Li Dong & Chocolate City

An African community in Guangzhou

 “We are all the same. Africans are like any other immigrant community from China or abroad, coming to Guangzhou for a living and a better life. Once you realise this, there will be no fear or confusion”

– Li Dong

It became very apparent to me, driving through the lush green golf course community of Huadu, where Artist Li Dong has set up a makeshift-editing space in his now unoccupied 4 million Renminbi villa, that the lives he so beautifully captured in his 2014 exhibition of an African community in Guangzhou is so far removed from his reality.

But what was also plain to see, was in spite of this, he has an impenetrable desire and drive to immerse himself in the African migrant community, so much so that he lived amongst the individuals he captured for eight months. What turned out to be a rare window of opportunity to observe the people around him also became a unique experience of cultivating friendships.

Li Dong’s motivation is propelled by his desire to better understand the city’s economical and ethnic transformations; how these changes impact the Chinese way of life and the future of an estimated 200,000 Africans living and working in the biggest trading hub in China.

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One of Li Dong’s pieces, taking centre stage in his makeshift editing studio.

The recent phenomenon of African migration to China and specifically Guangzhou has initiated a growing dialogue centered on how Chinese society is evolving and culturally negotiating with a growing visible African presence.

Originally from the southwestern city of Chongqing and married with two children, 49 Year old, photographer Dong has been photographing the African migrant community since 2011.

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His interests lie not only in vividly exposing the hybrid cultures that co-exist in Sino-African migrant communities, but all migrant groups including those that are made up of ethnic native Chinese from surrounding provinces.

His body of work has ignited a profound dialogue centered around, identity, nationalism and the uncertainty that mass migration creates for both migrating settlers and the communities they live amongst.

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Baohan Street, the new “Africa Town” of Guangzhou.

The emergence of an “Africa Town” or “Chocolate City”, as it is now dubbed in Guangzhou has undoubtedly been fuelled by the scope of economic opportunities that the city provides for existing and potential African businessmen and women. This growing population of which over 50% are Nigerian men, are taking full advantage of the growing trade relationship between Africa and the Peoples Republic of China in spite of tightening visa restrictions.

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6AM, Baohan Street. An African man picks up his early morning breakfast of fried bread sticks and soya milk from a Chinese street vendor.

It seems that in the hope of forging a comfortable life that offers social and economic up-scaling, many Africans in Guangzhou run the risk of deportation by overstaying temporary visas in order set up shop and export businesses.

With a population of over nine million, this southern city is the number one trading centre in China and offers cheap manufacturing labor options and produce. For some, the move means gaining access to a life free of financial strain – Guangzhou, it appears represents the golden ticket to achieving the Chinese Dream.

I came across the work of Dong while conducting research for my documentary, ‘Black Lives in China’, and after spending four days in the city filming, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking more at length with him about his work and interactions with the African community in Baohan Street.

Dong, welcomed his French-speaking Chinese assistant Li Jilu from Paris, PhD African studies student Jin Xin and I into his home and led the way upstairs to the master bedroom, a bright and airy space that has been transformed into a creative den. Sliding doors led to a spacious balcony over-looking an immaculate golf course and for a moment, it felt like I was in the middle of the California Hills.

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Li Dong making himself comfortable during soundcheck.

He prepared a Chinese spread of green tea, nuts, juice and chocolate snacks reminiscent of my childhood favourite, Wagon Wheels. Dong was most at ease when able to communicate in Chinese, so his assistant, Jilu helped with translation and the necessary arrangements needed to set up the interview space for filming.

Dong pottered around, bringing in chairs and tables and obliged when I asked for his work to be spread around the room. In stature, he was firm with a warm demeanor and face. The spark in his eyes when talking about his work, gave me insight into the man before me more than any of his photos could.

An impromptu discussion with Dong, Jilu and Xin, highlighted that although his photo’s beautifully captured the every day moments of African life in this unique urban space, the art of photography is limited in its ability to convey the very complex and underlining social and political constructs at work in this environment.

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Li Dong, captivating his audience.

A truth most represented in the proceeding days after his exhibition after which random security checks were made and almost all of the individuals who Dong had fostered strong relationships with and who featured in his work had been found to be without the relevant papers and deported back to their home nations.

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Regular visa security checks take place on Baohan Street. Sometimes resulting in on-the-spot arrests and immediate deportation.

Dong insists that to gain a deeper understanding of these constructs and how they are part of the local African experience, a creative move from photography to film is necessary to gain a deeper insight into the realities of the current climate in migrant communities.

I was given a clearer understanding as to why there was such a strong reluctance from the African community to be the voice of their own narrative, particularly on camera and why the governing body’s that exist for each African nation in Guangzhou, led by community elected ‘state leaders’ or ‘presidents’ are the gate keepers to Chocolate City.

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Li Dong has already made the transition from photography to videography.

Dong, Jilu and Xin were very curious about my personal interactions with the local migrant community during my four days of filming in the city; was the initial reluctance of the African community to talk with them based upon their racial and cultural profile? And was access to ‘Chocolate City’ granted more freely to me because of the Colour of my skin? – The answer to these questions surprised us all.

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Li Dong can’t help but take a few snaps during his turn to interview me.

The reality of my experience contradicted a lot of the assumptions I had made before travelling to Guangzhou. I thought my ‘black experience’ in China would resonate with the African community I wish to connect with but did not account for the complexities that exist between the African nations and the Diaspora.

My British accent and passport is a source of privilege while working and living in China. However to some of the African individuals I spoke to, I am solely the product and representation of the displacement of their people. It was made clear in some situations that I’m just not “African” enough.

Culturally I am just as worlds apart from the African community in Guangzhou as Dong was and is. I have to work just as hard as he did to garner trust and cultivate relationships. Chocolate City affords no one with direct or indirect privilege but requires patience and trust.

Jin Xin, who is currently conducting her field research in Guangzhou for her PhD in African Studies, resorts to carrying around her ID, passport and University documents to prove that she does not belong to a government agency or a police department and Jilu, who lives in a courtyard whose residents are predominately African has had to work hard to restore relationships broken, when members of the community were arrested and deported shortly after Dong’s exhibition.

In spite of these challenges, in the little time I have spent in Guangzhou and having seen the relationships that Dong has successfully forged, shows that when trust is formed the openness, love and appreciation that abound towards you from individuals are something life changing.

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The handheld embrace I received from a Gambian missionary, named, Princess Muchwa Mwambu. Quite the lady.

I return to Guangzhou in three weeks to continue filming and hope to continue to forge successful relationships with members of the African community.

Their narrative needs to be told and they’re the ones to tell it. I hope that Black Lives in China highlights the need for further cultural exchange and understanding between new hybrid communities that are forming not only in China but also all over the world, some out of necessity and some out of an inherent need to understand and embrace each other as human beings.

What’s next for Li Dong? Well the opportunities are endless. Dong will continue to dedicate a full time schedule to research for his new documentary. He intends to explore the subject of mass migration to China further but has not yet settled on a presiding theme.

Jin Xin will return back to the Netherlands to continue her PhD in African studies and Jilu will continue working alongside Dong.

The second episode of my documentary, Black Lives in China, which includes Li Dong’s full interview will be coming soon.

Watch this space.

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The Black Orient

Two women who are bringing perspective and insight into the realities of the African Experience in the East

“We are on a quest to revamp the landscape of Africa by dissolving existing stereotypes and using our knowledge and experiences to add value and contribute to the bigger strategic thinking plan for the growth of Africa”

~ FromAfricaToChina

A team of dynamic African women are taking the lead by opening up a dialogue concerning their very personal Africa to China experiences. A journey, all too well known throughout the African and African Diaspora communities that thrive, right here in the world’s second-largest economy, the People’s Republic of China.

Wadeisor Rakuto and Sihle Isipho Nontshokweni are a part of a four strong all-female team of writers who were all hand-selected from the University of Cape Town to complete a scholarship programme reading China Studies at the prestigious Yenching Academy at Peking University in Beijing.

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I met these two incredibly inspirational women at one of my favourite work hideaway cafes in the Sanlitun area, here in Beijing. I was received in the wonderfully typical South African way; with beaming smiles and full embraces that are hard to break away from because of the genuine warmth you feel.

These bold women are all on a mission to break boundaries to explore, examine and share the various facets of what life is like for them in China, a country with the largest growing African migrant community in Asia – A mission with great purpose and ability to motivate, inspire and transform others.

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Documenting and sharing their personal experiences is their precept in creating a wider platform for a discussion about the impact of the growing socio-political relationship between Africa and China; what this relationship means at grassroots levels in both states and what narratives currently exist.

“We are both interested in third world politics and how it is written about in the media,” says Sihle.

The Africa to China blog that Wadeisor and Sihle collaboratively write on is directly inspired by their need to discuss the shared and diverse experiences of their journey here in China. Wadeisor beamed with excited urgency as she told me more.

“We didn’t find much about African’s writing about China. We wanted to share what our personal experience was VS what we thought we’d find and what we didn’t find.”

Between their personal voyages as African women in China and their academic backgrounds in International Relations and Political Science they are in good stead to speak on the deeper mechanics at work in Sino-African relations from an African perspective.

“There’s a shift towards Asia and it’s role in international relations”

The Scholarship program they have been awarded with to complete a Masters in China Studies has brought together 100 students of excellence from different universities from around the world. The program is intended to provide these global leaders of tomorrow with a better understanding and insight into the next possible superpower of the world, China.

“There’s a shift towards Asia and its role in international relations…” and because of this Wadeisor also remarked that how the bringing together of these individuals reflects a new paradigm shift concerning China and its global positioning in the future.

But aside from state-level positioning and re-positioning, as the geo-political arena transforms, so does the communities it governs. Hybrid racial and cultural spaces are developing throughout China, particularly as a result of Africa-China relations, one of which I like to coin the Black Orient.

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“Beyond the characteristics that define a person and what they do, I do think that there is an experience that black people can generally relate to and it starts with small things, like hair!”

The Black Orient is a socio-cultural space where an African and Diaspora presence collides and negotiates with native Chinese society, which is entrenched in time-honoured traditions, customs, and ideologies.

“I think there is (a ‘Black Experience’)…how one engages with a new country, a new space, a new city depends on the person they are,” explained Wadeisor, “beyond the experiences that define a person and what they do, I do think that there is an experience that black people can generally relate to and it starts with small things, like hair!”

“I just don’t think conversations about Africa are privileged or brought to the fore”

Wadeisor went on to describe some of the physically related experiences that unite black people in China, like being photographed and stared at, however Sihle spoke of a greater issue that Africans and other black individuals contend with.

“The bigger story or the connotations around the African continent (of destitution and displacement), those become associated with you.”

When asked how much of this destitute perception of Africa is ignorance or playing to the same tune of other societies who appropriate superiority over the African narrative, Wadeisor drew from her very visible compassion and understanding of the lack-of-knowledge climate in China.

“There’s a degree to which I wouldn’t blame a lot people that I’ve interacted with, who’ve had those very one-sided perspectives because I just don’t think that conversations about Africa are privileged or brought to the fore.”

In spite of the ignorance both Wadeisor and Sihle spoke of, there are encouraging signs of a real desire from individuals in China to embrace and celebrate African culture and the fusion of their culture with Africa’s dynamic and vivid array of customs and traditions.

“It was very interesting to see how people wanted to know more about our country and food”

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At a recent international cultural festival held at Peking University, both women were taken back and energized by the interest taken in their South African roots by Chinese students.

“It was very interesting to see how people wanted to know more about our country and food,” Sihle observed the openness of the Chinese students and excitedly told me about how quickly the samples of South African delicacies disappeared from their counter.

“Its important for ‘Africanness’ to be worn very proudly”

Wadeisor’s thoughts swiftly moved to the charge she, feels people from different African nations have to create the necessary spaces and environments for cultural Sino-African exchange.

“I think there is a degree to which, its important for Africans in China, as broad as that category is, to actively showcase their culture, because while we could say that Africa isn’t really discussed, why would people want to know? There are people who do want to know.”

This calls on individuals to remember that “its important for ‘Africanness’ to be worn very proudly.” Now is the time to flaunt the brilliance of Africa and its people.

“I do feel that there is a responsibility to wear the (African) culture proudly but also be willing and active in wanting to inform people.”

Wadeisor explained that this will deeply impact the stories that are shared amongst different Chinese communities and as Sihle goes on to reflect, gets us thinking about the awareness that Africans should have when recounting their China experiences.

“The way we tell our Chinese stories needs to be more conscious. When you go home, people are like, “Do they eat dogs? Do they spit everywhere?” there’s a particular perception and its very easy to perpetuate that kind of narrative.”

There is much more to the African experience in China and it deserves to be told, “I think in terms of Africans learning more actively about China, Africans who have lived here need to tell their story in a more holistic manner.” Added Sihle.

“I felt a sense of nervousness at the airport and seeing the relations happen on the ground. When you see (Chinese) individuals everywhere you turn, it’s like, wow! Is this really happening?”

State relations between Africa and China are no new phenomenon and neither is African migration to China or Chinese migration to Africa. However, there is a degree of preoccupation with the current trade affairs between the two and the strategic development plans that China is currently putting in place in Africa.

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A ‘Welcome’ billboard on the way to Harare International Airport. The bottom text reads “China our all-weather friend.”

On a recent trip home to Zimbabwe, Wadeisor was confronted with the grass root level changes that are increasingly taking place in more robust ways in Africa. Large over-powering Chinese billboards and signposts that the vast majority of Kenyans will not be able to read or understand, and customer service stations in airports adorned in Chinese paraphernalia are just some of the telling signs that change is coming, if not already very present.

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20 Meters high billboard with Chinese text on road to airport in Zimbabwe.

On transit to a connecting flight, Wadeisor was stopped well and truly in her tracks.

“I felt a sense of nervousness, at the airport and seeing the relations happen on the ground. When you see (Chinese) individuals everywhere you turn, it’s like, wow! Is this really happening?” chuckled Wadeisor.

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Chinese help-desk at Bole International Airport adorned in Chinese New Year decorations, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Wadeisor’s trip back home unearthed some questions about the impact of relations between Africa and China on the ground. Are citizens asking the right questions? Do they recognise and actively engage with the transformation rapidly taking place in their work and social spaces?

“I try and stay away from the neo-colonialism narrative because its not well explained and it’s a bit dramatic but will people only get what’s going on ten years later when relations have become so entrenched at a societal level that its like waking up from a ten year slumber and I think that’s where my nervousness comes from.”

Initiatives like “China House” in Nairobi, Kenya, a social enterprise that acts as the middleman between Chinese businesses and African individuals, both women agree is integral to building active bridges of communication and understanding about a wide range of things like wildlife, trade, languages and culture. Organizations similar to this one may decrease the prospect of future feelings of displacement and tension.

“It will be interesting to see how government policies privilege Chinese, particularly because of the growing relations and growing trade between Africa and China”

But what about different access points in the two respective states for migrant communities? There is a concern that African migrants in China are not afforded with the same access to resources as their Chinese counterparts. Unequal levels of income distribution and access to land are just two of a number of means that Africans in their native regions fall short of but is an opportunity commonly exploited by Chinese migrants, setting up business and home in Africa.

“It will be interesting to see how government policies privilege Chinese, particularly because of the growing relations and growing trade between Africa and China,” says Sihle, “It will be interesting to see how quickly or easily African governments give more as a result of seeing more visible signs of investment, like institutions or stadiums or hospitals or schools.”

“However, if the relationship starts to impact your access to resources, people may change perspectives about Africa-China relations.”

While Chinese natives enjoy access to a number of Africa-China initiatives in Africa, there is the question of African mobility in China. There has been a recent tightening of visa guidelines, particularly in the South, where China’s largest trading hubs and African communities exist. Setting up shop, buying property or gaining permanent residency are real challenges for migrant communities without marrying into a Chinese family or forming business partnerships with native Chinese.

“If you can make it in China, you can make it anywhere”

Economic interests may outweigh other factors when talking about African migration to China (with the same rule applying to Chinese migration to Africa) but for many the move to China ends up being a permanent one, with individuals and families laying down roots and making a life for themselves.

“Economic motivation might be a precursor to Africans coming to China, however upon settling, this ability to create a home or life becomes more than just wealth aspiration or wealth accumulation. There’s a realisation that there’s more,” Tells Sihle.

The “Chinese Dream” is real for some and more attainable than other western ideals and practices of trying to fill your pot with gold. Sihle feels that China is more of a land of opportunity than our stateside friend.

“As an African here, unlike if I were going to America, I don’t feel like it’s the place that gives me what I’m looking for. There are things that I can do for myself. Here it’s a circular kind of experience. The agency is upon me.”

We all giggled at changing the New York mantra of being able to make it anywhere if you can make it there, to “if you can make it in China, you can make it anywhere”. For these two women, as Sihle points out, the “American Dream” is overshadowed by the uniqueness of creating your own version of the “Chinese Dream”.”

“The American Dream is all about the place that gives you the things, whereas here it’s a place where I can take the things from to create what I’m looking for.”

“What makes China so attractive is they’ve been able to do what most other African countries can’t do”

Sihle raised the issue of the ‘token of trust’ between Africa and China. Trust built around the prospect that Africa with the support of China can rise from the ashes of their history of economic enslavement and do for themselves what China has successfully done – become self-reliant.

“What makes China so attractive is that they’ve been able to do what most other African countries can’t do, and so there’s an increased resistance to the West – this question around this token of trust – they’ve (China) have been able to do it for themselves.”

As China progresses to centre stage of an international platform, it comes as no surprise that Africa welcomes China and its sustainable growth plan. Africa and China’s current relations may be the result of Africa’s aspirations towards their own development but as Sihle highlighted during our conversation, Africa’s desire for progression could easily lend to higher levels of trust but “lowers our position because of this giving too much, too early, because of being in awe of China.”

“I would love to say that Africa doesn’t need China and that Africa can do everything on its own”

So, to the question, does Africa need China? Both women took a moment to think. It was plain to see before either opened their mouths that there was an innate yearning to unequivocally say no, but I could see what was coming; Wadeisor relinquished first.

“There’s the answer I want to believe. I would love to say that Africa doesn’t need China and that Africa can do everything on its own, that African states have the capacity to equip themselves with capital to industrialize and fill in the gaps that China is filling at the moment. But realistically answering the question of whether Africa needs China in a qualified way, I would say, it does.”

If Africa does indeed need China’s financial investment and China’s market and trade expansion means a relationship is mutually beneficial for both states, is this a win-win situation? Or, is one in a more privileged position than the other, Wadeisor remains unconvinced.

“Are Africans really leveraging off of the relationship with China to get the most that they can out of it? I’m often not sure.”

Sihle added, “Africans know what they’re looking for, but in terms of the strategic agenda towards an optimal position? I don’t think it’s an optimal or maximised opportunity all together.”

“We kind of have a fishing rod but were not quite able to fish for ourselves”

A visiting Zimbabwe delegate recently used the analogy of the fish and the fishing rod when discussing the Africa-China relationship with students at Peking University. Wadeisor and Sihle were both present and mentioned the importance of such an illustration.

“China needs to change its development model with Africa and make it more grass roots up. China has given Africa half of a fishing rod. We kind of have a fishing rod but were not quite able to fish for ourselves,” Says Wadeisor.

As the state-level Africa-China relationship forges on, what is and will be our responsibility going forward? What seems to be missing is a humanistic thread that needs to weave throughout the social spaces we find ourselves in. However according to Wadeisor’s personal interactions, there are some encouraging signs of deeper exchange and understanding.

“I think individuals from the Chinese side are genuinely interested in learning about Africans. Learning about African culture and pulling themselves away from the typical story (of Africa).”

And what of the future of Africa-China relations on the ground? Sihle shares her view.

“The future of China and Africa hangs on human relationships. We have everything else, we have a political side, we have the economics side, increased trade; the thing that’s missing currently, is a pure understanding of people–to-people relationships.”

It was a pleasure to talk with these women and I believe Wadeisor’s last comments were a fitting end to the interview and is fitting end to this piece.

“This conversation to me has highlighted the importance of actively asking these questions. It’s important to have these kinds of conversations because we all share similar experiences. The experiences of Black people in China, Africans in China are so varied and unless we speak about them, we can’t share, we can’t understand. There’s so much to learn from each other.

Credit for photos, #1, #3 and #4: Joseph Patrick