What does an urban middle-class male university graduate from Conakry, the capital of Guinea, have in common with a peasant woman with little education from a village in Sichuan? Well, both are caught up in the processes of globalization and find themselves as semi-legal migrants with limited resources in Guangzhou’s Africa Town. “Africa Town” is the name of two suburbs in Guangzhou where the largest community of Africans in Asia resides. According to this photo essay on ChinaSmack, there were around 20,000 Africans registered there in 2011. The number of Africans estimated to come there for short business visits and those without a legal status was assumed to be about ten times that number.
Africans come to Guangzhou to trade: at one end of the spectrum there is the so-called “luggage bag trade,” which involves an African community pooling their financial resources. A member of the group then travels to China and purchases as many goods as possible. These are then shipped back home and sold on for a profit. At the other end of the spectrum of African traders in Guangzhou are more established people who run their own shops, catering to bulk buyers, including the luggage bag traders.
The retailers of Africa Town do not only include Africans but also rural Chinese migrants whose status is as semi-legal as that of their African peers if they don’t have an urban hukou (residence permit) for Guangzhou.
It is in this “marginal space in a peripheral country” (Han 2013, p. 95), that Huamei Han, a sociolinguistic ethnographer, met Ibrahim, the university graduate from Conakry, and Laura, the villager from Sichuan, as part of her project to study multilingualism in this high-contact situation.
English, as the global language of business, plays an in important role in Africa Town. So does Mandarin as the national language. Additionally, Cantonese, the local language and a number of other Chinese vernaculars are widely used in Africa Town, as are a number of African languages, including colonial languages such as French. So, there are a lot of codes being used in Africa Town but the preeminent power codes are English and Mandarin.
However, access to formal instruction in these power codes is rare and African Towners have to find other ways to learn whatever they can of these languages. As a result a contact variety, which locals call “Chinglish,” has developed. According to Han (2013, p. 88) this kind of “Chinglish” (not to be confused with unidiomatic Chinese English signage Westerns like to make fun of) is characterized by simple English vocabulary and sentence structures, repetition of key words, the mixing of Mandarin expressions, and the influence of Chinese syntax.
It is this variety that Ibrahim mostly used, in addition to French, Susu, Pular, Mandinka and Arabic. However, his impressive multilingual repertoire was of relatively limited value without access to Chinese, as he explained to the researcher:
“Some factory they speak no French, they speak no English. So no Chinese, no business!” (p. 90).
However, immediate financial pressures in conjunction with a restrictive visa regime meant that his dream to attend formal Chinese language classes was beyond his grasp.
Laura, by contrast, felt she needed English to extend her business opportunities. However, formal English language instruction was out of her reach, too. Instead, she mobilized personal relationships and networks to acquire English, including the pursuit of transnational romantic relationships.
As Han points out, globalization is often conceived as associated with “elite multilingualism” where “the global person” is supposed to be highly proficient in standard varieties of the languages involved. However, access to these power codes depends upon economic capital: in order to study a language formally, you need to have money, time and legal status.
The inhabitants of African Town who Han spoke to had none of these and their structural marginalization thus also resulted in their linguistic marginalization. Even so, their informal language learning – the grassroots multilingualism of the inhabitants of Africa Town – is locally meaningful and enables their livelihoods in this space characterized by “globalization from below.”