The Colony: China in West Africa

The tsunami of Chinese commerce is sparking tension and even violence in some parts of Africa.

The past decade has seen Chinese economic growth explode across the world and the Chinese economic miracle seems to reach into every imaginable area of manufacturing and natural resources.

Filmmakers Brent Huffman and Xiaoli Zhou travelled to Senegal in West Africa to explore the onslaught of Chinese economic might and its impact on long-standing African traditions.

In the following account, Huffman describes the making of their film The Colony and the issues behind it.

In pursuit of personal profit and less competition, large numbers of Chinese are migrating to Africa – which they perceive to be a land of untapped opportunity and potential. In Dakar, Senegal’s capital, small Chinese businesses are flourishing in a rapidly expanding Chinatown.

With The Colony, I aspired to tell a completely personal story from both key perspectives, the Chinese and the Senegalese, and to look at two seemingly opposite cultures thrown together by economic opportunity. I also wanted to see how Chinese immigrants were making Africa “home” and how this process was changing the unique landscape of the continent.

But neither side wanted to speak to me on camera at first. I was an outsider to both cultures being a white American with limited Mandarin language skills and no French or Wolof ability.

After several frustrating days of searching Dakar, we found Khadim Mbengue, a young, well-connected small business owner. He turned out to be very vocal and angry about the Chinese encroaching on his retail business with their cheap low-quality goods.

He is also a local head of UNACOIS-JAPPO, one of the biggest Senegalese retail business associations. Khadim not only became a charismatic main character, but also led us to other voices representing the Senegalese perspective.

Access to the Chinese community was seemingly impossible on that initial trip. The overseas Chinese in general are very distrustful of all foreign media. No international news stories I had seen before were able to do any extensive interview on camera with a Chinese worker or business owner in Africa. In these stories Chinese were usually seen in wide shots from far away.

Due to the distrust of the Chinese, I was forced to come back a second time with a Chinese fixer. By then Xiaoli, after dozens of international phone calls, had secured endorsement from the Chinese embassy in Dakar.

Once this official door was open, I was able to gradually reach farther into the community. I felt very lucky to be able to film intimate scenes with some of the Chinese living in Senegal. Through capturing their way of life and mingling with them off camera, I saw a vibrant group of people who are determined and flexible enough to compete anywhere in the world.

Conquering a new world

Small Chinese businesses have been expanding and growing rapidly across the African continent [EPA] 

Upon arriving in Dakar and more recently Liberia, I was shocked at how visible the Chinese presence in these African countries is. Many African nations are mired in hopeless economic prospects, yet in these places the economy was booming for the Chinese.

With the Chinese, unthinkable growth was possible even in countries long abandoned by the West.

Cranes, enormous dump trucks, and construction equipment of all kinds baring Chinese logos and imported from China could be seen feverishly building late into the night.

And workers brought over from China can be seen overseeing all aspects of construction.

There are Chinese restaurants serving genuine Chinese cuisine everywhere. During my second trip to the country I lived on authentic steamed fish and dumplings. Chinese goods like cars, motorcycles, pots and pans, shoes, pesticide, clothing, plastic toys, etc., are very popular among local consumers.

Everywhere I looked I saw evidence of Chinese activity in Dakar from large-scale fishing companies and stadiums to toothbrushes and cheap jewellery sold on the street.

Once I was able to gain access to this community, much of what drives them was revealed to me. The Chinese let me in to their homes and their lives. I was able to disappear into their world.

What surprised me most was the Wild West kind of vibe shown in the attitudes of the Chinese in Senegal. This was the new frontier for them and they were the new cowboys conquering this new world. These young pioneering men and woman threw caution to the wind in their bold adventure.

This young vibrant Chinese community was reminiscent of the fiction films of Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang Ke like Unknown Pleasures and Platform. These were not the conservative shy people of my wife’s generation in China.

These were outspoken, rebellious, and ambitious youths proudly displaying their brightly dyed hair and trendy low cut clothing. These young twenty-somethings drink, smoke, and sing loud karaoke as they complain about the day’s events.

Suspicion and hostility

Although there is communication between the two sides at a certain level, it is rather limited. Despite various differences in language, culture, and work ethics, the Chinese are not making enough of an effort to integrate into Senegalese society.

Although the Chinese businesses have brought some benefits to the local low-income consumers, their overall presence is viewed with suspicion and hostility by many Senegalese.

In Dakar, there seems to be relative peace between the two groups and a kind of reciprocal economic relationship, though most of the money made is on the Chinese side.

I fear that if the hostile backlash in the business community keeps growing, a violent inciting incident, like the murder seen in our film but on a larger scale, might occur.

Such an event would further polarise the two communities and could potentially end friendly collaboration. I foresee the Chinese will have to eventually ramp up private security, a practice already in place in some African nations, in order to protect their investments.

The Colony can be seen from Tuesday, September 7, at the following times GMT: Tuesday: 0830, 1900; Wednesday: 0330, 1400, 2330.