Here is a little bit of history concerning the times when people went overseas to seek a better living for their families in China.
From the mid-19th century to the early 20th century (era of Qing Dynasty [清朝] under Daoguang [道光] up to the early days of the Republic of China [中華民國]), China was a country plagued by internal unrest, climatic catastrophes and famine, and life was unbearable for the ordinary people.
In 1848 gold was discovered in California which resulted in the first gold rush. When news reached China, there was a clamour amongst the villages for people to migrate overseas to seek their fortunes. It was a chance of a lifetime but the expense for the voyage was well beyond the reach of the average villager. However, the recruitment of labourers by the mining company’s agents in China was a godsend. The people would have their passages prepaid and in return had to agree to a contractual term of repayment. Thus originated the term “indentured labourer”.
Migration Beyond the Seas _1
Boat loads of peasants were shipped to California and so began the first migration of Chinese overseas to America. With it came suffering on the high seas and upon arrival in the mining camps. Many of them lived a life of hardship, depravation, poverty and never returned to their motherland except in coffins.
Gold was also later discovered in Canada, Australia and New Zealand and these brought waves of more indentured labourers who suffered the same fate.
However, the migration scene was not as desperate in all cases. Those who went to the neighbouring countries in South East Asia were more fortunate because there were greater in number and indentured labour was not the basis for the migration. In addition, the people who went to these countries had greater skills and technology than the local natives and were able to establish themselves with relative ease. In fact, some of them wound up dominating the economy in those countries to this day.
Migration Beyond the Seas _2
Most of these overseas migrants came from two coastal provinces, Guangdong (廣東) and Fujian (福建). Those from Fujian and the Chaozhou (潮 州) region of northern Guangdong were mainly concentrated in South East Asia while those from southern Guangdong wound up in English speaking countries like North America, Australia and New Zealand. They were mostly Cantonese speaking people from the area called the Pearl River Delta Region (珠江三角洲) centered around Guangzhou (廣州) (known erroneously as Canton to Westerners). Most of them came from the old Siyi (四 邑) (4 districts) region located southwest of Guangzhou (廣州). Siyi (四 邑) in those days consisted of Xinhui (新會), Kaiping (開平), Taishan (台山) and Enping (恩平).
Indentured labourers were not only centered on gold mining but also imported to work in sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean as well as in the South Pacific Islands from Hawaii to Samoa. It was rare to see free migrants because of the expense of the long voyage but there were enterprising souls who did just that and became wealthy in the process.