Filed under: *Travel Diary
During this trip, I found myself doing something just really weird – actively walking around Africa looking for Chinese people. Anywhere we were, if I ever saw someone who looked remotely Asian, I’d immediately go up to them and try to start up a conversation. I’d often just go up with my camera in my hand and leave it running. Or Jim would film from a distance. Totally inappropriate and weirdly obsessive, but that’s the headspace I was in and it was actually kind of amazing how it would push us into situations that we wouldn’t normally come in to. Just the willingness to engage would create a sort of theater on the street, or wherever we were. In every single case, I found that people wanted to talk, wanted to connect in some way. Perhaps were even flattered that we were interested in them or were equally as interested in us. Everyone took time to try to work out some sort of conversation, which was often very difficult because most of the Asians I approached didn’t speak Portuguese or English (or Spanish or German for that matter) and my Mandarin, Fujianese, Cantonese and Vietnamese just suck. So there we often were on street corners in Angola – a white guy with cornrows gesticulating like a mentally handicapped monkey with an Asian person with a slightly confused and bemused look on their face who occasionally laughed and would call over co-workers to join in the absurd fun. Inevitably I reverted to drawing maps of China in the dirt with twigs to find out just where someone came from or I pointed to the Chinese characters on my USA Shaolin Kung Fu T-shirt to explain where I was from. Occasionally I showed some moves from a form and that almost always ingratiated us. Eventually one of the Chinese crew would show up who spoke at least some Portuguese and a deeper conversation would begin and from there we’d see where we ended up.
So how does one find Chinese people in Angola? It’s quite simple. You go up to virtually any construction site and there’s about a 75 – 80% chance that it operated by a Chinese company and at least some (if not all) of the the people working will be Chinese. Or you can just ask any random person on the street where there are some Chinese construction sites or if they know where some Chinese people live and everyone will point you somewhere (although this approach more often than not led us to Vietnamese and in one case Filipino groups). Or you can just wait on a busy street corner and an Asian person will eventually pass by. In Benguela we even went to the one Chinese restaurant in town and landed smack in the middle of the local Vietnamese gay scene.
There are many different types of Chinese companies working in Angola. Some are private companies, some are state run companies and some seem to be a sort of mixture.
In Huambo we went out to the old railcar factory to film the derelict rusted out trains and a smart young 26 year old construction foreman from China walked up to us to ask what we were doing. His company was building a police station right next to the tracks and he had seen us and climbed up the embankment to check out what we were doing. His Portuguese was fair to to middling but we could communicate. I ended up doing part of my Er-lu-quan kung fu form and the cook, who was watching from over the corrugated steel fence down the embankment, started cheering, pumping his fists, and doing his best Bruce Lee impersonation. The young boss explained that after work they usually played cards and sometimes went for a drink nearby. He invited us to come to hang out at the compound the next night. Jimmy asked if he could play poker with them. He laughed and said sure.
His name was Shao Xiao Jiang but went by the Portuguese name, Henrique. They didn’t live in the compound with the workers and the cook, but rather in an apartment in the middle of town with a guard out front who often fell asleep with his AK47 across his lap. It was typical that the workers would live tents or barracks right on the work site and sleep in bunks with mosquito nettings and sleeping bags. All of them had contracted Malaria the first few weeks that they had been there and many had to have blood transfusions. Over time, I guess they’d all built up some immunity. The companies bring their own cooks and own doctors and in some cases import all the machinery, building materials, tools and even bottled spring water from China. The management and technical staff sleep in a more more civilized setting in town with internet access, phone lines, cars and drivers, their own rooms, electric guitars, the latest bootleg movies and television series, and mahjong sets. We never saw Enrique’s apartment, but this was the case in Yolanda’s house (the tech and management house for another company in Huambo currently building a school).
Along the coast, between Lobito and Benguela (just below Luongo), there were huge semi-permanent compounds with barracks, sleeping quarters, offices, basketball courts, pool tables, cantinas etc. We ended up filming in one of the largest compounds which supplies all of the trucks and transport for the entire Benguela Railway reconstruction project.
For the most part, we found it very easy to enter into this compound. We just showed our press passes and asked to talk to the translator and a woman showed up and led us through after she cleared it with her boss, who then also showed up and led the tour past all the trucks. There was one snag, however. One of the security guards out front became very difficult. He was very much a military man and saw it as his duty to protect the place. While the Chinese bosses were very amenable to showing us through, he was quite high strung and resistant. We spent a lot of time trying to placate him. To let him boss us around some and then try to deflect the issues away from our control but ways in which he could actually exert his power by letting us sit in a place where there was shade for example. Or if he could take us to the office as opposed to letting us go to the office. And then I began to ask a lot of question about him and his life. He clearly grew up during the war and grew up as a soldier and had seen things and done things I could never imagine. Whereas the Chinese seemed to have a clear sense of the absurd and generally found it fun and a change of pace to have a couple of white guys walk around and be interested in what they are doing, the guard clearly saw us as a threat. We hadn’t gone through any proper channels. And truth be told, he was scary. I think we played the situation well, pulled him in and got him more or less on our side, but it was clear that there was always a danger there.
Interesting detail: in the office of the compound, there were only huge wall maps of China. Not of Angola. It was as if we had landed in an office out on a construction site in Beijing. A totally insular world. The translator even gave Jim some drugs for the pain in his belly that came directly from China. Everything was written in Mandarin script so neither of us could read it. We later found out that there were a whole list of terrifying side effects known for that particular drug. I have to ask him what it was…
There was one site where I met an Angolan man who spoke Mandarin and worked as a translator for the foremen. It was when I would ask something in Portuguese and have him translate into Chinese, that I really could feel the world shifting on its axis.
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