On Oct. 4, students and faculty gathered in Rockefeller Hall for a screening and discussion of “Guangzhou Dream Factory,” a 2018 documentary about African migration to China. Among those in attendance were Christiane Badgley, the film’s writer, director and co-producer, and Badgley’s co-producer Erica Marcus.
The duo had been invited to screen their film at Vassar by political science major Ruoyu Li ’19, who, like many students at the event, is herself from China. Li stated via email that she was inspired to hold the event after attending the International Studies Association Annual Conference last March, where the film was screened in conjunction with a discussion between Badgley, Marcus and the audience. Li described the audience as small, but continued, “[E]veryone there [was] thoughtful and critical, so the discussions were very illuminating and productive. People [hung] out afterwards, and we got to connect with Erica and Christiane.” When Li found out that the filmmakers would be on the East Coast this fall, she invited them to Vassar. She commented, “[I] hoped that we could facilitate similar conversational learning on campus, [about a film which] touches upon interesting issues that [are] worth attention—Africa, China, globalization, international migration, forms of capitalism, state control, daily resistance, etc.”
All of these themes and more were, indeed, notable throughout the documentary. According to the film’s website, the movie critiques global capitalism by exploring stories of Africans chasing “made in China” dreams. The story arc of “Guangzhou Dream Factory” takes the viewer from the beaches and markets of Ghana to the streets and shops of Guangzhou, China, before finally ending back in Africa. The plot was designed to reveal the movie’s underlying theme of African globality. Although the majority of the film takes place in China, Badgley explained during the question and answer session after the screening that she sees the piece as primarily a means to “show a story of African entrepreneurship and dynamism.”
In pursuit of this aim, the movie features interviews with African immigrants from Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, which are juxtaposed with scenes of Chinese merchants competing with African newcomers for business. By exploring this conflict, “Guangzhou Dream Factory” aims to find an answer to the multi-faceted central question posed by Badgley’s voiceover at the film’s beginning: “Could China hold the key to African prosperity?”
As the voiceover goes on to explain, this seems like a familiar question: “Where the West once stood as a beacon of opportunity, today China, the world’s factory, beckons.” Badgley continued this comparison in person at the screening, commenting, “[The story] started out as something really positive and dynamic.” African merchants touted Chinese production as a means to exponentially enhance their businesses, the way immigrants once felt the United States could. However, as the filmmakers’ research went deeper, they uncovered truths about African immigration to China that changed the conversation completely—the way buried truths about life in the United States often do too.
African women told the filmmakers stories about friends who had been lured to China under false pretenses of job opportunity, only to find out when they arrived that the promised job was prostitution. With no way to get back to Africa, many women in positions like this are forced to take up sex work. African men described trouble renewing the month-long visas they had been issued, as well as difficulty navigating the Chinese law dictating that any business must have at least one Chinese partner. (Many married Chinese women and worked with them.)
Badgley and Marcus were exposed to all this and more in what they describe as the hub of African life in Guangzhou: the markets. These multi-story buildings are packed with both African and Chinese merchants. In the Q&A after the screening, Marcus characterized the markets as unsafe in many ways. Not only do they have exposed wiring, but on a legal level, the markets are riddled with laws prohibiting anyone who is not Chinese from renting shop space. She recalled two instances in which police raids surprised the filmmakers during filming, commenting, “[Before I knew anything was happening] the gates on all the shops went down, and all the people disappeared.”
Toward the end of the movie, disappearing people becomes a theme. As more and more Africans immigrate to China, Chinese migration laws continue to grow stricter, forcing many African merchants to leave the country. One shopkeeper spoke about how, even though he still had time left on his visa, he and his wife were considering moving on to Vietnam due to lack of business resulting from the large-scale deportation of African immigrants. This statement prompts reflection upon Badgley and Marcus’ main research question regarding China as the “key to African prosperity.” If China is not, in fact, the key, could Vietnam be? Could the answer to this question be found in a different country?
One African man living in Guangzhou spoke indirectly to this question at the end of the film. His answer? Absolutely not. According to him, the key is electricity. Without electricity, he reasoned, industrialization is all but impossible. He continued, “Sometimes I imagine if African leaders could put what they have together … We shouldn’t be here.”
The film expresses this sentiment—that Africa should be a place for African success—by returning to the continent for its final scenes, which feature images of growing factories. There is hope for the future in this ending, as well as echoes of the past. As Marcus said in the Q&A, “People saw this and were like ‘Oh, my God, this is the story of my family.’” Summing up this emotional and relatable last note, Badgley added, “It’s a migration story and a globalization story. In many ways, this is a universal story.”