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The World in Guangzhou

Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace

The World in Guangzhou

Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace

Only decades ago, the population of Guangzhou was almost wholly Chinese. Today, it is a truly global city, a place where people from around the world go to make new lives, find themselves, or further their careers. A large number of these migrants are small-scale traders from Africa who deal in Chinese goods—often knockoffs or copies of high-end branded items—to send back to their home countries. In The World in Guangzhou, Gordon Mathews explores the question of how the city became a center of “low-end globalization” and shows what we can learn from that experience about similar transformations elsewhere in the world.
Through detailed ethnographic portraits, Mathews reveals a world of globalization based on informality, reputation, and trust rather than on formal contracts. How, he asks, can such informal relationships emerge between two groups—Chinese and sub-Saharan Africans—that don't share a common language, culture, or religion? And what happens when Africans move beyond their status as temporary residents and begin to put down roots and establish families?
Full of unforgettable characters, The World in Guangzhou presents a compelling account of globalization at ground level and offers a look into the future of urban life as transnational connections continue to remake cities around the world. 

Read chapter one.

256 pages | 21 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2017

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Asian Studies: East Asia

Sociology: Race, Ethnic, and Minority Relations


"[A] pioneering and landmark study. . . . Based on extensive field-work in China and Africa, the book is characterized by a perfect combination of classical ethnographic structure and relaxed jargon-free presentation. It contributes a model of urban ethnography to professional anthropologists and lays the groundwork for laypersons concerned about the prospect of globalization in the post-Coronavirus age."

Journal of Chinese Overseas

“Compelling stories of corruption and cutthroat competition at the heart of low end globalization in Guangzhou make this the perfect sequel to Mathews’ Ghetto at the Center of the World. The World in Guangzhou is filled with riveting and disturbing tales of racial others, migrants’ dreams of getting rich, and relationships between foreigners—mostly African traders and entrepreneurs—and local Chinese.”

Nicole Constable, University of Pittsburgh

“I continue to be impressed by Mathews’s combination of a long, skillful buildup of local knowledge with a great sense of how to communicate with a wide readership. To understand Guangzhou and the human face of low-end globalization is to understand a lot about today’s world.”

Ulf Hannerz, author of Writing Future Worlds: An Anthropologist Explores Global Scenarios

"...a fascinating portrait of the daily functioning of low-end globalization during the early decades of this century."

"Gordon Mathews’ study of Guangzhou, the most important urban center in the probably fastest-growing manufacturing area of the world, addresses the arrival of foreigners to traditionally ethnically homogenous China...Mathews’s peculation about a Chinese Obama who may become the product of this new migration regime illustrates the tensions that play out in today’s world as racial discrimination but also as profit for middlemen bridging the different cultures."

New Global Studies

Table of Contents


1 Introduction
What This Book Is About
Impressions of Guangzhou
A Brief History of Foreigners in Guangzhou
Foreign Places in Guangzhou
How This Book’s Research Was Done

2 Foreigners in Guangzhou
“The Chinese Dream”: Stories of Eight Foreigners
Rich Foreigner, Poor Foreigner
Race and Money
Foreign Communities: Japanese and Nigerians
The Power of Rumor
Foreigners’ Attitudes toward China and Chinese

3 African-Chinese Relations
African Traders in Guangzhou: An Overview
Business Deception and Cheating
Quarrels between Africans and Chinese
Chinese Views of Africans
African Views of Chinese

4 Low-End Globalization
Low-End Globalization/High-End Globalization
How Low-End Globalization Works: Sourcing, Money, Copies, and Customs
Accounts of Low-End Globalization
Low-End Globalization’s Circuits

5 Legal-Illegal in Guangzhou
Two Paths, Legal and Illegal
Visa and Passport Worries, Jail and Deportation
Accounts of Overstayers and Friends

6 Logistics Agents, Middlemen, and Cultural Brokers
Logistics Agents
Cultural Brokers
Accounts of Logistics Agents, Middlemen, and Cultural Brokers

7 Religion in a Foreign World
“I Believe in God but Chinese Believe in Gold”
Islam in Comparison to Christianity
Christian Churches
Accounts of Religious Seekers
Religion: Implications

8 Romance, Love, Marriage, and Families: A Chinese Barack Obama?
“African Chinese”
The Travails of Chinese-African Romantic Relationships
Accounts of Marriages
Conclusion: The Larger Significance of Africans in China



Society for the Anthropology of Work: Anthropology of Work Book Prize
Honorable Mention

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