No one knows how many are here – estimates range between 20,000 and 200,000. This is a world of mavericks and risk-takers; a few will make their fortunes, but many others will return home with nothing. The difference between profit and loss lies in the delicate relationship between African traders and their Chinese counterparts – relationships complicated by language barriers and cultural misunderstanding. And with their immigration status ever uncertain, Africans find their futures in China subject to the whim of an inscrutable state.
THE PROJECT The Qilin is a research and film project that inquires into, and explores, the world of African traders living and working Guangzhou, the South China export hub. Over the past four years we have developed a rich corpus of material, ranging from documentary footage of the immense wholesale markets, to testimonies of African businesspeople, to interviews with intellectual property investigators and discussions with ethnographers.
Our approach is to shape and craft this body of research material into various forms for specific audiences. GZ CALLING (2017) explores the labyrinthine spaces and hyperabundance of the wholesale markets through a spatialised 3-channel video installation for galleries. THE QILIN (2019) is a cinematic short film mixing documentary and animation to explore the precarious lives of African migrants working in Guangzhou’s s export business. MADE IN CHINAFRICA (2020) is a series of short animated tales for social media that illustrate the risks and rewards of the African migrant experience in China.
THE QILIN (2019) explores the tangled China-Africa relationship through the testimonies of Guangzhou’s migrant Africans. As the camera follows the hidden networks of informal and interpersonal trade – moving from the labyrinthine wholesale malls, through sprawling packing warehouses, toward the vast container port – the voices of businesspeople from Somalia, Nigeria, Kenya and Congo describe immigrant lives shaped by risk, racism – and great opportunity. Through traditional shadow-puppet animation, THE QILIN makes visible a migrant community that have not been represented.
BACKGROUND Guangzhou, the tropical manufacturing mecca in South China forms part of the largest city on Earth, a metropolitan region of more than 50 million inhabitants. Every year $200 billion of goods flow out of here to markets in the Global South. Meanwhile, thousands of African businessmen and businesswomen move in the opposite direction, hoping to strike it rich in the city’s booming export business. A new kind of capitalism is emerging from this fertile South-South trade.
Guangzhou is the manufacturing base not only for premium international brands, but also for cheaper Chinese copies and low quality fakes. This landscape is not shaped by the large-scale deals of multinational corporations but by the ‘low-end globalisation’ of small-scale traders. Doing business in cash, and transporting goods across continents in shipping containers or carry-on luggage, they operate beyond the reach of copyright law and Customs and Excise. Here, traders from Africa explore and exploit their interstitial advantages to profit from a system from which they have been excluded for so long.
Guangzhou’s downtown migrant enclave is known by locals as ‘Chocolate City’ for its thriving community of African expats.