Several books concerning the Chinese overseas and their commercial ven-
tures are now available, some with special reference to the business acumen
of sojourners turned settlers. New basic research examines the history of
their wide-ranging activities and the methods and organizations they em-
ployed wherever they went. Some studies of their regional and global net-
works confirm that the Chinese did well in some countries and less so in
others, and suggest the reasons why. While it is clear that these trading com-
munities were remarkably adaptable in what they achieved in many parts of
Southeast Asia, the studies covering the commodities in which they traded
have been uneven, desultory, and even fragmentary. It has therefore been dif-
ficult to develop a clear picture of why the Chinese concentrated on certain
trade items, and how they came to dominate certain regional and colonial
markets. This collection, edited by Eric Tagliacozzo and Wen-Chin Chang,
is a welcome addition to the body of literature on that subject, providing a
comprehensive assessment of the range of trade items that made the Chi-
nese so formidable and so necessary for the development of local econo-
The four essays in the first section offer valuable theoretical insights,
some preliminary, that put the long history of Chinese trade in Southeast
Asia in historical perspective. Each makes a distinctive contribution, and
together they capture slices of the rich experience with commodities that
different generations of Chinese were able to trade in. Building on earlier
work, Anthony Reid and Carl Trocki both illuminate the broader dimensions
of the mining and opium industries that engaged so many Chinese workers
and merchants. Of particular interest is Adam McKeown’s picture of human
labor as a commodity; although this constituted a rather special trade, the
so-called coolie trade, it is enlightening to have it set beside goods that are
no less valuable, but usually inanimate. The fourth of the essays, by C. Patter-
Previous Page Next Page