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  • Mala tang—Alltagsstrategien ländlicher Migranten in Shanghai by Lena Kaufmann
  • Anna Boermel (bio)
Lena Kaufmann. Mala tang—Alltagsstrategien ländlicher Migranten in Shanghai. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz Verlag, 2011. 117 pp. Paperback €24.80, isbn 978-3-447-06522-1.

In this short monograph, which is based on her master’s thesis, Lena Kaufmann examines the everyday lives of a small group of rural migrants from Anhui province who run a roadside restaurant selling spicy noodle soup (mala tang dian) in Shanghai. Using the production process of a bowl of soup as her vista, she provides a fine-grained analysis of the everyday coping strategies of the migrants, with particular reference to the work they do in order to make a living in the city. Mala tang, originally from Sichuan and Chongqing, is now sold in all major Chinese cities and widely regarded as inexpensive food that can be quickly consumed by individual customers. As Kaufman herself points out, her work, therefore, deals with two types of migration: of people, on the one hand, and of objects and skills, on the other.

This book is a welcome addition to the anthropological and sociological study of migrants’ work practices in urban China, an academic field that has prospered in the last decade due to the excellent ethnographic work produced by scholars such as Li Zhang, Pun Ngai, Ching Kwan Lee, and Yan Hairong. Kaufmann’s approach differs from their work in a number of ways, for example, with regard to the site of her study (a restaurant), the relationships between the migrants (five members of one family), and the central analytical theme: skill.

Kaufmann’s qualitative data are based on participant observations she conducted in a small restaurant/family home (demolished in 2010) in the center of Shanghai over the course of one year (2007–2008), supplemented by a short research trip to Anhui, the home province of the migrant family, during the Chinese New Year.

The book is organized into six chapters. Chapter 1 establishes the book’s objectives. Chapters 2 and 3 review the existing literature on the anthropology of [End Page 619] migration, migration in China, and work and coping strategies in everyday life. Kaufmann presents her empirical findings in chapter 4, which focuses on work, and chapter 5, which examines the daily strategies used by migrants. The final chapter provides a summary of the key research findings and champions skill as a new analytical perspective in migration studies.

Kaufmann’s lucid prose and her ability to create an engaging narrative that seamlessly connects observation with analysis make this book a compelling read. She is a very able ethnographer, with a keen eye for detail. Her depictions of the interactions between the family members running the restaurant—two couples and one adult child—whose private and work lives are inextricably linked by the family business are perceptive and insightful.

In chapter 4, Kaufmann shows that the family’s move from Anhui to Shanghai was not their first experience in migration. Several family members had previously worked in other Chinese cities, but, disappointed by the low incomes, had reconsidered their options and ultimately decided to follow the example of a distant family member who had previously left Anhui for Shanghai to set up a mala tang restaurant. Kaufmann shows that the decision to migrate was made by the extended household, which also provided the start-up capital for the business. The most senior male family member first went to Shanghai to learn how to make mala tang. He initially stayed with fellow villagers who had previously moved there. Having overcome initial hurdles, such as finding a suitable space in a good location that could also provide the family members with living space upstairs, his wife, sister, son-in-law, and adult daughter followed him, leaving behind their other children with relatives in their native village. Her case study thus confirms several of the findings of the existing literature on Chinese migration, including the importance of kinship groups in decision making, the existence of chain migration, and the significance of native ties in the destination city.

Kaufmann’s most original data is presented in chapter 5, which focuses on...


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