Chinese Commercial Landscapes In Southern Africa Cultural Studies Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

My conversant behind the counter jumped from Chinese to English to Afrikaans, a form of cultural fluidity that transcended verbal language, to be reflected in the environment that surrounded me. This conversation, the first of many at the China Town shopping centre in the suburbs of Cape Town, is the vocalized side-effect of the relatively recent influx of Chinese entrepreneurs who have independently arrived to this part of Africa; a relocation that is producing numerous built environments, importing construction techniques, materials, semiotics and architectural principles from China; a visible presence that has also caused controversy.

Although Sino-Southern African rapports can be traced back to the Middle Ages (Filesi, 1972), or, more recently to the 'import', and subsequent expulsion, of Chinese guest mining workers in the early 1900s (Park, 2008), it was not until the last quarter of the 20th Century that the Chinese migration gained momentum. Until two decades ago, the Chinese community in Southern Africa was largely represented by people originating from the Republic of China (ROC), also known as Taiwan [2] ; many of whom established the basis and routes for the migration waves to come later from The People's Republic of China (Huynh et al., 2010; Park, 2010; Thorniley, 2010). It is this more recent wave of relocation, which started post-apartheid coinciding with the establishing of formal diplomatic relations between Pretoria and Beijing, that is the most copious, estimated, in South Africa alone, at 200,000-350,000 people [3] (Huynh et al., 2010:289). Yet, Chinese presence across Southern Africa has often been a contentious issue between ruling and opposition parties, who exaggerate or decrease numbers at their convenience (Sautman and Yan, 2009:733), instrumentalizing these communities to their own (political) goals (as seen in Chatelard, 2012)

The events in Tiananmen in 1989, triggered a discourse in the West condemning China's appalling human rights record (Taylor, 1998:443), causing a diplomatic turn where Beijing sought closer ties to non-Western allies (Tull, 2006:460). This turn of events, together with an economy growing at an unprecedented rate, unleashed an intense diplomacy immediately after 1989 that continues to this day (Taylor, 2004:87). In exchange for their countries' natural resources, African politicians have acquired new public infrastructures 'made in China': from novel parliament buildings to presidential palaces and sport complexes, built environments developed by Chinese companies and financed by Beijing (Alden, 2007:3), a retribution that the World Bank (2008) reports as 'efficient and cheap'. However, several - largely Western - voices have raised concerns over exploitation, new forms of colonialism and disregard for human rights in Sino-African rapports (Park and Huynh, 2010:207, see Clinton in statevideo, 2011). A form of finger-pointing from the West to its new competitor, China, that is perhaps demarcating the beginning of the end of the economic and socio-cultural global hegemony, a role the West has solely occupied until now [4] 5.

This articulation of criticism, however, is also supported by local leaders such as Thabo Mbeki from South Africa (Alden, 2007:124) or Michael Sata from Zambia (Alden, 2007:75; Sautman and Yan, 2009:749; Chatelard, 2012), who frame Chinese presence in Southern Africa as a corrupt community, not hiring locals, offering poor working conditions… 'the list is endless' (Sata in Chatelard, 2012), a sentiment of non-integration also assumed in other parts of the continent such as Senegal (Dittgen, 2010). This expression can be understood as the medical metaphor of bezoars: ingested foreign objects whose fibres are too complex to be digested by the body. According to these critical voices, Chinese presence is a form of 'bezoar', that takes on form as more spatial products, are being delivered by Beijing, Chinese corporations or those classified as people of Chinese origin (Alden, 2007:53), threatening the general welfare of the society where it is; a neo-colonial foreign body that needs to be intervened on and, perhaps, removed. A radically different approach to this transnational exchange would be contextualizing these newly built landscapes as bazaars: places of encounter and mestizaje, where national identities are fluid and challenged, as new encounters are produced.

From Zimbabwe's 'Look East' policy (Alden, 2007:59) to the sprouting of Mandarin language schools in Lusaka (Hoogenbosch, 2012) to the emergence of Chinese Shopping Centres in Windhoek to the ubiquity of Chinese-run corner stores in Cape Town, (Southern) Africa is turning to Beijing. It is the relocation of small retailers Chinese origin, rather than macro-economic arrangements and aid gifts that 'carries the greatest ramifications for Africa's economic development' (Gadzala in Thorniley, 2010). This project examines some of the examples of commercial landscapes that, independently from structures built under the 'Dollar Diplomacy' and responding to a recent wave of migration from the People's Republic, Chinese entrepreneurs are building in Southern Africa, and how Chineseness is articulated and reformulated through these novel spatial products. Are these spaces bazaars or bezoars?

To answer that question, this project addresses these built environments from numerous flanks: I first look at neo-colonial criticisms by examining the role that the 'Dollar Diplomacy' plays in the construction of landscapes, and how ideology can be interwoven in the built fabric, followed by an argument of why such notions cannot be directly transferred to independently-built spatial products. I then explore different approaches to architecture, identifying conceptual frameworks where to situate this research. I explore how these spatial products in a Sino-Southern African context can be conceptualized as 'performative machines' (Preciado, 2010) or Paul Gilroy's (1993) chronotope. I then expose how some rather fulfil a different function, which is that of a mask (Easterling, 2005), the built landscape becoming a proxy for a more abstract relationship. Within these particular configurations, the constructed environment emerges as an axis for identity construction, providing a crucial role to semiotics. The essay concludes exposing the relevance of researching these novel landscapes that continue to expand, and blur in the social and built environments in which they sit.


'As Africans say, it is better to teach a person to fish than to give them a fish, because the chances are likely that they will get their economy going properly. Her Majesty's Government have assisted countries in Africa, teaching them how to fish without necessarily just giving the fish. The Chinese are arriving, giving a lot of fish but they need to teach the business that is required.'

- Archbishop of York, comments during the House of Lords Debate, 'Africa: Chinese Investment' (2007) -

The Archbishop of York is referring to Beijing's 'Dollar Diplomacy', a policy that has morphed urban and rural landscapes throughout the African continent. An approach to international relations that has been largely mediatized (see Taylor, 1997 and 2002; Alden, 2007), that has, however been confused with the efforts of individual entrepreneurs of Chinese origins that are now opening new trade routes and market nodes in and between China and Africa, independently from diplomatic arrangements.

The economic presence and relevance of the Asian country in the region is undisputable. In 2006, Angola became the People's Republic of China's largest foreign supplier of oil (Alden, 2007:8), at the same time, the foundations of Nova Luanda, a new town in the outskirts of the Angolan capital, were being laid by a Chinese construction company, an enterprise financed by Beijing (Alden, 2007:68). African leaders, such as Robert Mugabe, ' [we] have turned East, where the sun rises, and given our back to the West, where it sets' (Mugabe quoted in Mitchell, 2006). The development of these relations is not coincidence, after all both regions share a common history of exploitation by imperialists, external victimization and devastating ideological regimes (Alden, 2007:136). This partnership has also translated spatially, as the emergence of new Sino-African landscapes can attest; the tangible result of a particular targeted policy from Beijing and, to a lesser extent, Taipei (Taylor, 2002).

However, along with official alliances, and coinciding with favourable migration laws, asylum legislation, greater purchasing power and a growing GDP, there are an increasing number of Chinese entrepreneurs who, independently, are setting down in this part of the continent and calling it home (Park, 2010). Globally, there is a tendency to dissect Sino-African rapports along government-to-government macro-economic interactions (Alden, 2007; Marysse and Geenen, 2009; Park and Huynh, 2010), a trend also present in academic discourse (Esteban, 2010; Park, 2010), relegating, ignoring and bypassing the miasma of everyday life. However, there are numerous small and medium entrepreneurial ventures that operate independently from high-profile Chinese multinational schemes (Alden, 2007:13), as well as new individual settlers arriving in thousands to the continent looking for new opportunities (Park, 2010). The Southern African region hosts multitude of Chinese diasporic realities, unevenly distributed groupings that have produced different landscapes: South Africa hosts the largest Chinese community in Africa mostly in Johannesburg and Free State (Huynh et al., 2010:288) particularly the area surrounding Lesotho, an independent kingdom where recent surveys suggest that 5000 of its 7000 resident expats are from The People's Republic (Cobbe, 2012). The spatial products resulting from Sino-African rapports, however, are regularly articulated along two axis: neo-colonialism claims as well as a distinct and theorised architectural shape embedded in a larger body of Chinatown literature, two approaches dissected below.


In the early 20th Century, modernist (European) architects, were given a carte blanche to test innovative construction proposals of public infrastructure in the African colonies (see House of World Cultures, 2008). These experimental landscapes not only allowed testing their social implications on the colonial subjects, but also enforced a form of hegemonic hierarchy that transcended legislation and communal norm, and transferred it to space. Numerous voices in the media (see Tull, 2006 [6] ; Corkin & Naidu, 2008: 115) have claimed that China is becoming Africa's new colonial master, and much like under European colonial rule, Beijing is building at its own image --what Gries defines a 'collective Chinese identity' (2004:19)--, with its own architects and materials (Bräutigam, 1998:49-50), novel landscapes, often welcomed by political leaders who see an opportunity for these to supplant their own former colonial environments (Alden, 2007:23), bulldozing history, destroying memory (Baven, 2006) and rewriting a future with new allegiances. Vocal actors, suspicious of Sino-African relations as a form of covert colonialism, such as Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa, advised that 'the continent should beware of trading traditional Western modes of dominance for a Chinese version' (Alden, 2007:124, paraphrasing Mbeki; also see Clinton in statevideo, 2011). However, as Sautman and Yan's study demonstrates (2009:746), most Africans largely refute this view. Furthermore, Beijing lacks the territorial imperative or the exclusionary trade relations (Alden, 2007:127) that colonial powers had. More optimistic voices claim that China's presence is not another form of colonialism, but rather providing a sense of confidence that Africa cannot obtain from Europe (Shen, 2009:442).

By targeting prestigious and iconic construction, these new landscapes that official sources (i.e. the Chinese government) are building in the region, are what Pierre Bourdieu (1991) would define as a 'symbolic dominance' through architectural language. They might also be conceptualized as 'automonuments': empty symbols available for meaning as 'a billboard is for advertisement' in Rem Koolhaas' words (1994:100). These public projects are the physical manifestations of the so-called 'Dollar Diplomacy' that has characterized Chinese and Taiwanese African policy over the past decades (Taylor, 1998, 2002; Alden, 2007) [7] . The People's Republic offers attractive aid packages and gifts, often in the form of public buildings, with no conditions attached (See Tull, 2006; Alden, 2007; Marysse and Geenen, 2009; and Bräutigam, 2009) except, that is, the sole recognition of Beijing as the only legitimate Chinese government (Tull, 2006:463; Dittgen, 2010:6), in an attempt to isolate Taiwan in the political international sphere (Tull, 2006; Alden, 2007). This diplomatic characteristic, that absolutely contrasts with, for example, British aid, that comes with 'moral imperatives' (Gallagher, 2011:2296), is perfectly illustrated in a quotation delivered by Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng in 1990: 'No country is allowed to impose its will on other countries, seek hegemony in any regions, or pursue power politics to deal with other countries. They are not allowed to interfere in the international affairs of the developing countries, or pursue power politics in the name of "human rights, freedom and democracy"'(Li Peng quoted in Taylor, 1998:451). A position challenged by former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who, during her last visit to Zambia in 2011, warned against new forms of colonialism, bad models of governance and justified the moral imperatives attached to American aid as 'investments in the long run' [8] (Clinton in statevideo, 2011). However, Beijing's non-involvement approach, combined with the fast economic development that China is witnessing at the moment, has dwarfed any economic incentive that Taipei might be able to offer (Alden, 2007:21).

Beijing's 'unconditional' aid has been particularly enticing to 'pariah' governments who, ostracised by the international community at large, have found in China a reliable and generous investor (Alden, 2007). However, China's non-intervention stance is increasingly difficult to sustain (Alden, 2007:91). Beijing is involved in local politics, for example when Zambia's opposition leader, Michael Sata, menaced during his election campaign to switch over to Taipei if he were to win, which caused the fury of Beijing who threatened to withdraw Chinese investment should Sata be elected, breaching the People's Republic's non-interference policy (Alden, 2007:75; Sautman and Yan, 2009:749). Beijing's control in local politics and economic power in many Southern African nations has also translated in softening the critical (i.e. anti-Beijing) voices in the oppositions parties in Namibia and Lesotho, for their relationship with China provides them with economic benefits they cannot afford to rescind [9] (Park cited by Esteban, 2010:235). Furthermore, the numerous arms deals that Chinese companies have with 'pariah' states supporting despotic regimes to remain in power (Alden, 2007:25), can be read as taking a political stance. Unfortunately, Beijing's affairs with 'pariah' governments have often been considered the standard and not the exception for China's African policies (Alden, 2007:125), relationships that, furthermore, are often taken out of context in the Western media [10] .

Beijing, in turn, often reciprocates state recognition with 'quick-impact prestige projects' (Alden, 2007:72), habitually presented as aid gifts or built at a loss for China (Tull, 2006:468), in the hope that they will open the gates for more lucrative business ventures in the continent (Marysse and Geenen, 2009); at the same time as they provide sizeable benefits to the elites (Tull, 2006:466). Paradigms of these processes can be found across Southern Africa, where this form of landscape has become a codified version of high-level diplomacy, a display hiding transnational political and personal interests. Yet, with the construction en-masse of these 'Dollar Diplomacy' spatial products, one cannot help but wonder the long term strategy and sustainability behind such ventures: will these football stadiums be filled, those hospitals and embassies adequately staffed and those social housing projects occupied by those who need it most? (Marysse and Geenen, 2009:289) Only time will tell whether these nations were able to utilize their presents, or whether they got more than what they bargained for.

An example of this contentious form of diplomacy can be seen in South Africa, currently the PRC's largest African partner (Park, 2008), a relationship that, until 1998, did not have diplomatic accountability (Alden, 2007). For South Africa, with a higher GDP than China, Beijing does not propose a development model for emulation (Sautman and Yan, 2009:736), resulting in a complex relationship with China, not unlike most democracies with diversified economies (Alden, 2007:70). Before the first democratic elections in the new South Africa in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC), Nelson Mandela's cash-starved party, ostensibly received a US$5 million donation by the Kuomintang Party - Taiwan -, who probably foresaw the result of the first post-apartheid appointments (Alden, 2007:33). This donation, a prime example of the 'Dollar Diplomacy', Taipei thought secured the continuation of diplomatic relations between Taipei and Pretoria. However, a post-Tiananmen Beijing was keen to establish formal relations with a post-Soweto Pretoria. Beijing and Taipei's interest for establishing or maintaining diplomatic relations with one of Africa's wealthiest nations translated as numerous (promised) billion-dollar investments in the coming years, such as a Taiwanese-funded petrochemical complex in the Eastern Cape or a Chinese-run Dragon City industrial complex, both in impoverished areas of the country (Alden, 2007:33). A torn Mandela tried maintaining relations with both governments (Alden, 2007), and upon Beijing's refusal was obliged to halt diplomatic relations four years after he became South Africa's president (Huynh et al., 2010:289). Nonetheless, the absence of formal diplomatic relations is often bypassed in Sino-African relations, as was the case right after 1994, when Chinese provinces took independent initiatives to establish formal links with their South African counterparts whilst Beijing, Pretoria and Taipei continued their unresolved ménage-à-trois (Alden, 2007:29).

Meanwhile, Lesotho, one of Beijing's most reliable trading partners in the region and the venue for numerous and flourishing Chinese enterprises (although with a history of targeted violence in recent years --see Park and Huynh, 2010:207), received in 2005 a grant for a new parliament building from the People's Republic (SADOCC, 2010), the construction of which was finished recently. The gift was to symbolize the strategic allegiance between Maseru and Beijing and, through architectural language, embeds Sotho themes, such as the hat-shaped parliament chamber, as well as signage in Simplified Chinese throughout the building. Swaziland, on the other hand, remains one of the four African nations [11] to still hold diplomatic relations with the ROC. Consequently, Taipei has built one of the largest diplomatic delegations on the continent in Mbabane, using a particularly obvious traditional Chinese architectural language in a disproportionately large embassy building entrenched between the Swazi Central Bank and the capital's city council. A symbolic location that evokes Ryszard Kapús

inski's account of the destruction of the Moscow Cathedral to make way to the never-built Soviet Palace, a symbolically charged site where the House of God was to be replaced by the House of the Party, recorded in his travelogue Imperium (London, 1994:103-105).

A territorial importance reflected on the works of Doreen Massey(1994) , who sustains that 'social geometry of power and signification' (1994:3) are projected onto space, a domain were the individual's imposed or adopted identities, such as race and gender, are 'deeply implicated in the ways in which we inhabit and experience space' (1994:164). A spatially-determined choreography that strengthens structural power hegemonies, which retain their power through the systematic occupation of the territory (Lefebvre, 1976); power being embedded and represented throughout the built fabric. This argument is central to Deyan Sudjic's thesis, The Edifice Complex (2005), where he exposes how global social hierarchies are transferred to the built realm, actively - and literally - shaping the world we live in. His exploration draws comparatives between dictators and colonial powers, and their quest to reshape and reconstruct the environment they control, thus further legitimizing their social position (Sudjic, 2005). This symbolic representation of power can also be seen in Jelena Prokopljevi

and Roger Miret's analysis of North Korean architecture, directly addressing and feeding into the ruling Juche ideology (2012:101). Prokopljevi

and Miret argue that 'The architectural project aims to create a better future, not unlike ideological discourse. Architecture and ideology find here their main overlap.' (2012:96, translation my own), and how architecture is used as a legitimizing resort to prove that 'the system works' (Prokopljevi

and Miret, 2012: 84). This intersection between power, ideology and the built environment frame the built environment as a 'branding device' (i.e. Pyongyang being a 'display city' for the regime (Prokopljevi

and Miret, 2012: 67)). A framework that can be exported to the Sino-African context: the understanding that architecture encapsulates symbols that go beyond semiotic readings, and can act as proxy of, for example, good relations between two countries such as Chinese constructions that fall within the 'Dollar Diplomacy'; but also the deliberate embodiment of an ideology and a power hegemony that is then engrained in the urban tissue, much like modernist ideals were ever-so-present in the projects developed by Le Corbusier in Northern Africa (House of World Cultures, 2008). The spatial producers of these spaces might be aware or not of these implications, for they can be ideology-led government workers or independent entrepreneurs reproducing already existing formats without questioning the insinuations of the landscape they are producing.

Whereas these frameworks could be transferred to the retail spatial products that are to be analysed in this project, it is worth remembering that these analysis largely constitute a conceptual base for publicly funded constructions resulting from macro-economic rapports, and that the vast majority of 'Chinese landscapes' is independently-built (Thorniley, 2010; Dittgen, 2010). Although architectural trends percolate to all levels of social strata as mentioned earlier, implying that all Chinese-built or managed spaces have a deliberately imprinted and imposed ideology would be falling prey of the sinophobic addresses earlier disparaged. Nonetheless, few of those criticized voices seem to understand this difference, and in a form of racially addressed (Alden, 2007:53) prejudice of a Chinese 'silent invasion' of Africa (Esteban, 2010:238), these analysis are used to describe a wide variety of built landscapes (see examples exposed in Tull, 2006). This sinophobic approach obviates the agency of the individual Chinese entrepreneur who, independently from her government, also produces a built landscape that falls out of this demarcation of 'neo-colonialism'.



Chinese migrants in Southern Africa are social actors that actively change and reconstruct identities and landscapes independently (Huynh et al., 2010:301). They fulfil active roles as architects, planners and users of the transnational built environments produced as a result of Sino-African encounters. This multifaceted fluidity corresponds to the divorces between the dweller, the architect and the mason in contemporary architecture, a fracture that activists such as Friedensreich Hundertwasser considered 'a criminal act which has taken on form' (1958), as this schism results in the perpetual tension between the multiple stakeholders over who has control of the built landscape and what it does; a question that attempts to fray the social from the built fabrics, a quasi-impossible enterprise.

Le Corbusier's definition of (domestic) space as 'A house is a machine for living in' (1924/2007:151), frames buildings as 'inhabitable machines', thus conceptualizing buildings as 'technologies': devices with specific functions and uses. This approach might resonate with Keller Easterling's understanding of buildings as technologies (2005:2), however, her argument centres on the 'information it [the built structure] stores, as both data and persuasion, is literally a product, property or currency' (2005:3). She thus understands buildings as technologies not in the sense Le Corbusier did, but rather as 'spatial products' (2005) able to transcend their own physicality and fully participant in global trade markets who shape and configure them (2005:4). Michael Guggenheim, on the other hand, promulgates a notion where buildings should be considered as 'quasi-technologies', for they might change the use they were intended to fulfil initially (2009), but they always remain 'buildings' (Guggenheim, 2011). This view, however, can be further challenged considering built landscapes that have stopped being 'inhabitable' and now meet a completely different - non-habitable - function [12] , have a pedagogical or artistic intention [13] or have been 'musealized' [14] .

Alternatively, it could be argued that buildings do remain quasi-technologies, however, not through their usage as Guggenheim argues, but in the sense that they always retain a 'symbolic' value, along the lines of the embedded 'data' that Easterling identifies (2005:3) for this data is free to interpretation and might not always fulfil the function it was conceived for. This idea is seconded by Beatriz Colomina (1994), who argues that 'The building should be understood in the same terms as drawings, photographs, writings, films, and advertisements; not only because these are media in which more often we encounter it, but because the building is a mechanism of representation in its own right' (1994:13-14, emphasis my own). Thus, the construction transcends its physicality to become a socially created and valued communication medium. It is in this context that architecture, and its destruction, can be considered as an act of political propaganda (Bevan, 2006:120, but also as shown earlier in Prokopljevi

and Miret, 2012; Kapús

inski, 1994). The symbolism embedded in the built environment is ever present to the point that Denise Scott-Brown and Robert Venturi determined it the essence of functionalist architecture, which they found 'symbolically functional' (quoted in Marcus, 1995:14). This approach to the built fabric acknowledges the presence of the social fibres that articulate it and provide it with meaning.

Beatriz Preciado (2010) goes even further by framing this mechanism of representation with symbolic importance within a LeCorbusian understanding of buildings as 'inhabitable machines'. In his analysis of the Playboy Mansion, he determines that architecture can in fact be a 'performative machine of gender' (2010:87, emphasis my own), constructing a landscape where predetermined behaviours are reproduced, subject to specific semiotics decoded at a given time. A proposition that resonates with Gilroy's (1993) conceptualization of Mikhail Bakhtin's chronotope: a place not only tied up to time that moves beyond the mere transportation of the physical, but also able to accommodate the intangible (1993:29).

Constructed landscapes are thus inhabited spaces that provide a performative setting. It is in these built environments where 'different groups come together through shared experience; collective identities are forged and traditions invented' (Bevan, 2006:12). Belonging to a community is then translated as the ability of unfolding one's everyday life in a given space, a membership that could be conceived as a 'collective mirror more faithful than any personal one' (Lefebvre, 1974/1991:220). However, the '[…] consequence of the intensification of identification with a community also results in its corollary - the definition of those outside the group as "the other", whose "otherness" is commensurately deepened by this intensification' (Bevan, 2006:13).

Whereas the social and the built fabrics might be intimately related, it is important to acknowledge the fluidity of identities and spatial users' agency, for the reading of the semiotics is individual, and as Mark Gottdiener's research on themed environments revealed: while a 'guided experience' of a space can easily be implemented it remains different from a 'guided meaning' (2001:174), much more personal and thus, elusive to the producers and managers of space. It is in this context that not every reaction to South Africa's largest China Town, Cyrildene, is expected to be the same: the abundant symbols of 'Chineseness', such as arches, pagoda-type structures and sculptures of lions and dragons, reproduce a landscape that can trigger feelings of nostalgia to some and exoticism or identity-construction to others (Huynh et al., 2010:303). Although Chinese enclaves throughout the world have not developed a stylistic homogeneity (Lai, 1997:81), there are common architectural elements in several of these centres (Lai, 1988). Choosing elements from traditional Chinese architectural history is a form of legitimization (Hobsbawm, 1993), however, as David Lai points out, often people of Chinese origin are not responsible for the buildings they occupy in Chinatowns for they have been built by local architects who have added 'chinoiserie' elements, in search of exoticism (1997:81), an argument that my research shows is not transferrable to the South African context. The reproduction of these themed environments based on a recreated historicity could perhaps be described as the 'disneyfication' of the space; a dynamic that Frederic Jameson advocates to halt by providing a 'careful dissociation between the categories of historicity and authenticity' (Jameson, 1999: 80).

2.2__ MASKS

In an attempt to seek the purity of form and function, Adolf Loos (1908/1997) condemned ornaments, labelling them as 'masks', an idea seconded by Colomina, who assures that 'Architecture participates fully in this pervasive logic of the mask' (1994:26). For Michael Taussing (1999) masks not only provide an identitory notion, but also allow for its malleability and transformation, as well as abilities to hide certain elements whilst revealing others. This condition allows the built landscape for a certain degree of performativity, of the physical entity per se and not just the bodies that navigate it, as something that it is not. In Enduring Innocence, Easterling (2005) reflects on the role that masquerade-landscapes have, particularly analysing how tourism - through its purpose-built landscapes - and totalitarian regimes behave as each other's masquerades, the former deviating international, and perhaps national, (media) attention from the latter (2005:26-27). The surface is no longer a 'screen', but rather an encompassing element that addresses bodies wholly (Krupar and Al, 2010). It is in this context that these built environments could be read as masks, proxies for intricate transnational relations, beyond diplomatic ties, and whose function and symbolism transcends their physical presence and value.

The multiple textile factories, built and operated by Chinese entrepreneurs, in the Lesotho-South African border can be conceptualized within this framework. Their establishment can be traced back to Taiwanese migrants in the 1970s [15] (Alden, 2007:47) but it was not until the US-sponsored African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) came into effect in 2000, that their number multiplied (Tull, 2006). The treaty provided preferential access to the US market for African products, an opportunity that Chinese entrepreneurs saw by shifting production to Africa. These transplanted landscapes allowed them to circumvent trade barriers from the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing of the Uruguay Round protecting markets from cheap Asian imports (Tull, 2006:471). The Newcastle region in the 'porous border' (Park, 2010:463) between South Africa and Lesotho, where over 250 Taiwanese factories had been operating for over three decades (Pickle and Woods, 1989; Hart, 1996), subsequently became a node for Chinese - textile - commerce. Thus, these landscapes fulfil the role of a mask, for they appear to be Basotho or South African on paper, when in reality they are owned and managed by Chinese individuals. The built landscape becomes a disguise, a masquerade with a clear moneymaking strategy.

Nonetheless, masks have two sides, and it is often difficult knowing what is on display and what is concealed; as Chris Alden remarks, pointing fingers at these Chinese multinationals, and demanding a different standard from that to which Western businesses in China subscribe, 'seems to hide another agenda' (2007:132). Thus, perhaps the highlighting of these masquerade-landscapes is in fact being used to mask other built environments with different intentions, reflecting on anti-Chinese discourses. Examples of these criticisms can be found in numerous political speeches throughout the continent (Alden, 2007:124; Park in Esteban, 2010:235; Sata in Chatelard, 2012) as well as Western competitors (Alden, 2007:132).


Chinese workers in Southern Africa tend to live either collectively in compounds (Yan and Sautman, 2012:403), or among the local population, in enclaves throughout the urban matrix, generally in less luxurious conditions than their Western counterparts (Bräutigam, 2007), affecting the form and characteristics that the spaces that are produced from Sino-African rapports have. The higher degree of integration of Chinese migrants in their host communities as compared to other expat groups was also corroborated by Sautman and Yan's study (2009:740) (Also in Esteban, 2010:238 -a point that is later disputed on page 240). Numerous examples of adaptation to their new environments can be found, such as the Chinese businessman in the Free States who became fluent in Sotho, earning respect from the local community [16] (Park, 2010:469), a bi-directional cultural exchange, as local employees in these Chinese environments are learning Mandarin (Park, 2010:473). This myriad of realities, for it would be impossible to attempt to encapsulate them in one over-arching group (Park, 2010:459), is reflected in a diversity of landscapes and requires different ways of looking and analysing them. Chinese commercial landscapes in Southern Africa should be understood as the result of the collaboration between multiple agents, operating independently from Beijing (or Taipei), a notion that renders criticism of neo-colonialism futile.

Numerous African governments have agreed to the establishment of Chinese special economic zones (SEZ) (Tull, 2006:464; Bräutigam and Tang, 2011). Unlike SEZs in China, the ones built in Africa do not have special synergies or links to local universities or technology institutes, perhaps due to the local institutional weaknesses (Bräutigam and Tang, 2011:46). Simultaneously, there are many more of these burgeoning business enclaves where prices are converted to RMB and deals agreed on in Mandarin, operating outside government initiatives, organized by private entrepreneurs who do not wait for governmental approval (Bräutigam and Tang, 2011:50), creating new transnational financial flows and cross border communications. One of these entrepreneurially run Chinese commercial hubs operating outside any Beijing regulation is the border settlement of Oshikango, in the frontier between Namibia and Angola, which saw its first Chinese shop in 1999, and is now the venue to over 70 Chinese managed retail businesses (Dobler, 2008).

These often-remote pockets of (Chinese) commerce are in constant transition, normally offering a cultural landscape that includes a whole set of infrastructure developed by the entrepreneurs themselves: boarding schools, Chinese foods, mandarin signage, etc. (Bräutigam and Tang, 2011:36). It is in environments of a commercial nature where identitory elements emerge, selling cultural aspects as 'brand', and adopting a local built language. This approach is perhaps used to attract a distinct customer base, which finds itself identified or attracted with the semiotics on display (Dávila, 2001). Whereas this 'branding strategy' is at times imposed by a third actor (Lai, 1997:81), the thematization of the constructed environment is also crucial in the creation of a sense of identity amongst those who use it (Dávila, 2001; Gottdiener, 2001; Bevan, 2006), thus being a double mechanism to attract customers but also to form identity.

These modes of address are formed answering a demand from local residents to haver their identities and needs acknowledged, presenting an extreme fluidity to incorporate or exclude specific individuals or groups (Simone, 2010:7). However, assuming these spaces remain the common loci, for all those individuals who have a Chinese origin would be failing to acknowledge the individual agency of hundreds of thousands of individuals. Thus, the anatomic plane used in this study aims to dissect the built products resulting from Sino-Southern African relations, and not the individuals who use them.

These heterotopic landscapes need to be understood within a context where their managers have individual wishes for better lives (Huynh et al., 2010). Some Chinese entrepreneurs might abide by Mao Tse Tung's motto of 'Destruction before Construction', and deny any previous cultural landscape (Bevan, 2006:1118), whereas others might find shelter in the opposite dynamic of recreating a traditional environment, amidst which set up shop; both legitimate techniques to attract customers and around which to build or reinforce identities.


Whether the 'fish' that the Archbishop of York was referring to are sustainable or not (Marysse and Geenen, 2009) falls beyond the reach of this research, however, the world should be weary of thinking that these government-to-government gifts are the only outcome of interactions between Africans and Chinese: as I have shown, Sino-African landscapes are ubiquitous and emerge from multiple sources that go beyond the diplomatic reach of Beijing, going from the prestigious to the banal, covering the grand and the minute.

At a macro scale, African and Chinese politicians, CEOs and large entrepreneurs have updated their vocabulary and are using business school jargon such as win-win to describe their business deals and relationships (Alden, 2007:121; Marysse and Geenen, 2009; Park and Huynh, 2010:211). An optimistic terminology to describe the prestigious projects are changing the face of Africa, as new macro shopping centres open or new - and independent- SEZs are established. New landscapes that fall beyond the tentacles of the 'Dollar Diplomacy' and, as I have argued, while there might be understood as proxies of transnational relations, remain very much individual and independent enterprises.

At a micro-level, where the everyday unfolds, people of Chinese origin settled in Southern Africa might not be as optimistic as their governors. Whereas some might face rejection and sinophobia in their host communities, there are also numerous individuals who are now calling Southern Africa home. With their migration, they have brought with them landscapes, spaces of syncretism and borderland, porous and malleable, able to accommodate the large spectrum of identities and realities that are found among the Southern African Chinese.

This study aims to understand if these forms of adaptation have also been transferred to the built realm. The architecture, this project's intention, is just one of the many facets worth exploring in order to provide a polyhedral insight into this kaleidoscopic universe of overlapping planes, all present within the same urban fabric. Landscapes that emerge in the midst of criticism, sinophobia and media distortion.

As Yan and Sautman concluded from their research on rumours surrounding the use of convict labour by Chinese companies overseas 'Perhaps then not all prisoners are confined behind thick walls and electrified fences; some sit behind editorial desks and are prisoners of their own ideological prejudices' (2012:418). A(n ideological) prison that, as more of these Sino-African interactions take place, beyond the reach of Western powers, is bound to be a new global Bastille.


China's growth as the world's second largest economy (World Bank, 2013), increased travel freedom and intense soft power diplomatic efforts have led to multiple Sino-African interactions, as well as bi-directional migration flows (Bräutigam, 2009; Bodomo, 2010). The manifestation and multiplicity of these encounters can be measured by the numerous built landscapes that are mushrooming from Cairo to Cape Town: from official buildings part of aid packages, to industrial landscapes direct result of transnational commercial agreements, to small independent investors. As 'Africa turns East' (Mitchell, 2006; Alden, 2007), China's presence and influence is being felt, structuring the symbolism of landscapes that go beyond governmental allusions; where large Chinese companies and small shopkeepers are proudly announcing their Asian origin, embedding cultural codes in the built fabric that surrounds them. Yet, this presence has also raised numerous critical voices from local politicians (Alden, 2007:75; Sautman and Yan, 2009:749; Chatelard, 2012) and international media (Tull, 2006:478), some of them claiming that Chinese presence is undesired, a new form of colonialism that cannot integrate in today's Africa (Corkin & Naidu, 2008: 115, Dittgen, 2010).

The objective of this project is to examine the built commercial environments that have emerged outside the official packages of the 'Dollar Diplomacy', as the result of the recent arrival of Chinese entrepreneurs and migrants to Southern Africa, and analyse and decode these spatial products as proxies for Sino-African interactions. It is in this business and trade context where, through symbolism, the use of the semiotics is applied to reinforce identities as well as to 'brand' their businesses.

Are these new Chinese (commercial) landscapes bazaars, places of integration and mestizaje, or rather bezoars, elements that cannot be digested by the urban matrix where they sit, thus intervention being required for their removal?

The underlying question linking all these spatial products is how is Chineseness, the idea of China, being transferred through these cultural landscapes in Southern Africa. This notion leads to complex issues around transcultural built environments leading to new forms of mestizo architecture from the recycling of old cultural symbolism, a conceptualization that percolates to all social levels.

The geographical frame for this research is Southern Africa, the region in the continent that has witnessed the largest investments from Beijing's government (Bräutigam, 2010) but also that has received some of the largest influx of independent migrants in recent years (Alden, 2007; Park, 2010; Park and Huynh, 2010; Huynh et al., 2010). This project aims to provide a glimpse of some of the vast variety of landscapes that these transnational and transcultural relationships have produced.


This research is based on a combination of photography and participant observation. This choice is addressed by the multiple considerations that are specific to this case, presented below. Afterwards I justify the selection of these two methodologies and describe them, followed by the numerous ethical considerations that contextualize this investigation. These aspects frame the role of the researcher, which I discuss in the last section of this chapter.


Governmental-level agreements are intimately entangled with the migrants' decisions to relocate to Southern Africa, and have paved the way for Chinese entrepreneurs to set up shop across the continent (Huynh et al., 2010:290, also in Alden, 2007:37). Nonetheless, as Michel de Certeau explored in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), the miasma of the quotidian is a crucial component to unpack the tribulations and inner mechanisms of social and built environments. This approach is also supported by Massey (1991), who warned against falling in the trap 'of equating the micro (or local) with the merely concrete and empirical, and of equating the macro (or global) with the abstract or the theoretical' (cited in Morley, 1997: 126). This 'micro' approach to urban sociology is challenged by Ed Soja, who believes it is necessary to draw conclusions based on interpretations drawn from a larger, 'macro', viewpoint, as it is at this scale that the 'intersecting matrices' can be observed (1989:6). Within the context of Sino-African spatial products, the 'macro' level would be the government-to-government arrangements, such as attractive aid packages or beneficial trade agreements, often resulting in official buildings or industrial landscapes on African soil. These efforts are part of the 'Dollar Diplomacy', an attempt from Beijing and Taipei to gain international control in the continent, as the same time as diplomatically isolating their opponent (Taylor, 1998; Alden, 2007:21).

Perhaps because of this latter believe, there is a lack of academic study and literature of everyday life of Chinese peoples in Africa (Esteban, 2010) and the spatial products they produce, as most research in this niche field centres along the macro-economic impact of Sino-African relations, seldom dwelling deep enough in social narratives. Yet, it is at this scale where the largest impact to most Africans is taking place, for it is at this level where social interactions occur routinely and intimately on a daily basis (Alden, 2007:37). It is also in this context where what Scott Lash describes as 'heavy symbols' are found, codes that take place in an active condition and are part of an elaborate cultural language (2002:32).

There is a contemporary discourse fuelled by Western media outlets, implying that Africa is witnessing a 'silent invasion' from China (Esteban, 2010:238), perhaps part of a tenebrous hidden agenda from Beijing's political elite. These views emerge from a racially centred discourse, imposing an idea of ethnicity on a nation with 56 recognized different ethnic groups (see Chen, 2009). Furthermore, this form of 'endemic stereotyping' often incorporates non-Chinese individuals such as Korean, Japanese and other peoples of East and South East Asian origin (2007:53), turning the racial profiling of this claim into a locally specific blend of what constitutes Chinese [17] . The imposition today of this label is even more acute as Chinese migrants in Africa often live among local communities, unlike other non-African expats (Bräutigam,2007; Esteban, 2010) rendering these new migrants even more visible to the exoticised projected views of other locals.

However, these sinophobic remarks are constantly being challenged by social researchers and historians who expose that the Chinese who are settled on a temporary or permanent basis in Africa are mostly individuals who did not arrived as part of any governmental project, and are able to make independent decisions, based on their wish to improve their lives (Huynh et al., 2010:286). Thus, analysing 'the Chinese' as a mass is contentious, for the Chinese communities in Southern Africa are made up by a myriad of different individuals (Mawdsley, 2008; Huynh et al., 2010:288) divided by 'time, geography, national and regional-cultural affiliations' (Accone, 2007:6). It is in this context that Yoon Jung Park finds inaccurate the use of the supra-label 'Chinese Diaspora', for it oversimplifies and conflates all the Chinese communities into one indistinguishable mass (Park, 2010:459).

This argument is central to this methodology, for it is impossible to establish a social or spatial taxonomy within this context, as most classifications would fall prey of largely contestable epistemological approaches (see Foucault, 1966/1974:xix). Thus, the research method deployed should be able to reflect and embrace such diversity, moving away from categorization and value impositions on this diverse migrant group, and towards a collection of multiple individual accounts that have in common Chinese origins or representation and a presence in delimitated territory, Southern Africa.

The vast majority of Chinese settlers in Southern Africa arrived in what Park describes as the 'third wave of migration' (Park, 2008; 2010). In the 2000s, most of these individuals originated from rural areas in Fujian province and entered the country illegally [18] (Huynh et al., 2010:295; and Park, 2010:466; a pattern that can also be applied to other African nations as seen in Alden, 2007:52). As they entered a retailed market that was nearly saturated, as well as lacking sufficient capital to live in the city, some of them ended up in rural areas, a case true for South Africa, Lesotho and Namibia (Huynh et al., 2010:296). Their presence in these rural settlements has radically changed the livelihoods of farmers in the region, who have access to affordable goods for the first time (Sautman and Yan, 2009:754). A presence that, whether urban or rural, is welcomed at large by most Africans and believed to help with regional economic development -albeit at times being a source of problems for other locals (Sautman and Yan, 2009:739 -table 5).

Their shops configure part of a landscape that reflects the variety and contradictions of this migratory group, creating spaces that challenge transnational conceptions, geographies and times (Park, 2010). Using Gloria Anzaldúa's definition of borderlands (1987), as a 'vague and undetermined place' in 'a constant state of transition', Park (2010) establishes these landscapes as 'borderlands', framed within porous conceptual borders that individuals may or may not feel invited to cross. As Anne Goldberg sustains, conceptual borders can exist independently from international frontiers, whenever different cultures interact (2006:275).

Some of these borderlands, such as Cyrildene, or the Old China Town in central Johannesburg are charged with symbolism (Huynh et al., 2010:303), responding to an idea of 'diaspora', a sense of belonging to the 'Chinas of the mind', much like Salman Rushdie's '[…] imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind' (1992:10). This is an idea that profoundly resonates with the notion of a diaspora that longs for its heimat, that 'imaginary original society' that the migrant departed (Mudimbe and Engel, 1999:4) and that these landscapes seek to reproduce. Yet, some of these spaces are dispersed, working independently and isolated from a larger (and imaginary) 'Chinese landscape', and do not reference imperial Chinese architecture, but rather reproduce contemporary landscapes and arrangements of space from the People's Republic, such as the convenience stores in villages of the Free State [19] or the Capetonian Southern Suburbs. These (often-remote) pockets of (Chinese) commerce are in constant transition, normally offering a very sinified landscape, such as boarding schools, Chinese foods, mandarin signage, etc. (Bräutigam and Tang, 2011:36), a groups of people that Park describes as being 'neither here nor there' (2010:476). However, not all Chinese retail landscapes in Southern Africa respond to this model (see Park, 2010).

Whereas it is problematic not to immediately include these spaces within the confines of a larger body of Chinatown literature, I find it is important to address this epistemological impasse by allowing the spatial products involved to develop and reveal their own unique characteristics, eventually highlighting possible common loci between all the different cases.

As I have established, the complexity and variety of the Chinese diaspora in Southern Africa challenges frameworks, and goes beyond 'transnationality' or the polarity of spaces (Huynh et al., 2010:300). These environments have been actively built by multiple social actors that challenge borders, racial denominations and gender. Thus, a transnational perspective of migration does not suffice (Huynh et al. 2010:301). These landscapes shape part of the urban fabric, turning it into a palimpsest where biographies, identities and national allegiances overlap each other, and are constantly re-configured. Thus, the built context becomes the frame and organizer of stories and memories rather than the living bodies that navigate it (Pieprzak, 2007:194).


This research is based on a combination of photography and participant observation of the examined built environments. The combination of visual data collection as well as an ethnographic approach aims to best represent and analyse the differences and similarities of these commercial landscapes, largely (but not exclusively) owned or managed by entrepreneurs of Chinese origin, and within the geographical framework of Southern and South-Western Africa. The research will be presented in a combination of narrative thick-description as well as photographs of these environments. Furthermore, the objective of this research is to build a visual archive of this little-researched field, images that will not only compliment my words, but also develop their own narrative, and hopefully trigger attention to these spatial products that are the result of exchanges within the Global South. The photographs will be uploaded to the Internet with geo-localised data aiming to create a virtual archive of these environments for future investigations.

This research methodology combination is a humble attempt at challenging the 'normativity of method' (Law, 2004:4), addressing the impossibility of capturing every phenomena by social science methods (Law, 2004:2). Photography as well as my own skin as a researcher can be conceptualized as 'screens', research tools that are 'semi-permeable boundaries' (Simone, 2012:209), thus it is important to acknowledge the subjectivity in the process, the figure of the 'screener', a role that will be further explored later.

The rational for complementing both approaches addresses the experimental and unique context in which this study is based, defying the notions of the Chinese migrant as an 'indivisible mass' portrayed by the media as discussed earlier (Accone, 2007:6; Mawdsley, 2008; Huynh et al., 2010:288; Park, 2010:459), as well as the lack of extensive studies in the field of Chinese landscapes in Southern Africa.

Eric Hobsbawm (1998:281-282) identifies three analytical steps to develop a coherent methodology: identifying the symptoms or elements that need to 'fit together', followed by the construction of a model from where assumptions or commonalities can be observed, and finally understand if these conclusions can be confirmed by independent evidence. However, this approach risks falling into formalities, methodological rules and practices, that 'not only describe but also help to produce the reality that they understand' as John Law warns (2004:5, emphasis on original). Whereas it is crucial for the production of knowledge to establish those models to observe commonalities that Hobsbawm proposed, it is also important to understand that these models need to be flexible enough to accommodate the changes in the identified environments as well as understand their own limitations. It is this understanding which I am trying to project onto this methodology, devising a method 'without accompanying imperialisms' (Law, 2004:15).

Participant Observation and Ethnography

The subjects of research in this project are the spatial products that emerge from Sino-African trade. These spaces, built to be navigated and inhabited by commercial activity, often overtly themed after a Qing dynasty leitmotif or as vast industrial warehouses in urban peripheries, are rather experiential settings, as is most architecture, for it is not only visual but multisensory. Departing from Abdoumaliq Simone's approach, who finds that the human body is an instrument to explore cities with, as well as providing a vantage point (cited in Buurman, 2012b:26), I have decided that participant observation through my own experience of the space is the adequate methodology to deploy in this instance. Analysing Chinese commercial landscapes comes with numerous implications: not only numerous of these venues are far from city centres (unlike several examples in the West, -see Lai 1988 and 1997), but also there is a time constrain that frames the hours at which the research can be carried out.

It is also important to understand these spaces as largely fluid and flexible: the 'borderlands' (Park, 2010:476) status of these environments, venues for multinational interaction, makes them fertile ground for cross-cultural communication to emerge, developing a unique semiotic code and allowing for numerous realities to coexist.

In order to understand these processes, and hoping to develop a clearer methodology for this research, I did participant observation in two Chinese shopping centres in Cape Town, Ottery and Sable Square, over a period of four weeks. This pilot period allowed me to understand the dynamics of these commercial hubs and other socio-cultural phenomena, as well as frame my role as a researcher. I could also identify the deficiencies in my methodology: whereas I wanted to remain as integrated in the commercial activity as possible, the note taking immediately identified me as a 'non-typical' social character in these environments. However, my intention, analysing the buildings but also how people used them, was to remain as undisruptive as possible, not wanting to create or trigger different dynamics. A level of anonymization that was, however, futile, as shopkeepers started to be interested in the project and myself, allowing me to gain a deeper understanding of these spatial products.

Following the initial 'pilot project' month, after informing myself through community gatekeepers in these shopping centres, other social actors, as well as my own independent research, I elaborated a list of other venues that would be relevant for my project. Consequently, I visited, over a period of five weeks, Chinese commercial centres in Johannesburg (Cyrildene), Mbabane, Maseru, Windhoek, Oshikango and Lüderitz.

The procedure for collecting data in all of these venues was the same: during business hours I noted observations, engaged with my environment and took photographs with my mobile phone. Throughout the participant observation, data was generated during the research process rather than merely collected for analysis, in a process where themes and ideas emerged as the research is happening (Davis, 2008:60). The interrelationships between built and social fabrics interweave themselves in 'dream-like webs of affective meaning' (Simone, 2012: 206-207), allowing me, the researcher, to reroute through these multiple channels when necessary. This approach allowed for a flexible and adaptable mode of data collection depending on the context.

However, this ethnographic approach, presented numerous ethical limitations, an aspect that will be addressed later. Whilst producing accounts based on my participation I was aware of what Simone describes as 'screens': 'the construct of cognitive mapping- i.e. a neurasthenic surface of the interplay of various sensations - visual, auditory, olfactory, gestural, and haptic - applicable to all cities.' (2012: 206), and permanently eschewing projecting my 'screen' onto the narrative, a stake that at times proved futile for unavoidably my own subjectivity is intertwined with the analysis of these spatial products. Part of the results obtained from this experiential study will be presented in a 'thick description' format following the model identified by Clifford Geertz (1973; 2005), a narrative based on the notes I took during fieldwork.

Photography and Virtual Archive.

Following the initial period of the 'pilot research' in Cape Town, I noticed the vastness of details that I was not able to capture, and my inability to faithfully record the minute and the miasma of the everyday, the 'off-the-points' (Morley, 2007:75). The need to annotate numerous visual details led me to decide the use of photography. My participation in the built environments that I examined as another social actor, wanting to capture the everyday unfolding of activities, meant that my actions needed to be the least disruptive possible. This notion led me to choose my mobile phone as a means to document the built landscapes I was analysing. This format allowed me to work discreetly, more so than with a camera, and had the advantage of providing geo-localised data along with the photograph, a set of information that will be valuable at a later stage, when the photos are uploaded to the internet and projected onto a map. The mobile phone, having 3G technology and sufficient data bundles, allowed the immediate uploading of the photographs to a 'cloud', thus not having to worry about losing this data under potentially unsafe circumstances (i.e. muggings, theft).

The rapidly changing nature of the analysed landscapes, as well as their novelty, and their presence in a geo-political space where spatial products tend to be alienated by the mainstream media (see Buurman, 2012a), translate as a scarcity of research materia