Foreign residents and global history


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Jawaharlal Nehru imagined the history of India as a multilayered palimpsest, overwritten and adapted in many ways, but with the previous traces still visible, probably hidden but not erased. The metaphor convincingly grasps the function (and attractiveness) of global history, which started as a post-cold war project in the 1990s and since then has reached the many departments of history around the world as a considerable scholarly contribution to the understanding of the 21st century’s dense (and ambivalent) connectivities.

Although based on a variety of conceptual differences, the intellectual curiosity connected to global history reveals the hidden traces, the layers of the palimpsest overwritten by methodological nationalism and structural colonialism. The most crucial point always refers to the question of how we can see what was forgotten; whose global past was erased, and which methodological tools do we need in order to read the faded information contained in the palimpsest?

At the Institute for European Global Studies, global history contributes to an interdisciplinary profile, with economic and legal questions closely intertwined. Global history is therefore not a territorial notion, but a historiographical approach, including ‘both a process and a perspective, subject matter and methodology.’1 Even more importantly, globality, as a historical notion, offers ‘an openness to pursuing links and questions of causality beyond conventional containers and spatial units.’2

Within this rationale, global history contributes to the Basel model of European Global Studies with the aim of analyzing a world perceived as ‘simultaneously shaped by profound dichotomies, multifaceted entanglements and disentanglements’, a world still seen as dominated by strong nation-states, although ‘more closely connected than ever before through global mobility of individuals, objects, goods, and ideas.’3

Although mobility seems limited in times of the pandemic threat, the fast exchange of information and a virus crossing all borders rather enhance the need to understand the societal impact of globality. In this essay, foreign residents are analyzed as a self-declared, privilege-based community whose social coherence developed across borders. Without discussing extra territoriality as the legal basis of their privileges,4 foreign residents gain historical visibility by using digital humanities methods, considered an indispensable part of global history.

The following part develops the conditions under which the community of foreign residents was constituted in the second half of the 19th century. Finally, the essay asks under which circumstances the transcultural community building collapsed, discussing the potential lessons to learn for a globally connected 21st century.


Recently, a group of scholars started investigating foreign residents in Asia in the period from the 1860s to 1941, using a serial The Directory & Chronicle of China, Japan, Korea, Indo-China, Straits settlements, Malaya, Siam, Netherlands India, Borneo, The Philippines, & c. as source material.5 The serial offers the possibility of grasping foreign residents as a self-proclaimed category, accessible in long lists of names and functions, published in yearly updates over a time span of more than 80 years in a serial whose long title localized foreign residents in China and Japan, in Korea, Indochina, in the Straits settlements, in Malaya, Siam, Netherlands India, Borneo and the Philippines.

The serial, however, needed digital processing, since the volumes are scattered around the world, with no library owning the whole set. At the very beginning, a rather conventional overview was planned with the aim to gain more information about ‘foreign residents’, a group which had escaped national historiography so far. What we found went beyond clustering a group in a descriptive way, although a mapping of foreign residents shows interesting shifts between 1900 and the 1930s from multiple small entities reaching to the Hinterland to a noticeable concentration in the port cities. With the analysis of instances – e.g., the listing of foreign residents – we gained more insights into the construction of social coherence, and how this community claimed extraterritorial privileges.


Interestingly the same states that guaranteed such privileges deeply mistrusted their own expat communities but fostered their importance as actors in globalized markets at the same time. As a result, the research documents both the considerable foreign residents’ scope of action and the porosity of allegedly rigid borders between international settlements and the local urban spaces. A sample of the person instances based on around 975,000 instances – with the whole set not yet fully analyzed – underlines the potential of this research rationale, for which open-access test material is available.6 The source material provides the empirical evidence for a micro-global history that illuminates local and regional imprints of global networks – but also a locally shaped globality.

We thus gain insights into family relationships and social contexts beyond institutions and business networks, both hidden and difficult to access. We observe the unexpected coming together of the most diverse people, for example in the many Masonic organizations founded in East Asia in the time period covered. But the example of foreign residents also unveils mechanisms of racial exclusion, persecution and victimization and therefore sheds light on the fragility of social diversity at the crossroads of unabashed profit and peaceful transcultural cosmopolitanism across borders – a lesson the 21st century urgently needs to learn.

Although the series was discontinued during World War II, the records currently being compiled provide valuable information about the former lives and social environments of foreign residents, whom we meet again mostly as enemy aliens in the camps for civilian internees. The dramatic shift from foreignness as access to privilege to foreignness as a reason for internment, however, begins in the aftermath of World War I.


The new international order established by the Paris Peace Treaties of 1919 celebrated and idealized the creation of states that were homogeneous regarding their ethnic, religious and linguistic characteristics and driven by nationals who were no longer subjects but citizens of their respective countries. As the newly created global international organization, the League of Nations supported the idea of the homogeneous nation-state even in those cases where homogeneity was attained by force, such as the so-called population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923.

From the very beginning, the Paris deliberations had a highly ambivalent position towards colonial power and racism.7 The predominant imperative of preserving white western supremacy rendered impossible any agreement on the Japanese racial equality clause. The debate about racial equality had far-reaching consequences, from the Chinese May 4th movement to the Pan-African Movement under the leadership of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963). The discussion resulted in white supremacy claims on a global scale but then disappeared from the diplomatic agenda, crossed institutions and states, surfaced in the migration laws of the 1920s, and found its way into local anti-western protest movements.8


Within the post-World War I debate, the question of extraterritorial privileges shifted back to the level of asymmetrical international relations, emphasizing a contested degree of civilization.9 However, scant research has been done on the impact of the new order on the composition and self-image of communities of foreign residents. Save for studies focusing on specific cities – Shanghai foremost among them10 – this suggests another gap in the research worth mentioning.

Although historical literature about the war in the Pacific is immensely rich in many aspects of research, a significant lacuna is represented by civilian internments in their connections to the destruction of the transcultural fabric of foreign social spaces. However, foreign residents had already raised suspicion among respective colonial administrations by the late 19th century. The many institutions shaped by foreign residents – municipal councils, consular courts, chambers of commerce – had reached a degree of globality that aroused suspicion, even more so as the extraterritorial legal framework had blurred the impact of national belonging, which nonetheless triumphed under the banner of citizenship after 1919.


Moreover, the ideal of ethnic homogeneity turned the privileges of living abroad into an equivocal blemish in someone’s life. Consulting the foreign newspapers that continued to be published in Asia until 1942, it is clear that the still considerable number of foreign residents across Asia now shifted from a community based on extraterritorial privileges to groups of passport holders in the best case scenario and stateless persons in the worst.11 With the rise of fascism in Europe and the outbreak of World War II in Asia resulting from political tensions between China and Japan, from the 1930s on these communities turned from privileged social spaces into places of last resort for refugees and internment for so-called enemy aliens.12

The concept of the ‘enemy alien’ has a considerable pre-history resulting in widespread internments during World War I.13 After 1919, enemy-alien status became one of the many other possibilities in which states – and the state is the exclusive actor in this matter – controlled the status of individuals not living in their presumptive country of origin. Control, of course, variously involved the possibility of denial, left traces in naturalization procedures, and included the option of denaturalization and the invention of proof of loyalty to the state, which were more or less impossible to fulfil.

From the perspective of research on community-building out of diversity, this meant a shift from subjects with foreign residents claiming their own social space to isolated objects of governmental decisionmaking. From this standpoint, the combination of citizenship and ethnic homogeneity destroyed the very idea of building communities amalgamated from and strengthened by diversity. It increased the number of people marginalized as stateless refugees and made a crucial contribution to the understanding of the 20th century as the century of refugees.


It is well known that during the 1930s and World War II Shanghai remained a last resort for desperate refugees taking the long and dangerous route via Siberia to Harbin in hopes of finding a ship to Palestine or the US; the impact on foreign residents heretofore privileged by extraterritoriality is less clear. The English newspapers published in Asia documented the increasingly restricted interpretation of the status of foreigners. In 1939, the Japan News-Week printed the extended regulations for foreigners, which included the need for residence permits and police registrations that required annual renewal.14


In the international settlements, the 19th century governance based on land regulations came under Japanese pressure – at this point not with the aim of dissolving these special spaces, but rather of demanding reforms to increase Japanese representation.15 In this tense situation, the Japan News-Week started publishing articles about international institutions that had gained local acceptance in a way that blurred their western origin.16 After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the internment of enemy aliens began in those places under Japanese occupation, with a changing and sometimes contradictory understanding of who fits the category. The Hong Kong News highlighted the fact that Eurasians were included, as were naturalized Britons, although their right of citizenship outside British possessions was highly doubtful.17

The exclusion and internment of enemy aliens during World War II went beyond what was implemented already during World War I. All these provisions came with restrictions for foreigners. In Hong Kong, so-called ‘third nationals’ needed specific certificates in January 1942, the issuance of which depended on an oath ‘that he or she will obey any order or instruction given by the Japanese Imperial Army.’18


In 1942, both warring parties decided an exchange of interned civilians. This rather unknown part of the history of World War II, on which we are currently working, confirms the continuity of global networks during the war. Although difficult to organize, neutral ships with the red cross symbol painted on the hull brought thousands of people to neutral meeting points in cities in Africa and India, and coordinated their safe conduct between Yokohama, New York und Liverpool. For the ships’ passengers, however, repatriation was in many cases nothing else than a form of forced migration based on the idea that persons, even those living their whole lives in what is now called ‘abroad’, had to go to what now was called their home.

We cannot yet fully analyze the consequences – but a quote from a Jewish newspaper may at least describe to what extent the transcultural fabric of cosmopolitan societies was destroyed beyond recognition. In February 1942 the German Jewish Chronicle wrote, ‘for the first time Nanking is now without a single English or American resident after the last four enemy nationals left this historic Chinese city at eight o’clock yesterday morning.’19

Starting from an understanding of global history which allows us to focus beyond national entities and borders and using a digital humanities approach to access sources not available until now, the group of foreign residents gained visibility as a form of social coherence across borders. The specification of this group allows insights into the conditions under which social coherence across borders was created in the second half of the 19th century and dissolved in the postwar period following World War I. In this context, the reorganization of the international order after 1919 provided the preconditions for transforming privilege-based internationalists into ‘enemy aliens’, who were eventually locked up in internment camps by both warring parties. Some were even ‘exchanged’ only to be subsequently mistrusted in their supposed homeland.


In the global approach presented here, the digital access to new sources unlocks insights on a personal and individual level, as elaborated by the Warwick school of global history,20 which stands for a micro-global access, an approach increasingly applied in recent literature as a modern form of family histories.21 The idea that global history makes visible the patterns forgotten but still present in the palimpsest can be applied to a very personal level in further research.

In conclusion, we should therefore recall Wilhelmina Enz, whose fate we have access to through Japanese-Swiss diplomatic correspondence.22 The documents focused just on her luggage – but unveils a transcultural biography through the lens of an understanding of foreign residents. Wilhelmina was Swiss by marriage, while her husband had adopted US citizenship and therefore qualified as an enemy alien. Wilhelmina had a Swiss passport, but was born in Yokohama, her mother Japanese and her father Dutch.

On her behalf, the Swiss minister approached the Japanese foreign ministry, sending attached to his correspondence a list of the items in Wilhelmina’s luggage. We learn from this list that she decided to take with her the blue and white porcelain, Satsuma pottery and carved ivory figures representing the seven gods of happiness. It attracts the reader’s attention that the inventory includes western silverware, but besides the possibly precious jade objects, she also took futons and a mosquito net.

On a level of micro-global history, her biography provides an example of how privilege based liberal internationalists turn into voiceless objects of governmental exchange procedures between the warring parties. With the enemy aliens as an example, the concept of citizenship therefore increased the number of people marginalized as stateless refugees and contributed to the understanding of the 20th century as the century of refugees in a crucial way.

For the 21st century, there is a considerable gap between the demand for the circulation of goods within a global market and the threats the promise of citizenship was connected to from 1919 onwards, namely national regimes of denaturalization, expatriation and expulsion, all based on the presumption that a good society is defined by similarities and not by diversity. Within this field of sensitive relevance, a global history approach can contribute to the understanding of globality which shapes the 21st century in complex and ambivalent ways.



1. Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History? Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2016, p. 11.

2. Ibid., p. 72.

3. European Global Studies, https://europa. (accessed 30.4.2021).

4. Madeleine Herren, ‘Strength through Diversity? The Paradox of Extraterritoriality and the History of the Odd Ones Out’, JHIL 22(2-3), 2020, pp. 306-328 (

5. (accessed 30.4.2021).

6. For the sample see https://fr-benchmark. (accessed 30.4.2021).

7. Lake Marilyn and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality. Critical Perspectives on Empire. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008.

8. John L. Cable, Loss of Citizenship, Denaturalization, the Alien in Wartime. National Law Book Company, Washington, D.C., 1943, p. 50; Adom Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire. The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2019.

9. Wellington Koo explicitly argued against the western focus with accentuating the old civilization of China. V.K. Wellington Koo and Cheng-Ting T. Wang, China and the League of Nations. George Allen & Unwin, London, 1919.

10. Irene Eber, Wartime Shanghai and the Jewish Refugees from Central Europe. de Gruyter, Berlin/Boston, 2012; Nuzzo, Luigi. ‘The Birth of an Imperial Location: Comparative Perspectives on Western Colonialism in China’, Leiden Journal of International Law 31(3), 2018, pp. 569-596. DOI:

11. Some were under Japanese censorship even longer. The foreign press changed substantially under Japanese censorship; however, the occupation forces still used it for the announcement to publish legally binding proclamations.

12. For civilian internment and exchange ships see (accessed 30.4.2021).

13. Mahon Murphy, Colonial Captivity During the First World War: Internment and the Fall of the German Empire, 1914-1919. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2018.> (accessed 30 April 2021).

14. ‘Regulations for Foreigners’ Registration’, Japan News-Week, 15 April 1939.

15. ‘Atmosphere Tense About Settlements at Amoy, Shanghai. Japanese Demand Extensive Reforms in Municipal Councils. Anbassadors Informed. U.S., Britain Reject Demands on Shanghai – Armed Forces Gather at Amoy’, Japan News-Week, 20 May 1939.

16. For example, the St. Luke’s Hospital in Tokyo: ‘St. Luke’s International Hospital Lasting Monument to Christian Missionary Work in Japan’, Japan News-Week, 28 September 1940.

17. ‘Enemy Nationals Interned’, The Hongkong News, 5 January 1942.

18. ‘Certificates for Third Nationals’, The Hongkong News, 8 January 1942.

19. ‘Zum ersten Mal ist Nanking jetzt ohne einen einzigen englischen oder amerikanischen Einwohner, nachdem die letzten vier feindlichen Staatsangehörigen gestern früh um acht Uhr diese historische chinesische Stadt verliessen’, Jewish Chronicle, 11.2.1942.


21. As a recent example see Emma Rothschild, An Infinite History: The Story of a Family in France over Three Centuries. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2021.

22. JACAR (Japan Center for Asian Historical Records), Ref.B0203289670011. Luggage of Swiss #Karl Entz#iA-7-0-0-9_24_1_009. Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.