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
by Nicole Bonnah
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.