Africans in Beijing Africans in China Africans in Guangzhou community Guangzhou Nigerians Research

[Open Research] ‘Homing’ Guangzhou: Emplacement, belonging and precarity among Africans in China*

Roberto Castillo (2015). International Journal of Cultural Studies.

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 10.01.02 pmStreet crossing in Guangyuan West Road. 

The number of Africans sojourning, recurrently visiting and/or ‘living’ in Guangzhou since the early 2000s has no parallel in the history of the region.(1) There are no conclusive figures on the size of the population; however, different estimates range from 1500 to over 20,000 (see Bodomo, 2010; Li et al., 2008).(2) While significant efforts have been made to define the types and origins of individuals in the city (Bodomo, 2012; Li et al., 2012; Zhang, 2008), extant research has tended to represent Africans as a mass of traders (see Bertoncelo and Bredeloup, 2007; Bredeloup, 2012; Haugen, 2011; Mathews and Yang, 2012; Muller and Rainer, 2013) and to conflate their presence in the region with a wave of immigration (see Haugen, 2012; Lan, 2014).

Drawing on my fieldwork in Guangzhou (conducted between 2011 and 2014), I contend that these representations fail to account for the complexities associated with the multiple trajectories, stories and mobilities of individuals in the city. Indeed, if one considers the diverse rationales behind the multiple forms of mobility that drive individuals into transnational movement/activities between Africa and China, then a different perspective emerges: one in which Africans from diverse walks of life arrive in Guangzhou for myriad reasons, and then subsequently occupy various (usually transient) emplacements. Taking these multiple emplacements and trajectories into consideration leads to a more thorough understanding of the dynamics informing place-making processes and the experiences of Africans in the city, and renders representations of the African presence in the region as a wave of immigration problematic. While I suggest that the ‘immigrants’ label should be avoided, it is in no way my intention to characterize these mobile subjects as having no connection to place. Indeed, through ethnographic analysis and the deployment of analytical constructs, I endeavour to describe and discuss how individuals on the move attempt to ‘home’ themselves while navigating through their transnational journeys.

Most migration-related literature on place-making has focused on the ways in which immigrants forge collective identities when facing discrimination or poverty in a host society (Gill, 2010) – less effort has been directed towards assessing how people moving in transnational circuits might (or might fail to) feel at ‘home’ throughout their journeys. This article is an attempt to bridge this gap by bringing together the place-making strategies and the structures of feeling that intersect in the notion of ‘home’. Following Ahmed (2000), I contend that to better understand the ways in which ‘people on the move’ structure feelings of ‘at-homeness’, we need to pay closer attention to the affective, material and symbolic processes through which place-making and ‘homing’ during transnational journeys occur. ‘Home’, I argue, is not necessarily a place to go back to. It can be a process and a feeling (an embodied experience) that can be (re)produced while on the move, and ‘emplaced’ in several locations. Moreover, I maintain that under certain modes of transnational movement, ‘home’ can be emplaced within transiency, and it is by using this notion of ‘emplacement within transiency’ that I highlight how individuals are differently emplaced and how they often attempt to (re)produce a feeling of ‘being at home’ while on the move. I do this by following the stories and insights of two Nigerian community leaders, Tony E. and O. Emma, and by exploring some of the strategies that individuals and collectives employ to negotiate their everyday lives in Guangzhou under conditions of transiency and precarity.

As in many cases of transnational mobility,(3) the precarity experienced by most Africans in Guangzhou is predicated on economic uncertainty; in this particular case, however, the precarity is heightened by the logics of surveillance and control imposed on populations by the Chinese state. While sometimes paralysing, precarity can, nonetheless, function as a trigger encouraging individuals to develop structures of solidarity and networks of support. These networks, structured by (and structuring) the emergence of grassroots forms of organization (i.e. sporting clubs and community offices) are crucial sites for individual and collective attempts to ‘feel at home’ in Guangzhou. Throughout this article, these attempts to (re)create a measure of stability, familiarity and security under conditions of transiency, migrancy and precarity are referred to as ‘precarious homing’. As I will show, precarious homing is intrinsically connected to the notion of emplacement within transiency. This connection not only helps to elucidate the conditions under which individuals are emplaced while on the move but also makes their everyday efforts to (re)create a sense of ‘being at home’ clear. Indeed, through particular place-making practices and ‘homing’ projects some Africans have managed to generate the necessary spaces where senses of belonging to communities emerge.

Looking for ‘greener pastures’ in southern China

A trip to a secret soccer pitch 

On a Saturday morning in mid 2013, I waited for Tony, a prominent member of Guangzhou’s Nigerian community, in front of Canaan Wholesale Clothing Market in the area of Guangyuan West Road. For many Nigerians in Guangzhou, Canaan is a landmark. Almost a decade ago, it became the first hub of Nigerian and Ghanaian traders in the city. Nowadays, most of the stores in several of Guangyuan West Road’s wholesale markets are Nigerian-run. At around 11, Tony arrived in his new Korean SUV. With an eclectic mix of Nigerian pop and Americana blaring on the stereo, Tony drove me out to what he had previously referred to as an ‘undisclosed location’ – a somewhat lonely patch of grass serving as a soccer pitch in the northern outskirts of the city.

‘We [Nigerians] have been coming here for 16 years,’ Tony said. ‘Everybody is welcome on the pitch, but we keep the location private. We are safe here. Nobody harasses us and the police never come.’ It is there that Tony and the coach, Ken O, try out new players and select the most talented ones to play for the team they manage – Owners FC – the first African club to have joined Guangzhou’s International Premier League. While some of the players on the field have professional experience, others are newcomers to the sport. ‘Training is an opportunity to play some soccer, meet people, and make friends,’ Tony explained. ‘And if the players make it to the team, they might get exposure to Chinese recruiting agents.’ Out on the pitch that day, Ken was drilling some 15 players to do a combination of sprints and push-ups, while another 10 were laid out among the sports bags and sneakers in the shade behind one of the goal posts. Although it was the tail end of summer, the sun was still scorching. In addition to the players, a 3-year-old was kicking a ball around. With play at the other end of the pitch, the goalkeeper turned and asked sternly for the half-Nigerian, half-Chinese child to show his passport and visa. Everyone laughed. ‘There are many young Nigerians here without valid visas,’ Tony said, explaining the joke. ‘There may be hundreds only in Guangzhou.’ Indeed, at that day’s training session, only five people had valid visas – the rest were overstayers.

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 10.05.57 pmKen talks to the players during the training.

The group on the pitch could be a representative sample of Nigerians and, to some extent, other African nationalities in the city. By focusing on personal stories and mobilities, for instance, it is possible to identify three main trajectories: those who attempt to live in Guangzhou; those who recurrently visit the city; and those who pass through it (this group is the majority). Within the first two trajectories, it is possible to discern at least four types of emplacements: the ‘more established’; the ‘semi-settled’; the ‘itinerants’; and the ‘newly arrived’ – and overstayers can and do emerge from all of these emplacements. The ‘more established’ (or pioneers) are a minority comprising those who, like Tony, arrived over a decade ago and who have managed (predominantly through hard work, investment and/or marriage) to ‘establish’ themselves in Guangzhou. The ‘semi-settled’ (or less established), like Ken, move in and out of the country several times every year (mainly for business and visa reasons). Individuals in both these emplacements tend to have deeper engagements in communities and function frequently as mediators between Chinese and African businesspeople. Many also think of Guangzhou as their main ‘home’.(4) In addition to these two groups, there are the ‘itinerants’, who constantly transit through multiple locations in transnational circuits of trade (usually on short income-boosting trips) and whose presence in China is highly transient and relatively superficial. And, finally, there are the ‘newly arrived’, like some of the players, who have only recently left their countries in search of opportunities and success. Despite their different trajectories, emplacements and stories, a common thread runs through the accounts of most of the Africans I met in the city: a lack of certainty about their future in China. Nonetheless, as with the group on the pitch, individuals are differently emplaced and their strategies for coping with difficulties and uncertainties are multifarious.

‘China is a difficult place’: emplacing people on the move in southern China

Southern China has historically been a migrant sending region (Hoe, 2013; Ong, 1993); however, over the last three decades, the region has rapidly become an important destination in transnational and translocal geographies of mobility (see Ngai, 2005; Pieke, 2012). Every year, countless individuals from across the country and the world converge in Guangzhou, and its surrounding cities, looking for opportunities.(5) Arguably, the region is a crossroads of multiple forms of mobility, crucial to the understanding of how several Chinese social, cultural and economic processes are being (re)connected to those in other parts of the world. At the level of individuals, the region is an exemplar of the contemporary intersections and interactions between people on the move in China both transnationally and translocally.

Recently, the salience of African presence in Guangzhou has led to the emergence of a significant body of knowledge on the topic (Bertoncelo and Bredeloup, 2007, 2009; Bodomo, 2010, 2012; Bredeloup, 2012; Castillo, 2014; Han, 2013; Haugen, 2013, 2012; Lan, 2014; Le Bail, 2009; Li et al., 2008, 2009, 2012; Mathews and Yang, 2012; Rennie, 2009; Zhang, 2008). Most of these researchers have framed the African presence in the city through the binary of foreigners (migrants/immigrants) versus a fixed ‘local’ Chinese population. However, in order to better understand the dynamics and (im)mobilities behind African presence in Guangzhou, it is imperative to move beyond this distinction and problematize the notion of the ‘local’. Indeed, rather than a group of foreign migrants encountering a settled local population, Africans in the city mainly intersect and interact with ‘Chinese’ individuals on the move: ‘internal migrants’ of different ethnicities.(6)

A further conceptual move is needed to clarify the nature of the spaces in which such intersections occur. This move requires thinking of ‘individuals on the move’ beyond the lens of methodological nationalism,(7) and to rethink the national scale as a contingent rather than an absolute force in organizing different types of migrant experiences (Ellis, 2012). Accordingly, if the mobile subjects converging in Guangzhou (both foreign and internal) are brought onto the same plane, a different mapping of their experiences is possible. In this mapping, precarity and liminality emerge as shared conditions that characterize both foreign and internal ‘migrant’ emplacements, thus critically problematizing the distinction between ‘locals’ and ‘foreigners’. Indeed, I argue that some of the difficulties Africans face in China, such as structural and legal impediments, renewing visas, immobility from overstaying, police harassment, and the impossibility of permanent residency, bear a striking resemblance to the difficulties experienced by many internal migrants: economic vulnerability, lack of belonging, social exclusion, harassment, hampered residential rights and impaired mobilities. Indeed, the strict visa regulations affecting Africans could be compared to the hukou system used to control internal migrants.(8) While I am not suggesting that foreign and internal subjects occupy the same emplacements or have the same experiences (obviously linguistic and cultural factors need to be taken into account), this comparison is not unfounded and needs to be taken seriously by researchers trying to explain the difficulties faced by Africans in the city.

In fact, since 2008, foreigners in China have been categorized as ‘floating population’ (a common designation for internal migrants) and are supposedly subject to the rules and regulations controlling its management (Lan, 2014). It could then be said that Africans as a group (or ‘minority’ as Bodomo [2012] has called them) have been informally inserted into China’s complex systems of population control and, as a result, have been subject to the dynamics of surveillance used to police ‘Chinese’ ethnic minorities – dynamics that are best characterized by erratic but systematic control/repression. It is these dynamics that have been characterized by researchers, journalists and individuals (who are perhaps unaware of the experiences of other minorities) as racial profiling and discrimination aimed specifically at Africans.(9) So, while the historical experiences of internal migrants in Guangzhou are beyond the scope of this article, this comparison serves two interrelated purposes: first, it contextualizes African presence in the region within the complex translocal mobilities of southern China (mobilities which have been thoroughly explored by Ngai [1999, 2005] and Sun [2009] in their investigations of Chinese rural-to-urban migrations); and, second, it equates the experiences of Africans with the precarity, liminality and unbelonging of internal migrants, thus challenging the common assumption that the difficulties faced by Africans in China are (or have been) unique.(10)

Indeed, as part of a push to control this (African) ‘floating population’, the provincial and central governments have implemented a series of measures to gradually regulate and, as Lan (2014) suggests, hamper its growth. The most relevant of these measures are: a regulation requiring Guangzhou’s residents to report any ‘malpractice’ involving foreigners, such as illegal entry, overstaying and working/doing business without permits (Lan, 2014; Lau, 2012); housing and business registration obstacles (Zhang, 2008); and the tightening of the visa extension system at the local level.(11) It is these measures, along with partial geographical entrapment (most Africans need visas to enter other countries in the region) and, in some cases, economic hardship, that are identified by many individuals as factors exacerbating their difficulties in China.(12)‘China is a difficult place,’ is a pervasive phrase used by many of the Africans that I met in Guangzhou, regardless of their status or emplacement in the city. [KEEP READING HERE]

*This article was published in a special journal issue dedicated to the discussion of how the notion of ‘home’ is being reconfigured in the context of multiple global modernities.

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 10.09.57 pm

“This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by SAGE in the International Journal of Cultural Studies on 03 March 2015, (PDF) available online at:

To cite this article: Castillo, Roberto (2015). ‘Homing’ Guangzhou: Emplacement, belonging and precarity among Africans in China, International Journal of Cultural Studies, Online First. doi:10.1177/1367877915573767.

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