As different forms of Global China have emerged and expanded throughout the African continent, this phenomenon has also materialised spatially. In urban environments, Chinese investments, entrepreneurship, and a multifaceted presence have contributed to shaping the morphology of the urban fabric at different scales, whether by altering the existent built environment or by adding new features.

Inserted on top of or adjacent to the existent urban fabric, Chinese spaces can be likened to external grafts. Visually, it triggers questions about their level of impact in altering cities, whether in relation to the materiality of the built form or in terms of urban dynamics. Within the broader context of a growing relationship between Africa and China, this has also led to discussions about the spread or replicability of a so-called ‘Chinese urbanism’ to Africa as well as accounts on the role of entrepreneurs in reshaping Africa, including its urban environments. At the same time, spatial dynamics as a key component of analysis have thus far often been neglected in research. When considered, they tend to be reduced to blind spots or framed (either directly or subconsciously) as exotic, different and operating in parallel to the host society. As a result, analyses centred around Chinese spaces run the risk of becoming imprisoned within fixed analytical categories, failing not only to fully take into account spatial adaptations and gradual social changes but also to consider them as integral parts of broader urban realities.

This book project aims at (re)imagining how the interplay between Chinese influence and urban shifts is conceived, studied, and conceptualised. Focused on Johannesburg (South Africa) and Lusaka (Zambia), it explores the differentiated ways these spaces come into existence, are entangled in complex city-making processes, and are altered by textured realities in host societies. The manuscript builds on a collaborative research project jointly undertaken with (the late) Dr Gerald Chungu, a Zambian architect and urban designer, and Mark Lewis, a South African urban photographer. Through a combination of writing, design, and photography, the book seeks to complexify (and resist) the predominant representations used to visualise Chinese engagements in various African contexts and extend the memory and silent conversation with a colleague and dear friend.


Previous fellowship at IIAS

Period: January 2014 - 15 August 2014
Research topic: Spatial aspects of the Chinese presence in Sub-Saharan Africa

Romain Dittgen is the first joint fellow at the African Studies Centre and the International Institute for Asian Studies, both in Leiden. Romain holds a PhD in Human Geography at the Sorbonne University in Paris (Panthéon-Sorbonne) and is an associate researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). Being included in SAIIA’s ‘China in Africa project’ and ‘Global powers in Africa programme’, he has published several papers on China-Africa related topics. He is also affiliated to the geography research institute UMR 8586 Prodig in Paris.

Romain's research deals with the spatial dimension of the Chinese presence in Sub-Saharan Africa. His focus is on settlement dynamics of public and private Chinese actors through an enclave perspective, looking in particular at how interactions are influenced and remodelled by local realities. More recently, he has been expanding this research angle towards the formation of Chinese ‘cultural spaces’.