Changes and continuities. Evolution of a Chinese family business (1876–2004)

Starting from the early nineteenth century, western colonial activities have opened up a large area of Southeast Asia for economic penetration. Chinese family business, with its extensive familial and cultural networks, has a niche in these frontier areas where economic and legal institutions were embryonic or ineffective. In Southeast Asia, Chinese extended families are often geographically dispersed. By spreading wealth across borders, these families have not only diversified their business risk, but also built up a mechanism to enforce business obligations cross borders. Contractual obligations in business could always be enforced by one’s familial and communal mechanisms without recourse to legal authority or institutions outside the communities. It helps to explain why the Overseas Chinese communities, over the centuries, have played an important part in the ties which China has forged with its neighbouring regions in Asia. By looking into the historical transformation of a traditional Chinese family business under five generations of patriarchal leadership, this article intends to examine the validity of the above thesis. Eu Yan Sang (EYS), a famous manufacturer and retailer of Chinese medicines over the past 120 years, is the focus of this study.