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Book Review: Little North Road by Daniel Traub

image: Wu Yong Fu

image: Wu Yong Fu

Little North Road portrays Africans, most of them in their Sunday best, on a pedestrian bridge in Guangzhou, Southern China. The portrayals are meant to illustrate that they are doing fine abroad.

How did the book come about? Photographer Daniel Traub stumbled across two Chinese guys, Wu Yong Fu and Zeng Xian Fang, who took pictures of Africans (and made prints on the spot) in Guangzhou. Traub convinced them to transfer several hundred files to his computer and then came up with the captivating selection that is now found in Little North Road.

Traub describes himself as “someone who has long been involved with China, including a decade spent living and working there, and as someone who has worked in various parts of the African continent” and so it’s no wonder he felt intrigued by Wu Yong Fu’s and Zeng Xian Fang’s picture taking.

image: Zeng Xian Fang

image: Zeng Xian Fang

Guangzhou is a port city with a population of about 13 million including a considerable number of Africans. I thought this astonishing – hence my interest in this book – for during my four-month stay in China (in Fujian Province, in 2002) I was told by Chinese that they had not much sympathy for Africans. Whether this is true or not (or can be so generally put) I cannot say but it influenced my perception of the Chinese not exactly favourably. Looking at the pics in this tome did however modify my view. Especially Traub’s double-page spreads at the beginning, that show Little North Road by day, and at the end, that show Little North Road by night, convey the impression that Chinese and Africans are getting along just fine.

“The title of this book LITTLE NORTH ROAD is the literal English translation of Xiaobeilu, a road in the Yuexiu District of Guangzhou, which the pedestrian bridge adjoins. ‘Xiaobeilu’ is also the colloquial name for the broader area surrounding the road. It is the most diverse section of the city, and includes the largest number of African visitors and immigrants in Guangzhou.”

Apart from Daniel Traub’s impressive photographs, we get to see shots by Wu Yong Fu, that were taken from 2009 to 2011, and by Zeng Xian Fang, that were taken from 2011 to 2014. For them, picture taking is primarily a business (they had no idea what a treasure trove they had produced and without Daniel Traub these photographs would not exist anymore) and to target Africans was simply a smart business-idea.

image: Zeng Xian Fang

image: Zeng Xian Fang

Wu Yong Fu comments: “Having these portraits seemed important to the Africans in Guangzhou. They wanted to have a souvenir of their time in China. They also wanted to have something to send to their friends and family in Africa that showed their success in China – doing business and prospering.” In the words of Zeng Xian Fang: “The bridge was a good place to work because so many of the people from Africa liked to have their pictures taken. I’ve photographed people from all over the African continent. It must have something to do with their customs. I think it is important to them to show their friends and family back home how well they are doing in China.”

I thought it interesting that in our times of cellphones with cameras the Africans did not take selfies but decided to be portrayed by people they did not personally know. It might have to do with the fact, as Wu Yong Fu surmises, that he and his colleagues are a bit more professional (they are however not trained but self-taught) and, not least, can also make prints on the spot.

It is truly fascinating to see how colourful these Africans decided to present themselves to the cameras and what they wanted their folks back home to see. The Chinese are different, says Zeng Xian Fang: “We only like to have our pictures made when we are at famous tourist sites.”

This highly enjoyable and well-composed document comes with useful background information by two academics, Roberto Castillo and Barbara Pollack. The latter rightfully points out that authorship of these pics “may belong to the subjects themselves, who certainly played at least a collaborative role in the production ot these portraits.”

Little North Road cover

Little North Road. Africa in China
Photographs by Daniel Traub, Wu Yong Fu and Zeng Xian Fang
Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin 2015
For more information or to purchase the book: www.xiaobeilu.org/book/

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland. www.hansdurrer.com/, 12-step-addiction-treatment.blogspot.ch/. Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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