Innocent Mutanga discusses the important role that Africans can play in today’s Hong Kong and beyond.
Africans in Hong Kong have perhaps the most pivotal role to play in the future welfare of Black people in the world. I am not just saying this just because I happen to be living in Hong Kong, but because of the potential that I see in the city. Journalists like to highlight the push factors of why I fled from Zimbabwe to Hong Kong as a refugee in 2013. However, the strongest reason that contributed to my migration was a pull factor that lies in the future – that is, the role played and impact made by Africans and Black people in Hong Kong to the future perceptions of Blackness among East Asians. It is a role of rebranding Blackness or Africa in a world with a major paradigm shift from the West to East Asia.
Colonialism and the Slave Trade
Before discussing the past of Africans in Hong Kong, it is important to have an overview of the history of Africans. Slavery, colonialism, Christianity – pick your poison. Beyond the obvious infrastructural underdevelopment these European movements have had on Africa, the worst of all were the impacts they had on Africa’s image. Four hundred years after the end of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, its legacy remains and still affects the way Africans see themselves today. What follows is an example I recall from my primary school days. I decided to join an African Traditional Dance club but soon realized that there were murmurs around the village claiming that I was joining a demonic club and that I should be taken to a church to be exorcised for having danced to an African drum. Today, I still cannot understand how we got to the point of thinking African arts as demonic and inferior. Wasn’t it a surgical move by the Europeans to erase our identity and recreate their imagined inferior savages?
In his essay, “Africa’s Tarnished Image” (1988), Chinua Achebe cited a striking 1687 account by an Italian priest that gives us a glimpse of how Black people viewed themselves before the advance of the slave trade, Christianity, and colonialism. Father Cavazzi, whose duty in Africa was to discredit Africans in any way possible, complained that “these nations think themselves the foremost men in the world. They imagine Africa is not only the greatest part of the world, but also the happiest and most agreeable… [Their king] is persuaded that there is no other monarch in the world who is his equal.” In another essay, “An Image of Africa,” Achebe also criticized how Africans were portrayed in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and questioned what would explain the difference between the Italian priest’s words and Conrad’s “images of gyrating and babbling savages.” Regardless, Achebe’s works remind us of the genealogy of racist narratives on African peoples. In fact, the legacy of such narratives is still visible when we look at the standards of beauty among young Africans in today’s world. When you walk around the streets of any African city, it is not difficult to see young boys and girls aspiring to symbols of whiteness by bleaching their skin and straightening their hair.
Interestingly, when one thinks about the intellectual history of Black people, a lot of major socio-political movements played a huge role in helping us Black people to re-imagine ourselves both on the continent and in diaspora – Steve Biko’s “Black Consciousness movement,” Frantz Fanon’s confrontation of the colonized psychic constructions of Blackness, the “Harlem Renaissance,” and the Négritude movement. These important moments are vital in inspiring Africans to recognize the significance of (re)defining ourselves. However, with the colonial and slave trade era long gone, we are no longer as conscious as we were. Most of us do not know that a quieter and a more surgical tool continues the mission of subjugating Black people under the guise of “charity.”
The Problem of Charity Discourse
There are fundamental problems in the model of charity. This is because it relies on a narrative of social problems. A charity initiative would have little to no incentive to participate in solving a social problem because if the problem does not exist, the charity organization loses its legitimacy. At the same time, charity thwarts the developments of the places it sets out to help and creates toxic dependency. The roles played by foreign aid when most African states were gaining independence in the 1960s were good examples. As these African countries worked towards leaving the colonial system, there were two prevailing views on whether the “savages” would be able to run their countries without the whites. One view was “yes” and the other was “no.” If you look at Africa today, especially financially, it seems as though the latter group has won the argument. Yet, before jumping to that conclusion, we must look at what really happened in making African economies so stagnant in the post-independence era. Charity was introduced in the name of aid. Dambisa Moyo, a celebrated economist, in her book Dead Aid (2009) provides quantitative data in proving that African economies went stagnant once charity/aid was introduced.
I could not agree more with Moyo because I have first-hand anthropological evidence to prove how surgical and lethal charity has been in contributing to the economic underdevelopment of Africa and the subjugation of its people. I was raised by a single mother, and we were subsistence farmers. Having only one rainy season a year, we worked hard to make sure we had enough harvest to eat for the year to come. A number of families would run out of food eight months or so after harvest – perhaps the moment in the year that one might expect food aid to come around. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Charity organizations brought food on the first days of the harvest, which I later became convinced was a strategic move. If charity groups gave my neighbor more food as handouts than the food that my mother and I had worked hard to produce throughout the farming season, what do you expect my neighbor would do the following year? Yes, he lost motivation, failed to put a hoe to the ground and in this way began to rely on charity’s aid. Here was the birth of a vicious cycle.
Worse still, the charity organizations made use of demeaning pictures of my neighbor (those that showed flies all over the face of his children) in fundraising activities. The way these images perpetuate a very particular image of Black people is another form of exploitation. This is the way that charity dehumanizes and exoticizes Black people not just in Hong Kong but everywhere in the world. It represents us as victims with no agency and, in the case of my neighbor, as people who cannot even chase away a fly from their face. So, I cannot help but wonder: where is our pride and dignity as Africans? How would Langston Hughes, Frantz Fanon, and Steve Biko feel to know that instead of Blacks re-imagining themselves, they have re-re-imagined themselves and today view themselves through a discourse of charity that is more stealthy, but just as deadly, as colonialism?
With that in mind, getting our people off the chains of charities is vital for Africans in Hong Kong so as to play a pivotal role in redefining Blackness in the city and all over the world. At this point, it is important to remind ourselves of how Steve Biko defined Black Consciousness:
The call for Black Consciousness is the most positive call to come from any group in the black world for a long time. It is more than just a reactionary rejection of whites by blacks… The philosophy of Black Consciousness, therefore, expresses group pride and the determination by the blacks to rise and attain the envisaged self… At the heart of this kind of thinking is the realisation by the blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.
Biko theorizes how Blackness was understood in the 1960s. What he reminds us of here is that Black Consciousness is not merely a binary opposite or a force of reaction to imperialism and colonialism but something that is self-sufficient. With that in mind, what are the possibilities brought by multi-racial societies like Hong Kong with a demography far more complicated than black versus white?
African Diaspora in Hong Kong
According to the 2016 Population By-census conducted by the Hong Kong government, there were more than 3,000 Africans in Hong Kong. This number is obviously understated as a significant number of Africans were not included in the census. In fact, the demography of the African diaspora in the city is much more complicated. Some of the first Africans to settle in Hong Kong arrived in the early 1990s, primarily as business-people, and later moved on to become brokers for other African business-people who wanted access to China through Hong Kong. Hong Kong was popular among them because it was visa free for most Africans. Although Hong Kong is no longer as popular as it was since China joined the World Trade Organization, there is a good number of Africans marrying locals and some moving to Hong Kong. With the mobility this group of people have, they actually hold the future of Blacks and defining Blackness in and beyond Asia. Significantly, with the rising power of China, one can find instances when the central government inherited Western racist narratives from the previous century and curated it on a different canvas. The African-American writer James Baldwin wrote in No Name in the Street (1972), “it is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” Being a special administrative region of China under “One Country, Two Systems,” Africans in Hong Kong indeed have the capacity to not yield to narratives aligned with the ignorance about Blackness found in mainland China.
To initiate sustainable and significant changes, I suggest starting with retelling the stories of the African continent, its cultures, and its peoples. In an interview with Jerome Brooks for The Paris Review (1994), Chinua Achebe reminded us that “There is that great proverb – that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” To me, this is not simply about retelling the story of Blackness to Chinese people but also to Black people. By doing so, it is possible to redefine how Blackness is understood, which will inevitably counter false gendered discourses.
In fact, rebranding Blackness is the major of vision of Africa Center Hong Kong (ACHK). ACHK was founded in 2019 when it launched the “African Kidz Club,” which aimed at both cultivating children of African descent to be conscious of their cultures and making children from elsewhere understand the African continent in a more accurate way. In our debut session, I asked kids who were predominantly African to draw or write whatever came to their mind when they thought of Africa or Blackness. The goal of this exercise was to train them to retell their stories to their Chinese friends when their friends spoke in stereotypes. Sadly, the African children in that meeting drew more negative images of Blackness than the Hong Kong Chinese children who did the same exercise. Frantz Fanon’s works popped into my mind immediately upon experiencing this traumatic experience.
It is indeed difficult to witness the epidermalization of Black inferiority at work; the self-hatred and the ensuing efforts of Black children to emulate whites at such a tender age. This taught me a big lesson on how much work needs to be done in having Black people re-imagining and re-casting themselves in a more accurate light at the same time that we try to rebrand Blackness to the Chinese people around us. And at this point, it became evident to me why charity organizations still thrive within the Black communities in Hong Kong – it is a phenomenon that feeds on the continuation of racial stereotypes as well as the reproduction and internalization of an inferiority complex among Africans. It is crystal clear that the West tarnished the image of Blackness and today the charity organizations, which are run by people of all ethnic groups, have taken that mantle. It’s not only about tarnishing the image but also perpetrating senses of inferiority, self-hatred, and inadequacy within the Black populations in Hong Kong and everywhere else.
Nonetheless, it is plausible to re-brand Blackness in Asia because negative images of Blackness are not as deeply rooted in Asia as they are in the West. This is the chief reason why Hong Kong plays a pivotal role in the rebranding Blackness. Race has no significant history in China. So being in a place where race isn’t much of a significant factor leaves room for a lot of possibilities – here, Africans can be more than sportsmen or entertainers. Africans have a huge advantage in a world dominated by East Asia and China in particular. The fact that Black people have so much experience dealing with uncertainties and being undervalued is key to that. Interestingly, uncertainty and being undervalued also best describe China today. What these two terms signify is the possibility of having dramatic change in how the world conceptualizes Blackness. In that way, Hong Kong offers opportunity not only for Black people to re-imagine and re-brand Blackness but also for the entire Black populations across the world to see and break free from the chains of discourses on neo-colonialism and charities.
 Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo (1621–1678) served as a missionary in Central Africa in the seventeenth century.
 Also see Chinua Achebe’s The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays (2009).
 See Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like: A Selection of His Writings (1978).
 Since then, Africans have had access to mainland China and many prefer to go to the Xiaobei region of Guangzhou for more business opportunities. It is also important to note that these traders aren’t merely migrants but people on the move. They spend just as much time in Dubai as they spend in Guangzhou or Bangkok.
 See https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1720/the-art-of-fiction-no-139-chinua-achebe
 Blackness often means being dangerous and/or vulnerable. None of this is something to take pride in. Being vulnerable is precisely the image that charities thrive on.
 See http://www.africacenterhk.com/
 I refer to the exploitations of the African continent experienced during the infamous historical moments of the slave trade and colonialism.
Innocent Mutanga was born and raised in Zimbabwe. In 2013, he fled for his life and arrived at Hong Kong as a refugee with only HK$200. He slept on the streets, but went on to study anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong where he became the first refugee admitted to a UGC-funded undergraduate program. He then worked in an investment bank after graduation. Dedicated to rebranding Blackness and sharing an African perspective with the city, Mutanga launched the Africa Center Hong Kong (ACHK) at the turn of 2019.
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