Thursday, 17 October 2013

UNHCR Statelessness Research Award interviews... Amanda Cheong

In this series of blog posts, we will be asking the students honoured in this year's UNHCR Award for Statelessness Research about their experiences studying the phenomenon on statelessness and their research findings. Last in the series is Ms Amanda Cheong, whose B.A. Honours thesis entitled "Changing Conceptions of Citizenship Among Stateless Chinese-Bruneian Immigrants in Vancouver", written at the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia (Canada), was chosen by the Jury as the Best Research in the Undergraduate Category.

      1.       Could you summarise, in 2 or 3 sentences, what your research was about?
My project had two main goals:
     1)      To depict statelessness as an embodied, lived experience by providing a descriptive account of the material and emotional repercussions faced by stateless Chinese-Bruneians;
     2)      To demonstrate how Brunei’s and Canada’s citizenship policies differentially mediated the nature of stateless Chinese-Bruneian immigrants’ ideas of citizenship and their relationships to the state.

      2.       What first got you interested in the problem of statelessness?
It wasn’t until the springtime before the final year of my undergraduate degree when I discovered that my parents had grown up without citizenship in the country in which they were born.  They mentioned this fact offhandedly when we were shopping for snacks one evening in an Asian wholesale grocery store. I pressed them further and asked, “So if you didn’t have citizenship, what did your passport say under ‘nationality’?” My mother replied matter-of-factly, “Stateless.” This moment marked a paradigm shift in the way I understood citizenship, as I could no longer took for granted the assumption that everyone automatically legally belonged somewhere. Thus, my professional commitment to the issue of statelessness arose out of deeply personal origins.

      3.       Why did you choose this particular research topic?
Ever since I learned about my family’s stateless history, I became both surprised at how little research has been conducted on statelessness to date, and fascinated about its human, subjective dimensions. What is being stateless like on an everyday basis? How do stateless people make sense of ideas of national identity and belonging?

There had been no prior attempts to systematically document the lives of the stateless Chinese in Brunei. The struggles of this particular population have been so chronically ignored that many of my interview respondents themselves questioned why I decided to pick Chinese-Bruneians, out of all the different cases that exist.  So I decided to study this population to not only make an academic contribution to the body of literature on statelessness, but also to demonstrate that the worth of no individual—regardless of how marginalized, forgotten or invisible—should be discounted.

      4.       Could you briefly describe how you went about your research? E.g. did you base it on existing sources – and were they easy to find? Did you do fieldwork or interviews – and what was that like?
I conducted oral history interviews with formerly stateless Chinese-Bruneian immigrants living in the Greater Vancouver Area. It was a challenging but gratifying experience, and I hope that the respondents also got something out of sharing their lives and histories with me.

      5.       What was the greatest challenge you had to deal with in undertaking your research?
My biggest challenge was reconciling my multiple identities and biases as researcher, activist, and daughter of formerly stateless immigrants.

      6.       Could you briefly summarise your main findings or conclusions – or what you think is the most important outcome of your research?
I found that while Brunei’s racialized citizenship policies restricted its stateless population to a predominantly instrumental understanding of citizenship as related to material entitlements, Canada’s more inclusionary model fostered a greater orientation towards symbolic notions of freedom, democratic participation, and civic engagement.

In addition to initiating the research and documentation of this little-known population, I also shed light upon the importance of citizenship policies in influencing how individuals conceive of themselves as civic beings and contribute to the political life of a nation, and how such ideas have the potential to shift through the migration process.

      7.       Have you found it rewarding to research statelessness – why / why not?
Definitely, and I am determined to continue working in this newly emerging field. My goal as an aspiring sociologist is to give a human face to the global crisis of statelessness, and to use scholarly inquiry to effect change at both community and policy levels.

      8.       What tips would you give to students who are getting involved in statelessness research to help them? E.g. are there particular questions you think they should be looking at or methodological issues they should consider?
I don’t know if I have any tips to share, as I am still a student who is learning more about statelessness, and trying to equip myself with the theoretical and methodological tools to study populations who legally do not exist. One thing I would say is that it is important to remember that, at the end of the day, statelessness is a fundamentally human issue that affects the everyday lives of real individuals, and to approach your research with an open and compassionate mind.


I wish to acknowledge my mother and father, formerly stateless immigrants now living in Canada, who inspire me every single day with their strength and perseverance in the face of impossible adversity. 

Amanda's research interests concern collective action and rights claims among stateless peoples, as well as related issues of migration, race/ethnicity, and nation-building. In September 2012, she began a research and documentary film project with Voice of the Children (, a child rights legal advocacy organization in Malaysia. Through fieldwork in urban and rural contexts, she explored how racialized discourses surrounding Malaysian nationality contribute to the legal and social marginalization of undocumented and stateless children in Sabah. Amanda is now a PhD student in Sociology and Social Policy at Princeton University. She can be reached at

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