There is an annual tradition in ChangLe where thousands of devout spiritualists would parade through the town to celebrate the birthday of Guan Gong, ushering the Gods and Goddesses from one temple to another. The ceremony was followed by towering guard costumes, protecting the lords and subsequently, the fortune of our village.
In hindsight, this parade totally flies against our perception of a Maoist vision for China. A vision where the great “leap” requires letting go of the past we’ve relied on to carve out our identities. A deeper dive into Fujianese history would suggest that this freedom of cultural/religious expression is driven largely by the deep rooted migratory culture.
The Stomping Ground for International Trades
As early as the 15th century, Xiamen (major port city in Fujian) became a dominant hub for exchanges between China and Southeast Asian countries. For 400 years right through the Qing Dynasty, Fujianese merchants explored far into the Pacific Islands. This helped to establish Fujianese (Hokkienese) communities in neighboring countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.The network was so extensive that I have even run across Mexicans who can trace their lineage back to Fujian.
A Lesson In Maoist Poverty
No other countries have stronger Fujianese ties than Taiwan. The rise of Maoism drove the Nationalist movement out of China and into the neighboring strait of Taiwan. This raised the political tension between the two states and left Fujian in the middle of the dispute. For the next few decades, fear of a Nationalist resurgence led the Communist government to minimize economic development in Fujian, forcing the once thriving exchange economy into agricultural labor. The irony is that this policy further strengthened the relationship among the Fujianese and Taiwanese. Over the course of 30 years, the Taiwanese government developed migration brokerage programs to aid Fujianese with immigration around the world, including South America, Eastern Europe, and the U.S.
A Generation Aspired
Communism ushered in a whole new period of economic uncertainty. Annual household income in the ‘70s for Fujianese were less than $300/year. Migrants in Europe and North America were making around $1,000/month! Stories of successful migrants quickly permeated and inspired a positive feedback loop that led to millions of Fujianese migrating abroad.
Remittance or the money sent back to their family compelled a whole new set of cultural values for migration and entrepreneurship. In 1995, officials had estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars were transferred back to Fujian from countries all over. On top of this sudden and ostentatious wealth, migrant funds were used to develop public projects such as schools, entertainment and cultural centers. Parades, such as the Guan Gong Ceremony, were suddenly tolerated by the once secular government. In fact, governments openly praised the migrants and went as far as sponsoring foreign employment. To the communities in these villages, migrants were considered heroes who collectively (through their sacrifice) brought them out of poverty.
Brazilian boys wanted to play like Pele. Kids from the south-side of Chicago want to be like Jordan. American millennials want to be the next Zuckerberg. In the ‘70s, Fujianese boys fresh from high school aspired to travel the world in search of a windfall. The stories fueled a whole new generation of young men looking to move abroad (by legal and illegal means). Some found successes while others discovered tragedy through these perilous journeys. What’s remarkable is that these young men would go on to create transnational communities with cross cultural identities that even the Gods and Goddesses themselves could not have foreseen.