Guangzhou Dream Factory (USA, 2017)

When documentarian and social commentator Christiane Badgley went to try to replace a locally-made kitchen knife she has bought in Ghana, she found something surprising. When she arrived at the market she found that the locally made items that used to be available were no longer to be found. Instead, in Ghanaian markets, like most of the world, all the items were made in China. This inspired Badgely, whose previous films examined current issues in African development including oil pipelines in Chan and Camaroon, to investigate further the links between Ghana and Africa.

Every year, half a million African travel to Guangzhou, Southerner China’s leading trade hub and in Guangzhou Dream Factory, Badgely and her co-producer Erica Marcus, follow the lives of just a few of the immigrates who have tried to make their fortunes in the Chinese city. The films initially move to China allows the camera to present what, at first glance, seems a vibrant and intercultural community in the process of developing. We hear voices from all across Africa engaging in trade and attempting to forge a life for themselves in China. We meet Cameroonian Kingsley Azieh Che, the “King of suits” who exports the clothes he makes at his Chinese factor back to Cameroon. At the other end of the scale, we have Favour Prosper, who lost her Chinese restaurant in a scam, and now sells snacks in the Chinese market. We meet her 6-year old daughter Cherish who is fluent in Chinese and seems well integrated into her local school. Emmy MacAnthony, a key player in the Nigerian cultural centre, may own a restaurant but he aspires to filmmaking and it is via Emmy we are introduced to the immigration scam “Bus 111”. The basis of this scam is people pay a large amount of money for a Chinese visa in the assumption they can catch a bus to Japan from China. The reality, of course, is they are left poverty-stricken in China. Immigration scams are common and the film interviews several men and women who have been harmed by the actions of human traffickers.

As the film tells us China is not a county of immigration and the pathways to permanent residency are almost impossible to negotiate. Chinese laws require any foreigners to have a Chinese partner and marriage has become a common method of developing this partnership. These relationships reflect the wider economic migration that takes place in China itself. Many of the women married to African men are from rural communities and have themselves moved to the city to attempt to make their fortunes. These are people on the margin of Chinese city life and communities. Poverty and lack of education mean that many of these women have limited opportunities in Guangzhou but like their African husbands, they have a strong work ethic and a desire to forge a new life for themselves. The aspirations they have for their children, the “Chinese Obamas” is inspiring but, given the levels of racism in China there is deep sense throughout the documentary that their hopes may may be dashed.

As the film develops we begin to see that the initial potential of the African community in China has not been actualised. There are no jobs for foreigners in China (unless you teach English), and the strict visa regulations in China means that many people are forced to leave at a moments notice. Despite her apparent integration into the local community, Cherish and Favour are forced to leave when Favour is caught in an immigrating sting. Those who stay are seeing their communities shrink as the harsh realities of life in China for foreigners become clear. Anti-immigrant sentiments are common but money is ultimately the driving factor. For China, it makes far more economic sense to prevent African coming to China to trade and then to force them to deal with the Chinese agents in their home nations. This approach has seen a series of initiatives designed to force migrants to leave China.

Guangzhou Dream Factory’s focus on individual market traders and entrepreneurs reflects a much wider trend related to China and Africa. The China-African relationship has seen China invest over $220 billion and more in nations such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Anglo, Namibia and Sudan. Natural rescores are a key interest for the Chinese state but the African continent represents a vast site of economic potential. Their investment strategies mean China now plays a highly influential role in many African nations in military, economic and political matters but also increasingly in popular culture with Chinese films and music increasingly present on African media channels. Nigeria for example, has hosted several Chinese film festival and Chinese animation and films are regularly present on TV screens, in return, the Nigerian Film Industry has attempted to get more of their products shown on Chinese screens. European investments and influence are increasingly limited and this radical shift in geopolitical and commercial patterns is something that is ben seen globally as China strengthens its position. Markets in nations such as in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos reflect the same patterns. Most goods are made in China to the detriment of local manufacturing and this situation shows little sign of changing. The power of and growth of China is remarkable but the results in nations such as Cameroon, Nigeria and Ethiopia may be more negative than positive.

Guangzhou Dream Factory is a timely reminder of the complexities and the human cost of global migration. The film allows the vibrant and dynamic interviewees to speak for themselves and gives a fascinating insight into a global trend. All the people interviewed long to return home but note that there is nothing for them to return home to. Respective African governments are happy to take the Chinese money but few are using the money to develop local infrastructure and trade. The film ends up back in Ghana and a reflection on the failures of the industrial initiatives put in place by the deposed president Kwame Nkrumah in the 1960s. Whilst the film title references China, ultimately this is a film about Africa and the need for change.