Guangzhou Trading

Mar 9 2018
Written by NYU Shanghai

On Thursday, award-winning anthropologist Gordon Mathews introduced an NYU Shanghai audience to the challenges of ethnic integration for foreign traders, mostly Africans and Arabs, in South China’s Guangzhou, which he coined as a growing center of “low-end globalization.”

Mathews, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, talked about his co-authored research, The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace, for the University’s first Young Scholars Colloquium on Asia and the World on March 8-9.

Combining anthropological research and storytelling, he elaborated on how globalization has taken the form of informal, semi-legal, and often small-scale tradings of knock-off and copied goods in Guangzhou, between Chinese and sub-Saharan Africans who lack a common language, culture, or religion.

“When the economic history of the early 21st century is written, China’s major contribution will be seen, as I predict, as enabling the developing world to experience globalization because of its cheap goods,” Mathews said.

As China increases its economic activities overseas and moves up in the global value chain, Mathews believes these foreign traders in Guangzhou may not last. However, having investigated interactions beyond economic activities, from marital to spiritual, he would not deny the possibility of China having its own Barack Obama some day.

“Over the very long term, China will indeed be linked to the world as a whole, and that will mean an ongoing diminishment of ‘race’ in all its implications,” he said.

Rising Young Scholars

Organized by the Center for Global Asia and the Global Perspectives on Society Teaching Fellows Program, the two-day colloquium presented 13 postdoctoral research projects in five panels covering multiple aspects of the evolving relations between Asia and the world. Many represent the most dynamic directions in the fields of anthropology, art history, history, literature, and film studies.

Duane Corpis, Associate Professor of History and Co-Director of GPS, said the research presented at the colloquium underlined the vital role that NYU Shanghai plays in generating new perspectives on re-thinking Asia as a geographic region and as a conceptual category for understanding global cultural, economic, and political relations.

“Some common themes emerge across their research: migrations and boundary crossings, intercultural contact and cross-cultural communication, trade and commerce, the environment, the nation state and identity formation. Even the nation can no longer be seen as a bounded container, but stands in complex trans-, supra- and international relationships to cities, regions, markets, institutions, and other nations,” he said.

Xiao Kunbing, postdoctoral fellow of CGA, presented her study about the Pu’er tea trade and the interactions of ethnic groups at Xishuangbanna in Yunnan during a particular period of the Qing Dynasty (1662-1796). She argued that the boom of the tea trade was driven by Han immigrants and Hui (ethnic Muslim) merchants, strategic interactions among imperial government administrators, local ruling people known as Tai-Lue, native hill peoples and Han immigrants.  

“Through my research, I want to critically look into James Scott’s study of Zomia, a term proposed by Dutch scholar Willem van Schendel to refer to the huge mass of mainland Southeast Asia that has historically been beyond the control of governments based in the population centers of the lowlands. In short, the more mild economic effect in shaping Zomia region have been underestimated by Scott,” Xiao said.



Joining the panel on Friday afternoon, Rebecca Ehrenwirth, a GPS fellow from Germany, challenged the inaccurate prevalence of diaspora in labeling groups, using her research of sinophone writers in Thailand as an example.

“The idea of diaspora may sound like these authors once came to Thailand, that they live in an excluded or isolated group, and that they have the wish to return to the ‘homeland’ one day. But that is not the case for the sinophone writers in Thailand,” she said, referencing literary analysis of short stories and poetry written in Chinese by second or third generation immigrants.

“Many of the literary characters the writers create are reflecting their own floating identity between Thai and Chinese culture, and even though they maintain close connections with Chinese literature they predominantly feel Thai,” Ehrenwirth said.

Over 70 students, postdoctoral fellows, professors from NYU Shanghai and from other universities in the region, visiting journalists, and members of the Shanghai community attended the colloquium.