HONG KONG – “If you had a time machine, would you go into the past or into the future?” asks hosts Marie-Louisa Awolaja and Folahan Sowole, aka “Lou” and the “Fantastic Fo,” to one of their interviewees on a recent episode of their podcast, HomeGrown. “Black people have suffered enough in the past, what am I going to do back there? There’s nothing there for us, I’m going into the future,” guest Katakyie Ofori-Atta answers while laughing. “That’s optimistic,” says Sowole, also laughing.
The exchange encapsulates the lighthearted approach to discussing serious topics in HomeGrown, which British-Nigerian millennials Awolaja and Sowole recently launched in Hong Kong to create a platform to inform and inspire the Black expatriate community in the city.
While the series deals with timely themes such as racism, inequality and being part of a minority in a largely homogenous society, it does so through personal and relatable stories that deviate from many conventional and stereotyped narratives. More importantly, HomeGrown celebrates diversity and excellence.
“There’s a bit of a PR problem, so to speak, when you think about the representation of Black people in the media, especially in Asia, and that’s often because many people have never had a interaction with a Black person,” says Awolaja, a race strategy implementation manager at a legal firm. “People are curious. And, for many, their only point of reference is … Western movies where Black people are often portrayed negatively. But the reality is that, in spite of fear and potential issues, Black people have come to live here and many of them are at the top of their fields so we really wanted to showcase that everyone’s experience is so different, like everyone’s background.”
The Africa Center Hong Kong engages the community in conversations about changing Asian views of blackness and hosts cultural events like lessons on the Togo style of drumming. (Katherine Cheng for USN&WR)
In Hong Kong, episodes of racism toward ethnic minorities have been an ongoing issue for decades, partially embedded in an enduring colonial mentality that, as Alowaja explains it “still puts white men at the top.” At the same time, the city’s reputation as a cosmopolitan hub, as well as the government’s efforts to promote equality and support through the Outreaching Teams for Ethnic Minorities, have created, in many ways, a more tolerant society than mainland China, where outspoken discrimination toward Black people and other groups often results in social alienation and physical segregation.
For Sowole, who works as a business development manager, creating the podcast was also about providing Black people in Hong Kong with a sense of community and a resource for others wanting to relocate here. It is something he wished he could have relied on when he moved to the territory two years ago; with just 3,100 people of African descent in the territory of 7.5 million residents (according to the most recent government figures), a sense of community is vital, Sowole says.
“If you’re coming here with a U.K. or an American company, for example, a lot of the people in the office already know what to do and where to go, it’s easy for them and they’ll give you guidance based on their experiences,” Sowole says. “However, it’s slightly different in terms of where to get your haircut, food and other things for Black expats. We thought that it’d be good to have a utility that supplied that while showcasing Black excellence.”
The first season of HomeGrown premiered last August, when the Black Lives Matter movement that formed in the United States in 2012 after the death of Trayvon Martin began gaining momentum globally in 2020 following the death of George Floyd, also in the U.S. At the time, conversations about race and police brutality were dominating the public discourse and media headlines. In Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protests and clashes between demonstrators and the authorities had dominated politics for more than a year, the issue was also close to home.
“HomeGrown is something by us for us, but it’s also important for non-Black people,” Awolaja says. Looking at the wider landscape at the moment, if you think of everything that’s happened in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, it felt like a lot of people in the non-Black community were a lot more open to learning.”
Innocent Mutanga, co-founder and CEO of the Africa Center Hong Kong, agrees. “A lot of people around here felt like America was this glorious place, just a land of opportunity and I remember before the Gorge Floyd incident trying to explain to people that to understand America, you need to talk about its race relations problems,” he says during a recent phone call. “The experiences with local people overall has been very encouraging and their curiosity is unmatched, as well as the willingness to learn even by simply sitting next to somebody at the center for example, or by simply just showing up even if there is no event.”
Innocent Mutanga, co-founder and CEO of the Africa Center Hong Kong is framed by a collage of flags and traditional African textiles used as decoration at the center. (Katherine Cheng for USN&WR)
The Africa Center has been leading the conversations about changing Asian views of blackness as well as educational and cultural activities to showcase the diversity of the African continent. Last summer, Mutanga, who is originally from Zimbabwe and studied anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says he moderated discussions on the Floyd death, racism and police violence against Black Americans after getting so many questions through his personal social media accounts.
Those talks, like many other educational events promoted by Mutanga and his colleagues, are positioned in a changing cultural context that prompted him to found the center.
“The timing was right, in terms of the evolving dynamics. As the Western hegemony is going down and Asia is gaining more significance geopolitically, we thought that it was a very good opportunity for us to rebrand how people think of Africa and how people see Black people,” Mutanga explains. “We had a little bit of a difficulty with our Western friends in Hong Kong, as we noticed a certain desire and in a sense addiction, for a single story of Africa, a story of struggle and suffering, which is something so hard to penetrate. After George Floyd’s death, a lot of people would come to me saying that they wanted to help, and I told them to come to learn.”
Both Awolaja and Sowole say their Hong Kong experience has been, so far, one of privilege. Being part of the expat community has in a way protected them from the prejudice and discrimination they would face in some forms in the U.K. At the same time, belonging to a small segment of Hong Kong’s population has automatically put them in the spotlight. “Personally, I do carry that burden of feeling like I’m representing my race sometimes, that I’m representing my country,” Awolaja says. “I feel like I can’t be caught slipping, I need to always be 100% and a positive role model in whatever form, and that can be a lot of pressure.”
Ultimately, the hosts explained, the podcast, through a series of heartfelt personal stories as well as humorous anecdotes, offers a multifaceted glimpse into life in Hong Kong and, in the near future, Awolaja and Sowole hope, other Asian cities.
“One thing that I’d like people to take away from HomeGrown, if you listen to one season or two, is that things are different from what they might look like on the surface,” says Sowole “Sometimes you think you understand a situation but you don’t. People are different, their experiences are different and what we need to foster is curiosity about individuals because it is the lack of curiosity and empathy that causes prejudgment and prejudice.”