With the arrival of the weekend, we took the chance to delve deeper into Guangzhou life. The African district and a tea market present two different sides of commercial life in this historic trade and manufacturing hub.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o writes, “Our lives are a battlefield on which is fought a continuous war between the forces that are pledged to confirm our humanity and those determined to dismantle it; those who strive to build a protective wall around it, and those who wish to pull it down; those who seek to mould it and those committed to breaking it up; those who aim to open our eyes, to make us see the light and look to tomorrow [...] and those who wish to lull us into closing our eyes”
Guangzhou is beautiful and calm, the people are kind. Perhaps our lives, Wa Thiong'o suggests, are not an amusement park or a shopping mall, they are a battle for humanity and all that threatens to stifle it under tired platitudes, banal consumerism and terrified silences.
There is an African area in the city. One local says, "I wouldn't go there at night. Not alone. The men are scary." "Why? What is scary about them?" "African men are scary." Perhaps it is a problem of language. And yet, somehow, across the borders of many countries and continents, some images seem to always be translated in the same ways, imbued with the force of history and the calculated work of global politics.
African migrants gather in certain pockets of the city, around certain restaurants and hotels. One is told that they are "accepted," which often means ignored or feared. There are old stories that haunt the bodies of the dark and poor, what Fanon called The Wretched of the Earth. "What is scary about Africans?" "They are not like us, they are aggressive."
The protective walls of fear keep one safely in the company of those who look like oneself. Petrified borders are erected between gated communities and ethnic enclaves.
This is not to deny the possibility of peering behind the veneer of polite silence to see how certain stories weave themselves around certain skin. To reflect upon all the contradictions of a place and its people is an optimistic gesture of sorts. It is not an empty greeting card sentiment but a persistent hope for fresh narratives.
If commerce creates its own margins and peripheries, it also builds a core, defined by certain practices, actions and commodities. It is a well known fact that tea originally came from China. But the tea culture here is much deeper and far more sophisticated than any other regions of the world that has adopted tea as its own. Victorian bourgeois culture in the nineteenth century would have lacked aspirational refinement without the customs and conventions of tea drinking. The Samurai class in early modern Japan would have remained barbaric if there was not the exclusive intricacies of the tea ceremony to distinguish them from others and unite them with each other. Yes, many peoples have invented and refined complicated rituals and languages associated with tea and indeed drinking tea was very central to the emerging civil society in many parts of the world.
Yet, the wide variety of tea available in China and the amount of money put into tea itself is astonishing. Tea is largely classified into different 'colours' according to the way it is produced: white, green, red, yellow, blue and black. Within each 'colour' tea, there will be regional differences, years of production, seasons, grades, and so on. Certain teas, especially the famous pu-erh tea (which is classified as 'black') from Yunnan province, have become a subject of speculative investment in recent years. Expensive pu-erh tea was even used as a bribe. Since the government circulated a strong warning message last year to government officials and party members not to lead ostentatious lifestyles, the price of tea has apparently collapsed and many tea speculators have lost fortunes.
For many, tea is a very mundane everyday commodity. So high price tags of certain kinds of Chinese tea seem just obscene. But visiting many tea vendors in the tea market in Guangzhou, apparently the largest in Asia, and having many cups of high quality tea in one afternoon, we were beginning to feel that we should perhaps treat these fermented leaves more like wine or even a drug. The more you appreciate the richness of Chinese tea, more dependent you become. The deeper you go, it would become more difficult to come out of it. The enticements of the world of tea certainly presented themselves to us today.
Even the allures of consumer society, in the moment of their enjoyment, carry with them the struggles and tensions inherent in their exclusivity. A commodity associated with refinement commanding high prices and the plight of migrants without a clear sense of belonging in a city may seem poles apart but they are both aspects of an advanced, diversified, capitalist economy. Together and in different ways they point to long historical trends both within capitalism and within China.
- The Oecumene Team, 15 June 2013