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The inside story on the city's outsiders' communities
( 2003-09-24 11:24) (Agencies)

Think of a city whose history is one of immigration as long as it was worth calling a city. A melting pot, a focus of people's dreams and ambitions, a mecca for anyone seeking their fortune. A city feeling the pressure of an ever expanding population of newcomers with foreign faces and curious customs. It could be New York City at the end of the nineteenth century - or Shanghai at the beginning of the twenty-first.

Just as the world washed up on Ellis Island in the hope of making money, China is coming to Shanghai. From 1991 to 2001, the city's official population increased by an average of 0.3 per cent per year to 13.27 million. But in the same period, the local population's natural growth averaged minus 1.9 per cent per year. Furthermore, the real population of Shanghai, including the hukou-less 'floating population', is generally agreed to be over 16 million.

These numbers point to a steadily declining 'native' population set against cascading waves of immigration. While in New York's case, mass immigration created the archetypal 'melting pot', the social consequences for Shanghai are largely still to be measured. Before a pot's contents can melt, they must become hot enough, and Chinese newcomers to Shanghai - universally branded as waidiren - often face a decidedly chilly reception.

The experience of Chen Bo, who came from Anhui to study at East China Normal University in 1998, typifies the problems many migrants face when they first come to Shanghai. "You¡äre in a different place, you leave your family, sometimes you feel kind of lonely," she recollects. "Also Shanghainese people have a language difference, you can¡ät understand what they say. [¡­] Sometimes they look down on you because you don¡ät speak Shanghainese and you¡äve got a different face from theirs."

Problems are not only social. It can also be harder for outsiders to do business in Shanghai. Shaanxi native Long Xiaoshu is the marketing manager of a pharmaceutical company based in his province. "Before we came here, we assumed that Shanghai was a very open city with a well developed market economy," says Long. "But we found that Shanghai is still very conservative in some aspects. That puts us in a weaker position and our competition with local enterprises is not happening on an equal basis."

Though Shanghai prides itself on its openness, help often comes from closer to home when the reality proves different. Migrant organisations in various incarnations have sprung up to smooth the integration of their homies into Shanghai¡äs class-conscious society.

Long joins his fellow Shaanxi-ren at an informal meeting every year, usually held in a (you guessed it) Shaanxi restaurant. Around 150 people discuss news of home, make friends, and look for business opportunities over steaming bowls of mutton and beef soup. Most are businessmen mixed in with academics and local government officials originating from Shaanxi. The last group makes the guanxi element of the rendezvous obvious - though Long insists that the social facets of the occasion are equally important.

It may well have been over a couple of toasts at one of these occasions that the idea of the Shaanxi Building was conceived. Due for completion in 2004, the building "will serve as a showcase to display Shaanxi not only to the rest of China, but to the world as well," says Lin Zeming, director of the representative office of the Shaanxi provincial government in Shanghai. The Shaanxi Building will be prominently positioned on the corner of Yan¡äAn Zhong Lu and Maoming Bei Lu, and has already cost RMB 160 million.

Such a building is a visible symbol of the Shaanxi¡äs community¡äs cooperation. Equally reliant on internal cooperation are groups such as the shark¡äs fin-swallowing, dim sum-devouring Cantonese and the Fujian community, which controls a sizeable majority of Shanghai¡äs construction material business.

Universities, too, often have ways to initiate newcomers into the ways of the city (in the sad event that copies of the current month¡äs that¡äs Shanghai are all gone). Student-run societies which call themselves laoxianghui provide initial orientation, academic advice and opportunities for students to meet their provincial peers.

Angie Wang is a Hunanese studying English and Japanese at the East China University of Science and Technologies. In her first year, she led the female division of the University¡äs Hunan League.

"It helps Hunan students especially in the first and second years, to get over their troubles when they first set foot in Shanghai," says Wang, whose disarmingly sweet and fresh-faced appearance belies an equally disarming outspokenness.

Wang speaks of the faster pace of living in Shanghai mentioning that the university lunch break was too short to allow the siesta Hunanese were accustomed to from high school. In addition, she and her fellow fire-swallowing Hunanese found Shanghainese food intolerably sweet. "For the first couple of days we had to make do with bread and biscuits," she remembers. And then there were problems of perception arising from cultural differences. "Hunan people are mostly straightforward and generous," says Wang. "We found the Shanghainese so stingy that we didn¡ät feel comfortable dealing with them."

The Hunan League¡äs activities include sports matches and a website as well as a meeting introducing newcomers to their older counterparts. "It¡äs seen as a great opportunity for the older students to find a date," says Wang with another dose of that Hunan straightforwardness.

Clearly the usefulness of such a community varies from one laoxianghui to another. And of course, it has its limitations. Chen Bo has pleasant memories of her university¡äs laoxianghui for Anhui students, but stresses that it is far from a real ¡äcommunity¡ä. "You all speak the same language, you feel like you are still there at home, and that is something nice, actually," says Chen. "But after one or two hours you are back in your dormitory and everyone speaks Shanghainese."

The effectiveness of laoxianghui societies is further limited by the intriguing fact that they are technically forbidden by university authorities. "Yes, the school authorities do not encourage [laoxianghui]," says Wang. "But as long as you don¡ät draw attention to yourself, they don¡ät interfere. It¡äs the same with dating on campus."

Whereas laoxianghui is chiefly geared towards helping people make new friends, a more complex mixture of emotional and practical needs draws together Long Xiaoshu and his fellow Shaanxi natives. "By nature, Shaanxi people are straightforward and willing to help," says Long. But he admits, "Successful people make up a large proportion of the meeting¡äs attendance. Some are starting up companies. Some are managers. Some hold post-doctorial degrees." Though fondness for one¡äs fellows shouldn¡ät be ruled out as a motive for holding such meetings, help is likely more readily offered when a future help payback is anticipated.

Whether migrant assistance communities are drawn together by generosity or guanxi, there is always a risk they will prove self-defeating. After all, helping newcomers to ¡äintegrate¡ä by surrounding them by a protective wall of their own kind could be counterproductive.

This effect is most marked in the blue-collar workers¡ä migrant communities in which most of the ¡äfloating population¡ä of Shanghai reside. Living and working with other migrants, such workers have few opportunities for integration even though they may stay in the city for years. Even their children are taught in special migrant schools, where goodwill often runs high but resources are usually lacking.

Intermarriage has historically been a way to add some heat to that melting pot. But according to Professor Ding Jinhong of the Population Research Centre at East China Normal University, Shanghainese people prefer to marry their own kind. "Maritally undesirable Shanghainese men will accept women from outside Shanghai," writes the professor, "but Shanghainese women will not readily accept men from outside Shanghai, regardless of their own undesirable conditions for marriage." So don¡ät expect to see too many local ladies trawling local construction sites for suitors.

The passport to real integration into the Shanghainese population is a little brown book about seven by five inches big. Possession of a hukou essentially means that one is as good as Shanghainese in the eyes of the law. From 1991 to 2001, an average 191,000 migrants per year were granted a hukou and ¡äbecame¡ä Shanghainese. Set this against the ¡äfloating population¡ä of about 3 million and it is clear just how rare a prize this little book is, granting its holder greater ease in finding a job, welfare provision and full access to state education for their children.

However, having a hukou doesn¡ät mean you stop being an outsider, a waidiren in the eyes of Shanghainese - nor does it necessarily alter your self-image or dislike of sweet Shanghai food. Chen Bo now works full-time in Shanghai and has been in possession of a Shanghai hukou for nearly a year. "I am a Shanghainese," she says. But at the same time she admits, "Even by now I feel I¡äm not a part of Shanghai [¡­] No matter how good Shanghai is, I can say it is my second home, but home is somewhere else."

While such feelings exist, migrant communities will continue to have a function, whether it is helping newcomers weather the storms of Shanghai life or just helping them to find a date with someone who speaks their language and can stomach spicy grub. In the end, home is where the heart is; and while Shanghai is willing to welcome migrants¡ä money and talent, perhaps the city has yet to welcome them with its heart.

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