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[Book Review] The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace

It’s not Shanghai. It’s Guangzhou that is China’s new New York. The southern Chinese megalopolis is the 21st-century “land of opportunities” for those across the globe who dream of wealth and success through international trade. At least that is what anthropologist Gordon Mathews argues after a year-long exploration of the city uncovering examples of what he calls “low-end globalization” – the type of globalization that is “experienced by the majority of the world’s people” (p. 2).

The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace is Mathews’s second book describing low-end globalization. Co-authored with researchers Linessa Dan Lin and Yang Yang, the book’s main argument is that low-end globalization is “traders sending relatively small amounts of goods under the radar of the law, bribing customs agents in different continents, and getting these goods back home to stalls and street vendors” (p. 2). This is a follow-up on the argument Mathews developed in Ghetto at the Centre of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. The continuation of his argument is a natural one, however. As Chinese cities become more hospitable to foreigners, many of Mathews’ Chungking informants (and a great deal of the trading activities he found there) have moved from Hong Kong to Guangzhou.

If Mathews succeeded thoroughly in providing a comprehensive, ethnographic description of the transnational connections that took place in Chungking Mansions, he succeeds again here in describing a “world that almost all readers will never have encountered” (p. 4). This is nowhere more evident than in the portrayal of the diverse group of foreigners that he introduces in chapter two. Mathews’ careful selection of stories not only brings depth and nuance to the complex realities of foreigners in Guangzhou, but also highlights the contrasts, tensions and intersections between class, gender, ethnicity, religion and race (a trend that continues throughout the book). His stories seem to both reinforce and challenge global racial and patriarchal hierarchies in, sometimes, unexpected ways.

The book is full of fascinating personal accounts and stories told to the authors by mostly African foreigners in the city – stories that he curates and threads into his argument. As such, the book reads like a compendium of intriguing voices describing the encounters between foreigners and locals in a highly unstable and unregulated marketplace.

It is perhaps because of the instability and lack of regulations dominating economic transactions in the city, that Mathews decided to focus on the strategies and methods designed by traders (mostly African and Chinese) to interact in these circumstances. Indeed, one of the greatest contributions of this book is the description of the tribulations of those who trade in Guangzhou’s marketplace. From chapter three onwards, Mathews’ stories take the reader deep into the world of buyers, suppliers, merchants, and complex transnational logistics. It is here that the book’s true face begins to emerge: an ethnographic portrayal of cheating, (dis)trust, misunderstandings and miscommunications in relations and relationships predominantly between African men and Chinese women in the midst of a precarious living and trading environment.

Another important contribution is in chapter five, where Mathews introduces a number of stories by overstayers. Here he gives space to a plethora of voices that describe what leads people to live illegally in China and risk potential imprisonment and deportation. While overstaying in China is a situation that features prominently in the accounts of many young foreigners in the city – a situation partly generated by an outdated Chinese population management system – Mathews is careful to highlight that this condition is not representative of the African presence in the country as a whole.

The stories in The World in Guangzhou reveal what certain foreigners do in China, and how they engage in “low-end globalization.” However, at times, the stories seem a bit one-dimensional, as they do not extend to answer important questions such as: Who are these people? Why are they in China? How do they feel about their journeys? And, what are their hopes and expectations beyond the immediateness of their everyday life and trading activities? The aspirations and motivations behind transnational journeys are complex and, often, multidimensional.

Mathews seems to be aware of this lack, however. In chapter seven he intimates that while he went to Guangzhou to “talk about business, thinking that it was key to these people’s lives,” it was religion that “they really wanted to talk about” (p. 166). One example provided in that chapter comes from a Kenyan trader who explains that the “real reason” he came to China was a calling from God to evangelize the Chinese.

All in all, The World in Guangzhou is a good read for anyone wanting to better understand how transnational trade in China is conducted. Mathews has once again succeeded in writing a book for a general audience in order to “democratize anthropology,” as he puts it. Without a doubt, a must read.


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