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As early as Song dynasty, maritime was one of the Chinese achievements. Referring to the Southern Song as “a great merchant kingdom”, Marco Polo is said to have observe that “if they were warlike, they would rule the world”. However, having to contend with the Mongol invasion, the subsequent Ming dynasty revived the maritime trade. The National Geographic chronicled Zheng He’s great armada voyage. His numerous vessels set a historic event across Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa, a century before Columbus discovered America. As the admiral in control of these expeditions, the annals recorded that Zheng He's first fleet was enormous consisting of 317 ships carrying a total of 28,000 crewmen. Meant to extend the empire's tributary system, the voyage had managed to establish a Chinese presence through imperial control over trade while impressing foreign counterparts. In the People's Republic of China, the Maritime Day (11 July) is devoted to the memory of Zheng He's first voyage.

In a tablet erected by Zheng He, Changle, Fujian, 1432, he recounted,

We have traversed more than 100,000 li (50,000 kilometers or 30,000 miles) of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky...... hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare…


The first wave of Nanyang movement to Malaysia was largely due to the strategic value of the Strait of Malacca during the late the 15th and early 16th century. According to the Malay Annals, Hang Li Po, a Ming princess together with a retinue of 500 was sent to the Sultanate of Malacca to marry Sultan Mansur Shah. The retinue made up a wave of descendants, now called Babas and Nyonyas who speak a smattering of Hokkien mixed with Malay words. Subsequently, the Portugese and the Dutch left a significant influence in the culture of Malacca.

Following the expeditions, the second wave of Nanyang immigrants occurred in the 19th and early 20th century from South China provinces i.e. Fujian, Gwangdong, Hainan and they are characterised by speaking Minnan, Mindong, Hakka and Cantonese throughout the British occupation prior to the Independence of Malaysia in mid 1990s. The third migrant wave was less rampant than in Singapore which involved mostly Mandarin speaking Chinese from both North and South China in the 1990s and 21st century. In the present, the Chinese Malaysians are concentrated around metropolitan centres e.g. Penang, Klang, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Seremban, Ipoh, Sibu, Sandakan and other townships.


Thanks to the Nanyang legacy, Singapore would be the second nation in the world besides China with ethnic Chinese majority population. The Peranakans, also known as Baba-Nyonya were early Chinese immigrants from Malacca and Penang who later migrated to Singapore. The local Singaporean Chinese are generally made up of the descendants of the migrants from southern China during the first and second wave of migration (19th and early half of 20th century).

In the 1990s and early 21st century, Singapore experienced a third wave of new Chinese migration from different parts of China. Presently, the Singapore government has been promoting the culture of the Peranakans which is a blend of colonial English lifestyle (due to the British Colonial period), Hokkien Chinese customs and indigenous Malay languages.


Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia have been largely assimilated in the local Indonesian culture. There were three waves of immigration of ethnic Chinese to Indonesia. The first wave was spurred by trading activities dating back to Zheng He's voyage in the early 15th century and the second wave occurred around the Opium War. From the 18th to early 20th century, the Dutch dominated Indonesia. The third wave took place around the first half of the 20th century during the Warlord era, Second Sino-Japanese War and Chinese Civil War. Today, a large majority of the ethnic Chinese are located in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra. Ethnic Chinese who live in Java have almost 10 generations of forefathers before them whereas the ethnic Chinese in Sumatra have a relatively short lineage of forefathers ranging from four to five generations.


According to the Chronicles of Ayutthaya, in order to enrich his treasury, King Ekathotsarot (reigned from 1605-1610) was "greatly inclined toward strangers and foreign nations," especially Portugal, Spain, the Philippines, China, and Japan. The Chinese traders in Thailand, mostly from Fujian and Guangdong, began arriving in Ayutthaya by around the thirteenth century. The European imperialism did not extend to Thailand unlike the other Nanyang counterparts. Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation that has never been colonized by any Western power although the French managed to seize a large territory of east Mekong and British took over the northern parts of Malaya.

The majority of the ethnic Chinese are living in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Hat Yai and Nakhon Sawan. Most of the Thai Chinese speak the Teochew dialect and those who live in the north Thailand speak Yunnanese. Similar to Indonesia, most ethnic Chinese in Thailand are proficient in the Thai language although a large number are also conversant in Chinese as they are already assimilated to the Thai culture.


Vietnam has only 1.2 million Chinese compared to Malaysia (7.1 million), Thailand (7 million) and Singapore (2.8 million). The Daoyi Zhilue recorded Chinese merchants marrying Cham women during their trading voyages in Cham ports in Champa.

It was noted that a Cham princess married a Chinese merchant Wang Yuanmao who hailed from Quanzhou in China. Prior to any Vietnamese occupying the Mekong Delta, the Chinese had already settled in the region. A large number of Chinese people belong to the Cantonese dialect can trace their ancestral homeland in Guangdong province are now mostly living in Ho Chi Minh. The French colonial empire in Southeast Asia, specifically Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia stretched from 1887 to 1953, managed to retain their cultural influence till today.