Myanmar Jewellers in China - Transcript

JC: Julie Yu-Wen Chen

JZ: Juliet Zhu

[intro music starts]

Announcer: This it the Nordic Asia Podcast.

[intro music ends]

JC: Welcome to Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Julie Yu-Wen Chen, Professor of Chinese Studies at University of Helsinki, Finland. Join me today to talk about Myanmar Jewellers in China is Juliet Zhu from Mahidol University in Thailand. Juliet is currently doing her postdoctoral research at Mahidol University in Thailand. She did her PhD in the same university and in her PhD, she studied the Myanmar Jewellers in China. I actually had the honor to be in her doctoral committee in the year 2022. So that was last year. And I'm very pleased that she has managed to continue her research after her doctoral study. So, Juliet, can I ask you to briefly introduce yourself?

JZ: OK. Thank you. Thank you so much, Professor Julie. Thank you for your very generous introduction and also thank you for your invitation to this project and so and so to the audience of Nordic Asia podcast. It's a great pleasure to have this opportunity to share with you some of my research, insights and experiences. I am originally from China, but now I am based in Thailand at the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia or welcome as how we conveniently call it, RILCA. This institute belongs to Mahidol University. I used to be a PhD student at this institute and as Professor Julie has introduced, my dissertation focused on the Myanmar immigrants. More specifically speaking, the Myanmar Jewellers, the Myanmar immigrants who sell Jade, ruby, sapphire, pearl as well as Amber in Chinese border cities. So, in that project, I studied how transnational migration and urban spatial reconfiguration or scaling define each other. I argue that while the two processes are mutually constitutive, the extent and consequences of that interplay hinges fundamentally on local specificities such as geographical locations, geopolitical histories, and the policy orientations of state and different local governments. So that's what I have done in the previous year.

JC: Thank you, Juliet. Maybe you can tell us a bit about the studied area and the history of this particular group of jewellers in China. When did they arrive in China and how many are there? What has changed over the years?

JZ: Just to give you a brief geographical orientation: I chose three cities in the border area to do my PhD dissertation. So those cities scattered along the China-Myanmar border. They are not the area where the Mekong river or the Chinese Lancang river flows across. So, it's like a little bit northward like upperwar near what we call the Ruili River and so the Southern River. If we are talking about the history of Myanmar Jewellers in China, it is actually not that long because they only started to migrate to China in the 1980s. But in comparison we (Chinese) have a longer history of consumption of jade in China, especially the precious stones from the Burmese kingdoms, the history of the consumption of Burmese jade and the other precious stones in China could be traced as far as back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, so roughly in the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time those precious stones from the Burmese Kingdom were sent to the Royal Courts and to the elite classes, so they ended up as the personal connection and like a treasure for the affluent classes. They are not available for the common people in China. It was until the 1980s that the precious stones become a commodity for mass consumption. And it was also in this era that the first generation of jewellers arrived in China. And it was so because China ended a long political turmoil and economic stagnation with the introduction of the reform and opening-up policy in 1978. So, under that policy, the borders were open to foreign travelers again. So that's how Myanmar jewellers could enter. At the same time, the local governments on the Chinese side of the border responded very actively and they took their own initiatives to activate border trade. And the final years of the 1970s and the early years of the 1980s actually welcomed the first generations of Myanmar jewellers. And I really think that the first generation of them are like adventurers because although at first they were just a few of them and you can imagine that at that time, the Chinese border areas were very poor in comparison to their counterparts on the Burmese side of the border. And because of the long economic and political instabilities, there was no urban infrastructure at that time. So you cannot find anything like a high building, private cars or street lights if you go near the border. So, it's very poor and you can just dirt grounds and grassland, or maybe bamboo huts in near the border. The only road in the border city is to the provincial capital. At that time was like a slightly renovated version of the Burma Road. which is built during the Second World War. It used to be a like very poor area, but later on with some local incentives and the state policies, they developed very fast. But it was like just almost two decades later. Therefore, I think really the first generation of the jewellers are true adventurers who set foot on the the virgin land that waiting for them to explore. It was in the early 1990s that the local governments realized that the jewelry trade will be very beneficial to the local revenue. So, they started to proactively promote the construction of jewelry market. Some of them even positioned jewelry trade as in for instance local economic pillar or a city rebranding strategy. So, they expected that jewelry trade will not only benefits the local revenue but also will benefit the other sectors, for instance real estate development, catering and transportation. They think that the transnational jewelry trade is not just a trade itself but it has many links like constructive effects.

JC: What comes to my mind is that when you talk about these adventurers, they are the pioneers so to say. Could they speak any Chinese when they entered China or they learned along the way some word?

JZ: The first generation could not speak Chinese at all when they first arrived. But they were really smart. They could learn very fast. When I was doing the interview with them, most of them could speak a local dialect very fluently like the natives. So, they learned the language very fast after they entered China.

JC: Do they eventually kind of settled down in China or they still moved back and forth between Myanmar and China?

JZ: I have to say both, especially those who settle down. They they migrated to China in the early years, the 1990s, they have accumulated enough fortune to buy a house for something likea  apartment room on the Chinese side of border. So, they could set up the family here. And some of the families have expanded into even the third generation. So,they actually have a house and have a family in China. But due to the nature of the business, they need to shuttle like very frequently between China and Myanmar in order to get enough supply and to maintain the business Network. So, they both stay in China for a long time, but they will travel back very frequently as well. So, it's like both.

JC: I assume that Chinese people as consumers are very interested in this kind of product. It is not just in the border area. But products will further be sold to other parts of China, right?  

JZ: Right. There is this thing about travel restriction. I have to mention the thing about the border pass now. More than 95% or even 99% are no exaggeration. 99% of them are using what they call as the Little Red Book. So, it's like a border pass. The border Pass is agreed upon by Chinese Immigration Authority and the Myanmar Immigration Authorities to allow the border residents to travel across the border more freely. They don't need to really apply for a visa every time but that border pass only allows them to stay in the border city. They can't really go beyond that. So instead, they depend on their like partnership with Chinese traders who will help them to sell their products like beyond the territory of those border cities. So, they have to depend on some Chinese partners in that case.

JC: Right. And that's how the business grow then. Do you know how many of them? I assume the number has changed.

JZ: There has been a huge change in terms of the number of that population. It is very difficult to really keep or to calculate very accurately how many they are. They don't use the visa or passport. When they apply for the border pass, they don't really need to state clearly what the purpose of the visit is. So, they can enter China for a family visit for instance and later on they become a trader at the friends or family members’s store. So, they become a jewellery trader only after that. Based on my field trip, I would like to say that the average number of this group could range from like 100,000 to 200,000 in the 1990s and 2000s, but their number drops greatly since 2010.

JC: Why has the number has dropped?

JZ: There are a few reasons. First of all, there is this very massive anti-corruption campaign in China ever since 2010. They have lost some of their biggest buyers due to that that campaign and the business just dropped very greatly. And then the Chinese government created the Belt and Road initiative (BRI). BRI actually positions the borderlands as like a frontier for industrial development and for urbanization. So, a lot of factories set up their branches near the borderline. They offer more opportunities to the Myanmar immigrants. So, Myanmar immigrations don't really need to work as jewellery traders. They can also find some alternative options as working in a factory or working in a restaurant or working at a construction site. They have more options which will be actually more stable for them. So, they can sign a contract and they can get a monthly salary. The best thing about signing the contract is that you can get letter of guarantee from your employer so that you can apply for a local residence permit which will allow you to stay in China for like up to one year.

JC: BRI benefits them for their long term prospect living in China.

JZ: There are very complicated factors. You have to say which group, specifically the initiative, offers more job opportunities, and they could get the Myanmar immigrants who work for a company or work for a business like a stable business to stay in China for the long term. But for the Myanmar jewellers, it's another picture. BRI actually have stimulated as surge of domestic migration from other provinces in China to the border city. So those people who migrated to borderlands are actually the young people in China. They know the digital skills to do live-streaming trade. So they later on become live-streaming hosts in the jewelry trade. So that means there is this huge competition between Chinese traders and the the Myanmar traders since the Myanmar dealers are not that good at doing like digital trade and live- streaming trade. They are like pushed to the margins of the market and at the same time because those Myanmar jewelers are very often like freelancers, they are self-employed. They don't really have a channel to get the letter of guarantee for them to stay a little bit longer. In the border cities, the BRI has different impacts on different groups of immigrants.

JC: With the young Chinese people, more employment opportunity in this domain, but then the Myanmar jewellers were lacking this digital scale and perhaps lacking Chinese so it becomes really difficult for them.

JZ: I have to say that live-streaming is like very promising industry and it gives like the youngsters many opportunities to accumulate a huge fortune. But for the Myanmar jewellers it's like not promising at all, because in the first place, they have difficulties using the social media apps in China. If you want to register for accounts in China, those social media apps, you need to use some of the personal information based on the passport and visa. Most of them are using the border pass which is not applicable to those social media platforms and that's the first problem. And then, they are not really familiar with the trends in live-streaming. I have noticed that during my few trips those Myanmar immigrants prefer the other social media that could not be legally used in China such as like Facebook, Twitter and Line. So, they used VPN service to climb across the digital wall and to see the world outside. All the social media apps for live streaming are like new continent for them. Also, as you have mentioned, the language barriers. Although they can speak the dialec like speaking and listening, writing fluently to that kind of proficiency which you can interact with the viewers very quickly and timely, even in some very amusing way, it's another issue, right? It's more difficult.

JC: For Chinese consumers, what kind of platform do they use? Is it WeChat?

JZ: They use a lot of TikTok. There are a lot of professional live streaming companies nowadays. So they have their own platforms. They develop their own platform so they can control the volume. I have visited those live streaming companies. They have even what they call as a traffic package which you can buy so that the company will use the technology to boost the views so there are more viewers.

JC: I can imagine the COVID-19 pandemic must have influenced even further those Myanmar jewellers as border crossing becomes difficult. Could you tell us about that situation?

JZ: It is a very saddening story because during the pandemic it's like, although I have to say the infection rate of COVID-19 is actually very low in the border areas. But ever since April 2020, the provincial government has ordered the closure for three years consecutively. They not only close the border but also lock down the border cities very often. They would order a lockdown for perhaps a few months and opened up the cities for a few weeks and locked down again. And during those lockdowns, the markets of course and including the jewelry markets are closed as well. So, there is no business for them at all for three years like almost like nothing. I think like more than 90% of them have no better option but to leave. So they relocate back to Myanmar. I had lost connections with most informants during this period. So it's like not promising for them at all and they don't know when this will end. Even though the Chinese government has removed the border closures on January 8th, 2023. But in the first few weeks of January, the Myanmar side of the border and the Myanmar of immigration authorities just refused to open the border because of their deep concerns over the infection spikes in China right now. So, I really hope that things will get better soon, because now the infection curve in China is now most steady. Perhaps after that, the Myanmar Immigration Authority will think that it will be OK to open the border again.

JC: I can imagine while the COVID pandemic maybe is really devastating for the Myanmar jewellers’ business, but it probably was an opportunity for those who are very good at doing live streaming already, right? They can use these online sales instead of having to present their product onsite. Well. What is the situation for those who are doing the live streaming? Is it becoming a booming business?

JZ: Because live streaming still depends on the supply of goods from Myanmar, it still depends the transnational mobility of people and goods. So, I know that there are some people who go back to Myanmar to do live streaming, but it's like they don't have the kind of technological support from the Chinese companies and they don't have those institutional or technological supports on the Chinese side of the border. So, it's still more difficult for them. It's not a better option actually. Everyone is waiting for the traffic across the border to resume. Like everyone is still waiting, just hopefully like in maybe a few weeks or maybe in one month, it will be better and better for them.

There's also this thing about the power structure between the Chinese traders and Myanmar jewellers. In the previous years, the Chinese traders have dominated the market and they control almost all the sales and the market both online and offline. As a result, it's like the tilted ground for Myanmar jewellers. That is to say, they are altogether becoming more dependent on the Chinese traders. Sometimes they are hired by the Chinese traders or the live streaming hosts as like a performer, “the performer” with a quotation mark. So, in those live streaming trades, you don't have to be the real traders who can decide how to sell the product. But they are required to interact with the Chinese traders in certain manners because it was like a pre-orchestrated performance, like a staged performance. They could interact with their each other like verbally or even physically, fighting in amusing ways or like they talk with each other in a very romantic ways so it's like they are boyfriend and girlfriend, or they simply just play some pranks. All those things are designed for attracting viewers. So live streaming is about attention.

When I talked about this, I can't resist talking about this funny aspect. So, we know that among those Myanmar jewelers there, there is those Chinese Myanmar immigrants, right? So the Chinese Myanmar traders, meaning the Myanmar immigrant traders with Chinese family background. They are not favored by the Chinese live streaming hosts because they don't look foreign enough. The Chinese traders will prefer this kind of look with the typical Southeast Asian appearance.

JC: So they looks more exotic?

JZ: Those appearance is like commercialized by the Chinese traders as a validation of the jewelries’ quality and authenticity.  The performer looks Burmese. He is Burmerse. So, what he's selling must be authentic Burmese.

JC: How important is the source of Myanmar jewelries compared with all kinds of gems that you can find in China or other parts of world? Is this the main source where Chinese people get the product?

JZ: It's like the main and only one that Chinese people would cherish because both like long like historical cultural appreciation of the kind of product, but also because of the commercialization of the Burmese jade that throughout the past three decades, people have this idea that jade from Burma is of superior quality and it has a limited quantity and if you cannot buy it right now, it might just become more expensive or just disappear in another day. So, it's like Chinese people have this urge to buy the jade from Myanmar.

JC: You studied those jewelers in your doctoral research. How about your postdoc? Is it a continuation of the past research?

JZ: It could be from a certain perspective. When I was writing about the transnational migration of Myanmar jewellers for the dissertation, I was focusing more on the spatial aspect of that migration, such as urban space or spatial construction. But when I was revising the final draft, I started to realize the significance of time in migration. I realized that the Myanmar jewellers arriving in the Chinese cities in different historical periods are experiencing the city and their changes, I mean the urban dynamics in quite distinctive ways. Those things are not just emotional or invisible, but they are like effects that will directly shaping their decisions and shaping their eventualy the migratory trajectories. That helps me to to think more critically about time. So, if we take time for granted then it would seem like that we are or they are living in the same time. So, we are contemporaneous. So, we are co-living in this same moment, say maybe for instance January 2023 or August 2024. But if we take time more critically then it's not difficult to see that we are not actually living in the same temporal frames. The temporal backgrounds or conditions or the family histories that a person lives in is like as important as functions or the significance of space. I think that time and space should not be separated when we are doing research like this. And but very often you can see that we only look at the spatial aspects of migration, right? Time is mentioned, but it is kept as a contextual background against which we organize our data. We use a timeline or a historical lineage when describing a series of events, but its role in shaping those datas is not given enough attention. I'm currently working on a piece which is more theoretically oriented on the concept and role of time in migration. I will be working on that by using some previous data that I have collected in combination with newer research projects that look more specifically at the domestic migrants in China.

JC: In a way your doctoral research is continuing and is going to expand and that's very good because I think the story hasn't ended yet. In fact, there are many aspects that probably we can still look deeper into it and I'm also thinking that now we have been talking about these jewellers as a collective group but as you draw the spatial and then the temporal dimensions in, you'll realize in fact they cannot be a collective group.

JZ: They have different family backgrounds and they have different attitudes towards the border cities. They have different imaginations of the border cities and of their futures as well. So, when we are interrogating their migration stories or histories or narratives, it will be very helpful and constructive if we could dig a little deeper into the temporal aspects.

JC: Thank you very much, Juliet, for sharing your insights with us. You have been listening to the Northeast Asia Podcast with me, Julie Yuan Chen from Helsinki and Juliet Zhu from Mahidol University in Thailand.

[outro music starts]

Announcer: You have been listening to the Nordic Asia Podcast.

[outro music ends]