Gordon Mathews is a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Following his book on Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions, Mathews has just published The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace, co-written with Linessa Dan Lin and Yang Yang. 

The new title examines traders from Africa and beyond who arrive in Guangzhou to buy items to send back to their home countries. A Research Grants Council grant enabled him to spend a year in the southern Chinese city in 2013-14. Blending anthropological research with storytelling, Mathews shows how the city became a centre of what he terms “low-end globalisation.”

Gordon Mathews. Photo: CUHK.

What led you to write about Guangzhou?

When I was doing the Chungking Mansions book, increasingly, people felt the pull of south China. When I began that book, most traders were in Hong Kong because they couldn’t get into China. But it became increasingly easier to get into China, and that’s where everyone was going. So it was sort of a natural outgrowth of the Chungking Mansions book.

And every time I was in Guangzhou I would meet people who I’d seen in Chungking.

Why is it important for people to understand how low-end globalisation works in Guangzhou? 

Because low-end globalisation is the globalisation of 70 percent of the world’s people. And you’ve got to understand it to understand how the world works and furthermore, Guangzhou is the world’s centre of manufacturing for low-end globalisation.

I predict that when economics textbooks are written 100 or 200 years from now, the major function of China in the early 21st century will be to provide the goods of globalisation to Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

In a picture taken on August 26, 2013, an African man and woman walk outside a clothing wholesale market in Guangzhou. Photo: AFP/Stringer.

All of these copies and knockoff goods that are made in China at a fraction of the price of the original, that’s going to these regions, and that’s enabling people to enjoy the goods of globalisation. China brought globalisation to the developing world, and these traders in Guangzhou are a part of this overall movement.

You wrote that you avoided perpetuating official narratives, “which sometimes have minimal accuracy,” by staying close to the ground in your interviews. In what ways did you find that your research contradicted such official narratives? 

There’s just a bunch of smaller obvious facts to be known. One fact is that you generally have to bribe Chinese immigration at customs to get copied goods through, and there’s established procedure for that. Another fact close to the ground is that an awful lot of African traders are in Guangzhou to be missionaries. They want to convert China to the word of the Lord, and that’s not commonly known.

Another common feature is, most African traders in Guangzhou say that they have been cheated by Chinese, and a standard line is that Chinese cheat. Now I don’t think that’s true, and I think that many Chinese traders are indeed very law-abiding and very ethical, but still, almost all African traders have a story about being cheated more than once. And that’s something that you don’t tend to get in the official narrative.

The book is about how different groups of people build informal relationships when there is no common language, culture or religion – all based on reputation and trust rather than formal contracts. What are some common stereotypes or assumptions about other groups of people that you have come across? 

The Arabs say the Africans are drug dealers, the Africans say the Arabs are terrorists, they both say Chinese are cheaters. That’s a common set of stereotypes… and there’s a grain of truth, but only a tiny grain of truth.

Guangzhou. File photo: AFP/Stringer.

The stereotype is that the Chinese cheat. You know, some do, most don’t, but some do, and obviously the trader has to be careful. But the common assumption of cheating comes about for a really interesting reason.

It’s because many times an African trader will need a Chinese manufacturer. And the Chinese manufacturer might say, for example, this mobile phone costs 600 RMB. And the African trader will say: I want it but I want it for 150 RMB.

And the Chinese manufacturer will not say: no, the lowest price I can possibly give it to you is 550 RMB. That won’t happen. Instead, the Chinese manufacturer will say okay. But he’ll make the phone for 150 RMB and it’s garbage, it hardly works. And then the African trader will say: wait, I’ve been cheated. Not quite. Instead it’s the miscommunication here.

And another stereotype I gotta tell you, this one’s funny – “We believe in God, but the Chinese only believe in gold.”

And there’s a grain of truth to that. Many Chinese are not religious. Many Muslims are offended when, after a deal, the Chinese want to have a glass of liquor and smoke a cigarette. But that’s a cultural difference that has to be somehow dealt with.

The book also addresses the potential birth of a multicultural China. When do you think this is going to happen? 

By the end of the book, I’m a little pessimistic about China becoming multicultural soon. And that’s because in the course of my research, the Chinese police were getting really strict. There was another Nigerian neighbourhood that was basically decimated or destroyed by Chinese police hunting for overstayers and asking people for IDs five or six times a day. So it’s become a somewhat different place than when I did this research.

Guangzhou. Photo: Wikicommons

When I began the research I thought that China might indeed be becoming multicultural, particularly because of mixed marriages in Guangzhou – I still think it’s going to happen, but it’s not going to happen in ten years, it might happen in a hundred years. In other words, bit by bit, I think all cities in the world will become multicultural but in China it’s not going to happen anytime soon, because of Chinese police presence, which is important in restricting overstayers, but even more because of Chinese Han nationalism.

Now, something more particular is also going on. Both China and Africa want to be the middlemen. And these Africans going to Guangzhou are trying to be the middleman – in other words, they’re trying to buy these Chinese goods, carry them back to Africa and make the profits for themselves, but I think that many Chinese companies would rather be the middlemen themselves.

I think that’s the direction that China would prefer to go. And that makes economic sense, but it does mean that China multiculturalism would be a bit more tentative than I had thought at the beginning of my research.

Does that mean it will make life harder for the Africans who do want to make China their home? 

Yes, I think it’s much harder, and one of the saddest interviews I conducted was with a man from Central Africa who had been in China for many years and spoke fluent Mandarin. He felt Chinese, but he just looked at me and said: “You know, when Chinese refer to me as a foreign friend, they emphasise the foreign and not the friend.”

I don’t mean to criticise China too much here, because any developed country does have to worry about preserving its borders. So it could be any country in the world, including Hong Kong, that would restrict those who are living in the country illegally. It’s not that China is behaving totally unreasonably here, it’s just that this is the direction that’s being gone in. That’s what’s happening, that’s all.

The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace is available from Hong Kong University Press

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.