Personal focus on trade relations

Updated: 2013-12-01 06:49

By Cecily Liu(China Daily)

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Mutual understanding and acceptance is flourishing at the grassroots level between Chinese and African traders, says Dutch photographer and filmmaker Pieter van der Houwen.

Van der Houwen, who directed the documentary film The Africa China Connection, says he is fascinated by the vibrant interaction between Chinese and Africans in the South China export hub Guangzhou, and wants to show this phenomenon in his film.

"The Nigerian and Congolese neighborhoods in Guangzhou are very dynamic - the nightclubs, the restaurants - I found it a fascinating phenomenon," he says.

The 50-minute film, first shown last year in the Netherlands, was screened this month at the South London Gallery as a part of the gallery's South by South film program, curated by Joseph Adesunloye, a Nigerian-born filmmaker.

The Africa China Connection traces the lives of several African migrants in Guangzhou, working in such small businesses as clothing and wigs, who have in their small ways contributed to significant manufacturing trade flow between China and Africa.

Personal focus on trade relations

Each has a strong character, and together they demonstrate different kinds of integration with the local Chinese community.

One has married a Chinese woman and started a family. Another man is trying to save up to bring his wife to China to live with him. Meanwhile, an African woman says she must return to Africa one day because she can never marry a Chinese man.

The film also depicts friendship between individuals. One young Chinese man shows his African friend his street dance and violin skills. In another scene, a young Chinese man is having a drink with his African friend in a pub.

Traveling to Guangzhou for the first time in 2010, Van der Houwen spent about 10 weeks over five trips observing and engaging with the city's African traders. He originally planned to document the stories through photography but later added a documentary film.

Van der Houwen says he managed to build up a good relationship with his interviewees over time so they trusted him with their life stories.

It also helped that Van der Houwen had published a book a decade ago on African sports, which featured photographs of famous African football players, whom his interviewees in China could easily identify with.

Van der Houwen says he wants to show the equal relationship between Africans and Chinese because this is a story missing from Western media.

He claims one reason the Western media poorly portrays Africans is lazy journalism, which he admits is a slippery path even he is not able to completely avoid.

"We are calling it Africa, but we don't portray the incredible diversity of Africa," he says.

In contrast, he says the Chinese traders he met in Guangzhou have compiled a big, thick book about African countries, describing which ones make for good investments and which do not. He says he found this business relationship interesting because it is an equal and balanced one.

Van der Houwen first went to Africa in the 1980s when he was a student. He was selected by the Dutch government to do a case study of five small companies that had invested in the continent.

He believes the way most Europeans view Africa has changed little since then and that he has witnessed China offering an alternative.

He says the fact Africa now has many African-Chinese joint-venture projects demonstrates this "more adult relationship", whereas few European companies would set up in partnership with African businesses.

(China Daily 12/01/2013 page5)