Rebranding Blackness at the Africa Center in Hong Kong
Hong Kong/Vibe/Happenings

Bringing the African Perspective to Asia at the Hong Kong Africa Center

Bringing the African Perspective to Asia at the Hong Kong Africa Center Photo by Africa Center Hong Kong

The Africa Center in Hong Kong, located down a narrow side-street in Tsim Sha Tsui and up an elevator in a dainty commercial building, was founded by a Zimbabwean immigrant, Innocent Mutanga, as a space of education and outreach for the estimated 6,000 Africans living and working in Hong Kong.

Championing the values of dignity, curiosity, diversity, and empathy, Innocent founded Africa Center's physical space in December 2019, a hub that “fosters value-creating interactions between African and non-African communities in Asia.”

Plastered on the 12th floor of their expansive center and on their website, the Africa Center is proud about “connecting communities,” raising efforts to “rebrand blackness,” and championing a unique “black consciousness.”

A refugee when he first arrived in Hong Kong, Innocent slept on the streets as he fled Zimbabwe’s secret police during a crackdown in his home country. Studying at Chinese University of Hong Kong as the city’s first refugee to enter university and now working as an investment banker, he formed the Center to provide a safe space for the sustained growth and embrace of Hong Kong’s African community.

Through hosting language classes, cooking workshops, literature groups, dance classes, and neighbourhood tours, the Africa CeCentertre exists as a space for comfort and a point of contact for African and non-African people to come together and collaborate, work, eat, play, drink, and grow as a community.

The Beat Asia met with Tsitsi Mareika Chirikure, literature and editorial projects manager, Tinotenda Kelvin Muzariri, projects assistant, and Innocent in November 2021 to tour the Center and explore what the team are doing in raising awareness of African issues, culture, and identity in Hong Kong and initiating conversations with locals about the world’s hidden and forgotten continent.

The Africa Center has operated as a physical space since December 2019 with their current Tsim Sha Tsui location, adjacent to Kowloon Park. Prior to their official physical opening, the Africa Center existed as a temporal organization under the direction of Innocent, who would organize tours and events across Hong Kong, in lieu of a permanent venue.

“We wanted someplace where we can truly be ourselves, a place where every non-African can experience what true African hospitality feels like,” Innocent said in an interview with The Beat Asia.

“We love expressing ourselves authentically and a space where we can do just that and interact with people on our own terms is something we really wanted, and space is just that.”

Innocent explains his decision to begin the Africa Center can be answered in three ways: an inspiration, an urgency, and confidence in the project.

In his youth, he was a fan of the work of Nigerian-novelist Chinua Achebe, author of “Things Fall Apart.” After reading cover to cover, Innocent saw “for the first time Africans being represented with a high degree of agency.”

He found an “indelible vivid feeling of pride” being a black person and wanted to find ways for himself and “Africans to take ownership of our own narrative.”

Innocent found a sense of urgency within himself and a small window – of 10 to 15 years – to create something or start a project for “Africans to take ownership of their own stories.” Confident about the strong demand within Hong Kong, Innocent was perseverant in creating the Africa Center to provide an African perspective to his adoptive city.

Mareika joined the team at the Center in April 2021, where she currently runs the African literature programmes, alongside assisting the operations of daily programmes.

“The mission we have here is necessary,” Mareika told The Beat Asia in an interview about her role and work with the Center. “In general, people [in Hong Kong] don’t know about Africans in Hong Kong. It is important for us to build links with communities outside the African so that people have an idea about the continent [and its people].”

Her primary role is to connect with societies and people within Hong Kong to educate on African literature and authors. Mareika hosts weekly book clubs and discussions in her African literature book series connecting with foreigners, Africans, and educators on the stories of black and African authors.

When Mareika is not in conversation about the plot lines of African literature, she is assisting with tours of TST and Chungking Mansions, drumming workshops, and language exchange meet-ups.

The African Center is not only a “place for comfort,” but a co-working space for members of the community and visitors to work and collaborate on projects, homework, and program. African student groups from Hong Kong’s universities use the space for meetings and gatherings and children enrolled at local schools can often be seen doing homework at the Center's computers.

Africa Center's company mission is upheld in three distinct directives: to rebrand blackness, connecting communities, and champion black consciousness.

Each event hosted by Innocent or the Center team is positioned in a way to provide opportunities for equal and fair representation of the African community, growing as the largest African platform in Asia for overseas Africans, and a space to champion a new African perspective of self-love and post-colonial consciousness.

“The negative perception [and stereotypes] of black people in Hong Kong directly affects the daily lives of Africans living and working in the city,” Mareika told The Beat Asia. Through lecture panels at universities, talks with school children, and community discussion groups, Africa Center's programs can “start the conversation [about blackness and the perceived danger or vulnerability of Africans], foster relationships within our community, and [learn to appreciate the accurate and beautiful presentations of blackness].”

Community outreach is a vital part of the Center's mission. The Center is not just a gathering site for Africans in Hong Kong, but equally a shared venue for celebrating and connecting with other communities in Hong Kong. A weekly Sunday Jusha Dance and Fitness class are held at the Center during the day-off for Hong Kong’s domestic helpers: a space for energy, relaxation, and catch-ups with friends.

A Japanese Summer Festival was hosted by the Center in August 2021 for interested locals or overseas Japanese to celebrate a traditional matsuri festival. From 5 PM to 9:30 PM, the African team hosted a matsuri song performance, belly dancing, traditional hanabi projections, origami and yukata booths, and served up sushi and Japanese snacks.

“It is not just about the African community,” Mareika says, “it is also about getting in touch with different communities and creating these bonds.”

“Our aim for the future is to foster long-term relationships with different groups of people to become a part of our society and not just an option for a Saturday afternoon project.”

Photo by Africa Center Hong Kong

When approaching discussions countering Hong Kong’s racism issue, programmes at the Africa Center are held with the concept of “black consciousness,” pointing to the awareness and consciousness of the power dynamics of black identity rooted in colonialism and a need to create a new African perspective of self-love and potential.

“[Existing as a black person] we are constantly told and taught negative things [about our identity and race]. Sometimes, you tend to internalize [the negativity],” Mareika says.

Africa Center's programmes are thus aimed at “working within ourselves to alter these preconceptions” of black identity, beauty, and society. The monthly African Kidz Club, co-organized by Mareika and local Hong Konger Carmen Wong, seeks to connect with children of African descent in Hong Kong and other ethnicities to celebrate African cultures and educate the youth on valuable ideologies on what being black means.

With more ingrained political and racist issues in Hong Kong, such as housing and policing, the Africa Center attempts to position itself “as a mouthpiece for the issues plaguing African lives in Hong Kong.”

Photo by Africa Center Hong Kong

Innocent regularly hosts talks, workshops, and lectures with schools and universities to educate local Hong Kongers on the racism Africans face in the city.

Service opportunities for younger children are held alongside cooking and music workshops to introduce African culture at an early age, to educate about one of Hong Kong’s smallest migrant community, yet fastest-growing continents.

“We hope for a changing perspective to the African side of Hong Kong, showing people that we are part of Hong Kong. We want to present that the cosmopolitan side of the city also encompasses Africa,” Mareika says.

Innocent calls for a closer relationship with Hong Kong and the government and the Center. “In my view, Hong Kong and Africans need each other. […] It is going to take a good deal of some consciousness for the Africans to realize that they have a lot of urgently needed value to add to this city, and vice versa.”

“With what the city is going through, there is definitely something big we can build together. Hong Kong needs to survive the uncertainties and Africans need a platform to rebrand themselves. I couldn't think of a more mutually beneficial relationship.”

Photo by Africa Center Hong Kong

Food is the key to mankind's heart. This statement runs true with the Africa Center's continued event planning hosting public and private dinners, culinary experiences, and food festivities for African and non-African visitors.

Every Tuesday, the Center's Afro-Asian fusion dinner is held to welcome visitors between 5 PM and 9 PM. Each month focuses on a different theme, offering food mixes and blends of Africa and Asia’s litany of food-centric countries. October celebrated the fusion of Africa and Thailand, current Tuesday set meals in November are blending Africa and Hong Kong, and December and January will offer tastes of Japan and Singapore, respectively.

Private dinners and culinary experiences are held by appointment at the Center. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Innocent organizes African “staycations” at his TST space, sharing plates of injera, traditional Ethiopian-Eritrean flatbread served with dips, and the taste of East African stews, dishes, and spices.

Experiences and dinners are regularly held at the Center, with a careful menu served to visitors created by two full-time African chefs employed by Innocent’s team. All-you-can-eat buffets of west African, southern African, Nigerian, Ghanian, and Zimbabwean cuisine for HK$250 are available for booking on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.

Photo by Africa Center Hong Kong

The Africa Center is in centre of the African community in Hong Kong and the city’s dominant Asian demographic; the team is made up of Cantonese-local interns, a Japanese marketing and projects manager, Zimbabwean literature and editorial projects manager, a Tanzanian teacher, a Somali coordinator, and a wealth of volunteers from Nigeria and Ghana.

The Center continues to grow and strengthen in ways unimaginable in a world without the enforced shutdown of Hong Kong borders due to the pandemic. “With COVID-19, Hong Kong is closed to outsiders, but very open within the borders,” Makeira says.

“For us, it’s been beneficial because people can’t leave,” instead of enjoying their once-planned travels to Africa in the forms of staycations at the Center sharing African cuisine and a conversation and relationship with the Center's strong membership and the team supporting the burgeoning community.

Innocent, however, is “not satisfied yet” when it comes to the programs and future for the Center. “There is still a lot of work and still a lot to do, and I do not have time to celebrate small wins, but any project that involves education and youths is likely my favourite.”

One future project Innocent and his team are hoping to realize is the creation of the African International School within the next decade, an African-centered education system in either Hong Kong or Shenzhen.

Elsewhere, Innocent hopes to replicate the Africa Center concept in other Asia-Pacific cities, such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul, and Taipei.

“We have a very short window of time [for the creation of a new center], so we need to expand very fast before the window closes.”

Photo by Africa Center Hong Kong

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