China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
This paper examines how Eurasian and ‘foreign’ entrepreneurs in the early-twentieth-century Chinese treaty ports asserted different national and ethnic identities in order to gain economic or political advantages. Besides providing extraterritorial protection for individuals and their businesses, the strategic adoption of different nationalities, particularly British nationality, also enhanced mobility between East Asian treaty ports and, in some cases, British colonial territories. While these practices could be viewed as opportunistic, this paper seeks to demonstrate that the many-stranded identities of China-coast entrepreneurs and merchants were shaped by the multi-ethnic, multi-national, and multi-imperial environments of the treaty ports. Unlike in Hong Kong, where binary racial thinking prevailed, this cosmopolitanism was a cornerstone of a distinct China-coast identity promoted by entrepreneurs in the treaty ports, many of whom were members of ethnically and nationally mixed families which had been resident in East Asia for generations. This unifying China-coast identity strengthened the familial and social networks that spanned the port cities of East and Southeast Asia, in which these entrepreneurs’ economic practices were embedded.
The paper concludes by discussing how changes in the nationality laws of several countries, particularly Britain and China, erected barriers to claiming multiple national identities by the 1930s, thereby closing off opportunities for many China-born ‘foreigners’ and Eurasians to benefit from extraterritorial protection. One result of these changes was increasingly nationalistic assertions of Britishness and, in a few cases, Chineseness among China-born Eurasians.