The Global Economy on Little North Road
Photographing a Guangzhou neighborhood where Africa and China meet.
Contact Press Images photographer Daniel Traub has spent nearly two decades working in Guangzhou, China. Over the years, he became fascinated with the old city neighborhood of Xiaobeilu (literally “Little North Road”). The neighborhood attracts foreign nationals from Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and above all from Africa. Many of the Africans are merchants who live in the city temporarily, passing through to buy goods to sell in Africa and Europe.
Little North Road has an old pedestrian bridge that allows safe passage over the main artery of a vast elevated highway system. One day in 2009, while walking across that bridge, Traub met Wu Yong Fu, who was making a living by taking simple portraits there with a digital camera and printing them for customers on the spot. Most of Wu’s clients were Africans, some attired in dashikis and kaftans, who wanted mementos of their time in China.
Traub wondered whether the Africans in Guangzhou were, in a sense, the flipside of China’s growing presence in Africa, where Chinese businesses and state-owned enterprises have been making inroads for decades. Something about the interaction of these two worlds captured his imagination, and in his visits there Traub spent as much time observing as photographing.
While Wu’s images were mostly formal and direct, some were personal, unguarded and poignant. The gestures, clothing and sense of presence reminded Traub of portraits by well-known African studio photographers. But in Guangzhou, the architecture of the contemporary downtown served as a starkly different economic and visual backdrop.
Traub returned to Guangzhou a year later to find that Wu had been joined by other photographers looking to cash in on the growing photo business on the bridge, among them Zeng Xian Fang.
Traub knew these photographers’ works would be an important document of that moment in time, culturally and in a business sense. Indeed, six years later, the commerce of photography on the bridge at night had been shut down by the Chinese authorities. The African population of Guangzhou, for both political and economic reasons, is declining, and these photos may come to represent the only remaining documents of a moment that has already been lost.
Traub writes in his intro: “Six years after meeting Wu and Zeng, I have come to see this project as a collaboration between these two photographers and myself, which documents a kind of metaphorical gateway for populations entering into China from Africa and the Global South: a sort of ‘Little North Road’ into China.”
Below: street scenes of Guangzhou by Daniel Traub and portraits by Wu Yong Fu and Zeng Xian Fang, all from the book Little North Road: Africa in China by Daniel Traub (Kehrer Verlag, 2016) available here and here.