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Are Africans in China Black Ghosts? A New Book Reveals

Noo Saro-Wiwa is a celebrated Nigerian-born travel writer. Her latest book is Black Ghosts. It explores, with candor and compassion, the lives of several African economic migrants living in China, a group of people who are key to trade between the continents. As a scholar of African travel writing and mobility, among other fields, I read the book with keen interest and then asked Saro-Wiwa more about it.

Janet Remmington: Let us start with the title: Black Ghosts. And the subtitle which outlines your focus: “a journey into the lives of Africans in China”. In your opening chapter, you introduce the reader to the concept of the “black ghost”, which carries connotations of a negated, disdained or uneasy presence. This term even gets translated as “black devil” by users on WeChat, China’s version of the social media platform WhatsApp. It makes for a disturbing introduction to Africans in China. But, as we read on, the reality is far more complex than the implied disavowal and racism. What have you been motivated to investigate through this travel book?

Noo Saro-Wiwa: I remember being amazed to hear that there was a sizeable African community in China. It is not a country I associate culturally with Africa. I wanted to see how Africans fit into a society that is known for its unprogressive views on race. Black people in countries like Brazil, the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK have always held currency in the cultural sphere despite our economic marginalization. But in China we do not have such purchase, therefore I was curious to see how they navigate that society.

Janet Remmington: Your new book heads off in a very different direction to your 2013 award-winning debut Looking for Trans wonderland in which you traverse Nigeria, the land of your birth, as we discussed in a wide-ranging interview. Before Black Ghosts, you had mainly visited places around the “Atlantic rim”, you say, where connections were “woven by history and colonialism”. For you, China offered no such familiar, if ambivalent, touchpoints. What did this mean for the writing of your new book?

Noo Saro-Wiwa: Despite globalization and mass travel, China holds a faint mystique – it is not visited quite as often as other countries in the region. The language, written and oral, is difficult and in some ways impenetrable. It made me an outsider in the fullest sense, feeling my way around the very edges of that society. My observations were those of someone on the steepest learning curve with no historical or personal attachment to the place. However, my exploration wasn’t so much of China but of the Africans living in Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

Janet Remmington: In Black Ghosts, you take your reader for an eye-opening ride through diverse parts of China. You seek out African migrants and find a lot of variety – more than you expected. Can you elaborate on your journey into the lives of Africans in China?

Noo Saro-Wiwa: There was a different vibe. Far fewer of the insouciant idlers on the street that you get back on the home continent. People were busy, evasive initially. I met traders who were there on short regular visits, buying goods to export back to Africa. I chatted with visa overstayers – people who had come as traders but, through various misfortunes, were stuck in the country in limbo.

Intermarriage sometimes occurs between African men and Chinese women who originate from the countryside. As migrants to the city, they too are outsiders of sorts, sometimes with limited rights. Marrying African men sometimes gives them a foothold in the economy.

Class also played a role, for example when it comes to teaching English. Africans with fewer educational qualifications were paid less to teach English. One Kenyan woman I met had to pretend she was American in order to secure a teaching job with decent pay.

But when it comes to sexuality, China offers certain freedoms – I saw gay African guys who clearly moved around there in a way that they would not back at home in Nigeria, where same-sex relations are criminalized

If you told people in the 1300s that Africans would one day populate the Caribbean, and that Europeans would displace native Americans or that Indians would form half the population of Fiji, people would never have believed it. African neighborhoods in China were not a concept I would have envisaged in my childhood.

Migration is unpredictable like that. You never know what the future might bring. Future changes in the economy, the environment, and in China’s demographic makeup could create all sorts of movements of people. With China becoming more exposed to foreigners in ways that challenge citizens’ beliefs and create affinities, could this influence future directions? It could have some bearing on cultural creativity or investment decisions one day.

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