Daigou – 代购 – is often translated as ‘personal shoppers’ and this concept is certainly at the heart of a system that also encompasses agencies such as those pictured here which are themselves only a part of a chain stretching from Australia to individual households throughout China. At its most basic the daigou concept simply involves a trusted person in Australia (or anywhere) buying goods on behalf of someone in China and posting it off to them. Trust is the key even as the system becomes more complex to involve shipping and packaging agents, influencers, WeChat and shoppers working full time. Trust, not only in the shopper but also in the product, with distrust of similar products (notably baby formula) produced in China also of consequence.
While a relatively modern phenomenon stimulated by the presence of thousands of cash poor Chinese students in Australia, the diagou also has many reflections in Chinese Australian history that are worth exploring. In many ways it is reflective of the remittance system (see No. 29) that arose in the 19th century (and possibly earlier) and reached its peak in the first half of the 20th century before finally fading in the 1950s and 1960s. Remittances were of course all about money being earned outside the family and being sent to sustain and expand that family in China. Diagou on the other hand are about spending money and consumption. The difference is of course the difference in the wealth and consuming power of people in China today.
However, it is the similarities that are just as striking as the differences. In both cases we see the development of an at first informal system that even as it grows more complex maintains at it core the personal element of individual trust. As well both systems in a very real sense maintain their independence of the “official” systems (post office, banks, shipping companies) even as they at times use them, and despite the efforts of governments to incorporate or regulate them.
There are many other similarities and differences that could be drawn between the remittances systems of the past and the purchasing ones of the present. One is that remittances and their accompanying letters were part of a network of stores and carriers that was largely unknown and unobserved by most non-Chinese people in Australia. The diagou on the other hand are easily recognised operations dotted around the major cities and are much discussed in the media and academia. While on occasions diagou have been controversial, the difference with the past is nevertheless largely one of a more open and less intolerant or racist society.
For more on daigou see:
For more on remittances see: