Nellie Chu, CETREN Postdoctoral Fellow
The contemporary post-Cold War period has witnessed the intensification of China’s participation in the global capitalist economy. China’s rise to economic prominence has sparked scholarly debates on the history and future of transnational capitalism. Specifically, diverse groups of scholars in sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, and geography have begun to address China’s roles in bridging the post-colonial and post-socialist worlds through financial investments, as well as migration and trading strategies initiated by the Chinese people across the global south. Their insights into these south-south linkages have challenged conceptualizations of culture and nation-states as bounded and discrete entities. They emphasize the connections of people and objects across geographically distant places.
My research draws from these analytic inquiries in order to explore the transformations of post-socialist factory spaces, relations of labor, and entrepreneurial identities in China as the nation increasingly draws links along the transnational chains of commodity production and exchange. Specifically, my CETREN-funded project is a comparative study on how Senegalese, Nigerian, and Korean non-elite migrant entrepreneurs who live and work in Guangzhou serve as the intermediary links through which the global commodity chains for fast fashion articulate with China’s post-socialist transformations of urban spaces and social relations of labor. Their business activities in Guangzhou deserve scholarly attention, because they have redefined the terms of trade between China and the post-colonial world. They are also increasingly determining the speed, routes, and means through which people and commodities move across national boundaries. For example, shortly before the opening of China’s markets to foreign investment in the late 1970s, traders from across Africa, East Asia, and the Middle East relied on British colonial ties with Chinese and Indian contractors and outsourced suppliers in Hong Kong in order to obtain China-made household goods, embroidered fabrics, and electronics that were made available at the historic Canton Fair.
Today, transnational migrant entrepreneurs from the global south have replaced these market intermediaries in Hong Kong by establishing direct relations with manufacturers on the Mainland and producing dynamic relations through cross-cultural market exchange. Many diasporic groups learn Mandarin Chinese, settle in Guangzhou, and establish familial ties there so as to bridge trans-regional networks of commodity trading. I argue that this cross-ethnic and historically specific convergence of diasporic commodity networks in Guangzhou produce trade relations among transnational migrants, which enable them to redefine for themselves the neoliberal ideals of freedom, risk, and entrepreneurship. In sum, this study asks: how have their direct encounters with China’s post-socialist city spaces and labor relations transformed their ideas of transnational entrepreneurship, which are increasingly defined by unequal relations of global commodity production and exchange? What kinds of cross-cultural collaborations or contestations have these transnational migrant entrepreneurs from the post-socialist and post-colonial worlds engendered?
My project is based on my dissertation research, which analyzes the fast fashion sector in Guangzhou. This industry that serves as an exemplary case study into how global commodity chains link and de-link various production and consumption networks across the globe. A study of fast fashion sheds light on precisely what it purports to deliver: that is, the constant and speedy supply of fashion objects and the rapid influx of new styles. The industry’s quick responses to consumers’ ever-changing demands have been mediated by multinational corporations which outsource manufacturing capacities and low-wage labor to countries across the Pacific Ocean, including China. Foreign direct investments and demands for low-cost labor have facilitated the mushrooming of small-scale enterprises throughout the coastal areas of China.
During my research, I have learned that the majority of these various participants are undocumented migrants from China’s lower-tiered cities and the countryside who operate alongside these corporate players. Across the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region of southeastern Guangdong, in particular, millions of migrants who have flooded Shenzhen and the surrounding Special Economic Zones (SEZ) during the initial years of economic reform have become small-scale entrepreneurs in their own right. With modest amounts of starting capital, they have gathered the technical skills and business acumen of “just in time” garment manufacturing processes from their bosses, many of whom are based in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Through their participation in the transnational links of fast fashion manufacture and exchange, migrant wage workers and entrepreneurs in Guangzhou have begun to forge ties with traders from Korea, Senegal, Nigeria, Russia, and Dubai. Collectively, the traders’ experiments in fast fashion exchange link and produce novel relations of trade. These practices predominantly entail the rapid turnover of cash-based, low volume, and small-scale production of designer-inspired fashions. The “just in time” delivery of fashion commodities, in many ways, mirror what observers describe as processes of flexible accumulation, or the speedy mobilizations of labor, land, and natural resources, for consumption and profit-making. These manufacturing processes, in turn, shape China’s post-socialist transformations in property ownership, commodity exchange, rural-urban relations, and experiences of factory labor.
In light of these developments, my research seeks to advance CETREN’s key inquiries under the broader theme, “The Politics of the New.” It does so by tracing the emergent figure of the transnational migrant entrepreneur within the context of fast fashion in China, a sector that relies on the constant turnover of new styles and fashion objects. By drawing on anthropological theories of temporality, commodity aesthetics, race, and place-making, I examine how transnational migrants situate their racial, gender, and class identifications within the city spaces of Guangzhou through their engagements with the consumer-driven linkages of fast fashion exchange. Specifically, I highlight the mutual construction of their temporal and spatial orientations, as well as their racial identifications in shaping how members of Guangzhou’s diasporic groups negotiate their cosmopolitan aspirations and senses of cultural belonging with their displacement or their feelings of being out of place.
Nellie Chu is a post-doctoral researcher in CETREN’s pilot program, “Entrepreneurial Citizenship.” As a cultural anthropologist from the University of California, Santa Cruz (2014), Nellie explores the intersection between culture and the economy within post-socialist contexts. Drawing from the subfields of economic anthropology and feminist anthropology, she examines how transnational commodity chains are created and linked through post-socialist transformations of city spaces, gendered labor, and worker identities. By pushing against theories of globalization and neoliberal governmentality that tend to homogenize market practices, her work emphasizes the diversity of people’s placed-based engagements with commodity production and exchange.
Her current book project, Anchors of Desire: The Crafting of Transnational Entrepreneurship in Southern China, draws from ethnographic research she conducted in Guangzhou from 2010-2012. There, she traced the emergence of migrant entrepreneurs within Guangzhou’s fast fashion sector as a case study into how Chinese citizens from the nation’s vast countryside attempted to become urbanized, desiring subjects through their experiments in fast fashion manufacture and trade. More broadly, her research analyzed the spatial and temporal dimensions of “the factory” within home-based workshops. There, workers’ experiences of labor refigured the politics of work that once served as sources of collective belonging. In the contemporary period, temporary factory workers saw their wage labor as intermediary stepping stones to becoming enterprising, self-employed agents.
Nellie’s new research project at CETREN investigates the role of transnational migrant entrepreneurs in linking the commodity chains of fast fashion in Guangzhou. She plans to trace the family and business relations of Korean, Nigerian, and Sengalese diasporic groups whose members live and work in Guangzhou. She examines how transnational migrants’ direct encounters with China’s post-socialist city spaces and labor relations transform their ideas of transnational entrepreneurship, which are increasingly defined by unequal relations of global commodity production and exchange. By observing these encounters, she analyzes the cross-cultural collaborations and contestations that these transnational migrant entrepreneurs from the post-socialist and post-colonial worlds have engendered.