Celebrating Chinese culture throughout the world

Cayman Brac’s environmentalist, educator, adventurer and author Martin Keeley spent a little time in China. Here is the latest missive he sent Weekender from across the planet.  


Siming District, Xiamen, Fujian Province –The Chinese people have always played a role in the development of our Western culture. They crop up everywhere! 

Who in the West has not eaten at a Chinese restaurant? Of course, the food in a restaurant in China tastes totally different! 

Who has not gone into a store in a city somewhere – New York, Toronto, London, Vancouver, San Francisco – and not encountered a Chinese store owner? 

And who has not visited a city in which a very distinctive Chinatown is featured? Somewhere that helps to preserve and reinforce the distinctive Chinese culture and community.  

Not so surprising, then, to encounter a museum in Xiamen that depicts the “Overseas Chinese” – the ones who ventured and settled around the world and took their culture with them. 

The first thing to greet the visitor is a beautiful selection of model junks. A junk is an ancient Chinese sailing vessel/ship design still in use today and you often see them on Chinese waters. Junks have been around more than 2,000 years and may have developed from very early bamboo rafts which had a high stern. Now and then one will visit Cayman and tie up in Georgetown Harbour. 

It’s interesting that one of the first major Chinese explorers who pre-dates the European “discovery” of America by a hundred years or so was Admiral Zheng He. 

Six centuries ago Admiral He commanded a mighty armada of Chinese ships that crossed the China Sea, then ventured west to Ceylon, Arabia, and East Africa. The fleet consisted of giant nine-masted junks, escorted by dozens of supply ships, water tankers, transports for cavalry horses, and patrol boats. The armada’s crew totaled more than 27,000 sailors and soldiers. The largest of the junks were said to be over 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. (By way of contrast the Santa Maria, Columbus’s largest ship, was a mere 90 by 30 feet and his crew numbered only 90.)  

Loaded with Chinese silk, porcelain, and lacquerware, the junks visited ports around the Indian Ocean. Here, Arab and African merchants exchanged the spices, ivory, medicines, rare woods, and pearls so eagerly sought by the Chinese imperial court.  

Seven times, from 1405 to 1433, the treasure fleets set off for the unknown. These seven great expeditions brought a vast web of trading links — from Taiwan and Xiamen to the Persian Gulf — under Chinese imperial control. This all took place half a century before the first Europeans, rounding the tip of Africa in frail Portuguese caravels, ‘discovered’ the Indian Ocean.  


Impressive show  

At the start of the first of Zheng He’s epic voyages in 1403, it is said that 317 ships gathered in the port of Nanjing. As sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod notes, “The impressive show of force that paraded around the Indian Ocean during the first three decades of the 15th century was intended to signal the ‘barbarian nations’ that China had reassumed her rightful place in the firmament of nations — had once again become the ‘Middle Kingdom’ of the world.” 

But despite the strength and prosperity that marked their empire, Ming emperors deliberately chose not to try to colonize lands beyond the Middle Kingdom. The conservative Confucian faction then took the upper hand in the imperial court. In its worldview, it was improper to go abroad while one’s parents were still alive. ‘Barbarian’ nations were seen as offering little of value to add to the prosperity already present in the Middle Kingdom. And so, after these epic voyages, China once again withdrew from the world behind the “bamboo curtain” which it so recently opened again! 

Not so her people who continued to spread into every corner of the planet, so well depicted in the main gallery. This section of the Overseas Chinese museum features realistic models of Chinese people in various aspects of their overseas ventures – including the replica of a ship’s hold into which they were crammed for long voyages of re-settlement or for heavy manual labour. 

This museum was founded and is presided by a popular overseas Chinese entrepreneur, Tan Kah Kee, together with several of his countrymen still living abroad or returned from their overseas ventures. Established in 1956 it was opened to the general public in 1959. Its aim, according to the minimal guide, is “to educate visitors with the lifestyles and customs of departed locals. The museum also tries to loosen the stereotypes attached to the Chinese living abroad.” However, it doesn’t always accomplish this goal! 

The scenes depicted are every bit as we have come to expect the Chinese “experience”. Whether it’s a Chinese rickshaw carrier seated next to his machine, miners from countries like Australia, railroad builders who drove the Canadian and US railroads east through the Rocky mountains, a scribe reading a letter, children at school, even a typesetter in a newspaper type-shop. One scene has a Chinese tapping a rubber tree in Malaysia, another a newly married couple in all their finery – circa 1910. In fact, almost every aspect of Chinese life abroad is featured. 

One of the museum’s exhibition halls has displays of bronzes, pottery, painting and showed a range of artwork and unearthed relics collected by the founder of the museum, while another – the Nature Hall which showcases specimens of aquatic products, birds and animals – was closed when I visited. 

It was the lifelike figures in all their various real-world situations that caught my attention and drew me into the world of China as it has expanded its influence around the planet – through its people! 


A Chinese barber at work.

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