Julie Lim


Race and Belonging in an International City: Overseas Chinese in ‘New’ Shanghai



An aspiring international city, Shanghai has a history of being one of the most culturally diverse and attractive cities for tourism, business and employment in China. A magnet for foreign investment, launching international brands, business headquarters, provincial migrants in search of work and opportunity, and for national and international tourists a glimpse of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Paris of the Orient, the city strongly presents a cosmopolitan and international image, with a variety of cultures represented in the forms of architecture, art, cuisine, entertainment and language. With a widening representation of foreign businesses and organisations, and a vision to be an international competitor, the city is fast becoming a provider of an increasing range of services, aimed at both local and foreign customers.

One unique body of foreign visitors comprises the overseas-born Chinese. These are ethnic Chinese born and raised outside of the mainland, often in China in search of roots, Chinese language study, travel or work. Culturally, they may be as ‘foreign’ as their foreign counterparts. Linguistically, for many, speaking and reading Chinese is a challenging handicap, and negotiating their way through the city as guests, they are frequently looked upon as local citizens, and treated as such in comparison to other foreign guests. In the service industry, a common observation is that members of this group are often treated with hostility and indifference.

In their own countries of birth, overseas Chinese have often grown up in environments stigmatised by racial discrimination and stereotyping, which have led to the formation of identities devoid of national or ethnic belonging, and feelings of fear, confusion, and obsession about such identities. In their home countries and in mainland China, they are commonly categorised by race. While there is substantial scholarly work on Chineseness and the Chinese diaspora, a focus on the socio-cultural challenges faced by overseas Chinese in a China context warrants further investigation and indeed, such interest is emerging in local media discussion in China.

Through analyses of the theories of cosmopolitanism and hospitality, and investigation into the experiences of overseas Chinese in locally situated service encounters, this thesis aims to explore the degrees to which this particular group of guests have a sense of Chinese identity and belonging in this modern Chinese city. It will look at the city of Shanghai as a dynamic space of hospitality, and the relationships that interact within this, and address the policies determining citizenship that serve these trans- and other intra-national groups of people.

Furthermore, it questions in particular the existence of the concepts of ‘actually existing cosmopolitanism’ and Immanuel Kant’s Law of Cosmopolitanism in the city, and seeks to determine the extent to which these concepts or lack thereof contribute to a marginality of self-identity, and the construction, reconstruction, or deconstruction of Chinese identity for overseas Chinese.