Whats the fuss about the Chinese?

shoes_china2HARARE - Anyone would easily have mistaken the Chinese actress Wendy Yang for a Hollywood star when she debuted last week on Zimbabwe television in the long running soap, Studio 263. (Pictured: Shoes from China Cheap Chinese products have flooded Zimbabwe since President Rober

Wendy waltzed majestically as she appeared in her first episode, sweeping away many viewers with sexy features and a pencil slim figure. She becomes the first Chinese woman to take a lead acting role in Zimbabwean film. But as Wendy savoured her television moment-of-fame cultural activists were firing broadsides at her and the filmmakers whom they accused of helping extend Chinas cultural imperialism and hegemony in Zimbabwe.

Wendy plays the role of May, a Chinese girl who finds herself in a black Zimbabwean family after meeting and falling in love with Welly, a young dreadlocked man, while both lived in South Africa. Welly promises May heaven and earth in Zimbabwe and marriage. May comes from a Chinese traditional background and demands to do things in Zimbabwean Shona tradition like preparing traditional food and a traditional wedding.

Chinese plunderers

The arrival of Wendy on state television has not helped ease the disdain of the Chinese by some Zimbabweans who see the Chinese as plunderers of resources at the invitation of President Robert Mugabe. Zimbabweans wallowing in poverty, while the Chinese run thriving shops literally on every street corner of Harare, including massive investments in manufacturing and mining, have utterly rejected the Chinese and have not made it a secret.

Locals write furious letters to newspapers taunting the Chinese in apparent racist mockery telling them to go away.

Richard Musonza a cultural activist and author of Dynamics of Culture told me: The Chinese are shrewd business people and all over the world they are now influencing the arts and culture sectors immensely. You could call it purely cultural imperialism that the Chinese are extending to Zimbabwe just the way Westerns have done. A traditionalist and private school teacher Rhoda Siziba said: We sold our souls to the West the day we were colonised and thought we were now trying to retrieve a bit of what was left of our culture.

But here we are now the Chinese have invaded our culture and influencing how we dressjust look at the number of their clothing shops and how that has suffocated the local textile industry. Look at the traditional Chinese clinics and their medicines they prescribe people and influence us to take.

Look East Policy

President Robert Mugabes Look East Policy, which interprets to mean favouring business with the Asian bloc particularly China and which he adopted after the West imposed sanctions on Harare, is seen by his critics as solely motivated by personal gain but inadvertently mortgaging Zimbabwe to China in exchange for crumbs of aid to boost the political clout of the veteran ruler.

The Chinese have landed in Zimbabwe in unprecedented numbers in response to President Mugabes call to reinforce business and trade with the Asian country after he told the West to go to hell as sanctions begun to hurt. But Studio 263 producer and filmmaker Godwin Mawuru, renowned for his 1991 award winning co-production Neria, sees things completely differently saying Zimbabwe had a deeply polarised political environment that had shaped negative perception of Zimbabweans towards the Chinese.

Mawuru fell short of describing Zimbabweans, who had rejected the Chinese, as xenophobic. He wanted the arts and particularly film and the casting of Wendy to function as a powerful tool for uniting people. Mawuru said negative criticism of the Chinese actress was naive and missed the bigger picture.

By bringing in Wendy I am bringing people of the world together, saying these are a new culture or new people coming into our midst and country and how do we relate to them? Should we be afraid of them or should we interact with them and get to know them better. And the foreigners should also know us better, Mawuru said.

I think the Chinese phenomenon is not particular to Zimbabwe. If you look across Africa the Chinese are coming big time in terms of business but I am not sure at social interaction level. We need to embrace them and work with them. They are human and will make mistakes like all of us. Mawuru said some Zimbabweans viewed the Chinese as plunderers of Zimbabwes heritage and resources yet they were in search of business opportunities like everyone else, the West included.

Global village

At the end of the day we might see we are actually gaining more from the Chinese than what they are taking away. But again being a global village you cant leave things to yourself and you have to work with others. After watching Wendy, during her debut television appearance, I went in search of the Chinese girl whose acting exploits have ignited so much controversy. It was agonising getting her to open up preferring her role in the soap to speak for itself. A daughter of a soldier Wendy grew up in a military camp and went to university in Beijing. She is an economist now studying for an MBA with the University of Zimbabwe but also operates a business venture from her plush offices in central Harare.

Wendy has lived in Zimbabwe for five years and in South Africa for two years and speaks Chinese, English and shona.

Culture is culture and politics is politics. But you see, politics wants to control culture and as artists we are saying no, politics cant do that. As an actor I want to bridge the gap and hate that has been created by politics amongst the people of the world, Wendy said.

We are living in a global village and Zimbabwe is open to do business with the world and why should anyone raise their eyebrows when a Chinese shop is opened in the city? The Chinese are not as bad as some people would want to portray.

So much suspicion

Wendy said the Chinese were generally secretive but not necessarily a closed society. Chinese culture, she said, was influenced at family level and not by the government as widely believed. She said her role in Studio 263 represented every Chinese woman and Chinese culture in a positive way. Has the world medias own perception of China influenced how we see the Chinese? Or has China itself helped its critics view it with so much suspicion? What is the basis for the mistrust?

Nevertheless, Zimbabweans must destroy the disdain of foreigners and say before we dislike someone let us listen to them and get to know them and that we should never judge people by their race, creed, tribe or religion. What Mawuru has done as an artist by casting Wendy in Studio 263 is putting together what politicians have put asunder. Artists must create hope where politicians have sown hate. Where politicians are self-seeking artists must speak for the voiceless people. The voice of the people is the voice of God.

We often talk about luminaries such as Martin Luther King, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela and many other African and Western icons who dedicated their entire lives to build a better world. There is nothing wrong with that. But we rarely acknowledge outstanding Chinese people such as Liu Xiaobo a champion of democracy and winner of the Noble Peace Prize. Nobody talks about Mao Tse-Tung who was a great writer and philosopher. We have even forgotten Bruce Lee a key figure in international martial arts cinema whose film genre greatly influenced western cinema and audiences across the world including Zimbabwe. And only recently the biggest crane that was used to safely rescue, from underground the trapped 33 miners in Chile, came from far flung China.

So, what really is the fuss about the Chinese?

This article was first published by ZimOnline.co.za. The writer, Shepherd Mutamba, is a Zimbabwean journalist based in Harare specialising in the arts and culture sector.

Post published in: Opinions

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