Chinese Traders in Ghana: The Liminality Trap, and Challenges for Ethnic Formation and Integration

Karsten Giese

Introduction: The Chinese Paradox in Africa

When discussing the new presence on the African continent of Chinese nationals who have arrived since the early 2000s, the many clusters of Chinese entrepreneurs across Africa present a paradox. in most cases, the Chinese in Africa today do not fit the characteristics typically ascribed to ethnic Chinese groups outside China. Their lack of ethnic or national solidarity and social cohesion, culminating in the widespread absence of community (compare Dobler 2009; Haugen and Carling 2005; Lam 2015a), defies conventional wisdom about overseas Chinese. The Chinese in Ghana, who have arrived as individual entrepreneurs and in substantial numbers since the turn of the millennium, are no exception in this general picture found across the African continent. They form a highly concentrated trading cluster in Accra, the country’s capital and economic center. Chinese economic activities in trade have concentrated at the periphery of Makola Market, which has served as the main site of commerce. Though this pattern of spatial clustering has made the Chinese and Chinese commercial activities

K. Giese (*)

GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg, Germany GIGA Institute of Asian Studies, Hamburg, Germany

© The Author(s) 2017

M. Zhou (ed.), Contemporary Chinese Diasporas, DOI 10.1007/978-981-10-5595-9_3

highly visible, most Chinese are dispersed across middle-class residential areas of Accra and neighboring Tema, and their isolation both from each other and from the local population presents challenges for ethnic formation and integration.

First impressions suggest that the Chinese cluster in the Ghanaian capital is temporary and transient, completely lacking in any visible expression of Chinese identity apart from the corporeal. Shops and residences appear to be improvised, bare of any decoration, sparsely furnished, and without any comfort or individual character—spaces strictly reduced to their core functions. The absence rather than the presence of common signifiers of “Chineseness” are characteristic of the Chinese trading cluster. None of the trading enterprises has Chinese characters in its name or on its shop front. Many are not even recognizable as Chinese or East Asian from their names, if they display one. Nor are there altars worshiping ancestors or folk religious deities of happiness, wealth and longevity traditionally regarded as essential for business success. The Chinese entrepreneurs seem to show no real interest in permanent resettlement, or in identifying with other Chinese or being recognized by others as Chinese. How can we explain this lack of visible Chinese identity and community? What factors cause this strong sense of temporariness and transience?

I first offer a brief overview of the history of Chinese migration to Ghana and a theoretical discussion of key concepts in liminality theory.1 I then present empirical findings about the current Chinese presence in Ghana and address my main research questions. First, however, I must explain the basis of my data. Conflating and homogenizing “the” Chinese is a pointless though widespread exercise, so my conclusions about a non-representative sample of Chinese nationals engaged exclusively in trade do not necessarily apply to other groups of Chinese in Ghana—that is, contract workers and investors in industrial production, mining or agriculture. I gathered my information from around 120 Chinese informants through participant observation and intensive qualitative interviewing between early 2011 and late 2013.2 The informants had been residing in Ghana for as little as two months and as long as ten years. The surveyed population of Chinese traders specializing in cheap fashion and household goods is concentrated in Accra and forms an ethnoeconomic cluster of some 200 enterprises consisting of around 1000-1500 Chinese migrants (both shareholders and employees).

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