Academic journal article Human Organization

Trading Old Textiles: The Selective Diversification of Highland Livelihoods in Northern Vietnam

Academic journal article Human Organization

Trading Old Textiles: The Selective Diversification of Highland Livelihoods in Northern Vietnam

Article excerpt

This paper aims to advance our understandings of rural Hmong livelihoods in Northern Vietnam. It investigates the local production and trade dynamics that link the livelihoods of a number of highland Hmong minority women in the province of Lao Cai to local, national, and global trade networks. Anchored in ethnographic research, the paper focuses on the actors, exchange systems, and locations implicated in the trade of embroidered fabrics, and how these have been shaped through time. Drawing on commodity chain analyses of three textile products-one chain fairly localized, another cross-border, and a third increasingly globalized-the paper examines the processes whereby new relationships, hierarchies, and values have been produced, manipulated, and challenged among the many actors involved. These include not only Hmong women, but also lowland Vietnamese, the State, and tourists. The study concludes that this textile trade has resulted in the selective diversification of Hmong rural livelihoods, the women not fully reliant upon such trade, but becoming involved when the time is right for them in a very flexible form of engagement.

Key words: Hmong, Vietnam, commodity chains, livelihoods, textiles


Responding to calls that new conceptualizations of development are needed that incorporate explicit "recognition of the cultural, historical, and spatial dynamics of rural livelihoods-in addition to the more obvious economic dynamics" (McSweeney 2004:38), this study examines the complexities of the livelihoods of a number of highlander Hmong women in Lao Cai province, Northern Vietnam (located in Figure 1). While rejecting prescriptive assumptions about rural life (Arce and Long 2000; Bebbington 1999, 2000), I draw upon livelihood, commodity chain, and actor-orientated literatures to analyze the intricate production, marketing, and consumption networks of the textiles these women trade. To do so, I focus upon the multifaceted array of social interactions embedded in local systems of regulation, customs and cultures that influence and shape the economic exchanges occurring among highlander Hmong women, and between them and other actors. I ask: exactly who are the diverse actors involved in this trade? How are these trade interactions navigated while cultural, social, and political relations are constantly being renegotiated? And what role does this trade play in shaping these women's livelihoods? In turn, these questions allow us to better comprehend the diversification decisions that these women choose to make regarding their livelihoods.

This ethnographically informed research focuses on three diverse textile commodity chains in the northern Vietnam highlands. The first of these is local in scope, the second introduces multiple cross-border relationships, and the third involves numerous multi-sited actors who are increasingly globalized in reach. Indeed, the textiles under scrutiny here are found for sale not only in the highlands and throughout Vietnam, but also in boutiques and ethnic handicraft stores in such globalized locales as Montreal, Paris, and Tokyo.

The data regarding these commodities and actors that inform this study have been collected from an extensive range of sources. Utilizing predominantly qualitative methods, I have undertaken fieldwork in Lao Cai province since 1998. In Sa Pa, Bat Xat, Si Ma Cai, Muong Khuong, and Bac Ha districts, interviews have been completed with over 200 Hmong, Yao, Giay, and Vietnamese women producing and selling textiles in and around marketplaces. Since 2001, numerous semi-structured interviews have also been undertaken with Vietnamese and Tay men and women operating shops with textile goods or related items in the highland town of Sa Pa. As well, in-depth interviews have been carried out over the years with a range of long-term residents of Sa Pa, including male and female Hmong and Vietnamese. In effect, the situation analyzed in this article reflects the state of the textile commodity chains as of mid-2006. …

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