Chinese in Sudan

The Beijing hotel is, without a doubt, the largest “prefab” I’ve ever seen. Its spacious lobby, grandiose theater, connecting hallways and dozens of rooms are constructed solely from plastic slats fastened together in a less than appealing aesthetic. Its entrance is decorated with plastic trees that, at night, glow an array of neon colors.

Last Saturday evening, the Beijing Hotel appropriately hosted the celebration of the 61st anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Sponsored by the Chinese National Petroleum Company and organized by the Chinese consulate, the event amounted to one of the strangest, albeit entertaining, that I have ever attended.

It commenced with gorgeous Chinese dancers playing drums on a stage that looked prepared to host the Blue Man Group. Blue, orange, green and yellow lights illuminated the dancers as copious amounts of fake smoke gushed from machines on all corners of the stage. The drummers were followed by a team of predictably underage male gymnasts who, despite frequent mistakes in their act, finished every maneuver with a plastic, ear-to-ear smile. The gymnasts made way for a series of renowned Chinese, pop culture entertainers who performed acts ranging from magic, to brass instruments to comedic routines in Mandarin poking fun at Chinese celebrities that no one outside of China has ever heard of.

In the middle of the event, a man from the consulate took the stage to say a few words about the People’s Republic and led the crowd in the Chinese national anthem. Unfortunately, neither he nor any of the other participants spoke a word of English. The presentation’s communication was left to a young, Chinese-American woman who served as the evening’s emcee. With a charming smile, and form fitting black dress she appeared between scenes to explain what would otherwise be lost.

The event was a strong and interesting indication of China’s growing presence in resource-rich areas of Africa. Here in Sudan, China is heavily invested in petro-chemical extraction in the oil rich basins throughout south central areas of the country. When one drives through the oil fields of northern Upper Nile state, it is common to see busloads of Chinese oil workers traveling on out-of-place tarmac roads between processing facilities. There is, in fact, an international airport in the village of Paloich, a tiny speck in the middle of the Melut oil basin. While I do not know for sure, something tells me that the planes that fly in and out are likely destined for China.

I am curious to see how the resource game between east and west unfolds here in Africa. As I watched these Chinese entertainers whose mission, at least in part, is to win popular favor among Sudanese, I could not help but think of the vast cultural gap between China and Africa. Western powers have been involved in Africa for centuries, leaving behind aspects of their customs, practices and languages. While large-scale cultural differences certainly exist between Africans and Westerners, most continental capitals bare the clear marks of past and current relationships with the West. The national powerbrokers in most countries share learned languages and customs with incoming French, Dutch and American investors. Watching a stereotypically Chinese entertainer play a trumpet into the face of a Sudanese parliamentarian seemed like a futile attempt at cultural persuasion.

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