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Alternative Livelihoods

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This book examines how market integration, policy interventions, and state decision-making are negotiated in various ways by Hmong living in the area straddling the border between Vietnam and China. Based on a wealth of information and extensive fieldwork experience, the authors demonstrate how the Hmong have built a resilient livelihood and have indigenized modernity without passively accepting what the state dictates.

Hmong livelihoods are defined as transnational in nature and studying them calls for a suitable research methodology. The three authors provide a rare research triangulation that allows them to contribute to an ethnographically rich, actor-oriented micro-level study. They weave stories of life experiences in this translocal social space by following the contemporary trade of textiles and cardamom, buffalo and alcohol. Their team work enables them to fully scrutinize the ‘localized layers of complexity’ that shed light on how people make and defend their own lifestyle, often by refashioning it. This is entrenched in larger structural forces and is deeply influenced by the proximity of the border, by different national policies and imperatives, and by regional or global market forces. In other words, alternative livelihoods are alternative modernities.

Same but different
The mirror effect of the border situation between Vietnam and China highlights the different trajectories Hmong are taking to adapt to and adopt the market’s economic opportunities. Beyond the division in terms of national policy and macro-scale economic decisions, the authors consider the difference between the Hmong on both sides of the border rather as a ‘matter of degree’ possibly due to “variations in the power each state is able to wield over its remotest internal peripheries” (p. 153).

In China and Vietnam alike, national frontier development strategies involve the promotion of cash cropping and the imposition of hybrid seed varieties. This has happened predominantly in China, and implies greater dependence on the broader market and on the monetization of the economy. ‘Chinese rice’ as it is often called in Vietnam, combined with chemical inputs, turns out to be more expensive to grow than traditional rice (p. 53) and can be more risky given the reliance on the timely availability of the new seeds each year. Furthermore, the increasing dominance of hybrid varieties of rice and maize are endangering the diversity of locally grown varieties. Here we see how in Vietnam, Hmong farmers have managed to a greater extent to adopt a composite approach by maintaining old practices and embracing new ones.

However, the authors are at pains to go beyond romanticizing their resistance, to look for more “subtle signs of dissent and digression” (p. 150) in everyday life in the borderlands. And the contrast between China and Vietnam is hard to miss in this regard, since even if Hmong resist becoming involved in the market “beyond what is relevant to them” (p. 169) and maintain values “that are at odds with economic rationalization” (p. 171), the transformation of their lives and economies in China seem to have led to more profound transformations with more far-reaching implications compared to the situation in Vietnam.

Trades and values
The authors focus on four economic flows and trade items: buffalos, alcohol, cardamom, and textiles. The comparison is enlightening as it provides the contrasting views of the actors involved, the scale of the trade, its effects on the household economy, and how much of a change it has made to people lives. In the description of these trade flows and networks, the practical meaning of the China–Vietnam border has become very tangible since “it is the differences among these countries’ various markets that make trade profitable” (p. 144).

Buffalos are not a new commodity and have long been considered ideal for increasing a household’s long-term financial security. They are “the magic engine of the family” as a Hmong man told the authors (p. 66) and, besides their customary use for ploughing, sacrifices, or as part of a bridewealth, they can be traded within village-based networks. Today, they are traded more and more across the border at local markets within regional networks, each with its own moral economy.

Whereas in Vietnam home-made upland alcohol is now successfully marketed and branded, alcohol in Yunnan is mainly purchased at markets, with local residents no longer producing their own. In Vietnam, following the marketization of ‘authentic’ upland spirits which have become trendy among urban middle- and upper-class consumers, specializing in alcohol production is viewed positively and perceived as prestigious.

Cardamom is one of the many forest products that have been traded for centuries. But since the mid-1990s market forces have made it one of the most expensive spices in the world (p. 112). Locally, it is a very promising substitute for opium, and planting it (sometimes illegally) under forest cover in the mountains is now preferred to harvesting wild cardamom.

According to the authors, the textile trade constitutes a “selective choice, taken up as opportunities and favorable circumstances coincide” (p. 158), but it is clearly the most expansive and global commodity chain. Here again we witness the rather stark difference between the two situations in China and Vietnam. While ethnic clothing is now chiefly reserved for the tourist market in China where traditional hemp cultivation has been banned and new synthetic factory-made garments are produced (often in Zhejiang province), Hmong women in Vietnam wear traditional clothing on a daily basis and continue to produce embroidered or batik garments. At the same time, due to the rise in demand, old pieces of clothing are turned into tradable commodities, with new refashioned goods and tourist items being created and turning up in cities around the world.

By following these four trade items across spatial and ethnic boundaries, we see clearly how in each case Hmong have creatively adapted and seized new opportunities to overcome the discrepancies in cultural interpretations, knowledge, and power. Nevertheless, as the authors repeatedly underline, Hmong actors are relegated to the bottom of the expanding commodity chains and are undoubtedly in an economically subordinate position compared to Kinh and Han traders.

Persistence of kinship and ethnicity
As the authors amply show, kinship ensures the expansive transborder networks. This is the real social capital that makes Hmong livelihoods possible – and that proves the continuous relevance of ethnic differentiation today. Ethnicity and language both play important roles in this cross-border trade. Although Hmong actors prefer to negotiate with other Hmong even for long-distance trade, Kinh, Tày, or Han traders are key intermediaries in the commoditization of items that are sourced by Hmong.

Commodity chains follow an ethnic demarcation, with differences in the access to different forms of capital for each group. Kinh (or Han) wholesalers and intermediaries have greater access to financial, physical, and social capital. However, in the case of Hmong textile, the authors note that through “variations in trading networks, new labor relationships have emerged” across ethnicities (p. 139). Moreover, the importance of gender is striking, especially in the cardamom trade where the intermediaries are almost exclusively women, and in the production and sales of textiles which are entirely handled by women. The book clearly demonstrates how resourceful women are; indeed, they are the key to the resilience of newly reconfigured livelihoods.

Written in an extremely clear and engaging style, this book has a lot to offer to all those interested in borderlands studies and in the lives of those who inhabit the Southeast Asian Massif.

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