Laos is obviously not in Africa, but in its relationship with China, the smallest economy in Southeast Asia closely resembles an African state. It has minerals and timber but none of infrastructure and skills it needs to get these to market. Its economy is, in fact, so badly underdeveloped that it is on the United Nation’s list of the world’s least developed countries, but there are plans to change this, and Chinese investment and Chinese skills are a large part of them. China’s government is building a high-speed railway through the country that will eventually connect Beijing to Singapore and its people are flooding in. There are now Chinese casinos on the Mekong and communities of Chinese people throughout the country.
On a recent visit to Laos’ capital, Vientiane, I met some of the Chinese people who have set up small businesses in the city. Their motives for travelling to Vientiane must, I think, resemble the motives of Chinese people in Kinshasa and Lagos and Cape Town, who I am yet to meet, so I’m posted an excerpt from part one of my article on the Chinese of Vientiane here:
Sanjiang was as uniformly drab inside its mall as it was outside, viewed from the parking lot. The vast, perfectly square indoor space was divided into identically-sized square shops by chipboard walls and glass fronts. All the passageways were perfectly straight; they ran right through the building at regular intervals and had the same floor tiles as the shops. It should have been an easy, logical space to navigate, but because so many of the shops were decorated and stocked without imagination or differentiation, we had trouble finding a landmark and, once or twice, got lost.
Almost all the businesses inside and out were owned and staffed by new arrivals from the mainland. We met a handful that afternoon and more when we returned, on three separate occasions, to write a guide to Vientiane’s new Chinatown. There were people from Zhejiang and Jiangsu selling domestic appliances and electronic gadgets, along with jade dealers from Yunnan and a range of entrepreneurs from Hunan; there were restaurants owned by people from Heilongjiang and Liaoning up north and people from crowded Sichuan with a finger in everything. There were tailors from Laos too; they had given up on Vientiane’s medieval Talat Sao Market and seemed to be doing good business here, amongst the Chinese at Sanjiang.
It was possible, after a while, to generalise about the motives and opinions that held this community of émigrés together. Nobody was here for long and everybody considered life in Laos a hardship. There were varying degrees of interest in Laos’ culture and its people, and the Chinese were apparently quick studies when they decided to learn to speak Lao – but only a few ever did. We were told again and again that Laos was undeveloped: it was luòhòu, backward, but the description was never entirely negative. It was why the Chinese had come. The people here seemed to feel that they had missed the boat in China. Its economy was already too advanced to continue lifting up people like them, but the same kind of growth might soon come to Laos, and when it did they could get in at the ground floor.
Development was a national obsession in China. It was how the government measured its success and what ordinary people liked to discuss. It was among the first abstract Chinese words I learnt to recognise, because the taxi drivers and teachers I interacted with excused China’s embarrassments by saying that it was still a developing country and wondered if South Africa was a developing country too. The Chinese idea of development was now being exported with its people, into a culture with different obsessions, where it might not take such a firm hold.
You can read the whole of part one at Old World Wandering, my overland travelogue, and choose to notified when part two is posted.