This January The Recollective welcomed co-founder Nina Porzucki back from her month in Ghuangzhou, China. Nina was awarded a fellowship from the Above the Fray Foundation and with the support of NPR and The John Alexander Project investigated the growing number of Nigerians who are going to China to do business. The Recollective co-founders Jeremy Helton and Chaela Herridge Meyer are joined by friends and fellow producers Mitra Bonshahi and Audrey Quinn for this two-part Q & A with Nina about her experiences in China’s “Chocolate City.”
Mitra Bonshahi: How did you first find out about the “Chocolate City?”
Nina Porzucki: I found out about the “Chocolate City” during an interview with UCLA professor, Zhou Min that I was conducting for another story altogether. As I was packing up my headphones I asked off-handedly, what are you researching right now? “Africans in China,” she said. I stopped packing up my equipment. “There are Africans in China?” I might have exclaimed that exact question. I had read and listened to articles about the growing presence of Chinese people in Africa. In fact, Frank Langfit did a story about Nigeria’s Chinatown for NPR. However, Africans in China? 10,000 of them?! After a quick Google search, I came across Evan Osnos’ article for the New Yorker, a good glimpse into Little Africa from a few years ago. And it just got me thinking, why are they there? Who is there? What’s it like living there? How are these stories representative of larger issues: China’s rise on the world’s stage, the informal economy, immigration, development or lack there of in Africa? In short, there was a story to be done.
Jeremy Helton: What, if any, early challenges did you face as a journalist trying to report on this story?
Nina: One of the biggest challenges was actually getting a journalist visa to China. Everyone I spoke with told me to go as a tourist but for many reasons I decided along with the fellowship folks that a short-term journalist visa was necessary. It took three months to secure with many back and forth emails with the Chinese Embassy. At one point they asked me to email a list of everyone I hoped to talk with during my time in China. I remember asking the Embassy official over the phone, “Everyone? Do you need names?” My response was a hilarious list of everyone I thought I might possible run into over there: taxi drivers, students, African merchants, professors, people on the street, ex-pats, hotel maids, waiters, street vendors…You get the picture. I was hoping to be in China for three months; in the end I was awarded a 30-day single entry visa. Fitting perhaps because that is the same time allotted to many traders who come over from Africa. I got my visa literally the day before I shipped out to Guangzhou.
Jeremy: What were you most surprised by upon arriving in China?
Nina: I was surprised to find that China didn’t feel as totally foreign as I expected. Guangzhou is a really beautiful city full of trees and flowers. When I arrived one type of tree was flowering all over the city. It had these delicate pink blooms. I must have come right when they first popped. Throughout the month I watched as the petals slowly blew off the trees and littered the sidewalks in a pink snow. It was still pretty humid and temperate when I was there. People kept telling me: Just wait it will get cold. And it did for a few days but mostly the weather was similar to Los Angeles’ mild mannered winter. The other surprising thing or things were the super expensive, slick high-end malls and fancy shops. There is so much money in Guangzhou. This shouldn’t have been a surprise. Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province, AKA the world’s factory. Still, on my second day in Guangzhou I walked through one of the luxury malls and I remember staring into the Prada storefront looking at $1000 bags and thinking, where the hell am I?
Chaela Herridge Meyer: What did people think of your interest in Guangzhou?
Nina: Funny, you should ask that. I remember when I lived in Romania, people – that is, Romanian people – would always ask me, “Why are you here?” “What’s so interesting about Romania?” And I remember that I was continually convincing Romanians that their country was both fascinating and beautiful. I never got that same question while in China. The “Chocolate City” has been covered a lot by the Chinese media and the Chinese people whom I spoke with where like, “Oh yeah, we have a lot of Africans here.” As for the Africans, they are there to do business and talk business and they could frankly care less about what I was doing there.
Mitra: Were you met with resistance as a reporter in China?
Nina: Yes. One of the trading malls I wanted to report about actually kicked me out my first week there. I was interviewing a trader when they told me that I needed to talk with the management. A guard in a dark suit with an earpiece escorted me upstairs to the top floor of the mall to discuss my presence with the management. I never met the manager. I was never even told his name, despite several attempts to talk by phone, in-person, etc. I continued to go to the mall anyway and take photos. I don’t have a lot of recording from there and the recording that I do is very noisy. I hid my recorder in my backpack. The management from this mall was particularly sensitive to the press because of incidents occurring after a police raid in 2009. Undercover officers raided the mall in search of illegal immigrants, which is seemingly every African man working there. People ran from the police and one frightened man even jumped from an upper story window landing on his head and nearly dying. The men took to the streets in protest. This was one of the first foreigner led “uprisings” in this new China. Needless to say they were sensitive about foreign press. Security guards in suits with earpieces and official looking badges make rounds through the mall. There are security cameras everywhere. The other frustrating thing was trying to secure an interview with officials from the Entry and Exit Office that deals with visas. After repeated requests, faxes, in-person attempts, I resigned myself to the fact that no official was going to talk to me.
Jeremy: Tell us about your experiences with the internet and social media while you were in China.
Nina: I lived within the confines of the Great Firewall: No Facebook. No Twitter. No blogs. No YouTube. It’s possible to tunnel under the wall but frankly I was too busy and too tired at the end of the day to figure it out. Media sites like the New York Times, NPR, etc. were accessible. The Wukan revolt started while I was there. I read about it unfolding through the New York Times and other media outlets. The village of Wukan is in Guangdong province. This mini-uprising was happening in the very province I was in, and yet, when I spoke with the Chinese student who was helping me, she had no clue anything was happening. The papers weren’t reporting it with the same vigor of the west. They were hardly reporting it at all. It is naive of me perhaps to be amazed at that. Still I was. While I was there Kim Jong-il died and that morning I searched out a copy of the English language paper, China Daily. The headline read: A FRIEND’S DEPARTURE. Below the headline was a picture of him smiling and waving. I brought the newspaper home with me.
Of course, there is a lot of great reporting/storytelling coming out of China. When I began thinking about this trip, I asked my dear friend, and source of all things China, Stephen Nessen to compile a must-read reading list. Here’s a few of his suggestions:
Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler
Wild Grass by Ian Johnson
Factory Girls by Leslie Chang
Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Ground Up by Liao Yiwu
Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip Pan
Stay tuned next week for the second part of this interview and for upcoming updates by Nina Porzucki herself.