th ed. Chicago, A.C. McClurg & Co., 1924. Chapter XXIV, pp. 283-296.
  2. Chinese flocking in numbers to a new frontier: Africa
  3. SA-Born Chinese and the Colours of Exclusion,
  4. China and Africa: Stronger Economic Ties Mean More Migration, By Malia Politzer, Migration Information Source, August 2008
  5. Zambians wary of "exploitative" Chinese employers,, November 23, 2006
  6. Direct air flights between Nigeria, China proposed, China Daily, August 30, 2008
  7. China’s African Misadventures, Newsweek, December 3, 2007
  8. Chinese, Algerians fight in Algiers - witnesses. Reuters. August 4, 2009.
  9. Chinese Come To Russia
  10. A Chinese 'Invasion'
  11. Chinese Presence Grows in Russian Far East
  12. Vladivostok's Chinese puzzle
  13. The world's successful diasporas
  14. Wages of Hatred. Michael Shari. Business Week.
  15. "Editorial: Racist moves will rebound on Tonga", New Zealand Herald, November 23, 2001
  16. Spiller, Penny: " Riots highlight Chinese tensions", BBC News, Friday, 21 April 2006, 18:57 GMT
  17. Race clouds Malaysian birthday festivities
  18. As Mandarin language becomes standard, Chinatown explores new identity
  19. Nationality Law of the People's Republic of China -
  20. The Ranking of Ethnic Chinese Population Overseas Compatriot Affairs Commission, R.O.C.
  21. Singapore Statistics
  22. The total population of Brunei is estimated at 380,000, of whom 11.2% are of Chinese descent.
  23. " Ethnic Origin (247), Single and Multiple Ethnic Origin Responses (3) and Sex (3) for the Population of Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2006 Census - 20% Sample Data," [1]
  25. Joshua Project - Han Chinese, Hakka of Jamaica Ethnic People Profile
  26. History of the Chinese in Guyana
  27. Instituto Nacional de Estadística: Padrón 2008[2].
  28. Statistiche demografiche ISTAT.
  29. Dutch Census Bureau (excludes ethnic Chinese not from China)[3].
  30. Federal Statistical Office Germany [4].
  31. Little China in Belgrade
  32. Beyond 20/20 WDS - Table View
  33. 2006 Australian Bureau of Statistics [5].
  34. QuickStats About Culture and Identity - Asian, 2006 Census, Statistics New Zealand. Accessed 2007-07-13.
  35. "Tonga announces the expulsion of hundreds of Chinese immigrants", John Braddock,, December 18, 2001
  36. "Tonga to expel race-hate victims", Paul Raffaele & Matthew Dearnaley, New Zealand Herald, November 22, 2001

Further reading

  • Pan, Lynn. The Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas, Landmark Books, Singapore, 1998. ISBN 981-4155-90-X
  • Chin, Ung Ho. The Chinese of South East Asia, London: Minority Rights Group, 2000. ISBN 1-897693-28-1
  • López-Calvo, Ignacio. Imaging the Chinese in Cuban Literature and Culture, Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2008. ISBN 0-8130-3240-7
  • Fitzgerald, John. "Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia", UNSW Press, Sydney, 2007. ISBN 978-0868408-70-5

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