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Manila shawl and “gold mountain uncles” and Protein demand and chicken farm blockchain

Nikita Yingqian Cai

Manila shawl and “gold mountain uncles”

The Manila shawl was originally from Canton. The silk produced in Shunde – an affluent region since the Ming Dynasty due to its adjacency to water, abundance of agricultural land, and its robust mulberry and sericulture industry – was woven into the shawls hand-made by local embroidery artisans. They adapted designs principally of lotus flowers and dragons to depict flora that resonated better with an international audience, such as roses and carnations. Spanish and Latin American women became enamored with the intricate floral designs, while the shawl’s signature tassels, originating from Native American garments, contributed to the vibrancy of the flamenco dancer’s mellifluous performances. This was the time when Spain dominated the maritime trade route. A range of colonial luxuries including silk products, ceramics, and tea leaves would be loaded in Canton and transported via Manila and Acapulco before arriving in the southern port of Seville in Spain—the same route taken by the explorer Magellan. It would, however, go on to lose its imperial advantages within Asia to the monopoly of [the] East Indian Companies in the 19th century.

Travelling in the opposite direction, destined for the Philippines, were Spanish galleons transporting heavy loads of Mexican bullion from South America and devoted Catholic missionaries from Europe. The missionaries arriving early in Luzon had known for a long time that “Catholicizing” the traders (sangley) from the southern regions of Imperial China — particularly those from Guangdong, Fujian, and Taiwan — and fostering them as local intermediaries, would aid the Spanish colonial expansion in the area.

To this day, there are still some Catholic relics in the region of Sze Yap. The region would later provide a large number of young and cheap laborers for the coolie trade that followed the opium wars. Coolies were deceived into signing up for jobs that had them setting sail from Macau, and drifting for months, before arriving in Peru, Cuba, or the British-controlled Caribbean to earn a pittance shoveling bird droppings, farming sugarcane, or digging the Panama Canal. Some would later travel to the west coast of North America where they provided labor for mines, the construction of transcontinental railways, and the California gold rush. Those who struck rich by panning for gold were referred to as “gold mountain uncles” upon their return home.

Right after the peak of the coolie trade, the US signed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, and the racist rhetoric it legitimized would later be a contributing factor in the opening of the notorious immigration station on Angel Island (1910 – 1940).


Protein demand and chicken farm blockchain

A YouTube video “How to quickly destroy the world’s forests?” produced by PaperClip and WWF sparked accusations from Chinese internet commentators in early 2020 for its direct linking of China’s middle class growing protein demand with deforestation in Brazil. Some of the commentators claimed the “right to development” both for the Brazilians who wanted to do business with China and for the Chinese who could finally afford to consume more meat. It is a third-world developmentalist ghost in the shell of nationalism, and the current trade route of meat and soy between China and Brazil resonates with the long history of mercantile modernity. China’s food security based on pork supply and the Belt and Road Initiative are also connected to Brazil’s soybean chain and the ongoing construction of highway BR-163 in the state of Mato Grosso, which has a fundamental role in commerce, tourism, and the transport logistics of the agribusiness.

However, the growing Chinese demand for protein does not have much to do with the CCP and state-owned enterprises as most western media would have depicted. On the contrary, it masks a socio-economic divide which is very much like what is happening around the world. Some people like beef, some people like pork, while some can afford neither but will surely want more. Some might prefer organic food or no meat because they live a cosmopolitan life and are more alert to the surrounding ecological crisis.

In some poor villages of hinterland China, one would still have hard time finding beef dishes in home-run restaurants because farmers won’t kill cows for food – they raise the animal for agricultural labor. There are still plenty of small farm holders in rural areas of China, and when compared to industrial farming, have different ways of bonding with their lands and animals. Cows for them are like horses to cowboys (though less romantic). In recent years, some farmers have started raising high-tech chicken in their farms, in which chicken wear leg bands to track their movements as Fitbits for tech start-ups to record the data on a blockchain.

That is how technology is transforming the lives of the human and nonhuman – neither the farmers nor the animals have any free choice when confronted by global capitalism. What we should continue to bear in mind is who sustains the flourishing of the world.

Nikita Yingqian Cai lives and works in Guangzhou, where she is currently Associate Director and Chief Curator at Guangdong Times Museum.
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