Duke Kunshan University
Since the introduction of China’s market reforms in 1978, the emerging entrepreneurial classes in China, as personified through cultural role of the laoban or “boss,” have replaced the figure of the factory worker as the vanguard of societal transformation since the Maoist period (1949–1978). The intensification of China’s participation in global supply chains as the so-called “workshop of the world” has facilitated the mushrooming of transborder subcontracting relations. These relations are exemplified by the Walmart model of low-wage manufacturing, whereby millions of small-scale independent contractors must compete with one another in a “race to the bottom” pursuit of what are oftentimes low-paying production orders. In southern China, small-scale factory owners have forged cross-cultural collaborations with transnational brokers, suitcase traders and subcontracted agents, to create the cross-border partnerships that comprise the transnational supply chains on a global scale. In turn, the forging of these cultural and economic links has generated a platform upon which small-scale subcontractors, as well as other agents across the supply chains, call themselves “boss” by taking on the risks and rewards of entrepreneurial self-enterprise, while they embed their economic activities within the global economy.
In the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region, gendered enactments of “bosshood” and other figures of capitalist accumulation are expressed through divergent performances of male mobility, as articulated and expressed through entrepreneurial and masculine “freedom” across various class groups. These enactments, in turn, are linked to specific labour practices, organisation of kin relations, and manipulation of transnational citizenship. The story of Mr. Cai, a forty-something successful real estate investor and owner of several garment factories based in Guangzhou, offers a glimpse into the cultural significance of the “boss” as an aspirational figure in contemporary China. More specifically, the accumulative strategies of Mr. Cai and his family highlight how the scaling of capitalist networks across provincial and national boundaries entails spatial and subjective transformations through which patriarchal figures emerge within transnational families. Mr. Cai’s example is particularly interesting, since his accumulative strategy as a boss involves the bridging of his transnational kin-based empire strategically via his second wife and their son, a point in which I further elaborate below.
To be sure, scholars of transnational or “satellite” families have aptly captured the cosmological, affective, and imaginative aspects of human agency that serve as the subjective push/pull forces of transnational migration among divergent Chinese diasporic populations (Ong 1999; Chu 2010; Krause 2018). Meanwhile, anthropologists have also contributed valuable insights into the world of masculinity and entrepreneurship within post-socialist China. Xin Liu (2002) and John Osburg (2013), for example, address how businessmen in contemporary China negotiate the moral ideals of patriarchy, masculinity, and ownership in the face of growing socio-economic uncertainties. While Liu (2002) highlights how the title of “boss” or laoban signifies an emergent image of a commander and agent of market and capital in post-socialist China, Osburg (2013) documents the everyday practices of businessmen to emphasise the broader gendered and class-based stratifications that are emerging within contemporary China.
The case of Mr. Cai contributes to these scholarly conversations by highlighting the ways in which enactments of transnational mobility and accumulation are uniquely gendered practices, namely through the figure of the “boss” or laoban. Mr. Cai enacts the aspirational figure of the entrepreneurial “boss” through performances of transnational mobility and “freedom,” thereby, underscoring the significance of this figure as a spatialised and masculine mode of capitalist accumulation. His example demonstrates how this figure is embodied and affectively bridged across intimate and affective networks of friends and family. Enactments of the laoban, as Mr. Cai shows, privilege men’s attempts to negotiate the terms of their respectability in the face of economic and political uncertainties, while silencing the ways in which such social inequalities bear upon women. I therefore unveil the cultural work, particularly gendered displacements and class-based disparities, upon which masculine performances of transnational and entrepreneurial mobility in China emerge and firmly depend.
Anna Tsing (2005) and Megan Moodie (2013) assert that global discourses of market risk are gendered such that financial investment strategies, such as frontier capitalism or casino capitalism, are signified by performances of masculinity, while reproductive labour is frequently coded as feminine. Masculine “freedom” via bosshood, as I argue, obscures the class-based inequalities among migrant families (domestic and transnational) as small-scale entrepreneurs increasingly encounter market risks through their engagements with cross-border relations of financial investment and commodity exchange. In effect, the expansion of risk-taking entrepreneurship in a globalising China is necessarily accompanied by exacerbating gender inequality in transnational and capitalist labour and accumulation. Undoubtedly, as the following ethnographic vignettes illustrates, the figure of the “boss” or laoban, is riddled with contradiction.
The Masculinisation of Bosshood
Upon my acquaintance with Mr. Cai, I spent four months in his law office to observe first-hand the daily enactments of a powerful boss in Guangzhou. My male classmate from Sun Yatsen University, who previously worked as Mr. Cai’s English tutor, had introduced us and had recommended me as a teacher for his thirteen-year-old daughter, Gigi, because my fluency in Cantonese and English allowed me to effectively communicate with her in both languages. Over the course of my acquaintance with Mr. Cai, our relations remained professional. I had followed what I thought were the unsaid rules of guanxi or reciprocal relationships in China. I conveyed to Mr. Cai my desire to connect to fashion designers in Guangzhou to fulfil my research goals. As a wealthy real estate investor, legal practitioner, and entrepreneur, Mr. Cai knew he was well-positioned to assist me, since he represented one of Guangzhou’s wealthy elites. In return, I agreed to inform him on the American ways of life. My personal knowledge and experience on American culture seemed to have served him well, since he had been planning to immigrate his family to Canada or the U.S. for quite some time.
At first glance, his law office typified the average white-collar workspace in any major city of the world with standard computers, paper-strewn desks, and water coolers. Although his employees steadfastly kept regular 8 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday work schedules, Mr. Cai’s work rhythms varied according to his whims. My observations led me to believe that he rarely dealt with any substantive lawyerly matters, but rather spent his work hours managing his properties and investment partners instead. In fact, documents rarely sat on top of his pristine desk, and he rarely turned on the computer.
In fact, Mr. Cai never received any formal legal training or even a university education. As a former police officer, Mr. Cai probably established his company through personal connections with the local government as well as through hands-on experience with matters pertaining to the law. Essentially, Mr. Cai’s power as a boss derived from his ability to mediate guanxi or relationships among his clients and associates by fulfilling one person’s needs by asking favours from another. Meanwhile, he then formed networks of dependents that relied on Mr. Cai on an on-going basis for financial loans, mediation over personal disputes, and obtaining construction permits. I frequently observed numerous visitors each day filtering in and out his opaque glass door. On days that I accompanied him on his meetings, Mr. Cai and his visitors would exchange knowledge about the stock markets and real estate prices. On other occasions, guests would elicit advice on problems related to evictions, property disputes, and investment downturns. Sometimes, I would even catch glimpses of strangers delivering stacks of cash to his office, uncovered and in plain sight.
The lively pulse among his employees somehow muted the air of mystery that pervaded his office every day. In truth, no one dared to ask too much about Mr. Cai’s dealings. On the day that the puzzling stacks of cash unexpectedly appeared on his desk, his assistant and manager of his properties asked humorously, “So, today’s pay day, eh?”. The fact that Mr. Cai once confessed he had witnessed executions on duty as a police officer for crimes including bribery and corruption intensified his aura of mystery and unrestrained power, however truthful or fabricated these stories might be.
To be sure, the figure of the laoban serves as an allegorical and culturally significant persona that underscores the engendering of class-based inequalities and market uncertainties in a globalising China. This figure embodies a man who amasses wealth, makes deals, mediates requests, and acts as a provider among networks of personal dependents. As a self-made man, he attempts to defy administrative oversight and accountability by state powers, while overcoming market crises through his attempts to gain access to global markets. More importantly, this figure mobilises aspirations of entrepreneurial freedom among men who have not quite secured their ranks in the globe-trotting elite classes. As Liu (2002: 37) writes:
The person who pays is in charge; the person who is in charge owns; the person who owns takes responsibility for what happens; the person who takes responsibility for what happens is laoban. It does not mean that this term of address cannot be used, as a metaphor, by someone who addresses a person in charge, such as an official calling his superior, but in the story of (capitalist) development, particularly in South China, the word’s connotations are determined by the emergence of an image of someone who is in charge by virtue of ownership.
Furthermore, the “boss” persona appropriates the trope of an American-brand of rugged individualism, yet it is firmly rooted within the widening gender and class-based disparities that characterise China’s post-socialist transformations. In other words, the laoban or “boss” personifies a person who takes charge of his fate in the face of increasing socioeconomic uncertainties, which are marked by the simultaneous retraction of state-sponsored welfare and global market crises. At the same time, bosshood mobilises people’s dreams and aspirations for a better life despite growing socioeconomic uncertainties.
The figure of the boss may be compared to other masculine risk-taking figures in the corporate world, such as stock market traders, Wall Street bankers, and the “salarymen” in Japan (Allison 1994; Hertz 1998; Ho 2009; Miyazaki 2013). In China, the biological reproduction of the family, upon which the “made in China” low-wage, subcontracted labour power depends, remains within the domain of women’s work even though the family unit critically undergirds men’s performances of entrepreneurial freedom. While scholarly these works tend to highlight the flexible strategies and disciplinary regimes associated in the crafting of multiple and shifting accumulative strategies around the world, many observers tend to overlook the gender dynamics involved in these transnational modes of flexible accumulation.
To be sure, much of Mr. Cai’s personification of freedom via entrepreneurship depended on his performance of masculinity, which was put on display in front of his circle of friends. Whenever I observed his meetings with his guests, who were mostly men, I was often struck by the ambiguous boundaries that blended masculine friendship with business relations, personal interests, reciprocity/mutuality, and self-interested gain. Visitors would arrive unannounced at his office and would casually chit chat over tea and cigarettes for hours on end. He and his guests often wore solid-coloured polo shirts and plastic sandals to the office. Their collective performance of masculine informality facilitated the manner and extent to which trust and reciprocity were bridged. Oftentimes, he and his business associates explained that among business partners in China, particularly among men, friendships exceeded in significance any formal business relationship. In Mr. Cai’s words, “friends come first, then business”. His statement implied that personal relationships (guanxi) in any kind of exchange relied primarily on trust. In other words, the boundaries between formal business partners and casual friendships were never completely distinct since trust governed the nature of personal relationships.
Undoubtedly, Mr. Cai relied on his circle of friends and family to perform the freedom to float in and out of his office at will and the freedom to traverse beyond the national boundaries of China. I was fully aware that I, as a Chinese American woman, was strategically included in his personal network as a cultural translator to the U.S., but the extent to which I was expected to help him troubled me. Admittedly, I had much to gain (in terms of cultural capital) from Mr. Cai’s personal networks, but I often felt uncomfortable by my financial status as a graduate student at that time, which paled in comparison to his wealth and social capital. Over time, I realised that his role as the (male) provider rested on his network of dependents. Mr. Cai undisputedly provided economic security to his families, with the potential to gain wealth and status overseas. In my case, he provided me research access to his employees, along with introductions to well-known fashion designers in Guangzhou. The role of the male provider thus served as a crucial nexus through which his wealth was accumulated and distributed among close friends and intimate circles. It also offered traction to his personification of entrepreneurial freedom, a role that he unabashedly claimed when he once declared to me when I asked him about the future of his cross-border marriages, “No one, including my wives and children, governs what I do or what I say. Those closest around me know that they are in my heart, and I will take care of them. But no one governs me!”. Over the course of my observations, I eventually realised that trust did not necessarily signify transparency in Mr. Cai’s circle and business dealings, yet his performance of openness and informality through the interpellation of his circle as “friends” enabled him to establish his network of friendly confidants and kin-based dependents.
“The Boss” as a Gendered and Spatialised Mode of Transnational Capital Accumulation
As the car swerved the corner, my heart raced in anticipation for what was to come. Earlier in the day, the driver, Mr. Zhang had kindly accompanied me on an interview with a prominent fashion designer of a nationally recognised chain of up-scale boutiques. The designer was a tenant of a massive factory on the outskirts of Guangzhou in southern China, which was owned by Mr. Cai. After the interview, we careened down the busy streets of Guangzhou to meet Mr. Cai for dinner in a fancy Cantonese restaurant. Deftly manoeuvring his car, Mr. Zhang tried to prepare me for what was to come. “Do not say anything”, Mr. Zhang warned me as the tone of his voice changed from light-hearted to stern. I sensed the gravity of the situation from the weight of his abrupt silence.
As I sat at the restaurant table, I rehearsed in my head the dinner etiquette that was expected of me. Truthfully speaking, I was unsure of my role within his complex business and family networks. As a tutor, I dealt primarily with his wife, Eva, and his daughter, Gigi. Together, we read stories in English and even went shopping together on Gigi’s days off from school at an exclusive boarding school outside of Guangzhou. As I gradually gained the family’s trust, Mr. Cai allowed me to sit in his law office five days a week to observe various business dealings and to interview his employees who comprised China’s emerging professional class. In fact, merely two days prior to that memorable evening, I sat precisely at the same table with Mr. Cai, Eva, and Gigi over a scrumptious meal of rare delicacies, which was a typical dinner for many of China’s well-to-do families. The meal included snake, ginger milk, bird’s nest over papaya, and shark’s fin soup. Tonight, the same dinner menu would be served again. Only this time, Mr. Cai’s family would be his eight-year-old son and his second wife.
I was attuned to popular discourses surrounding the resurfacing of polygamy across Hong Kong and China in recent decades (Wu 2003), but the incident was my first face-to-face encounter with a second wife. That night, I fought every compulsion to peel myself away from the dinner table, because by then, my friendship with Eva and Gigi had grown to the extent that I personally felt betrayed by Mr. Cai. I did not believe that Eva, Gigi, and even his second wife agreed with being in a polygamous family. Despite my personal objections, however, my inquisitiveness about the second wife kept me hooked. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Cai exuded an air of nonchalance, loquaciously chatting with his rapid-fire speech, while his much younger second wife quietly gazed at me suspiciously from the corner of her eye, perhaps too shy to ask any questions about me. Mr. Cai’s endless chatter indirectly acknowledged our collective uneasiness toward the situation and made my discomfort nearly unbearable. In a way, his attempts in dominating the conversation deflected any possibility for me to get to know his second wife.
With fairer skin and a willowy build, the second wife was a younger and more conventionally attractive woman than Mr. Cai’s first wife. However, based on my limited observations of her, she seemed to lack a certain degree of self-assuredness and maturity that Eva exuded. For instance, while the adults around the table spoke Cantonese, she remained awkwardly silent with eye cast downward, excluded from our conversations in the local dialect. I quickly realised that she must have been a migrant from a province outside of Guangdong, and I wondered about how she became involved with Mr. Cai. Curiously, Mr. Cai and his second wife seemed emotionally distant that night, while he lovingly doted on his rambunctious son. At that moment, I wondered about the nature of their personal relationship. Perhaps the second wife was merely a so-called trophy wife, a woman who served to display Mr. Cai’s wealth and political power. Alternatively, perhaps she played the role of a (second) wife of convenience, a woman who could bear a son in Mr. Cai’s name in outright defiance against what was then the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) one child policy and its ban against the practice of polygamy. Although I never saw Mr. Cai’s second wife again and was not able to uncover definitive answers to the questions, these inquiries reflect a particular socio-historic moment in China’s rapid rise to global economic prominence after the CCP’s introduction of market reforms, which witnessed rising gender and economic inequalities.
The gendering of market anxieties is evidenced through Mr. Cai’s manipulation of both labour relations and investment strategies across city spaces and national borders. As a case in point, my acquaintance with Mr. Cai revealed the complex articulations of gender inequalities, capital accumulation, and state regulatory regimes in the cross-border scaling of cosmopolitan families through dynamic circuits of global capitalism. As the patriarch of his households, Mr. Cai served as the fulcrum upon which the families hinged. Specifically, Mr. Cai planned to immigrate his first wife Eva and daughter Gigi to Canada or the U.S., while his second wife and son would stay in China. Meanwhile, he intended to shuttle back and forth between the two families (which are colloquially termed “satellite” families), situated on the two sides of the Pacific Rim (Ong 1999). His strategy would not only draw affective distances between the households, but it would also serve to facilitate key nodes of capital accumulation. While his son from his second wife would inherit and oversee Mr. Cai’s estates in China, his first wife and daughter would expand his entrepreneurial ventures overseas in North America.
Thus, Mr. Cai’s intention to “fix” or situate his legal residences on both sides of the globe via his wives and children would enable him to flexibly travel and shuffle his assets throughout China, the U.S., and Canada. His ability to stock his wealth abroad seemed significant, since he had repeatedly mentioned to me that the Chinese government could only guarantee the use-rights of his multiple properties in China for up to 70 years (since all land in China technically belonged to the Chinese government, citizens maintained the use-rights, as opposed to the ownership rights, to the property). No one knew what would happen to his assets thereafter. Thus, Mr. Cai’s financial stakes in safeguarding his investments under the (male) family name critically depended on his business ventures overseas. These investments ranged from exporting kitchenware and transporting animal fur from Russia, to establishing a cross-oceanic recycling business. His uncertainty surrounding the protection of his wealth in China seemed to be a primary motivation for his plans to establish an “astronaut” family halfway across the world (Ong 1999). When I asked him about his immigration plans, Mr. Cai often kept silent about his transnational business dealings. Instead, he openly articulated his desires for freedom, which depended, to a large extent, on his ability to flexibly leave and return to China as he wished. On several occasions, he took great pains to express his discontent with the Chinese government, signalling his desire to outmanoeuvre the tax and regulatory limits exerted by the nation-state in the global scaling of his personal wealth and mobility.
Mr. Cai’s narrative of building a transnational kin-based empire, however, often overlooked the perspectives of his wife and daughter in their plans to immigrate. Consequently, I was often left to speculate on Eva and Gigi’s views on these familial matters. For them, the chance to immigrate to Canada entailed a negotiation between establishing a better quality of life for themselves and learning to habituate to a way of life in a foreign country independent of Mr. Cai. In fact, their everyday lives in Guangzhou seemed to suggest that they had already been accustomed to running a household without Mr. Cai’s presence. For example, Eva performed all the familial duties without her husband’s assistance. She handled all the chores and household errands and oversaw my work schedule and pay as Gigi’s tutor. As a former real estate agent, she also managed the accounting and administrative aspects of Mr. Cai’s properties. When Canadian lawyers visited Guangzhou to consult with Mr. Cai’s on their immigration plans, Eva entertained the female translators and assistants, while the men discussed their business plans separately. From my observations, I occasionally wondered whether perhaps Eva’s freedom depended on her ability to remain physically and emotionally distant from Mr. Cai, while she negotiated her personal desires with her duties as a wife and mother.
These performances reinforce the cultural logic of entrepreneurialism that fragments along gendered and class-based divisions. First, the accumulation of Mr. Cai wealth through his ability to claim multiple commercial properties in Guangzhou conjures the pre-communist legacies of male lineage in southern China, through which properties were protected under the family surname (Watson 1985; Faure and Siu 1995). However, his story alone fails to attribute women’s successes in the accumulation of wealth and property holdings. Second, Mr. Cai’s contemporary polygamous family enables him to scale his wealth abroad and protect them from uncertainties pertaining to property use rights in China (since all property is technically owned by the state). His practice of polygamy underscores the articulation between patriarchal practices of lineage and kinship organisation that are rooted in the cultural practices of southern China and transnational capital accumulation strategies. His case obscures alternative accumulative practices, particularly those that underscore the work of female migrants who cross transnational borders and send remittances back home. Third, his personal connections, his authority within local government bureaus, and his business enterprises meet the needs of his business partners and associates, while providing livelihoods for them and their respective families. Mr. Cai’s capacity to extend his patronage to his associates beyond his immediate family confers him respect, while potentially safeguarding his financial investments in China while he lives abroad. Finally, his role as the male provider endows him sexual access to women who in turn guarantee the reproduction of his wealth in China and abroad via his children, namely his son. However, Mr. Cai’s declarations of freedom fail to acknowledge his first wife’s role in establishing the wealth and prestige he enjoys today. After all, they had grown up together as classmates in an elementary school close to where Sun Yatsen University stands today. Although I never spoke to Mrs. Cai about her husband’s other wife, I am certain that the material comforts that they possess resulted in no small part from her own hard work and dedication. The extent to which she knows about Mr. Cai’s second wife and her views on the matter continues to bewilder me to this day.
My reflections of Mr. Cai have shown how enactments of entrepreneurial freedom have been performed through the figure of the male “boss” since the implementation of market reforms in contemporary China. My emphasis on the male “boss” by no means suggests that it is the only figuration of labour and capital accumulation at play within China and within the transnational links of supply chain capitalism. Indeed, scholars (Tsing 2009; Moreton 2009; Tiqqun 2012) have shown within cross-cultural contexts that a variety of figures employs gender, class, national, and ethnic differences, such as “the young girl” and” the servant leader,” in divergent strategies of labour and capital accumulation. These figures, including the male “boss” engender dreams and aspirations that are necessary to the making of divergent life projects that articulate with people’s engagements with capitalist practices (Rofel 2007; Anagnost et al. 2013). More importantly, these figures highlight the diverse assemblages of desires, personhood, and gendered identifications that contingently articulate with people’s participation in transregional capitalist exchanges.
At the same time, I emphasise the historic and spatial specificity of the emergent “boss”, particularly the figure of masculinity in post-socialist China, as it intensifies its participation in the global capitalist economy. As these case studies demonstrate, the spatial scaling of capital across national borders and the fragmentation of small-scale factory spaces underscore the spatial and subjective transformations within China’s post-socialist society, as gender and class collectivities continue to fracture, and social inequalities gradually deepen. As income disparities and social exclusions institutionalised through the hukou household registration system influence the practices of urbanisation, migration, and labour in China, the contradictions between freedom and risk emerge even more clearly through men’s enactments of the boss role. Indeed, freedom and risk are becoming popular tropes through which men across various classes in post-socialist China find meaning through their diverse engagements with global capitalism. While this essay addresses the class, gender, and kin-based inequalities that undergird the emergence of “bosshood” in contemporary China, more ethnographic attention should be paid to the ways in which women perform and challenge the masculinisation of market risk and uncertainty as they bridge capitalist production with biological reproduction through their labour and life course.
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