I am as black as black could ever get, I am from the factory of black people; sub-saharan Africa. But I was not offended by the Chinese laundry commercial which recently caused such an uproar among netizens, at least when I decided to take off my liberal western saint’s spectacles. For those who have not seen it, the commercial in question portrays a nice looking black man trying to seduce a Chinese woman. After kissing him, the Chinese woman pops some detergent into his mouth and quickly pushes him down into the washing machine, and then the black man is transformed into a ‘cleaner’ pale Chinese man. Ignoring the plot plagiarism for a minute, I think it is important to discuss what happens when symbols are interpreted outside the context they are created. Those who might have tried to ask questions of their Mainland Chinese friends about the commercial might have realized one common theme, namely that the commercial was worthy of one thing: a laugh and that is it, nothing more, but why?
Overnight, the Western media and western-influenced netizens had jumped on their high horses condemning the Chinese for being racist. The west for a moment felt good that they now had an equal competitor for racism – well, I have some bad news. No-one in this world can yet to compete for the trophy of racism with the West.
The outcry among netizens was indeed a ‘clash of ignorances’. The ignorance of the Chinese in using racial stereotypes whose connotations outside China they did not understand, and the ignorance of the West in quickly judging Chinese affairs through a western lens. Race carries totally different connotations in China than elsewhere. In the West, with its history of colonization and slavery, I understand why people get so sensitive about racial issues. Take for example how hair is politicized especially in Great Britain, and a comment or a simple question which seems to enquire about someone’s hair, especially short kinky hair, might cause an uproar.
But if this same enquiry happened in China, one needs to step back and get the context right. In China this is just a question of curiosity, and carries none of that racialized ideas that would cause an outcry in the US or UK. I tend to spend more time with kids in Hong Kong, and it’s not uncommon for kids to call each other names like, ‘fat pig’, or to refer to their more tanned friends as black. And this is all that it means, it simply means fat pig or black kid, nothing more. It does not reflect any superiority complexes or some repressed unconscious secret Ku Klux Klan within, using Freud’s terms, if you may.
Are there racial classifications and hierarchy in China? Yes, there are, but they are totally different from the western notions of race. Many Chinese can’t even differentiate between a dark Sri Lankan and a dark Zimbabwean like me, not to mention how much time I take unsuccessfully explaining to a Chinese friend the difference between a South Indian and Will Smith. “Come on, look at the hair”, I would say, and she would take a closer look but she just would just shake her head, afraid to disappoint me, seeing how much conviction I had about racial issues.
I took another 15 minutes at a local university trying to explain the differences between Latinos and Caucasians within an American context but they just could not see any differences between any of them. I would argue that the racial hierarchy that might exist in the Chinese context is mainly influenced by the earlier upper class/peasant life styles in early China, with lighter skin being more admirable not because they saw whites, but because they saw the Chinese upper class; the rich, who spent more time indoors and therefore had lighter skin than the peasants who spent all day tilling the fields.
Western whiteness was equally as ghostified and undesired as every other non-Chinese look. Yes, there has been some aspiration to whiteness recently but this is not as we might imagine. Whiteness is a symbol of wealth, not because white people are considered to have money, no!, but because the richer Chinese have been historically lighter in skin. If you do not trust me yet, here is another example. If a black person goes to China, most Chinese might have racial prejudice if they assume they hail from Africa, as Africa symbolizes poverty; no money. This is not because they are racist, but something else. If that black person reveals maybe that they are from the beautiful country, as they call America, all of a sudden the experiences of that black person would be different. They expect that they have money and that they should treat them with more respect.
If a white person, whom they would have assumed is from the beautiful country, later reveals that they are from Feizhou (Africa). First the shock that there are white people in Feizhou, then the respect bar drops like a hot brick. Chinese people are classist: money determines how one is treated. Period! Yes, the global market plus advertising has been playing a bigger role in shaping skin desirability among the Chinese but these desires carry relatively different connotations from those that the west imagines.
Many times, my black friends claim that the Chinese are racist because they will not sit next to them in the train or because they pinch their noses when they sit next to them or are just awkwardly ridiculous. Well, these things happen, but not only to black people but to everyone who is a foreigner in China, no matter your color, even if you are a green person, you can expect to face the same treatment as every other foreigner in China. And just to add, foreigners eat different foods and yes, their sweat smells differently and pinching one’s nose, as much as it shows ignorance, does not reflect any racism. As a side note, I believe the domestic migrants in China face even worse discrimination and harsher consequences from prejudice, and yes, it has to do with how much money one is assumed to have.
In the end, contextualization is very important. Seeing Chinese issues through a western lens does nothing but show how much ignorance is rampant in the west. There is as much ignorance in China as there is in the west, and the explosion around the laundry commercial was just a result of the ‘clash of these two ignorances’: the Chinese being ignorant of what the racial notions they are playing with may mean outside their context and the Western-influenced being ignorant of how things are differently understood in China. The West should probably get off their high horses, there is not any competitor fit enough to fight for the racism trophy, the west is still the champion.
If there are any traces of racism in China, they are a result of the global market, but what we often misinterpret as racism is simply classism. Words or images without context mean nothing, images viewed in the wrong context cause more harm than good. The N word means different things in Nigeria than what it means in America, and these meanings are constructed historically and socially, and making the mistake that when a Nigerian uses the N word it means the same as the American use might cause other consequences of a clash of ignorances. The word kaffir means something totally different everywhere else than its meaning in South Africa. Words and images mean nothing in themselves, but the meanings we ascribe to them gives them meaning, and rarely do we have the same concepts when we show the same images or say the same words, and that is why contextualizing every image is very important in the 21st century.
In 2014-15, I collaborated with a group of Korean film-makers from the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Association that produce documentaries about people on the move (transnational subjects, if you will), and how they/we have been changing Asian cities ethnoscapes. This (little) opening story above, is the real story behind my own personal interest in the broader theme of being a ‘foreigner in China’ and my specific engagement with the topic of ‘Africans in Guangzhou’. The whole documentary is not yet available but it will at some point (I’ve been told).
If you’re interested in issues of transnational migration and representation (or Inter-Asian knowledge production) and want to have a look at the full version, do not hesitate in contacting me. See trailer and information below.
Drifting City (2015) – Directed by Jeong Kim
The ‘researcher’ became the ‘researched’:
This film depicts the journey of a Mexican, Roberto, resident in China. On his way to renew his visa, Roberto meets an African at a railway station between China and Hong Kong. “Why is an African in China?” soon changes into a reflexive inquiry: “Why is a Mexican in China?” Roberto explores the African residents’ community in China and finds many new friends. The film is thus multi- and trans-national, with a Korean director filming the process as a Mexican resident in China explores its African community. (http://bit.ly/1T6p4h1)
Staring from Guangzhou, China and Ansan,South Korea, the camera follows Roberto and his partner Nadeemy to meet an African Hip Hop singer and other Africans in China. In a process, we come to realize a whole different path of globalization in this part of the world-China and Korea. Unexpected encounters thrive on love, friendship and aspiration. Like an open cut, there are breathless moments of pain but we all continue walking and drifting in the open cities. (http://bit.ly/1T6p2po)
Africa – China Relations
Welcome to the free, online version of ‘Africa – China Relations’, an undergrad, introductory & interdisciplinary course taught at the University of Hong Kong.
At this stage, below you’ll find the course contents as they stand as of early 2016. In the future, the presentations (prezis) will be replaced by video lectures (narrated prezis), but I’m still in the process of finding both time and funding to do so.
Finally, I believe that the best way to improve/expand my knowledge about any subject is by sharing it as it is – this has always been the leading idea behind this blog & and behind my scholarly work. There is a lot to improve (of course!) but as an introductory, free, online course, the assemblage of ideas, readings, videos, discussions & arguments in this collection are on the cutting edge of #SinoAfrica debates. In the future, I plan to add more advanced (and specific) courses but, first, let me take a selfie; and second, 摸着石头过河
In recent years, China and Africa have renewed their relations at many different levels. From political engagement to increased trade and economic relations, and perhaps more importantly, to increased contact between ordinary Africans and Chinese. The figures of Chinese living in Africa, and Africans living in China, have increased to a point that has no parallel in the history between these two regions. What are the implications of contemporary Sino-African engagements? What does this mean for the future of these regions and the world? In order to provide answers to these questions, this course introduces the main debates around Sino-African engagements and analyses some of the associated sociocultural, political and economic processes. Instead of simply reviewing the main literature on Africa-China relations, this course takes you into a critical and interdisciplinary journey in which crucial aspects of these relations are analysed through various texts and documentaries. Through discussion and analysis, this course will challenge extant narratives about Africa-China relations and delve into the possibilities (i.e. opportunities and challenges) that this ‘renewed’ engagement entails.
- Consider the ways in which Sino-African relations have evolved throughout history and to explore the possibilities for the future.
- Explain the complex and contested dynamics of Africa-China relations.
- Critically analyse and challenge extant representations about Chinese presence in Africa and African presence in China.
By the end of the course, students should be able to demonstrate:
- an understanding of historical encounters, contemporary exchanges, and issues of representation around Africa-China relations;
- general knowledge around the major debates, themes and concepts in Africa-China relations;
- an ability to critically engage in discussions about the topic, and reflexively apply the knowledge generated in the course to future research.
Week 2: A new scramble for Africa?
(If you are unable to navigate the Prezi through this screen you can also view this Prezi on the website)
Large, D. ‘Beyond the Dragon in the Bush’.
Screening: The Battle for Africa
Week 3: Early encounters and pre-modern imaginations: did the Chinese discover Africa?
(If you are unable to navigate the Prezi through this screen you can also view this Prezi on the website)
Snow, P. ‘Chinese Columbus’
Wyatt, D. ‘Blacks of premodern China’ Chapter 1
Smidt, W. ‘A Chinese in the Nubian and Abyssinian Kingdoms (8th Century)’
Wilensky. ‘The Magical Kunlun and ‘Devil Slaves’: Chinese perceptions of dark skinned people and Africa before 1500’
Keywords: #Kunlun #ZhengHe #ChengHo #Trade #DuHuan #Malindi #IbnBattuta #MingDinasty #VascoDaGama #NewSilkRoad #Coolies
[FURTHER LECTURES HERE]
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).
Short documentary about African artists in Guangzhou at HKU – Dorian Carli-Jones & Melissa Lefkowitz (2015)
“The city of Guangzhou is home to China’s largest community of African immigrants. Despite facing prejudice and the risk of deportation, three African hip-hop artists strive to change perceptions and achieve a better life in their new land of opportunity.”