The History of Asian Migrations

For centuries, travelers from Asia crossed the turbulent waters of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, and traversed the harsh deserts of the Silk Road. Their journeys as artisans, slaves, merchants, itinerant pilgrims, scholars, and sojourners point to a long, variegated history of Asian mobility. Until recently, however, migration histories have tended to cast these movements as both temporary and “unfree,” and in contrast to the “free” European settlement migrations across the trans-Atlantic world. Why do we call some migrants “sojourners” and others “settlers” or “pioneers?” Under what conditions do we name a community a “diaspora”?

The labels we attach to migrants are never neutral, but instead are bound up in the politics and historical circumstances of their mobility. In putting this list together, I have chosen to include diverse forms of Asian mobility under the rubric of migration in order to demonstrate how these movements have been historically connected. To highlight the social, cultural, and economic impacts of these migrations in global history, I have selected books that focus on overseas and cross-continental mobility. Unfortunately, this has meant that I have excluded important localized or “internal” migrations, such as the 1947 Partition of India. Moreover, while this list concentrates primarily on the histories of Chinese and South Asian travelers—historically, the two largest migrant communities from the region—the story of Asian mobility is not solely theirs.

Within this robust body of literature, several important themes emerge. First, the historical mode of travel for Asian migrants has predominantly taken a circular or serial route rather than a uni-directional movement from homeland to the host destination. Second, Asian migrations were—and still are—a deeply gendered experience, affecting men, women, and children in significantly different ways. Although the figure of the lone male sojourner is often seen as emblematic of Asian migrations, female migrants were also important historical figures. Furthermore, migrants from China and India often maintained “translocal” connections, weaving together the local economies and cultures of their homelands with their place of residence.

This list merely skims the surface of the rich scholarship on Asian migrations, offering a starting point for curious readers. The books and memoirs here tell many stories—of the mass mobilization of Asian labor for colonial development, the intimate encounters between migrants and immigration laws, the social histories of diasporic communities, and their sense of alienation and negotiated belonging in new, foreign places.

Places to Start

Adam Keown, Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders (2008)

What is the history behind passports, visas, and travel documents? Melancholy Order explores how the proliferation of these documents is directly linked the history of modern migration control, which emerged as a system of racial exclusion barring Asian immigration into white settler colonies and nations at the turn of the 20th century. McKeown argues that the distinction between “free” and “unfree” migrations are not merely descriptive terms, but instead were used to justify the exclusion of “unfree” Asian migrants to places like Australia, Canada, and the United States. The regulation of Asian mobility, as this book shows, is crucial to our historical understanding of international migration control.

Sunil Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (2013)

Today, one fourth of the world’s population resides in a country that borders the Bay of Bengal. In this page-turning book, Sunil Amrith traces the cultural, economic, and environmental history of this dynamic maritime region. For centuries, the Bay acted as a “maritime corridor” connecting ethnic Malays, Tamil Muslims, as well as Chettiar, Sindhi, and Gujarati merchants. Focusing on the circular migrations around the Bay, Amrith narrates a long-forgotten history of this region’s interconnectedness—one that historians have overlooked with the redrawing of national boundaries in the postcolonial era.

Digging In

Tatiana Seijas, Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico: From Chinos to Indians (2014)

In 1610, Catarina de San Juan, a young woman from South Asia, was sold as a slave in the markets of Manila, and shipped off to Puebla, Mexico. Between the 17th and 18th centuries, countless slaves from South and Southeast Asia, like Catarina de San Juan, were taken to Mexico to work in textile mills, artisanal trades, and domestic households. Tatiana Seijas takes her readers back in time to explore their journeys of survival in the trans-Pacific slave trade and the creative strategies these men and women adopted to overcome bondage.

Madeline Y. Hsu, Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration between the United States and South China, 1882-1943 (2000)

Decades after the gold in California was depleted, generations of Chinese migrants from Taishan continued to travel to the United States in search of wealth and opportunity. In the face of exclusionary immigration laws and economic hardship, these migrants toiled as cooks, domestic laborers, laundrymen, and sometimes, as merchants, sending remittances back home. Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home explores the transnational practices of these migrants. Despite the long-distance separation from their families, most continued to maintain socio-economic, political, and religious ties to their homeland.

Vivek Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (2013)

Bengali Harlem offers a vivid account of South Asian migrants who came to the United States between 1890s and 1940s. During this era, many Muslim peddlers and Indian seamen constructed a clandestine migration network across the country. Many of these men married Puerto-Rican and African American women, integrating into communities across the US, from New Orleans to Harlem. Bald tells a largely forgotten tale of early South Asian migrations to the United States. (Keep an eye out for Bald’s documentary, “In Search of Bengali Harlem,” which is currently in production.)

Kathleen López, Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History (2013)

Over 100,000 Chinese coolies arrived in Cuba to labor in colonial plantations and mines during the coolie trade in the nineteenth century. Some eventually married Cuban women and established new families on the Caribbean island; many fought in the Cuban War for Independence against Spain. In this beautifully written book, Kathleen Lopez traces the social history of Chinese Cubans from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Chinese Cubans offers a vibrant narrative of the communities they built in Cuba and the ties they maintained with China across multiple generations.

New Moves

Emma Jinhua Teng, Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China, and Hong Kong, 1842-1943 (2013)

In the second half of the 19th century, trans-Pacific migrations led to the formation of mixed-race families in the United States, China, and Hong Kong. How did these interracial families negotiate their sense of belonging and identity at a time when miscegenation was deeply frowned upon? In Eurasian, Emma Teng explores the lived experiences of transnational Eurasian communities and the development of ideas surrounding mixed race. Although historians of colonialism often argue that mixed-race populations were seen as a threat to white prestige and imperial power, Teng shows that Eurasians experienced not only discrimination, but also privilege.

Elliott Young, Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II (2014)

Moving beyond nation-based histories of migration, Elliot Young tracks Chinese migrations in the Americas over the span of a century. Alien Nation explores how Chinese migrants were depicted as aliens—politically, socially, and sexually—across the Americas in different ways; it also tells the story of how the Chinese diaspora constructed its own alternative community. Adopting a “hemispheric” approach, Young argues that there were more continuities than differences between the experiences of “coolies” in Latin America and the “free” labor migrants in the United States and Canada.

Voices and Lives

Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (2014)

Gaiutra Bahadur undertakes an extraordinary journey from United States to Guyana to India to excavate the story of her great-grandmother—who sailed from the Indian subcontinent to the West Indies as one of countless indentured laborers sent to work in the sugar plantations across the British Empire. In order to promote “stability” in these tropical colonies, a quota system was implemented to recruit more Indian female “coolies.” Who were these women and what were their new lives like thousands of miles away from home? This is a highly original and deeply moving story of survival, highlighting the gendered dimensions of colonial labor migrations across the Indian Ocean.

Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Among the White Moon Faces: An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands (1996)

In her frank and poignant memoir, Shirley Lim—a feminist poet and literary scholar—documents her childhood experiences growing up in colonial Malacca and her subsequent journey to the United States. As the daughter of a Chinese merchant and a peranakan mother, Lim paints a culturally diverse landscape of British Malaya and the rising ethnic tensions in the post-independence period. Rich in its historical detail and introspective insights, Among the White Moon Faces will engage readers interested in 20th-century Southeast Asian history, as well as Asian American literature.

Sandy Chang is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Her work examines the history of Chinese migration and sex trafficking in colonial Southeast Asia.