Welcome to SICRI’s “island conversations” podcast series.
The aim of these podcasts is to highlight the work of island studies scholars and practitioners who make a significant contribution to islands’ research, arts, and culture landscape.
The podcasts are accompanied by a curated transcript that is edited to read as an independent piece.
"Island Notes" composition in Cretan Flat Mandolin by Christophoro Gorantokaki @"Melody Box"
In this podcast, we'll be hearing from Su Ping, who is professor at the School of Foreign Languages at South China University of Technology in the city of Guangzhou. She received her PhD from University of Hong Kong's School of English in 2014. Professor Su’s current research interests include senses of islandness, Caribbean literature, and the anthropology of migrant and transnational communities. Ping, welcome to SICRI’s Island Conversations podcast series.
Thank you, Adam. And thank you for this interview.
It's really great to have the opportunity to interview you here. We've known each other for quite a few years now. But I'd certainly like to get to learn a bit more about your own approach to island studies. Is it OK if I begin by asking a bit about your personal Island connections and your first experiences of island life?
Sure. For me, I grew up in a very internal area of China. So my personal island connection started quite late. I think I first came to experience island life in 2007, when I starting doing my PhD in Hong Kong, and as a person who had just come to an island to live, I think it's very special. Hong Kong is a very busy island city. And it has a lot of near-shore islands. So, I usually would visit near-shore islands like Lamma Island and Cheung Chau Island to experience life there. And what I discovered in those islands is that people on those islands live a very peaceful and idyllic kind of life. There are no cars or buses on these islands. No public transportation, except the boats between the main island of Hong Kong and those small islands. So I feel there’s a big contrast between those small islands and the main island of Hong Kong. I feel that those islands are like another world, but they still belong to Hong Kong, and in Hong Kong, I feel like it's a bit less stressful and because life is so fast in the other parts of Hong Kong, those small islands are so peaceful, and life is so slow. So, I feel they are very attractive. This kind of contrast in a single place: That's Hong Kong. And personally, I prefer that kind of slow lifestyle in those small islands. So it also made me think about whether islands should be urbanised, and if urbanisation is a good thing for islands, then how much urbanisation should we have for islands? How should we keep a balance between urbanisation and the old lifestyle?
That's really interesting. I know that, later on, you'll be getting a bit more into those questions. You've spoken here about how you began experiencing islands, but what's your background in island research itself, in island studies?
I had a training and education in literature. So, I usually do research in literature and cultural studies. I entered the field of island studies much later, one or two years after I finished my PhD. Although my research field in literature is a little bit different from that of many island studies scholars, I think it also gives me very different perspectives for looking at islands, and I started being attracted to island studies. When I was attending the Island Cities and Urban Archipelagos conference in Hong Kong, organised by Hong Kong University and Island Dynamics, it introduced me to urban Island studies, which I think is very related to my personal experience. Because after I finished my PhD, I moved to Guangzhou. I started working at Sun Yat-sen University, which is based in Guangzhou city. And Guangzhou is very special because it has a lot of islands, small islands. And we usually think of it as a city composed of many islands. It can be seen from a lot of place names. But at the very beginning, I didn't realize this, it isn’t something that I focused on. So at the very beginning, I was still more interested in migrants, in the African diaspora living in Guangzhou, and I did some fieldwork and anthropological studies about African migrants and also some migrant workers from other provinces of China. I am interested in migrants because my literary studies are also concerned about immigrant literature, especially literature written by the Chinese diaspora, African diaspora in the West and in the Caribbean. I realized that there's also a large group of migrants, African diaspora, also a lot of Chinese internal migrants, living in Guangzhou, and I think it's very interesting to look at their lives as well. So, I started doing fieldwork and anthropological studies about them, and after I was introduced to island studies, I started to make connections between the migrants I have been working on and also island studies. That mainly means I started to use island perspectives to study this group of migrants. And I think it's very interesting.
Urban river in Changzhou, Guangzhou, China, October 2022
Credit: Adam Grydehøj
I remember you have a paper in Island Studies Journal from 2017 just on this topic, looking at islands in Guangzhou in terms of African migrant communities. Are there any particular islands that you've, you've had special experience with as a researcher, either in terms of fieldwork or something else?
I think I would prefer, maybe to think that my particular interest in Island studies is not an interest in a single island but in the connections between different islands, and also to see Guangzhou as a city made up of many, many small islands. And I think I'm particularly interested in the kind of cross-cultural experience of the migrants living in this island city and how these islands are noticed, and this geographical feature of islands has influenced their lives as well.
What would you say is your contribution to island studies research?
I think I'm still quite new in this field. So, I think I need to do a lot of further studies. As for my contribution, because right now I'm focusing on urban Island studies and the migrant population in urban islands, I think this could further develop the island consciousness among people living in island cities. I think a lot of people who live in islands haven't paid much attention to the islandness of the places they live in. So, it's important to raise people's consciousness about geographical features that create this kind of island consciousness, which perhaps makes them more aware of the connections that different parts of the city have with each other.
It's really, really interesting to hear you talking here about this, in a sense of what we might call cultural outreach, and how research can affect ordinary community members, which is also really important and is something we don't always think about in academia. Could you tell us a bit more about your current Island research? What is it that you're working on?
As I already mentioned, I, usually research migrants, so I currently focus on two places. One is Guangzhou, and the other is the Caribbean because my PhD research is related to Caribbean literature. After I was introduced to island studies, I’ve also used island perspectives on Caribbean literature, which I think is also a very new field. Because a lot of scholars have looked at Caribbean literature from other perspectives, and there’s still not enough studies on literature from the perspective of islandness. So, it's a very interesting perspective. And it’s also shed new light on Caribbean literature. I'm going to continue in this field to study islandness in Caribbean literature and on the other hand also doing fieldwork and anthropological studies in Guangzhou, focusing on African Chinese families living in Guangzhou, and how all their life interacts with the islands of Guangzhou, which is a city.
That sounds extremely interesting. And these are also topics that I'm eager to learn more about in the future, as you advance with them. I feel I should mention here that you've been for a few years now an associate editor at Island Studies Journal. In this sense, it seems to me you've helped direct the field in certain directions, especially in terms of new ways of doing island literature research. You've been guest editor of a few special sections in the journal with a literary focus as well. Beyond this, what do you see as your contribution to the discipline or to the field of island studies itself, in sort of a broader sense?
I think, for me, because now I started doing anthropological studies in Guangzhou as well, I usually merge my field work with a lot of activities that help foreigners, African Chinese children. I think it's a very new kind of fieldwork that I'm trying to explore, this kind of combination of fieldwork and activities that are intensively interactive with the African Chinese children, who are also the focus of my study. So, I think maybe this could further the kind of fieldwork that's already developed in my previous study.
Bridge across the Pearl River from Haiou, Guangzhou, China, October 2022
Credit: Adam Grydehøj
I've been on one of these trips with you with some of the African Chinese children in the island, Haiou, here in Guangzhou. And it was really fascinating for me to be part of this. You know, observing sort of this innovative method, kind of learning through learning through play, of the mixed activity and research, in which also, to be really clear, everyone's aware of your role as a researcher. But also, through this kind of quite mundane interaction, we're able to learn about different people and create knowledge together. I know that something that you've also been involved in is some of this work into what may be called ‘decolonial studies’, in which you've been active for a few years. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
Currently, I’m doing research on islands from the decolonial perspective. And I think this is also a very interesting field in which I need to do more research. I don’t think other cultures’ understandings of islands have been sufficiently introduced or recognized in the international academic world. So, it's a very important and meaningful way to look at other cultures and their understandings of islands and islandness.
How has your own discipline or disciplines of literature studies and cultural studies contributed to island studies as a field?
With my training in literature and cultural studies, I think I'm very sensitive to people's lives and their life stories. And I think these helped me when I was out doing fieldwork, with these migrants here living in Guangzhou. My research on the Caribbean also gives me a kind of island consciousness about the connections between all those small islands in the region, the archipelagic perspective that’s developed from these kinds of connections between small islands in this region. So, all this, I think, has helped me in my current research in island studies.
And speaking of current research, studies, what do you actually feel is important about island studies? Why does island studies matter in the world today?
For me, because I live in Guangzhou, which is a sort of an island city, it's something that's closely related to my daily life. So, I think it's very important for me. Also, I think island studies is important because it's a field that has a very positive, meaningful future because it could raise people's consciousness concerning the different cultures and different cultures’ knowledges, epistemologies. It's a very inclusive field. So, I think, in the future, that there might be a lot more voices we can hear from other cultures, their understandings of islands as well. So, I think it's quite meaningful.
Thank you so much for your patience in answering these questions and for contributing to the SICRI podcast series, to these conversations. And also of course to your contributions to island studies. It's always so great to hear from you.
Thank you, Adam.
'Critical reflexivity and decolonial methodology in island studies: Interrogating the scholar within'
'Regionmaking and conceptual development in South China: Perceiving islands, the Pearl River Delta, and the Greater Bay Area'
'China and the pursuit of harmony in world politics: Understanding Chinese international relations theory'