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The Black Orient: The Emerging Black Presence in China

Nov 01, 2016

Encapsulating the stories and lives in the diverse landscape of African and other black diasporic communities in the wide and ever-changing China has become a complex, yet educational endeavour. Having lived and worked in China for almost four years, being black has brought a new dimension to negotiating my way through life and relationships.

China’s continued growth and expansion has catapulted the country to center stage of the global economic arena. The opening up of its economy has created a wealth of opportunities not just for nationals but also expats taking leaps across land and oceans for a slice of the pie.

The growing population of Black migrants and expats can be in part explained by the increasing appeal of the so-called “China Dream.” Everyone from street vendors to English educators are leaving their native countries in search of the economic opportunity, travel, and work experience that China’s 21st century is offering. There is also much to be said about present day Africa-China relations, which has resulted in 1 million Chinese migrating to the African continent and an underestimated African migration to the new economic land of opportunity.

With no official government statistics available to account for the growing population of Black migrants in China, I would estimate the number of black migrants and expats living, working, or hustling in China to be several hundred thousand people. My estimate is based on an in-depth study of government records and a number of visits to several of China’s smaller cities such as Guangzhou, one of China’s biggest trading hubs.

In Guangzhou, a large West African community has taken root due to previously relaxed visa laws, enabling people to capitalize on the city’s import and export trade and even smaller provinces, like Yiwu, have a predominately East African population taking up residence as authorities become more stringent in their policing of migrants in larger cities. Numerous recorded accounts from unofficially elected leaders in black communities have also helped to determine the sheer scope of black migration to China. Self-proclaimed, head of the Nigerian community in Guangzhou, Emmanuel Njoku, spoke of how easy and why people have flocked there is such large numbers, “In Lagos, that’s where we can get visas. No questions asked. Business was good here. We come for business – there are many of us now - thousands”.

However, African migration to China is only half of the story: what of the black experience in China—a country whose doors have been closed for the better part of the last century, and has only recently allowed for more foreigners to take up temporary, and in rare cases permanent residence, in the most populous nation on the planet? 

Nationality accounts for distinct differences in the black experience of those living in China. Place of birth, in addition to type of employment, contributes to the notion that black people can be placed into either the “migrant” or “expat” category. This is primarily linked to the perception of African nationals, by some Chinese natives, as sub-par to their black counterparts from other parts of the world.

A West African with an import and export business in the city of Guangzhou would be classed as a migrant, while perhaps, someone like me, a British national with a job in Media in China’s capital, would be classed as an expat. It is worth mentioning that this perceived “migrant” would have triple the earning power than I and likely have a Master’s degree level education. The connotation attached to African “migrants” in China, is that these are a collection of people seeking economic advancement as a result of poverty – which is often not the case – and attached to “expat”, is the connotation that affluent foreigners have come to impart their professional knowledge and help raise China’s international appeal.

Exported global imagined narratives of Africa as a poor and destitute continent, has resulted in perceptions of its people as uneducated, primitive, and undesirable. The appropriation of the African narrative by the west and its historical dehumanization of blackness has been adopted by a nation whose lack of exposure to the outside world has left it incapable of combating false ideologies and its own historical preoccupation with “whiteness.” I have taken numerous accounts from Chinese natives that collectively surmise Africa as a wasteland and its diverse people, as alien. In some cases, most believe all black people and people of color are exclusively from Africa.

Occasionally the idea that all black people are born in Africa is thwarted by the knowledge that the election of a black president has taken place in the United States and must mean that, intelligent, desirable, and influential black people exist outside of the realm that has become their reality. I often receive random and enthusiastic shouts from across the street or in taxis – “Barack Obama!” – to which I sometimes reply, “I’m from the U.K.” This unfortunately only adds to their confusion about where to place black people as I try in vain to explain that black people are indeed present all over the world.

With strong Eurocentric ideals of beauty and lifestyle within and outside of their walls, Chinese interaction with otherness and more specifically, blackness, can be shrouded in a complex mixture of curiosity, prejudice, ignorance, hysteria, awe, and admiration. How does one contend with these daily nuances of black life in this expanse of a country?

A re-appropriation of not only the African, but the black narrative is the key. It is essential to retell our stories and bring new perspective to the complexities of blackness and our histories.In order to do this and answer the many questions raised, I have undertaken one of my biggest projects to date: A three-part documentary series, titled, The Black Orient, covering human stories about the black experience in the East.


Using interviews with members of African and black diasporic communities, community elders, native artists and academics on the subject of migration and societal integration, The Black Orient will investigate what life is like being black and living and working in one of the most homogenous nations in the world.
This investigative piece will cover a diverse range of stories throughout the series. The first, titled, “Yellow Fever: Interracial Love,” focuses on Sino-Black/African relationships, children and the hybrid communities they live amongst. This episode explores the marrying of cultures in domestic spaces as a result of increased black diasporic migration to China.
The second episode, “Chocolate City: An African Community in Guangzhou,” focuses on the largest African community in Asia, in the south of China. Over 200,000 Sub-Saharan African migrants are thought to be living in the urban village of Dengfeng, Guangzhou, most of whom have set up import and export businesses. Viewers will be introduced to members of “Africa Town” and their stories.
The third and final episode. “Black Ghost (Translated from the Chinese: Hei Gui): Racism in China,”explores the many negative facets of the black experience in China, including discrimination, prejudice and micro-aggressions. What this means to black individuals living and working there and the unique perspectives of the native Chinese who see a visible racial transformation in their communities. Part three aims to answer whether or not racism exists in China or if black people are exclusively combating a general Chinese xenophobia.
The purpose of this project is to inform and educate. The series is a humanistic endeavor aimed at promoting the work and lives of black people in China, while creating a platform for better social and cultural understanding between Chinese and Black communities.
The Black Orient will spread a new awareness of the lives of not just a visible collective but of everyday working individuals in a personally framed approach. But most importantly this series will shine a much needed spotlight on the successful relationships that do exist in Sino-Black work and social spaces and the positive impact of cultural exchange for those that embrace it.
I have found that there is a real knowledge-gap concerning African migrant and black communities in China and few consider the impact that new and growing hybrid communities have on society within the context explored in this series and my blog: Black Lives in China. Engaging with the socially global repercussions of post-modern mass migration for purposes beyond, politics, poverty and war is much needed.
Beyond the impact of racial integration is gaining a deeper insight into the mechanics of building a life somewhere new, what it is to contend with being lost in translation and prejudice but highlighting the wonderful highs that keep people where they are.
I was intending to work in China for only a year. Many frustrations, including the never-ending request to provide evidence of my nationality, or English as a first language ability, to random grandmothers stroking and picking at my hair while waiting at the bus-stop (a reason why I now ride an electric scooter to work) have most certainly contributed to a number of run-for-your-life moments.
But as I enter into my fourth year in China, I reflect upon the many strangers and friends who have welcomed me into their homes, asked honest and open questions, offered a ride or walked with me when lost, been patient with me and my poor knowledge of Mandarin, taken the time to educate me with kindness on Chinese customs and traditions and shown faith in my professional and personal abilities regardless of the color of my skin. These and many more, are my reasons and highs for keeping me where I am.  
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