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Navigating Transnational Identity:

Interpreting Architectural Understanding of the Shipping Container and its Mobility to Explore Chinese Emigrant Identity 

This dissertation follows the images of shipping containers in my memories and experiences, to explore strategic movements, settlements and unsettlements of a transnational subject and its identity finding its location in the city of Shenzhen, Melbourne and London. I put emphasis on the aspects of strategic as an overlay across two types of movement that follows flows of global capital emerged in the late 20th century. One, the development of intermodal container shipping in the commercial logistics network; the other describes the characteristics of the practice of migration among Chinese emigrants moving away from China since the country entered the global economy in the 1980s. Through observing the movement of the shipping container in the three port cities, I will reflect on my own subjectivity being a Chinese emigrant moving overseas for better opportunities of work and education.  


The lens I take to observe shipping containers from is the architectural perspective. I argue, shipping containers can guide towards new understanding on the construction of architectural space. Shipping containers are embedded in a larger network of logistics and oceanic infrastructure, which has been studied extensively in fields of geography, economics, political science and global studies.[1] In this context, my research will also reveal potential for architectural history and theory to intersect with other disciplines. By inviting an interdisciplinary approach to redefine architectural space, structure and technology allows progressive impact on architectural practice.  

Aaron Tobey reviewed the positions of shipping container in its state of moving through the set of port structure emerged from the process of containerisation.[2] The shipping container, as a transferable and economically scalable standardised unit, informs a new conception of space that challenges the traditional understanding of architecture that often privileges the formal and morphological attributes of building. Such attributes are often considered as timeless and static. In the context of individualistic neoliberal economy and late capitalist expansion, the shipping containers compresses space and time into one capsule connecting labour, resources and value as part of a supply chain around the globe.[3] Thus, mobility of shipping containers suggests the capacity of architecture to embody multiple temporalities and become a flexible technological agency. As an agency distributing resources within the global supply chain, when the shipping container gets stuck in transit, it can cause blockage in the smooth flow of capital, revealing vulnerability of the networks of people and goods concealed behind capital.[4] From another perspective, the shipping container can lead to reimagination of what constitutes architecture, particularly how functionally, it can become an active force to resist capitalist fluidity rather than passive acceptance of formal construction.[5]

Architecture of the shipping container will be perceived as a fluid concept in this thesis, as it trespasses different fields of knowledge in interpreting movements of goods and people around the globe. For the purpose of understanding my transnational identity in this thesis, the movement and condition of the shipping container I observe will serve as a metaphor to present the movement of my body and my subjectivity as I encounter Western culture in Melbourne and London as a Chinese emigrant. The term metaphor itself embodies qualities of transit, transaction, movement and belonging.[6] It projects a spatial quality of crossing territories and boundaries in languages and contain meanings of words to be carried or transferred into another context. This will be adopted in the way I narrate my experience: I attempt to give possibilities in which my transnational identity and the experiences of my movement crosses and intersect with the path of shipping container at port terminals in Shenzhen, on railways and roads in Melbourne, and in brownfield sites in London. Such are neutralised, homogenised, distant spaces where capital flows and strives. I am following a methodology of situated and speculative thinking in architecture raised by Isabelle Doucet and Hélène Frichot. By allowing my experiences of passing through passenger terminals, adapting to, and orientating myself in new cities to produce resistant forces contesting against the fluidity of universal, authoritarian conception of urban spaces governed by neoliberal ideology.[7]

Key ideas and argument 

Upon establishing the agency and metaphor of the shipping container that I will be using throughout my writing. I refer to again, the main enquiry of my dissertation, is to locate my own migrant subjectivity: the Chinese transnational identity. The above conceptions of shipping containers suggest in major, its relationship with global capitalism, which I argue, is central to the metaphoric link between the shipping container and my transnational identity. Global capitalism, in the time of the 1970s and the 1980s, relates to the idea of late capitalism, embodies key attributes of flexibility, fluidity which contradicts against rationality, strategies.[8] Contradictions is how I feel constantly when I attempt to mediate between unfamiliar cultural contexts, framework of knowledge in educational institutions when I encounter new places and experiences. This feeling constrains me, alienates, and disconnects me from finding a sense of belonging as a person moving away from home. In searching for appropriate reflection on this identity I found familiarity in reading works by Aihwa Ong, Rosi Braidotti and Sarah Ahmed – with a focus on transnational Asian identity, flexible citizenship, nomadic and stranger encounters, this body of work act as the theoretical framework in constructing my identity.[9]  


In Braidotti and Ahmed’s narrative, subjectivity of a migrant is a constructed and acquired set of knowledge and ways to understand the world. Both Braidotti and Ahmed emphasise the situatedness of subjectivity as a force of resistance to places a migrant encounter and inhabit – Braidotti refers to such as an ‘ecology of belonging’ while Ahmed interprets it as ‘being at home’.[10] Belonging and home in as defined in the world of migrants, is not singular, which is constantly readapting and clings to the subject’s present encounter, memories, and cultural understanding they carry with them. Attachment and belonging felt through in one’s subjectivity come from the inside of a migrant, is well-contented - such is comparable to the relationship between the shipping container and the objects it holds. Without the cargos, the container is an empty shell seemingly absent and overlooked in context of transferring and moving goods. Thus, belonging, like shipping containers, projects an ability of containment of life and materials moving across multiple geographical locations in the world. 

The relationship between global capitalism and transnational identity is broad yet dynamic. Such can be explored with a more solid and grounded perspective through using the shipping container as a metaphor. I will argue that journeys and histories of the shipping container can metaphorically present the chase for capital, socio-economic power and strategic movement of my Chinese transnational identity.









Shekou Container Terminal - departure point of my journey to overseas in Shenzhen 

O_Sun, Yanyu_Fig.2.jpg

Observing shipping containers at London Overground station 

[1] Charmaine S Chua, ‘Logistical Violence, Logistical Vulnerabilities’, Historical materialism: research in critical Marxist theory 25, no. 4 (2017): 167–182; Elisabeth Schober, Camelia Dewan, and Johanna Markkula, ‘Container Ships: Life Cycles, Chains of Value, and Labor in Maritime Logistics’, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology,; Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Claude Comtois and Brian Slack, The Geography of Transport Systems (London: Routledge, 2009); Alexander Klose, The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way we Think (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2009); Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Charmaine Chua, ‘Sunny Island Set in the Sea’, Digital Lives in the Global City: Contesting Infrastructures, edited by Deborah Cowen, Alexis Mitchell, Emily Paradis, and Brett Story (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2020), 238-247. 

[2] Aaron Tobey, ‘Architecture at Sea: Shipping Containers, Capitalism and Imaginations of Space’, Architecture and Culture 5, no. 2 (2017): 191–212.  

[3] Tobey, ‘Architecture at Sea’, 195.    


[4] Justinien Tribillon, ‘Lost in Transit’, Architectural Review (May 2022): 8; Høyer Hege Leivestad, ‘The Shipping Container’, History and Anthropology 33, no. 2 (2022): 202,   

[5] Tobey, ‘Architecture at Sea’, 192; Justinien, ‘Lost in Transit’, 8-9. 

[6] Its etymology traces back to the Greek word “metapherō”, made up of “meta” and “pherō”. “Meta” meaning “along with”, “across” and “pherō” meaning “to bear”, “to carry”; together, the phrase means “to carry over” to “transfer”. What is noticeable is how both “meta” and “pherō” project spatial quality of the term, as crossing territories and boundaries of words, and containing meanings of words to be carried or transferred into another context. Reference: Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, “μεταφορά,” A Greek-English Lexicon, Perseus, accessed on 18th July 2022, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, μεταφορ-ά (; Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, “φέρω,” A Greek-English Lexicon, Perseus, accessed on 18th July 2022, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, φέρω (; Helene Cixous also talks about metaphor as a tool of transport for words in languages.

Hélène Cixous and Mireille Calle-Gruber. Rootprints : Memory and Life Writing. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. (London: Routledge, 1997) 23.  

[7] Isabelle Doucet and Hélène Frichot, ‘Resist, Reclaim, Speculate: Situated Perspectives on Architecture and the City’, Architectural Theory Review 22, no. 1 (2018): 1; Isabelle Doucet and Hélène Frichot, ‘Resist, Reclaim, Speculate: Situated Perspectives on Architecture and the City’, Architectural Theory Review 22, no. 1 (2018): 1–8,; Doucet and Frichot sought to develop a methodology of writing architectural history and theory from a situated perspective to mediate between theory and practice, the framework of knowledge production is referenced in Donna Haraway’s theory of situated knowledge: Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575–99.  

[8] The historical period I focus on interpret begins from the 1970s and the 1980s to present. The literature by Kim Dovey, David Harvey, Johnathan Raban are the ones I have reviewed for this dissertation to build my understanding of postmodern architectural and urban spaces to interpret different my experiences in cities. Kim Dovey, Fluid City (Australia and New Zealand: UNSW Press, 2005), 88-92; David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1989), 3-9. 


[9] Aihwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (London & Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 4; Rosi Braidotti, ‘Writing as a Nomadic Subject’, Comparative Critical Studies 11, no. 2-3 (2014): 176-182; Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (London: Routledge, 2000) 77-94; Rosi Baridotti, Nomadic Theory (New York: Columbia University Press), 254-256.


[10]Braidotti, ‘Writing as a Nomadic Subject’, 177; Ahmed, Strange Encounters, 77.     

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