JIANGMEN, Guangdong Province: Chen Yujuan grimaces as she recalls her narrow escape a week ago from an angry mob of locals who descended on her neighbourhood in the Solomon Islands with destruction on their minds.
"It was about 4 pm on April 18 when we closed our shop. We heard that people were coming into Chinatown and we expected to be robbed."
But neither she nor the local police were prepared for the carnage that followed in Honiara, the capital city.
When the mother-of-three went outside at around 7 pm, she saw a mob setting fire to buildings which had been ransacked. Since the buildings were connected, Chen realized the fire could spread easily.
"We had gas cans in the house for cooking, so I was worried that there would be an explosion. I grabbed my children, a few clothes and our passports and fled."
The terrified woman ran outside and frantically waved down a passing car. The driver took her and her children to a shelter set up by local police. The next day, the family were taken to another shelter where they spent two days in poor conditions with hundreds of other evacuees.
"My happiest moment was when staff from the Chinese Embassy in Papua New Guinea came to see us and said they had arranged a charter flight to take us away."
Safely back in Kaiping in Jiangmen city, about 2 hours by car south of Guangzhou, Chen was speaking after a meeting with officials from the local and provincial offices for overseas Chinese affairs.
Other evacuees also spoke about their stories of survival.
Mother-of-three Zhang Jia had a similarly frightening experience.
"At around 4:30 pm, I saw a lot of local people robbing shops and houses. Then they began to start fires and I became very frightened."
After a frantic call to a friend, who promised to send a boat to pick her up, she left the house with her children and went to the river at the back of her property where they met other families who were also waiting for help.
"When the boat arrived, we were taken to our friend's house and we stayed the night. There were about 20 of us. Although our friend said we could stay a few more days, we were scared. Our friend is a local and we didn't want him to get into trouble for helping us."
The group decided to escape by car, sent by another friend, to the shelter the police had set up.
"Because of the riots, we couldn't go the normal route, and we had to hide under the seats."
Although relieved to escape from the riot-torn islands, Zhang was bitter. "We only had time to take a few clothes before we left. Now we have nothing."
Despite her ordeal, Chen said she will return to the islands when things return to normal. "My husband has lived there since 1988, and we have our business to take care of. I have to go back. We have a son studying in Australia and need to support him."
Zhang, whose husband stayed behind, is also planning to return.
"We want our children to come back to China to study, but my husband and I both have local passports, so we have no choice but to go back."
The Chinatown area affected by the riots sparked by the controversial election of Prime Minister Synder Rini is one of many enclaves of overseas Chinese that exist around the globe.
Nearly all of the Chinese people living on the remote islands came from Guangdong and in particular, the southern city of Jiangmen and its surrounding districts.
"There is a history of people from Kaiping and other cities in Jiangmen leaving China and settling abroad," said Xie Jielun, a local official. "They started to emigrate from China back in the 19th century, when they saw the opportunity for a new life in countries like the US and Canada."
Xie, director of the Foreign and Overseas Chinese Affairs Bureau of Kaiping, said circumstances then meant that many people saw emigration as the key to a better life.
"Kaiping at that time was very poor. There were many people living together in a very small area and most of the people were poor farmers.
"Later on, when one family member got established, in keeping with the desire to keep families together, others would follow, so that eventually, the whole family would emigrate to the new country."
However, despite the promise of a better life, things did not always turn out as planned. In the Solomon Islands it was Chinese people who built the country's railroads, working as bonded labour for meagre pay in intolerable conditions.
But with each generation, things improved, said Xie.
"Today, the third and fourth generations of those first immigrants are now successful businessmen or have even joined the government."
But as emigration to the West became more and more difficult, applicants lacking skills and cash set their sights on the underdeveloped or developing world Africa, South American and Southeast Asia some using them as a springboard to developed countries.
"Immigration laws are not as harsh in these countries, so it is easier to settle," Xie said.
Currently, there are more than 750,000 people with Kaiping origin now living overseas, Xie said.
This is more than the county's present population.
(China Daily 04/29/2006 page1)