Elevate Difference

Cosmologies of Credit: Transnational Mobility and the Politics of Destination in China

Residents of Fujian Province on the southeastern coast of China burn spirit money designed to resemble U. S. currency. That stunning confluence of traditional religious practice and modern dreams of western emigration stands as a kind of symbolic center of this book. In her ethnographic study of the people of this region, famous-or infamous, perhaps—for their involvement in “human smuggling” to the West, Julie Y. Chu asks why so many people would honor the dead with images of western materialism. The answers her subjects gave seemed evasive, dismissive: “because so many have relatives in the United States” or “they’re just being superstitious.”

In fact, the spirit money, modeled after American greenbacks, represents a powerful longing that has defined and transformed this region. Nowhere is this desire more obviously monumentalized than in the comparatively luxurious homes, built by “Overseas Chinese” as “vacation homes” or investments, that are springing up throughout the province. For many, those who have miraculously managed all the bureaucratic obstacles and nightmarish dangers to settle in the West have achieved a heroic status that is both idealized and destabilizing for those “left behind.” The culture Chu describes is one that keeps one proverbial eye fixed westward, the other on a provincial life that seems meager and transient. Bags are kept packed.

The book is replete with tales of those still waiting for the call from the “snakehead” (human smuggler) who will expect them to be ready at a moment’s notice to abandon their current lives and embark on a life-threatening journey. Because this activity has so profoundly defined the region and its people, Chu argues that it is part of a “politics of destination,” a pragmatic and forward-looking ideology governed by the prospect of mobility—both geographic and economic.

Because of the frequency of arrests and loss of life in transit, the area is notorious world-wide as a jumping off point for “human smuggling.” Perhaps the worst incident was a tragedy in June of 2000: fifty-eight migrants from Fuzhou suffocated to death in the back of a truck hauling tomatoes from Belgium to Dover. Indeed, the horrifying details of human smuggling bring to mind the inhumanity of the Middle Passage, with the obvious mitigating difference being the migrants’ belief that a better life awaits those who survive. The author writes, “One cannot easily forget the stifling darkness and pervasive disorientation of being crammed into the hull of a ship or into a steel shipping container for anywhere from fourteen to ninety days." She calls it a kind of “entombment at sea,” too literally the fate of many who have attempted the passage.

The tales of horror have done little to dampen the desire, but have only made legal or illegal “visiting” that much more difficult and risky. Residents still fervently study well worn copies of Practical English for People Working in Chinese Restaurants and wait for the call to action. The new foreign-owned homes, left mostly empty by their overseas owners, seem to be proof of a prosperity that, in spite of all obstacles, is still within the grasp of the most resilient.

The book ends beautifully with the clacking of mahjong tiles that, like the spirit money, captures something essential about the Fuzhounese. The author comments on the popularity of the game: “Though winning always entailed personal reward and glory, losing did not necessarily spell individual failure and shame... Sooner or later... the pendulum of luck would swing back in one’s favor.”

Written by: Rick Taylor, April 13th 2011