By ROBERTO CASTILLO
‘African nightlife in China is as diverse as African nightlife can be’, I was told by Joe, a 44-year old Igbo man from Port Harcourt, in Nigeria. Since I first briefly met Joe in a dinner with representatives of the Nigerian community in Guangzhou, some years ago, he contacted me several times. Sometimes, he would call me, in the middle of the night from Lagos, just to check in and to ask me about business and investing opportunities in Asia and Latin America. I told him many times that I knew nothing about those topics but he kept asking.
For the 10 years before the pandemic, Joe was coming to China a couple of times every year to get car parts for his father’s shop, back in Rivers State. Occasionally, if we were both in Guangzhou, he would text me late into the night to ask me if I wanted to ‘hang out’. I declined several times but, on a Friday night in July 2014, he insisted that I met him in a downtown hotel. On the phone, Joe told me that a very popular artist in Uganda and across Africa would be performing that night in town. ‘The organisers are Nigerian promoters from Beijing and they will give us access to the backstage’, Joe tried to convince me. I had just arrived in Guangzhou from Hong Kong, for a full month of fieldwork in the city, and was trying to get access to different African communities in the city. So, I decided to go out that night.
By then, much had been said about Nigerians and other Africans in Guangzhou and their everyday lives, but very little had been reported about their nightlife. News reports had lightly touched upon certain bars and music shows here and there. Ethnographers and cultural geographers had at times, and in passing comments, mentioned that certain corners of neighbourhoods like Sanlitun in Beijing, or Xiaobei in Guangzhou, were called ‘African corners’ and that they were frequented by late-night returning crowds. However, for at least a decade prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Africans played multiple important roles in the nightlife of several Chinese metropolis and in some, like Guangzhou, (but also in Wuhan, Tianjin, Beijing, and Shanghai) African communities managed to establish a nightlife of their own.
Just before midnight, I arrived at a Days Inn Hotel, lost in the far north of Baiyun District. After having a couple of glasses of whisky in Joe’s room, he told me that we needed to wait for some of his friends would come and pick us up to go to the concert. At around 2am, two vehicles with heavily tinted windows arrived in front of the hotel. Out of the first one – an old Volkswagen Jetta – came four men wearing black boots, camouflaged pants, black T-shirts with images of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu (the military head of the failed Biafran secession rebellion in the 1960s), and army style black beret hats. I was in awe. They behaved with the disciplined seriousness of men in uniform yet, somehow, they also managed to look as if they were going to a costume party. I smiled at the youngest looking one and tried a handshake but he stepped back and away from me. The oldest one, also the only one wearing black glasses, spoke to Joe and indicated that we needed to get in on the car. I decided to shut up and follow.
We got in the car. Five Igbos, a Mexican, and a Chinese driver. I never saw who was in the back car, but it followed us. On our way, Joe told me that the group was from Dongguan, an industrial city some 70 kilometres south of Guangzhou, in the Pearl River Delta. ‘They are wanted by Guangzhou police, so they seldom come. They are just in for the concert and after that they will flee the city’, Joe told me with a big smile and with what I saw as exhilaration in his eyes. I was mildly worried but the whisky helped me quash my anxiety. I remember telling everyone that we were like the beginning of a joke: ‘Five Nigerians, a Mexican, and a Chinese get in a car…’ but no one shared my sense of humour.
When we arrived at the venue, a colonial building along the shores of the Pearl River, there was a huge crowd waiting outside. The main gate was guarded by six bouncers, four Chinese and two Nigerians. On the right side of the gate, a line of over a hundred Africans was putting up with the suffocating midnight heat. On the left side, Chinese couples would cut off the line and enter the venue hassle free. I was later told that Chinese were not interested in the African show and so they had a free entry. Africans were paying 200RMB (EU25) to be in the same place at the same time as the Chinese. Once inside, the venue was packed to the hilt, some 50 Chinese – along with the Biafran ‘army’ crowd – were seating in the VIP lounges in the back, far from the stage, and more than two hundred mostly young black people were taking the best seats. ‘Almost all of them are Ugandan students’, Joe told me, ‘Nigerians will come later, sit in the VIP areas, and drink the best fake whisky you can find in town’.
After two hours of Latin music, cigarette smoke and beer, a young and apparently upcoming Nigerian singer climbed to the stage and started singing. It was clear that he was not the main attraction of the night but after a couple of songs, the mostly African crowd became intensely engaged with his performance. At one point, a woman from the audience jumped onto the stage and started dancing alongside the singer. As she danced, she brought her purse out, pulled out several RMB notes and started sticking them on the singer’s forehead. The notes falling to the ground were quickly picked up by a young man with a ‘staff’ shirt on. While the fan was still dancing on the stage, two more male fans jumped in and danced around the singer throwing several 20USD notes on him. More people followed. After a couple of songs, I managed to count that some 500USD and maybe 2000RMB had been thrown and picked up. As the singer went into his last song with a 100RMB stuck with sweat to his forehead and 20USD attached on the back of his neck, I was in utter astonishment.
At first, I thought it was a fake performance, something enacted to make the singer look popular and successful. I thought that the people throwing the money were obviously his friends and relatives. When his show ended, I approached Joe and told him what I thought about what I had just seen. ‘You clearly know nothing about Nigerians my friend. They are not his friends. They are ‘spraying’ him because they like his music and believe in what he says’, he explained. ‘Tonight, they only made five thousand renminbi. They are not happy’, he added. I could not believe the amount and I was still reluctant to accept that the ‘spraying’ had been authentic. At this point, most Chinese had left and the few that remained were acquaintances of, or in relationships with, Africans. Interestingly, when the Ugandan star finally came onto the stage, a young man got on the stage and while dancing next to the star, he started throwing renminbi at him. However, the Ugandan star did not seem to appreciate the gesture, as he angrily picked up the money and threw it back to the audience. After that no one dared to spray him.
As I left the place at approximately 6 a.m., I saw Joe and the Biafran ‘army’ people getting on the old Volkswagen Jetta. I walked briskly in the opposite direction and hailed a taxi.
Over that summer, after attending several clubs and concert venues where Nigerians and other Africans performed, I realised that spraying money, at least among Nigerians, was not only authentic but widespread. So, I decided to learn more about spraying and about African nightlife in China – starting from the ways in which Nigerians ‘spray’ money during their nights out in the country.
Continue reading here – Part 2