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Transnational Ethnography

Issues of Vernacular Preservation: 
Migrants in Hong Kong and Spain

Jessica Von Wendel

          Global cities become global through the forces of transnationalism.  People and products from around the world move from one place to the other, undoubtedly leaving their mark and influence.  Global cities are the accumulation of these marks.  As I traveled around the world being a transnational force in and of myself, I became aware of the saturation of shared ideas between nations.  I knew that through globalization the world was getting smaller and that global influences can be seen everywhere.  However, I was surprised by the contamination of international images and ideals in areas of the world, like Burma for instance, which I thought remained somewhat removed from these influences.

          One of the most noticeable evidences of transnationalism are transmigratory labor forces.  Just as the McDonalds sign peaks out of the chaos in Beijing as something alien, foreigners are easily identified.  When these faces jump out of the crowd as being an “other,” I find their stories to be some of the most intriguing.   Within this multisited ethnography, I will be focusing on the transnational movement of migrant labor.  Since I was a transnational force as I sailed from port to port, I felt that I could find some similarities between the migrants in the countries I visited and myself.  I will be focusing on my observations with Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong and with African street merchants in Spain.  I will compare how these new forces are affecting the vernacular by focusing on how the locals respond to these new labor forces as well as what affects the migrants' transnational influence may have on ideas of vernacular culture.

Hong Kong: A Family Abroad

Spain's Identity Crisis


          In Mike Davis’s book, Planet of the Slums he explains that “The world’s urban labor force has more than doubled since 1980, and the present urban population -3.2 billion- is larger than the total population of the world when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated.” Global forces such as civil war, debt, and even things like drought in Africa are pushing people from the countryside and into urban slums around the world.  As slums grow, the incentives to move to a modern global city become tempting.  Davis further states that in particular, “Africa’s slums are growing at twice the speed of the continent’s exploding cities” which could be one of the reasons why Spain is receiving a greater influx of African immigrants now more than ever.

          In observing how the vernacular in these global cities responds to these transnational labor forces, I found that in both Hong Kong and Spain everyday citizens tend to ignore the migrant’s presence.  Perhaps in denying that these foreigners are living within their society, locals can preserve their idealized national and ethnic identities.  However, simultaneously in Lisa Law's article “Defying Disappearance: Cosmopolitan Public Spaces in Hong Kong,” she states that “It is important to stress that, for most migrants, transnational migration seems to inspire a heightened sense of national identity.”  So the migrant’s sense of cultural identity is also heightened during their time abroad which poses a threat to the vernacular's own sense of character.

          Another possibility involves vernacular history.  Perhaps the association of migrants with colonizers or military takeovers results in a wanton disregard for their presence or in some cases hostility.  The Central area where the Filipina gather on their days off was once the British town square during their reign over Hong Kong.  The Filipinas' presence may act as a reminder of days when the local citizens were not in control of their own state.  In addition, the Africans coming into Spain are reminiscent of the Moorish Muslim culture that fought against the now dominant Catholics.

          However, this fear and ignoring of the migrant also works the other way.  In Fulong Wu’s article “Transplanting Cityscapes:  Townhouse and gated community in globalization and housing commodification” she describes how it is the foreign migrant who wants to block out the local.  She discusses the idea of gated communities as protection against the invading local other.  These foreigners are often wealthy and so a class-based discrimination may also play a part in how migrants are received by the vernacular.

          A global city may welcome wealthy foreign investors, because they can improve the country's economy, but at the same time, so can a labor group from the Philippines or Africa.  The real problem comes with the numbers of migrants.  Often wealthy immigrants come in small numbers while labor forces come in larger numbers.  In larger groups support systems are easily created between members allowing for the continuation of culture and the rejection of complete assimilation.  Mary Crain discusses in her article “Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology” about locals in El Rocio, Spain, who feel that they are losing their local traditions of a spiritual pilgrimage to tourists who have taken over the festival.  Foreigners come in mass numbers in order to experience true culture, but are in essence destroying it with their very presence.  This is a fear that poses a threat to the vernacular, but is an essential step in the creation of a global city.


          Despite this distaste for the migrant, the world is globalizing and more and more flows of people will enter areas other than their prescribed state.  The locals' fear of losing their cultural identity while faced with these intruders is understandable but unrealistic as the global city emerges.  Interestingly, Theodore Bestor suggests in his article “Supply-Side Sushi: Commodity, Market, and the Global City” that it is in these interactions that one can actually “find the local in the global.” After all how can one distinguish between the transnational and vernacular without first experiencing the other?

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