The Social Imaginaries of Chinese-ness: Locals and migrants in contemporary Singapore


Sylvia Ang



In spite of an outflow of Chinese migrants since the late 1970s into areas other than the West, Chinese-ness as an object of research has remained one that is still firmly juxtaposed against the West. Other than a few exceptions, little has been written about Chinese migrants in Asia or addressed the potential of discussing new migrants’ encounters with the earlier Chinese settlers. The objective of this dissertation is to explore the contestation of Chinese-ness between ethnically-proximate individuals in a context of migration. I argue that this approach introduces additional layers of complexity to re-orient the study of Chinese subjects, even as it destabilizes Chinese-ness. Through using the social imaginary as an optic and Chinese-ness as an object of enquiry, the dissertation presents a productive manner to demonstrate through the lens of culture, how migrants and hosts imagine one’s social existence alongside others.

Based on six months of fieldwork in Singapore, this dissertation employs an ethnographic method involving both online and offline research. This method is used to link everyday practices with the greater political economy. Intersectionality is also applied to argue that there is nothing “merely cultural” about Chinese-ness. As such, even as the dissertation posed a question pertaining to ethnicity, specifically Chinese-ness, the issues that emerged were that of the politics of place, class, gender, and belonging. Indeed, this has led to my overall argument: In a context of migration, Chinese-Singaporeans’ and Chinese migrants’ social imaginaries of Chinese-ness are shaped by the production of difference emerging from the intersection of global capital and local modernity. The research makes several interventions in migration studies. First, it suggests that a cultural approach is necessary to unpack the complexities of mass migration, super-diversities and the assumed homogeneity of the ethnically-proximate. Second, it suggests that it is important to surpass methodological nationalism to appreciate that migration not only displaces the migrant but the host as well. Finally, the case study of Singapore as used in this dissertation is both unique and universal. It is unique as it is the only state outside of Greater China with a predominantly Chinese population. Yet, it is also universal as a highly globalized metropolis with multiple flows of migrant labour. A study of its migration context thus hold potential for analyses of other cities in the world that can anticipate or already have similar flows of migration.