Monthly Archives: January 2016

[Research] The 45 most relevant academic articles on ‘Africans in China’ #SinoAfrica

List of the most relevant academic resources on African presence in China – Entries appear in a chronological order. This list is NOT exhaustive, I’ve omitted articles that repeat (copy & paste :() previously published research. 

45. Zhou, Min et al. 2016. “Entrepreneurship and interracial dynamics: a case study of self-employed Africans and Chinese in Guangzhou, China”. Ethnic and Racial Studies.

44. Gilles, Angelo. 2015. “The social construction of Guangzhou as a translocal trading place”. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs.

43. Bork-Huffer, Tabea. 2015. “Health care seeking practices of African and rural-to-urban migrants in Guangzhou”. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs.

42. Castillo, Roberto. 2015. “Landscapes of aspiration in Guangzhou’s African music scene: beyond the trading narrative”. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs.

41.   Mathews, Gordon. 2015. “African logistics agents and middlemen as cultural brokers in Guangzhou”. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs.

40. Mathews, Gordon. 2015. “Taking copies from China past customs: routines, risks, and the possibility of catastrophe”. Journal of Borderland Studies.

39. Bischoff, Paul-Henri. 2015. “African transnationalism in China: at the interface of local, transnational, bilateral and multilateral responses”. Journal of Asian and African Studies.

38. Lan, Shanshan. 2015. “Transnational business and family strategies among Chinese/Nigerian couples in Guangzhou and Lagos”. Asian Anthropology.

37. Huynh, Tu. 2015. “A ‘Wild West of trade? African women and men and the gendering of globalisation from below in Guangzhou”. Identities: Global Studies in Identity and Power.

36. Marfaing, Laurence & Thiel, Alena. 2015. “Networks, spheres of influence and the mediation of opportunity: the case of West African trade agents in China”. The Journal of Pan African Studies.

35. Cisse, Daouda. 2015. “African traders in Yiwu: their trade networks and their role in the distribution of ‘Made in China’ Products in Africa”. The Journal of Pan African Studies.

34. Li, Anshan. 2015. “African Diaspora in China: Reality, research and reflection”. The Journal of Pan African Studies.

33. Bork-Huffer et al., 2015. “Mobility and the Transiency of Social Spaces: African Merchant Entrepreneurs in China”. Population, Space and Place.

32. Castillo, Roberto. 2015. “‘Homing’ Guangzhou: emplacement, belonging and precarity amongst Africans in China’. International Journal of Cultural Studies.

31. Bork-Huffer, Tabea & Yuan-Ihle, Yuan. 2014. “The management of foreigners in China: changes to the migration law and regulations during the late Hu-Wen and early Xi-Li eras and their potential effects”. International Journal of China Studies (PDF

30. Liang, Yucheng. 2014. “The causal mechanism of migration behaviours of African immigrants in Guangzhou: from the perspective of cumulative causation theory”. The Journal of Chinese Sociology. 

29. Lavinia Lin et al., 2014. “Health care experiences and and perceived barriers to health care access: a qualitative study among African migrants in Guangzhou”. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health.

28. Bork-Huffer et al., 2014. “Global change, national development goals, urbanisation and international migration in China: African migrants in Guangzhou and Foshan”. Megacities.

27. Mathews et al., 2014. “How to evade states and slip past borders: lessons from traders, overstayers, and asylum seekers in Hong Kong and China”. City and Society 26(2): 217-238.

26. Castillo, Roberto. 2014. “Feeling at home in the “Chocolate City”: an exploration of place-making practices and structures of belonging amongst Africans in Guangzhou. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 15 (2).

25. Bodomo, Adams. 2014. “The African Traveller and the Chinese Customs Official: Ethnic Minority Profiling at Border Check Points in Hong Kong and China? Journal of African American Studies (June 2014).


[Course outline] Afri3005 Africa-China Relations

Afri3005 Africa-China Relations is an introductory course to the contemporary political, cultural & economic engagements going on between African countries and China offered by the African Studies Programme at The University of Hong Kong.


[Open Research] Landscapes of Aspiration in Guangzhou’s African Music Scene: Beyond the Trading Narrative

By Roberto Castillo (2015). 

“This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published in the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs on 20 Jan 2016, available online at: [.PDF]

To cite this article: Castillo, Roberto (2015). Landscapes of Aspiration in Guangzhou’s African Music Scene: Beyond the Trading Narrative, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 44:4, 83-115.**

1. Introduction: African Nightlife on the Pearl River

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[Wave Bar in Zhujiang’s Culture and Art Zone (Photo: author)]

After a couple of informal meetings, Dibaocha (43), a well-known Nigerian singer in Guangzhou, finally invited me to one of his performances. We arranged to meet at a Starbucks near the Garden Hotel – a landmark in Taojin (one of the most affluent parts of Guangzhou). When I arrived at midnight, Dibaocha was already waiting inside his black SUV. As I jumped in, I caught a whiff of air freshener mixed with the fading smell of a new car. As I relaxed in the air conditioning, I sensed a certain tension, however. Dibaocha was talking intensely on the phone, and failed to acknowledge my arrival. As he argued in English about some payments, he anxiously zapped through his latest album, which was blaring through the sound system. At the same time, he was texting in Igbo and pinyin on a second phone. As I waited for the conversation to end, I noticed that he was dressed in full hip-hop attire. I knew from our previous meetings that Dibaocha was stylish (I always felt comparatively underdressed), but that night was special. He was wearing neon-blue pants with a pair of impeccable white shoes and a matching tee. He also had a few silver chains around his neck and a glitzy blue hat. On his right wrist, a gold bracelet with the name “DIBAOCHA” set in “diamonds” shined in the phone’s light. Strewn across the back seat of the car were dozens of copies of Dibaocha’s two albums, flyers, clothes, and a handful of cables. Hanging above them on a cable extending from window to window were four tutus and four sexy nurse costumes in dry-cleaning bags. In addition to all this, there was a big metallic box on wheels with a cash slot at the top and a couple of posters of Dibaocha taped to it.

As the argument on the phone abruptly ended, Dibaocha was clearly upset. “This is wrong, man. The dancers don’t want to come to the show,” he told me. “You need to convince them to come,” he commanded, handing me his phone. Surprised by his request, I felt I had no choice but to comply. After several attempts to reach “Irina Dancer” again, she finally picked up the phone and said, in what I assumed was a thick Russian accent, “I told you, we will not go to your show,” before promptly hanging up. I called back several times, but to no avail. Finally, Dibaocha asked me to call from my own number. This time Irina did not hang up, and as I introduced myself rapidly, Dibaocha started driving in the direction of the venue – Wave Bar in Zhujiang’s Culture and Art Zone (an area on the bank of the Pearl River renowned for its nightlife). Irina was adamant that she would not go to the show that night, saying that Dibaocha needed a manager – someone to help him organise his events. In one of the several conversations we had that night (Dibaocha kept insisting that I call back), Irina made me promise that I would be the one to contact her in the future, instead of Dibaocha. In turn, I made her promise to try and find us some available dancers amongst her contacts that night.

The drive to the bar, which should have taken 20 minutes, eventually extended upwards over an hour, as Dibaocha didn’t know the way. As we drove down empty streets and criss-crossed the Pearl River several times, I started getting anxious and asked him to pull over and ask for directions. A few blocks ahead, we spotted a young man waiting at a bus stop on a lonely street corner. Dibaocha lowered the window, pulled over, and asked for directions in perfect Mandarin. The man seemed to know the place, but had trouble explaining how to get there. “Get in the car and take us there,” Dibaocha commanded. Much to my surprise, the young man didn’t hesitate before jumping in the back seat amongst the tutus and nurse costumes, and directing us to the venue.

Driving in Guangzhou’s night (video)

When we finally got to the bar (at around 1:30 a.m.), it was almost empty. There were two Chinese dancers and a Chinese DJ on stage, and another 30-odd people (including the staff) roaming around. The speaker volume was intolerably loud, so we sat on the terrace outside the bar, ordered a couple of beers, and waited. “A lot of people will come. Don’t worry,” Dibaocha told me. I kept calling Irina, but she eventually said that neither her Russian friends nor some Colombian dancers she knew would be able to make it. At around 2:30 a.m., a group of Dibaocha’s Nigerian friends arrived and sat with us – there were two businessmen who lived in Foshan, a “middleman” from Dongguan, and another singer from Guangzhou.

By 3 a.m., only a few of Dibaocha’s “fans” had arrived and, without dancers, the show seemed doomed to fail. Nonetheless, Dibaocha appeared calm and was positive that people would still show up. An hour later, only 30 tickets had been sold, but Dibaocha’s friends had started pressuring him to get on stage. Finally (at around 4:30 am), he opened the night (or the morning) with one of his most popular singles, “I Believe.” A few minutes before getting on stage, he had told me that he was not happy about performing without dancers and that he was still waiting for some important people to arrive. As he started singing, a group of foreign students dancing on the stage failed to realise that a concert had begun.

Subsequently, I attended several of Dibaocha’s shows, and most of them were packed to the hilt. Nonetheless, that first night gave me an insight into some of the difficulties faced by African musicians in Guangzhou: advertising and self promotion; negotiating with venue owners; booking dancers and/or back-up singers with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds; dealing (personally and financially) with the possibility of people not showing up; and, to some extent, fearing police raids.

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[Dibaocha during one of his performance, 2013 (Photo: author)]


2. African Presence in Guangzhou: Beyond the “Trading Narrative”

Dibaocha is among the countless foreigners who, over the last 15 years, have entered China in search of material and immaterial well-being. The southern metropolis of Guangzhou, more than any other city in the country, has become a magnet for scores of African entrepreneurs (i.e. businesspeople, traders, producers, adventurers and explorers, etc.) whose attempts to “make it big” have led them to try and set foot in the country. Despite the huge and well-documented presence of Africans in the city, no one really knows how many Africans are there in Guangzhou at any given time. Population figures have been widely and controversially discussed (see Bodomo and Pajancic 2015; Castillo 2013), and over the years, scholars have provided figures ranging from 1,500 to 20,000 to over 100,000 (Zhang 2008; Li, Ma, and Xue 2009; Bodomo 2010). At the same time, ubiquitous media reports have spread rumours of a population between 200,000 and 500,000 growing at a rate of 30 to 40 per cent annually since 2003 (see Branigan 2010; Osnos 2009, amongst countless others). Recently, however, in the wake of popular fears over a potential ebola outbreak in China, Guangzhou’s authorities revealed that less than 5,000 citizens of African countries were residents in the city (Zhuang 2014; Huynh 2015). Needless to say, official figures do not reflect the potential number of visa overstayers, and also do not account for those who stay short term (i.e. transient population). Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 5.23.47 pm

African presence in the city has been a magnet for scholars; and over the last eight years, almost 50 academic articles have been written about the subject. At the end of the first decade of the 2000s, Bertoncello and Bredeloup (2007, 2009), Le Bail (2009), and Bodomo (2010) sketched the general contours of the phenomenon and highlighted the emergence of new African trading posts and communities in China’s “city-markets” where “transnational entrepreneurs” functioned as bridges for Africa–China relations. Around the same time, Chinese researchers Li, Ma, and Xue (2009) and Zhang (2008) led the early explorations into the urban spaces that, they argued, were transforming into (transnational) “ethnic enclaves.” While this early body of research established a foundation for the study of African trading activities in Guangzhou, it also fostered notions of Africans in the city as merely mobile profit-seeking subjects in search of “comparative advantages” (Bertoncello and Bredeloup 2007: 101).

Soon after, Haugen (2012) and Mathews and Yang (2012) shed crucial analytical light on the case study. By highlighting the complexities involved in the mobilities/immobilities that inform African experiences in the city, Haugen (2012) challenged previous assumptions about the hyper-mobility (free flow) of transnational entrepreneurs. Mathews and Yang (2012) used the analytical framework of “low-end globalisation” (previously developed by Mathews (2007, 2011) in the context of Hong Kong) to make sense of the commercial activities carried out by foreigners in Guangzhou. In that framework, African and South Asian traders in Southern China are cast as carriers of globalisation as they acquire, export and sometimes smuggle cheap, and often counterfeit, goods across borders.Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 5.25.19 pm

Currently, most of the literature on Africans in Guangzhou focuses on trading activities and connections (see, for instance, Müller and Wehrhahn 2013; Daouda 2015; and Marfaing and Thiel 2015). Some more grounded and insightful explanations have emerged from the analyses of these activities at the “local” level, however. Bredeloup (2012), for instance, furthered her previous insights on trading posts in the city by highlighting a crucial issue: the recurrence of what she calls a “commercial form.” In discussing the recurrence of this form, Bredeloup’s work resonates with Li, Lyons, and Brown’s (2012) analysis of the “African enclave” as “restlessly restructuring.” Whether one agrees with the existence of such an enclave, notions such as “recurrence” and “restructuring” paved the way for the discussion of a crucial notion in more recent research: transiency (see Castillo 2015; and Bork-Hüffer et al. 2015). Indeed, African presence in Guangzhou is to a great extent informed by what Bork-Hüffer et al. (2015) call “new transient spaces”: unstable, transforming spaces where transnational and translocal activities converge. The transiency and instability characterising these spaces, and the strategies individuals and collectives design to cope with difficulties, are described in Castillo’s (2015) analysis of “precarious homing.” The migratory precarity, for instance, that some Africans face in Guangzhou has been tackled in Bork-Hüffer and Yuan’s (2014) discussion of changes to migration laws in the Hu–Wen and Xi–Li eras and, more importantly, in Lan’s (2014) analysis of state regulation of “African migrants.” In this analysis, Lan makes a case for the existence of an “anti-African immigrant campaign” in the city that has influenced the ways in which China manages foreigners on a national scale.

Moreover, some scholars, such as Haugen (2013a) writing about Pentecostalism and its promise of delivering prosperity for Africans in the city, Bodomo and Ma (2012) exploring emerging foodscapes, and Han (2013) expanding extant knowledge on the complex linguistic exchanges in what she deems an “Africa Town in Guangzhou,” have painstakingly attempted to provide descriptions that broaden imaginings and conceptualisations of African presence in China. Of late, Lin et al. (2014) and Huynh (2015) have also addressed issues of health and gender, but much remains to be done in those areas. Additionally, the ways in which African students defy clear-cut classifications by switching between multiple roles and activities has been explored by Haugen (2013b) and Bredeloup (2014), but could benefit from further investigation. Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 5.26.48 pm

The aforementioned body of research is crucial not only for understanding certain aspects of the African diaspora in Asia, but also to making sense of the issues I discuss throughout these pages. Thus, what follows is an attempt to contribute to the growing diversification of literature on African presence in China. In this article, I explore the area of personal aspirations in Guangzhou’s African music scene. Drawing on a year of sustained ethnographic fieldwork, I show how aspirations are not necessarily economic or rational calculations – ancillary to trade – despite being often traversed, articulated, fuelled, and constrained by economies and economic discourses. I contend that the overarching trading narrative has left little space for issues of agency, emotion, and aspiration to be considered in their own right. Indeed, most of the Africans that I have met in Guangzhou over the last four years regard (and utilise) trade not as an end in itself, but as a tool to achieve other (sometimes more important) mid-range and long-term objectives (see Castillo 2015).

By bringing the analysis of aspirations to the fore, I intend to, first, provide a more complex and nuanced account of the multiple rationales behind African presence in the region; second, promote a better understanding (both conceptually and empirically) of how individuals navigate their social spaces and guide their transnational journeys; and third, draw attention to the incessant frictions and negotiations between individual aspirations and the constraints imposed by structural imperatives. I do this from an ethnographic perspective and by emphasising certain transnational strategies that individuals design in order to fulfil their aspirations. Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 5.28.12 pm

Taking a cue from Yiu Fai Chow’s method of “following a person” (Chow 2011), I decided to follow a couple of musicians: Dibaocha, a Nigerian Igbo R&B singer, event organiser, entrepreneur, and father who has lived in the city for over eight years, and Manivoo, a young Ugandan who is in the process of becoming a musician. As I followed them, I started to see their entanglements – in particular, their anxieties over the need to fulfil their main artistic aspirations (i.e. to “make it big” in China and beyond) and how they struggled against a background of complex regimes of mobility that in some cases severely curtailed their aspirations but in other cases enhanced their opportunities.

As will become evident, this article draws heavily on ethnographic data I generated. Indeed,

there is no single definition of ethnography or a uniformed practice of ethnographic method, nor should there be: ethnographic practice responds and adapts to field research situations. (Strauss 2003: 162)

Ethnography, as I have experienced it, is an unpredictable, intersubjective, and open-ended process that entails participation, interpretation and reinterpretation, creation, ongoing reflection, and representation. Moreover, ethnography is a method of knowledge production (primarily based on the ethnographer’s experiences and conversations “on the ground”) that

does not claim to produce an objective account of reality, but should aim to offer versions that are as loyal as possible to the context and intersubjectivities through which the knowledge was created. (Pink 2001: 18)

Moreover, as an unpredictable, open-ended process whose point of departure is “on-the-ground” fieldwork, the ethnographer “embarks on a participatory exercise which yields materials for which analytic protocols are often devised after the fact” (Strathern 2003: 6). Frequently, as Strathern explains, ethnography is a “deliberate attempt to generate more data than the researcher is aware of at the time of collection” (Strathern 2003: 5). However, the data upon which the ethnographic production of knowledge relies is generated (through participant observation, interviewing, and other qualitative techniques) rather than simply collected. Indeed, as Dourish puts forward, ethnographic data

is a result of an ethnographer’s participation in a site rather than simply a feature or aspect of the site that the ethnographer harvests while hanging around. (Dourish 2014: 2 emphasis added)

Accordingly, the analysis I present here emerges from exchanges at particular points in the lives of certain individuals. As such, it is not an exhaustive representation of all kinds of aspirations that Africans involved in Guangzhou’s music scene may harbour. However, the two case studies in this article do provide an insight into the entanglements of hope and possibility involved in individual attempts to use talent, knowledge, and connections to build a future in China, Africa, and beyond.

Two notes are in order here. First, in this article I have chosen not to hide the identities of my two main research subjects, even though conventional social sciences methodology typically requires disguising key interviewees’ identities with pseudonyms. I have chosen this course not only because the musicians whose stories I present here are already publicly well known (especially Dibaocha) but, more importantly, because a condition of my engagement with them was that everything I wrote about them would have their artistic names on it. I have consented to that since the beginning of our engagements. As artists, the subjects were interested in having their names associated with their stories. Also, parts of their stories have appeared in several journalistic pieces and in a couple of documentaries. It is worth noting that individuals depicted here have read and given their consent to the publication of their stories in this final form, and that other than the two main research subjects, other identities have been disguised.

The second is a note on terminology. In this piece the term “mobility” is preferred over migration. I believe that the concept of (im)migration fails to account for the complexities of the geographical mobilities involved in this case study. Moreover, following de Bruijn, van Dijk, and Foeken (2001), I contend that as mobility is an umbrella term encapsulating a plethora of types of movement (i.e. travel, exploration, migration, tourism, nomadism, pilgrimage, and trade), it is more accurate to talk about “African mobilities” in China, rather than “African migration” to China…


[Research] Special Issue on Africans in Guangzhou @ Journal of Current Chinese Affairs

Foreign Lives in a Globalising City: Africans in Guangzhou

Special issue on ‘Africans in Guangzhou’ guest edited by anthropologist, Gordon Mathews, for the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs






[Music] Mr. Lo-D’s long awaited ‘China Money’ video

Without a doubt, Nigerians are at the forefront of SinoAfrican musical production and exchanges. See below, another gem of SinoAfrican culture and music. Congratulations to Mr. Lo-D!

[Film] Newest addition to the incipient #SinoAfrica film universe: ‘King of Guangzhou’ (trailer)

“In the height of racial tension, a Nigerian man in China risks all he has to stay with the one he loves”


Cast: Uchenna Onyia as Adede, Karen Bee Lin Tan, Michael Onuabuike and Michael Chua
Writer: Quester Hannah
Director: Quester Hannah
Director of Photography: Nevil Jackson
Producers: Pierce Teo, Laixi Gu, Jingyin Chen
Executive Producers: Martha Hennington, Phillip Hannah, Quester Hannah

Festivals and Screenings: Apchat International Film Festival, 10th Montreal International Black Film Festival, New Voices of Black Cinema 2015, Zanzibar International Film Festival 2015, San Francisco Black Film Festival, 10th Annual Harlem International Film Festival, 19th Urban World Film Festival, Filminitiativ Koln-African Diaspora Cinema, Kalasha International Film Festival, 2016 San Diego Black Film Festival, Denton Black Film Festival, Pan African Film Festival


[(艺术?)摄影] 一个美国摄影师在广州记录了他眼中的“非洲城”

乐乐, 乐乐呗

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美国摄影师 Daniel Traub 于 2009 年因为研究生项目来到中国,他的母亲是中国人,对于中国他有一种陌生又亲切的感觉,他通过摄影来理解和记录这个正在巨变中的国家:城市与乡村并存,发展与落后相关。距离有时候很小,一个高尔夫球场可能紧挨着一个垃圾场。



从 2000 年起,很多批发商从非洲来到中国,除了电视上报道的中非合作的大企业和国家项目,他们也是中国和非洲的贸易往来的见证人。


在 Daniel Traub 即将出版的新书 Little North Road (《小北路》)里,有他自己拍摄的大量照片,也有两位中国“摄影师”拍摄的照片,他们是吴永福和曾宪芳。这两个人专门在小北路的天桥上给人拍照,大多数是非洲人,这些照片拍完之后用塑料包装,可以给人带回去作为纪念,也可以让久居中国的非洲人寄给家人。吴永福 30 来岁,从江西来到广州,Daniel Traub 在 2009 年遇到了他,他同意提供一些素材给 Daniel Traub。之后 Daniel Traub 又遇到另一位“摄影师”曾宪芳,曾是吴的妻子的亲戚,他从湖南来到广州。

VICE 曾为 Daniel Traub 的小北路黑人社区摄影项目拍摄过一个纪录片。在视频中他提到曾宪芳的拍摄更多是生意,拍完照片之后很快就会删掉,Daniel 觉得可惜,于是就会买硬盘给他来存储这些照片。

Daniel 通常在人们不注意的时候按下快门,吴永福和曾宪芳的照片则是摆拍,有时被拍者还会指导摄影师如何拍摄,因为他们是“顾客”。

VICE 纪录片:Daniel Traub 的广州小北路黑人社区摄影项目

在这些“非洲城”的一个个片段中,天桥扮演了一个很特别的角色:“它扯下了城市的面纱,一时间,一些日常的迫切需要和忧虑突然出现。”摄影师 Daniel Traub 在他的书的序言中这样写道。《小北路》这本书不久前由德国 Kehrer Verlag 出版社出版。定价 50 美元,限量版是 350 美元,收藏版是 970 美元。