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An African in Guangzhou
January 15, 2012 2:12 AM   Subscribe

A unique urban ecology prompts a new look at globalization. Japanese architect Naohiko Hino visited Guangzhou's 'Africatown' after being inspired by an article in Le Monde Diplomatique* and wrote his view on the unique model of globalization he saw in the heart of China's manufacturing powerhouse.

However, for those with a keen interest in cultural fields, this analysis may come across as rather conservative and obvious. It's not as if only society as a national unit has been internationalized, or only that neighbors may now be of differing nationalities. For us, a globalization that penetrates even deeper into the living experience, complicates social relations and compels communication across cultural barriers is a real and pressing concern.

Guangzhou's African enclaves can be considered a somewhat exaggerated version of just such a reality. There, multinational conditions constitute an intrinsic order. This is no longer a situation of just casual interactions between neighbors, but rather one that necessitates confronting a heterogeneous mix of others. Under conditions of friction, and in order to stabilize relations, the diverse inhabitants must weave together a specific ecology that is regulated by the local conditions of the site.




* "Where the Lion Rides the Dragon: Africa does business in China" in Le Monde Diplomatique, May 2010 http://mondediplo.com/2010/05/02africansinchina (subscribers only); complete article available in French: http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2010/05/COLOMA/19133
posted by infini (19 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
On the flip side, there are Chinese enclaves in Africa.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:25 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's interesting; the author spends the entire article discussing a new community of immigrants in another country, brought there by economic potential, living in enclaves catering to their own, but focused on working and trading with the locals. And he describes it as unique and fascinating, which was leading me to believe he had never heard of, say, a Chinatown or any other community. You could write a pretty good article about the Chinatown in San Francisco circa 1860, or any one of a hundred other ethnic enclaves in other times and places simply by substituting a few particulars.

Yet at the end of the article he mentions the existence of Chinatowns, as well as other similar immigrant communities, so he's familiar with the concept. Maybe I'm just too tired, but I didn't see what was unique, other than literally the fact that the article is about Africans in Guangzhou, rather than some other combination.

I will admit I was disappointed that the author seems to have little perspective; 150K people in a city of 16 million is less than 1% of the population; that's a small immigrant community, for a global city. It's much less than the Cape Verdean or Colombian immigrant populations of Boston, to pick a city at random. Maybe an equally interesting article can be written about the Cape Verdeans in Boston; actually, this one's not bad.

But the thing that disappointed me the most was the fact that the author is apparently unaware that Africa is a whole continent, comprising dozens of nations and even more cultures. I'd be interested to know what the mix of Africans in Guangzhou are; are they well distributed, or are they concentrated with one or two origins? Are the enclaves homogeneous, or are there subdivisions within them; a place where Igbo tend to live and hang out, and another with mostly Shoni. What common threads do the communities find -- geographical, religious, staple foods, languages? The detail that trade between Chinese and Africans was done in English was interesting; has Swahili risen within the enclaves as a common language for the East Africans?
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:34 AM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I didn't see what was unique, other than literally the fact that the article is about Africans in Guangzhou, rather than some other combination.

China isn't known for being especially open to immigration from other continents, so an African enclave sticks out in a way that's different from the way Chinatown sticks out in San Francisco. China hasn't been the same kind of "melting pot". I mean, where are the Scandavian enclaves in China? Where are their melting pots?

Sorry. I'm just hungry for fondue right now.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:45 AM on January 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Elsewhere: Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. By Gordon Mathews. University of Chicago Press
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:54 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Great find, thanks for posting.
posted by timshel at 4:05 AM on January 15, 2012


I will admit I was disappointed that the author seems to have little perspective; 150K people in a city of 16 million is less than 1% of the population; that's a small immigrant community, for a global city.

This might seem shocking for someone who has experience with global cities but you need to be aware that that is a bias as well. I came to England expecting it to be the country of immigrants I had read about in the all the North American media. I also expected Birmingham to be even more heavily immigrant yet neither lived up to my expectations in that regard. Why? Because I grew up in Mississauga just outside of Toronto. My baseline for what a normal city was like was already one of the most multicultural in the world.

London is very cosmopolitan. There are large pockets of immigration in some other English cities but other than a few places England is incredibly English and barely touched by other cultures. The life in the UK test required me learn the numbers. 96% white. I was gobsmacked.

There is even a product line in the UK called 'The Black Farmer". Not "A Black Farmer".

North American norms for immigration are wildly different from the UK. I'm guessing Chinese and Japanese immigration situations are even more extreme given that they restrict immigration more than the UK. So yeah, shocking globalization to him and possibly most of the world but not to a Londoner, Torontonian or New Yorker.
posted by srboisvert at 4:14 AM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


. I'd be interested to know what the mix of Africans in Guangzhou are; are they well distributed, or are they concentrated with one or two origins? Are the enclaves homogeneous, or are there subdivisions within them; a place where Igbo tend to live and hang out, and another with mostly Shoni. What common threads do the communities find -- geographical, religious, staple foods, languages? The detail that trade between Chinese and Africans was done in English was interesting; has Swahili risen within the enclaves as a common language for the East Africans?

A variety of stories looking at different aspects of Guangzhou's African population is available - Chinasmack; a chinese blogger studying in the US; possibly a variation of Le Monde Diplomatique's article; Chinese perspective on this with stuff I'd rather not mention; Hong Kong University research paper.

After a point you discover that there's actually just one narrative for the most part, going back to 2008, that is the 'foolsmountain' link - with the exceptional few including the PDF and the FPP link.
posted by infini at 4:29 AM on January 15, 2012


Africans are still rare enough here in Shenzhen that our Nigerian friends and their family have to tolerate photos being taken of them daily by curious locals. So yes, not particularly diverse when you think about the numbers involved.
posted by arcticseal at 6:07 AM on January 15, 2012


I know I have read other articles about the novelty of Africans in China. Here's the New Yorker's version, for example.

The question he starts with (How could Guangzhou, which compared with Shanghai appears so provincial, be home to such an extensive enclave of foreigners?) is a silly one, because secondary and tertiary cities have always been places where immigrants (whether foreign or just from the countryside) have flowed.
Looking into the past, just as the Chinese themselves established Chinatowns across the globe, there is no shortage of historical examples of diaspora communities. Yet globalization has volumetrically accelerated the flux of populations, expanding the capacity of nationality such that it potentially extends anywhere, and occasionally manifests in unconventional ways. This leads to a new kind of specificity, or even, in a broad sense, the formulation of creolized lifestyles, which recursively converge with the characteristics of each place and become a part of that locality. Considered this way, in its mixing of multiplicities globalization produces not standardization, but rather a quite specific hybrid locality. So what is locality? What is globalization? Such questions can no longer be understood through the logic of dichotomy. At least in some small measure, even if we always remain in our countries of origin, we may already be a diaspora.
In other words, he's just saying that so many people are moving around that the cultural hybridity of globalization has permeated everywhere, and that even if you never travel and never have a foreign neighbor your culture will still change. Néstor García Canclini was writing about this a couple of decades ago, as were a whole set of foundational French theorists like Pierre Bourdieu and Marc Augé, and there are many others you could name. Not having the entire article available (in English) makes it hard to tell where he's really going with this, but from the summary alone I'd say he's walking a very well-trod path.
posted by Forktine at 6:24 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kind of disappointed. It was not flashy and gonzo enough to actually be evocative of the place, it was not detailed enough to be an interesting observation on the economics, and although it had that gloss of boring academic detachment it didn't even go deep enough in that direction to make for compelling sociology.

Excellent topic and totally lame treatment, I eagerly await a better and more interesting writer who decides to have a go at this.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:27 AM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


An interesting subject; the article is rife with odd comments:
There is no place for so-called neo-liberalism here, only a bare coexistence made possible by a commodity economy that surpasses all context.
Even though the author is Japanese, he/she seems to think the liberal in neo-liberal has something to do with the US political designation (aside from what Liberal means in a US context) rather than ancient British movements for 'free trade' i.e. "a commodity economy surpassing all context."

An African trading community importing Chinese manufactured goods into Africa is part and parcel with globalization and/or the neo-liberal agenda. Chinese producers undercutting even local African producers. And how can Chinese producers do this? Because of cheap capital coming from European, American, and Japanese finance invested in Chinese manufacturing. And, why is this capital so cheap? Because of globalization cutting through barriers to the movement of capital (and commodities) while Chinese workers are stuck in China *and* because of first world finance is looting the savings of first world economy workers exporting the capital from enormous growths in productivity to China.

So, there's nothing surprising at all about African traders in China, except for the 'fish out of water' cultural problems of being African in a place where conventional wisdom puts Africans within spitting distance of the other great apes.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:41 AM on January 15, 2012


For something with a lot more meat, how about this from one of infini's links:
"The traders today mainly come from Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Cameroon, Senegal,
Kenya, and Tanzania. The majority are identified as Nigerian Igbo, who are mainly
Christians from Nigeria‘s eastern regions. Compared to their other African
counterparts, these Igbo usually stay for longer periods in China and sometimes
manage to open multiple shops in China, earning a reputation of being ―very good at
business.‖ My Igbo friends said that they had to be good at business to survive, ―If
you want to know about Igbo, you need to know the history of the Biafran War‖: a
Nigerian ethnic war in the late 1960s which resulted in the mass expropriations of
Igbo wealth and property. ―We became the poorest ethnic group and we could not
enter good entry-level jobs because we were discriminated against. So Igbo had to
stand on their own feet and make profits from whatever possible means,‖ one trader in
Guangzhou said."
(Chinese University of) Hong Kong research paper
posted by Mister Bijou at 6:42 AM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks for pointing that "Chinese University" bit, I'd just seen the edu.hk and made some assumptions. Mister Bijou is right - that paper is probably one of the best on this topic as far as I've come across (unless you find something Meatbomb) and probably one of the very few that looks at the informal economy in China as well as all the under the table transactions that create supporting industries for this increase in trade between the two continents.

My own interest was spurred from catching the flight to Nairobi in Bangkok just about a day ago - it was a stopover for the airline between Guangzhou and Nairobi and the immersion into the energy flow of this trade made me want to know more. Comparatively few people got on in BKK and most of the flight was full, obviously with people from many different regions in the African continent.

My middle row had a lady from Kigali, Rwanda returning after a week's buying trip for clothes and electronics (she was the one who told me in her "small, small English" about le commissionaires who help short term traders like herself) and an exuberant group of Congolese businessmen from Brazzaville.

It was this experience that made me curious and think about this new Silk Route - the Kenyan Airways stewardesses (I don't recall the proper PC term sorry) were Thai, the safety announcements were made in fluent Mandarin, Swahili and Gujerati, and connecting flights and gates made Nairobi airport sound like a caravenserai on a major trade route - flights to Accra, Kigali, Brazzaville, Luanda, Lubumbashi, Harare et al were announced. I was totally entranced and planned to research this and write a blogpost or two (done! including one on the research paper) on this whole new world I'd managed to get a sudden glimpse of as soon as I'd rested enough from 22 hours of travel. This FPP emerged from that digging for the blogposts.

Its one thing to read about all this increasing trade and entreprenuerial energy, I realized and another to 'feel' it experientially for a few short hours. I think the reason why Hino's article caught my attention was partially because the snippet I used in the FPP reminded me in a way of the ways of being on our global website viz.,

There, multinational conditions constitute an intrinsic order. This is no longer a situation of just casual interactions between neighbors, but rather one that necessitates confronting a heterogeneous mix of others. Under conditions of friction, and in order to stabilize relations, the diverse inhabitants must weave together a specific ecology that is regulated by the local conditions of the site.

Like Meatbomb, I too want a story that goes beyond the novelty of the strange and takes a kaleidoscopic view of the flight paths now criss crossing these ancient land and sea routes. Just last week I saw a tiny news item about illegal Bangladeshis getting booted out of Malawi - I mean, why on earth would they be there in the first place? ... (deeply pondering if I should contemplate kickstarting this before I get too old)
posted by infini at 7:53 AM on January 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


So get writing infini! :)
posted by Meatbomb at 8:12 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


but I didn't see what was unique, other than literally the fact that the article is about Africans in Guangzhou, rather than some other combination.

Is there an enclave of 150,000 African folk in your community? It's remarkable because China is not really considered to be an immigration destination. It's also remarkable because the article points out the level of cooperation between Africa (hardly a monolithic identity) and China, and Africa's status as a rising economic power.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:28 AM on January 15, 2012


Meatbomb, I am realizing that anything I need to say further is now perhaps better pondered over and framed for the green.

*understands what it means to feel like being hit by a ton of bricks*
posted by infini at 8:48 AM on January 15, 2012


With a population of some 17 million, Guangzhou on its own is not an incredibly big city

That's one hell of a sentence to have in the first paragraph of an article.
posted by hippybear at 9:09 AM on January 15, 2012


(Chinese University of) Hong Kong research paper

This is fascinating.

I have been thinking about these issues in the context of Toronto. Totally different approach than Guangzhou, obviously, but we're all in this together.

The cooks of the world live here, and all I can buy on the street is hot dogs and poutine. Every year we talk about opening it up more, but then the food and safety regulation people put such strict rules around it that it's far too expensive for someone new and unusual to start up. Meanwhile, many informal businesses already exist around food, childcare, beauty, art, and even jitney services. Often these informal businesses are located in the neighbourhoods we think of as the poorest, least economically active areas and are run by immigrants.

I'm also seeing more and more small businesses pop up with staff living in different countries. One of my Torontonian friends works for a Kenyan start-up, another works for a design firm with 3 staff: one American, one Canadian in Toronto, and another Canadian who spends the bulk of his time in Switzerland. Skype has made this sort of arrangement much more feasible.

It will be interesting to see how (or if) cities/nations make room for new forms of entrepreneurship as globalization becomes the norm.
posted by heatherann at 10:49 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Emergence of a new Silk Route

Global trade is being revolutionised in a way that will take the world back hundreds of years to when world trade was centred around Asia and Africa, bypassing Europe and North America, says a recent research study by HSBC. As the US fades as a global superpower and primary consumer for world trade, new trade and capital market connections is seeing the emergence of a new Silk Route, led by China, that could see trade between Asia, Middle East, Africa, and Latin America eclipse trade between developed nations and emerging nations, or even among developed nations.

"It also answers the question of where exports from emerging nations are going to go, if the US and European consumers aren't. Emerging nations will increasingly trade with each other, as their domestic consumers grow," says Stephen King, chief economist at HSBC.

posted by infini at 11:32 AM on January 15, 2012


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