Emily Chow reviews Gordon Mathews’s ethnographic portrait of the lives of sub-Saharan Africans in Guangzhou.

Gordon Mathews with Linessa Da Lin and Yang Yang, The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace (University of Chicago Press, 2017), 256pp.

The World in Guangzhou is not the first book that Gordon Mathews has published on African communities in Asia. His previous research was published under the title, Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong (2011). The book was widely read among the general public in Hong Kong and was translated into Chinese in 2014. Since then, Mathews has been celebrated as one of the leading critics on African communities in Hong Kong.

Being a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Mathews specialises in studying (global) culture(s) and identity. What he offers in The World in Guangzhou are findings of research that concentrates on the rising population of “foreigners” in Guangzhou and the lives that they lead in the city. As he makes clear at the beginning of his book,

I explored the lives and trade of African entrepreneurs in Guangzhou. In 2013-2014, I stayed in Guangzhou’s Xiaobei area, the working center and leisure haunt of much of its African and Arab population. I considered these entrepreneurs through the lens of “low-end globalisation” – not the globalisation of multi-national corporations with all their lawyers and advertising budgets, but of traders sending relatively small amounts of goods under the radar of the law, bribing customs agents of different continents, and getting these goods back home to stalls and street vendors. (2)

Divided into eight chapters, Mathews starts by highlighting the basic background for his research and the methodology which his project employs. From this, a portrayal of the cross-cultural landscapes of non-local groups in Guangzhou emerges. As the book develops, Mathews beings to focus more on the intersections of African entrepreneurs and Chinese traders. Rather than outlining a macroscopic overview of economic activities among them, Mathews prefers to show the detailed daily interactions that characterize the relationships between these traders – relationships just as much of conflict as they are cooperation. Take for example the financial turmoil related by Issac, one of Mathews’s Nigerian discussants,

Issac we met through the Nigerian church we attended. He too is in his thirties, and he too came to China to look for his fortune. But even more than for Edwin or for Ben, for Issac, God is the being around whom his life revolves. We interviewed him several times in 2013-2014 when the police raids were at their height: “My shop has been closed for four months now. For fourth months I haven’t paid my rent. The management called me and told me that I shouldn’t come there and get hurt, since so many police are around. They said they’d open my shop and pack my stuff, and keep it in their warehouse. I’ll go there, pay them, and get my stuff when I can. I’ll have to pay all the back rent. They might take some of my goods and then deny it. I was paying 3,000 RMB rent per month. My stock is worth 40,000 RMB.” (133)

Of course, Issac is not the only one to encounter such problems with officialdom. Many others share similar experiences with Mathews, but it is precisely this kind of detailed record of conversations and interviews that allows Mathews to paint an intimate picture of the everyday life and struggles of these traders in Guangzhou.

The second half of the book continues to portray the various struggles of African and Arab entrepreneurs in the city – not only financial struggles, but also those in the realms of the legal and the religious. The last chapter, “Romance, Love, Marriage, and Families: A Chinese Barack Obama?,” is perhaps the most intriguing one. Looking into the lives of traders who have married Chinese women and settled in China, Mathews shows readers the joy as well as the challenges faced by these couples. Denise, a young Chinese woman with a Nigerian husband, unfolds the bittersweet lives of those women similar to her:

Billy, my husband, and I have a sixteen-month-old son. I’m going back to my hometown in China with my son during Chinese New Year, and Billy’s going back to Nigeria. We’re legally married, and he has proper visa status in China – he’s going back to Nigeria to apply for another visa […] Most couples in Guangyuanxi aren’t legally married and don’t have the marriage certificate; we’re lucky. (210)

Although Mathews starts the book by saying that he looks at how “low-end globalisation” is facilitated in Guangzhou, what he does is actually much more than that. Instead of focusing on the financial exchanges between African, Arab, and Chinese traders, Mathews colours one’s understanding of the mutual impacts that each community has on the other – socially, legally, politically, culturally, and religiously. Nevertheless, as he did with his studies on Chungking Mansions, Mathews concludes with the projection that this community in Guangzhou may soon disappear: “it may be that Guangzhou’s African population will not last long. Chinese middleman in Guangzhou seek to supplant Africans” (216). To this end, Mathews’s work extends a distinct cautionary note.

Similar to Ghetto at the Center of the World, The World in Guangzhou is anthropological research that is presented in a highly readable way. However, it is also because of this specific writing style that the book at some points becomes confusing – should one regard it as a piece of academic writing or a text that is meant to be read by a wider public? One genre will forgive Mathews constant subjective musings on his conversations while the other will not. That said, Mathews has made clear on several occasions that he considers himself to be an anthropologist who is specifically interested in writing for a wider audience than that found in the academy. It is this that produces his unique writing style, a writing style that wagers that the future for much research in the humanities might eventually have to be geared for reception in the wider community rather than the halls of academia. Regardless, The World in Guangzhou is of fundamental importance to our developing understanding of the transnational character of the African and Arab communities in China.

Emily Chow holds a PhD in English (Literary Studies) from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She has published journal articles and book chapters on Anglophone African literature and taught courses in postcolonial literature, African Nobel laureates in literature, and representations of blackness in Asia. Her research interests include postcolonial literature, literary theory, and philosophy and literature. She is now working on a project that looks into the representations of blackness in media in Hong Kong and China.

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