The Chinese of Colonial Burma

Yi Li’s Chinese in Colonial Burma is an excellent evaluation of the uniqueness of the Chinese communities in Rangoon when compared to other Chinese communities across South East Asia and offers a foundation from which more in depth histories of these communities can be studied. However, a fundamental issue with this history is the absence of the Burmese in the lives of Rangoon’s Chinese. Rather, Yi Li focuses on how the Chinese developed their own individual communities in Rangoon instead of how these communities fitted into the pluralistic social system of the colony.


This absence becomes apparent when in the latter half of the book, focusing on the history of Rangoon, there are fewer than a dozen direct references to how the Chinese interacted with other communities in the town, and they are generally not positive. These include: the bullying of a schoolboy being stereotyped by his classmates; moneylending and pawning to other communities; being the victims of Burmese dacoity; selling opium to other communities; clashing politically with other communities in local government; and by participating in race riots.[1] Essentially, the Chinese in this book are not treated as a part of the community of Rangoon, but rather as one of the communities existing in separation, and often in opposition, to each other.

Fundamentally, Yi Li constructs the importance of the history of these communities as existing in their relationship to colonialism, rather than in their interactions between one another. For instance, the importance of the mercantile reputation of the Chinese was that it placed them in ‘a layer that separated the colonizer and the colonized.’[2] Pairing this with the absence of the Burmese, the experience of the Chinese in Rangoon is mostly depicted as being dependent on interactions with the British. However, while the author lacked the opportunity to include Burmese language sources in their history, there are still ways in which these differing communities’ interactions with one another in the town can be captured through English language sources.[3]

For instance, Yi Li could have expanded on smaller case studies to explore the arguments they make about the Chinese Rangoon colonial experience, and these smaller constituent units’ interactions could then be expanded to include other communities, such as with their discussion on Cantonese woodworkers. While Yi Li emphasises the potential role of Chinese carpenters as agents for the colonial government, and this is evidenced in my own research on the reliance which the colonial government had on their skills to build government buildings such as the lunatic asylum’s dead house in 1880 (their refusal to do so resulting in its construction in brick) and even as late as 1913 when the colony’s wooden road building still almost exclusively employed Chinese labourers, there was a lot more that could be learnt about the Rangoon experience from the representation of these workers in British sources.[4] For instance, when historic laws requiring that newly constructed abodes had to be done so with brick finally began being enforced, the poor quality of the masonry work in the Chinese quarter was blamed on Chinese maliciousness to work around the regulations.[5] However, maps of the town suggest that the Chinese areas of the town had historically fewer brick buildings than other sections, such as the Muslim quarter North East of China Street, and the fact that the British predominantly chose to employ Indian workers led by British engineers for bricklaying work would suggest that this Chinese community, with its legacy of talented carpenters, would produce masonry of a lower quality than in the rest of the town.[6] However, British officials seized on this as an example of Chinese vice and the buildings’ owners were punished, which shows how the historical experience of the carpenters could have been used to further a conversation of how the depiction of Chinese morality by the colonialists impacted the lives of the community.

Although, while this historical moment demonstrates how Yi Li could have broached the other subjects dealt with in this book through a closer examination of this particular economic community, this still only deals with the interactions of the Chinese with the colonial. Instead, the English language sources indicate a number of times in which these workers interacted with the other communities of Rangoon. For instance, due to their expertise in woodworking and their access to transnational tropical wood markets, Chinese carpenters held a monopoly on the production of gharry carriages.[7] How the Chinese craftsmen negotiated the prices of these carriages with the drivers who belonged to other communities not only had a significant impact on the livelihoods of these two types of workers, but also affected the spatio-temporal experience of the town. In 1907-1908, the cost pressures of gharry-driving were worsening as not only were they having to pay for new licenses but the scarcity of the seasonal wood used to construct them was increasing. Accordingly, fares began increasing, and this was part of the process that had encouraged the replacement of gharries with rickshaws, although the rickshaws were imported from abroad, presumably since they were not historically native to Rangoon.[8] So here is an example of how the exploration of this one aspect of the Chinese community can be linked to a wider story of Rangoon which is shared by all of its inhabitants. Gharries became too expensive to make and run, and so not only were they replaced by a cheaper form of transportation, but this put the Chinese gharry makers and the gharry drivers from other communities at financial risk, demonstrating the delicate economic ecosystem which encompassed all the town’s communities.

Indeed, such analysis on the interconnection between the Chinese carpenters and the wider transportation economy of the town could lead to alternative perspective on the community’s history. For instance, while Yi Li uses the account of one Chinese columnist to explain that the Chinese community’s attacks against Chinese rickshaw drivers was due to their desire to self-construct an image of a Chinese merchant character, it could instead be more likely that the introduction of the rickshaws came at a very sensitive time when the Chinese community were losing business due to the importation of foreign-made rickshaws.[9] Additionally, such explorations could be taken further as this was not just an economic story, because the switch to rickshaws over gharries would have had a fundamental effect on how everyone in the town experienced its spatio-temporal aspects, as a rickshaw alters the hierarchies of who can and cannot afford private transportation, it also effects the experience of riding as well as the hierarchies between those being transported and the transporter or the people walking in the streets. Such notions are also suggested by Noel Singer who wrote a much more general history of the town.[10] Therefore, such analysis can reveal not only how the Chinese inhabited this space, but also helped form its nature while being a part of it along with the town’s other communities.


However, this is just an example of how the use of English language sources can unveil much more about how different cultural communities interact with one another in a space beyond their interactions with the colonial. By focusing at greater length on the smaller cases of those within a community, such as Cantonese carpenters, Yi Li could have written a history that emphasised how these people’s lived experiences were not just located in Burma, but were also the products of its interconnected society. However, if Yi Li’s aim was to examine the construction of a Chinese community in isolation from the interactions which different members of this community had with the wider town, then it still serves as an excellent history.

[1] Yi Li, Chinese in Colonial Burma: A Migrant Community in a Multiethnic State (London, 2017), 127, 135, 156, 158, 199-205, 206.

[2] Ibid., 111.

[3] Ibid., 12.

[4] Report on the Rangoon Lunatic Asylum for the Year 1880 (Rangoon, 1881), 1; Appendix to the Report of the Public Works Department Reorganization Committee: Vol. III (Calcutta, 1917), 3.

[5] Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality for the Year 1909-10, (Rangoon, 1910), 16.

[6] Plan of the Town and Suburbs of Rangoon (London, British Library, Cartographic Items Maps I.S.136), map by F. L. Seaton (Calcutta, 1880), 5.

[7] Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality for the Year 1907-08 (Rangoon, 1908), 14.

[8] “Rickshaws in Rangoon”, Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, Singapore (7/11/1907), 3, <,tram&oref=article> [accessed: 24/02/22].

[9] Li, Chinese in Colonial Burma, 138.

[10] Noel F. Singer, Old Rangoon: City of the Shwedagon (Stirling, 1995), 137.