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What's the fuss about the Chinese?

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Anyone would easily have mistaken the Chinese actress Wendy Yang for a Hollywood star when she debuted last week on Zimbabwean television in the long-running soap, Studio 263.

Wendy waltzed majestically as she appeared in her first episode, sweeping away many viewers with sexy features and a pencil-slim figure.

She becomes the first Chinese woman to take a lead acting role in Zimbabwean film.

But as Wendy savoured her television moment-of-fame, cultural activists were firing broadsides at her and the filmmakers whom they accused of “helping extend China’s cultural imperialism and hegemony in Zimbabwe”.

Wendy plays the role of May, a Chinese girl who finds herself in a black Zimbabwean family after meeting and falling in love with Welly, a young dreadlocked man, while both lived in South Africa.

Welly promises May heaven on earth in Zimbabwe and marriage. May comes from a Chinese traditional background and demands to do things in Zimbabwean Shona tradition like preparing traditional food and a traditional wedding.

The arrival of Wendy on state television has not helped ease the disdain of the Chinese by some Zimbabweans who see the Chinese as plunderers of resources at the invitation of President Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabweans wallowing in poverty, while the Chinese run thriving shops literally on every street corner of Harare, including massive investments in manufacturing and mining, have utterly rejected the Chinese and have not made it a secret.

Locals write furious letters to newspapers taunting the Chinese in apparent mockery telling them to go away.

Richard Musonza, a cultural activist and author of Dynamics of Culture, told me: “The Chinese are shrewd businesspeople and all over the world they are now influencing the arts and culture sectors immensely. You could call it purely cultural imperialism that the Chinese are extending to Zimbabwe just the way Westerns have done.”

A traditionalist and private school teacher Rhoda Siziba said: “We sold our souls to the West the day we were colonised and thought we were now trying to retrieve a bit of what was left of our culture.

But here we are now – the Chinese have invaded our culture and are influencing how we dress . . . just look at the number of their clothing shops and how that has suffocated the local textile industry.

Look at the traditional Chinese clinics and their medicines they prescribe to people and influence us to take.”

President Mugabe’s “Look East Policy”, which interprets to mean favouring business with the Asian bloc particularly China and which he adopted after the West imposed sanctions on Harare, is seen by his critics as solely motivated by personal gain but inadvertently “mortgaging Zimbabwe to China in exchange for crumbs of aid” to boost the political clout of the veteran ruler.

The Chinese have landed in Zimbabwe in unprecedented numbers in response to President Mugabe’s call to reinforce business and trade with the Asian country after he told the West “to go to hell” as sanctions began to hurt.

But Studio 263 producer and filmmaker Godwin Mawuru, renowned for his 1991 award-winning co-production Neria, sees things completely differently saying Zimbabwe had a deeply polarised political environment that had shaped negative perception of Zimbabweans towards the Chinese.

Mawuru fell short of describing Zimbabweans, who had rejected the Chinese, as xenophobic. He wanted the arts and particularly film and the casting of Wendy to function as a powerful tool for uniting people. He said negative criticism of the Chinese actress was naive and missed the bigger picture.

“By bringing in Wendy I am bringing people of the world together, saying these are a new culture or

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