Ethnic Chinese living abroad - particularly those from south China - played a crucial though often hidden role in the opening and economic rise of China. Sons and daughters from the coast migrated to neighboring Pacific shores, finding prosperity, opening their wallets, and sending countless millions home.
In coastal Fujian province, every city and town has a bridge, a school, a church, a temple donated by "overseas Chinese" who left, but didn't forget. Entire roads were donated. Xiamen University, one of China's most influential campuses, was started in the 1950s by Chen Jia Geng, a Singaporean tycoon, who gave a hall, a library, science labs, and more. Now his grandchildren pay for the buildings' upkeep.
Yet as China develops greater public and private wealth, and social mobility, and as the Chinese diaspora grows more diffuse, the nature of overseas donations is also changing. The kind of pure philanthropy that characterized previous generations of giving, when China was poor and often hungry, is slowing, being replaced by giving that has a business benefit to the giver, many experts say.
Yet what is surprising to many outsiders is the enormous giving that has occurred over the past century. Coastal Chinese have long identified as part of a broader southeast Asian maritime community extending through the Pacific - including Manila, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Vancouver.
"Live near ocean, can do business. That was a south China idea," says Chen Yi Meng, former curator of the Overseas Chinese Museum in Xiamen. Even during the most intense revolutionary periods, Chinese preserved a strong ethos of respect for home and elders. Their giving is often cited as raising morale and educational standards even in the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, and it contributed to a gung-ho business mentality in the south that blossomed in 1980.
"Overseas Chinese have been a sixth player on the basketball team," says a Hong Kong-based US executive, speaking of China's economic rise. "It is an extremely powerful group that has given ... a huge boost."
Yet the days when more than half the buildings in Xiamen and Fuzhou were built by contributions are changing. Chinese who visited after the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1970s were sometimes shocked by the poverty, and gave lavishly. (Only this month the last shipment of UN food aid to China was unloaded.)
Today, giving is more often a mixture of strategic business investment; dedicated fundraising by alumni or charitable groups; and shows of family prosperity, sources say. Chinese who want to ensure that aid reaches the needy - and doesn't line the pockets of unscrupulous officials - often give to Buddhist organizations.
"My grandfather is from Anxi [in Fujian] but migrated to Malaysia," says Wellington Lo, a machine-tools salesman in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who stops in Xiamen on his way back from a trade show in Guangzhou. Mr. Lo, sitting in one of the oolong tea shops that line the streets, says he has tried but failed to find local relatives. "We used to give money, but now we don't. China is getting strong, and we now compete with China [in Malaysia], so none of my friends can afford to send money."
Whether overall giving along the coast is up or down depends on whether one includes business investments. In provinces like Fujian and Guangdong, 60 to 80 percent of investment comes from the overseas community, says Zhaung Guotu, director of a project at Xiamen University that tracks overseas Chinese.
Still, pure philanthropy seems less prevalent. "The overseas Chinese in the 1930s and '40s had their eyes opened," says Ms. Chen. "They saw a huge gap in standards between schools in their village, and overseas. They wanted to help. Now that China is a huge market, and wealthy, the feeling is different. A lot of Chinese living abroad identify with China differently, and it takes a long time to decide to give."
"One reason for giving is to build social capital," says Dr. Guotu. "You are building up the family name, which is also good for business."
Of course, strings-free donations continues. Two years ago, Indonesian businessman Wang Zhong Xin donated a 30-story office building to Xiamen. Profits are to go to schools.
Cai Yu Si, who lives in Bangkok, recently gave a building to Xiamen University, and Chen Yong Zai, an airlines executive in the Philippines, gave millions for a school in his home village. Two Filipino brothers, Shi Nan Gu and Shi Nan Feng, in 1997 gave the funds to rebuild Trinity Church on Gulangyu island.
Education remains a popular target. In Xiamen in 1998, more than 22 transfers of more than 1 million yuan were donated to public coffers. Of those, 15 were earmarked for schools, according to Xiamen records.
The ties that bind on the south coast are unique. In a 2003 field study, "Chinese from the south kept close relation to their home villages, while northeast Chinese, once in the States, often had no relations and no interest in their hometown," says Guotu.