Anh Sy Huy Le, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of History

"Taming the Intractable" : Chinese Migrants, Inter-Asian Interactions, and the Transformation of French Rule in Colonial Vietnam, 1862-1940, Ph.D. Dissertation, Michigan State University, 2021

Abstract: This dissertation explores the migration, settlement, and evolution of the Chinese communities—a largely forgotten diaspora—and their importance in the transformation of French colonial Vietnam. Drawing on three years of transnational archival research spanning Vietnam, China and Singapore in a variety of Vietnamese, Chinese, French, and English sources, I construct the first comprehensive social and political history of Chinese commercial networks, social organizations, and cultural institutions; their multi-level interactions with the French colonial regime and Vietnamese; and their relations to mobile communities in maritime Southeast Asia and a China in the middle of drastic political transformations. 

Focusing on four crucial sites of ethnic Chinese-colonial state interactions, notably the colonial rice trade, health and cultural institutions, immigration surveillance, and crime and informal economies, my dissertation resituates the Chinese in Vietnam at the center of a prominent Nanyang diasporic network connecting East and Southeast Asia by examining Chinese transnationalism and identities as evolving and flexible articulations that responded dialogically to French colonial control, to the gravity of the Chinese Revolution and nationalist movements, and to varying modes of interactions with the wider Chinese capital and migratory connections in Hong Kong and Singapore.The dissertation is organized into four main chapters, thematically and chronologically organized to highlight the evolution of Chinese identities, mobile practices, and relationships to colonialism against dominant narratives of modern Vietnamese history that tend to privilege revolutionary times and downplay inter-ethnic elements. Chapter 1 explores Chinese rice monopoly and the political struggles between transnational rice merchants, a hyper-regulatory colonial state, and a new generation of Francophile Vietnamese politicians who advocated anti-Chinese nationalism as the answer to Chinese “domination.” Chapter 2 focuses on Chinese participation in the global opium trade, gambling cercles, and inter-Asian relationships that fostered an informal economy while challenging the foundation of colonial legal structures, leading to Vietnamese contentious attitudes towards Chinese roles in the French civilizing mission. Chapter 3 investigates the establishment, bureaucratization, and innovation of the French service of immigration control seeking to police increasingly mobile Chinese economic, social, and “illicit” networks and Chinese deployment of flexible identities to resist colonial hegemonic regulations. And chapter 4 turns to examine the local and transnational tensions of ethnic co-existence between mobile Chinese communities and the colonial state as reflected in issues of Franco-Chinese education, repatriations of Chinese remains to Hong Kong and their hometowns, and Chinese-led hospitals and their interactions with colonial medical institutions. 

My dissertation advances four interrelated areas of studies: Chinese migrants in Vietnam in the history of Nanyang Chinese migration wherein Vietnam’s crucial Chinese communities have remained largely marginal; the studies of the Sinosphere and Chinese identities; Sino-European relations and postcolonialism; and the history of colonial and modern Vietnam at large. By destabilizing Chinese-ness through an examination of diasporic identities under French rule and their multiple manifestations, my dissertation gives southern Vietnam and its Chinese communities their rightful places in the broader history of global empires, Chinese migration, and Greater China. 

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