How does the author summarize their argument(s) one last time?  Do they hint at broader implications of their work beyond the focus of this article?  Do they make a call for more research in a certain area? The  purpose  of  this  assignment  is  to  have  you  explore  the  type  of scholarly research  being  done by human geographers.  The project will give you an understanding of the breadth and depth of research that geographers do, point out important issues in this sub-field that are the subject of academic research, and give you insights on how geographers conduct research and present that research.

Term-Paper Instructions:

YOU are responsible for reading and understanding these instructions.  If you turn in an assignment that does not follow these instructions, your grade will reflect it. You cannot say I didn’t warn you. The  purpose  of  this  assignment  is  to  have  you  explore  the  type  of scholarly research  being  done by human geographers.  The project will give you an understanding of the breadth and depth of research that geographers do, point out important issues in this sub-field that are the subject of academic research, and give you insights on how geographers conduct research and present that research.  This assignment requires you to focus on articles in peer-reviewed, scholarly journals rather than popular media.  There are several things that distinguish scholarly articles from other types of writing.  Firstly, these articles are peer-reviewed; meaning that they have been judged by  up  to  four  other  scholars  working  on  similar  topics  for  their  accuracy  and  merit  before being  published.  Scholarly articles are also fully cited so that another researcher can prove the validity of the arguments by looking at the same sources.  Thirdly, while popular media articles generally stand alone as a report on something, peer-reviewed scholarly articles represent ongoing conversations among scholars to advance our knowledge about the world –in this case, human/cultural geography.

Technical  Aspects: Your  paper  must  conform  to  the  following  formatting:  12-point  font  (Arial,  Times  New Roman, Garamond, or Book Antiqua), one-inch margins all around, double-spaced, and number the pages.  Any paper that does not follow the technical aspects will receive a 10-point discount in the final grade for this assignment. 

The Final/Analysis Paper (DUE by Friday, July31): For the paper, you will need to follow the format given below  in  analyzing  and  summarizing  the  components  of  the  research  article  about  which  you  are  writing:

Remember that you are only using ONE article in the part of the project.  In completing the following format, you will need to read each section of the article you are using very carefully, possibly more than once.  Your paper should be at-least 6 pages in length (not including the Cover Page), you must follow the formatting procedure listed above, and you must submit your paper to the plagiarism detection website using the class webpage by the due date. Note that plagiarism will not be tolerated. If this or any other course assignment is plagiarized, you will earn an automatic failure grade in the course.

Follow the format carefully.  When you write your paper, divide it into clearly labeled sections using the headings included below.  In each section, be sure to address the questions fully. Any paper that does not include the required labels/titles will receive a 10-point discount in the final grade for this assignment.

I. Cover  Page: Author(s)  of  the  Article,  Publication  Date, Title  of  the  Article,  Publication  Source (Journal, Volume, Number, Page numbers), Your Name, GEO3421, Summer2020, Date Submitted.

II. Introduction: How does the author introduce the article (for example, do they tell a story to situate the topic, or do they discuss other research, a media report, an event)?  How does the introduction frame the coming discussion and argument?

III. Argument: What  argument(s)  does  the  author  make  in  the  paper  (for  example,  are  they  saying  that  some  topic hasn’t been studied (enough); or, are they saying that if we study some particular issue/case it will change (or  reaffirm) how we think about some conception; or, are they  saying that if we bring in a different conception it will change the way we think about a particular issue/case)?

IV. Structure of the Paper: How  does  the  author  go  about  making  the  argument  in  the  paper?    What  order  do  they  present  the information?  How do they layout the article?  What sections are in the article, and what points do they make in each one?  How do the sections build up to the overall argument?

V. Literatures: In what literatures (both theoretical and topical) does the author situate their work?  What works do they cite, and how do they conceive what they are citing?  Note: Not every paper will have a specific section dedicated to literature review –they may be embedded in various sections of the paper.

VI. Methodology: How did the author go about collecting that information (data) used to support their argument?  Did they  use  interviews  (who, with  and  how  many),  participant  observation  (where  and  how  long), document analysis (historical documents, newspaper accounts, policy papers, etc.), or statistical data (gather by the author or some other entity) to name a few?  How is the data presented: is it woven into the text of the article, or is it presented in some graphic form (maps, charts, graphs, photos)?  How well does the data support the argument that the author is making?

VII. Conclusion: How does the author summarize their argument(s) one last time?  Do they hint at broader implications of their work beyond the focus of this article?  Do they make a call for more research in a certain area?

VIII. Bibliography: How many sources does the article cite and what types of sources are cited?  How many of the sources are books?  How many are research articles?  How many are other types of documents (popular media reports –newspaper or magazine articles, government documents, planning documents, etc.)?  How many are internet sources?  Does the author cite Wikipedia?

Important note:

Most  of  your  paper  should  summarize  the  article in  your  own  words!    If  you  wish  to  use  the  wording  of  the article’s author(s) you should ALWAYS put quotations marks around it and give the page number where it can be found.  No more than 10% of your paper should be quotations.  If you quote too much, you will lose points. 

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African migrants in China: space, race and embodied encounters in Guangzhou, China

Kelly Liang & Philippe Le Billon

To cite this article: Kelly Liang & Philippe Le Billon (2020) African migrants in China: space, race and embodied encounters in Guangzhou, China, Social & Cultural Geography, 21:5, 602-628, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2018.1514647

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African migrants in China: space, race and embodied encounters in Guangzhou, China Kelly Liang and Philippe Le Billon

Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

ABSTRACT This paper examines ‘intimate geographies’ of everyday social encounters between African migrants and Chinese residents in Guangzhou, China. Based on interviews in an urban area repre- sented as an ‘African enclave’, we document some of the banal, everyday sensory and corporeal encounters relating to housing, mobility, food, gender and trade. We suggest that African migra- tion does not easily constitute an economic and cultural ‘bridge’ facilitating comprehension and appreciation between ordinary Chinese and Africans. Rather, we find racialized ‘Othering’ of African migrants to be a prevalent feature of encounters. We also find that African migrants are not voiceless and passive but proactive in questioning these views and practices, and in seeking to expand and deepen economic and broader social ties. These findings point to the importance of sensory perceptions and cor- poreal practices shaping racialization in many spheres of life, but do not preclude some forms of cultural bridging and positive interactions, demonstrating the ambivalences of embodied encounters in a globalizing city.

Migrants africains en Chine: espace, race et rencontres incarnées à Guangzhou en Chine Cet article examine « les géographies intimes » de rencontres sociales quotidiennes entre les migrants africains et les résidents chinois de Guangzhou en Chine. A partir d’entretiens dans des zones urbaines représentées comme une « enclave africaine », nous récoltons des données sur les rencontres sensorielles et corporelles banales et quotidiennes en rapport avec le logement, la mobilité, la nourriture, le genre et le commerce. Nous suggérons que la migration africaine ne constitue pas aisément un « pont » économique et culturel qui facilite la compréhension et l’appréciation entre les Chinois et les Africains ordinaires. Plutôt, nous trouvons que le fait de rendre les migrants africains « autre » de manière racialisée est un trait dominant des rencontres. Nous trouvons aussi que les migrants africains ne sont pas sans voix ni passifs mais proactifs dans le questionnement de ces vues et de ces pratiques ainsi que dans la démarche d’expansion et d’appro- fondissement des liens économiques et sociaux plus larges. Ces résultats démontrent l’importance des perceptions sensorielles et

ARTICLE HISTORY Received 27 December 2016 Accepted 27 July 2018

KEYWORDS Africa; China; contact zone; migration; racialization

MOTS CLÉS Afrique; Chine; zone de contact; migration; racialisation

PALABRAS CLAVE África; China; zona de contacto; migración; racialización

CONTACT Philippe Le Billon

SOCIAL & CULTURAL GEOGRAPHY 2020, VOL. 21, NO. 5, 602–628

© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group

des pratiques corporelles qui forment la racialisation dans de nombreuses sphères de la vie mais n’excluent pas certaines formes de pont culturel et d’interactions positives, attestant des ambiv- alences des rencontres incarnées dans une grande ville de l’ère de la mondialisation.

Los migrantes africanos en China: Encuentros de espacio, de raza y corporales en Cantón, China Este documento examina las ‘geografías íntimas’ de encuentros sociales cotidianos entre migrantes africanos y residentes chinos en Cantón, China. Basado en entrevistas en un área urbana representada como un ‘enclave africano’, se documentan algunos de los encuentros sensoriales y corpóreos cotidianos y banales relacionados con la vivienda, la movilidad, la comida, el género y el comercio. Se sugiere que la migración africana no constituye fácilmente un ‘puente’ económico y cultural que facilite la comprensión y el aprecio entre los chinos y los africanos comunes. Por el contrario, se considera que la ‘otredad’ racializada de los migrantes africanos es una característica prevalente en los encuentros. También se observa que los migrantes africanos no son personas sin voz y pasivas, sino proactivas al cuestio- nar estos puntos de vista y prácticas, y al tratar de ampliar y profundi- zar los lazos económicos y sociales más amplios. Estos hallazgos apuntan a la importancia de las percepciones sensoriales y las prácticas corpóreas que configuran la racialización en muchas esferas de la vida, pero que no excluyen algunas formas de puentes culturales e interacciones positivas, lo que demuestra las ambivalencias de los encuentros corporales en una ciudad en proceso de globalización.


Relationships between China and Africa have attracted tremendous scholarly interests in the past decade. Most studies focus on China’s economic presence in Africa, including through Chinese migration to African countries. Much of this literature has drawn criticism for its Orientalist and Afro-pessimist perspective, which often deploys contrast- ing imaginaries of ‘African weakness [and passivity], Western trusteeship and Chinese ruthlessness’ (Mawdsley, 2008; p. 517; see also Mohan & Power, 2008).1 Yet there are also detailed and nuanced accounts demonstrating complex relationships between Chinese migrants and receiving communities in Africa, tensions between the different phases of migration from distinct Chinese regions, and divergences between popular assumptions about Chinese presence in Africa and the diversity of Sino-African ventures and relation- ships (Ma, 2008; Ndjio, 2009; Snow, 1989). Relatively less attention has been paid to African migration in China, but after a hiatus of nearly 15 years since early studies by Sautman (1994) and Sullivan (1994), more studies have been recently published.2

Perhaps most prominently, Adams Bodomo (2008, 2010, 2012) proposes that African migrants in China, and notably in Guangzhou, act as an economic and cultural ‘bridge’ that facilitates and advances mutual understanding between Africans and Chinese. This view, however, seems to contrast with media reports of racialized prejudice and police harassment against African migrants.


Arguing that racialization influences most everyday Sino-African engagements in Guangzhou, we focus our attention on the corporeal and sensory dimensions of relations between Chinese residents and African migrants in this city of about 13 million people within one of the world’s largest and most populated metropolitan regions. For this, we reconsider the ‘contact hypothesis’ – the idea that interaction between different groups reduces inter- group prejudices by establishing various forms of ‘bridging’ and ‘liking’ between groups (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2013). We do so through the conceptual prism of ‘contact zones,’ which Pratt (1991, p. 34) defines as ‘social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today’.3 In this, we follow on Lan’s (2017) study of relationships occurring within a supposed ‘ethnic enclave’ between Chinese local residents – many of them domestic migrants – and African short-term visitors and migrants. We also draw on historical work on Chinese racialization (Dikotter, 1992, 2003), and on Knowles’s (2003, p. 80) concept of racialized space as an ‘active archive of the social processes and social relationships composing racial orders’ (see Neely & Samura, 2011).

Beyond situating contemporary racialized relations within this ‘historical present’, we empirically build on studies of ‘race and space’ literature. We notably follow Nayak’s (2011, p. 554–5) call to mix approaches and to pay attention to embodied emotional geographies of multicultural encounters. Through this, the study of processes of racia- lization not simply rests on the prominent visibility of ‘skin colour’, but ‘simultaneously work through a palette of senses including sounds, smells, taste and touch’. This approach, we suggest, can help document some of the embodied and intimate geo- graphies of contact zones. Beyond such ‘documentation’, we also seek to better under- stand how ‘banal, bodily and sensuous practices’ act can contribute to reaffirming and reformulating imaginaries of the Other (Haldrup, Koefoed, & Simonsen, 2006, p. 173). Through such ‘practical Orientalism’, hegemonic discourses – notably of racialization – come to translate ‘hegemonic discourses into everyday practices so that they enter into the habitual spaces of ordinary experience’ (Haldrup et al., 2006, p. 177). By combining a brief historicized account of hegemonic discourses about African migrants among Chinese residents and observations of ‘habitual Orientalism’ through our focus on everyday corporeal and sensory practices, we hope to contribute to studies of ‘embo- died history’, whereby both intersubjectivity and intercorporeality draw from and repro- duce both representational and experiential processes of Othering (Haldrup et al., 2006).

Our study is primarily based on semi-structured interviews with Africans residing or visiting Guangzhou and those Chinese who come into contact with them on a regular basis. The fieldwork was first carried out in February and March 2011 and in April 2012, with the initial period consisting of a relatively ‘quiet time’ favouring contacts with African migrants with extended stay, while the second coincided with the 111th Canton Fair bringing a high influx of short-term African traders. A total of 93 informants were interviewed, including 56 Africans (from 19 countries) and 37 Chinese (14 of them ‘Guangzhou-born’ residents), with 17 female informants for each of the two groups. Recruitment used site-based random access, key informants identified through media reports and prominent organizations, referral sampling through previous participants, and online forums. Among these informants, four Africans and two Chinese were interviewed both in 2011 and 2012. The recruitment sites and main areas for African migrants are mapped in Figure 1. Both semi-structured and ‘life stories’ interviews were


conducted, though mostly of the first type for Chinese informants.4 Follow-up fieldwork was conducted in the summer period of 2013 and 2014 as part of an additional research project, which provided some updating and informed the analysis.

Following this introduction, we briefly present the emergence and recent evolution of Sino-African ‘contact zones’ in Guangzhou using a combination of scholarly sources, media reports and oral histories. We then venture into the intersections of race, gender, class and geographical imagination. Juxtaposing the discourses on the African ‘race’ in China and the discriminations African migrants are exposed to in Guangzhou, we discuss how racialization is actualized, (re)produced and negotiated through banal everyday corporeal encounters relating to housing, mobility, food, gender, class and trade. Our conclusion sums up the paper and suggests potential topics for future research.

Embodied contact zones

The ‘contact hypothesis’ emerged out of academic studies within the U.S. context. Initially based on the attitudes of ‘white’ populations in the U.S.A. towards Afro-Americans, and supposedly requiring a number of conditions to work such as equal status between groups, more recent findings about the contact hypothesis have broadened its applicability and removed its conditions (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2013). In short, contact would be positive, even between racialized groups with profound historical inequalities in status. Inter-mingling in quasi-public spaces in two British cities, for example, is found to have a significant and positive relationship with acceptance of ethno-religious minority neighbours (Piekut & Valentine, 2017). Several recent studies, however, have qualified the contact hypothesis by emphasizing that contact can be construed as a negative experience increasing ‘pre- judice, anxiety and avoidance’, is often circumscribed by (in)formal practices of (re)segrega- tion, and may have ‘ironic’ effects undermining a dominant group’s recognition of social injustice and willingness to change an unequal status quo (McKeown & Dixon, 2017). In short, although contacts can help with ‘bridging’ racialized groups, and may reduce inter- group prejudices, these effects depend in part on the perceptions of individual group members and their positionality vis-à-vis members of the ‘Othered’ group.

Figure 1. Map of recruitment sites and main trading and residential sites in Guangzhou.


In this respect, studies of the social spaces in which ‘contact’ is occurring can contribute to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of relations, subjectivities and some of the performative aspects of positionalities (Pratt, 1991). Until relatively recently, the concept of contact zone was mostly used in relation to areas of encounters involving (prior) armed violence, and where groups ‘establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality and intractable conflict’ (Pratt, 2008, p. 8). The concept has since been used, for example, in seemingly more ‘benign’ or even ‘progressive’ settings, such as multicultural urban areas in Canada (Catungal, 2013), or inter-faith projects in the UK (Mayblin, Valentine, & Andersson, 2016). Yet, as Catungal (2013, p. 255) demonstrates, the ‘liberal contact zone’ that constitutes a city like Toronto – often praised for its multiculturalism – involves ‘socio-spatialities of violence . . . that are characterized by seemingly benign but still incredibly racializing and racialised institutional arrangements and practices’. Still, as Valentine and Waite (2012, p. 474) observe from encounters of people from different faith or sexual orientations, contact zones do not systematically become ‘conflict zones’, in part ‘because of the strategies people employ for separating their beliefs from their everyday conduct’. In this respect, the ‘contact zones’ not only bring about and result from ‘contact’, but also mediate attitudes as public conduct generally reflects codes of civility, including towards mem- bers of the Othered group. In turn, such civil attitude – when positively performed on both sides – can contribute to changing perceptions, thereby potentially supporting the contact hypothesis.

Among the main characteristics of contact zones is their ‘direct’ sensory and corpor- eal dimensions, contrasting for example with media-based inter-racial processes of ‘Othering’. There is a rich literature on sensuous geographies (McKay, 2005; Rodaway, 2002), including geographies of smell or smellscapes (Porteous, 1985). Much of this literature relates to sub-themes of embodiment, including intimacy and racial division, through which a focus is placed on the ‘materiality of race, rather than its representation or performance’ (Slocum, 2008, p. 849; see Grosz, 1994). Race and racism, from this perspective, becomes in part a ‘politics of bodily practice’ as they emerge ‘through the movement, clustering and encounter of phenotypically differentiated bodies’ (Slocum, 2008, p. 849; Tan, 2013). Some of the sensory literature can yield (dangerously naturaliz- ing) concepts, such as the suggestion that sensory aspects would give way to more ‘instinctual’ responses because they are being more directly related to emotions and physiology. Hoover (2009, p. 237), for example, argues that there is, in the case of smell, a thoughtless engagement with olfactory landscapes. Xiao (2018), in contrast, points out the complexity of interpretation of smellscapes, including key factors such as smells, their sources, intensity, associated human perceptions, as well as the physical environ- ment and context of places in which they are occurring. As Vannini, Waskul, and Gottschalk (2012) emphasize, the disruptions of ‘sensory order’, for example by ‘migrants’ (see Low, 2013; Manalansan, 2006), are not simply defined by the senses themselves (new/strange smells), but need to be considered through their normative aspects as the relative intensity of smells plays out within specific contexts and in relation to particular aesthetics and morality.

In this respect, smells have been associated with both racism and anti-racism. Singaporean citizens, for example, instituted a national ‘cook and share a pot of curry’ in response to complaints by some recent China-mainland migrants about smelly curries


cooked by neighbouring Singaporeans of Indian origin. This response not only sought to reaffirm a multicultural Singaporean identity, but also to resist state regulation that had initially mostly sided with the Chinese migrants (Montsion & Tan, 2016). The visual, haptic and odorous spatialities of a multicultural ‘ethnic hub’, such as that in Melbourne, can give to multiple interpretations. As Oke, Sonn, and McConville (2016) find, it can bring a sense of delight among tourists in search of the exotic, as well as a greater sense of security and comfort for recent migrants, but it can also be a source of anxiety and grievance for older residents habituated to the more ‘orderly’ and homogenous shop- ping strips of the past (see also Wise, 2010). The stigmatization of sensorially transgres- sive practices, such as smoking, can not only affect the corporeal spatialities of these practices (e.g. where one can smoke), but also the spatialities of smokers as the olfactory repugnance of the smell of cigarette is extended to them and ‘often conflated with moral repugnance’; an association easily justified by official discourses around cleanli- ness and health (Tan, 2013, p. 57). From this perspective, the sensory values of social spaces not only frame embodied experiences within the contact zone, but also express its various ideals, hopes and fears (Classen, 1992). As such, and as Low (2013, p. 222) explains, ‘one needs to pay attention to sensorial terrains and how they are talked about through the perspectives of both local residents and foreigners’.

‘Black ghosts’ in the ‘middle kingdom’

Racialized ‘‘Othering’ in China can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn period (770–403 B.C.). The first allusion to ‘race’ as a concept of Othering is found in the Zuo Commentary: ‘If he is not of our kind, he is sure to have a different mind’. However, in the world of Chinese classics, ethnic differences were conceptualized geographically and centred on the Yellow River Basin. Convinced that civilization suffers from the principle of distance decay, Confucius was among those most influential thinkers who instilled a framework through which the descendants of the Yellow Emperor can imagine distant peoples, whereby ‘differentiation in skin color persisted as only a secondary determinant of foreignness’ (Wyatt, 2009, p. 16–17). Growing presence and historical description of ‘dark-skinned’ peoples in China, mostly South-East Asians, came to be addressed as Kunlun slaves or Kunlun nu (Anshan, 2015), from the Tang Dynasty onwards (618–907 A. D.). By the ninth century, dark Kunlun slaves became widely fantasized owning to the popularization of a folk tale about the heroic deeds by an unfailingly powerful, loyal and Chinese-speaking Kunlun servant (Filesi, 1972, p. 9; Wyatt, 2009). In the eleventh century, foreigners became a common sight in coastal China, including Guangzhou, as a result of the expansion of trade networks organized by Arab traders who brought slaves captured along the East African coast; these becoming known to the Chinese as Kunlun Zenji (or Cengqi). ‘The increasingly diverse nature of China’s maritime trade,’ Derek Heng notes, ‘led to the development of hierarchy within the foreign community. . .based in large part on the scale of the commercial activities of the various groups ’ (in Peng, 2012, p. 28). Kunlun people gradually became synonymous with slaves and their skin colour the symbol of slavery. The putative inability to acquire communication skills was another discursive device through which Kunlun slaves were discursively depicted as half- human, or even non-human. The Kunlun slaves who did not possess the potential of actually mastering the Chinese language were often deemed as ‘devils’ or ‘ghost’ (gui).


These derogatory labels have had lasting influence on public perception of foreigners even today – non-Chinese are still commonly referred to in private as ‘ghost people’ (guilao) and Africans in particular are derogatorily referred to as ‘black devils’ (heigui) – although the use of the term itself does not imply a reproduction of its historical conceptualization. Beyond the reductive linguistic dimensions of racialization, Chinese relations with, and perceptions towards Africans evolved in more complex ways through periods of extensive trading and ‘exploratory’ voyages (Jinyuan, 1984).

As the enemies of emancipatory struggles shifted from European and Japanese imperialists and to an internal conflict between the nationalist party Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China, the mobilizing role played by ‘race’ was gradually replaced by ‘ideology’ and ‘class’ – with race being supposedly erased from the official discourse upon the Communist ascension to power in 1949 (Ubukata, 1953). The ‘messianic idea of unification’ was then expressed in the ‘phraseology based on the concept of class struggle’ in which the differences between the Chinese and alien races were reconfigured using the term class (Dikotter, 1992, p. 191). In 1963, Mao Zedong proclaimed that racial struggles are actually class conflicts in disguise. Race was under- played within the non-alignment movement and China’s incipient ideology motivated engagement with Africa. Yet racial antagonism was always lurking in the backdrop – in spite of disapproval from Communist Party of China cadres. When Russia sought to join the Third Afro-Asian Solidarity Conference that same year, the Chinese delegation rejected the request on the grounds that Russians would not commit wholeheartedly due to their racial identity (Dikotter, 1992, p. 195). More broadly, Chinese intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s ‘were convinced that the coming world conflict would be ignited not solely by an ideological confrontation but by racial antagonism’ (Hutchison, 1975, p. 179), while through its assistance to various socialist regimes and movements, commu- nist China sought to become a leader of the victimized peoples of colour against European and American imperialism.

In day-to-day life, Africans in China still felt the lasting effects of racism. A Ghanaian who studied in China in the 1960s voiced his dissatisfaction: ‘In all their dealings with us the Chinese behaved as if they were dealing with people from whom normal intelli- gence could not be expected’ (Jacques, 2009, p. 258). African presence in China at the time was largely limited to post-secondary students and government officials in training. Racial riots and demonstrations by African migrants, most of whom were students, against unfair treatment were frequent in the late 1970s and 1980s (Johnson, 2007, p. 147–8). In an interview with the lead author, a Congolese informant who studied in Beijing in the late 1980s remembers the agitating racial discrimination that he had experienced upon this arrival:

When we walked on the street in Beijing, people would simply stop and stare at you. The way they looked at us was anything but friendly, as if we were aliens from outer space. . . For the first years we were in the university, the Chinese students didn’t talk to us, though by the time we all spoke decent Chinese. Later I was told by a close friend that the Chinese students were warned by the school that we all had mysterious African viruses, and that any minor bodily contact with us would lead to severe disease.

After graduating from university with a Chinese degree, the Congolese informant was among one of the few African students of his year to settle in China. According to him,


some forms of racial discrimination he initially encountered are gradually disappearing: ‘nowadays, people would not stop to look at you and yell heigui at you’. Nevertheless, the racial boundaries between the Chinese Self and the African Other remain relatively firm, with a variety of subtle racialized interactions taking place on a daily basis. From her study of current African educational migration in Chinese cities, Ho (2017, p. 15) concludes that ‘the social differentiation and everyday sociality that the African students experience in Chinese cities reinforce racial coding and development asymmetries’. As discussed below, protests against discrimination in recent years have involved African trading migrants, rather than students.

While racialized social differentiation remains predominant, it also interacts with class-based differentiation. Race and class are frequently articulated through the concept of suzhi di. Literally meaning ‘low quality’, the concept is notably deployed by urban middle class Chinese to distinguish themselves from migrant rural Chinese workers, both within China but also as an explanation for the poor international image of China–Africa relations (Lam, 2016). Within this situated perspective, early relations between China and Africa were conducted by Chinese with ‘good/high’ suzhi – notably educated individuals taking part in university exchanges and invest- ment projects by Chinese state-owned enterprises – while more recent relations largely involve informal activities conducted by Chinese with ‘bad/low’ suzhi (e.g. Chinese petty traders and prostitutes working in Africa, but also those dealing with Africans in China). Similarly, the concept of suzhi is also discursively deployed to socially differentiate between foreigners, with Africans being frequently – but not exclusively – identified as ‘uncultured’ or ‘bad/low quality’ foreigners in official discourses, and thereby representing a source of anxiety for urban Chinese (Haugen, 2012). Among people of African descent, Afro-Americans and those with more obvious wealth were better treated, suggesting that not only race but also nationality and income were important factors in determining perception of suzhi (Lan, 2017).

African migrants and embodied contact zones in China

Having conducted extensive studies of African migrant communities in six Chinese cities, and specifically examining the African trading community in Guangzhou, Bodomo argues that migrant communities should neither be seen as an isolated ‘enclave’ nor as an ‘assimilated’ group in their host community, but rather as ‘linguistic, cultural and economic bridges’ between their source communities and their host communities, ‘even in the midst of tensions created by incidents such as immigration restrictions and irregularities’ (Bodomo, 2010, p. 693; 2012).5 The bridging role of African migrant communities is hard to deny in terms of diversifying and embodying relations between Africa and China, but tensions between African migrants and Chinese residents within China often include more than those linked with over-restrictive rules of immigration and irregularities in the conduct of African migrants, as Bodomo suggests.

As several previous studies have already noted, the racialized character of interactions between African migrants and Chinese residents is also important.6 In their 2012 survey of Chinese attitudes towards African migrants in Guangzhou, Zhou, Shenasi, and Xu (2016) clearly demonstrate negative racialization on the part of Chinese residents, with


for example respondents thinking that Africans are ‘violent’ (56% of respondents), ‘lazy’ (65%), ‘innately unintelligent’ (82.5%) and have ‘negatively impacted the neighbour- hood’ (90%). Yet, Zhou et al. (2016, p. 141) also account for the nuances and ambiv- alences of inter-ethnic relations by suggesting that although local Chinese residents in Guangzhou ‘tend to perceive Africans negatively in general, . . . they also look upon Africans’ overall presence in a positive way and express openness to interacting with them’, with for example 73% of Chinese informants declaring they would accept Africans as co-workers and 50% as close friends. Such positive aspects would relate to micro-level interactions reducing social distance, facilitating cooperation, nurturing closer relations and resulting in a virtuous circle of inclusion (Zhou et al., 2016). Based on extensive ethnographic work, Castillo (2014, p. 254) observes as well that intermingling between African and Chinese transient subjects brings about some positive interactions that ‘pay respect to no boundaries’ and opens up ‘possibilities for the (re)production of Sino- African translocal assemblages and for multiple senses of belonging to emerge’; but he also notes that many hurdles remain for Africans to call China ‘home’. Most recently, Lan (2017, p. 8) argues it is precisely the ‘contested and negotiated nature of interethnic relations that contributes to the multiple meanings of blackness and the uneven racialization of black identity in China’.

Together, these studies suggest that encounters and relationships between African migrants and Chinese residents are diverse and characterized by much ambivalence, and that racialization can play an important role in these relations. Examining an area of Guangzhou popularized as an ‘African enclave’, we seek to contribute to further under- standings of the ‘intimate geographies’ of everyday social encounters between African migrants and Chinese residents. As such, we complicate the argument that Chinese perceptions of African migrants constitute a ‘bridge’ between China and Africa (Bodomo, 2010, 2012) through an account of racialized and embodied encounters between these two groups. For this, we draw on two main arguments.

African migration and Guangzhou’s contact zones

In 2008, an influential local magazine used the catchy and racially slanted nametag of ‘Chocolate City’ to describe Guangzhou’s main trading and residential hub for African migrants (Pan & Chen, 2008), a place where African traders would ‘emerge from apparently nowhere and shop for sub-standard goods with black plastic bags on their backs’.7 Initially centred around Xiaobei Road and the Tianxiu Building, which housed migrants from Africa and the Middle East since the late 1990s, the fuzzy boundaries of the supposed African ‘enclave’ have since been expanded to include areas north of the Guangzhou train station and around Guangyuan West Road, known as Sanyuanli.

If the boundaries of the contact zone are fuzzy, so is the size of African migration in Guangzhou. Official figures indicate approximately 63,000 Africans staying overnight in the city annually, but do not provide information on long-term residents. The local media, without citing sources, estimates that about 100,000 Africans are currently living in Guangzhou. In addition to African entrepreneurs, the ‘transnational ethnic enclave’ also houses merchants from the Middle East and, in smaller number, Latin America (Li, Ma, & Xue, 2009, p. 704; Chen & Sun, 2009). The area offers services that African migrants need, from huge wholesale markets where export items can be purchased in bulk, to


export logistics offices and banks, to supermarkets selling produce Africans are most familiar with and hair salons operated by and for African migrants, to private clinics experienced in diseases common among Africans, mosques and churches and English- language kindergartens (Bodomo, 2010).

Originally a collection of rural villages north of the historic city core, the agrarian landscapes of the areas now considered an African ‘enclave’ were rapidly redeveloped into medium-density residential areas after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Referred to as chengzhongcun, or ‘urban villages’, these areas ‘accommodate millions of rural migrants because of their social accessibility and affordability’ with little in the way of government resources and assistance (Zhang & Zhao, 2003, p. 912). Starting in the late 1990s, merchants from Middle Eastern and West African countries moved to Guangzhou following networks established by Chinese Muslim traders. Proximity to the old venue of the Canton Fair also guided many migrants to Xiaobei and Sanyuanli.8 By the early 2000s, migrants from English-speaking African countries also came to Guangzhou. Among these, Nigerians were frequently singled- out in interviews and press reports as ‘scammers, gangsters and drug-dealers, who were expelled by the Hong Kong police. . . [and who] decided to live in Sanyuanli’, a neighbourhood which in turn became identified, at least among some of the African migrants interviewed, as more of a specifically ‘Nigerian’ than ‘African’ area.9

Together, the transnational spaces – Xiaobei and Sanyuanli – that emerged around the Guangzhou train station form a functional and bustling area whose identity is itself tied to African presence. As a [Chinese] legal consultant specializing in residen- tial permits for foreigners positively recounts:

Some twenty years ago, there was no such a place called Xiaobei – where people refer to as the ‘Chocolate City’ these days. Nor was Sanyuanli on people’s radar in the 1990’s [. . .] Around the early 2000’s when the Africans began to arrive in large numbers, local residents in Guangzhou began noticing the unique ethnic nature of this area [. . .] In that sense, they – our black friends – have been a part of our community since the beginning.

From 2006 onwards, the media increased its coverage of the area, overwhelmingly portraying African migration in a negative light, emphasizing illicit drug trafficking, illegal migration, scamming and dealings in counterfeit and sub-standard goods, thereby presenting the area and its African population as a source of danger and social ills, and migration as a source of alienation for the ‘local’ population. Openly expressing his resentment towards African presence in parts of the city, a newspaper columnist pointed out to an (‘ethnic Chinese’) interviewer how the area has changed:

But now, when you walk northward about 100 to 200 metres from the military’s residential quarter to Huanshi Road, you will notice within an instant the peculiar change to the skin colour of pedestrians. How unexpected this change feels to see that many black people strolling among Chinese. Corpulent women with their head wrapped in huge turbans and their body covered in bright fabrics move across the seas of cars. There are signs and billboards written in characters that we cannot read (Rong, 2010, emphasis added).

Similarly, a patrol police in Sanyuanli complains about the rebound of African population after the 2010 Asian Games held in Guangzhou:


After all the efforts we have put into keeping [places where there are many Africans] clean and safe, the heigui [‘black ghosts’] are back again. Will there be a day when we can finally expel all the bad elements out of the city?

Despite such perceptions, the presence of ‘so many’ Africans is seasonal and conjectural, reflecting major events such as trade fairs and the general business climate (Li et al., 2009; Li & Wang, 2009). Furthermore, many Chinese residents living in the area note that African presence is on the decline following an internationally reported protest by hundreds of Nigerians against police behaviour in July 2009 (Li, Lyons, & Brown, 2012). Rather than addressing racism and discriminatory police practices (see below), an unpronounced consensus among the political elites emerged that tougher measures are to be taken towards the foreign population and specifically in areas where Africans can be found in large concentration. Since 2009, racial profiling and increasing police raids targeted at the African communities and trading centres have taken place; this, combined with unfavourable currency exchange rates, contributed to a decline in the African population in 2009 and 2010. Over this time, policing strategies evolved: rather than fierce surprise visa-checking raids, more subtle measures are now put in place, such as demanding the hitherto neglected taxes from local landlords who rent properties to foreigners in the city in order to discourage agglomeration of Africans, tightening of visa regulations for specific African nationalities, and increasing the frequency of crackdowns on ‘cheap’ sub-standard and counterfeit goods often prized by African traders.10

In late June 2012, a second protest occurred, again motivated by allegations of police brutality and pitting mostly Nigerians against Chinese security forces, suggesting con- tinued distrust and grievances. By that time, however, many African traders and long- term residents had already moved out of the ‘Chocolate City’. Attracted by cheaper and longer-term rental leases, accessibility to rapid transportation to the core area and fewer governmental interventions, some traders also found their new homes closer to the manufacturers of their desired goods and realigned their business networks to bypass petty wholesalers in Guangzhou. If the outlook for the contact zones is unclear, it would be simplistic to conclude that they are of the past (Muo & Zeng, 2011). Many livelihoods still depend on the wholesale markets there, and many of the more transient traders visiting trade fairs continue to stay in Xiaobei and Sanyuanli. Furthermore, some of the tensions that arose in the original settlement area are being replicated in the new destinations of relocation, as many local authorities where African migrants have moved are adopting similar anti-concentration measures, ensuring continued hurdles and stigmatization for African migrants in the region.

Everyday racism and corporeal encounters

Focusing on the racialized dimensions of the micro-geographies of everyday life in the contact zone, we provide in this section some anecdotal accounts of corporeal encoun- ters brought through mobility, food and gendered relations. We also look at business practices that extend Chinese residents’ narratives beyond the Othering of African migrants to geographical imaginaries of the African continent. We then briefly touch upon alternative narratives to racism before concluding.


Mobility and bodily smell

It is mostly in public spaces that Chinese and Africans unavoidably encounter through bodily means, and most notably in public and semi-private modes of transportation. Pictures of Africans and Chinese sitting on a bus are the favourite images that local media use when reporting the harmonious co-existence, or in contrast the rigid distance between these two racial groups. Over half of the African interviewees talk of their unpleasant experiences on the bus, in the metro and in taking a taxi. A Nigerian trader in his late 40s is furious about the reaction of Chinese to his presence in public transports:

Whenever I get on to a bus, there would always be Chinese who make funny faces. These are the more polite ones. The less lovely Chinese would simply cover their noses with their hands the instance they see me. Sometimes I really wonder: even if I do smell like terribly, would they sense the stench from the moment I enter the door?

His frustration is shared by many African migrants in Guangzhou, some of which even complain about how Chinese people would stand up and move away from their African neighbours in public transit. One informant thinks that such racist attitude is not justified:

I myself take a shower twice a day. I can’t go to sleep without taking a shower. I also know as a matter of fact that some Chinese people don’t bathe two or three days in a row. Even some women do that. How can they cover their noses just because of my skin colour, while some fellow Chinese are more smelly and dirty than I am?

Some Chinese informants confirm their unwillingness to approach Africans because they are not yet used to the ‘strong body odour’ of Africans. A local journalist finds that all of the residents, taxi drivers and merchants he surveyed are deterred by the ‘alien’ bodily smell of the Africans (Bao, 2009). Beside the ‘unpleasant body smell’, another olfactory irritation some local residents complain about is ‘the sharp scent of perfume’ which is ‘a definitive feature of African people’, without reflecting on the possibility of such practice being a response to Chinese attitude (Chen, 2010; Tang, 2008). Media reports on the contact zones often capitalize on this sensual unfamiliarity:

There are many dark-skinned African men and women here. All of them drag large luggage carts similar to the ones available in train stations. . . No one shows any sign of leaving the trade centre. The unusually thick scent of cheap perfume and their body odours ferment in this crowded space (Yang and Chen, 2009).

You can meet people from some 80 countries in this small place, most of which are African entrepreneurs. . . Now you are in the market for foodstuff. An African woman walks towards you in this medium-scale market carrying a basket full of raw vegetable and meat in her hands. The mixed smell of her perfume and sweat spreads to the street stalls selling barbecued fish and the mobile stands serving stir-fried noodles, the smoke of which ascends and blurs the scenes [of the ‘Chocolate City’] (Wang & Weng, 2009).

The strong and upsetting body odours and invasive perfume form an invisible demarca- tion of a bizarre and foreign space now ‘occupied’ by racial Others – the ‘smellscape’ of the contact zone (Gade, 1984; Porteous, 1985).

Strong body odour has been considered by the Chinese public as a symptom of primitiveness since at least the middle ages. The distinct smell associated with African


migration therefore facilitates practical racism by providing constant sensuous remin- ders of their Otherness. Such persistent racial imagery remains deep-seated despite the majority of Africans adhering to Chinese cultural rules. In an interview with the lead author, a Nigerian professional expressed his bitterness vis-à-vis a public transport incident involving what he characterizes as ‘an ignorant old Chinese lady’:

As she got into the metro, I stood up immediately and said qingzuo (‘please sit’). As soon as the lady noticed me, she put her hand on her mouth and nose and chuckled. She refused to take the seat by shaking her head. Then a young man in his early twenties came and sat down while I was trying to convince the lady. I was so disgusted at the young man. So I pulled him up, pushed him aside and said ni, bu li mao, ta bi wo lao, wo ye bi ni lao (‘You are impolite. She is older than you are. So am I,’)! Even so the old lady did not take my seat.

Similarly, an Ethiopian trade consultant with an MA degree from a university in Beijing expressed to the lead author how he initially regretted his decision of moving to Guangzhou when he realized that even a simple task like catching a cab is difficult due to his skin colour:

In the first few weeks, I just stood there and counted the number of empty taxis that passed by just because I am black. My record exceeds 20. Even when the taxis are stationary and you go ahead and ask the driver about your destination – most taxi drivers would only roll down window to listen to you without unlocking the doors – most of them would answer budong (‘I don’t know’) or buqu (‘I don’t go there’).

Over time, the consultant has found other ways of getting around Guangzhou – the unauthorized ‘black cabs’ (heiche). Indeed, numerous black cabs can be found in Xiaobei, Sanyuanli, Foshan and other places where there is a large African population. These informal taxi drivers specialize in African business and are grateful for the opportunities made possible by these migrants. It is common that for formal taxi drivers to avoid Africans if they can, partly due to their ‘invasive and unpleasant smell,’ and partly for cultural and language differences. A Guangzhou-born taxi driver also mentions that most of the African customers he has met do not respect traffic rules: ‘they don’t follow the law at all. They would ask you to turn left where it is prohibited. Surveillance cameras are everywhere in Guangzhou now. I’d rather lose a few black customers than paying huge fines’.

During fieldwork, a quarrel witnessed between a Nigerian couple and a Chinese taxi driver over the additional legal fuel charge not shown on the meter quickly descended into ugly violence when the taxi driver rushed out of the car and kicked the woman’s back while yelling in Cantonese: ‘You black devils (heigui)! The fuel charge is only one RMB!! How expensive is it? Do you know how hard it was for me having to put up with your terrible smell?’ As this dispute took place outside of the Jianan Trading Centre in Sanyuali, the fight attracted Chinese and African spectators and policemen, who simply urged people not to block the pedestrian sidewalk but did nothing to stop the assault. The conflict came to an end when fellow Nigerians and Chinese separated the enraged quarrellers. The taxi driver was persuaded to leave the ‘black devils alone’ because Sanyuanli ‘is their turf’. What is implicitly suggested here, beyond mobility restrictions for African migrants (see Haugen, 2012; Lan, 2017), is Chinese resentment towards a recent African migration that would supposedly both indispose and marginalize ‘local’ (i.e. Chinese) residents in Sanyuanli. Prejudiced encounters, however, can have


ambivalent effects. Olfactory aspects, for example, are also positively expressed in the exoticization of the smellscapes of the contact zone and its relation with notions of Guangzhou as an ‘enriched’ multicultural scene and internationalized business city (Zhou et al., 2016). Racialized prejudices among formal taxi drivers refusing African customers generate additional business for grateful informal taxi drivers accepting this population. The racist recognition among some Chinese that power relations may be in favour of racialized African migrants also contributes to producing spaces and practices that can benefit Africans – such as perception of an area being ‘their turf’ – within the contact zone.

Food and taste

Food provides another lens through which to examine everyday racism and the spati- ality of Sino-African encounters in Guangzhou, where eating ‘Cantonese cuisine’ is taken as a gesture of respect for and willingness to embrace the local culture. Food becomes a site where racial boundaries are materialized and negotiated. Since Xiaobei and Sanyuanli have a long history of housing internal and international migration, the non-Chinese restaurants, many of which serve halal Muslim dishes, have become a part of the local residents’ daily life as opposed to an intrusion by transitional individuals from Africa and the Middle East. The diversity in food is celebrated by the media, political elites and ordinary people in Guangzhou as the emergence of a ‘truly harmo- nious world’ (Lin, 2010). As such, it is not the existence of the multicultural restaurants which is contentious but the way food is consumed and what kind of food is favoured that (re)produce racial imaginaries.

Many Chinese informants who befriend Africans doubt the sincerity of their foreign friends in learning the Chinese culture, pointing out that Chinese cuisine is not their first choice for dining out together. A young woman who works at a telecommunication store has never been invited to a Chinese restaurant by her clients and friends from Africa. ‘Western food’ such as MacDonald’s is their favourite according to her. Another informant thinks that it is troublesome hanging out with Africans as ‘[y]ou can never know what they like or dislike.’ For the majority of African informants, unfamiliarity is the largest factor hindering their consumption of Chinese food. A Congolese trader inter- viewed for this study contends that ‘it is not that I do not want to have Chinese food – I like it. But I need to be able to see the actual food before ordering it, because I don’t know what’s inside’. As another African informant who has been acculturated and is capable of cooking Chinese dishes puts it:

You need to have Chinese friends who are willing to show you the variety of Chinese food that’s out there first. I didn’t use to eat spicy Sichuan food, but now I can! It takes concerted efforts to make you start appreciating a kind of cuisine that you haven’t been exposed to.

Given that more than 50% of Africans interviewed in the course of fieldwork for this study report that they either have no Chinese friend or are close to only one or two Chinese, many lack the channel through which they can learn and appreciate the local food culture. As an African migrant who has been settled for several years remarks:


To be honest, I don’t have many friends. Those whom I do business with are not really my friends. They would be nice to you if you buy stuff from their shops all the time. But if you just show up to say hello to them, then you will truly understand the meaning of the Chinese saying mei qian mei de jiang (‘no money no talk’). This is the way it is in Guangzhou. Everyone just cares about their business and only about their business.

This contrasts with the image that Guangzhou seeks to promote – a cosmopolitan and dynamic global city that is also a welcoming and friendly place; as for example portrayed by the head of a neighbourhood association in the contact zone who states that ‘[t]he reason why the largest African population in China is in Guangzhou is because we Guangzhou residents are friendly and tolerant towards foreigners regardless of their skin colour’. Yet, as the anecdotes above demonstrates, corporeal contacts and sensuous encounters, such as sharing public space and eating, are central in the redefinition, reproduction and application of racial borders between the Chinese Self and African Other (Haldrup et al., 2006). Still, these borders are not exclusively the result of racialized encounters. For example, having generally money-driven relations rather than genuine friendships is perceived as not simply the result of one’s ‘African-ness’ but rather the way ‘it is in Guangzhou [for] everyone’. Ambivalence is also found in the idea of unfamiliarity rather than racialized contention, and in occurrences of friendship-driven acculturation whereby some level of cultural blending takes place within social practices among both populations.

Gender and bodily encounters

Gendered bodily encounters provide another domain within which everyday racism come to influence relations between African and Chinese populations. Local media frequently emphasize the gendered character of African migration, reporting for exam- ple a ratio between male and female as extremely skewed: more than 90% of the African migrant population would be male, a majority of which would be either un-married or not accompanied by their spouses (Wang & Weng, 2009). Though difficult to confirm, these statistics potentially suggest a considerable demand for the sex industry. Although the presence of African women in Guangzhou is limited and largely associated with trade, there are also some sex workers having Chinese, Caucasian and African customers, depending on the places where they work (Mathews, Lin, & Yang, 2017, p. 78). An interview with a female Chinese sex worker, herself a migrant from Hunan Province, suggested highly racialized encounters and a likely disrespect for Africans among fellow Chinese sex workers:

You can’t imagine how demanding these Africans are. They would ask for many rounds and special services but pay you poorly in the end. And you have to watch out all the different kinds of diseases they might carry with them. . . Just last night, a black ghost paid me four bills [of 100 RMB] and two of them were counterfeit. Tell me, how can I appreciate their presence in Guangzhou?

Perceptions among sex workers are not only racialized, however, but also class based, with for example a selective use of condoms for Chinese ‘farmer-like’ customers but not white-collar ones (Jie et al., 2012). Besides a narrative propagating the imaginary of Africans as untrustworthy, promiscuous and diseased racial Others, the informant’s own


positionality as a marginalized, undereducated woman who is part of the city’s ‘floating population’ explains her engagement with the African migration in Guangzhou. Like the Chinese businessmen who propose that their marginalization from the mainstream economy has led them into the Sino-African business, prostitutes operating in the contact zone are deemed as secondary-class entrepreneurs – as suzhi di or ‘low quality’ Chinese. They are prevented from entering the more protected, well-paid sectors of Guangzhou’s sex industry. This is reminiscent of the common perception that Africans are relegated to the consumption of sub-standard Chinese manufactured products, though we do not imply that the bodies of the prostitutes whose clientele is mainly African are of less value (Ndjio, 2009). By associating underclass sex workers with African migrants, who have a reputation of being deceptive, hazardous and beastly by nature, both groups are further stigmatized as ‘very close but very unfamiliar’ moral and racial Others, through which a shared code of ethics and cultural identity are more perceivable (Bao, 2009). Stigmatization, however, can also evoke possibilities of mutual redemption. A taxi driver, himself an internal migrant, first comments that he ‘heard that the black devils have a huge sexual appetite. . . And their phalluses are not like ours. Those women who risk their health sleeping with them for a meagre income are truly deplorable’. Later he nevertheless reflects that ‘[n]ow the world we inhabit is so materialistic that people prefer selling their bodies rather than living in poverty’, and suggests that the ‘Africans are saviours to these unwanted prostitutes who are relegated to serving them’.

Another recurrent theme in the interplay of race and gender in the contact zone is the objectification of women. Consistent with the 1980s anti-African students demon- strations, the fear towards the barbaric and diseased African Other is conflated with the paternalistic (and perhaps eugenicist) urge to ‘protect our women’, which creates a backlash against interracial marriage (Sautman, 1994, p. 421). The owner of a garment wholesaler in Tianxiu Trading Centre passionately opposes intermarriage between Chinese women and African men, stating that their promiscuity, bottomless sex drive and lack of a sense of responsibility are incompatible with ‘our delicate Chinese girls’. Many apparently share or convey this view. Local news reports often caution young women to be prudent with their African lovers when covering rape and scam cases in which naïve girls were tricked to do their boyfriends’ biddings, such as stories that a woman coaxed into marrying a Nigerian man without knowing his full name lost contact with him as soon as he had obtained the marriage certificate.

Some female interviewees implicitly express their unwillingness to have close ties with Africans, for as an informant argues ‘no matter how educated the blacks are, savageness remains deeply inscribed in their nature’. Such view is especially common among females who perceive themselves as local Guangzhou residents in spite of the facts that their hometowns may be outside of the municipality border. Interestingly, all the informants who are married and engaged with African migrants come from pro- vinces outside of Guangzhou and some are actually ethnic minorities. Dating or marry- ing an African man, especially one who speaks English, can open business opportunities and may represent an ‘alternative path for upward mobility’ (Lan, 2015). As mentioned in local newspaper articles, an explicit parochial superiority is entangled with disrespect towards dark-skinned Africans, so that only women of non-Guanghzou origin are seen as willing to marry ‘black ghosts’. Sorely aware of their reputation of having failed to marry those who possess Guangzhou hukous and/or simply fellow Chinese, Chinese informants


involved in interracial relationships often attempt to combat the idea that they have ‘sold themselves cheap’ to their African spouses by pointing to commonalities between Chinese and African cultures (see also Zhou, 2017). A woman from Sha’anxi Province who has given birth to two mixed children with her Nigerian husband not only points at parallels but refers to the superiority of African cultures:

Actually, there are many commonalities between China and Africa. Other than our dietary differences, we have similar values in terms of gender relations and marriages. There are arranged marriages, too, in Africa. The ways [we] treat our departed loved ones are quite the same. Both China and Africa prefer burial rather than cremation. Descendants are obliged to demonstrate filial piety by guarding the tomb for a while [. . .] But, these good values and practices are disappearing nowadays in China. In Africa, traditions are more respected.

Another informant, who is from Yunan Province and of the Hani minority group, passionately proposed that:

[Africans and Chinese] are the same. I still remember the first time that I met my Congolese husband. He was visiting my cousin in my hometown, with whom they were classmates in Beijing. Everyone in the village came to look at this black man. I was curious about his hands. They are so big, hairy and black that they resembled those of gorillas. But when he held his hands out for us to touch, the skin was just as tender and warm like ours.

An intricate interplay between race, gender, class and women’s bodies is at work, through which the identities of both those who regard themselves indigenous to Guangzhou and the migrants from other province are affirmed and negotiated contra the African migrants. Whereas Guangzhou ‘locals’ assert parochial superiority over non-Guangzhou Chinese by associating the latter with the inferior Other, the latter too utilize the African Other to combat alienation by the ‘locals’. Those less sympathetic with the Africans accentuate the exaggerated negative depictions of the latter in order to situate themselves closer to the imaginative ‘local population’ of Guangzhou. Yet, members of the ‘floating population’with personal connections to Africans in Guangzhou appeal to common identity markers such as being ‘Chinese’ and ‘human beings’ so as to blur the social demarcations like geographic origins and race. As such, racialized discourses on Africa and African people have perfor- mative effects, providing not only justifications for the objectification of women’s bodies in conspicuous endeavours to control them against untrustworthy racial Others, but also tools for various social constituencies to (re)configure their identities and power. If a racial Other conveniently presented by the African migration is the foundation on which the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is drawn and redrawn, that line can also cross racial barriers and reconfigure groups along fault-lines including class, gender and ancestral residence.

Business: money and the land of chaos

Everyday racialization also implicates economic exchanges between African traders and their Chinese counterparts. These economic exchanges can bring about class differences that do not match predominant racial differentiation, such as when poor Chinese migrant workers address wealthy African traders as laoban (boss), or expensive business spending by African traders reflects the characteristics of ‘rich foreigners’ (Lan, 2017). Still, racialization often works through the register of mutual distrust and suspicion. For a


long-term Congolese migrant, Chinese people ‘may have the roughest idea about our cultures, but the Guangzhou businessmen are all experts on African mentality. They know how to make the most of the African way of doing business’. There is plenty of anecdotes attesting his point, many of which are well known amongst Africans in Guangzhou. In 2005, an Angolan businessman came to Guangzhou for the first time, to purchase air conditioners. Relying mostly on himself, as the contact zone was not as established as it is today, the trader managed to order a half container of air condi- tioners in a local wholesale outlet. Due to the timeframe permitted by his visitor’s visa, after paying in full he had to leave China without overseeing the shipping process. When the container arrived at the port of Luanda, the businessman was shocked that there was not a single air conditioner in the shipment but empty boxes for the air conditioners. The swindled Angolan merchant tried to contact the wholesaler whom he had paid, but only found the latter had already evaporated and the address of the supplying factory was non-existent.

Although it is widely acknowledged that poor business ethics are a key reason to the prevalence of fraudulent practices, lack of experiences, naivety and imprudence – which are the defining traits of the ‘black race’ according to some of the interviewed Guangzhou entrepreneurs – supposedly ‘invite’ scams (see also Mathews et al., 2017). Consistent with previous studies and journal reports, the majority of African traders are newcomers to international trade, though they may be experienced with intra-conti- nental trade in Africa (Mathews & Yang, 2012). Although the thriving trade between Guangzhou and sub-Saharan Africa present at the same time endless opportunities and a myriad of cultural and social hurdles, everyday economic exchanges between African traders and their Chinese counterparts have led to a degree of mutual mistrust and, in some cases, idealization of the West, where business partners are more ‘respectable and trustworthy.’

Many Chinese informants too have similar sentiments: ‘Among ten Africans, nine of them are swindlers’ is a frequent statement among interviewed Chinese entrepreneurs; a shop owner in Tianxiu Building even added ‘the other is simply undisciplined’. A sales- person at a furniture wholesaler in Sanyuanli cautioned the risks Chinese entrepreneurs are exposed to when dealing with Africans, for Africans generally are perceived and described as dishonest, unmotivated, non-visionary and ‘economically handicapped’. An agent at a logistics shop in Xiaobei contended:

Many [Africans]. . . tend to overspend to the extent that they don’t even have money for shipping. . . They are not good at planning their finances. Some would simply lose all the money they brought to China with them. But as many of them came here using the modest savings of their family, extended family and friends, they feel obliged to make a fortune. That’s why a lot of these ‘black ghosts’ choose to stay here rather than returning home empty-handed. Low-paid jobs here are better than no job back home!

There are also sympathetic Chinese hosts, explaining differences and difficulties using more neutral languages but nevertheless reliant on cultural essentialism, which further deepens the image that Africa is poverty-stricken, with considerably less purchasing power and familiarity with global consumerism, and therefore inevitably absent of experienced, innovative and ingenious human resources.


Other informants relate it to the mismatch between the limited purchasing power and the desire for an affluent lifestyle among African peoples. According to a printer wholesaler in Tianhe Computer Mall, there are several tricks that every insider draws on when dealing with ‘those stingy Africans’:

First, you have to understand that the most high-tech and crucial parts [of a printer] are not made in China. If the price for a Samsung printer costs 1200 RMB, there is no way that I can sell it to the blacks for 1000 RMB. But the Africans know nothing other than ‘everything in China is cheap.’ So they ’d bargain for everything. It’s very frustrating. . .So, in the end, what we would do is to replace, say the memory, cartridge and battery, with Chinese copies. It’s a win-win situation. I make an extra couple hundred RMB and the clients get what they want at a price that they think is appropriate. By the time the substandard components crash, these African traders would have already moved on to some other business.

Although sub-standard goods, intellectual property theft and questionable business practices are some of the defining features of Sino-African economic engagement, they merely reflect a part of the multi-faceted reality. A wide range of suppliers are available in Guangzhou, many of which operate within the legal boundaries and offer lasting, safe and affordable production. Many shop owners in the contact zone openly recognize not being part of the ‘mainstream economy of Guangzhou’ which they see as focused on Western countries and Japan, but as one interviewee puts it, ‘I’m used to doing business with the Africans. What makes money makes me happy.’

Although the Chinese informants and media reports surveyed in this study are keen in expressing their opinions about African peoples, they are hesitant to share their percep- tions of Africa. A Congolese trade consultant sees it as a symptom of the ‘impoverished Chinese mindset’ that binds them in the stage of ignorance withstanding the availability and accessibility of information about the continent. Yet according to a Chinese owner of an unlicensed Congolese restaurant in the Tianxiu Building, ignorance is not the key. Chinese are not willing to learn more about Africa for the absence of immediate and tangible benefits. The only Chinese interviewee who knows an indigenous African lan- guage claims that he picked up Lingala in the past 8 years working in the restaurant without the intention of learning. He is rather content in his current career in China:

Why would I want to go to the Congo? You know, it’s not like here – China is governed by law. But the Congo is a mess. People don’t follow any rules and are incapable of thinking rationally. You can make more money with Africa by staying outside of it.

The imaginative geography of Africa as a messy and lawless place is echoed by a local Chinese entrepreneur who had invested in N’djamena, the Chadian capital:

Africa is a land of chaos. Political unrests happen every two years. Wars break out every five years. Investing in Africa is like putting your money into a black hole. I was swindled to put money in it. I won’t do it anymore. I spent three million RMB in order to understand this. It was a very expensive lesson.

Afro-pessimism which posits Africa as a bizarre unstable place trapped in a vicious cycle of disease, poverty, bad governance and civil war can be traced back to the aforemen- tioned earlier Chinese discourses on racial Others and the places they inhabit. Africa, in these accounts, was compared to hundun, or complete chaos, which is the ‘primeval state of the universe according to Chinese folklore’ (Dikotter, 1992, p. 50).


Apparently unaware of rapid economic development of many African countries over the past decade, many Chinese interviewees fear that more illegal African migrants will flock and stay in the city owning to a supposed deepening crisis in Africa. As a patrol police in Sanyuanli puts it, ‘why would they want to go back? Africa is like China in the 1970s. I’ve heard some places are totally left out of modernity. To them, Guangzhou is like heaven!’ Among many informants, the perspective for Africa catching up with today’s China is grim. After all, Africans are thought to be an inferior race to the Chinese in terms of honesty, civility, work ethics and sexual abstinence and incapable of improvisation on their own. This adds another dimension to the general popular perception of Africa in Guangzhou – timelessness and passivity. Yet, there is also some ambivalence within this perception, as Africa is nonetheless considered by many Chinese traders as a region with commercial opportunities, and through which money can be made – even through, or perhaps because of ‘chaos’.

Understanding racism: alternative narratives

A few African informants present alternative ways of theorizing Sino-African encounters in the contact zone. Several informants claim that political repression is at the root of their alienation in Chinese society. According to one Nigerian trader, the communist mode of education has rigidified the creative and flexible minds of generations of Chinese, depriving them of the ability to understand people of different cultures in their own terms. Another, from Guinea Bissau, is convinced that:

Among those who do not speak to us, about 60% of them want to communicate with us but are deterred from doing so because of the political repression in this country. You know, there is no freedom of speech in China. This is no democracy in China.

Racism, if any, would thus be more the result of such repression than a deeper legacy of cultural identity construction. Some interviewees also attempt to interpret racism from a religious perspective. Associating the xenophobic attitude of the Chinese and the state’s tight grip on religions, a Nigerian car parts trader suggests that the secularized Chinese society is ill-equipped with moral guidelines. He compares the situation of Nigerians in Guangzhou and Chinese in Lagos:

There are so many of your people in Lagos. The police never harass them. Actually, we Nigerians like all foreigners, Chinese, British or Americans. It is in the bible that the indigenous people should be nice to visitors from afar. Read here. . .’Therefore love the foreigner; for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.’ It’s right there in Deuteronomy 10:19!

This argument is espoused by a Chinese informant met inside Guangzhou’s only state- authorized Catholic Church:

Many Africans I have met believe in something, whether it is Christianity or Islam. Faith is a good because it teaches people how to revere God and respect others and your ancestors. Did you know that Africans and Chinese have many common traditions? Now people think that Africa is more traditional than China is, well, in a negative way. That is probably true, because lots of the better cultural inheritances were lost in China due to lack of respect.

Still, Christian religious belief did not always shape tolerance and forgiveness, as suggested by a (supposedly Christian) Congolese trader disparaging the attitude of


many Chinese, ‘They will all go to hell for their racism against Africans!’ (cited in Mathews & Yang, 2012, p. 114). These theories provide a glimpse into the intercon- nections between China–Africa and Europe–Africa relations. It is easy to denounce ideologies such as Christianity, democracy and liberty as Western concepts that are haunted by the ghost of European imperialism and still utilized in order to perpe- tuate political and economic domination by the Global North. At the individual and community scale, the colonial past seeps into the supposedly ‘postcolonial’ present. In spite of many noble intentions, the evangelical mission has been a motif for Europe’s expansion across the globe and a centrepiece to the success of the imperialist project (Comaroff, 1997; Zachernuk, 2000). Similarly, democracy and lib- eralism are double-edged swords. Whereas they provide a discursive framework through which Africans can raise their concerns, these loaded but ambiguous con- cepts have protected the aura of Western expertise and continued subjugating the vast majority of Africans as a result. Similarly, the Communist Party of China has proactively invested in refashioning its image as a more responsible superpower and the champion for South–South cooperation; a new modality of international relations supposedly untainted by colonial traumas and racism, but one that – as found through this study – does not seem to translate into decolonized and non-racialized relations between African migrants and Chinese hosts in Guangzhou (Comaroff, 1997; Zachernuk, 2000).11 Despite setbacks, many African migrants expressed a belief that their presence will help Chinese society progressively become more open to their presence, or at least hold less crude racist beliefs – thereby supporting Bodomo’s optimist perspective on inter-group relations. In contrast to reports of widespread anti-African racism on Chinese social media platforms, and as mentioned above, there is some statistical evidence that ‘Chinese tend to perceive Africans negatively in general, but they also look upon Africans’ overall presence in a positive way and express openness to interacting with them’ (Zhou et al., 2016, p. 141). Attitudes towards foreign workers (and their spouses) are also more positive in Guangzhou than the national average, although this may be more the result of international travel by Chinese residents than local encounters with African migrants (Donglin, 2017). This, again, qualifies reductive accounts of migrant presence as either a bridge or as a source of antagonism.


Rather than a conventional focus on the political economies of relationships between Chinese and African migrants, this paper has emphasized the lived and embodied experiences of ordinary people in Sino-African engagements, aiming to specifically shed light on mutual perceptions by Chinese residents and African migrants in Guangzhou. The narratives and observations of embodied encounters we have collected contrast with Bodomo’s (2010, 2012) proposition that entrepreneurial African migration constitutes an economic and cultural bridge facilitating compre- hension and appreciation between ordinary Chinese and Africans. While we do observe that some ‘bridging’ and some ‘liking’ are occurring, we also find a large prevalence of racialized ‘Othering’ among both African and Chinese residents of the contact zone; an urban area itself negatively represented in the media and popular


narratives as an ‘African enclave’ within Guangzhou. Beyond the prevalence of scams and dubious business practices in Guangzhou – indicative of the deep-seated mutual suspicion and discrimination between Chinese and Africans – we also find that few Chinese informants exhibited willingness and practice to engage with Africans out- side of the realm of business. Much of this antagonism against Africans in Guangzhou stems from the racialized representations amalgamated with both the traditional Sino-centric discourses of barbarians and Western-style racial hierarchy. In practice, Africans migrants are rendered as a racial Other through the repetitions of corporeal experiences. Public transport, food and sexual relations frequently become sites where the ‘Otherness’ of Africans is reproduced while the superiority of Chinese identity is reaffirmed. As such Guangzhou’s ‘contact zone’ puts in tension commercial motivations and a politics of sensory interpretations and corporeal practices that both constitute and fragment this complex social space. The intimate geographies that we have examined not only inform understandings of inter-personal everyday relations, but also diverge from the official position of South–South cooperation that posits China–Africa relations as the prototype of a new kind of international relations based on the principles of win–win, non-interference and mutual respect.

This study offers a glimpse into the ways Africa–China relations unfold at the com- munity scale within China, and confirms several ethnographic and survey-based studies emphasizing ambivalent relations (Castillo, 2014; Lan, 2017; Zhou et al., 2016). In this respect, this paper also complements studies of racialization contrasting the negative impact of discourse-based racialization with the supposed positive effects of micro-level interactions. Our empirical material suggests that daily embodied encounters can also exacerbate racialization, and deepen antagonisms rather than help build bridges. Yet, this material also points to many ambivalences pointing to the logics of trade relations, the relative civility of conduct in public spaces, as well as class relations and migrant status within the host community. Furthermore, these ambivalences are also graspable in the spatial dynamics of the ‘contact zones’, whereby these zones increase in number and surface through rental policies undermining spatial concentration, while visa length restrictions lead to behaviours of ‘invisibility’ and contact minimization among migrants overstaying their visa. Moreover, if Chinese racialized engagements with African migrants are prevalent, ordinary Africans are not voiceless and passive but proactive in questioning these views and practices, and expanding and deepening both economic and broader social ties. In this respect, most African migrants interviewed had a positive outlook, believing that their presence, along with the opening-up and demographic transformation of Chinese society, will help positively transform the perceptions and attitudes of Chinese residents, thereby consolidating ‘bridging’ and ‘liking’ effects. Given these findings, there is room for future research, notably with regard to the opinions and practices of governmental officials, which are missing in the study, greater attention to grassroots organizations assisting Africans in China, and longitudinal approaches doc- umenting changing perceptions and attitudes over a longer-term period and across different generations. From a conceptual perspective, additional research could seek to further theorize the role of various sensory and corporeal dimensions within the politics of inter-racial relations. Such studies would further problematize the representations and experiences of African migration in Guangzhou, and help better contextualize and theorize Sino-African relations at the micro-level.



1. As Mawdsley (2008) implies, there is a risk of orientalism in the readiness to see a straightforward story of Chinese anti-black racism that can be told without a sense of relationship with narratives of western anti-black (and indeed anti-Chinese) racism. We thank one of this paper’s referees for this important remark.

2. See Bodomo (2008), (2010), (2012), Bork-Hüffer et al. (2016), Haugen (2012), Lan (2017), Le Bail (2009), Li et al. (2009), Lyons and Brown (2010), Mathews and Yang (2012), Müller and Wehrhahn (2013) and Yang (2011).

3. Leitner (2012: 830) uses the relatively parallel concept of ‘spaces of encounters’, and places an emphasis on their ability to enact ‘a politics of belonging; that is, negotiations and power struggles over boundaries that define who belongs to a particular local and national community and place and who does not. This politics of belonging is simultaneously a politics about cultural and racial boundaries, boundaries of place, and entitlements to economic and political resources’.

4. Interviews were conducted by the first author, a young female Sino-Canadian [additional positionality information to be included following the review process]. The study was subject to a Canadian Tri-Council ethics review.

5. Given the urban focus of our subject and study, we use the term ‘contact zone’ (see below) to nuance the application of concepts of ethnic ‘ghettos’ and urban ‘enclaves’ and to decipher more fluid relationships between corporeal encounters, racial stigmatization and spatial strategies of everyday live in the city than these two concepts would entail. Wacquant’s (2005) conceptualization of the ghetto is in part applicable in Sino-African contact zones in Guangzhou – as we find their African migrant population stigmatized, economically integrated and profited, and (partly) ruled by parallel institutions – but we also observe relations departing from those associated with both ‘ghettos’ and ‘ethnic enclaves’ (see Peach, 2005).

6. Several studies have also demonstrated patterns of (quasi) ‘racialization’ and Othering within China and the dominant Han ethnic group. See, for example, Lowe and Tsang (2017) on the case of the racialization of Chinese mainlanders in Hong Kong.

7. Other than the ‘Chocolate City’, these areas with high concentration of African migrants are also referred to as the ‘African Village’, the ‘Mini UN’ and ‘Asia’s Brooklyn’ by the media. In the authors’ own words, racialization was not intended when the tag was coined (Li et al., 2012). The term was repeatedly used by taxi drivers and thus adopted by the journalists eying on its ostensible popularity without noticing the racist tone in both its naming and promulgators. The original quote was from personal communications with Yuan Ding, a PhD student at the University of Kuleuven, who personally interviewed one of the authors of the article, Pan Xiaolin. During fieldwork in 2011 and 2012, it was uncommon for the African informants to be aware of the fact that the place they live was called the ‘Chocolate City’ and even more so for them to have affinity with it.

8. The venue was relocated in 2008. However, the existing African-friendly amenities in the area still render it an attractive option for short stays even among itinerary traders who visit Guangzhou during specific trade fairs.

9. Personal communication, Congolese trader March 2011, and newspapers survey. See also Haugen (2012).

10. As for September 2012, the charismatic provincial governor of Guangdong, Wang Yang, is implementing a series of regulatory measures known as sanda’liangjian, or ‘three fights and two constructions’ aims of which are to combat the attempts to monopolize the market, manufacturing and selling counterfeits, penalize bribery for commercial purposes, enhance credibility of the government and establish mechanisms for market regulation. This policy provides justifications for continued crackdowns in many trading malls in the contact zone while systemizing them under a greater umbrella of establishing trust and moral standards in the market and the society.


11. Hong Kong passed the territory’s first anti-racist law in 2008, but it has been deemed weak (Tharoor, 2008). Some Chinese legal language also exists with regard to race and equality in terms of employment (e.g. Employment Promotion Law from 2008).

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.


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  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Embodied contact zones
  • ‘Black ghosts’ in the ‘middle kingdom’
  • African migrants and embodied contact zones in China
    • African migration and Guangzhou’s contact zones
  • Everyday racism and corporeal encounters
    • Mobility and bodily smell
    • Food and taste
    • Gender and bodily encounters
    • Business: money and the land of chaos
  • Understanding racism: alternative narratives
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Disclosure statement
  • References