CGTN, or the ‘new’ face of CCTV, just came up with a short series of clips covering African presence in Guangzhou. Interestingly, the angle taken in these clips is (obviously) not replicated in CCTV’s domestic broadcasts.
The vast literature on transnationalism has primarily been concerned with people, practices, and social fields. Less attention has been devoted to the enigmatic relationship between transnationalism and place. A place itself cannot be transnational in the sense of operating or extending across national boundaries to places elsewhere. But if we understand place as a ‘meaningful location’ (Agnew, 1987), it is evident that transnational connections can be central to imbuing locations with meaning. In short, the transnational is simultaneously antithetical to place and constitutive of it. So, how can the transnational qualities of a place be empirically examined? This Featured Graphic explores the salient yet elusive transnationalism of a unique neighbourhood in Guangzhou, the third-largest city in China.
Guangzhou is the primary trading hub of the Pearl River Delta, which produces more than a quarter of Chinese exports. Some of these exports are destined for Africa. In fact, while most of the academic and policy interest in China–Africa connections has focused on Chinese demand for African materials, Sub-Saharan Africa has a large and growing trade deficit with China. The African market for Chinese manufactured goods has led thousands of African traders, brokers, logistics agents, and other service providers to come to Guangzhou.
Few places in China have been as marked by the African presence as Guangzhou’s Xiaobei neighbourhood (Li et al., 2009). Transnational connections and ethnic diversity are manifest in the urban landscape in a number of ways. There are directly trade-related shops and service providers and a multitude of trader-oriented businesses, such as hotels, beauty parlours, restaurants, and gift shops. Restaurant names and advertisements for shipping services contain jumbled references at various geographical scales, to Africa, Angola, and Luanda, for instance.
Diversity in Xiaobei defies established notions of immigrants and locals. Among the foreigners, there is a continuity of attachment, from first-time visitors via circulating traders to long-time residents. The latter group includes foreigners who provide services for traders on short-term stays, as well as people who export goods to business partners or customers overseas and only leave China occasionally. Some of these long-term residents have children who are born and raised in China.
After living in Xiaobei for a few months, I had a good sense of the neighbourhood’s transnational connections: they were primarily African, and remarkably diverse. But how could the transnational qualities be measured and mapped beyond impressionistic description? Sample surveys and official immigration statistics might both have their uses, but they are marred by methodological problems in this environment. What I pursue instead are auto-generated data from a pivot of transnational connections: international phone services.
Cheap calls have been described as ‘the social glue of migrant transnationalism’ (Vertovec, 2004) and telephone voice data have been used to examine transnational ties between country dyads (Perkins and Neumayer, 2013). The value of such data is sensitive to technological changes and country-to-country differences, for instance in the prevalence of VoIP traffic. In Xiaobei, the preferred mode for international voice calls is specialized public phone services. The area is dotted with providers of cheap calls, sometimes as dedicated single-function businesses and sometimes in the form of a row of telephones on the counter of a multi-purpose shop or office (Figure 1). Often, the most prominent signage is easily overlooked: lists of numbers such as 00243, 00244, and 00256, followed by numbers such as 1.0 or 0.8. These are dialling codes and prices. Even if other signs announce the service, dialling code price lists are usually also on display.
These displays are interesting data insofar as they reflect demand for calls to specific countries. Several features suggest that they do. First, they always constitute a selection of countries, never the full worldwide list. Second, no two lists are the same. Third, the turnover of businesses (and hence signage) is rapid, and even where businesses remain in place, the lists are often extended or amended by hand. Fourth, many service providers have a prominently displayed short list, plus a longer list for reference.
The lists make it possible to construct a ‘prominence index’ that gives each country in the world a score, a value that reflects the average number of other countries with which the country is listed, and the proportion of providers that have it listed.1
Figure 2 displays Xiaobei’s transnational connections as reflected by the prominence index for telephone services. As expected, ties to Central and West Africa dominate. Connections to India are also conspicuous, and resonate with the noticeable presence of Indians in the neighbourhood. More surprising are the connections to France and the United States, which appear unrelated to the demography of residents or visitors. These connections reflect the demand for Africa-oriented Chinese goods in the African diaspora in Europe and North America. For instance, a large part of the global trade in human hair is sourced and processed in China and destined for the African diaspora. Xiaobei’s connections to Thailand also seem puzzling, since there are few Thais in the neighbourhood. Again, trends in production and trade provide a cue: rising costs in China lead African traders to explore alternative production sites, including Thailand.
The methodology and the results have several implications for the challenge of conceptualizing and measuring transnational dimensions of place. First, the data on telephone services have not only pragmatic advantages, but also particular theoretical appeal as means to gauge the neighbourhood’s transnational qualities: they reflect dynamic social interaction as well as physical manifestations in the urban landscape. These two elements resonate with theoretical concepts of neighbourhood (Kallus and Law-Yone, 2000). Second, the data serve to caution against essentialist assumptions that equate transnational connections with national origins. The ties to France and North America exemplify inter-diasporic transnationalism, which coexists with diaspora–homeland connections (Sperling, 2013; Van Hear, 1998). Third, the data call attentional to the variable legibility of a landscape’s transnational qualities. Most people would not see a sign reading 00244 as a reference to Angola, but Angolans would. In other contexts, the legibility of transnational connections have more to do with interpretation and connotations, as Klaufus (2006) and Lopez (2010) have shown in their analyses of migrant houses and architectural styles.
1 For each provider where country a is listed, it is given a listing value of 100/n, where n is the number of countries on the list. If there are two lists (one large display and a longer list for reference), weights are calculated as 100/n for each list and countries are assigned their highest value if they are listed twice. The sum of listing values for country a is divided by the total number of providers, and the result is multiplied by the proportion of providers that list country a at all. The index thus has a theoretical maximum value of 100. If all providers had three countries on their lists, a country that appeared on half of the lists would have an index value of 100/3 × 0.5 = 16.7.
The documentary is about an exceptional Chinese woman’s journey to Nigeria. Born and raised up in the Chinese city, Guangzhou, where the presence of African traders numbers some 200,000, the woman named Rase falls in love with a Nigerian trader, Kevin. Facing a wide range of racial discrimination and strict immigration control in China, Rase decides to go to live and work in Nigeria, after Kevin is forced to leave China because of an expired visa. On her arrival, tensions build up. Rase finds work at a Chinese factory where she witnesses tremendous discrimination while Kevin hesitates to continue the relationship.
Amongst the many activities Africans in China organise, there are also different types of awards. Below see some of the contestants for the 2nd edition of the ‘Mama Africa’ (diasporic) awards – most of them based in China (and multi-lingual).
Guangzhou, in Southern China, has a long tradition as a trading port. More recently, in the wake of the Chinese state’s aggressive foreign and trade policies to Africa, the city is also home to a growing community of migrants and businesspeople from that continent. The latter buy goods in bulk in Guangzhou to sell back in Africa. Some have decided to stay.
In 2009, The New Yorker published, “The Promised Land,” by Evan Osnos “… which looks at the wave of African traders moving to China. The largest group has settled in the city of Guangzhou, where Chinese neighbors have named the community Qiao-ke-li Cheng—Chocolate City.” Though Osnos’s article wasn’t the first in-depth look at African migrants in China — Osnos’s account was predated by the work of academics like Heidi Østbø Haugen, Adams Bodomo, and Roberto Castillo — however, Osnos’s article certainly mainstreamed the broad outlines of these African migrants’ experiences in China and launched an intense focus on the community of Africans in China.
African migrants’ contemporary presence in China dates back to the late 1990s when the financial crisis in Thailand and Indonesia pushed Africans (among other migrants) to look for opportunities elsewhere. To date, it is hard to find reliable information on the numbers and nationalities of the Africans in China. Academic scholarship as well as media reports estimate the numbers to be anywhere between 20,000 and 100,000. However, during the last few years, there has been a trend of African migrants leaving China to go back to their home countries after encountering hardships and disappointments. Heidi Østbø Haugen and Manon Diederich, for example, document Gambian migrants’ stories about life in China and their decision to return home. The new film, Guangzhou Dream Factory directed by Christiane Badgley and Erica Marcus, thus adds a rich account of the complexities of living in China as an African migrant.
From the very beginning, Guangzhou Dream Factory exhibits a major strength: in a break with tradition, Africans are not just objects of the camera, but subjects who represent their own stories and experiences. Through talking to expatriates of various backgrounds (and entanglements with China, including wives and children), a complex story of aspirations, deceptions, challenges, and opportunities is woven. Some of the migrants have been very successful, others disappointed, and a few have become activists in helping other Africans who have settled in the community.
For example, Rahima is an Ugandan migrant who runs an East African food service (a sort of meals-on-wheels). She is also the president of an association to look after Ugandans in Guangzhou. Rahima shares stories of broken dreams and scammed migrants who sell all what they own back home in search of dreams made in China. Many young women, she recounts, are brought to China with promises to be employed as teachers or factory workers only to find themselves forced into a choice between prostitution jobs or unbearable debt.
Rahima is filmed carrying a baby who she found in a shop near his mom’s corpse. We don’t know who the dead mom is or what part of Africa she was from. But, we do know of Eva, a Kenyan young mother who falls victim to visa-cons, quits her job in Kenya and flies to China chasing a mirage. Upon landing in China, she immediately finds out that the employment agency that she had paid was fraudulent. The only positive part about Eva’s story is that she finally manages to get back to Kenya, “jobless and indebted, but at least she was safe.”
Yet the picture is far from being all bleakness. The filmmakers talk to young African entrepreneurs who are making strong steps towards achieving their made-in-China dreams. Both Emy, a restaurateur, who aspires to makes movies in China, and the Cameroonian self-made “King of Suits,” Kingsley Azieh Che — who claims to supply about 80% of the suit whole-sale businesses in his country — are examples of the kind of opportunities that many young Africans aspire to when they think of what China means for their futures. These success stories are, unfortunately, not possible for the average African migrant to China. In an email exchange, Christiane explains that most Africans who end up doing well in China are urban, middle class. They are “people who have enough money to pay for travel, visas, accommodation, goods, etcetera. And you know that in most African countries, that is a fairly small segment of the population.”
The documentary film also raises the very poignant and pressing questions about the future of children of mixed marriages, or of those who were born to African parents but only see China to be their home. The film shows the story of a Nigerian woman, Favor, and her daughter Cherich who was born in China and speaks fluent Chinese. We learn that a few weeks after the film was finished, the immigration police caught the mom and jailed her, and that she was sent back to Nigeria with her daughter. Christiane noted that the film has opened an opportunity to voice questions of responsibility towards this generation of African children born in China, the status of their parents, and the roles that can and must be assumed by African and Chinese authorities alike.
It is true that one could simply say that these stories are no different than any typical immigrant stories, full of hope and delusion, success and disappointment. But the overall sentiment of the documentary is that African migrants in China are skilled entrepreneurs, creative business-owners, risk-takers, and resilient strong individuals. This is a contrast to the images that the “Jungle” of Calais leaves in our minds, the capsizing boats in the Mediterranean, or the bare-life camps on the fringes of the EU.