Early October 2014, I participated in a panel discussion about an exhibition of documentary photographs of Baohan Street in Guangzhou, a place that I have visited on several research stints in China. It was held at the Global South Studies Center Cologne (GSSC), University of Cologne. The very vivid photographs were taken by Li Dong in a timespan of two years and they have been documented by China Daily, Global Times and National Geographic. Li Dong formerly worked in petrochemical engineering for 15 years. The curator of the exhibition at GSSC was Prof. Dr. Michaela Pelican. The exhibition was also held in March and April 2014 in Guangzhou itself and in Cologne, it will continue until 15th November. The organizers made it clear that it was not an exhibition about Africans in China, but specifically Baohan Street and that “…the photographs shown in this exhibition are not meant as an authoritative account, but as an invitation to engage in a controversial debate – about the situation of Africans in China, the ongoing changes in Chinese society, the effects of globalization…” (Kaji and Pelican, 2014).
The photographs captured public and private scenes, such as: an African woman sitting on a motorbike-taxi transporting her goods, an African man and his Chinese wife at their restaurant, African traders either shopping or walking or sitting around Baohan Street, an African man getting arrested, some men enjoying their drinks, an African tailor sewing clothes, African women transporting their children on their back or on a baby-trolley, a Chinese woman interacting with an African boy while the boy’s mother watched, an African man using a computer in a room with Mao’s photo hanging on a wall in front of him, the skyline of Guangzhou etc.
Baohan Street is a low-end area which mostly hosts single male African traders while Africans with children and families prefer living in wealthier areas of Guangzhou like Jinlu Villa or Zhejiang New Town (Pelican, 2014). Li Dong faced a difficult task taking photos of Africans at Baohan Street since “they are careful to protect their privacy and portraiture rights”. Thus, he moved into a five-square meters room in Baohan Street, where he started building rapport with Baohan’s inhabitants. Some of them became his friends and permitted him to take their photographs (Li Zhigang, 2014). Li Dong kept a diary where he writes that “…some Africans appeared in the foreground. As it was supper time, there were Africans on the street walking home to prepare food or going for dinner. And as they had to pass through the street on their way home, I could take photos of the African passers-by at any time.” At one point, he took a photo of an African man who turned away, clearly not wanting to be photographed, but they got to know each other later, as he notes in his diary (Li Dong, 2014).
An interesting insight from Li Dong’s diary demonstrates that Africans were attracted to settle in Baohan Street due to the prior presence and settlement of “Chinese Muslims from Xinjiang and Ningxia who opened Muslim restaurants and nang-bread bakeries with the most popular ones owned by Kashmiris)” (ibid).
After appreciating the successful exhibition and very well taken photos, the panel discussion got down to dissect various issues related to the photographs. While Mr. Li Dong’s work captures the spirit of Baohan Street in a remarkable manner, discussants raised a couple of issues. It was questioned in what manner African traders fit into the description of a community while they come from different African countries amongst other variables? It was not clear from some photos whether interaction amongst Africans and Chinese was actually taking place or if Africans portrayed in the photos were just tourists. Additionally, the ethics of documentary photography were discussed at length. A photo that had secretly zoomed into a group of about four African women from a birds-eye-view with their corpulent cleavage showing was discussed at length. A discussant wondered about the infringement of rights of such women when they are displayed at an exhibition and also how such a photo would be received in African countries, if the exhibition were be held there. Li Dong said that he will reflect upon this further before such an exhibition. Another discussant supported showing such photos even in African countries to stir discussion about African traders and life in Guangzhou, especially since millions of Africans are still unaware of the fact that African traders also live in China and import goods to Africa. As a result, such Africans accuse Chinese traders in Africa and the Chinese government for any poor quality goods that land in Africa. Both Chinese and African traders supply high and poor quality goods.
Despite the portrayal of a rather peaceful Baohan Street through Li Dong’s photos, as Kaji and Pelican (2014) correctly observe, “the apparently peaceful social landscape of China is open to doubt. Drawing on media discourses and the testimonies of African migrants, many discriminatory practices have been reported. Whether this is true or not, the question of racism seems rather topical and needs to be raised.” Photos alone cannot capture deep social-cultural issues that arise in Baohan Street such as integration and racism. Yet an exhibition like Li Dong’s Baohan Street invites us to reflect not only on photography, but also on further issues that bind African and Chinese traders together across Afrasian economic, political and socio-cultural spaces.
From left: Moderator Mi You (curator, media artist and academic staff at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne): Li Dong, Wang Shaobo (lived in Africa and Europe and is an art collector, photographer and businessman): and Dr. John Njenga Karugia
Prof. Dr. Michaela Pelican (Junior Professor in Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Cologne and Arjang Omrani (PhD candidate at the University of Cologne)