The Art of Being Small: Exploring the Transnational World of Lao Small-Scale Traders in the Yunnan-Laos-Thailand Borderland


Simon Christian Rowedder

PhD defended at: 

Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore


The borderland of Yunnan (Southwest China), Northern Laos and Northern Thailand is naturally linked by the Mekong River and has been strongly connected culturally, economically and politically. Tai-speaking groups, including the Tai Lue, were historically among the most mobile populations travelling and trading across this area.

Thus, recent regional infrastructure and development programs establishing increased cross-border connectivity and integration, such as the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) and the “Kunming-Bangkok Highway”, have been interpreted in public as well as academic discourses as enabling a revival of ancient flows of a borderless, premodern “Tai World”, allegedly forming transnational ethnic communities. I first adopted such an understanding as well and set out to trace the transnational ethnic Tai Lue dimension of small-scale trade relations and networks across Yunnan, Laos and Thailand. However, I soon came face to face with the ethnographic reality in the beginning of my multi-sited fieldwork, whereby notions of ethnicity did not seem to be highly relevant in the daily practice of cross-border trade.

Initially examining the transnational trade of Thai fruits from a Tai Lue village in northern Thailand to neighbouring Laos and further to China, served instead as an entry point for exploring further trade dynamics within different settings of this broader tri-national borderland economy, extending to a wide range of commodities and ethnicities. I was able to observe these dynamics especially in northern Laos, where an increasing number of households, from diverse social, economic and ethnic backgrounds, is flexibly experimenting with promisingly improved regional connectivity to China and Thailand through trading a wide portfolio of Chinese and Thai goods.

Seeking to go beyond ethno-spatial representations of Southeast Asian uplands, hinterlands or borderlands, often revolving around deterministic interrelations of space, ethnicity and the state, this thesis employs the broader, multidimensional conceptualization of transnational social spaces. Therein, this study foregrounds Lao small-scale traders, mainly based in Luang Namtha in northwest Laos, as key actors enabling and sustaining the circulation of Chinese and Thai commodities. By paying close attention to the cross-border perceptions, discourses and practices of mobile fruit traders as middlemen between Thai supply and Chinese demand, shopkeepers at local Lao marketplaces, and Lao traders regularly attending trade fairs in China, this thesis reveals for different sites and contexts the Lao traders’ central role in fashioning multidimensional transnational social spaces. This study further argues that their central role resides in their rhetoric and performance of different facets of smallness—ranging from self-mocking their economic inferiority vis-à-vis Thai and Chinese fruit traders to narratives of generally downplaying and downscaling their trade activities to low-key, “local” performances at international trade fairs in China. These different instances of their art of being small and (apparently) insignificant are contrasted with instances of success, rooted in cosmopolitan skills and practices of flexibly handling, and experimenting with, the inherent transnational positioning of their local social and economic lives which would have been obscured by neatly assembled narratives of transnational ethnicity and kinship.