By Laiyin Yuan
Author: He Weijie
Translator: Laiyin Yuan
Published on: 07/16/2014
Source: Yangcheng Evening News
Original text (in Chinese): http://www.ycwb.com/ePaper/ycwb/html/2014-07/16/content_495254.htm?div=-1
Born in the 1960s, Li Dong has many titles to be proud of, such as that of “science geek,” as he graduated from a prestigious university, served as a corporate senior executive, was a successful entrepreneur, and more. However, with his camera in hand, he left his job two years ago and moved to the largest African community in Guangzhou: Baohan Zhijie in Yuexiu District. From initial “vigilance” to final “understanding,” he became a good friend of his African interlocutors and documented their lives in Guangzhou with his camera.
— Laiyin Yuan (translator)
From “Science Geek” to Photographer
Baohan Zhijie, which is located near Xiatang West Road in Yuexiu District, is both familiar and strange to many Guangzhou citizens. Starting around 2002, more and more African merchants moved to Guangzhou for international business. From their perspective, the market in mainland China, especially in Guangzhou, is more bountiful than those in Southeast Asian or Hong Kong.
Gradually becoming “little Africa,” the Baohan Zhijie community made many local residents “keep a respectful distance” because of cultural differences and misunderstandings.
Two years ago, Li Dong, an engineering designer and construction worker born in Chongqing but who
lived in Guangzhou for more than two decades, left his career and moved to this community to take photos of his African neighbors who became friends.
A graduate of the Zhejiang University Department of Chemical Engineering, Li Dong moved to Guangzhou in 1992, and worked for Guangdong Project Technology Research Exploitation Center and Guangdong Petrochemical Designing Institute Co., Ltd as an engineering designer and construction worker. Later, he established his own company and started a family in Guangzhou.
In fact, this apparently whimsical idea, in other people’s eyes at least, has been Li Dong’s aspiration since childhood. “My father was a worker in a Chongqing garment factory, where a foreign production line was introduced by the government to ameliorate the clothing shortage at that time,” said Li. In those years, many foreign experts were working in the factory, and they usually took walks in the neighborhood with their wives on weekends. “There were so few chances to see foreigners in China back then, so they were always surrounded by a lot of Chinese whenever they came out.”
“I was in the third grade of primary school at that time, and I felt very embarrassed with the situation. They are nothing more than a bunch of foreigners. I thought society may improve when foreigners no longer attract such attention on streets.” Later, Li went abroad frequently for business trips. He found that China’s role on the international stage has been gradually changing, and he thinks it is necessary to record these changes. “We flocked to foreign things in the past, but now more and more foreigners are coming to China for study and business.”
Becoming an African Neighbor
Li Dong had the idea of taking photos for Africans in Baohan Zhijie two years ago, but this is not an easy thing to do. Due to visa issues, some Africans are quite wary of strangers. In the beginning, Li could only take photos near the business district instead of residential areas.
In order to ease African concerns, Li walked through Baohan Zhijie with his camera every day for an entire year. “I want to send a message that I will not be a threat to them.” However, he still received some resistance from certain Africans. There was a time when he and his photographer friend were surrounded by a crowd afrter his friend took photos of an African child on Baohan Zhijie. “They said the photos had violated their portraiture rights, and that we had to delete those photos.”
Consequently, Li Dong decided to move to Baohan Zhijie in March of last year and truly became a neighbor of the African community. “Before I moved in, I still had certain misunderstandings about Africans like many other non-residents of the area. However, Africans are in fact very honest and kind-hearted. They are very happy when I give them printed copies of their photos afterwards.”
In Li Dong’s point of view, his African neighbors, despite their different skin color, are no different than Chinese migrant workers from other provinces, who come to Guangzhou with the dream to work hard and make a living. Vincent, a Cameroonian who came to China for less a year, became Li friend. He opened a supermarket back at his hometown managed by his sisters, and his main reason for coming to Guangzhou was to send back daily necessities bought from the wholesale markets near the railway station. Vincent told Li that, over the past few years, he feels increasing pressure in Guangzhou since more Chinese are opening stores in his hometown.
“Guangdong Is a Very Tolerant City”
After moving to Baohan Zhijie, Li Dong realized that the local residents had already formed a unique way to get along with Africans in harmony.
“Guangdong is a very tolerant city,” Li declared. Many Africans are night owls and tend to be noisier in the late evening, but local residents usually understand and tolerate their behavior. However, sometimes the noise is too much for them and the Chinese residents will call the police, so Africans will keep quiet for a couple of days after the police come by. A number of Chinese residents also gradually learn how to get along with Africans. Ms. Liu, a Guangdonger who has been working as a business intermediary in Baohan Zhijie for nearly a decade, asked her son to teach her some basic English in order to attract African clients. She clearly remembered the first sentence she mastered: “how are you.” The Dengfeng community in Yuexiu District also established a team of social workers to provide services and help Africans get used to their lives in Guangzhou.
At the same time, Africans are slowly adapting to Guangzhou. When they first come to China, many did not even know how to use keys or gas stoves, but now they have become quite savvy. Ted, an Angolan trader who spent more than three years in Guangzhou, can speak a little Chinese. He often borrows his landlady’s sewing machine to trim his previously purchased suit pants, and pays only ten yuan each time for “equipment usage costs.” In one of Li Dong’s snapshots, Ted was attentively watching his computer screen, while listening to popular Cantonese show on his television as Chairman Mao’s picture hung on his wall.
Li Dong’s photography about Africans in Guangdong has started to draw public attention. He believes – as do many experts and scholars – that today’s Baohan Zhijie in Guangzhou is just like any of the Chinatowns scattered all around the world, which are mirrors reflecting the past, present, and future.
About Yangcheng Evening News (http://www.ycwb.com/about/aboutus_ycwb.html )
Yangcheng Evening News is the first comprehensive newspaper established after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, whose first issue was published on October 1, 1957. It is dedicated to being the best news portal in southern China, and focuses on the daily life of ordinary people. Besides the newspaper, the Yangcheng Evening News Group also has an official news website, publishing house, advertising agency, property management company, and more.
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