In 1959, the American journalist Stanley Karnow visited Laos for Life magazine. He described it as “an improbable little landlocked country of affable, gentle, easygoing people who would like nothing better than to be left alone.” Karnow’s characterisation fitted in with a Western conception of the country that has lingered on, right up until the present, when its time has clearly passed. Laos is not happily stagnant. The country’s government wants it off the list of least developed countries by 2020 and foreign investment – in mining, transport, hydropower and, to a lesser extent, agriculture and services – is how it plans to get there. The plan is working: Laos’ economy, which neither grew nor shrunk substantially in the eighties and nineties, quadrupled in size between 2002 and 2010. Its traditional investors have been Thai and Vietnamese, but last year, by investing $344 million over the course of just six months, Chinese companies overtook them both.
China is pouring more than just money into Laos. Earlier this year, after three years in Shanghai, I visited Southeast Asia’s least known country on my way home to Cape Town, overland. In Vientiane, I discovered a large community of immigrants from China who had arrived recently, chasing wealth that they felt had eluded them at home. At the centre of this community was Sanjiang Cheng – Three Rivers City – an irredeemably ugly wholesale market that I thought might also be a microcosm, “a low-grade recreation of modern China transplanted onto Laos, with no vestiges of the past but everything of the present’s mobility and hunger for money – and that it could, perhaps, be understood as both a testament to and an indictment of what China had achieved since Deng Xiaoping opened up the country’s economy in 1979.” I described it in an essay posted to my travelogue, called The Chinese of Vientiane:
The compound was staked out by a concrete wall; inside, concrete warehouses with tin roofs and rusty, roll-down doors were separated by concrete roads and concrete pavements. Cheap Chinese lanterns, strung forlornly from the buildings’ eaves, were the only attempt at charm and the only nod to a Chinese past. The warehouses were stocked with cheap plastic toys or tools or stationery; it was all piled high and covered in dust. The families that lived and worked inside these single-purpose stores sat amongst their stuff, in the shadow of boxes and notebooks and hanging chords, and it seemed as if they too might gather Sanjiang’s dust. They were made up of two or three generations: children, scratching out their homework distractedly or playing a computer game; their parents, gazing absently in our direction, with the occasional cousin or second cousin in between. There were no grandparents; they had been left behind by their families as much as by the changing times.
For a while we thought that these closely clustered warehouses were the whole of Sanjiang, but the Beijinger had described a larger space, with a variety of restaurants. Although there were two here, with oversized pictures of Chinese dishes plastered across their grimy windows, both were closed. We asked a woman from Hunan where we might find others and she pointed us to the north, past Hong Kong City, where fake Louis Vuitton handbags and cheap, animatronic novelties – like Funny Toilet Guy and Sassy Girl, whose top fell down when she bent over, revealing enormous white breasts – were priced in Thai baht. It was cheaper for Thais to cross the Friendship Bridge into Laos than it was for Chinese products to make the journey in reverse and Sanjiang had, as a result, become one end-point of a supply chain that started somewhere on China’s east coast, in a factory dedicated to the production of this whimsical junk.
Beyond Hong Kong City and a handful of warehouses, with agricultural machinery or furniture lined up in neat rows on their cement floors, the compound opened up into a wide parking lot. There, at last, was a sign – Laos Three Rivers International Trade and Commerce City, in grubby white characters on a red background – above the entrance to a square, single story building a few hundred metres deep. Other signs, in Lao and Chinese, were stretched out across the full width of the building, advertising the contents of the shops inside: domestic appliances, outboard motors, garden furniture, sound systems, computer parts, computer accessories, fashion accessories, chandeliers, cutlery, crockery, bedding, groceries, DVDs, toys, clothing, shoes. In the eighties, Chinese people had obsessed over three possessions: a refrigerator, a washing machine and a television. The country had moved onto more expensive markers of wealth – apartments, cars and iPhones – but domestic demand for appliances had brought prices down far enough to make the made-in-China trappings of middle-class life affordable in poorer places, like Laos.
The compound’s restaurants were to the north of the indoor market. A few specialist shops were clustered just past them, to the east, and then, abruptly, without the formality of a ceremonial gateway, Sanjiang ended at a tarred road. It was a Chinatown, with Chinese businesses and Chinese people, but now that we had seen the whole of it, Sanjiang was also nothing like the tourist-attraction Chinatowns of San Francisco or Sydney, with their dragon dances on festival days and medicine shops resembling alchemists’ dens. It was the largest shopping centre in Laos and the “largest mall for Chinese products in Southeast Asia,” according to Ding Gou Jiang, the Sanjiang Company’s president, but it had been built for trade and trade only. Although families lived in lofts above the warehouses, they had done nothing to make the compound more liveable.
I met people from every corner of the Chinese mainland at Sanjiang, and as I grew to know the community and Vientiane better, the process of adaptation and change they might go through in Laos – unwittingly and even grudgingly – overrode my immediate interest in why they were there. They were not the first wave of immigrants from China: another, earlier community of Chinese lived in the city centre. They had come to Vientiane in the years after the Taiping Rebellion, when swathes of southern China were laid to waste, and had continued coming all through the first half of the twentieth century, in the steady movement of people across trade routes and family networks that established the Chinese diaspora.
This earlier wave had been softened by Laos’ syncretic culture, and by the liquid adaptability of its people, in a process I likened to erosion:
The tributaries of the Mekong that bend through the country’s highlands gnaw at rocks and erode riverbanks, but also carry their silt, and Laos’ culture resembled the muddy but fertile result. It was a solution of indigenous and imported beliefs that found a way around obstacles more often than it pushed against them, and perhaps it was no accident that dams were central to the government’s plans for development. Hydroelectric dams, with their product of electric power, capture something of the essence of modernity. They disrupt earlier ways of life, forcing people to relocate, and stamp man’s mastery on nature. In China, the government was damming its culture with as much energy as it was damming its rivers. It had even used the metaphor, giving the name Green Dam Youth Escort to censorship software it wanted installed on every new computer.
The way of life that Chinese immigrants brought to Vientiane before 1949 had been eroded slowly and carried into the diffusion of Lao culture. They were regarded with suspicion by their successors, who came out of the mainland proudly and planned to return. “They left for bad reasons,” said a Chinese DVD seller I spoke to, with Japanese porn among his Hollywood counterfeits. Although his shop was only a few metres from the restaurant where the old Chinese community met every morning, he didn’t know any of its clients. He didn’t want to, because they did not fit into his narrow goal: quick profit and a prosperous homecoming. I imagined that when the Syri matriarch’s parents arrived, they had brought narrow goals too, and that if the DVD seller stayed long enough, he might also be unwittingly changed. I couldn’t be sure: the two generations had departed from different Chinas and arrived in different Laos, but I thought that the answer might lie in the balance struck between dam and deluge, obstruction and flow.
I’m now in Luang Prabang and, as I sit writing beside the Nam Khan, watching it gnaw gently at rocks, I’m no closer to an answer – but the sun has just come out and its reflection is sparkling on the mud-brown river, which is, for the moment, in full flow.
Iain is a South African writer making his way home from China overland. He is the author of a book about the pirates, prostitutes and opium peddlers of old Singapore and a fiend for news about China’s involvement in Africa. You can find him on Twitter or at Old World Wandering, his award winning travelogue.