The Woyingi Blog

Mixed Race Lives: Jean Ping

Jean Ping, a Gabonese politician, is a well-known African diplomat who currently holds the position of Chairman of the Commission of the African Union. My interest in writing about him is because he is a person of mixed race; although his political career alongside Omar Bongo, the world’s longest serving non-Monarch ruler is also fascinating.

Gabonese Politician Jean Ping

Jean Ping was born on November 24th 1942 in the village of Omboué, south of Port-Gentil , to a Gabonese mother, the daughter of a local leader, and a Chinese father, Cheng Zhiping. Cheng Zhiping was from the port city of Wenzhou, China. Wenzhou’s eastern coast looks out to the East China Sea and the city boasts successful emigrant communities which made their fortunes in business in Europe and the United States. Wenzhou was one of the few ports that remained under Chinese control during the Second Sino-Japanese War which began in 1937.

The most I have been able to learn about Jean Ping’s Chinese father has been from a badly translated 2010 article originally written by Wang Qin, a Chinese diplomat in Africa,  for the Chinese Online Magazine, Africa Magazine that states that its aim is to get its Chinese readers to know and love Africa. It is unclear when Cheng Zhiping settled in West Africa. According to Wang Qin, it was in the late 1930s but according to Wikipedia it was the 1920s. Cheng Zhiping came as a labourer but soon became a merchant, selling wood, Chinaware, and seafood. He also ran a bakery. According to Wang Qin, when Jean was a month old, his father took him to be baptized in order to respect his Christian Gabonese mother’s wishes. It was also his father who named him Jean. His father sent Jean Ping to be educated in France. Jean Ping would eventually receive a doctorate in economics from the University of Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne).

Jean Ping’s political career inside and outside Gabon has been charmed. In 1972, began working for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). In 1978, he became Gabon’s Permanent Delegate to UNESCO until 1984. Subsequently, he became President of the Civil Cabinet of Omar Bongo, a position in which he served until 1990. According to Africa Confidential, it was this period that was pivotal for his career: “The career of Gabon’s consummate diplomat owes its success less to the impact he made as President of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2004-05 than his accomplishments as head of cabinet to the country’s veteran President, El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba in 1984-90.”

Ping’s connection with Bongo goes beyond politics. Jean Ping had a romantic relationship with Omar Bongo’s daugther, Pascaline, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, despite being married to another woman who he had no intention of divorcing. Ping and Pascaline had two children together while working side by side  in Bongo’s Cabinet. Ping took over from Pascaline as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1994, when she became the Director of the Presidential Cabinet. Pascaline eventually married another Gabonese politician in 1995. Ping would hold the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs for nine years. In 2002, Jean Ping wrote the book “Mondialisation, Paix, Démocratie et Développent: l’expérience du Gabon, published by Editions de l’Harmattan.

In 2004, Jean Ping was elected as the 59th President of the United Nations General Assembly.

Jean Ping has been a key figure in encouraging African trade with China. He helped to organize Chinese President Hu Jintao‘s visit to Gabon in 2004. According to Africa Confidential:

As Foreign Minister since 1999, he has led Gabon’s campaign to open up trade with non-traditional partners including China, Brazil and South Africa. Ping is uncritical of the Chinese, who signed a controversial US$3 billion iron ore-backed deal for the development of the Bélinga deposit in northeastern Gabon in 2006, saying: ‘With China, everything is simple. She gives us debt forgiveness or long-term loans without interest or conditions.’

Jean Ping would eventually visit his father’s town of Wenzhou in 1987.  According to Wang Qin:

When Jean Ping first returned his hometown, the people there welcomed him heatedly just like they were celebrating a festival. The most exciting was to see his ninety-four-years-old aunt. One of his cousin even excitedly said it was unimaginable to have such a black and great cousin. They were filled with the happiness of family reunion. Even though they could not understand what each other said, their hearts were together.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Jean Ping discussing the role of the African Union in economic development and peace-keeping:

You have talked about regional integration as a priority for the African Union. How do you explain why trade among African countries accounts for less than 10 percent of the continent’s total imports and exports?

I think that this is due to lack of infrastructure. You need roads and railways; otherwise you can’t provide goods among yourselves. It is not easy. In the SADC [Southern African Development Community] region, the 15 member countries have succeeded in creating a free zone for about 170 million inhabitants, [built around] the economic strength of South Africa, which produces goods, not just raw materials.

It would be good for the rest of the continent to sell to each other, but you need infrastructure and a common market. We now have a market of one billion inhabitants. But, unfortunately, 165 borders divide the continent into 53 countries. Some of these [places] have less than half a million people. Progress has been slow, but progress has been made and things are moving faster, especially in two sub-regions – SADC and ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States]. ECOWAS has the same land area and population size – about 390 million inhabitants – as Europe, but a smaller economy. The first step is regional, and then you move to the continental market. The key is taking down barriers to foster economic growth.

Is there a danger that integration could exacerbate other problems? There have been, for example, outbreaks of xenophobia in countries as disparate as South Africa and Ghana.

We can’t wait. We have some obstacles but can you imagine a project like that without obstacles? One of the big problems has been sovereignty – the principal of non-interference in internal affairs. Our charter, which has been ratified by all 53 countries, says clearly that in the case of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, we have the duty to interfere, immediately, without asking permission [from] anybody.

Africa is probably the only continent in the world that has codified that principle. This gives us the right to go into Somalia, the right to send an army to The Comoros and re-establish a constitutional government on the island of Anjouan by force. But you use force when you have no other means. You have to try all the other means and, if you can’t succeed, think about using force. Using force is not something, which can be routine.

Conflict resolution and peacekeeping are central to the mission of the African Union. How would you measure progress in that area?

We have moved a lot from 15 or 20 years ago. In 1996, the continent was confronted with more than 15 conflicts responsible for half of the deaths caused by war in the whole world. Half of them! Recall the situations in Liberia; Sierra Leone; the Democratic Republic of Congo, where ten countries were fighting inside one country; the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Many countries in the north of Africa were confronted with terrorism – Algeria, Egypt. The continent was in blood. But mainly Africans themselves have resolved these conflicts. We still have the problem of consolidation of peace, because countries like Liberia are vulnerable, Congo has not yet achieved peace in the eastern part. And we still have two remaining conflicts: Darfur and Somalia.

In Somalia, the AU has the primary peacekeeping responsibility. What are the prospects for ending the war there?

This is the only country in the world with no government and no institutions for 18 years. The country is no longer a country. The terrorists are doing everything that is forbidden, including piracy. It is not acceptable. A few years ago, [people might have said]: ‘This is happening in Africa; I’m not concerned’. But then the piracy happened. Somalia became a threat to world peace, a threat to the world economy. All these warships went to that region. But pirates were not born in the ocean and they don’t live there. They come from Somalia. If you want sustainable peace you have to go where they come from, which is on the land.

This is a collective responsibility. The United Nations belongs to all of us. Of the 192 [member] countries, 53 are African. But when we asked the Security Council to go there they don’t agree. Some said that there is no peace to keep in Somalia, which means we have to bring peace first, and then they would come to keep the peace. We are alone there. We are maintaining the security of the transitional government of Sheik Sharif Ahmed. We protect them according to the mandate that we have received. But Somalia should be a state like all others [with] their own government. They should maintain their own peace. To do that we’re training their security forces, about 10,000 troops.

How many peacekeepers does the AU have in Somalia?

Today we have 5,200 troops. We plan to have 8,000. But we are not going to be there forever, so we train, equip and pay [the Somalis]. There is an embargo on armaments, so we’re asking for a lift on the embargo for government troops. There is a road map.

In Darfur, the AU is working alongside the United Nations. How is that progressing?

In the beginning, when the conflict started, we sent our troops alone, like in Somalia. It was called AMIS, the African Mission to Sudan. It was a very difficult time. Some of our troops died, so we called on the UN to be there. They accepted to come to Darfur and we have a joint mission, a hybrid operation. It is the biggest operation ever organized by the UN. When we reach full force, it would be 26,000. Let me tell you that 95 or 96 per cent of troops there are Africans. None are from western countries. The commander is Rwandese. Rwanda has four battalions there, and Nigeria has four battalions. It’s an African component trying to bring peace to Darfur.

Today, there are no more killings, really, which means that we are moving in the right direction.

The AU is now using the term ‘low intensity fighting’ to describe the situation in Darfur. But many NGOs working there take issue with that characterization and say the conflict is still serious. In Darfur, the NGOs [are now] an industry. So you can understand that, sometimes, maybe people want to stay there. I am sorry to say it as [plain] as that. But it should be clear enough that you have four main issues in Darfur. In the African Union, we take them in a holistic manner – all of them. The NGOs consider justice here, peace there. There is a problem of security and we have UNAMID [the African Union/United Nations Hybrid operation in Darfur] to bring peace. But since the civil war there is a need for reconciliation. It is not the army that will solve the problem; it is dialogue and reconciliation among the population. It is not only to stop war or to give food to refugee camps, but to solve the root causes of the war and we have a political joint mediator working there

Further Reading:

AU President Jean Ping went back to hometown, Wenzhou, for many times by Wang Qin (2010 article translated from Chinese for Africa Magazine available online)

Jean Ping’s Profile from Africa Confidential available online

Excerpts from an interview with Jean Ping available online

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Film Review: The Karate Kid (2010)

I couldn’t resist seeing the latest incarnation of The Karate Kid starring the progeny of Will Smith and Jada Pickett Smith, Jaden Smith, and China’s Number One Internationally Recognized Action Hero Jackie Chan.

But I wonder why it was called The Karate Kid? Did the film’s producers really worry that people wouldn’t go to see the film if there was no brand recognition? Didn’t they think that the adorable Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, and a theme song by every tween’s favourite Canadian Heartthrob Justin Bieber would be enough to get people to the box office? Unlike when the original Karate Kid starring Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio came out in 1984, your average North American knows a thing or two about Asian Martial Arts. For example, your average North American viewer knows that what Jackie Chan ends up teaching Jaden Smith isn’t karate, it’s kung-fu. So why not call the film The Kung-Fu Kid? Actually, the film is called The Kung Fu Kid in the People’s Republic of China!

The film begins with Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) preparing to leave his apartment with his mother (Taraji Henson). We learn that his father is dead and his mother has been transferred to Beijing, China by the Auto Factory she works for. Dre isn’t happy to leave his Black neighbourhood in Detroit for China, where he thinks everything is old.

There is a great scene on the plane ride to China when Dre’s mom forces him to greet a fellow passenger who looks East Asian in Mandarin Chinese. The passenger replies in perfect American English that he comes from Detroit.

On his first day in Beijing, Dre has to go looking for his new apartment’s handyman, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) because the hot water isn’t working (it actually is working, it’s just not automatic due to an energy-saving switch). Dre’s first meeting with Mr. Han doesn’t go well as Mr. Han ignores him and instead picks up a dead fly with his chopsticks and then continues to eat noodles with said chopsticks-Gross.

Dre is befriended by another expat White kid who takes him to the local park to play Basketball with the local Chinese kids. Dre isn’t good at Basketball (Way to Challenge Black Stereotypes!). Instead, he decides to chat up an adorable Chinese girl named Mai Ying who is sitting on a park bench practicing her violin. She immediately takes a liking to him and asks to touch his hair (Oh, the universal request when anyone not used to Black people meets a Black person-They want to touch our hair!!!) But Cheng, whose family I close to Mei Ying’s family, doesn’t take Dre’s fraternizing with Mei Ying well. There is really no reason for this kid’s beef with Dre given other than that maybe he himself has a crush on Mei Ying but that’s not developed. Cheng and his friends continue to bully Dre at school and terrorize him whenever they see him.

After rescuing Dre from a brutal attack by Cheng and his gang, Mr. Han decides to help Dre by approaching the boys’ Kung-Fu teacher. Mr. Han believes that any genuine Kung-Fu teacher would be horrified to learn that his students were starting fights and ganging up on defenseless kids. But after watching the boys’ Kung-Fu teacher, Master Li, in action, it becomes clear that he won’t be of any help because his whole predatory “no mercy” approach to teaching Kung-Fu is actually why his students are such bullies. In order to get himself and Dre out of Master Li’s class without getting themselves beaten up, Mr. Han promises to register Dre in the upcoming Kung-Fu Tournament. In return, Master Li forbids his students from attacking Dre, until the tournament. Mr. Han then promises to teach Dre Kung-Fu.

Jackie Chan is a really fun actor to watch and early on in the film we are intrigued by the quiet and slovenly maintenance man who seems to know Kung-Fu so well but is so sad. What’s his story? We will learn that Mr. Han comes from a remote Chinese village in the Wudang Mountains where the teaching of the ancient art of Kung-Fu goes way back and people can harness their chi to manipulate cobras-Say What? Hopefully, people watching this film will know that this is a “fantasy” aspect of the film. Far too often, North American films about the Chinese and Martial Arts tend to not differentiate well between fantasy and reality, The Karate Kid (2010) is unfortunately no exception. Kung-Fu is mixed up with “magic” as is practical Chinese Medicine which Mr. Han uses to heal Dre’s wounds twice in the film, the second time with totally unrealistic results. More on the side of realism, we learn that Mr. Han has a drinking problem and lost his wife and child in a car accident in which he was the driver. Having the Mr. Han character be a broken man who ends up finding himself again through his mentorship of the fatherless Dre brings the story to a level higher than a just a vehicle to make Jaden Smith a big star (remember this film is co-produced by his parents!).

Dre and Mei Ying--Way Too Young Love!

Dre’s relationship with Mei Ying is sweet to watch and as a product of a mixed race relationship myself I always love to see young mixed race love on screen (and Black/Asian hook ups are too few and far between in films for youth audiences) but this romance is a bit troubling considering their ages (Dre is supposed to be 12). Am I a prude to be freaked out by 12 year olds kissing and doing sexy dances to a Chinese Dance Dance Revolution version of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face? I think not and Simon Abrams from Slant Magazine agrees with me.

Needless to say, Dre ends up winning the tournament, overcoming a deliberate injury to his leg through the miracles of Mr. Han’s Chinese Medicine. Cheng is beaten by Dre but instead of being a sore loser ends up pledging his allegiance to Mr. Han and is soon followed by other students of Master Li. And all is right with the world.

All in all it was a pretty entertaining film, although I really do feel an opportunity was missed to do a remake of the song “Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting” to go along with the film.

The Karate Kid (2010)  and The Karate Kid (1984)

Watching The Karate Kid (2010) helped me to really appreciate The Karate Kid (1984).

The differences between the films point to the superiority of the original film’s message.

A Fatherless Boy Moves to a New Town

Karate Kid (2010) Dre, an African American 12 year old, moves from Detroit, Michigan to Beijing, China with his mother.

Karate Kid (1984) Daniel, an Italian American high school senior, moves from Newark, New Jersey to Los Angeles, California with his mother

The Fatherless Boy Gets Beaten Up by Really Mean Guys

Karate Kid (2010) Dre becomes a target of Cheng and his kung fu student friends because he befriends Mei Ying, who Cheng knows but isn’t romantically involved with and doesn’t seem to have any romantic interest in.

Karate Kid (1984) Daniel becomes a target of a karate student after coming on to his girlfriend.

The Asian Maintenance Man Comes to the Rescue

Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han, the Chinese maintenance man at Dre’s apartment, rescues Dre when he is attacked by Cheng and his friends.

Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi, the Okinawan maintenance man at Daniel’s apartment, rescues Daniel when he is attacked by the Karate student whose girlfriend he came on to.

The Asian Maintenance Man Tries to Enlist the Help of the Bullies Martial Arts Teacher

Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han takes Dre to the Kung Fu School where Cheng and his friends are students. Mr. Han believes that any true Kung Fu Teacher would not stand for his students bullying a defenseless person. But Mr. Han realizes that Master Li is himself a bully who is teaching his students to have no mercy. No reason is given for why Master Li is such a nasty dude. In order to get out of the Kung Fu school in one piece, Mr. Han agrees to register Dre in the upcoming Kung Fu tournament. Master Li promises to make his students leave Dre alone in the meantime. Mr. Han promises to teach Dre kung fu.

Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel to the Karate dojo where his bullies are students. Mr. Miyagi believes that any true Karate teacher would not stand for his students bullying a defenseless person. But Mr. Miyagi realizes that the teacher at the Karate dojo, an ex-Special Forces Vietnam Veteran, is himself a bully who is teaching his students to have no mercy. Being that the teacher is an ex-Special Forces Vietnam Veteran and generally speaking American sentiment in the 1980s was that the Vietnam War was totally unnecessary and brutal, his military background goes to explain why he’s such a nasty guy. In order to get out of the Karate dojo in one piece, Mr. Miyagi agrees to register Daniel in the upcoming Karate tournament. The teacher of the Karate dojo promises to make his students leave Daniel alone in the meantime. Mr. Miyagi promises to teach Daniel karate.

Simple Chores Equal Mad Martial Arts Skills

Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han makes Dre repeat the steps of putting his coat on, taking it off, and hanging it up over several days. This frustrates Dre because he doesn’t see how this has anything to do with kung fu. But one of the things we know about Dre from the beginning is that he always leaves his coat on the floor, much to his mother’s chagrin, so it’s probably for the best that he gets in the habit of hanging his coat up. Mr. Han finally reveals to Dre that that movements involved in picking up his coat, putting it on, and hanging it up are key kung fu defensive and strike techniques.

Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi makes Daniel do household chores, like waxing a car (the now classic “Wax on, Wax off!”). This frustrates Daniel because he doesn’t see how this has anything to do with karate. Mr. Han finally reveals to Daniel that that movements involved in picking up his coat, putting it on, and hanging it up are key karate defensive techniques.

The Teacher and the Origins of the Martial Art

Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han takes Dre to his village in the WuDang Mountains and visits an ancient Kung Fu monastery where Dre gets to drink mystical Kung Fu-powering giving water and watch a woman manipulate a cobra by harnessing her chi. Ya right….

Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel about karate’s origins in Okinawa, a island of Japan where Mr. Miyagi comes from….a lot more realistic.

Why the Teacher is so Sad

Karate Kid (2010) Dre discovers that Mr. Han lost his family in a car accident. While arguing with his wife, Mr. Han lost control of the car and it crashed killing his wife and young son. This is why Mr. Han is so depressed and withdrawn.

Karate Kid (1984) Daniel discovers that Mr. Miyagi lost his wife in childbirth while she was interned by the American government in an internment camp during World War II. Mr. Miyagi was away fighting the Germans in the American Army in an attempt to prove his loyalty to the United States. Mr. Miyagi’s tragedy opens Daniel’s eyes to a shameful part of American history, the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II. In this way, The Karate Kid is not only a film about an underdog who overcomes through martial arts. It’s an attempt at honouring the history and heritage of Japanese Americans, a community which has been an underdog in the United States. Japanese American actor Pat Morita was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Mr. Miyagi.

The Karate Kid (2010) and racism against Blacks in China

I found it problematic that the film never broaches the issue of Chinese anti-Black racism. Frankly, racism seems to be a better reason behind Cheng’s animosity towards Dre than the total lack of a good reason the film provides us.

There are two common Chinese racial slurs for Black people: Black Devil (hei gui) and Black Chimpazee (hei xingxing). I have the misfortune of being called both in my life time. I’ve even experienced not being allowed to visit some of my Chinese friends’ homes because I was a Black person. Although the awareness of difference between Chinese and Blacks doesn’t go beyond curiosity about hair in the film it is a serious problem in real life, no matter how many sequels to Rush Hour Jackie Chan might make with Chris Tucker.

While watching the film, I wondered what Dre’s mom was going to do about her hair while in China (that weave could only last for so long!). If you are Black and in China there is hope…African Hair Salons. There are actually a lot of Africans in China, particularly in Guangzhou. The area where they live is often referred to as “Chocolate City“. Some have come as students, others as small-scale entrepreneurs. Even Barack Obama’s half brother lives in China and recently wrote a novel entitled Nairobi to Shenzhen.

But being present doesn’t mean being liked…actually it often leads to the opposite. The most violent outbreak of Chinese anti-Black racism was the infamous Nanjing anti-African protests which were ironically the lead up to 1989 the Tiananmen Square Demonstrations for Human Rights.

The Nanjing Anti-African Riots began on December 24, 1988. According to the Wikipedia Page for The Nanjing Anti-African Protests:

On December 24, 1988 two male African students were entering their campus at Hehai University in Nanjing with two Chinese women. The occasion was a Christmas Eve party. A quarrel between one of the Africans and a Chinese security guard, who had suspected that the women the African students tried to bring into the campus were prostitutes and refused their entry, led to a brawl between the African and Chinese students on the campus which lasted till the morning, leaving 13 students injured. 300 Chinese students, spurred by false rumors that a Chinese man had been killed by the Africans, broke into and set about destroying the Africans’ dormitories, shouting slogans such as “Kill the black devils!” After the police had dispersed the Chinese students, many Africans fled to the railway station in order to gain safety at various African embassies in Beijing. The authorities prevented the Africans from boarding the trains so as to question those involved in the brawl. Soon their numbers increased to 140, as other African and non-African foreign students, fearing violence, arrived at the station asking to be allowed to go to Beijing.

By this time, Chinese students from HoHai University had joined up with students from other Nanjing universities to make up a 3000-strong demonstration that called on government officials to prosecute the African students and reform the system which gave foreigners more rights than the Chinese. On the evening of December 26, the marchers converged on the railway station while holding banners calling for human rights and political reform. Chinese police managed to isolate the non-Chinese students from the marchers and moved them to a military guest house outside Nanjing. The protests were declared illegal, and riot police were brought in from surrounding provinces to pacify the demonstrators, which took several more days.

The course of the Nanjing protests went from anti-African sentiment to banners proclaiming Human Rights. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 came 4 months after the anti-African protests in Nanjing and some elements of the Nanjing protests were still evident, such as banners proclaiming “Stop Taking Advantage of Chinese Women”.

Mira Sorvino, who starred opposite China’s other Internationally Recognized Action Hero, Chow Yun Phat in The Replacement Killers, studied Mandarin and for her Honours Thesis at Harvard wrote “Anti-Africanism in China: An Investigation into Chinese Attitudes towards Black Students in the People’s Republic of China” which won the Harvard Hoopes Prize.

Further Reading:

The Karate Kid (2010) Website

The Nanjing Anti-African Protests Wikipedia Page

Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity by Vijay Prasad

Big trouble in China’s Chocolate City, August 1 2009, The Toronto Star

Beijing police round up and beat African expats The Guardian Sept. 26 2007

China Racial Unrest Moves to Beijing: Students Protest Alleged Attack on Woman by African, January 3, 1989, Associated Press