The Chinese in Laos
Rebirth of the Laotian Chinese Community as peace returns to Indochina

The Chinese population in Laos has always been small when
compared to the impressive size of Chinese communities in other parts of Southeast
Asia. It seems that a lack of access to the sea, the mountainous terrain and the
jungle have made this country an unlikely area for the development of commerce,
thus attracting fewer Chinese traders than its immediate neighbours Vietnam, Cambodia
and Thailand. In spite of its small size, the Chinese community in Laos possesses,
nevertheless, its own history and identity, and holds a special position within
modern Lao society. The existence of Chinese in Laos is mentioned in the first
explorers’ accounts, before the French Protectorate was established (1893).
But it was only with the economic development brought about by colonisation that
their numbers increased significantly—to such an extent that, from the 1950s,
the Chinese in Laos became an urban ethnic minority group which dominated economic
life in Lao cities from Pakse to Luang Prabang. The political changes of 1975
led to a massive exodus of most of these people to other countries, thus disrupting
the ongoing development of a specifically Sino-Lao society in the country’s
urban centres. The Chinese sector of the population in Laos has dropped from 100,000
people (1)—before the change of regime in 1975—to about 10,000 today.
This population was dispersed to the four corners of the world, and later, the
deterioration of diplomatic relations between China and Laos in 1978, and the
alignment of Laos with Vietnam, both conspired to make the position of those who
had not been able to leave Laos even more uncomfortable.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Indochinese peninsula
has entered into an era of reconstruction and co-operation under the auspices
of China, itself newly converted to the cult of capitalism. The present situation
of geopolitical stability in the area has led to a rebirth of the Chinese community
in Laos in the midst of a flood of investment and increasing trade of every sort
from the Chinese world (The People’s Republic, Taiwan, Singapore, overseas
Chinese, and the Sino-Thai community). A sense of identity on the part of the
Chinese communities in Laos, which had slumbered for many years, was suddenly
revived by these new interactions, so full of promise for renewing links with
the prosperous “cousins” of the Chinese community and for getting in
touch with new currents coming from mainland China. The arrival of these new actors,
who have given the Chinese in Laos a second wind, has also progressively changed
the traditional understanding of their presence in Lan Xang, the country of a
“million elephants” (2). The purpose of this article isto give first
a brief historical summary, and then to evaluate the position of the Chinese in
Laos and to analyse the latest trends that are emerging in today’s ever-changing
geopolitical and economic climate.

The make-up of the Chinese element in Laos: TWO distinct
currents in the north and south

It was at the end of the 14th century that the kingdom
of Lan Xang (3) first began to pay tribute to China and continuing diplomatic
relations were established. These hierarchical relations between the two countries
would endure, at least formally, until the middle of the 19th century. During
this latter period, the Yunnan Moslems’ revolt against the Qing dynasty would
make all communication with the Middle Kingdom impossible, and would thus bring
to an end the practice of paying tribute to Peking. During the centuries of allegiance,
China did not feel any need to populate this small border country. Indeed, unlike
their strategy in Vietnam, the Chinese never attempted to colonise Laos, and chose
rather to let it play the role of buffer state. Today the Chinese presence in
Laos is, therefore, not related to the former situation in which the country was
a vassal to China. It developed later and is characterised by two distinct currents
in the north and south of the country.

The centre and south: cradle of the Chinese communities
in Laos

In the south of Laos, the implantation of Chinese populations
was the result of a migratory wave which arrived from the southern Chinese provinces
and submerged the entire Indochinese peninsula at the beginning of the 20th century.
Driven away by the extreme political and economic confusion that reigned at the
time in southern China, a hoard of migrants left for the ports of Saigon or Bangkok.
After an initial stay in Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand, part of this population
opted for a second journey further inland to Laos. Attracted by the economic expansion
and urban development generated by French colonisation, the Chinese migrants,
who were looking for trade, arrived in the developing cities of central and southern
Laos (Vientiane, Thakhek, Savannakhet, Pakse), thus increasing the Chinese population.
At the time, most of this population consisted of either Teochiu (Chaozhou)
or Hakka (Kejia), natives of the Chinese province of Guangdong, or else
Hainanese.

This wave of migration, which rose at the end of the 1930s
and again during the 1950s (4), progressively resulted in a community organised
around social institutions such as schools, temples and especially a system of
congregations (5). These new migrants very quickly became key actors in Lao economic
life. As a result, they were favourably regarded by the French colonial authorities
of the period, who were eager to stimulate trade within Indochina.

After independence in 1954, the Chinese, who had been used
to working in partnership with the colonisers, quickly changed their position
towards the new national government, thus preserving their privileged situation
in Lao society. Active and influential, they maintained their control over whole
sectors of the local economy, namely banking, industry and trade.

From 1959 on, in order to carry out their activities more
easily, some of the Chinese in Laos took Lao nationality (6). Like the Chinese
in Thailand (7), the more affluent classes adopted a strategy of matrimonial alliances
with important Lao families. These unions were an exchange of commercial and financial
assets against a more symbolic capital consisting of social recognition. Nevertheless,
these inter-ethnic marriages did not succeed in assimilating the Chinese into
Lao culture, but rather led to the emergence of a new hybrid identity, known as
Sino-Lao, with roots in both cultures. On the fringes of this elite was an assortment
of other groups with different objectives and different strategies for defining
their identity: dealers and traffickers with short-term objectives, Yunnanese
workers drawn by the burgeoning industrial sites, artisans, and small shopkeepers.
The 1975 revolution brought Chinese supremacy over the business world to an abrupt
end and led to their departure en masse for other countries. Indeed, their social
position and their political allegiance (8), more than their ethnic origin, made
them the target of the new socialist regime. Therefore, they sought refuge all
over Asia and in the West, particularly in France (9).

Northern provinces under the influence of “the
powerful neighbour”

The reasons for the Chinese presence in the north are radically
different from those in the south. In fact, the mountainous geography and the
poor state of the roads and other means of communication hindered the progression
of the Chinese migrants—who had first entered from the south—towards
the enclosed northern regions. At the same time, these regions were subjected
to more direct influences from the Chinese border areas. Over the course of the
last century, the present provinces of Phongsaly, Luang Namtha and Oudomxay have
received an influx of Chinese arriving overland from neighbouring Yunnan province.
For many years, the majority of the new arrivals was made up of caravan drivers,
dealers and traffickers and a few shopkeepers, followed in 1949 by Kuomintang
soldiers fleeing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Then, around 1954, the
Communist victory in North Vietnam forced the Chinese population which had previously
settled in the Mon Kay area to retreat into the north of Laos.

The 1960s saw the massive arrival of PLA troops who came
to set up a vast road construction project. This project, which lasted more than
10 years, directly served China’s strategic interests in the event of a regional
conflict. But the cooling Sino-Lao diplomatic relations at the beginning of the
1980s led to the withdrawal of Chinese military workers, which was then estimated
at between 5,000 and 15,000 men (10). At the same time the government in Laos
tightened its control over the remaining Chinese civil population, which it suspected
of political activism. These pressures led to a new wave of departures, which
threatened the few remnants of community life left in Luang Prabang, Oudomxay
and Xieng Khoung. All in all, the proximity of China and the passage of many Chinese
through this part of the country for over a century has not brought about the
development of a durable Chinese community set up around its own institutions.
It appears, rather, that the number of Chinese in the north of Laos has long fluctuated
according to the strategic ambitions of the country’s “powerful neighbour”,
as it is an area that China considers as its own sphere of influence. Today, even
if the overwhelming presence of the Chinese military is no longer felt, it is
nevertheless true that the road to a new Chinese economic future is being built
thanks to infrastructures set up by the PLA 20 years ago.

The relative decline of bipolar tendencies

Since the beginning of the 1990s, China and Vietnam have
abandoned their ideological quarrels, which had become obsolete after the collapse
of the former USSR, and have been able to concentrate more fully on economic development.
The political divisions, which have split up the Indochinese peninsula for decades,
are disappearing, and the time is ripe for reconstruction, co-operation and investment.
In this new geopolitical context, Laos in particular is witnessing a multitude
of influences from the Chinese world, and these are progressively replacing the
bipolar tendencies which have characterised the Chinese presence in Laos in the
past.

The north: ruled by Yunnan’s strategic ambitions

Ever since the normalisation of its relations with the
Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1986 and the beginning of the new era
of market socialism, China has dropped its traditional policy of neutralisation
by military means in northern Laos. It now prefers to exert a more economic type
of influence, encompassing the whole of the Indochinese peninsula. Yunnan province,
because of its geographical position, is the Chinese province primarily affected
by this strategy of opening up new paths into southern Laos, a strategy that is
essential in freeing the country from its economic isolation. State and private
investors (commonly referred to in China as getihu [11]) are rushing in
to conquer this new Eldorado.

Renewal of trade across the border

Officially there are two border stations, at Muang Xing
and Borten, which provide a link between the provinces of Luang Namtha and Yunnan.
Faced with the increased traffic of people and goods, other stations operate more
or less unofficially along the Sino-Lao border. This is the case for Phongsaly.
Entries and exits are made easier by means of a system of passes issued only to
the border population. This allows many people to travel to Laos without a visa,
within a limited area, which is not always respected (12). The lack of close surveillance
at the border allows much illicit trafficking and dealing to develop (wood, drugs,
vehicles, and spare parts). This illicit traffic is organised by border people
who put their knowledge of the terrain and their connections with the minority
groups living in the area to good advantage. For example, at Phongsaly two families
of Yunnanese origin control the town’s economy (13). These families serve
as go-betweens not only for private businessmen from Xishuangbanna (14) prospecting
for markets in the region, but also for visiting Chinese officials.

“Chinese-style” economics in the northern
provinces

In recent years, the provinces of Luang Namtha and Oudomxay
have simultaneously witnessed a spectacular renewal of road construction projects.
These projects are headed by state companies from Yunnan, who will also be the
future beneficiaries of the work being carried out. A fast road between Borten
and Houexai (15) is under way and should soon provide a link between Yunnan’s
booming economy and the market in northern Thailand, thus opening an eventual
outlet to the sea. But investors do not see Laos as simply a transit area on the
way to other markets, or as a turnstile for regional smuggling. Companies from
China have launched projects in northern Laos itself: hydraulic infrastructures,
prospecting, high-yield plantations (16), and textile factories.

Apart from the state companies, there are private businessmen
looking for a more permanent installation who open hotels, nightclubs or restaurants
and often become involved in different forms of trade and trafficking. For example,
Lao villagers report that amongst the getihu who venture into the area, some organise
massive collections of forest plants, which are highly sought in China for their
medicinal value. Protected species are regularly traded, guaranteeing huge profits
for the instigators.

All in all, in the space of a few years, the urban areas
of Namtha and Oudomxay have begun to look like Chinese cities, where Chinese characters
are posted on shop fronts and the Chinese language has even supplanted Lao. For
the moment, the population is essentially masculine. The few women who have ventured
into the area are often prostitutes who are employed, more or less of their own
free will, by the recently opened hotels. Companies like the textile factory in
Namtha, which employs female workers and whose managers have come with their families,
are still the exception. Nevertheless, the economy in the north of the country
is becoming very “Chinese”, with a massive influx of capital, technology
and workers.

The limits of Chinese influence in Luang Prabang, a
city symbolising Lao identity.

Evidence of Chinese influence is much less visible in Luang
Prabang, a city that symbolises the essence of Lao cultural identity. UNESCO recently
classified Luang Prabang as part of the world’s heritage, and other towns
in the north of Laos that contain historical references for the country are now
protected from Yunnanese influences. This is the case for Xieng Khouang and for
Samneua, although they were home to many Chinese before 1975.

In spite of this restrictive policy, Yunnanese companies
still manage to set up shop in Luang Prabang, where they have won several commissions,
including the construction of the municipal stadium, and have been granted local
mining concessions. A Chinese clinic (17) opened its doors there in 1992 in order
to cater to the health-care needs of Chinese expatriate workers. The overall number
of civil and military workers from the People’s Republic is estimated at
300 people, sent from Pu’er and Jinghong.

In addition to these fluctuating numbers, there is an older
Chinese community that has survived up to the present day. Originally controlled
by Teochiu and Hainanese congregations, its ethnic make-up has considerably changed
over the years, with a majority of families of Yunnanese origin remaining. This
radical change can be explained by two factors: first, the Teochiu and Hainanese
merchants in Luang Prabang fled the country en masse, starting in 1975. During
the years following the change of regime, many Yunnanese (18) who had previously
settled in Phongsaly or Oudomxay headed for Luang Prabang in order to escape the
ever more difficult living conditions in the north of Laos. This population therefore
supplanted the wealthy communities that had left to move abroad. Today the Association
of Chinese in Luang Prabang estimates the size of the community at 539 individuals,
of which 122 still have Chinese nationality.

Central and southern communities caught up in a web
of influences

While the north is experiencing the ascendancy of only
neighbouring Yunnan, the Chinese presence in central and southern Laos is characterised
by a much greater variety of actors.

The movement of Yunnanese companies towards the Lao
capital

Vientiane is also involved in Yunnan’s progression
into Laos, for it is there that political agreements promoting trade are concluded.
In February 1996 a delegation led by the secretary of the Chinese Communist Party’s
Provincial Committee travelled to Vientiane. Its mission was to encourage exchanges
in the fields of economics, trade, communications, science and technology, as
well as education and tourism. It appears that this sort of initiative, which
has become more and more frequent in recent years, is proving profitable, since
many public companies are now represented in the Lao capital. Amongst the most
notable is Yunnan-Lao Forestry Development Co. Ltd., which has made its name in
the primary sector with a contribution of US$5.1 million. Lao-Yun Co. Ltd., which
produces explosives for civil use, has a capital of US$3.2 million. Finally, Yunnan
Airlines has just become the main shareholder of Lao Aviation Joint-Venture Company
Ltd., with a contribution of US$4.5 million out of a total capital of US$7.5 million.
The direction and key positions are now allotted to Chinese nationals from Kunming,
the provincial capital of Yunnan. The Yunnanese expatriates in Vientiane form
a tight-knit community that has little interaction with the older communities.
Nevertheless, when taking on local personnel they favour those candidates who
have a diploma from the Chinese school in Vientiane, and therefore a mastery of
Mandarin.

The movement of other Chinese provinces towards the
centre and south of the country

The coastal province of Guangdong and the island of Hainan
also regularly send study commissions and participate in setting up many joint
ventures (19) in the area around Vientiane and in the south. As they are traditionally
the sources of Chinese migration to Laos, they sometimes solicit the collaboration
of the old Chinese community, as well as using the official channels through the
Chinese embassy. For example, in 1996 Vientiane received a delegation from Hainan
led by the assistant director of the office in charge of relations with overseas
Chinese.

Since 1993, Savannakhet has been home to the Nan Hai Da
Jiudan hotel complex (from Guangdong) and the Lao-Chin Sokdy Tobacco Co. Ltd (financed
by Hainanese capital). Their presence is not well accepted by some of the older
people in the community, through fear of competition. On the other hand, some
Sino-Lao families have managed to make the most of these new arrivals and claim
that they are benefiting from the dynamic atmosphere that reigns in Savannakhet.
The Lao-Chin Sokdy Tobacco Co. Ltd. is an edifying example of an alliance between
Sino-Thai and Chinese investors. It looks as though business between Savannakhet
and the mainland Chinese coastal provinces has a bright future ahead of it, since
negotiations to open a Chinese consulate in 1998 are under way.

Other Chinese regions having no historical links with Laos
are attracted by the new favourable diplomatic context uniting the two countries,
and are also beginning to send delegations and companies. For example, a company
from Tianjin is undertaking the construction of route 13 from Thakhek to Pakkading,
as well as the section from Xeno to Savannakhet. We should also remember that
in November 1996, relations between Peking and Vientiane reached an unprecedented
high with the official visit of Qiao Shi, President of the National People’s
Congress of the People’s Republic. More recently, the Chinese vice-minister
of Foreign Trade, Mrs. Li Guohua, travelled to Vientiane, thus demonstrating yet
again the desire to increase co-operation between the two countries.

On the fringe: the quiet presence of the getihu and
the discrete arrival of Taiwanese investors

Operating outside the official agreements which apply to
the state companies from the People’s Republic, some getihu from Guangdong
and Yunnan also come to try their luck in Vientiane. But the complexity of the
administrative procedures and the constrictive legal framework dissuades many
of them from undertaking ventures of any great size. Vientiane in no way resembles
Phnom Penh, where, for the last few years, hoards of adventurers have been chasing
quick profits in an unusual context of corruption and absence of legislation.
However, there are a few examples of private investment in the capital of Laos:
clothing factories, health clubs, hotels and restaurants, but nothing really spectacular.
Sales of Chinese goods primarily include vehicles, electrical appliances, and
small machines (generators, water pumps).

In addition to this group, a small Taiwanese community
is forming in Laos. Before 1975, the presence of Taiwanese in Laos was linked
to political activism within Chinese communities (20), while these new arrivals
are purely interested in financial results. The main sectors of activity in which
they are involved are catering, tourism and wood.

The economic awakening of the old Chinese communities

The emergence of all these new elements on the Lao economic
scene is accompanied by the renewal, after an interruption lasting many years,
of traditional trade between Sino-Lao and Sino-Thai communities. Indeed, since
the Lao government again authorised the existence of a private sector in 1990,
the overseas Chinese communities on both sides of the Lao-Thai border have renewed
what has proved to be profitable collaboration. From Vientiane to Pakse, most
imports of consumer goods and raw materials from Thailand are sent through these
networks, which are controlled for the most part by the Teochiu. Chinese communities
in Lao towns along the Mekong have always maintained close trade links with relatives
on the opposite shore. Today this traditional flow of trade has resumed between
Pakse and Ubon Ratchathani, Savannakhet and Mukdahan, Thakhek and Nakhon Phanom
and, finally, Vientiane and Nong Khai.

But, although this trade has contributed to the economic
re-birth of the Sino-Lao community, it has not been accompanied by a demographic
increase within this group. On the contrary: officially, statistics compiled by
associations of Chinese residents show a continuing decrease in numbers. The traditional
sources of immigration have dried up (21), and even if the members of a family
who are in exile abroad support their family financially, they return only very
rarely. The few people who return often do so within the context of a foreign
company investment, and they retain the status of expatriate. For example, the
Association of Chinese in Pakse counts only 124 people with Chinese nationality
among its members and estimates the whole of the Sino-Lao community at about 400
people. On the other hand, it points out that 200 people from the People’s
Republic have recently arrived as a result of co-operation agreements. The Association
of Chinese in Savannakhet, for its part, recorded 558 members on December 30th
1996, of which 300 were men and 258 were women, with 142 families in all. Globally,
the entire Chinese community in the city is estimated to be around 800, all nationalities
included. The directors of the association explain that, since the beginning of
the economic reform, many people have asked for Lao nationality in order to make
it easier to carry on a business or industry (22). Thus, official figures concerning
the demographics of the overseas Chinese (huaqiao) are an inverted function
of the spectacular renewal of commercial activities in families of Chinese origin.
In spite of this, the general upturn in business, the return of former members
of the Sino-Lao community and the introduction of Chinese joint ventures all contribute
to the renewal of the community’s institutions. The headquarters of the residents’
associations in Vientiane, Savannakhet and Pakse, as well as schools and temples,
have been renovated. Thus, caught up in a wave of influences, the older Chinese
communities in the south are gradually piecing together their identity, which
was shattered after years of repression.

Questions of identity: strategic management of double
identity

After a long period of repression, the Chinese in Laos
are still very careful with the Lao government in the expression of their identity.
They relate more to the Sino-Lao community itself and traditionally maintain only
secondary links with China. More recently, however, the wave of new arrivals from
China has sparked a tendency amongst the members of this community to re-identify
themselves as Chinese in order to provide openings into the world of business.
But, conscious of their opportunity to act as intermediary, they also continue
to be involved in Lao culture and society.

An ever precarious position

The sign of repression in the recent past

For a long time, the Pathet Lao targeted the Chinese, who
were essentially city-dwellers engaged in commerce, as a group that must be broken
up. From 1975, they were the subject of strict restrictions, which were intensified
at the beginning of the 1980s after hostilities broke out between China and Vietnam.

Throughout the country all signs of Chinese culture were
repressed: thus, the student body and curriculum in Chinese schools became largely
Lao. The traditional and colourful New Year’s parades ceased. The urban landscape
lost its signs bearing Chinese characters (23), publications in Chinese were banned
and Chinese women were requested to wear the sin (24).

In conjunction with this campaign to wipe out all visual
signs of the Chinese community, the Lao government also made it virtually impossible
to acquire Lao nationality, even if the laws allowed it in theory.

Changes in the laws on nationality

Before 1975, the law (25) stipulated that Lao nationality
could normally be acquired through paternal filiation (Article 1 of Act no. 138,
April 6th 1953), which had priority over maternal filiation. Thus, a child whose
father was a foreigner normally retained the nationality of his father. In fact,
it was not unusual, in cases of divorce, for the father to take his sons with
him (while leaving the daughters with their mother). As for naturalisation, a
foreigner wishing to take this step would have to give evidence of ten years of
uninterrupted residency in the country. The residency restriction was reduced
to five years for a foreigner born in Laos or married to a Lao. In the interest
of homogeneity and national unity, it was essential that the candidate for naturalisation
be able to prove his assimilation into the Lao community, in particular by demonstrating
a sufficient knowledge of the language. At the time, only a few individuals from
the upper classes chose to abandon their Chinese roots and identify themselves
with the destiny and culture of the host country.

The situation was somewhat different for women. The foreign
woman who married a Lao agreed to take on her husband’s nationality (except
when she made a declaration to the contrary at the time of her marriage), and
this seems to have greatly facilitated the assimilation of the descendants of
mixed marriages where the mother was Chinese, as opposed to those where it was
the father.

After the Pathet Lao came to power, the substance of the
nationality code remained the same, but the desire on the part of the government
to neutralise foreigners’ activities in Laos made the code much more restrictive
in the way it was applied. Naturalisation was a favour which was left entirely
up to the government to bestow, and it was refused to the Chinese for many years
as a result of fears that subversive elements might one day find their way into
the administration and government (26). In was only in the 1990s, after Sino-Lao
relations were normalised, that changes of nationality were again authorised.

It is now the Act of November 29th 1990 that dictates the
conditions for acquiring Lao nationality. These conditions still widely relate
to jus sanguinis, while at the same time referring to some points of jus
solis
.

Today, in the case of a child from a mixed marriage, the
filiation of the father does not take precedence over that of the mother. This
makes it easier for the descendant of a foreign father to obtain Lao nationality.
When he reaches his legal majority, he can opt for the nationality of one or the
other of his parents. For a child born in Laos of two foreign parents residing
in Laos on a permanent basis, the right to Lao nationality is recognised when
he reaches his legal majority. Thus, according to the Association of Chinese in
Vientiane, two-thirds of young adults belonging to the third or fourth generation
now hold Lao nationality.

Acquiring nationality by naturalisation requires the same
conditions as before. Today, many second-generation Chinese who have always lived
in Laos hope to be naturalised at last. They are motivated by the fact that they
do not intend to return to China, and their status as foreigners in Laos makes
it impossible for them to own real estate. Nevertheless, the naturalisation procedure
remains difficult and few applications are successful. One Lao high civil servant
of Chinese origin through his paternal grandfather maintains that the surest way
to get Lao nationality is not to make an official request, but to systematically
cover up one’s origins until eventually the administration inadvertently
starts to consider you as Lao. He backs up his claim by citing the case of a first
cousin who did not adopt this strategy of silent assimilation, and who has been
involved in an official application procedure for several years, without any success,
in spite of the fact that he was born and has always lived in Laos.

All the same, according to a study carried out amongst
the members of the Association of Chinese in Savannakhet, since 1990, 300 people
in the province have acquired Lao nationality, 108 of them in 1996. It appears
that this movement only affects well-to-do families who can meet the “expenses”
which this sort of procedure implies, including the purchase of support and connections
within the administration. It seems that, in spite of the recent legal measures
favouring the assimilation of descendants, obtaining Lao nationality remains,
for the Chinese, an unreliable business which depends largely on arbitrary government
decisions.

Strategies for defining identity: the “Chinese
of Laos” versus the “Chinese in Laos”: the situation in Vientiane

The desire to benefit from the advantages of Lao nationality
is not incompatible with a permanent, or even a re-awakened, sense of Chinese
identity. On the contrary, in the present context of economic liberalisation and
the new wave of investors from the Chinese world, the Sino-Lao seem to want to
occupy a position at the interface between the Lao and the new wave of Chinese,
thus putting to best advantage their double allegiance.

Taking the new migrants in charge

In Vientiane, the Association of Chinese is already serving
as an intermediary for private businessmen from Yunnan (27) and from Guangdong.
These small private investors are often in a situation that implies temporary
or permanent immigration to Laos. For some, this is simply a temporary solution
while they wait for an opportunity to try their luck in Thailand. Those who have
more permanent projects in mind generally join the Association of Chinese in the
town responsible for taking them through the maze of administrative steps needed
to become permanent residents and obtain the right to exercise private activity
in Laos.

Economic and social interaction with mainland Chinese
companies

Although negotiations between mainland Chinese companies
and the government of Laos are often left up to the Chinese embassy, a certain
amount of economic and social interaction can be registered between the Sino-Lao
community and the directors of these companies. The Vang Vieng Cement Factory,
in the province of Vientiane, is a joint venture that provides a good example
of shared interests between a Yunnan state company and members of the Chinese
community in Vientiane. This company is often a showpiece to incite other investors
from China, whether public or private, to collaborate with the local Huaqiao.
Thus, in December 1996, a delegation from Hainan province, on an official visit
to Vientiane, toured the company in question, escorted by affluent members of
the Association of Chinese in Vientiane. Amongst the people they spoke with were
directors of the capital’s Chinese school and its Chinese Foundation, who
had personally taken out shares in the cement factory.

These seduction campaigns are not uncommon, and several
members of Chinese foreign aid groups, as well as company directors from the mainland,
have mentioned taking part in similar visits. What is more, they report having
been regularly invited to charity events organised by the Chinese Foundation of
Vientiane. The proceeds of these occasions are donated to the development of community
institutions (schools, temples, retirement homes, and cemeteries).

By drawing attention to their shared “Chinese”
ethnicity, the long-established community seems to want to attract new human and
financial resources. But Chinese businessmen and civil servants can see through
this strategy, and while they are willing to maintain amicable relations with
the huaqiao in Laos (28), they nevertheless maintain clear distinctions
regarding their own identity and social category. They particularly stress their
status as expatriates, as well as the linguistic and cultural differences separating
them from the old Chinese community in Laos, which is primarily Teochiu. Above
all, they simply do not see themselves as migrants, but as employees seconded
to Laos for an unspecified period of time.

Return of the natives: Sino-Lao in large Asian businesses
come back to Laos

Although most directors of mainland Chinese businesses
maintain a certain distance between themselves and the huaqiao communities
in Laos, investors of Sino-Lao origin who return to the country have closer links
with the local networks and are more willing to help finance the Chinese community’s
institutions in Vientiane.

But this individual generosity does not necessarily imply
collaboration in business, which often passes through channels that are inaccessible
to the old Chinese communities in Laos. Indeed, the Chinese from Laos who left
the country in 1975 have often constituted material and social capital in the
second host country and, as a consequence, have sometimes ceased to identify themselves
as Sino-Lao, preferring membership in the larger group of the transnational overseas
Chinese community. Returning to Laos as foreign investors, they join financial
partners from Thailand, Taiwan and Singapore, who do not foresee having a common
future with the local Chinese society.

The shareholders of Vientiane Commercial Bank (Yongchen
shang ye yihang
) and of the Lao Hotel Plaza correspond to this model of interaction.
Inaugurated in 1993, the bank is the result of a cooperative venture between members
of the Sino-Lao community returning from Australia and Thailand, and Taiwanese
partners. The Lao Hotel Plaza, which some consider to be the best hotel in the
city, belongs to the same group. Its main shareholder is himself Chinese, formerly
from Laos, and has been living in Thailand since 1975. In this particular case,
the Chinese Association in Vientiane was not able to successfully play the card
of a shared past to win acceptance as a credible partner, for it was negotiating
with people possessing far greater financial capacities and different references
of identity.

In favour of re-activating old networks

Nevertheless, in spite of the reticence of the two groups
described above, the new influx of human and financial resources is more beneficial
than detrimental to the old institutions of the Chinese community (see box).

What is more, not all of the Sino-Lao who return from foreign
countries have the advantage of a sufficiently solid base to allow themselves
to neglect their allegiance with families of Chinese origin who have remained.
As a consequence, these people try to re-establish Sino-Lao networks of solidarity
which existed before 1975. For several years, some of these people have been organising
wide financial support for local community institutions. This aid is not exclusively
philanthropic in nature, for they expect to receive support in return, which will
strengthen their position and eventually serve their own interests.

This type of interaction is particularly visible at the
Chinese school in Vientiane (see box). Following the initiative of a Sino-Lao
businessman of French nationality, a commemorative album for the 55th anniversary
of the Liao Du Chinese School appeared in 1992. The volume included testimonies
by former students, photographs of the period and some documents from the school
archives. It also highlighted the widespread population of Chinese from Laos,
and the potential strength of this network, by presenting several photos of eminent
members of the Sino-Lao community in more than ten different countries (29). Sales
of this volume provided the basis of a worldwide fund raising for the renovation
of the Liao Du School. In return, the project’s initiator was able to join
the Association of Chinese in Vientiane and thus provide himself with an internal
network of support in Laos. In this case, all the parties concerned seem to be
aware that the past success of the Chinese in Laos is due to their capacity to
mobilise their networks. Much is therefore at stake in maintaining their identity,
for it is this identity which makes it possible to restore and exploit these networks.

The identity of the Chinese in Laos: a dynamic and strategic
concept

In view of all that is at stake in the very fact of being
“Chinese”, how do the Chinese in Laos define their identity and what
are their cultural practices? Above all, the Chinese in Laos identify themselves
with the specific community they form in the host country, namely the Sino-Lao.
As for their individual origins, some of them seem to have relegated to second
place their initial membership in a specific geo-dialectic group (Hakka, Teochiu,
Hainanese, Cantonese, Yunnanese), in favour of a sense of belonging to a generic
whole that transcends regional differences.

Moreover, in today’s new social and economic climate,
many are the families who re-invent for themselves a more traditional Chinese
identity in the hope that they will thus be able to benefit from the economic
boom accompanying the new arrivals from China. To do this, they develop practices
which are not a reproduction of rites inherited directly from the culture of their
ancestors, but rather a sort of approbation of those “marks” of Chinese
cultural membership which are commonly considered to be the most important. For
example, many parents who have mastered only a dialect will encourage their children
to learn Mandarin.

Nevertheless, this tendency to meld into a uniform cultural
mould is much less typical of the dominant group, the Teochiu, who continue to
observe its own particular traditions and to use its own geo-dialectic network
in neighbouring countries.

A particular case: The Association of Chinese in Vientiane

The Association of Chinese in Vientiane is characterised
by the near total predominance of the Teochiu. Its president, Lim Ching Tia, is
himself of Teochiu origin. The relative diversity, which characterised the association
before the revolution, has disappeared. The Hakka geo-dialectic sub-group, which
formerly had a representative in the association, practically disappeared with
the exodus of 1975, and the Hainanese and Yunnanese are now reduced to such small
numbers that they cannot qualify for full representation. In spite of the homogeneity
of the association, its mandate is still to represent all Chinese residents in
Vientiane, whatever their origin.

Finding itself in this unusual situation, at present, the
association oscillates between several demands concerning its identity, and these
demands vary according to whom they are addressed. The demands are:

-to belong to the local Sino-Lao community, which would
confer upon it a role of intermediary between the two cultures;

-to belong to the wider generic Chinese culture, which
would be defined by the mastery of Mandarin and by historic, moral and conceptual
references which are shared by the whole of the Chinese world and which would
allow for closer relations with the newcomers; and

-to satisfy, simultaneously, the particular wish of the
majority Teochiu group to perpetuate more specific traditions in order to maintain
links with the less accessible geo-dialectic or lineage networks (30).

Thus, ever since its foundation, the association has operated
on different levels and increased the number of cultural events (New Year celebration,
raffles, Earth Spirits Festival) which are mainly occasions to bring together
the different groups of Chinese in Vientiane and to mobilise their resources for
the benefit of the community institutions. Through these different events, the
idea of “Chinese” ethnicity is transformed from a static, fixed concept,
into a living and thriving reality.

In less than a century, the situation of the Chinese in
Laos has changed from that of temporary migrants to a permanent ethnic group with
its own hybrid culture, occupying a privileged position for undertaking dialogue
with the Laos government on economic questions. Their massive exodus in 1975 and
the repression that was inflicted upon those who remained would reasonably lead
to the conclusion that the Sino-Lao culture would undoubtedly disappear. However,
the fact that a great proportion of the community fled to foreign countries allowed
this group to acquire a trans-national dimension, rather than bringing about its
extinction. Today this trans-nationality provides the Chinese in Laos with some
of the resources that allow them to re-affirm themselves as a group that matters.
Conscious of all that is at stake in the concept of being “Chinese”
within a changing social and economic context, the Chinese in Laos are realising
a sort of cultural syncretism which gives them more options and increases their
margin for manoeuvre in modern Lao society. We can now distinguish between these
“Chinese in Laos” and the “new Chinese in Laos” who, while
contributing indirectly to the rebirth of the first group, are nevertheless distinct,
with their own particular sense of identity and way of life. Up to now, these
new arrivals have come hoping to limit their stay to the length of their expatriation
contract. On the other hand, one could wonder whether the private investors, particularly
from Yunnan, who have come to try their luck in the north, might not settle in
the country, thus participating in a new distribution of the Chinese community
in Laos.

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