The Production of Locality in a Transnational Community

Lamma Island Hong Kong


Lisa-Jane Harding


‘It is no longer possible to distinguish what is local and what is not.

 In Hong Kong… the transnational is the local’                                   

                        (Watson 1997: 80, cited in Mathews & Lui, eds. 2001: 300)



In a globalised world, is it true that cultures and territories have overlapped to such a degree as to imagine that no matter what our physical location, we are all part of the same cultural criterion?  Put another way; are we at last one big globalised homogeneous family?

The answer is of course conceptually, both yes and no.  Watsons’ depiction above of the current state of affairs we face as inhabitants of a globalised world is more telling than we could begin to imagine.  On the one hand, this proposition seems immediately familiar to us; after all, everything we could ever desire, or want to experience in life seems instantly accessible to us despite of location, ‘we live in a habitat of diffuse offers and free choices’ (Bauman 1992: xx).

Even if economic obstacles do stand in our way and we cannot actively participate in the global commodification processes of today’s ways of life, we can rest assured that the processes in question still find a way via myriad technologies into our imaginations, and reconfigure our current ways of life to accommodate the types of (meta)physical transitions that are taking place continually all around us.

That’s why people like ‘Ben in Kafanchan does Kung Fu, that a  fatwa pronounced in Tehran becomes a matter of a street shouting-match in Manhattan and that someone in a south Swedish village turns out to be a teacher of intercultural communication’ (Hannerz 1997).  However, what Watson’s standing point doesn’t tell us, is if the transnational is the local, then what is this type of locale like, how is the global appropriated in the local, under what circumstances and with what characteristics?  If we are to understand the micro processes, the small-scale interpretations if you like of such global forces, what we need to turn our attention to is the production of locality within the types of communities that currently represent and make up part of this larger picture of today’s type of common reality.

At the same time, we should also consider the fact that whilst in many respects the local has been transformed into what Robertson (1995) calls the glocal, day to day events for a lot of people in many parts of the world remain very much unchanged, even people who are part of such flows do not suddenly forget how to make ‘a home’.

We should also acknowledge that simultaneously there are also pockets of deglobalisation going on in the world; were countries such as Myanmar and Albania among others, create policies to consciously cut themselves off from these larger processes we are concerned with here.  In fact, we could say that ‘the propensity to migrate can be counterbalanced by an equally strongly developed notion of attachment to place’ (Fog-Olwig 1997: 17). Thus, whilst migrant, diasporic and transnational populations are not at the forefront of every single society worldwide; we have to accept that they are now a intrinsic fact of life of most, indeed ‘anthropologists are beginning to critique the idea that settled life in particular places necessarily is a ‘normal’ state of being’ (ibid).

It is the strength of such standing points and the subsequent disciplinary shifts and responses to such diverse phenomena that now provides us with the impetus and tools towards an understanding of these types of socio-cultural complexity.  Using the transformed arena of what once seemed a relatively uncomplicated coherent locale; the traditional small-scale field site for example,  our current approaches leave us with undoubtedly much more to say about the deteritorialised world ‘in which money, commodities, and persons unendingly chase each other around the world’ (Appadurai 1991: 94).

This is the precise reason why an anthropological study of a small village called Yung Shue Wan on Lamma, one of Hong Kong’s few inhabited outlying islands, might tell us just as much today about Filipino diaspora and transnational Westerners, than that of local Chinese ways of life

This chapter then concerns the way in which the inhabitants of Lamma Island; Westerners sai yahn, diasporic Filipino’s and local Chinese practice a localisation of their world, generating a structure of existence (Friedman 1997) and a ‘space of experience’ (Mannheim 1982).  I take what Appadurai (1991) terms the production of locality as the main focus of this endeavour, although in order to do so the term needs some clarification.

Essentially, the production of locality describes how locality which is relational and contextual is ‘constituted by a series of links between the sense of social immediacy, the technologies of interactivity, and the relativity of contexts’ (1991: 9).  Appadurai contrasts this shifting contextual phenomena to that of Neighbourhoods, which ‘refer to the actually existing social forms in which locality, as a dimension or value, is variably realised’ (ibid).  Our differences in the term therefore have one predominant distinction, whereas Appadurai uses the question of locality in relation to the delocalisation of the world; and thus not directly as a concern of the ‘production of space’ (Lefebvre 1991).

I on the other hand see the production of space (see Mannheim 1982) as something that bridges the shifting contextual notion of locality to the existing socio-cultural forms that make up a neighbourhood.  Thus in my case it is of central importance for this type of contextual and conceptual basis of an ethnographic study of Lamma Island.  In an ethnographic sense then, although the study might contain one field site; the increasingly outmoded norm for traditional anthropological enquiry, it is in many respects an ethnographic faux pas if you like, as the most recent way of encountering the type of fieldwork dilemma posed by the problematics of complex phenomena such as diaspora and transnationalism is to chase your shifting subject matter wherever it goes, resulting in a multi-site ethnography.

Thus Lamma as a sense of physical space that is home to a diverse overlapping community of communities is both a traditional yet alternative starting point to try and unravel and make some sense out of the new ways that cultural diversity is organised in this age of ‘near-universal modernity’ (Hylland Eriksen 1997).