International Migrants in China’s Global City

Michiel Baas

In When We Were Orphans (2000), well-known author Kazuo Ishiguro situates his novel in the Shanghai of the 1930s. Caught up in the Second Sino-Japanese War which hits the foreigner’s enclave of the city pretty hard, the main character – an Englishman born in the city at the turn of the century – attempts to unravel of his parents’ disappearance. Throughout reading James Farrer’s new book International Migrants in China’s Global City, I was reminded of this book and in particular its emphasis on nostalgia, the idea of lost world, or at least at the brink of disappearance. There is something undeniably evocative and enchanting about the idea of Shanghai with the way it packages a certain je ne sais quoi old-world charm with high-rise skyscrapers and the reality of being the concentration of so much of China’s new wealth.

James Farrer’s study is very firmly set in the ‘now’ of New China but builds upon the wealth of two decades of research material in which the idea of a much older Shanghai is a recurring topic of conversation. Farrer himself moved to the city in 1993 as a graduate student of Chinese society, and would eventually marry a Shanghai-local, now well-known migration scholar Gracia Liu-Farrer. The first chapter of his book – aptly titled ‘Migrant Shanghai’ – is therefore (as is the case with the rest of the book) as much about himself and his own engagement with the city, as it is about the way international migrants have occupied certain parts and strata of the city, as well as witnessed and experienced the changes it has undergone.

Even though Farrer posits that China has transitioned from being a source of migrants globally to a country that can now be considered a migrant destination itself, the main focus lies firmly with earlier generations of (mainly though not exclusively western) migrants. Considering their fairly privileged status, it makes sense to label these as expats, though Farrer is quick to point out its fuzzy and problematic character (p. 4). The first chapter then sets out to provide a framework for the rest of the book that considering its broad scope and the incredibly rich material on hand, does not always appear to be in synch with the beautiful descriptions and lush digressions (historically, architecturally, with reference to questions of heritage, culinary changes and otherwise) it offers in subsequent chapters. The book not only brims with energy and passion but in jostling a multitude of identities and foci seems to contain the possibility for several volumes of the length on offer here.

I could now proceed to provide an outline of the main points the book seeks to make and the way it is structured but instead it makes more sense to examine how it contributes to two fields of scholarship that it seeks to contribute to. As an urban scholar who has lived in Shanghai for many years and now resides in Tokyo where he, among others, studies the changing landscape of Japanese capital’s culinary scene, Farrer is incredibly well-equipped to reflect on questions of urban change, the way urbanites (both old- and newcomers) relate to each other, as well as the way cities themselves like to ‘think’ of themselves. Shanghai is an excellent case in point here. For one, it is not just a new and exceedingly popular destination for highly-educated migrants from the west, but has been so for more than a century. Now a global city with a distinct cosmopolitan vibe, China’s economic powerhouse has also become a destination for mid-skilled migrants seeking to profit from the country’s economic boom. The visual change the city has undergone is undeniable with some of the world’s highest skyscrapers, but changes on the ground can also be felt with the presence of so-called laowai (foreigners) having become much more common. It has resulted in a next generation of new Shanghailanders (the subtitle of the book) whose trajectories differ markedly from the ‘old’ ones and whose narrations often tell a distinct tale of change, loss and concern with the idea of what the city once was.

It is most definitely where the true strength of the book lies. In unearthing old interview material, revisiting long-term informants, and weaving in the narratives of more recent ones, Farrer is able to sketch changes in attitudes, expectations, and experiences of ‘newcomers’ over the period of roughly two decades. What is particularly revealing here is how ‘constructed’ various notions are of what Shanghai could offer these foreigners; the imagined potential it has for them; and how they relate and engage with its changing realities. Shanghai, so much becomes clear, has been a place of the imagination – an oriental fantasy so to speak – across generations of migrants, who longed for a Shanghai none of them had ever truly been part of. It is the Shanghai the main character in Ishiguro’s novel was born into but which, faced with the war, was already under siege at the time and in the process of being destroyed. Throughout Farrer’s study we encounter characters – long-term migrants (even though that characterization feels somewhat off) – who are keen to protect the city’s colonial/foreign heritage, in a bid to protect (or excavate) a lost world that mainly seems to exist in the imagination. The Shanghainese, in contrast, seem much less interested in this, and are keen to move to the suburbs and experience all the new China has in store for them there. In fact, the city now has suburbs modelled on a faux-interpretation of European architecture – such as Dutch and French – that appeals somewhat similarly to a nostalgia for a reality its ‘new’ inhabitants do not share a lived experience with.

Navigating the different chapters and relishing in the stunning accounts of older generations of ‘migrants’, I could not help wonder about the idea of migration itself and the way we – as scholars – aim to capture what we think migration is. In recent years, the Asia Research Institute (of the National University of Singapore) of which I myself was also part for many years, organized, hosted and took part in numerous activities to investigate new developments in migration. Besides a renewed focus on the migration industry, more recently questions have been raised about what precisely ‘skills’ mean within the context of changing geopolitical dimensions, especially now that formerly relatively closed-off countries such as China and Japan are increasingly welcoming ‘skilled’ migrants. Who are these new migrants and how do they land locally? How do they fit in with existing communities of (formerly foreign) migrants? And do they engage differently with the idea of belonging, integrating and the potential to move on? Farrer’s book, with its longitudinal perspective, makes an invaluable contribution here for a variety of reason. For one, Farrer’s study shows how important it is to return to the field over a longer-period of time to map change in experiences and perceptions. Migration research is often characterized by snap-shot moments, influenced by the vary nature of migration policies itself, which tend to change regularly. Yet by considering the long-term trajectories of foreigners in a particular place, what we start to realize is how the city itself is impacted by this, and how ‘settlers’ themselves are influenced by the dynamics of (urban) change. It renders migrants less temporary, even if they themselves might move-on at an individual level. Besides that, it ‘simply’ puts emphasis on a changing world, and how the reality of migranthood is always governed and impacted by change. While migration research has a tendency to focus on rules and regulations here – which especially for low-skilled migrants increasingly means economic as well as social precarity in host nations – economic, social and political changes at a regional and global level should not be omitted from the (longer term) analysis either.

There is clearly much to be gained from a close reading of James Farrer’s sensitive and rich new work. Perhaps a small point of critique would be that the title of his book clearly does not do the study justice. The lack of illustrations is also something to lament. Even though Farrer’s descriptions are hugely rewarding and offer excellent compensation here, it is sad to see this more general trend continued in academic publishing whereby it is increasingly made hard for authors to provide their accounts with the necessary visuals. Finally, and here’s a rather opportunistic wish, I so very much hope that Farrer will one-day turn his material and insights into a more generally accessible (non-academic) account of a changing Shanghai. There must be few people more capable to pull this off!