The transformations brought about by economic re-articulations resulting from the ‘rise of Asia’ have had implications in a myriad of places, practices, and imaginations. Dazzling increases in economic investments and the warm political rapprochement between several Asian and African states illustrates the magnitude of recent geopolitical shifts. While great effort has been directed at analysing Asia-Africa economic and political ties, scant attention has been paid to the ways is which Asia’s re-emergence has shifted how people in Africa might think about Asia. Over the last two decades, countries and territories in the region have been conflated with opportunities for entrepreneurship and wealth generation – a shift in imagination that has led countless Africans to opt for Asian destinations in their transnational trading and migration strategies.
This paper examines the conditions for movement and migration from Africa towards China within the context of the ‘era of Asian influence’. I focus on place-making practices, structures of belonging, and strategies and obstacles for settlement and citizenship associated with the African population of the city of Guangzhou, China. Based on my fieldwork in the city, I argue that the continued and recurrent presence of African transnational traders and migrants has resulted in the unintended emergence of ‘support networks’ in the city. These networks facilitate the mobility (arrival, departure, return and settlement) of individuals and give rise to the organisation of communities and the emergence of identities that structure (sometimes transient) feelings of ‘at-homeness’ and belonging.
This paper seeks to broaden the discussion around the main issues raised in this workshop by discussing questions such as: How does one feel at home in Asia when s/he is not ‘Asian’? How is belonging and home understood/structured when you maintain multiple simultaneous interpersonal networks in several countries for decades? Is there space for opening up imaginations and legislations for including Africans (and Sino-Africans) in Asian discussions about ‘cultural citizenship’ and ‘global modernities’?
In order to answer these questions, I will highlight the diversity and complexity of those Africans assembling in Guangzhou; then describe they ways in which they have adapted to transnational modes of living and the strategies they utilise to reproduce structures of belonging and solidarity.
Although the presence of Africans in China might be considered by some as a non-Asian issue, the intermingling of many Africans with local populations nurtures ‘alternative imaginations’ of self, place, home, and belonging that directly challenge extant discourses on Asian identity, race, ethnicity, nationalism and citizenship; and, at the same time, provide an exciting opportunity to discuss not only who can feel but also how is it to feel at home in 21st century Asia.
Keywords: ‘Africans in China’ – ‘transnational networks’ – identity – citizenship – home
* Paper for the 2013 workshop ‘Where is Home? Place, Belonging and Citizenship in the Asian Century’