Conference Report

Rethinking Transnationalism in the Global World: Contested State, Society, Border, and the People in-between

7-8th September 2017, University of Portsmouth, UK

Academics around the world are frequently reminded by their governments, funding agencies, audiences and their own community that scholarship is not only for the pursuit of knowledge but also for making a difference to human life. Claiming that organising a conference can achieve this goal is an overstatement. Yet, hoping to facilitate a close dialogue between scholarship and activism is the rationale behind our design of this conference.

Thanks to the support of the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, we were able to offer such a forum where academics and activists learned from each other’s expertise, experiences, strategies and struggle for recognition. Over two days, research on transnational movements of people, capital, ideas and commodities, and crossing the disciplines of geography, international relations, politics, gender studies, sociology, and anthropology, was presented. At the same time, the screening of a documentary on undocumented migrant workers vividly displayed the violence of sovereignty, the exploitation of capitalism, the toxic sense of jealousy, the bitterness of the sense of guilt, and the frustration of dreams not achieved. The life story told by a Vietnamese artist conveyed the precariousness of the flight from persecution and the lingering negotiation with the identity of being a ‘refugee’. The overview offered by a former editor of a foreign language newspaper, on the other hand, demonstrated how migrants’ desire of being seen and heard can come true with the help of committed activists. These non-academic presentations reminded the conference participants that their research subjects are humans of flesh and blood whose life is conditioned by how the institution of sovereignty and capitalism is maintained and exercised for certain interests.

This lively forum was set against our ambition of strengthening the theoretical vigor of transnationalism as a theoretical framework as well as a social phenomenon, the prevalence of which is steadily growing in East Asia. This ambition was to be realized by focusing on the significance of Taiwan and Hong Kong in the regional as well as global movements of capital, people, ideas and commodity. By applying an intersectional approach, conference participants explored issues critical to the understanding of the dual meanings of transnationalism. They included the institution of sovereignty of Taiwan, the governance of citizenship in Taiwan and China, the flow of capital, the dissemination of ideas, and the consumption of culture across the Taiwan Strait and between Taiwan and Hong Kong, the tension arising in intimacy in marriages located in Taiwan or elsewhere, the restriction of modernity on social innovation in Hong Kong, and the various forms of activism exercised at grassroots, community and transnational level.

These vigorous debates were invited by Professor David Andress, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Portsmouth, who warmly welcomed conference participants on behalf of the host university. Professor Brenda Yeoh, the Dean of Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of the National University of Singapore, gave the keynote speech in which she raised the attention to the often overlooked significance of time and temporality in migrants’ transnational life.

The conference then, delved into transnationalism by four panels of inter-related themes:

  • The institution of sovereignty and its power in exercising border control and gatekeeping of the granting of citizenship: this panel included Isabelle Cheng (University of Portsmouth); Yen-fen Tseng (National Taiwan University); Lara Momesso (University of Portsmouth), and Chun-yi Lee (Nottingham University). Their work was discussed by Elena Barbarantseva (University of Manchester).

  • The flow of capital, ideas, and cultural consumption: this panel included Jens Damm (Chang Jung University), Hsin-yi Wu (Central University) and Klavier Wong (Academy of Hong Kong Studies). Their research was commented by Ming-yeh Rawnlsey (SOAS) and Gary Rawnsley (University of Aberystwyth).

  • Family, intimacy and identity: this panel included Todd Sandel (University of Macao), Yu-chin Tseng (University of Tuebingen), Evelyn Hsin-chin Hsieh (National Taipei University of Education) and Siumi Maria Tam (Chinese University of Hong Kong). Their presentation was commented by Francesca Salvi (University of Portsmouth).

  • Activism in the form of advocacy movement, cultural entrepreneur, and cooperation between migrants and locals: this panel included Hsiao-chuan Hsia (Shih-Hsin University); Yi-jiun Bai (formed editor of Bao Bon Phuong), Paulus Rudolf Yuniarto (Indonesian Institute of Sciences) and Isabelle Cheng (University of Portsmouth), Lara Momesso (University of Portsmouth), and Dafydd Fell (SOAS). Their work received feedback from Tony Fielding (University of Sussex).

Equipped with these presentations of various perspectives and rich empirical data, conference participants were able to re-evaluate the usefulness of transnationalism as an analytical approach to appreciate the specificity of Taiwan and Hong Kong in their role as migration receivers and disseminators of concepts and ideas. On the other hand, conference participants also pondered on transnationalism as a phenomenon affecting the complexity of contemporary lives. They discussed how statehood and sovereignty withstand the impact of transnationalism, how the convergence of capital, the infusion of ideas, and the consumption of cultural products thrive despite the persistent stand-off between Taiwan and China, how a male Muslim’s social entrepreneur failed to shake patriarchy embedded within the South Asian community but succeeded in exposing the weakness of Hong Kong’s pride in globalisation, how transformation at individual and collective levels is facilitated by the transnational networking of social movements and advocacy groups across the state borders.

These reflections, debates and discussions would remain words on paper had they not been examined by everyday reality. This ‘reality check’ was partly carried out by the participation of activists from Taiwan and the UK. The screening of ‘See You, Lovable Strangers’, a documentary made by Tsung-lung Tsai and Ngyuen Kim Hong, recorded the survival strategy of four Vietnamese migrant workers whose desertion of their contract was largely driven by the brokering fees that forced them into debt. Literally taken to the agricultural field in the mountain ridge of central Taiwan, conference participants witnessed the unfolding, amongst four men and women, of the endurance, the relationship, the once only outing to the beach, and the consequences of success and failure of escaping from a police raid. The making of this documentary itself is an extension of the two directors’ commitment to raising the public awareness of the enslaving of brokerage and the negligence of the governments of Taiwan and Vietnam.

Yi-jiun Bai, the former Chinese-language editor of Bao Bon Phuong (四方報), reviewed the birth, growth and branching out of the monthly bilingual newspapers published in Chinese as well as Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Indonesian and Tagalog. The participation of multinational editors in five different languages made this a partnership between migrants and local activists for making the marginalised outsiders seen and heard.

The conference was concluded by a roundtable where we invited participants to join our publication projects. The final publication will be our contributions to underlining the significance of Taiwan and Hong Kong in their experiences as the hub of transnational movements.

Dr Lara Momesso is a lecturer in Asia Pacific Studies at the School of Languages and Global Studies, University of Central Lancashire.

Dr Isabelle Cheng is a Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies at the School of Languages and Area Studies of the University of Portsmouth.