Spirited away

In China’s Fuzhou region, people make “spirit money” offerings with imitation U.S. currency.

By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM’04
Photography courtesy Julie Chu

Spirited away
In one Chinese province, anthropologist Julie Chu explores how the dream of emigration to America has transformed village life.

A cacophony of death permeated the air as the funeral procession wove its way through the village of Longyan. Firecrackers exploded and Chinese ceremonial drums rattled. Onlookers lined the walkways, bidding farewell to the deceased, an elderly man whose photo, mounted on a polished wooden shrine and carried by four mourners like an imperial sedan, peered sternly at the crowd.

Anthropologist Julie Chu struggled to keep up with the procession. Just two months into her fieldwork in the rural outskirts of Fuzhou, a region in southeast China, she was so busy taking in the scene that she didn’t notice the slips of paper scattered along the road. Designed to pay off malevolent spirits and usher the dead into the afterlife, this “spirit money” was traditionally yellow with a slit down the middle. Yet when Chu’s gaze finally fell upon the street, one bill stood out.

“Is that a U.S. dollar?” she asked. Her companion, a local researcher, nodded. The paper bore the exact dimensions of a $100 bill, printed in green ink with official-looking seals and markings. In place of Ben Franklin, however, was a portrait of the Jade Emperor, the Daoist overseer of heaven. This mock money, Chu’s friend told her, was “the modern kind” of spirit money, used in public ceremonies since the mid-1990s.

In this village, America is part of daily life. Every year an estimated 10,000 people in the greater Fuzhou region leave for the United States, many through illicit channels—in other words, human smuggling. Situated along the busy shipping routes of Fujian Province, smuggling comprises China’s largest emigration flow. Chu’s forthcoming book, Cosmologies of Credit: Transnational Mobility and the Politics of Destination in China(Duke University Press), explores how such movement has become deeply ingrained in residents’ psychology and serves as a marker of modernity in a globalized China.

On the surface, the persistent emigration attempts make little sense, says Chu, an assistant professor of anthropology and the social sciences in the College. With the help of family and high-interest loans—few emigrants are wealthy—many pay an average of $70,000 to be transported in cargo-ship holds or shipping containers, taking an uncertain route with “no guarantee of success.” The trip often includes intermediate stops and additional travel on foot or by plane. Travelers might get stranded midway, stalled for months in Thailand or Guatemala. Their desired end point: “Little Fuzhou,” a neighborhood of Manhattan’s Chinatown, where most end up as low-paid, undocumented workers in the restaurant, construction, or other day-labor industries.

“The odds and ends didn’t seem to add up,” says Chu, who learned about the Fuzhou flow while researching migrant health and hospital regulation in lower Manhattan as a graduate student at New York University. A spate of highly publicized disasters in the 1980s and ’90s made the phenomenon even more puzz-ling. In the 1993 Golden Venture tragedy, a freighter transporting nearly 300 Chinese stowaways in squalid conditions ran aground on Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York, leaving ten dead and many others jailed or deported. “Why are people risking such high stakes?” wondered Chu.

The question launched an ongoing investigation into migration and what it means for the Fuzhounese. “We tend to think of migration as a smooth flow from point A to point B,” says Chu, who spent nearly a year living and teaching English in Fuzhou between 2001 and 2002. “You don’t think about all the logistics, infrastructure, and complications between exit and entry.” Even when a relative could secure documentation, families split between shores often would wait years to be reunited, a delay that has grown even longer after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Since the mid-1980s, she says, departing for the United States has “become almost an expected rite of passage” for Fuzhou’s working-age adults, particularly men. “There are no men here, only women and children,” locals would tell Chu. “There’s nothing to do here”—no work—they insisted, a statement that left her puzzled when she noticed men working all around her, commonly in agriculture, fishing, construction, military, or factory jobs. When questioned, these males rushed to explain away their presence: “Oh, no, I’m still a child,” or “Oh, I’m already old,” they would say. Others fell into different categories: disabled or cursed with bad luck.

“It’s more the aspiration of leaving that’s necessary” than immediate success, says Chu. False starts, including deportations, are all part of the learning process. A pattern of Fuzhounese sailors jumping ship at the Port of New York during the 1980s may have given rise to the initial migration waves, but reasons for its persistence are more complex.

The very desire to depart, Chu argues, has come to embody a forward-looking, cosmopolitan ideal that pervades village life. America represents modernity for rural residents who live on the periphery of modern China, close enough to see globalization’s influence, but too far removed to reap its benefits. “The U.S. is embedded in people in this part of China,” she says. Mansions with American-style exteriors—whose interiors lack basic plumbing—pepper the rural landscape. Local slang includes words like “waida,” which refers specifically to a waiter in an American-style Chinese restaurant. Overseas relatives send back remittances in U.S. dollars, funding temple construction and other ritual life.

The transnational connection extends into the cosmological realm. Prayers and offerings for the gods are a critical part of the migration process. Karmic debts from a past life, the Fuzhounese believe, might be responsible for current immigration ills. In Chinese popular religion, atonement for past-life wrongdoing includes bargaining and bribing the gods. A worshipper, Chu writes, might forge an oral contract “to spend a large sum of actual USD on behalf of a particular god in return for that god’s specific intervention in matters ranging from safety in human-smuggling ventures to success in political-asylum applications and new businesses overseas.”

For many Fuzhounese, the goal is not to leave home forever but to carve out a mobile future. “The most common aspiration is a kind of coming back and forth,” says Chu, where the travelers ultimately secure the documentation and finances necessary to have a home in America and a mansion back in their native village.

That lifestyle starts early for some America-born children of Fuzhounese parents. Known as “Miwo Giang” (American children), they obtain passports in infancy and are sent back to the village to be cared for by grandparents and other relatives until school age. The phenomenon, which Chu is studying for her next project, has given rise to an entire industry of transnational couriers who accompany children, along with their American milk formula, diapers, and clothes, on voyages. Just like their parents, Chu says, the dream for these young travelers is that they “go on and live life on a more global, cosmopolitan scale.”


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