Category Archives: Research

[Opinion] Of ‘blackfaces’ and SinoAfrican modernities

Screen shot from The Break Up Guru (China 2014)

You could compile a long list of blackfaces’ in East Asian media over the last decade see here, here and here. However, the latest iteration of this Euro-American racist archetype in Chinese media is by far the most controversial.
On Chinese New Year’s Eve, a well-known Chinese actress performed in blackface’ during a skit on CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala. Lou Naiming (with exaggerated buttocks, a fruit platter, and a black man dressed as a monkey) played the role of a traditional and somewhat confused African mother in a skit about love, tradition, and China’s historical role in Africa.
The Gala is not just another Chinese TV show. It is a well-rehearsed and perfectly curated 4-hour-long representation of Chinese culture, tradition, everyday life, and nationalism.

Spring Festival Gala with Chinese actress in blackface (left).

CCTV Spring Festival Gala’s blackface’ adds to the increasing list of racist’ incidents in China (concerning black people) that have gone viral see here and here. Most big Western media conglomerates carried the story and, as of the time of writing, no formal apology has been issued.
Africa as China’s damsel in distress’
Beyond the blackface’, the skit’s story is rather simple but problematic. Carrie, an 18-year-old Kenyan stewardess trainee, asks her Chinese teacher to pass as her boyfriend to avoid a blind date organised by her mother. Carrie does not want to marry yet. She wants to work and then go to China to study.
In the skit’s resolution, Carrie confesses to her mother and explains her desire to go to China. It becomes clear that Carrie sees China as a way to escape tradition (and her mother’s traditional views on marriage). All of a sudden, Carrie’s mother praises China’s role (past and present) in Africa and agrees to Carrie’s plans, shouting I love the Chinese! I love China!’
The skit intended to highlight the positive aspects of China-Africa relations. It does this, however, by presenting a narrative in which China is seen as a solution to Africa’s backwardness’.
As I was watching the skit, I was reminded of a piece of analysis I wrote some years back about the representation of Africans on the highly popular dating TV show If You Are the One (feicheng wurao).
Similar to the Gala’s skit, the production of If You Are the One’ portrayed Xiao De (a participant from Guinea Bissau) as a free-spirited girl, trapped by tradition. Xiao De saw going to China as a way to escape her fate (an arranged marriage), study, and become independent.
In the dating show, Xiao De is strictly looking to marry a Chinese man. Moving to China and marrying a Chinese was for Xiao De, as it is for Carrie, a way to escape tradition and enter modernity a Chinese version of modernity perhaps.
The blackface’ skit reproduced a narrative line that is representative of China’s general approach to Africa. Both official and popular Chinese narratives about Africa consistently try to construct an image of the continent as China’s damsel in distress’.

Paolo Uccello’s depiction of Saint George and the dragon, c. 1470, a classic image of a damsel in distress.

The age-old trope of the damsel in distress’ in film, literature and video games depicts a young and beautiful woman who needs to be saved from a monster by a male hero. In the end, the woman usually marries her rescuer. On both the skit and the dating show, this gendered narrative portrays China as the (modern) male hero and Africa and the princess in jeopardy (or a dire predicament caused by tradition).

Xiao De in her last appearance on If You Are the One

This trope has multiple iterations in China-Africa relations and is linked to the Chinese white saviour complex, as seen in the box office hit Wolf Warrior 2.
In short, behind the Gala’s blackface’ lies a consistent top-down, ego-boosting effort to see and represent China as a way for Africa to enter modernity. An effort that casts China-Africa relations along the lines of the binary of Africa as the past and China as the future’.
Beyond the blackface’: Africa as the past’ and China as the future’
The Spring Festival Gala is a program full of skits. While the skits are normally comedic, they generally intend to inform and educate the audience about a particular topic (from military affairs and everyday life to, controversially, other cultures).
The blackface’ skit the first in the Gala’s history to portray China-Africa relations succeeds in informing its Chinese audience about China’s historical role in Africa. However, it fails to educate’ viewers as to the complexities and realities of contemporary sub-Saharan life.
The proof is in the pudding. The skit’s story is supposedly set in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, but all you can see in the background is a savannah. This stereotypical African landscape is about to be crossed by a Chinese-built railway hailed as part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

Actual Nairobi

CCTV’s imagined Nairobi

Representing Africa as the past’ means associating ideas about Africa strictly with nature and tradition. Stereotypical views on Africa are not only part of the top-down’ approach as seen on CCTV’s skit they pervade everyday life in China. This is something that many African students who have lived in contemporary China understand.
Often, when African youngsters want to make a quick buck in China, they take on entertainment jobs that essentialise their Africanness. This happens to other foreigners in China as well. But in the case of Africans, they often end up donning traditional attire and then drumming or dancing, even if they have no idea about either.
For many ordinary Chinese people, there is no space for modern Africa. By reproducing age-old stereotypes about the continent and its people, the CCTV skit catered to this.
When asked about this, young and educated Chinese often claim that people who produce negative stereotypes about Africa (and blackness) are not aware they are doing it. Naivety and ignorance are the common justifications. Ordinary Chinese, they say, ignore African and global histories and only reproduce what is offered to them by Hollywood.
This is to some extent true. However, there is evidence from museum exhibitions (pairing Africans to fauna) to film festivals (solely focusing on films about indigenous Africa, for example, Namibia’s Himba people or the Maasai) that point in another direction. Even ‘educated’ people in positions of power in China seem to hold these views. Blaming Hollywood seems a poor defence.
In a future post, I will propose an alternative route through which negative cinematic representations have entered Chinese imagination. Stay tuned!
*An edited version of this post was published by The Conversation Africa as ‘What ‘blackface’ tells us about China’s patronising attitude towards Africa’  

[Blackface] What do Chinese people think of CCTV’s ‘blackface skit’?

[Research] African entrepreneurs have made Guangzhou a truly global city

By Gordon Mathews for qz Africa

There are certain cities in certain eras that stand out as magnets for those across the globe who have dreams. New York in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was such a place, with immigrants at Ellis Island awaiting their chance to pursue the American dream in a new world far from the European villages and slums into which many of them were born.

Today, one such place is Guangzhou, the urban center of the world’s manufacturing powerhouse, the Pearl River Delta. Guangzhou today is a city that for its global opportunities attracts foreigners the world over.

Guangzhou has a large population of foreigners, but how many is unclear. China as a whole had some 594,000 immigrants living in the country in 2010, according to the national census, less than 1 of every 2,000 people in the country.

 There are certain cities in certain eras that stand out as magnets for those who have dreams. Guangzhou numbers are all over the map. One recent report estimates that from January to August 2014, Guangzhou, a city of some 13– 14 million people, hosted 3.05 million inbound or outbound foreigners, with 86,000 foreigners having registered residence in the city. Another website estimates that about 500,000 foreigners are in Guangzhou at any given time. There are 34,000 permanent resident foreigners, according to one website, 47,000 according to another, and 120,000, according to a third.

Exact figures are impossible to ascertain, both because official figures are secret or unknown and also because many foreigners in Guangzhou are illegal residents of the city. It’s safe to say only that while Guangzhou has a large number of foreigners, whether legal or illegal, counted or uncounted, it still is a very tiny number within a huge Chinese population.

These foreigners are a wide range of people, from Japanese and European corporate employees to traders from all over the world exporting Chinese goods to their home countries and regions. Guangzhou is a major center for the purchase of cheap knockoff goods exported to South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and particularly the Middle East and Africa. The developing world entrepreneurs of Guangzhou, especially the Africans who make up their largest number, play an essential role in making this trade possible.

In this book, The World in Guangzhou, after looking at the range of foreigners in Guangzhou, I explore the lives and trade of African entrepreneurs in Guangzhou. In 2013– 2014, I stayed in Guangzhou’s Xiaobei area, the working center and leisure haunt of much of its African and Arab population. I considered these entrepreneurs through the lens of “low- end globalization”— not the globalization of multi-national corporations with all their lawyers and advertising budgets, but of traders sending relatively small amounts of goods under the radar of the law, bribing customs agents on different continents, and getting these goods back home to stalls and street vendors. This is globalization as experienced by the majority of the world’s people.

Guangzhou today may be the best place in the world to investigate low- end globalization because it is the metropolitan hub of Guangdong Province and the Pearl River Delta, China’s industrial heartland, and is the central metropolis in the world where the goods of low- end globalization are bought and sold.

Book title the World in Guangzhou
(University of Chicago Press)
But how can low- end globalization effectively work in Guangzhou? It doesn’t operate through contracts and laws, but rather on the basis of reputation and interpersonal trust. How can this be maintained cross- culturally, with people whom you don’t know? To paraphrase a Somali trader, how can you trust someone who doesn’t speak your language and knows only a few words of English, who doesn’t share your religion, or have any religion, and who drinks and smokes as you do not?

Beyond this, how does low- end globalization work within China today, a state moving by fits and starts from societies like Kenya and Nigeria in their laxity toward laws to societies like those of Western Europe, Japan, and the United States? What is the ultimate significance of low- end globalization as practiced in Guangzhou today?

This leads to a second set of questions. The Africans profiled in this book do not merely trade in Guangzhou; they live there as well, most for weeks or months, but some for years, and a few for a decade or more. Some Africans stay, legally or illegally, marrying Chinese and having families. What will happen to them in the future? China in the past sixty years has been largely monoethnic and monocultural; but now, in its southern city of Guangzhou, it is international and multicultural. What does this mean for the long term? Might China, in fifty or a hundred years, become a truly multiethnic, multicultural society? Might we see, generations hence, China’s own version of Barack Obama?

Impressions of Guangzhou

When one travels to central Guangzhou by subway train or taxi from the Baiyun airport, or by high- speed rail from the Lo Wu border in Hong Kong, the first impression may be of a well- developed city with towering hotels, glittering department stores, massive highway overpasses, wide tree- lined boulevards, and clean, fast, and modern railways and subways. It appears to be a quintessential prosperous urban metropolis of the developed world.

For those who have mental images of China from an earlier era, of Mao suits and massive throngs of bicyclists, the city of Guangzhou today may come as a shock. When I first traveled to Guangzhou in the early 1980s, I saw a city of dark low- rise buildings, unworking toilets, and outdoor Ping Pong tables. I was struck by the lined faces of those I saw in the city’s markets— “third- world faces,” I thought then, as opposed to the softer, rounder faces of the people on the streets in Hong Kong. I traveled to Guangzhou again in the mid- 1990s, and went, by chance, to one of the city’s first McDonald’s restaurants. I remember being told sotto voce in English by one employee and then by another that they longed to leave China and live in the U.S. or Europe— that dream is what led them to McDonald’s.

Charlotte Ikels’s book The Return of the God of Wealth gives a comprehensive picture of Guangzhou in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a city undergoing a massive shift from ubiquitous state control to the workings of the free market, a city in which the springing up of skyscrapers, commonplace today, was just beginning. The Guangzhou of today is only intermittently visible in her book, not because of any failings on her part, but because Guangzhou has changed so precipitously in the last two decades.

 This is globalization as experienced by the majority of the world’s people. This first impression of Guangzhou as a glittering modern city gives way to some extent upon gazing at the city more closely. Particularly in the neighborhoods portrayed in this book, such as Xiaobei, a different picture emerges. One still sees a lively city of bright lights and neon, but also a remarkable tableau closer to the ground: beggars seeking alms to the sound of Koranic chanting emanating from their boom boxes; Hui Muslim money changers holding wads of U.S. dollars; Arabs smoking water pipes and sipping mint tea after hours in sidewalk cafés; and perambulating Africans, outnumbering the Chinese on the street, out and about and celebrating at 2 a.m. Guangzhou, at least in these areas, appears to be a world city rather than a Chinese city. As more than one Chinese have reported to us in Xiaobei, “I feel like I’m a foreigner here!”

Ikels’s 1990s portrayal of an area of Guangzhou quite close to those portrayed in this book is remarkable for another reason: no foreigners appear in her book. Guangzhou began fully opening up to foreigners only in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with Guangdong Province’s economic development and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Chinese population statistics, however incomplete they may be today, did not even include foreigners until 2010. Ikels mentioned no foreigners because their number was negligible in the early 1990s; today no book purporting to fully discuss Guangzhou could neglect them.

An African man stands near a shopping mall in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in Guangdong province March 27, 2009. In the past few years, tens of thousands of African and Arab traders have thronged to export hubs like Guangzhou and Yiwu to seek their fortunes, sourcing cheap China-made goods back home to massive markups in a growing, lucrative trade. Picture taken March 27, 2009.  To match feature
Feeling it in Guangzhou. (Reuters/James Pomfret)

The feeling of a foreigner newly arrived in Guangzhou very much depends on where they are from. An Iranian told us, “Comparing Tehran to Guangzhou is like comparing a 1950s car to a new Mercedes Benz.” A Yemeni said, “Moving to Guangzhou is like moving from the past to the present, like coming out from a cave.” Another Middle Eastern trader said, “The highways, the metro— we have no metros in Bahrain, you know? . . . And the girls here— with not much clothes on! The first day, the second day, you’re surprised at short skirts, but you get used to it.”

A Kenyan gave a more analytical view, comparing China to his own country: “You . . . have to be impressed with Guangzhou and with China. The infra- structure, the town planning. The government can provide for a billion people, with a rail network, roads, recreational facilities, parks— things that are lacking in Africa. All the time I’ve stayed here, I’ve not experienced a single electricity blackout. Yes, I want Kenya to become like China!” A West African trader with long- term residence in the United Kingdom had a darker view: “Africans who come to China straight from Africa see it as wonderful, and they want China to be like that. But those who have lived in Europe or the U.S. don’t like China much. For me, after the United Kingdom, China was like ‘the world turned upside down.’ The laws aren’t followed in China. Contracts are like toilet tissue.”

A Kenyan gave a more analytical view, comparing China to his own country: “You… have to be impressed with Guangzhou and with China. The infrastructure, the town planning. The government can provide for a billion people, with a rail network, roads, recreational facilities, parks—things that are lacking in Africa. All the time I’ve stayed here, I’ve not experienced a single electricity blackout. Yes, I want Kenya to become like China!”

A West African trader with long- term residence in the United Kingdom had a darker view: “Africans who come to China straight from Africa see it as wonderful, and they want China to be like that. But those who have lived in Europe or the U.S. don’t like China much. For me, after the United Kingdom, China was like ‘the world turned upside down.’ The laws aren’t followed in China. Contracts are like toilet tissue.”

All of this reflects China’s place in the world as both a developing country less than six decades past starvation for tens of millions of its people, to now the world’s second largest economy, a superpower that is on many fronts competing with the United States for world supremacy. Guangzhou, as one of China’s richest and most foreign large cities, exemplifies this transition.

Excerpted from the forthcoming The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplacepublished by the University of Chicago Press.


[Research] The Economics of Color: Inside China’s Racialized ESL Market (Master Thesis)

By Marina Pislaru, University College Dublin (2016)


[vlogs] Being Black in China: are mixed children getting the proper education PT1?


[Documentary] Short Film: 寻梦广州 African Dreams in Guangzhou


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