The ethnic Chinese are important actors in Southeast Asia (Lim and Gosling 1983; Limlingan 1986; McVey 1992; Weidenbaum and Hughes 1996; Yeung 1999). Very little research has been done on their socio-economic role in contemporary Vietnam1 one of about twenty countries in the world that has embarked on programmes directed at a transition from a planned to a market economy (Lee and Reisen 1994). The Chinese (Viet Hoa) minority played a significant role in precolonial and colonial Vietnam, and also in independent South Vietnam. Among other things, the Viet Hoa were employed as tax collectors and go-betweens for the French colonialists. When the Viet Hoa area of former Saigon, Cholon, was established in the beginning of the eighteenth century, it soon became a centre for private trade. Gradually, a considerable network of social and economic institutions, centred in Cholon and lead by different Chinese speech groups, was built up to support the Viet Hoa population in general and the business community in particular. However, the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 changed this picture dramatically. The implementation of communism in the entire unified country caused a clampdown on private business, starting with campaign X1 aimed at eliminating capitalist and go-between activities. According to Amer (1991), the campaign had a strong ideological character and was not an ethnic purge. Yet, it hit the Viet Hoa community hard, especially the business community in the south. All property owned by the community was nationalised, and the Viet Hoa social and cultural activities were forbidden. Since the campaign was not considered entirely successful, a more intensive follow up campaign (named X2) was initiated in 1978. The remains of the Viet Hoa business community were largely destroyed,

and some 30,000 business people and 150,000 of their relatives were sent to reeducational camps in the so-called New Economic Zones. When Vietnam went to war with China one year later, the Viet Hoa minority was denounced as the society’s ‘fifth colon’. Between 60 and 70 per cent of the refugees – often referred to as the so-called boat people – were in fact Viet Hoa (Amer 1991).