I have entered that phase enjoyed by every grad student where there is suddenly a light at the end of the tunnel. Albeit quite dim, I am beginning to see the end to my dissertation writing. Thank goodness! To be fair, I'm greatly enjoying this project of thesis writing, as it's allowed me to immerse myself into the cultural and entrepreneurial practices of the overseas Chinese, and come to a greater understanding of issues of migration, identity, and small-scale entrepreneurism, among many others.
The chapter I'm currently working on is the framing chapter, attempting to situate Chinese migration to Africa in comparative perspective. It should come as no surprise that the Chinese are a widely dispersed group, with Chinatowns and ethnic enclaves all over the globe. This reality makes writing both easy and incredibly difficult. Writer's block aside, I am coming to grasp the pervasiveness of Chinese migrant communities. Even where no Chinatowns analogous to those in San Francisco or NYC exist, the Chinese presence cannot - and has not - been ignored.
Such is the case in Paris, where the first French-Chinese man is running for mayor of Paris' 13th district. About 20% of residents in the 13th arrondissement are of Asian origin, representing some 30, 000 people. Nationwide, there are an estimated half-million people of Asian decent. Paris' Chinatown is the biggest in all of Europe.
The 37 year-old Wu is seemingly running on a platform of "let the Asians be seen," calling in part for the building of Chinese gates similar to those that adorn Chinatown in San Francisco, such that "a visitor should know he is in Chinatown." Charming though this concern may be, my hunch is that delimiting Chinatown for Parisian tourists is about as far down the list of concerns as one can get. In a country of increasing multiculturalism the primary concern is with the persistence of the Asian identity and the maintenance of closely formed networked communities.
While fancy gates and overt signs of "Chineseness" aren't particularly necessary to accomplish such ends, they surely never hurt. Like many immigrant communities, the Chinese carry with them a strong sense of identity. Many continue to reside among their own people, with only minimal contact with the host society. They partake in cultural associations - recreational, political and/or cultural - which are often linked to organizations in Mainland China, and maintain close ties with family and friends in China. Such activities are typical of many overseas migrants, but are particularly unique among the Chinese in that they persist beyond the initial stages of migration.
In the Bay Area in California, for instance, many signs over banks, restaurants and other public services are now in Mandarin and English - this, in areas outside of San Francisco's Chinatown. The Chinese initially arrived in California in the 1850s and have held on to their identity since. Similar patterns can be observed across much of North America and Europe. France is the latest case in point.
Why do I bring this up? While it's far too early to speak of such developments in the African context, the Parisian case suggests that the Chinese presence in Africa may in the long-term alter the continent's identity and politics. The establishment of China City in Joburg, South Africa, is perhaps the first step en route to this reality. I am not here laying any normative claims on such developments, but am merely bringing them to the attention of those to whom this is of interest. The possibility of 'Chinatown, Africa' is yet another among many considerations in the puzzle that is China-in-Africa.