Johanna von Pezold uses insights from her fieldwork in Mozambique to explore China–Africa relations through the lens of fashion.

The foray of Chinese companies and institutions into African countries is often met with suspicion yet great curiosity abroad. Many scholars and policymakers in different areas of the world see the growing Chinese engagement in Africa as an indicator of expanding Chinese foreign-policy ambitions in general. Especially the contested Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global development strategy the Chinese government introduced in 2013, which is currently all the rage in China–Africa research. Initially promoted as a revival of ancient trade routes, the ambitious initiative now includes dozens of countries as far away as Chile, Nigeria, and New Zealand. In the last years, a frenzy of BRI-related, highly visible Chinese infrastructure and construction projects on the African continent has raised concerns about the influence of China on African governments and societies in particular. However, there is one aspect of it that both researchers and the media often neglect: apart from humans, money, goods and ideas, there is also fashion and style travelling back and forth along the BRI’s increasingly dense network of trade routes. Looking at the example of the southeast African country Mozambique, which is now home to around 40,000 Chinese migrants, it becomes clear that there is a growing and mutual bottom-up fashion exchange between China and Africa.

China and Mozambique

The relations between Mozambique and the People’s Republic of China reach back to the 1970s, when China under Mao Zedong supported the former Portuguese colony in its fight for independence. Interrupted by an extremely violent civil war that followed independence, the two countries resumed their relations in the 1990s. Attracted by Mozambique’s vast natural gas resources, deep sea ports and potential for fishery and forestry, China now is the largest foreign investor in the stunning but still underdeveloped country. China also is a key trading partner of Mozambique.

A Chinese restaurant in Maputo

As in many other African countries, the quickly growing level of Chinese engagement manifests itself in the mushrooming of Chinese shops, restaurants, hotels, shopping malls, infrastructure projects and construction sites all over Mozambique. The Chinese Association in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, is thriving and even opened up a Chinese school a few years ago. A Chinese-language degree course offered by the Confucius Institute at leading Eduardo Mondlane University is popular with local students and a new, larger institute is currently under construction. On Sundays, one can meet groups of Chinese engineers, construction workers, shopkeepers, and traders chatting at local seafood restaurants, taking pictures at the beach, strolling around upscale shopping centers, and hanging out in Chinese karaoke bars, games arcades and casinos.

Chinese Fashion in Mozambique

The Chinese presence is equally visible in Mozambican fashion shops and markets. Taibo Bacar and Nivaldo Thierry are two of the very few successful local fashion brands. They, however, only cater to rather wealthy and upper-class consumers in Mozambique and abroad. Thus, second-hand clothes and imports, most of which come from China, but also from South Africa, Europe and Brazil, are now dominating Mozambican fashion. The same applies to other fashion items and beauty products, including underwear, capulanas (traditional cotton fabrics), shoes, jewelry, hair extensions, hair products, nail polish and whitening creams. These products are not produced in Mozambique, or if they are, they are of a very low quality, whereas their imported Western versions are not affordable for most Mozambicans.

Chinese manufacturers are able to fill this price and quality gap between Western and local or South African products. The good quality–price ratio of Chinese products also has an impact on the ubiquitous Mozambican capulanas, colourful cotton print fabrics which Mozambican women usually wear as wraparound skirts. While Indian producers have long controlled the capulana market, most of the large capulana wholesalers in Maputo’s downtown Baixa area have now switched from Indian to Chinese suppliers, convinced by the low price, strong colours and clear prints of their products.

In Baixa, there now even are several capulana stores owned and run by Chinese, who buy their goods directly from China. Similar developments can be observed in the Mozambican clothing and accessories market in general. For a long time, Chinese fashion came in mainly via third countries such as South Africa, Brazil or Portugal. In the last few years, the number of local direct importers has increased, but they now have to compete with Chinese traders, who often benefit from their Chinese-language skills and their close connections to the producers in China.

Capulanas in a local shop

For some time, many Mozambican consumers have had a rather negative opinion of Chinese products such as electronics and clothing, which are associated with poor workmanship, inferior materials and a short lifespan. With the influx of Chinese beauty and fashion products, however, these perceptions are changing. Mozambicans widely appreciate these products for their good quality, large variety, and innovative designs, which allow their buyers to change their individual hair and dressing style more often without having to spend a lot of money on it.

This leads to an influx of Chinese styles and aesthetics. As there is a steady demand for new patterns and motifs, many capulana wholesalers receive new collections from China weekly or every other week. These capulanas are often not only produced, but also designed in China, which is why they sometimes include novel and distinctly Chinese motifs such as yin-and-yang symbols. Other “typically Chinese” products that can be found on the Mozambican market are little silk-covered boxes and lipstick cases with distinctly Chinese patterns, that are very popular with local customers.

The Appeal of “Exotic” Styles

With the prevalence of rather standardized world fashion, such as sneakers, jeans and t-shirts, both Chinese and Mozambicans increasingly look for novel styles to express themselves and their individual tastes. When shopping for capulana fabrics, for example, Mozambicans pay special attention to the novelty of the pattern designs. Many of them will immediately recognize a capulana that has already been on the market for several weeks or months. These older designs can still be worn at home but are not fashionable enough to be worn at special events such as weddings or Women’s Day.

Ethnic or national dress is often seen as especially suitable to set novel fashion highlights asserting distinctiveness. This trend has also been described as “ethnic chic.” Chinese and Mozambicans are indeed attracted by the exotic appeal of fashion elements that they consider “typical” of the other culture. For a Chinese person, such things as Mozambican capulana fabrics and braided hairstyles might be considered “typical.” Many Chinese who live in Maputo like to wear accessories made from capulana fabrics, such as flip-flops, bags, hats or pieces of jewelry. Some of them even get clothes tailor made for them at local markets.

Mozambicans, on the other hand, are especially drawn to dragon patterns, Chinese characters, and the qipao dress, a style of dress that became popular in 1920s Shanghai. Chinese dragons and characters are popular tattoo designs “because they are different” and “more personal” since not everyone will understand them, a Maputan tattoo studio employee explained. Often deemed the Chinese national dress, the qipao is seen by Mozambicans as the direct counterpart of the capulana. They keenly incorporate elements of it into their own fashion, such as the typical round, stand-up collar, short sleeves, side slits and silk knots. At Mercado Janet in central Maputo, for example, there is a tailor who has put two “Chinese dresses” on display in his little stall. The dresses, made of capulana fabrics, were commissioned by Mozambican customers. Asked whether his Chinese customers sometimes order qipao-style dresses, too, the tailor just laughed: “No, the Chinese want African style clothing only!”

How to Integrate Foreign Fashion into One’s Own Style?

Looking at the ways in which Chinese and Mozambicans adapt to each other’s fashion tastes in order to achieve a novel, distinct and fashionable individual look, a complete and permanent adoption of the foreign fashion is extremely rare. Instead, there is a set of strategies that both use to adjust the level of adaptation to their personal needs and tastes. This way, they are able to incorporate foreign fashion elements into their own fashion universe in a harmonious and socially acceptable way that fits their culturally determined dress norms. The adaption strategies include subtle changes to form and fabric, combining foreign fashion with world fashion or home culture fashion, and adjusting the length of garments.

Maputo street scene

The prevalence of tailors, most of whom come from West African countries that have a longer tradition of tailor-made clothing, combined with the omnipresence of the capulana in Mozambique, greatly facilitate individual grades of adaptation in form. Due to their large variety and stylistic flexibility, capulana fabrics can not only be fashioned into Chinese forms without great effort, but also make it easier for Chinese to integrate Mozambican patterns and motifs into their wardrobes. Therefore, customers can choose the patterns, colors and designs they like and thereby achieve a level of adaptation they are pleased with. For example, an administration secretary from eastern China, who has been living in Maputo for two years and likes to wear capulana dresses, explained that to be able to wear the dresses at work, she usually picks knee-covering designs and fabrics which are “not too African,” implying rather muted colours and neither too crude nor too figurative patterns.

Social dress norms have a big influence on the manner and degree to which Chinese and Mozambicans adapt to foreign fashion. When choosing their outfits, both Chinese and Mozambicans face unofficial local dress rules they eventually must comply with to avoid strange looks from their peers. Mozambican women especially pay a lot of attention to “decent clothes.” They might wear Chinese-style dresses to go out or to attend class, but would not wear them to church, where wrapped capulana skirts are considered more appropriate. To be a “reputable woman,” they avoid wearing hot pants and sleeveless tops starting around the age of 18, confining themselves to long trousers and skirts that reach down to the knee when in public. As the majority of Chinese second-hand clothes and garments on offer in Chinese shops are available in small sizes only, Mozambicans often get them altered by tailors or get creative in other ways, for example by wearing dresses as tops.

After spending some time in Mozambique, most Chinese become aware of these norms, too. While newly arrived Chinese of all genders usually wear shorts which they purchased in China in preparation for their trip, they soon realize that despite the hot weather, the beach is the only place in Mozambique where it is appropriate to wear short trousers. Hence, they revert to wearing long trousers. Also, Chinese migrants are often surprised to find out that Mozambicans find it perfectly acceptable to wear flip-flops in class or at the office, while they themselves consider flip-flops too sloppy and informal for wearing in public. Convinced by their comfort and convenience, most Chinese nonetheless quickly adapt to this Mozambican habit and start wearing flip-flops, too.

Personal factors such as gender and education greatly influence the adaptation of foreign fashion elements. Well-educated women of both nationalities are more likely to adopt elements of each other’s fashion. So even if there usually are higher moral expectations towards women’s dress, Chinese and Mozambican women show more receptivity towards foreign styles and are more likely to invest time and money to integrate these styles into their wardrobes in comparison to men. Additionally, Chinese and Mozambicans with a higher level of education and cultural awareness tend to have a better-informed opinion of culture and fashion of the other than their less educated peers, which makes them able to not only appreciate but also to adopt foreign styles. A young female Chinese teacher at the local Confucius Institute, for example, got in touch with African styles for the first time at high school. She had African classmates who came to her school as exchange students and offered braid making at the annual school festival. This might be one of the reasons why she is now very open to Mozambican hair and clothing styles, which she described as “very special and pretty.”

Daily-Life Implications of China–Africa Relations

In light of all the high-profile forums, summits, strategies and agreements that shape global geopolitics of today, it is sometimes easy to forget that any developments in international relations can have direct impact on more mundane aspects of daily life, too. Against the backdrop of increasing political and economic cooperation between the two countries, Chinese aesthetics reach Mozambique as a side effect of the influx of Chinese-made fashion products. Due to their variety and good quality–price ratio, these products are now well-received by Mozambicans. Motivated by a wish for self-expression and a novel look that sets them apart from their others, both Chinese and Mozambicans appreciate the exotic appeal of what they consider “typical” of the other culture’s fashion.

Thanks to a range of creative strategies, Chinese and Mozambican consumers are able to incorporate these foreign elements into their own style in a way that does not violate cultural dress norms and fits their personal tastes. By adjusting the individual level of adaptation, people can find a middle ground between what is stylish and novel, yet nonetheless deemed appropriate by society. Moreover, these strategies enable women to overcome the moral requirements imposed on their dress and initiate mutual fashion adaptation in the context of Chinese–Mozambican relations.

The newly renovated Chinese Association building in Maputo

The case of Mozambique shows that China-Africa relations run deeper than just the political or economic level, changing the way Chinese migrants and Africans dress. Current research is still only scratching on the surface of what the growing Chinese engagement in Africa means for the daily life of the people involved in these interactions. Apart from fashion, Chinese–African exchanges in the areas of food, movies, music, hygiene and beauty practices, internet culture, home decoration and language could also be worth looking into.

Johanna von Pezold is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Hong Kong, where she is researching Chinese-made fashion products in Mozambique. Holding a master’s degree in Contemporary Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford, Johanna has also studied Chinese and Economics in Hamburg, Rio de Janeiro, and Beijing. She is especially interested in transnational flows of non-Western fashion and material culture, interactions between global commodity production and local consumer cultures, and China’s relations to the Portuguese-speaking world.

You can reach Johanna via jvpezold@hku.hk. If you would like to learn more about Chinese-Mozambican fashion exchanges, please have a look at https://www.usfca.edu/center-asia-pacific/perspectives/v16n1/von-pezold.

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