Monthly Archives: July 2013

[Commentary] The REAL deal in ‘Little Africa’ (formerly known as the ‘Chocolate City’)

Oh! How I love ‘journalistic license’! – You can say/repeat whatever you want without having to prove it/or to confirm it :S.

I just read China Daily Weekly’s ‘The deal in Little Africa’ and I’m astonished by how of a good example of journalism this piece is. It also reminded me of why I abandoned the low-end journalism I used to be involved with.
Truth is that I have several problems with this piece. Perhaps my biggest problem is that it only regurgitates the same old figures, ‘facts’, and tropes about Africans in Guangzhou that I have been reading/monitoring for the last four years.

My first problem.

The REAL deal in ‘Little Africa’ is that there is NO ‘Africa Town’ or ‘Chocolate City’ or ‘Little Africa’ (as some American journos have been calling it recently). AfricaTown, or the Chocolate City (or whatever you want to call it), is only a discursive construct (a way of calling a place that does not actually exists). The term has been adopted by scholarship and media to talk (make sense) about African presence in Guangzhou. It is highly unlikely that this term would correspond with any spatial ‘reality’ on the ground, however. Really, go to Guangzhou and ask anyone in any random street (even an African, or better, a taxi driver) ‘where is Little Africa, or take me down to the Chocolate City’ (‘请问, 小非洲在那儿?-司机,请带我去巧克力市’) and they’ll only going to think that you are mad (I’ve done it).
There are, of course, two areas within Guangzhou’s downtown (a neighbourhood/urban village called Dengfeng 登封村, linked to Xiaobei street 小北路; and an industrial/commercial zone near Sanyuanli 三元里村) where black people are significantly more visible. These two areas do not constitute one single seamless ‘Little Africa’, and although they are in nearby regions, it takes about 40 minutes to walk from one to the other. While the second, Sanyuanli, is to some extent ‘more Nigerian’; the other, Dengfeng/Xiaobei is a melting pot not only of Sub-Saharan Africans but also of Muslim North Africans, Middle Easterners, Indian/Pakistani, Turkish, along with an ensemble of different Muslim Chinese ethnic groups, and a plethora of other kinds of wanderers (yes, you even find Venezuelan women). In both these spaces, Africans (black Africans) are NOT a solid majority – it is NO ‘African enclave’. So, maybe they would have to start calling it again 穆斯林小联合国 (Little Muslim United Nations); or better just call these places by their names (although that wouldn’t appeal to the readers, right? – Oh! Journalistic license, oh!). Anyway all this is to say that if there is a ‘Little Africa’ in Guangzhou, then there is also a ‘Little Pakistan’, ‘Little Turkey’, and ‘Little Xinjiang’ (‘Little Western Turkistan’, can you imagine? Sounds great!:), all piled up in the dark alleys of the abovementioned neighbourhoods.

One other problem that I have now with the ‘Africans in Guangzhou’ coverage is that it is always the same, to put it bluntly.

How many times have I read the story of a trader that had all his saving in his underwear and while partying with a beautiful Chinese girl he got drugged and robbed?
Stories always follow the same linear progress. I’m not sure if this is only a strange coincidence or if this is due to the stylistic creativity allowed in journo-poetic license. The storyline seems to be as follows: The individual interviewed was originally a street peddler in any major African city. After a few years of that he got into more serious business, and started buying goods in (or from) Dubai. Then, one day, he realised that everything said ‘made in China’, so he used all his savings, and money he collected amongst family members, to sail away toward the ‘Middle Kingdom’ (a way of calling China that eroticises journos). He picked up the phone and told his Dubai seller to drop dead (it is never a good story if you don’t get rid of those bloody Arabs). Once in China this entrepreneur suffered a bit, got discriminated several times, and struggled against the erratic Chinese visa system; all for, only a few years later, enjoying the peace and glory of success (big flashy company name; Chinese wife, millions of Mao’s in his bank account, and so on). Interestingly, a great majority of these Africans depicted in journalistic pieces are sort of ‘China hands’ (experts in Chinese culture), and community leaders always ready to mediate between their ‘communities’ and the policing of Chinese authorities.
Invariably, you’ll find reference to the two street demonstrations that some traders (mainly Nigerians) staged against police staff at one police station (in 2009 & 2012): the two incidents and a dead body are always there (sometimes two or three bodies, though).
I think I’ve made my point about the coverage of Africans in China-Guangzhou. Are there really not other stories? Is it that difficult for these journos to go beyond those stereotypical stories? Is this what ‘trained’ American eyes are trained to see? C’mon!
Seriously, there are many many more things to the lives of the thousands of Africans living in Guangzhou that could be of journalistic interest, I guess. Maybe the problem is that the fly-in fly-out dynamic of much of contemporary journalistic practice seriously thwarts any good intentions. .
Having said all that, I must emphasise that I’m not going to say anything about the fact that the author of ‘The deal in Little Africa’ claims that Guangzhou is ‘home to more than 30,000’ African traders (no evidence). I’m also not complaining about the ‘imagined’ size of the author’s ‘AfricaTown’ 12 square kilometers! 12sqK filled with Africans living in ‘tight-knit enclaves barely noticeable to the untrained eye’ (really?) I’m also going to ignore the false claim about Africans in the city growing at a rate of 30-40 percent annually; or the fact that the article misrepresents the situation of the soccer team to which it makes reference.
Anyway, the good news is that soon the place is going to be full of backpackers so that ‘Western’ journo-trainees would be able to camouflage better – ‘Little Africa’ (wherever that is) will be another cosmopolitan attraction – to be found!

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