Migration, transnationalism & Chang family letters

Migration, transnationalism & Chang family letters

The Chang family letters (reference information is at the end of this blog) are fascinating and offer an interesting parallel, albeit with important differences, with the Forbes family letters. One of the sons of the Chang family from Guangdong province, Yitang, migrated to the USA, California specifically, in 1900. Over time, more members of the family became established there. This was ironically facilitated by draconian bureaucratic procedures designed to keep large Chinese families out of the country, because definitions of what different family relationships and history consisted of was taught by letter to ‘paper sons’, ‘paper wife’ etcetera as a kind of course in which an immigration examination could be passed.

These more than three thousand letters in total have as their hub the epistolary activity as both writer and recipient of Sam Chang (this was his preferred name), the son of Yitang. He started his working life as a traditional herbalist and healer, branched out into farming, and became a successful businessman with a large family business. The letters exist because as well as saving every letter sent to him, Sam Chang kept drafts of every letter he wrote, which is why the collection is so large. There are around 900 letters directly by or to him. And overall, these letters were sent and received over a long period of time, from 1900 to the 1970s (pp126-127), and involve family members over three generations.

These family letters (which alas have not been traced in a Californian or other US archive, so discussion here focuses on Liu Haiming’s excellent book) provide an insight into family letter-writing as a moral education (pp135-140) and also open up wider concerns, including the presence of the lively and entrepreneurially-minded Chinese community in the US. For the Chang family in China, migration was more an opportunity than a necessity. It involved long-term patterns of internal as well as external migrations, it was not particularly exceptional in context, and later on it involved return migrations (pp29-32).

Being in the US was, however, no bar to Sam Chang being very involved in ongoing family matters, although that this occurred mainly through the medium of letter-writing gives it a particular flavour – many of the letters are both directive and performative. Certainly he took his role in the wider extended family extremely seriously, so the letters encompass family members in China as well as elsewhere, and his letter-writing activity provides money and practical advice on relationships and economic and political matters. Sam Chang in the US also solved family problems in China and became a kind of second-generation family head (pp96-99). Among matters he offered help and support regarding feuds in China over family property and other business matters involved in addressing (pp23-26).

One of the interesting things about the Chang family letters, and the point where they come closest to the Forbes family letters, concerns the interface between family life and relationships, and the family business and its concerns (pp61-64, 100-125). The traditional herbalist business was the core, at least in the beginning, but soon also involvement in asparagus farming became an important mainstay of family economic life. As well as his herbalist role, Sam as manager also worked with farm workers. In addition, his wife in particular was involved in the business including in preparing herbs and pills from these. These activities became very profitable and money from them was used for family matters rather than for personal income (pp103-105). However, outside events in the shape of wider US economic problems and depression, as well as other external factors and particularly US racial laws, impacted on family economic life (pp112-118).

Migration was less an event than it was a process for the Changs, again very different for the Forbes and the family they were related to by marriage, the Purcocks. The entire Chang family network had shared migratory strategies, in which the migrations to the US of wider kin members could be fixed up by ‘paper’ sons and daughters seemingly from Sam‘s first marriage, who received detailed instruction in the narrower, US-resident, family relationships, activities and history so they could deal with immigration officers proficiently. What resulted was a process of chain migration based on and through the family network (pp33, 41-42, 79-84, 91-92, 140-2, 156). This tutelage role in the US of Sam Chang, and before him his father, is both about family knowledge and history and also the process of migration. In this respect it shares less with the Forbes and more with some other migrant settler familIes, in particular the Townsends and Hocklys whose letters are part of the Pringle Papers. It is also rather different from them because of a more hierarchical family structure, with Sam having a clearly directional role in relation to his children and others under his aegis in China (pp129-133).

China remained the cultural if not the dominant economic home for the Changs resident in the US. This was for pragmatic and material reasons connected with family land and other property, and also the ties of family and kin relations (pp163-209). Over time, US-based family members returned to China for lengthy periods (pp163-165). This was a collective strategy rather than an individual one and among other things it maintained patterns of interest in family properties there. In addition, it established transnational identities, a sense of betweenness, which makes the Chang experience different from the Forbes where, from soon after migration to South Africa, a strong sense of a South African identity and base developed. For the Chang family, in the third-generation this transnationalIsm involved a number of Sam Chang’s children, with the strength of their ties with China affected by growing US racism, with truncated economic opportunities being an initial push factor, and the growth of national sentiments in China later also important as a pull factor.

Reference: Liu, Haiming. The Transnational History of a Chinese Family: Immigrant Letters, Family Business, and Reverse Migration. New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press, 2005. Pb, ISBN 0-8135-3597-2.

Last updated:  31 May 2018