Teochew Letters: The Story of A People, Penned By The People

Beginning with a trickle of sporadic bands of merchant-smugglers and pirates during the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644), the movement of the Teochew people to Southeast Asia accelerated in the 19th century as entrenched corruption between local officials of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and wealthy landowners drove numerous among the oppressed masses into rebellion, and many others searches for livelihood abroad. With the advent of steamship and changing attitudes towards women travelling abroad, the migratory wave exploded in the 20th century into one of the greatest epic movements of people in history.  Between the years 1904 and 1935, port records show three million passengers departed overseas from Swatow. 

Yet in spite of its magnitude, not to mention its direct impact on the economic and political fortunes of nearly every state in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia, the modern Teochew migration was never properly documented or studied when it happened. Part of the reason is that the Teochew émigrés themselves, with few exceptions amongst those who were not wanted fugitives or overseas-born, always regarded themselves as sojourners in foreign land. For the same period mentioned above when 3 million left, half of the same number returned from abroad via the same gateway. Regarding this phenomenon, American missionary Adele Fielde, who lived among the people for over ten years, explained: 

No matter where any inhabitant went to earn money, he always left his wife and children at home, with the ancestors who were dearer to him than his wife and children; and however far he might travel or however long he might be gone, he never lost the intention of coming back to this village before he died, and bringing with him all the money he might have. To him, home was home though ever so homely.

As it was also for the other groups of southern Chinese, the outlook of the Teochew diaspora shifted dramatically after the outbreak of Japanese military aggression against China, as the seizure of government power by the anti-capitalist Communists thereafter, turned going back home into a very grim option. Although the Teochews overseas subsequently began to play increasingly prominent roles in their various adopted homelands, their identity by then was being subsumed by the rise of Chinese nationalism. Crassly categorised as a mere sub-group of the "overseas Chinese", the story of the Teochew people was for long decades overlooked by scholars and left unheard by the world.  

But though cut off from their homeland by forces beyond their control, the overseas Teochews never forgot their root or their families. From the early beginning of their movement to Southeast Asia, a tradition was formed among the Teochew migrants to remit part, if not most, of their wages to their parents, spouses and children at home. This was so for the wealthiest merchants and the poor coolie alike. For every decent Teochew man, nothing was more important than fulfilling his duties as son, husband and father. 

However, responsibility in those days was more than a matter of meeting obligations. Every remittance was always accompanied by a letter from its sender to update his love ones of his well-being, and to ask about their. Unless the circumstance was impossible, every correspondence was completed by a reply.

May the individual be in health or sickness, wealth or poverty, or the world at peace or war, in liberty or occupation, these letters across the South China Sea flowed virtually without break from the 1800s, long into the 1980s.  Today over 100,000 pieces of these Teochew letters - which are academically termed as khieu-phue 僑批 (in Mandarin: qiaopi, literally the "migrant letters") and related artefacts, form the bulk of the “Qiaopi and Yinxin Correspondence and Remittance Documents from Overseas Chinese” documentary heritage that was accepted into the  UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

Though the honour of recognition has finally helped to bring attention to a precious heritage, the true value of the Teochew Letters can only be unlocked by the people they are addressed to. Individually, every set of letters tell the stories and struggles of a family in a moment of history. But put together, all of them express the purpose and meaning of life to every common man - to seek the betterment of life for the ones who love us, and to pass this dream to the children after us.

More about khieu-phue 僑批 can be learned from the Teochew Letters website: www.teochewletters.org

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