Xiaobeilu: Africans in China
In the late 1980s the lives of many Africans were revolutionized by a new household item: the plastic container. On one of his many travels in Africa Polish journalist and author, Ryszard Kapuscinski, notes how this relatively inexpensive plastic jar improved the lives of many. The yellow lightweight plastic jar was a handy substitute to the heavy clay jar or stone vessels used for hundreds of hundreds of years to fetch water in the nearest pond, river or well. Fetching water at once became more easy, efficient and convenient, and the proliferation of the yellow plastic container was thus a harbinger of just how present China would become in Africa in the years to come.
Because like so many other consumer goods found on the continent today, the yellow plastic container was made in China. Today China is present on many different levels of African life. The Chinese are building roads, bridges, whole industries, high profile buildings and employing thousands of Africans. And Chinese products are omnipresent across markets providing Africans with cheaper alternatives of everything from household items to electronics, fabrics to machinery and clothing to building equipment etc.
The term ‘China in Africa’ is a hot topic on the global political, economic, and developmental agendas. But little do we hear about of the reverse phenomenon: ‘Africa in China’. However, the on-going documentary project of American photographer and filmmaker Daniel Traub touches upon this largely overseen theme. Since 2009 Traub has been documenting a particular neighbourhood and its inhabitants in the Southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. The Xiaobeilu neighbourhood is home to thousands of African immigrants, primarily Nigerians. They work as traders buying various goods produced in the Pearl River Delta, sell the products back in Africa, and thus provides Africans with a variety of cheap Chinese consumer goods.
While exploring the neighbourhood, Traub became drawn to a pedestrian bridge that traverses a major road running through Xiaobeilu. The bridge is used for transportation, but also functions as a meeting point and crossroads for people of the quarter, both Chinese and African. People hang out on the bridge, together or alone, lost in thought, gazing over the city, and at night the bridge is transformed into an ad hoc market. Clearly an important junction for the community, this location became a focal point for Traub’s photographic trajectory.
But Traub was not the only photographer drawn to this bridge. In 2010 he discovered a group of Chinese men and women with digital point and shoot cameras selling their services as photographers to mainly Africans passing by at the bridge. The Africans would hire a photographer to take their portrait and the photos would then be printed on a portable printer. According to Traub these photographers were essentially Chinese migrant workers – a part of China’s vast underclass of some 200 million people who come from the provinces to try and find work in the cities and provide much of the labour that has fuelled China’s economic ascendance – trying to cash in on the Africans who might want a souvenir from their time in China. Traub approached one of the photographers, Wu Yong Fu, to have a look at some of his portraits, and found them compelling. “There was a sense of self-portraiture in the images, as if the Africans were in conversation with themselves and the people who would see the images back home”. And indeed there is a high level of self-presentation and staging in these portraits that Yong Fu and the other photographers showed him. But the photographs are also reminiscent of and carries elements of the African tradition of portrait photography, traced in particular to West Africa in the beginning of the last century. When Traub asked Yong Fu and later another photographer Zeng Xian Fang if they would be willing to share some or their photographs with him, they gave him several thousand images.
Compiled into one project, Traub, Yong Fu and Xian Fang’s photographs from Xiaobeilu offers an extensive in-depth study of a neighbourhood and its inhabitants. It touches upon several vital issues such as China’s growing influence on Africa, China’s resistance to immigration from the developing world, and race relations between the two cultures. Where the two Chinese contributions to this project offer staged portraits of self-aware and posing people, Traub’s own work falls in the opposite category. His photos reveal a somewhat voyeuristic approach. Although clearly visible on the bridge, Traub used a telephoto lens that allowed him to zoom in on people from a distance and catch people off-guard, in order not to let the camera affect their appearances. The result is a sneak peek into ordinary life in this neighbourhood where people go about their business as usual, unaware that they are being photographed. Paired with the staged Chinese portraits this strikes a delicate balance that shows us at once the reality of life in Xiaobeilu, and how people in the neighbourhood wish to construct their own reality. And this is one of the elements that make this project so interesting.
From Traub’s social and anthropological project we gain insight to a specific neighbourhood in China with its people, activities, geographic and dynamics. His project reflects an overall humanistic and social emphasis and an understanding of Xiaobeilu’s many facets and people that he has gotten to know over many years. He focuses on people, social dynamics and (big) issues on the small scale, which makes it more tangible and straightforward. Daniel Traub’s Xiaobeilu project adds an interesting humanistic element to discussions of China in Africa that tends to be rooted in larger global political and economic scales.
Daniel Traub is a Brooklyn based photographer and filmmaker whose work has often explored marginalized communities and landscapes in the midst of crisis and transformation. From 1999-2007, Traub lived in China where he was engaged with long term projects including Peripheries which explores the border region where urban and rural China meet. His photographs have been exhibited internationally, including solo exhibitions at the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago and the Print Center in Philadelphia and are in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His work has also appeared in publications including The New York Times Magazine, Telegraph Magazine, Time and Newsweek. More of his work can be seen here.
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