Africans in Guangzhou : a cultural analysis of transnationality amongst Africans on the move

Student thesis: PhD Thesis (Lingnan)


Over the last three decades, the shifts brought about by the ‘rise of China’ as a key player in global capitalism have had implications in a myriad of places, practices and imaginations. One such implication can be seen in the decade long presence of an African population in the southern city of Guangzhou.

In this dissertation, I look into the dynamics informing this presence by focusing on transnational connections, relations and practices. I take up the call (coming from different fields in the Humanities and Social Sciences) for an analysis of transnationality grounded in the everyday experiences of individuals ‘on the move’ (physically and metaphorically). Accordingly, in this dissertation I provide an extensive ethnographic analysis, accompanied by theoretical formulations, to explain how is African presence in Guangzhou (re)produced and what are the possibilities for the future.

Throughout these pages, I contend that transnationality entails much more than mere ‘movement’ across borders, and, as such, can be analysed from multiple perspectives. So, while I pay attention to issues of border crossing, connections beyond the reach of the state, and the reproduction of livelihoods from multiple locations, I also explore how is the transnational embodied in people and things (in emotions and aspirations, as well as in materialities), and embedded in placemaking processes. Hence, drawing from my fieldwork, I identify several ‘discursive sites of the transnational’ (i.e. neighbourhoods, things and practices, organisations, and aspirations, amongst others) from where, without necessarily undertaking international travel, one could critically observe and analyse how the complex material, political, affective and emotional geographies of transnationality unfold and expand. In this dissertation I present, thus, a ‘local’ multi-scalar approach to transnationality in the case study of Africans in Guangzhou.

The dissertation is divided into five chapters. In the first chapter, I present a historical overview of Guangzhou, focusing on the spatial conditions that facilitated the arrival (and continued presence) of foreigners in the city. I place an emphasis on highlighting how Africans articulate with China’s transprovincial migrants (and other populations) at the local level, and I problematise extant conceptualisations about the sociospatial formations emerging in the city. In Chapter 2, I explore how certain material formations have emerged after the arrival of foreigners to the city. I provide an ethnographic account of how multiple multiethnic interactions are mediated through certain objects and practices (that I construe as repositories, or sites, of the transnational). In Chapter 3, through the analysis of grassroots forms of organisation amongst Africans in the city, I discuss issues of placemaking and mobility and offer an insight into the complex relations between transnational movement, emplacement, identity, ‘homing’ and citizenship. In Chapter 4, I focus on the hopes, desires, and possibilities, what I call the ‘landscapes of aspiration’, amongst African musicians in the city. I argue that aspirations are crucial drives that not only move and motivate people but that help individuals to navigate through, and make sense of, their transnational journeys. Finally, Chapter 5 presents a theoretical discussion that advocates for a re-conceptualisation of the ‘transnational’ (and transnational mobilities) away from methodological nationalism. I argue that methodological nationalism is a burden that thwarts understandings of the multiple dimensions of contemporary forms of human movement.
Date of Award2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Lingnan University
SupervisorJohn ERNI (Supervisor) & Ching YAU (Co-supervisor)

Cite this