A Black artist forges his own path in China.
It’s a familiar experience for many young Black men. Former President Barack Obama has spoken about it. A customer walks into a store and is followed around by a security guard.
Uchenna Onyishi has experienced it. Except he wasn’t in the United States. He was in China.
“It exists everywhere in different forms,” says the 26-year-old Nigerian filmmaker, who lives and works in Beijing, “whether it is going to Ikea and shopping and being followed, or just a taxi driver not stopping for you and then five seconds later stopping for a Caucasian that was standing 30 meters away from you.”
China has a small but growing Black community. Many of them come for work or study. Some stay and raise families.
But in an ethnically homogeneous country like China, where over 90% of the population is Han Chinese, it can be difficult to adapt. Microaggressions, such as the ones Onyishi described, are common occurrences.
Earlier this year, Black communities in China complained of unfair treatment over coronavirus concerns. In the most publicized case, a McDonald’s restaurant in the southern city of Guangzhou posted a sign saying it would not serve Africans. The company later apologized.
For Onyishi, who has spent much of his adult life in China, adjusting to the new environment was difficult at first.
His family moved to China when he was 15 to expand their logistics business. Before then, Onyishi says the only Chinese person he ever saw was on television.
“From the movies that we watched growing up, it was kung fu and Shaolin Soccer, it was a very traditional China that I’d seen in movies,” Onyishi says. “I was expecting to see like Shaolin monks and stuff on the streets.”
He enrolled in a local high school in Beijing. The teachers and most of the students were Chinese, but there was also a small number of international students.
“A Nigerian family had enrolled their kids two years before I started going there, and because they’d gotten acquainted with that family, it was easier for me to fit in,” Onyishi says. “I wasn’t the pioneer, at least as far as that school goes.”
But it was still an adjustment. Onyishi didn’t speak a word of Mandarin Chinese when he first enrolled. “It was shocking,” he says. “It was drastic. But I think it definitely had a lot of positives for me.”
“When you live in a place where most people don't speak English, you’re forced to speak the language.”
After about a year, he was able to converse with other kids at school. The teachers taught him about Chinese culture and history to help him keep up with classmates.
“When you live in a place where most people don't speak English, you’re forced to speak the language,” Onyishi says.
In recent years, China has become a popular destination for African students. In 2018, there were over 80,000 Africans studying in China, up from just 1,793 in 2003, according to Chinese government figures. Most come for post-secondary education on generous government scholarships. Others, like Onyishi, come with family.
Photography became a way for Onyishi to relate to his world. While studying at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, he started taking photos of his friends as a hobby. His first paid gig was an event for the South African embassy. “After about two years of doing event photography, eventually I felt confident in my craft,” he says.
Over the years, Onyishi has worked with Sony Music, Chinese record label Taihe Music, and fashion designer Guo Pei. He has also directed a lifestyle show on the Chinese streaming platform iQiyi and is currently working on a book.
“I always joke with my friends that I am half Chinese because I spent almost half my life in China.”
One of Onyishi’s struggles as a Black artist in China is finding collaborators who share his experience.
“I’ve always felt that instinct to include Black people in stories that I’m telling because I’m Nigerian,” he says. “I tell stories influenced by my own existence.”
But because the number of Black actors and models active in Beijing is small, Onyishi has often resorted to casting Caucasian and Chinese talent for his films and photo shoots.
The artist admits his experience is unique among Black people—and indeed among non-Chinese expats—in China. He has a team of mostly local assistants and a Chinese-Canadian manager who helps land commissions.
“I always joke with my friends that I am half Chinese,” Onyishi says, “because I spent almost half my life in China and all of my adult life in China. So I definitely feel like China has raised me to a certain degree.”