The Black Orient: The Emerging Black Presence in China
Encapsulating the stories and lives in the diverse landscape of African and other black diasporic communities in the wide and ever-changing China has become a complex, yet educational endeavour. Having lived and worked in China for almost four years, being black has brought a new dimension to negotiating my way through life and relationships.
China’s continued growth and expansion has catapulted the country to center stage of the global economic arena. The opening up of its economy has created a wealth of opportunities not just for nationals but also expats taking leaps across land and oceans for a slice of the pie.
The growing population of Black migrants and expats can be in part explained by the increasing appeal of the so-called “China Dream.” Everyone from street vendors to English educators are leaving their native countries in search of the economic opportunity, travel, and work experience that China’s 21st century is offering. There is also much to be said about present day Africa-China relations, which has resulted in 1 million Chinese migrating to the African continent and an underestimated African migration to the new economic land of opportunity.
With no official government statistics available to account for the growing population of Black migrants in China, I would estimate the number of black migrants and expats living, working, or hustling in China to be several hundred thousand people. My estimate is based on an in-depth study of government records and a number of visits to several of China’s smaller cities such as Guangzhou, one of China’s biggest trading hubs…
“China’s modernization means internationalization. The remarkable characteristic of this is African people moving to China, looking for business and other opportunities. So I am focusing on these two groups, people from villages moving to cities; Africans, Indians and people from the Middle East moving to China”
“The African people in China are intending to seek development, business opportunities or a better life. They have to fit into the Chinese environment, but the process is very painful because African cultures are quite different from Chinese ones. As, are their lifestyles”
“It is an ideal state. In an exhibition themed “An African Community in Guangzhou”, I proposed a concept. The African people in China are intending to seek development, business opportunities or a better life.”
“We proposed to build an independent gas stop, or space. They can live on, one street, a little African community where their friends and relatives gather together. For instance, they go out to work on weekdays and return there on weekends. In the community, they can talk with their countrymen and friends, experience African culture and life. It is a buffer or fuel station for them. On Mondays, they continue to adapt to the Chinese environment and culture shock.”
“The government has a different plan. They don’t believe it’s proper to dismantle the community and suggest that they live amongst other communities. Maybe the street is too close to the core area of the government.”
Louis Hermann, 32-year-old independent Business Consultant tells why an African Board of Representatives is of utmost importance for future China-Africa Cooperation.
The China based European Union Chamber of Commerce gives voice to European businesses across different regions of China while the French Chamber of Commerce in the same vain acts as a comprehensive representative of French businesses in China. The interests of these businesses and their engagement within China are at the heart of the work each Chamber conducts as recognized independent bodies.
Although an African Chamber of Commerce does exist in China’s most populous city, Shanghai, its mantra of “promoting a healthy business environment in China” for African businesses has been called into question. Business Consultant Louis Hermann asks – where is the ideal symbolic and practical representative of African commerce in China during the age of hyper Sino-African relations?
Graduated in 2014 with a Bachelor’s degree in International Economics and Trade and an MBA in International Commerce in 2017, Hermann speaks of a coming age where the African Union will need to take precedence as a leading voice and advocate for African business in China, “This organization must assume its responsibilities, like the European Union which imposes standards for Chinese products. We could push for industrialization of our countries or operate on a package-basis for each project. This would create employment over time. The African Union must fight for the rights of Africans!” he said.
“An African Chamber of Commerce should gather [African] countries [together]; uniting small strengths to become bigger,”
A successful middle –man between Chinese economic players wanting to forge new partnerships in and with Africa, Hermann has assisted hundreds of Chinese clients to transfer and build their businesses on the Continent while recognizing a growing gap in open policy, guidance and advocacy for their African counterparts in China, “An African Chamber of Commerce should gather [African] countries [together]; uniting small strengths to become bigger,” he said.
Hermann’s recognition of the lack of official guidance for African’s wanting to do business in China is coupled with the issue that many have yet to become proficient enough in Mandarin to negotiate and secure partnerships. As a result he has been encouraged to build up his African clientele. He is often closing the gap between African business owners and suppliers of the materials and equipment they most need in China, “I have been helping a business woman from Congo Brazzaville to find suppliers for agricultural equipment,” he said.
Hermann uses his consultation skills to secure heavy shipments of agrarian tools from a supplier in Zhejiang province in Taizhou to the port of Pointe Noire in Congo, “I have also been helping a business man from Cameroon. He is in construction, [and needs] materials. Our supplier is located in Hebei province – his materials are shipped from the port of Tianjin to the port of Douala.”
Although his consultation skills are helping African businesses obtain resources in China, Hermann still questions how African’s might be better prepared and assisted in crafting start-ups in or migrating their businesses over to China.
Speaking the Same Language
Choosing to learn and study in Chinese, Hermann recalls, was the foundation of his current success. Before completing his MBA at Beijing Union University, he interned at Hanglong Mining Company (HMC) whom he was later commissioned to represent in his home country of Cameroon. He was sent to help with lines of negotiation while helping to maintain a constant and efficient work-flow, “To be successful, it’s so important to speak the language; to negotiate on an equal footing. They [HMC] knew I spoke Chinese and could speak the native language in Cameroon. I was an asset because of this,” he said.
“Chinese language and culture is important if you want to do business with Chinese [people]. Many African’s do not speak Chinese and have no idea about Chinese culture, so it’s difficult for them to negotiate good deals – Chinese [people] who want to business with African’s have the same problem,” he added.
Although undefined as such, his role with both companies required the wits and know-how of professional consultancy and with a breadth of experience in tow, Hermann decided to build his own clientele of large and small Chinese enterprises’ to offer private, tailor-made guidance. Internal problems and missed business opportunities with both conglomerates prompted him to take a leap of faith and start out on his own, “I no longer wanted to work for Chinese companies whose projects were usually short-term,” he said, “I also thought I can be more useful as a consultant, because I can share my business experience in China with my fellow Africans – so they can make good deals with [the] Chinese,” he added.
In 2016, the 32-year-old entrepreneur established, Zhou Hua International Business Consulting Ltd. An African expert with first-hand knowledge of the business environment on the continent, Hermann has become symbolic of a rare kind in China-Africa business consultation, – a native of Africa, “Does it not make sense to think that Africans know Africa best?” he mused.
Global and Regional Representation
Hermann has developed a career in assisting the endeavors of Chinese commerce in Africa but what of the economic undertakings of Africans in China? The end goal in aiding Africans to truly benefit from growing global and China-Africa commerce is the building of what Hermann refers to as a Global African Chamber of Commerce. Part of the responsibility for uniting the needs of African nations into a collective that benefits from such initiatives as the Belt and Road, lies with embassies and the African Union, “There’s no representative of the African Union in China. Official African Representation in China could bring several African nations together within a common structure. China is a far too important market for any single African country to handle,” he said.
Hermann argues that African Embassies in China should create a platform through the development of programs, where relationship building and connectivity initiatives are at the forefront of helping Chinese businesses and companies build trust with African organizations and government departments. However there are a number of considerations that must be made first, “One Chamber of Commerce for all African nations is difficult to manage. It’s better to create a Chamber of Commerce [using] small African regional organizations, because they have points in common” he said.
These common points would help regionally constructed Chambers of Commerce efficiently provide services and guidance that is specific to the needs of each diverse nation on the continent, “For example in central Africa we have an organization called CEMAC (Economic Community and Monetary of Central Africa). The countries members use the same currency, the same passport, the same official language – it’s the same for Western Africa, Eastern Africa and Southern Africa and so on,” he said. If guidance and assistance is tailored around cultural and economic differences on the continent, African commerce would fare better with enhanced and strategic support and representation in China.
Heavy Chinese investment in African infrastructure and an increased Chinese labor force on the continent may deflect from the many ways in which Africa can offer a wealth of professional experience and knowledge in a number of industries yet to be exploited. Hermann believes that a focus on assisting African countries to industrialize may help African nations to utilize their resources to produce more products for import to China rather than the current trend of African businesses buying from China, while China monopolizes the continents natural resources.
He elaborated, “For the last 30 years, 60% of the products imported from Africa to China have been raw materials. This approach is no longer relevant as things evolve, and what we need now is to industrialize. We can, for example, transform African agricultural products directly on the spot. I am thinking of the groundnut in Senegal or the cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire. The market price of raw materials is volatile, so the only path to development for Africa goes through adding value. For this to happen, we need to diversify cooperation between the continent and China.”
Despite the expressed need for further innovative ingenuities, Hermann’s nine years of working in China-Africa commerce has cumulated into a wealth of knowledge of how locals are benefiting from initiatives such as the Belt and Road, which continues to help local businesses thrive, increase the mobility of the continents people and earning potential for companies. The growing presence of China in Africa has been welcomed, as Africa continues to benefit in a number of ways while retaining regional and state control, “China does not try and control Africa. Their sole purpose is to partner with Africa and increase cooperation,” he said “The Belt and Road Initiative represents a major opportunity for Africa to establish itself as a supplier and an essential backbone of this initiative. We should seize this opportunity,” he added.
Moving forward Hermann would like to see more African experts and consultants from the continent representing their countries and introducing the diverse continent to foreign investors and entrepreneurs, “I hope that the younger generation of Africans will be able to negotiate the way in which cooperation takes place on the ground. We do want to open up the African market to China, but on a fair basis”. This would help curate better cross-cultural partnerships and support for Chinese investment led by Africans for Africans.
Hermann also spoke of the importance of African consultants partnering with Chinese enterprise with the common goal of furthering China-Africa business cooperation and connectivity, “I have a Chinese partner. When approaching African businesses to partner with Chinese investors we each represent our nation but are also able to build trust with businesses as we work together as a symbol of China-Africa cooperation,” he added, “Now, we need this kind of representation and policy for Africans doing business in China!”
Original Edit written for ChinAfrica Magazine (July 2017 edition)
Africa Analyst and Co-Author of a Where to Invest in Africa guides Chinese businesses on where and why to invest in the Continent
On 13 March 2017, the Rand Merchant Bank (RMB) partnered with the China-Africa Development Fund (CAD) at their headquarters in Beijing to host an African Investment Symposium. As Celeste Fauconnier, Africa Analyst for the Global Markets Research team at RMB led current and potential business investors through the arduous landscape of African investment, coal, copper, oil and fuel were the spring waters envisioned to be waiting to nourish us at the end of our journey.
On a global perspective, Africa is seen as the mecca of diversified business opportunities. However the most important aspect of Africa’s economic resurgence is its relationship with China as its largest trading partner. China drives where commodity prices go. “What happens to China and what happens to commodity prices, will happen to Africa” said Fauconnier. She believes doing business in Africa is no easy feat but investors can be guided through the storm and financial “riskier patches” to get the funding needed to get into the Continent.
With 54 countries in Africa, RMB have ranked them according to their independent study of the Continent. The first aspect looks at its growth, followed by market size and business environment. The growth rate of a particular country over the next five years is the proxy used to determine what returns a business is likely to be rewarded during the coming years. It is no secret that China and the US have the largest markets in the world, but who the largest markets are in Africa could better prepare businesses to make more lucrative returns on their investment and knowing what the operating environment looks like within Africa could dictate the ease in which a business can gain access and grow.
For these reasons, the Where to Invest in Africa report was compiled. Chinese investors thinking about investing in Africa are in need of vital information on where to put their money during the next five years in order to yield the best return and Chinese investors already investing in the Continent need up-to-date knowledge concerning shifting trends, challenges and emerging commerce opportunities. Longevity for Chinese investors means staying ahead of change.
China is South Africa’s largest trading partner and continues to set the trend as the number one African country that Chinese investors are choosing to inject cash-flow into infrastructure and the manufacturing industry. South Africa is one of the largest markets in Africa with over a Trillion US dollars in purchasing power and one of the easiest business environments to operate in. Fauconnier explained why this southern tapestry of opportunity has staying power, “We [South Africa] have a very liquid market, we have a very strong judiciary system and so as a corporate wanting to go into South Africa, you’ll always be able to get your money in and get your money out. That’s how liquid the South African market is.”
The Beijing Automobile Works in South Africa is a testament to why Chinese businesses view South Africa as a sound place for investment. The subsidiary of Chinese state-owned enterprise BAIC Group set up their factory in South Africa’s capital Johannesburg in 2013. General Manager, Li Yongfu, spoke of their rapid growth and return in just three years at the China BRICS Business Council Secretariat in Beijing in 2016, “We set up a factory in South Africa’s capital Johannesburg. Since then  it has produced more than 3,000 vehicles with total revenue of 170 million yuan ($24.6 million).”
Xu Wenwei, Chairman of Ningbo Construction, a Chinese company that acquired South African Anglorand Financial Service Group in 2015, was focused on going global. According to the chairman, investment in Africa is the gateway to global expansion, by-way of none other than, South Africa, “As the Belt and Road initiative unfolds and competition in the domestic construction industry becomes increasingly fierce, Ningbo Construction has adopted the going global strategy and is expanding overseas. The South African market is our top choice for overseas expansion,” he told ChinAfrica back in December 2015.
Other trend-setting countries for Chinese investment includes Zambia due to its seemingly endless reserves of copper, whom China are the number one purchasers of, “We’ve seen the currency stabilize, we’ve seen growth rates recover to about 4 percent, probably [we will see a further growth] of 6 percent in the next two or three years and we’ve started seeing investment back into infrastructure”, said Fauconnier. Botswana, Namibia together with Mauritius have all been rated by major credit agencies as the bet economies in Africa to invest in and have been the beneficiaries’ of the majority of Chinese investment in recent years. Investment risk remains low, however the markets within these countries have increasingly become oversaturated.
Top African Countries to invest in NOW
Oversaturation in leading markets means that Chinese investors need to broaden their scope to benefit from emerging diversified economies in Africa and make investment in Africa much easier. Easy access and growth can be aided by capitalizing in one of the current top 10 African countries to invest in, according to the Where to Invest in Africa report.
South Africa remains at the top and will do for obvious reasons, as one of the largest markets in Africa and its purchasing power, but previously overshadowed countries have been predicted to be setting new Chinese investment trends and are advocated as the new favorites by financiers. North Africa is diversifying its economies, “They’ve got fuel, they’ve got manufacturing, agriculture, they’ve got services and they’ve got large populations, especially Egypt which has the third largest population in Africa with about 87million people,” remarked Fauconnier during her presentation at the China-Africa investment forum. Egypt, Morocco and Algeria are the ones to keep an eye on.
West Africa: Nigeria, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are also countries to watch. Ghana is in the top five due to having one of the best business environments in Africa to operate in. The country has a stable political and social environment and their oil and gas production will increase this year and the next.
Access to financing is placed at the top of the list of challenges facing Chinese investors. Businesses wanting to promote themselves on the continent need to find the right financiers with industry knowledge to help them penetrate markets in Africa. Corruption takes close second and Infrastructure is the third major problem affecting Chinese investors in Africa, “Africa needs a significant amount of investment for infrastructure. We are seeing governments investing heavily into this in order to make the environment more investor-friendly. Why is access to finance so difficult? It’s a risky arena to invest in so for instance your credit risk will be much higher in Nigeria than what it is in South Africa,” highlights Fauconnier.
One of the more turbulent challenges for Chinese investors in Africa is repatriating their money out of African economies, which Fauconnier broke down into three major issues, “one; pricing, it’s very expensive to buy dollars in African countries, two; liquidity, at the moment liquidity is a significant issue in Africa because again commodity prices are down so there’s less money coming into these markets, so they can’t give you these dollars back – they need these dollars to keep their economies going, three; exchange controls, so some of these countries will tell you, you are not allowed to take a certain amount of dollars out of the economy.”
What Lies Ahead
Making any kind of future prediction is thwart with uncertainty, however Fauconnier and her team of experts feel optimistic about the future of Chinese investment in China and where trends will begin to evolve, “In essence the countries that we want to focus on in the top 10 are actually your East African economies. That’s: Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. This is where we are going to see growth in Africa, we’ve seen them find oil and gas over the past two years – oil and gas production is expected to start in the year of 2021 and with that these countries need significant investment in terms of infrastructure to be able to build these industries. We have already seen Chinese companies going in.” As exploration of these countries have already begun, Fauconnier believes that Chinese investors can rest assured about what lies ahead, which resources to invest in overall and where to invest, “We have seen growth rates jump from about 3% over the past year or so to about 5% expected in 2017. This is just from investment coming in, not even starting to produce from the oil and gas perspective. So we are very happy with the East African region,” She said.
The many layers of Afro-Phobia in a bid to white-wash, purity, sex and beauty.
An advert for Chinese detergent brand, Qiaboi, has garnered widespread attention recently on social media platforms and outlets across China and overseas, after The Shanghaiist published what they deemed to be an “incredibly racist advertisement”.
The commercial has reportedly appeared on Chinese television and during the advertisement slots before screenings in Wanda Cinemas this month but was first uploaded and criticised by American Expat and musician, Christopher Powell. There is definitely more than enough social engagement going on right now concerning whether or not this advert is truly representative of a deep-rooted “racism” in China, but I have decided to offer my two-cents, if you will indulge me for a moment or two.
The offering of my two-cents, is partly in response to Roberto Castillo’s recent opinion piece, titled “[Opinion] On why the racist Chinese ad may not be as racist as you think #SinoAfrica” and also in part to the four-part documentary I am producing about the Black Experience of individuals and groups in China titled #TheBlackOrient. I am offering a differing perspective but hope to add value to further dialogue around this subject.
Both Castillo and I agree that the advert is “profoundly (and maybe naively) insensitive and very very problematic” – Yes, it is “indeed ‘racist'” but when it comes to analysing what kind of ‘evidence’ this advert provides or alludes to in terms of representing a culturally specific form of racism or “Chinese racism” is where we part ways.
I’m a black woman who has been living and working in China for three years. As a journalist here, I’ve taken great interest in the growing black and African presence in China and have researched this and defining differences between black “expat” life and black “migrant” life. I have interviewed a number of black people from the continent and diaspora, and having listened to countless black narratives, I am often suspicious of people arguing that racism doesn’t exist in China.
I do not argue that China is wholly a racist society, however I believe that racism is well and alive in a number of different arenas throughout China. I do not necessarily believe that racism should be critically analysed as “context based” either – this would open up a pandoras box of accessing who’s eyes and ears are beholding and defining these “contexts”. Evaluations of racism using this practice would undoubtedly be formed based upon positions of privilege or under-privilege, I do however understand the importance of acknowledging how multilayered and complex racism is and has become.
Considering racism to be “culturally specific” and so redefining what ‘racism’ is or resembles is dangerous territory. Yes, culturally, Chinese prefer lighter skin as it is traditionally acknowledged as a sign of wealth. Yes – “peasants were normally darker” in China which leads to discrimination against People of Colour or darker-skinned people, but the same can be said for parts of Africa, the Caribbean, India and so on. The classist theory, Castillo is right, will not suffice. And if the advert is simply invoking Chinese perceptions about class/dark skin, why was an African man cast, rather than a ‘dark’ native Chinese man from one of the many ethnic minority groups here in China?
Racism is not always covert, nor systematic or persistent. Racial prejudice or isolated acts of racial discrimination is a part of the make-up of racism and is not always institutionalised but can manifest itself in a number of ways. This includes, expressed thoughts and deeds that perpetuate ideals of Eurocentric beauty, superiority and the subjugation and discrimination of those that do not meet these ‘ideals’.
Overtly expressing your dislike for my broad nose and “dirty” skin because your cultural frame of reference deems my aesthetics so, does not make this kind of statement any less racist then if expressed covertly, behind closed doors, which was then systematically used with intent to deny me a privilege that someone else would later be offered. This is a rather simplified example but none the less, in principal, conveys my point.
Racial prejudice in China as a result of colonial and postcolonial “Imaginaries” of racial superiority doesn’t just look like racism – it is. Just like imperialist views of the East and Africa as primitive nations can be added to the many “global imaginaries” people contend with – naivety, and being “confused” as a result of this, would and does not stand as a legitimate rationale to maintain sentiments of racial prejudice or superiority over another.
The granting of privileges to one group while denying them to others transcends the systematic practices of institutions and does not entirely define what ‘racism’ is. Isolated forms of discrimination are indeed central to ‘racism’ and are too, ‘racist’ – the denial of a job as an educator because you’re black, the lack of freedom to walk down the street without being the subject of racial slurs, to be denied entry to a social space because your the ‘wrong’ colour, to be subject to tighter vetting/screening in work and social settings to that of your ‘white’ counterparts, to be dehumanised and represented as a stereo-typed caricature in an advert – ALL racist.
Many of the Chinese individuals who have kindly agreed to feature in my documentary have all been asked outrightly – Do you think racism exists in China? The prevailing answer is yes, the cause and impact, multilayered. Ignorance and lack of exposure are the themes that commonly raise their heads, however views that Africans, are dirty, smelly, uneducated sub-human criminals (often in the face of evidence that proves otherwise) cannot be reduced to an explanation rooted in “people in China are still very ignorant, naive or plainly idiotic”.
There exists a series of anti-laowai (foreigner) propaganda that discourages Chinese women from dating foreigners, one of which alludes to them as being a threat to “state security” – in this case (click the link above), a white face has been used to scaremonger community members into believing that expats here, posing as honest working individuals are here on espionage duties that could land unsuspecting Chinese women in custody.
Now, you have this advert that is also propagandist in nature but tells a different story. This advert is not about scaring women into not giving away “state secrets” but rather the ‘giving away’ of themselves sexually to a black man; a caricature of an African man, who is represented as a sexual predator and dehumanised to nothing more than ‘dirt’ that needs to be washed away for a cleaner, purer personification of beauty – in this case, the young, pale, glistening Chinese man who later ascends from the washing machine in all his glory.
I think there are many anti-black or rather anti-African layers to this advert. The choice to use an African man was a purposeful one and a reflection of the growing Afro-Phobia in different Chinese districts. This ‘washing away’ of ‘dirt’ (the unattractive, the uneducated the unworthy) in this advert is the feature of a prevailing theme: Africans (particularly men) continue to be the victims of an inescapable saga of overt racism and the Chinese woman and her attitude towards dating ‘outside’ of her race/culture needs to be policed.
The black “actor” who participated in this advert was complicit in his portrayal and therefore very much a part of the problem. It has been mentioned on a number of Chinese social networking platforms, including wechat, that he was unaware of what the final edit would look like. Really? – no, seriously, really? – black man, ‘dirt-removing’ detergent capsule placed inside mouth, head thereafter shoved in washing machine – did I miss something? Would it not have become very apparent what was taking place?
The wolf-whistle and cringe worthy wink alone, would have seemed like an inappropriate request from the producers considering that it implies a sexual advance, that in this context is quite unfitting. Particularly as it’s quite obvious – to me – that he is the ‘help’ in the house and is over-stepping his boundaries by inviting himself into unauthorised space – the shoving of head into washing-machine illustrates the ‘unauthorised’.
The licence we give others to put us in positions of inferiority or subjugation; to allow others to make caricatures of us, is lethal and detrimental to any progress we make in educating others in order to transform the status-quo. We (People of Colour) have an obligation to overrule the deliberate intentions of others to frame, box, manipulate or degrade who we are; to not become powerless in the face of those who wish to usurp us from our rightful place of access to freedom and quality and our right to be the voice of our own narratives.
So, now I sound like I’m on a Black Power speaker box? I don’t wish to sensationalise, (and I sincerely hope that is not how this reads) but I must highlight the sub-texts’ that exist in the advert including one that is not dissimilar to that of the history of King Kong and its political but more important commentary on race, sex and rebellion. Kong, represented the black man who posed a threat to the pure white woman and her race. He would rape, pillage, contaminate the Caucasian blood line and try but fail to ascend to the heights of privileged society. This advert, although reads less controversial nods to the same tune: black man stay clear of our women – Chinese woman stay clear of the unclean, un-pure, uneducated – this (the ascending glittering Chinese man) is your portion and what is good and right.
I do hope that this recent pandaemonium over the advert will teach us all something. The Qiaobi advert is both idiotic and racist and “global sensitivities” as well as how not to be a racist is a lesson worth learning on part of the Chinese. I could go on to talk about the numerous unearthed history of racially discriminatory adverts that have recently made headlines again, but I would be diverging – as one thing, in this case, has nothing to do with the other. Is racism in TV and print advertising new? no, is the Qiaobi advert the most racist ad ever? no. The Chinese producers of this advert used one of many racist adverts for inspiration and re-imagined it in a whole new racist way – “culturally specific” to their Chinese audience.
“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.
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.