Making a Life in China: A Documentary

By Iain Manley Mar 17, 2012

There is a singing, smiling Tibetan in the documentary about our lives in Shanghai. Her name is Lamu and she works at Mokkos, the Japanese bar that Claire and I made our local after chancing on it down a quiet lane. Lamu sings when customers pick up the instruments scattered through the bar – the bongo drums, guitars and clickers, along with the single-stringed ektara from Nepal. She doesn’t need the accompaniment: her voice is strikingly powerful and drowns out everything, even the drums.

Smiling, singing Tibetans are a mainstay of Chinese propaganda. They appeared in ads for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo while we were there, twirling in traditional costume with the Expo’s mascot Haibo. It is how China chooses to portray most of its ethnic minorities: childlike, simple and happy with Communist Party rule.

The documentary was funded by the China Intercontinental Communications Centre – a government organ – and I can only imagine how happy we made officials by inserting their favourite prop into the story of our time in Shanghai. We also took the film crew – flown in from South Africa, working for a television station called eTV – to a longtang scheduled for demolition. It appears in the documentary without context. I am shown talking to and taking photographs of an old woman who had lived in the collection of homes and lanes that made up the longtang her whole life. She was, she said, happy to go. Her home had no plumbing and she saw no reason to stay so close to the city centre, without having to work. There was nuance in the longtang – progress paired with loss – but forced demolitions are a thorny subject in China and had no place in documentary intended to project its soft power, without nuance. It was propaganda and we, to some extent, were its puppets, but we didn’t mind very much. In fact, we felt lucky: whatever the final result, the documentary was an opportunity for us to reflect on our time in Shanghai, just before we left.

The documentary is one episode of a series called Postcards from China, which documents the lives of South Africans living in China. It was filmed near the end of 2010, just before we started on our journey home, but Claire and I were only able to watch it for the first time a few days ago, when we found the documentary on Vimeo. It is also the story of Lebogang Rasethaba’s life in Beijing. The episode was called “The Art of Learning” because while we were writing books and studying Chinese in Shanghai, Lebo was making films – and studying Chinese – in Beijing. When we found the documentary online, we thought we would interview Lebo, to find out what he thought of Postcards from China, and what he has done since it was made.

Interview with Lebogang Rasethaba

Lebogang Rasethaba

What have you been doing since Postcards from China was made?

I was shooting all kinds of stuff, some good some bad. I worked on music videos, travelled in parts of Africa, shot cool and interesting documentaries, and it all was incredible on so many different levels. But then I also shot sketchy community development videos with very unscrupulous fat-cat fund managers with tight jeans and big cars, I shot propaganda videos for mayors, birthday videos for government officials. It’s been very up and down.

It’s like that in China, I know: interesting work mixed up with sketchy jobs to pay the bills. How did you get involved in making videos for government officials?  

My friends have always said I live a crazy life because I end up in these bizarre and extremely complicated situations that are beyond me, and I never know what to do. Anyway, I always try to source the origins of the madness and it’s always through people; people are the root of all madness. I know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who is looking out for me, and totally rooting for me to make it as a filmmaker, and therefore I should shoot a video and make this new mayor elect look good for his 2016 campaign…what? But anyway, get this: for the birthday video I got to film Tokyo Sexwale, and he is a mountain of man – the avatar of South African politics. And through experiences like that I learnt how to behave around society’s heavyweights.

What do you think of Postcards from China?

For me, this whole Postcards from China thing is very silly. I said to them: I won’t do it unless we focus on A, B, C and D, to which they agreed – only to see in the final edit that nothing we agreed on was featured. The only redeeming factor is that my grandmother gets to brag to her friends about her grandson being on TV.   

The focus was narrow, I agree, but it was short and made for a general audience. How do you think your life in China was misrepresented?

I told them I have no interest in giving people an obscure window into China through staged scenarios. I think I might have used the words “stupid and simple.” And the producers said “Totally.” I suggested we focus the show on documenting the behind-the-scenes of my second short film Metro, and that way – by documenting the creative process of making a short film – they can get a glimpse into lived experiences in China. You know, the process of translating an English script into Chinese – subtle nuances like that. Did anything even remotely similar to that come out? I just look like some talky foreigner who can’t speak Chinese filming discarded wheelbarrows.

In Shanghai, people often react with surprise to foreigners who speak Chinese. Is Beijing different?

A lot of how people communicate is based on context; it’s not really about content. If someone doesn’t expect to understand you, they probably won’t. You could say a straightforward sentence in perfect Chinese and the waitress, for example, will just look at you and not have a clue what you are saying because she doesn’t expect to understand you. A lot of these reactions are based on the assumptions people make about you before they meet you – you know what I mean? I think foreigners speaking Chinese is still a slight deviation from the original script.

Just as foreigners speaking Chinese often comes as a surprise to Chinese people, so does being unmarried in your late twenties. How do you respond to people’s shock (and horror) when you say you aren’t married?

I love the transition from that shock you described to being offered solace in the form of a young, beautiful Chinese girl. Last weekend I was on a snowboarding trip in Dongbei with some friends and this old, tripped-out mountain ranger was beside himself with excitement when I told him I wasn’t married. He immediately got on the phone to his wife and told her that they had found a husband for their daughter. I literally had to give him the wrong number; I didn’t stand a chance otherwise.

We’ve written about how our everyday interactions with Chinese people were almost always centred on the fact that we’re white South Africans, which isn’t something Chinese people generally know about or expect. What is the focus of conversations when people ask where you’re from?

Well, at a fundamental level it’s very similar because it’s all about stating the obvious. That works on a couple of levels: on one level it’s a measure for “Everything is okay, we’re cool here, no need to panic”… And on another level, people can affirm their identities through stating obvious differences, and I think for Chinese people, their identity is very important. Stating the obvious is a good way of keeping track of these things.

You’ve made documentaries about Africans in China. How has your time in the country, and your work, shaped your sense of Pan-African identity?

If by Pan-African you mean wanting to unify the identity of Africans on the continent, then I don’t think I fully subscribe to that, purely because I don’t think I fully understand the larger implications. But there is one thing I will say: for the longest time my idea of myself as a South African was shaped through interactions with other South Africans, and of course that gave me a very limited idea of myself. So when I travelled out of the country I began to understand myself through the way other people saw me, and I was surprised to find out that – amongst many things – I was perceived to be a fortunate, arrogant, ignorant and xenophobic brat. It was a really humbling experience, particularly when dealing with people from other parts of Africa. I got to understand how I was partly a product of my audiences, and how that needed to change.

You made a short film called Sino about your experience of sharing a dormitory with somebody from Francophone Africa and the complexity of that relationship. Can you tell me more about that?

Sino was such a special movie for me – probably my best work ever. I always watch it to try and remember how I did it. The idea of being a shameless and unapologetic kid who just wants to make films: it’s a space I find myself constantly trying to get back to now. When I made Sino, it was like I lived in this hyper-real world, and I had to take every single thought and every emotion I felt seriously. I wasn’t indifferent about anything. My point is that, in making the Anglophone Francophone dynamic so central to the story, I was trying to say that we shouldn’t take things like that for granted. As I mentioned before, I have been persecuted a lot for being from a country where poor people from neighbouring countries are burnt alive. This Kenyan lady said to me, “You’re from South Africa – beautiful country. But why do you kill people from my country?” I was totally defenceless.

You’ve been home recently, but are back in Beijing now. What did you enjoy about being in South Africa and what do you think China offers than you can’t find at home?

While I was home I was exposed to a generation of young, smart, black, creative, enabled people: this really convincing energy from my peers – something I struggled to find in the past, especially in city that is as materialistic and stifling as Jo’burg, so I was totally inspired and excited. It was a bit of dream come true to be as immersed in it as I was. What does China offer?  Well, a few things: being anonymous, experiencing arguably the biggest conversation of the 21st century first-hand, first world experiences at third prices, and maybe a glimpse of the future.

Why do you feel anonymous in China and not South Africa?

Well, people in South Africa my age are all sort of chasing the urban dream; it’s the house, the car, the tailored suit, the belly, the music video facial hair, the this that, the that, and a lot of people seem to thrive on being part of this collective whose defining characteristic is success – which is measured by material possessions of course. And I kind of like the idea of just being a number here, I am just one of a billion indiscernible people roaming the streets. And then there is the international community here, and I appreciate being surrounded by a bunch of drifters like myself: people who don’t have it all figured out yet and are sort of okay with that.

What do you think South Africa – the people, the government, business leaders, culture makers – can learn from China?

For me, our government is like your drunk uncle. You love him, you are always on his side, you listen to his incoherent ramblings but it’s just one disappointment after another, until the day you find him passed out under a tree – midday mind you – and he has peed all over his pants, and you ask yourself, “How long can I keep believing all this?” One thing I love about the Chinese government is how they appear do things that encourage a ‘They’re on our side’ sort of feeling in their people. All the little people believe that the big people are doing things that are in their best interest, and that’s something very powerful. What are the figures – something ridiculous like 600 million people that the Chinese government has taken about out of poverty in 25 years? So, no matter how much they screw up, the people still have confidence in their government to do the right thing for them. I just don’t know if I can say that about our about favourite drunken uncle.

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13 Responses to “Making a Life in China: A Documentary”

  1. It should be called: Destroying of livers in China: A Documentary

  2. It would be Daryl, but you only have a bit part.

  3. Geoffrey S. Broz, your fine handling of a scooter is a part of this too.

  4. Tom Hudson says:

    Wow, so much personal information about a world I've never visited. This is not just a documentary. It's more like a personal journal that you've offered up for me to share in a meaningful part of your life. Thank you so very much for the honor of sharing in your experience.

  5. Nika says:

    Where can I watch or download the documentary?

  6. Explura says:

    Wow, what a detailed insight of a first hand visit to China. To me the Language is gonna be a barrier.

  7. Divya says:

    I find your blog really very interesting. It provides information that perhaps we would not find anywhere. It gives you the desire to travel and discover the marvels of the world. Also the way you write, it seems like we are actually living the journey with you. A real testimonial about how life in China is, is simply amazing taking into consideration how strict the Chinese system is. You are doing a great job.

  8. Helena says:

    "It was propaganda and we, to some extent, were its puppets, but we didn’t mind very much."

    I really can't get beyond this statement…I'm dumbfounded. You don't mind promoting propaganda behind which a genocide lurks?

    • Iain Manley says:

      Helena, I'm confused by your choice of words. What genocide are you referring to? If you're referring to Tibet, the Dalai Lama has called the Chinese government's actions there "cultural genocide." I partly agree, but you have to admit that cultural genocide and genocide are not at all the same.

      I also don't know how genocide lurks behind a documentary about my life in Shanghai. Lamu is from Yunnan, not Tibet, and she is a happy, successful woman, who now has her own bar. My time in Shanghai was happy and almost entirely apolitical and I think the documentary reflects that. I drew your attention to Lamu and the demolition of the longtang here. If I hadn't, would you have even noticed?

      There's an old argument over how to treat China's many human rights abuses. Some people say China should be ostracised, others say China should be engaged, and that dialogue can achieve more than sanctions. For better or worse, the people who argue for engagement won long ago, and in eight years' time, China will have the world's largest economy. It's a vast, multifaceted place and not every representation of it needs to be overtly political.

  9. Helena says:

    Whether to apply the term “genocide” or “cultural genocide” (a subcategory of genocide) to the situation in Tibet, as defined under international law, has been a topic for debate since around 1960, when a group of international legal scholars in Geneva produced two reports relating to the question of genocide in Tibet and concluded that “acts of genocide had been committed in Tibet in an attempt to destroy the Tibetans as a religious group.” [source: International Commission of Jurists (1960). Tibet and the Chinese People's Republic: A Report to the International Commission of Jurists by its Legal Inquiry Committee on Tibet . Geneva .]

    The definitions have been contested since and we could argue it either way. Meanwhile, 1.2 million Tibetans have lost their lives under the Chinese communist occupation. So, for the sake of simplicity, let’s use the term “cultural genocide,” which can include, but is not limited to, the abolition of a group’s language; restrictions on its traditional practices; destruction of a group’s religious institutions, sacred places, and sacred objects; persecution of its clergy members; dispossession of a population from its traditional territories; destruction of its natural resources; discriminatory economic development policies; imposed assimilation and integration; and so forth.

    The question about how (cultural) genocide lurks behind the documentary is easier to pin down than the definition of the term. The answer lies in the very words you use to describe the film’s making.

    "There is a singing, smiling Tibetan in the documentary about our lives in Shanghai …."

    "Smiling, singing Tibetans are a mainstay of Chinese propaganda….It is how China chooses to portray most of its ethnic minorities: childlike, simple and happy with Communist Party rule."

    “It was propaganda and we, to some extent, were its puppets, but we didn’t mind very much.”

    "The documentary was funded by the China Intercontinental Communications Centre – a government organ – and I can only imagine how happy we made officials by inserting their favourite prop into the story of our time in Shanghai ."

    So, you see, your own observations about the film are inescapably political in nature and point toward issues quite serious in scope. And although you wished for a film as “apolitical” in nature as your time in Shanghai, with funding coming from the China Intercontinental Communications Centre (i.e., the media production arm of the China's State Council Information Office, which is the chief information office of the Chinese communist government), perhaps this was an impossible wish.

  10. Jone says:

    I'm sorry, my English is not good. I just want to tell you RMB printed above the Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan and Zhuang. Is this “cultural genocide"?

  11. Rachael Hamblin says:

    Thank you for providing access to the above interview and documentary. I loved being able to peek inside of China as it is now and from your young perspectives. I found the documentary inspiring and refreshing. It hadn't occurred to me either that simply learning a language might not be enough to be understood by native speakers due to their expectation that they will not be able to understand someone who is clearly foreign to them. That explains a lot!!! Thanks again and good luck with your future endeavours.

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