I want to use this blog to think through an article that I’m planning to write soon. It’s based on my fieldwork in a town within Fuqing City in China. While in South Africa, a common impression that researchers (particularly, non-Chinese, including myself) seem to have is that the Chinese small shop owners are from impoverished backgrounds or that they’re peasants from rural areas. In a way, the latter is true because (either during or after the Cultural Revolution) every family was given a small plot of land (十亩 or ten acres, I think, is the amount of land) to farm. However, the latter impression is also inaccurate. As one mother of a Chinese shop owner in South Africa had told me, it’s not enough land to farm. After seeing the plots of land in their hometown, I think she meant that it’s not enough for the families to grow things to sell at the market and make profit. The plot looks sufficient for a family’s own sustenance. That is, they can’t get rich off of the land that they were given. I also learned that some families had sold off their plots of farmland or had built houses over them. Depending on when the houses were built, they could be three to five stories high.
These houses have become a symbol of “success” for those who have been overseas or have relatives overseas. The houses have become taller over the years, as families compete with and try to impress one another. Whether one likes it or not, the issue of “saving face” forces everyone to build one of these houses in their hometowns even though many of them won’t ever live in those houses or even return to the hometown. Moreover, they build these houses even though its usually only the elderly parents who would live in them. They usually only occupy the first and, sometimes, second floor of the house – indeed, the rest of the house could remain unfinished and unfurnished. Nonetheless, family members go overseas to earn money to build one of these houses – just so that they could be like their neighbors or other relatives. And, those who are already overseas feel pressured to save money to build one of these houses (one day). In recent years, those who have earned money while overseas not only build one of these five-story houses in the hometown, but also buy an apartment or condo in nearby cities (e.g., Fuqing or Fuzhou).
To further contribute to demystifying the view that the majority of the Chinese small shop owners in South Africa are impoverished peasants, I’d like to draw attention to the fact that since 2005 the town that most of them are from in China has been incorporated as an economic and technological development zone. Its port is an international container terminal and has a number of industrial parks that are homes to a number of industries, including chemical production and processing that have stunk up that part of the town. The locals who I spoke with did not seem to appreciate how their beaches have been encroached upon. They spoke of the good old times when they could bring their girlfriends to the beach for dates in the evenings. They further shared that the jobs in the economic zone pay low salaries, so they prefer to be their own bosses. From observation and informal conversations, those who work in the development zone are likely from other towns, cities, or provinces. Also, the available jobs seem to require a certain education level that the local people don’t have. In fact, the ones I spoke with did not see the point of education, especially because most of them plan to go overseas to join parents or other relatives to help with family businesses. While they wait for the appropriate time to go abroad, some have small shops that they are already managing. Those without plans to go overseas are well connected politically and economically. They or their families are in the coal, construction, or supermarket business (those in the coal business have made their wealth in another province).
To be frank, while in South Africa, it’s difficult to fully understand what my Chinese research participants meant when they said that life’s hard in China or that there’s no economic opportunities. In the South African context, because I’ve lived in Soweto, I have my ideas of what economic hardship means: people don’t have jobs and live hand-to-mouth on someone’s pension or one person’s salary. But, once I visited the hometowns of my Chinese research participants, their claims about themselves took on different meanings. It’s not that they’re economically impoverished in the same way that Black South Africans are. That is, the Chinese are not “economic migrants” in the sense that they’re trying to escape poverty by smuggling themselves overseas to get any job they could land on. Actually, the smuggling fee is not cheap and continues to rise. In my view, they are another kind of “economic migrant.” The Chinese small shop owners that we see in South Africa are driven by competition, to be better than or outdo the person next to them (攀比 is the Chinese term that I learned from the locals). A wage won’t put them ahead of others: they wouldn’t be able to build a house or even get married (in 2014, I believe that I was told that the amount of money a man had to pay to be engaged with a local woman was at least 100,000RMB or about 15,000USD).
No doubt, there is also a tradition to go overseas that guides many of their aspirations to go abroad. Non-Chinese researchers familiar with overseas Chinese history are exposed to the Chinese from more coastal-oriented cities, but we don’t know much about those who are a bit more inland (regarded as rural). Apparently, those in the Fuqing area have been going overseas for some time. I was told that as late as the 1980s, many went to Japan as international students, but took up jobs and overstayed their visas to work. These were the ones who started to build the three-story houses that are being replicated across Fuqing (but on a higher scale). Others have been to Eastern European countries, where (I was told) they learned about opportunities in South Africa.
One of the biggest impression I walked away with from my visit to their hometowns in China: unlike going to the US or European countries, where they could work very hard as illegal migrants for wages that are higher than in China, South Africa presents the opportunity to become their own bosses. The startup cost, I’ve been told is relatively low (compared to other developing countries like Argentina). It is also easier to convert their illegal immigration status in South Africa to a legal one (a few have chosen to become citizens after entering the country illegally).