There have been Chinese people in Sri Lanka since the 18th century. Though their numbers dwindled in the decades after independence, in the 1990s and 2000s a new wave of Chinese international students, migrant workers, and businesspeople have been coming to Sri Lanka.
Early visitors and migrants
Sri Lanka's earliest known visitor from China was Faxian, a 5th-century Buddhist pilgrim from Shanxi who travelled overland from his home through present-day Nepal and India before coming to Abhayagiri Dagaba, where he stayed from 410 to 414. During the Ming dynasty in the Yongle Emperor's reign, Admiral Zheng He's Treasure voyages visited Sri Lanka and fought in the Ming–Kotte War. When Ceylon was under Dutch rule in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch East India Company authorities at Batavia (present-day Jakarta, Indonesia) would occasionally deport unemployed or illegal Chinese residents to Ceylon (as well as other Dutch colonies, such as the Cape of Good Hope and the Banda Islands), in order to provide manpower and limit the growth of the foreign population in Batavia. In July 1740, a plan was drawn up for mass deportations of Chinese from Batavia to work in cinnamon harvesting in Ceylon. Rumours spread that the deportees were not taken to Ceylon at all but were instead thrown overboard as soon as they were out of sight of the Java coastline, provoking unrest in the Chinese community. The resulting conflict between the Chinese and the Dutch eventually led to the 1740 Batavia massacre.
After the British annexation of Ceylon, the new authorities brought more Chinese workers to the island. Frederick North, the colonial Governor of Ceylon from 1798 to 1805, arranged for the import of migrant workers and soldiers of various ethnic groups, including Malays, Malayalis, and Africans; under North's direction, 47 Malayan Chinese were recruited from Penang to come to Ceylon for agricultural work near Galle (hence the local place-name China Garden) and Trincomalee. Under his immediate successor Thomas Maitland, another 100 Chinese workers were brought in from Penang for work on the ill-fated Hamilton Canal at Negombo Lagoon near Negombo. Local people sometimes mistook these workers for Malays, since they were recruited from British Malaya. British explorer Samuel Baker's account of his time in Ceylon in the late 1840s and early 1850s mentions a few Chinese working along the coast in the vicinity of Trincomalee, harvesting sea cucumbers and shark fins to export back to their home country for use in Chinese cuisine. The 1911 census found a few Chinese speakers remaining in Ceylon.
Recent waves of migration
Independent migrants of Hubei origin began arriving in the late 1920s. Migrants from Shandong came later, in the 1940s. They came down by sea via Singapore and Burma, or overland almost all the way via India. Many settled at Hultsdorf; from there, they spread out to other towns including Maradana, Wellawatte and Negombo. Many of these migrants had not really intended to settle on the island, but simply to make money and return home. However, with the outbreak and intensification of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and following it the victory of the Communist Party of China in the Chinese Civil War and the resulting establishment of the People's Republic of China, these migrants ended up staying in Ceylon far longer than they had intended, and made it their home. The community once numbered in the thousands; however, beginning from the 1960s, its members began to migrate overseas to Europe and North America. 1963 statistics from the Republic of China on Taiwan's Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission showed just 450 registered overseas Chinese remaining on the island.
However, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the easing of immigration regulations, a new wave of Chinese migrants came to Sri Lanka to try their luck in small businesses, braving the violence of the civil war. These new migrants established various community organisations, including a football team. No Chinese people are known to have been killed in the civil war violence, but there was a close call in the August 2006 attack on Pakistani ambassador to Sri Lanka: the roadside bomb blew a hole in the wall of the Garden Hotel (花园饭店), a Chinese restaurant in the area. After the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka has also become a popular destination for rich Hong Kong people and mainland Chinese to purchase vacation homes, for example making up 70% of the purchasers at the Thona Bay resort project near Batticaloa.
The total population of Chinese people in the country is disputed, but it is heavily dominated by recent migrants. The descendants of early migrants who remain in Sri Lanka number only around 200 persons. One source claimed that there are as many as 110,000 Chinese workers in the country. In a 2010 interview, however, President Mahinda Rajapaksa ridiculed claims of such high numbers. According to 2010 figures from Sri Lanka's Department of Immigration and Emigration, a total of 7,844 Chinese workers resided in Sri Lanka on employment visas, typically of one year's validity. Figures from NationMaster state that 3,500 Chinese people reside in Sri Lanka.
Business and employment
Early migrants from Hubei often found work as dental technicians or dental assistants, while those from Shandong entered the textile and hospitality industries. The textile salesmen would go door-to-door on foot or bicycle throughout cities and suburbs carrying bundles of silk. The dental clinics, known as "Chinese Dental Mechanics", were often the only providers of dental services in many towns until the government began setting up dental clinics in later years, staffed by graduates of Peradeniya University. There were also Chinese-owned sundry stores in most towns. One major chain, the Chinese Lucky Store, imported goods from Hong Kong; branches still remain in Maradana, Wellawatta, and Trincomalee. There are also many Chinese restaurants in Sri Lanka, but they do not necessarily have Chinese owners or staff. Some authentic Chinese restaurants which remain in Sri Lanka include Parkview and Lotus at Chatham Street in Colombo; many other early restaurants which were opened in the past have closed down. However, more recent Chinese migrants have also got involved in the restaurant trade, as well as opening other kinds of businesses such as traditional Chinese medicine shops and, less reputably, massage parlours. In the mean time, due to the rise of supermarkets and malls and other modernisation of Sri Lanka's retail and medical sectors, the descendants of early migrants have moved away from their families' traditional businesses into areas as varied as shrimp farming and accountancy.
Chinese engineering companies who have been contracted for projects in Sri Lanka have also brought in migrant workers from China. The earliest such workers came in 1970 to work on the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall. More recently they are working on infrastructure projects at Hambantota, such as the Hambantota International Airport and the Port of Hambantota. The port project, run by China Harbour Engineering Co Ltd, was reported to employ 328 Sri Lankan and 235 Chinese workers in 2008. Due to the influx of Chinese workers, Hambantota locals have even begun doing business growing and selling Chinese vegetables such as Chinese cabbage, choy sum, and kale for their kitchens. The Norocholai Power Station, a fossil fuel power station construction project near Puttalam, reportedly employs 900 Chinese engineers, helpers, welders, and fitters, with the assistance of only a few Sri Lankans. Other construction projects known to employ Chinese workers include the Colombo National Performing Arts Theatre (reported to employ 1,000 Chinese workers) and a water-supply upgrade project in Colombo run by China Geo Engineering Corporation. At Trincomalee, the Singapore-based Prima Group, itself owned by a Chinese Singaporean, has set up a flour processing plant and sent a Chinese manager to oversee operations.
Many descendants of early Chinese migrants are stateless. In January 2008, after lobbying led by University of Peradeniya zoology graduate Chwing-Chi Chang, Prime Minister and Internal Administration Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake presented the Parliament of Sri Lanka with a draft bill to grant Sri Lankan citizenship to stateless persons of Chinese origin who had been settled in the country for a long time. It was passed into law without debate on 24 September 2008. The new law, the "Grant of Citizenship to Persons of Chinese Origin" Act, applies to persons "belonging to the Chinese Race" who have been permanent residents of Sri Lanka since 15 November 1948 or who are the descendants of such a person and are themselves resident in Sri Lanka. It gives them the right to apply for the status of citizen of Sri Lanka by registration (otherwise than by descent). In the following two years, a total of 80 people acquired Sri Lankan citizenship under the act. The provisions of the act will expire in 2013.
The Sri Lankan government has also long provided scholarships for Chinese students to study abroad in Sri Lanka. Initially these scholarships were handled through the Sri Lanka–China Friendship Association. When academic exchanges resumed after the Cultural Revolution, they were handled directly at the governmental level. The most recent group of Chinese students came after discussions during President Mahinda Rajapaksa's 2007 visit to China. The government provided scholarships for 16 Sinhala language majors from Beijing Foreign Studies University; they arrived in September 2008, and spent six months in the country. The Chinese government also sends professors of Chinese language to teach at various universities in Sri Lanka, including the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka. The country's first Confucius Institute for the teaching of Chinese as a second language was opened at the University of Kelaniya in May 2007.
In the early days after Sri Lanka's independence, the Chinese community, small and powerless, were seen as alien and unimportant, and were mostly ignored by the Sri Lankans. Older children made insulting rhymes about Chinese door-to-door salesmen, while parents would scare their younger children by claiming that the salesmen would kidnap them if they misbehaved. Chinese children also sometimes endured racial taunts from their local classmates. However, on the whole, Sri Lankans were not actively hostile towards their Chinese minority, except during the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Later, the influx of Chinese workers drew concern from various sectors. The use of Chinese workers rather than local workers has provoked criticism from opposition politicians and area residents, and even threats of violence. Some Sri Lankan media reports have accused China of using convict labour in Sri Lanka. The influx of Chinese workers has also led to tensions in India – Sri Lanka relations, reportedly leading the Sri Lankan side to reassure the Indians that the workers would not settle in the country permanently, but would instead leave after they finished their work.