The first nonstop flight from Africa to China took off in 2008. It would be reasonable to expect that it was bound for Beijing, the cultural and political capital of China. Or to Shanghai, its financial behemoth. But the flight touched down in lesser-known Guangzhou, China's third-most populated city, along the southern coast.
Dubbed "The Promised Land," by the New Yorker in 2009, Guangzhou has become the land of milk and honey for China's growing population of African immigrants. African businessmen and women ply their crafts along bustling streets. Some own restaurants. Many others work the export-import markets day and night, negotiating deals between Guangzhou and their home cities in Africa. In one neighborhood, Dengfeng, the African community is so dense that it's commonly referred to as "The Chocolate City." This is how Evan Osnos, writing for the New Yorker, described a local market called Canaan:
Lining the sidewalks are passport-photo booths, mobile-phone venders, and shops crammed with jeans and T-shirts, alligator-skin cap-toe shoes and made-to-measure suits, soccer jerseys and bulletproof vests (four hundred and ten dollars for blue nylon; five hundred and fifty-six dollars for camouflage). But the real business goes on inside, where merchants cut deals for bogus and factory-reject Prada and Lacoste and Polo. The Canaan economy is all cash and unhindered by borders: “one hundred per cent human hair” extensions are clipped from heads in India, braided by hand in China, and packed for sale in West Africa.
This scene of buzzing economic activity captures the perception that many residents, both Chinese and from elsewhere, have of Guangzhou's African population: Foreigners in an ardent pursuit of economic gain.
"Existing research has tended to represent these Africans as a mass of traders," Roberto Castillo, a Guangzhou-based researcher who studies Africans in China, explained in a YouTube videocast. Castillo adds that, "the overarching trading narrative reinforces notions of Africans in the city as merely profit-seeking exporters.” This characterization of an immigrant community strictly guided by Guangzhou's commercial sector is pretty reductive.
A more nuanced representation of Guangzhou's African population is found in the upcoming documentary China Remix. The film follows three African hip-hop artists, two from Nigeria and one from Uganda, as they pursue a music career in China—some dodging residency restrictions and cultural challenges along the way. It demonstrates that, in China's "Chocolate City," the entrepreneurial spirit of African residents is more complicated than simply hawking items on the curb. The three musicians represent an African generation that is global, and increasingly taking on the world's cities with a determination to forge their own careers, including those in the arts. Moreover, as one African resident tells the filmmakers, "music is a global language that can bind us together." Hip-hop has become an unlikely opportunity to cast a brighter light on the African community and its contributions to Guangzhou's culture.
"Africans basically have an image problem in China," says Dorian Carli-Jones, a co-producer of China Remix. "So [hip-hop] is a way for them to rectify that."
“What we’re trying to show in this documentary is that there is a[n] [African] community that’s pretty established, and now an entertainment industry is actually popping up to supplement that community,” adds Melissa Lefkowitz, also a co-producer of the film.
The ambassadorship of Guangzhou's African musicians is growing. In 2013, state-run newspaper China Daily said the hip-hop artists were "creating new types of harmony between the two lands."
Even so, Lefkowitz and Carli-Jones acknowledge that more Chinese need to be drawn into interaction with African residents through alternative ways, like hip-hop, to create a lasting cultural acceptance. The same article conceded that "most Chinese still know little about Guangzhou's African community."
“We know that they need so many more Chinese to attend their shows and to hang with them before this [perception] will change," Lefkowitz tells CityLab. "So we’re just capturing the very beginning."
In the years to come, as more African entrepreneurs head for China's cities in search of businesses opportunities, music and the arts may serve as the ultimate bridge between the two cultures.
China Remix is expected to be released in the Spring of 2015. It will run just under 30 minutes. Learn more about the film here.