Arts, Culture & Media

You don't hear much about Africans in China. These photos say a lot.

Four women, March 22, 2012 Zeng Xian Fang.JPG

Four women are pictured here, on the pedestrian bridge in Little North Road, on March 22, 2012.

Credit:

Zeng Xian Fang, from “Little North Road” by Daniel Traub; Kehrer Verlag, publisher 

Their names were never recorded. We do know that they were part of a thriving community of African émigrés living in Guangzhou, China, and that they paid a photographer to take their picture.

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Last year New York-based photographer Daniel Traub and his co-editor, Robert Pledge, sifted through 25,000 portraits of African expats living in China. The result is a book, film and exhibition Traub calls "Little North Road." That's the English name of the Guangzhou neighborhood that has been a magnet for African traders.

The project began in 2005, when Traub first took his cameras to Guangzhou. He had seen Chinese business expansion in African countries. Now he wanted to document the lives of Africans who had made China their home.

People from many African countries — including Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Cameroon, Senegal, Kenya and Tanzania — travel to China, but by far the largest African expat community has been in the southern port city of Guangzhou. 

Outside Donfranc Hotel, Dengfeng Village, May 7, 2012 Daniel Traub

This is a view outside the Donfranc Hotel, in Dengfeng Village, on May 7, 2012.

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Daniel Traub

Guangzhou is China's third largest city, after Beijing and Shanghai. It's a trading center for the region's electronics, clothing and furniture manufacturers.

"Guangzhou is the marketplace for all the goods that are produced in the Pearl River Delta," says Traub. "So [Africans] come to Guangzhou for short periods to buy goods to ship back to Africa, but there's also many people who have set up longer-term businesses, restaurants, barbershops and all kinds of other things."

Population figures vary, but the city's deputy mayor said in 2014 that Guangzhou had 16,000 permanent residents from Africa. Records made at city checkpoints that year showed hundreds of thousands more people from African countries arriving and leaving after a short visit. 

Little North Road is where most Africans in Guangzhou stay. And each day, many walk across the neighborhood's pedestrian bridge.

"You have to traverse this bridge to get from one part of the neighborhood to the other," says Traub. "Because the neighborhood is so dense there isn't really any kind of open spaces, so people use this pedestrian bridge as a kind of town square."

Man selling goods at night market, May 7, 2012

This image captures a man selling goods at a night market, on May 7, 2012.

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Daniel Traub

Traub was using still photography and film to capture life in the neighborhood. "But I felt very much like an outsider," he says. "I wasn't really getting the kind of intimacy that I wanted." Traub says he was looking for something — he didn't know what — to help him better capture the spirit of Little North Road. He found his opportunity in a chance encounter.

"On the pedestrian bridge, I found this migrant worker, Wu Yong Fu, who was making a living together with his wife by making these souvenir portraits," recalls Traub. "So I went up to him and introduced myself, and I looked at his photographs, and I became immediately fascinated by the breadth and range of what he was doing."

Wu Yong Fu holding portrait album on the bridge, July 30, 2009

Wu Yong Fu is pictured here holding a portrait album on the bridge, on July 30, 2009. 

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Daniel Traub

Itinerant photographer Wu Yong Fu would take a picture, and while his customer waited, his wife would print out the image. In the process, Traub realized, the Chinese photographer was accomplishing something else.

Two women in checkered shirts. February 8, 2011

Two women in checkered shirts are shown here, on Feb. 8, 2011.

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Wu Yong Fu

"He was documenting this whole influx of people coming from the African continent and from the global South," says Traub. "When I saw his photographs I realized that the bridge is kind of like a gateway for all these people, and he was making this index of all these people that were passing by."

Man in orange, November 11, 2010

This image captures a man clad in orange, on Nov. 11, 2010.

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Wu Yong Fu

But at the end of his workday, photographer Wu would routinely delete the portraits he'd made. 

"He wasn't thinking of them in terms of having any other value other than as a way to make a living," says Traub. "So I ended up giving him a hard drive so that he could start to collect the photographs."

Traub periodically copied the images and stored them for the project that would become "Little North Road." And when another itinerant photographer, Zeng Xian Fang, set up a competing portrait business on the bridge, Traub arranged to collect his images, as well.

Zeng Xian Fang looking at images with customers, May 5, 2012

Zeng Xian Fang is shown here looking at images with customers, on May 5, 2012, in this video still. 

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Daniel Traub

The project, which Traub calls a complicated collaboration, raises an intriguing question: Who is really the author behind these photographs?

Two women on the bridge, May 7, 2012

Here's a snapshot of two women on the pedestrian bridge in Little North Road, on May 7, 2012.

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Daniel Traub

"On the one hand, you could say it's the Chinese photographers," observes Traub. "On the other hand, it's the Africans who are commissioning these photographs." And it is also Traub, whose appreciation of the photos led to his curating the massive cache of images into a collection.

Traub sees the photos by Wu and Zeng in the context of traditional African portraiture, "for instance, the work of [Malian photographers] Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta," he says. "There's something in the presence and the playfulness and a lot of the gesture and color. Maybe the people that are commissioning the photos bring a sense of African traditions to the photographs?"

But Traub came to appreciate the contribution the Chinese photographers made. "At first I had thought that the two photographers were sort of interchangeable — more the tool of the people that are commissioning the photographs," he says, "but after going through all 25,000 images, we began to see kind of distinct styles between Wu Yong Fu and Zeng Xian Fang. Wu is, in a sense, more formal, and Zeng tends to be a little bit more engaged and, kind of, aggressive."

Traub remains in touch with Wu and Zeng. But the people they photographed — the Africans who stopped on the bridge to buy a souvenir photo — remain anonymous. "There was no way for me to find all these people to get their consent, but my sense was that these pictures needed to be preserved, because otherwise they were being erased every day," says Traub.

Woman in striped shirt, April 30, 2013 from “Little North Road” by Daniel Traub; Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin

A woman in a striped shirt is pictured here on April 30, 2013.

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Zeng Xian Fang

Boom times seem to be over on Little North Road. African entrepreneurs, whose business model is based on buying Chinese goods in Guangzhou to sell back home, face steep competition now. They are losing business as African customers buy directly from Chinese companies online or purchase from Chinese traders who have set up shop in Africa.

Additionally, as the New York Times reported, racial intolerance and growing Chinese nationalism are making African émigrés feel less comfortable. And, Traub notes, Little North Road authorities have made the pedestrian bridge off-limits for vendors such as Wu and Zeng.

"So, in a sense," says Traub, "this project is a document of a moment ... that has already passed."

A previous version of this article omitted the name of author Daniel Traub's co-editor, Robert Pledge.