International Black History Month brings showcase of African achievement to Hong Kong
International Black History Month is being rolled out to celebrate the contributions of the African diaspora, especially African Americans
Last Friday evening Rummin' Tings, the Caribbean bar and restaurant on Hollywood Road, was close to bursting. People spilled onto the streets, while peals of laughter and shouted greetings competed with the booming music inside.
Some banners at the door announced the cause for the celebration: the launch of Hong Kong International Black History Month. Although it's less well known internationally, Black History Month has become a vital tradition in the US. It's a lively series of events that examine and celebrate the continuing contributions of African Americans to American and global culture.
The event started in 1926 as Negro History Week, which was planned to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and statesman Frederick Douglass in February.
The idea was to highlight African-American history - which was often neglected or obscured - mainly for the benefit of black students.
The week of activity has since grown into Black History Month, with events held throughout February. It has moved outside the US, and has been recognised in Canada since the mid-1990s. A version is observed in Britain in October.
John Bowdre, a motivational speaker and leadership and communications consultant now living in Hong Kong, had the idea to bring Black History Month to Asia. While launching a brand strategy group in Shanghai, he realised that African-Americans were under-represented in Asia.
"I'm a young African-American guy, and I've experienced some of the misconceptions that people have. I realised the source of these was a lack of representation," he says. "I don't feel that we put a great enough emphasis on sharing what we've done with people.
"I don't think we've put enough effort into crafting a story, or promoting our place in the global community, and our contribution to it. That made me take responsibility, and say, 'We need a black history month in Shanghai'."
Bowdre and his wife Raushanah organised a week of events to introduce Shanghai's black community to their adopted home. It proved to be a hit. Curious Chinese turned up and "asked questions about everything from Obama to black hair, from black athletes, to issues of education and black contributions [to the world]", Bowdre says.
When the Bowdres moved to Hong Kong in 2012, they encountered the same issues, and decided to replicate the success they had in Shanghai.
As the black community in Hong Kong is relatively small, although very diverse, the couple decided to expand Black History Month to cover the experience of the entire African diaspora.
"Many people think of Africa as one country, but it is an extremely diverse place with many stories and contributions," Bowdre says, noting that the black community in Hong Kong includes people from the Caribbean, Europe, South America, and the US, as well as the African continent.
Raushanah recalls an encounter in a sandwich shop, when a customer asked her if she could sing "because all of the black women on American Idol could sing". Although she found it amusing, Raushanah says it points to a serious lack of knowledge about the reality of the black experience.
"This is our time to properly share our culture in Hong Kong, and to help shape the narrative, because there are so few people who look like us walking around here. If people are curious, we welcome that curiosity, so come ask. We want this to be an open forum," she says.
"When people see you, they say 'Obama'; before that it would have been 'Kobe Bryant' or 'Beyoncé'. There are figures people associate with African Americans. But with this event we can say 'Hey, we're actually all different.'"
In that spirit, the Bowdres hosted the opening party in a Caribbean restaurant. They went out of their way to include non-African-American voices in the music and poetry nights.
Carine Kiala, a secretary for the Angolan Consul General in Hong Kong, say the community-wide events are a welcome addition. "There's a lot of synergy in organising together, and realising that we really all need each other.
"We're happy to support each other. The community in Hong Kong, whether it's African, African American, or African European, is very small and very interconnected.
"Many of us are friends, many of us collaborate, and many of us do business together. So it's nice we're able to have a function that doesn't just focus on one specific nationality, but on the whole group," Kiala says.
Eli Homawoo, a former food and beverage manager at The Peninsula hotel, says she was the only black person to work for the hotel in its 85-year history.
A Togolese woman who grew up in the US, Homawoo says the events are testament to how far the black community in Hong Kong has come.
"When I arrived here six years ago, you could see me coming a mile away - the only time I could get in touch with my roots was when I went to [the night club] Makumba," she says. "But over the past five years more and more Africans, African Americans, European Africans have been coming to Hong Kong," Homaloo says.
She was pleasantly surprised by the turnout at the opening party: "It's the first time since Makumba I've seen so many black and African people. The community is growing and the image is changing."
This sense of community is a relief to many people who, like Keisha Siriboe, have long been the only black face in the room. An American pursuing a doctorate in English education and literature at Hong Kong University, she is the only black woman in her section.
When she received her masters from Beijing Normal University, she was the first African American in the programme.
Siriboe is "proud" that Hong Kong University has embraced her efforts to stage events on campus built around International Black History Month. "Everybody was really receptive. I'm hearing a lot of people say 'Oh, we never did this before', but they're welcoming. That's liberating."
Among the activities is a free screening of Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China. A documentary by African-American filmmaker Paula Madison, it is the story of the director and her two siblings who trace their ancestry to a grandfather in China. Madison will present the film and host a panel discussion.
Liana Johnson, one of Madison's classmates at Vassar College who has worked as a bank compliance officer at for the past three years, is underwriting the screening for students.
For Johnson, being involved in International Black History Month continues a tradition of activism in her family, which started when her grandmother fought to get black children educated when they were barred from attending school in the American South.
"There are a lot of misconceptions about black culture. People think that we all know each other, or that we all sing," Johnson says. "We do other things than dance or sing.
"We're professionals, we have families, and we have relationships," she adds. "Because America does not display our contributions to history - the inventions, the scholars that we have - this event can share that with people outside of America."
While most interviewees say the instances of intolerance or inappropriate behaviour they've experienced in Hong Kong spring from ignorance, some encounters were offensive and distressing.
Bowdre cites how some of his African-American friends, who are bankers, have been mistaken for drug dealers. He also saw a lawyer friend refused entry into a nightclub, because the bouncer assumed she was a prostitute.
"Obviously it's embarrassing. It's enraging," Bowdre says. Mostly, he says, "it makes me feel like I'm not doing enough.
"Of course it's not OK. But as a global citizen who can step out of my situation as a black person, I can say, 'Well, look, they only see this picture of us'. I can say, 'How can I combat that?"
Black and proud: highlights of cultural expression
Hong Kong International Black History Month kicked off with a party last week, but the events come thick and fast in February. Here are some of the highlights.
Sunday Soul Food Gospel Brunch
The African American tradition of the gospel brunch is coming to Hong Kong at the Union Church. Aside from gospel music and authentic soul food, there will also be a forum and discussion for people wanting to learn more about International Black History Month. Feb 1, 11am-noon (church service), 1pm-3pm (brunch). Union Church, 22A Kennedy Rd, Central
Exploration of Music:
The History of Hip Hop
Particpants will perform interactive skits about the multifaceted and often controversial history of hip hop. In exploring the development of regional styles, the skits highlight the origins of hip hop as a social movement focused on justice, equality and empowerment. Feb 9, 9pm, Play nightclub, On Hing Bldg, 1 On Hing Tce, Central, tel: 2525 1318
Finding Samuel Lowe Filmmaker Paula Madison presents her documentary, Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China, about herself and her siblings who trace their ancestry to an elusive Chinese grandfather, Samuel Lowe. The film follows their journey to China in search of their roots. The director will attend a post-screening discussion on issues of identity and the similarities between the Chinese and black diaspora. Feb 8, 4pm-7pm, AMC Theatre, Pacific Place, Admiralty (HK$200)
Rhythm and Poetry: A Celebration of Expression
An exploration of the roots of black literature through the tradition of spoken word. An introduction to the music, poetry and literature of the greats of African-American culture, Feb 11, 8pm, Orange Peel Music Lounge, 38-44 D'Aguilar St, Central, tel: 2812 7177
Apollo Theatre: Live Music Performance
Musicians from the city's black community play a set of American popular music from Motown to Michael Jackson. Aside from the good tunes, the show is a chance to learn about the history of black American music and its enormous cultural influence. Feb 13, 8pm, Orange Peel Music Lounge, 38-44 D'Aguilar St, Central, tel: 2812 7177 (early-bird tickets HK$200, includes one drink)
Love Your Body: Fitness and Family Walk
Celebrate Valentine's Day with a morning walk on The Peak, along with mini fitness seminars and advice from professional trainers and health experts. The walk is open to singles and families and is a great opportunity to meet people and lay the groundwork for those New Year resolutions. Feb 14, 10am The Peak Circle Walk, The Peak. For details, go to thegcc-china.com