In Their Words: Film Shows Real Lives of Africans in China

Documentary filmmakers aim to transform how African communities are portrayed in media.

ZHEJIANG, East China — Hodan Osman Abdi swiftly strings together a few phrases to describe herself: a woman, a black woman, a black African woman. She pauses for a second before completing the sentence: “I’m a black, African, Muslim woman who wears a hijab and teaches at one of the leading Chinese universities.”

“You don’t find that every day,” says Abdi with a smile. The Somali native is currently a researcher and lecturer on African film and TV at the Institute of African Studies of Zhejiang Normal University (ZNU) in the city of Jinhua. “A person like me breaks so many stereotypes, not just in China but across the world,” she says. “But in China, I’m breaking even more stereotypes.”

The Chinese media often links Africa and its people to war, famine, and poverty, she says, while positive stories are usually left untold. A new documentary titled “Africans in Yiwu” aims to change that. Abdi co-directed the film with her colleague, filmmaker Zhang Yong, and also features in the film alongside 18 others, who share their experiences in China — from facing discrimination to finding love.

Yiwu, a manufacturing city about two hours from Shanghai by train, is popular among migrants due to its business prospects — it boasts the world’s largest small commodities market — and its multiculturalism. In recent years, people from various African countries have settled in the city for business or education. At a Mauritanian restaurant popular with ZNU’s African students, Abdi dishes out details of her China story over beef kofta: It all started in Yiwu 12 years ago when her uncle, who has lived in the country since the 1980s, persuaded her to study there while her cousins traveled in the West. Since then, Abdi has mastered the Chinese language; received undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees; and witnessed the nation’s sweeping changes, which she describes in the documentary.

“Since I came, one thing that hasn’t changed — with regard to being African or foreign — is curiosity,” she says. “People are curious about your identity, who you are, and where you come from.”

With their new film, Abdi and her co-director aim to counter stereotypes and bring African voices to the forefront. The filmmakers describe the documentary as an effort to shine a spotlight on African communities in China other than those in the southern port city of Guangzhou, home to 16,000 people from across Africa, according to official estimates.

“Africans in Yiwu” has been shown at cultural and film festivals in London, Zambia, and Tanzania, and will debut on state-run China Central Television in January.

Sixth Tone sat down with Abdi in her office at ZNU’s African Film and TV Research Center, where she spoke about the documentary, being black in China, and the role media can play in breaking out of conventional narratives. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sixth Tone: How is “Africans in Yiwu” taking a different approach to typical depictions of Africa and Africans?

Hodan Osman Abdi: One of the core concepts of our film is getting African stories out in African voices. It’s allowing people to tell their own stories from their point of view. They are speaking to the Chinese audience and telling them who they are, what their culture is, how they assimilate, and what are the difficulties they face.

At the same time, they are telling people in their own countries in Africa and the rest of the world what kind of lives they are living in China — it’s a balanced [depiction]. This is the message we wanted [to send], and we didn’t want to tarnish it with our opinions and voices.

Sixth Tone: All the characters in the film speak fluent Chinese. Did you choose them to better reach Chinese audiences?

Hodan Osman Abdi: Most of our characters do speak Chinese, and as film directors, we have to think about our audience. Our [target] audience is the Chinese people, and we want our characters to be able to connect with them. So it was intentional to try to find characters who spoke fluent Chinese. But at the same time, we also wanted to find people who had lived in China for different [lengths of time]. Through their eyes, we can see changing patterns in behavior, treatment, and communication.

Sixth Tone: As one of the characters in the film, what’s the most important message you wanted to convey?

Hodan Osman Abdi: I wanted to address the racial stereotypes we face as African women [in China]. I wanted to tell other African women that their identities do not restrict them; it’s only their minds that restrict them. So if they set their minds to achieving something, their hijabs will not stop them, their religion will not stop them, and their skin color will not stop them. As long as they have the knowledge and the ability, they can walk into any space and demand respect.

I am very bubbly and open to conversation. I portray myself as a fun character in the film who is giving out [relevant] information in a way that would allow people to watch, enjoy, and — in the end — get [to know more about Africa and Africans].

Sixth Tone: Both you and your co-director are academics who work in and research media. How did your background in these fields affect your decision to make the film?

Hodan Osman Abdi: As scholars, our mission is to deliver our message to the widest range of audiences. [Presenting it visually] gives it access to a lot of people. You can spend two years writing a report, and you wouldn’t get 10 people to read it. But if you spend a month making a short video, that message could be viewed by billions of people.

Sixth Tone: Do you think Chinese people’s perception of Africans has changed since you first arrived in China?

Hodan Osman Abdi: Within the last 12 years, China has been on a very fast track of [development] and change, but there is still widespread ignorance within society. They don’t know much about Africa and what it’s like other than what they see in media, which isn’t produced by Africans. So there are misconceptions that are still there. And through this film, we are trying to address these misconceptions and bring out our human side and our efforts to change those ideas.

Sixth Tone: Why do you think Chinese media depictions of Africans are often inaccurate? How does this reflect the general perception of black people in China?

Hodan Osman Abdi: The media do reaffirm the stereotypes but can also dispel the stereotypes and change the conversation — this is what our documentary is trying to do. We are trying to show the African community in China as human beings who suffer loss; who feel happy; who want to get married, fall in love, and obtain Ph.D.s. These are common things that people from all around the world share. We are presenting them as human beings, not as sensationalized or exoticized images.

The issue with media is that they have sensationalized or exoticized the African image, and it’s because of a simple reason: Though China has different ethnic minorities, it’s still a monolithic society. Diversity does not exist.

Awareness of these issues within the Chinese community has not been raised to the extent that it should. If there were more conversations about these issues, I’m sure a lot of people would reach a consensus on what is appropriate and what’s not politically correct.

Sixth Tone: Why is this awareness still low, and how long will it take to change inaccurate perceptions of Africans in China?

Hodan Osman Abdi: It’s a subject so far and remote from [Chinese people’s] lives, and people don’t tend to be curious about or research issues that are removed from their everyday lives.

Right now, as China is becoming one of the biggest powers in the world, we see a huge influx of people from all around the world. So there is change, and it’s a lot better than 12 years ago. As China engages more with Africa and the rest of the world, people are opening to a lot of opportunities [in education and business]. Now, some Chinese people know more about my country than I do. There is that interest right now as China opens up. We can’t expect [the changes] to happen within a day. It will take time, and I do see signs of change.


–This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone