Eastern Promise in Little Africa
By Kit GilletJanuary 25, 2013
Chasing their slice of China's raging appetite, tens of thousands of African traders are settling uneasily in the ghettos of Guangzhou.
HAIRDRESSERS FUSS OVER hair weaves, and the nattering sounds of French and broken English drift from the shops and restaurants filled with black faces. Men dressed in flowing robes stack cardboard boxes shambolically throughout markets and stores.
It’s just another street scene from the back alleys of Cairo or Lagos; except it’s the southern Chinese business hub of Guangzhou. This is Little Africa, or disparagingly, Chocolate City, a reversal of the traditional Chinese migration story, a living example of the increasing links between China and Africa, perhaps one of the most important stories of the early 21st century.
“When it comes to Africa, the US and Europe think about aid, whereas the Chinese think about trade. They have a very organised vision of what they want,” says Deborah Brautigam, author of The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, from Washington, DC.
“Over the last five or six years there has been a huge increase in engagement between China and Africa across all fronts: trade, loans, finance, migration.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in Little Africa where, in among the city’s wholesale textile markets and electronics stores, black faces are almost as numerous as Asian. English is the common language of trade, though you can also hear French, Igbo (an ethnic language of Nigeria) and Cantonese.
There are at least 20,000 Africans, mostly from West African nations such as Nigeria, Ghana and Mali, living legally in Guangzhou, a city of about 12 million. The number could be as high as 150,000 if you include the many illegals and those temporarily in the city chasing business opportunities.
Here they have discovered paths to wealth and a new understanding of their place in the world.
LITTLE AFRICA BEGAN WITH a few hundred traders in the late 1990s, drawn by the chance to make their fortune exporting goods from the nearby factory cities into Africa. China-Africa trade has grown to almost USD166 billion a year by 2011, attracting hundreds of thousands of Africans to southern China for both short-term business trips and for the long-term.
At the centre of Little Africa is Canaan Export Clothes Trading Centre, a vast building wedged between an eight-lane highway and converging train tracks. Inside, hundreds of stores run by Africans and Chinese sell textiles and clothing to visiting African traders, who will then sell them for a profit back home. They base their purchases on the quality of the goods and, more importantly, whether the currency rates are in their favour.
“I used to go to Hong Kong to trade but for the last eight years I’ve been coming here,” says Scalce, a 48-year-old west African trader busy watching the goods he’d bought earlier pile up outside one of the market’s entrances. He occasionally diverts his attention to haggle with a van driver in bad Chinese to get the goods delivered to the nearby port.
A fat, dark-skinned man in a colourful shirt, Scalce says he would move to Guangzhou if he was younger and didn’t have a family back home.
“It’s hard to make a profit with all the flights, and if the Chinese currency keeps getting stronger, soon it might not be worthwhile. This is the reason so many people move here,” he says.
A few kilometres southeast of Canaan Market, in a coffee shop on the ground floor of the Tianxiu Building, a towering, multi-storey China-Africa trading hub, Mohammed Cume takes his time over a lunch of pita bread and meat.
Cume, in his late 30s, wears the markings of success: a tailored jacket, smart robes (he’s Muslim) and an expensive watch.
“I buy lighting gear to sell back home. If you know where to buy it in China you can make great money,” he says.
Cume has been coming to Guangzhou every few months for the past five years to buy inventory — lamps, bulbs, lighting fixtures, wiring — which he then takes home to Mozambique.
“Costs are going up, but there are a lot of great trade opportunities right now for Africans in China, and a lot of good opportunities for the Chinese in Africa too,” he adds.
In recent years China has invested heavily in infrastructure projects across Africa, often in exchange for subsidies on natural resources. Roads, dams and stadiums in still-developing African nations have been built using Chinese money and expertise. About 5,000 African students now study in China, many on scholarships provided by the Chinese government.
Tens of thousands of Chinese have also gone to Africa to work, to manage Chinese-owned mines, work as crew on the roads and building projects, or to set up small independent trading companies. Academics estimated that by 2009 between 580,000 and 820,000 Chinese migrants were living throughout Africa.
Sitting in the coffee shop in Guangzhou, Cume notes, “Now we have found oil there is a lot of Chinese investment in Mozambique, but that’s the nature of business.”
As he talks, a French-language news station shows the escalating conflict in the Congo on a nearby television.
“When will Africans learn to stop fighting? They blame the US or France. We need to just stop,” he says, looking up at the screen.
Joey Adeyemi, a 30-year-old Nigerian Rastafarian who owns a small clothing store in a wholesale market a few doors down from Caanan Market, puts it this way: “If my country was okay I wouldn’t have come here.”
With long dreadlocks and colourful clothing, Adeyemi stands out among the more well-dressed and carefully styled Africans of Guangzhou.
He is part of a smaller group of Africans who have decided to forge a longer-term future in China. After trading in Guangzhou for years, he decided to set up his own clothing company and become a middleman for other Africans looking to buy goods from China or who have business dealings with Chinese. He even married a Chinese woman and settled down.
“We don’t care if I’m black and she’s not, the love is there,’’ he says. There are lots of mixed Chinese-African couples here now. It’s a good place to live. Good business. And if you behave okay, you can make it.”
However, the couple still paid RMB 200,000 (USD32,000) in medical, travel and accommodation costs to have their first son born in Hong Kong; “It is getting harder for Africans to get visas, and if they clamp down on the area we can move to Hong Kong now he is a resident,” Adeyemi says.
WITH THE NEW OPPORTUNITIES comes overt racism and regular government crackdowns. Many Africans in Guangzhou say that visas to China are becoming increasingly hard to get, and that every time they need a new visa (visas last a maximum of 12 months), they worry they will be refused. “The Chinese are afraid of the black man, we are too strong,” one Nigerian trader in Guangzhou says of the delicate race relations.
For some, this small Chinese district breeds overwhelming homesickness and isolation. Once Africans arrive here, as happens in ghettos around the world, few of them leave the area, except to go to church or mosque services, to visit factories, or to return to their home countries.
Dressed in American rapper-style clothing, baseball cap pulled down over his eyes, Tony Aka had a visa until it ran out three months ago. Since then he has been illegally living in the country.
Aka stands among rows of baggy jeans in his five-metre square store. He traded in clothes in Africa, but after hearing about the opportunities in China he set out for Little Africa almost two years ago. Business has been good, but not good enough to pay the large fine for overstaying his visa, nor to go home with enough money afterwards to feel successful. So, like many, he stays.
“With no visa I can’t do anything really, I just try to survive. I don’t go out at night, or anywhere away from here and the small apartment I share with some African friends. Visas and resident permits are so hard to get for us now,” he says.
Tens of thousands of Africans overstay their visas in order to carry on trading and make enough money to set up their own businesses back home.
Like many, Aka simply runs when the police come, abandoning his store and hiding until they go. Often he has to flee across the railway tracks. Stories float around the African community of people who have fallen from second- or third-storey windows as they tried to get away from police. If they don’t die straight away in such an incident, it’s said police wait for hours before taking them to hospital.
“You hear about it all the time,” Aka tells The Global Mail.
Down a narrow alley in Little Africa’s sprawling export market, Paul Ononiba sits on a plastic children’s stool, concentrating on a small, battered television set. All around him are cardboard boxes filled with pairs of jeans and rolls of cloth, addressed by hand in thick letters, destined for Lagos, Cairo and Accra. On screen, Nigerian women in flowery dresses laugh as they perform a traditional harvest dance.
“My wife and two kids live in Nigeria,” the 48-year-old trader tells The Global Mail. “I see them once a year when I go back to visit. I tried to get them visas to join me, but it wasn’t possible.”
A tall, elegant black man with grey stubble on his chin, Ononiba has lived in Guangzhou for four years; he has a registered company and pays Chinese taxes, but he still can’t get residency visas for his family. Even if he could, migration isn’t a good option for his young children.
“We have tried to set up an African school, but there is no permission. Any African kid here must go to a local Chinese school, where everything is taught in Chinese and our black-skinned children are looked down upon,” he explains.
Ononiba acknowledges that part of the problem is that, “maybe 90 per cent of Africans are without visas right now”.
The bootleg DVD playing is from a seedy storefront nearby; discarded wrappers strewn between the competing African business suggest the DVDs have found a ready market. They offer a taste of home for Ononiba and other Africans, mostly young men, who make their living here. Few have family with them in China, and many struggle with the realities of life in a new country, which many see as unwelcoming and threatening.
“The police don’t treat us well — they are always coming around and checking our passports,” Ononiba says, one eye still watching the television. “If you don’t have your passport on you they handcuff you and throw you in jail.”
“We hear about racism from both sides,” says Heidi Østbø Haugen, a Norwegian academic who has spent time among the African populations in Guangzhou. “This is largely a sign of increased contact between the two and the friction that comes with it.”
Police routinely crack down on the African community; checking passports, arresting those without their documents and closing down unregistered house churches.
In June, a Nigerian man was detained by police following a fight with a local man. Hours later he was dead, prompting an angry protest by more than 100 Africans in the city centre. The group blocked the road around the market, threw bricks through windows and demanded their comrade’s body. The Nigerian embassy demanded an official investigation, Time magazine reported, while "the Chinese social media response to the latest protest in Guangzhou was dismayingly xenophobic".
Racism has also been an issue in Africa. In Uganda, local shop owners closed their stores for two days in 2011 in protest of the influx of Chinese trader. Elsewhere, riots have broken out with local African communities unhappy with the presence or approaches of Chinese businesses.
China has made efforts to promote friendship. China directly invested USD45 billion in the region in the first six months of 2012 alone; the nation’s state-owned English-language newspaper, China Daily, launched an African supplement last month that it said would “look at the precise nature of Chinese involvement in Africa and also the prominent role many Africans play in China”; and at the fifth Forum on China-Africa Co-operation last July, China pledged an additional USD20 billion worth of loans to African nations.
ON SUNDAY MORNINGS AN overwhelmingly black congregation gathers at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in downtown Guangzhou. Inside the Gothic-style structure, Caucasian saints stare down on the thousand-plus Africans bowed in prayer. The occasional Asian or white face stands out among the otherwise monochrome crowd of young, black men clutching well-worn Bibles and kneeling in worship.
“The church is the heart of the African community in Guangzhou,” says Duben, a young Nigerian minister and trader just before the Sunday Mass.
Many evangelical house churches had sprung up to cater to the strong religious beliefs of the new arrivals, but with regular crackdowns by a Chinese government wary of private religious gatherings, the city’s official (and mostly left alone) Catholic Church is packed every week.
“We have no problem in this church,” Duben says. “Small house churches have issues; here is a safe place, a place for worship.”
Along with a few small organisations set up by traders to help their own countrymen, the church is involved in uniting the communities, and helping those Africans who have found themselves in trouble in China. It may be someone who has incurred large medical bills, had visa issues or run-ins with the police, or needs help to pay for the repatriation of bodies of those who have died in China and whose family can’t afford to get their remains home.
“Religion among the African communities in Guangzhou has a larger social role, beyond just spiritual needs,” academic Haugen says.
After Mass, hundreds of Africans move to a nearby hanger-like building for a different kind of worship. Singing and swaying to the music of the accompanying band, they praise God with abandonment, much to the bemusement of the handful of Chinese Christians watching from the back of the hall.
BACK IN LITTLE AFRICA, a few hundred metres away from the busy centre of the area, the streets quickly revert to their Chinese character. On weekday afternoons elderly men and women and their grandchildren play in courtyards outside old guildhalls, while other men sit around smoking and playing Mahjong.
In a small Chinese restaurant, picking at a plate of food he is unsure of, Foday Kamara sits on his own.
Born in Sierra Leone, Kamara was chosen, as his family’s only unmarried son, to come here to further the interests of the family’s textile business which relies heavily on Chinese goods. Since his arrival in Guangzhou six months ago, his first time living outside Africa, the 30-year-old has struggled to adapt to what seems to him a totally alien environment.
Despite his access to money and the freedom of being a young man far from home, Kamara is not happy.
“The culture and language are so different, and the police often come to the market to hassle us,’’ he says.
“I have to carry my passport everywhere since, who knows when the police will stop me? It has happened seven times already. Also, I cannot marry a Chinese — my family wouldn’t allow it. There are only a few African women, and they are mostly from Tanzania and other countries, not Sierra Leone, so I can’t really date here either.”
Kamara doesn’t know what the future holds, nor how long he will stay in China.
“Maybe I will stay one more year — if I can get another visa after this one — but no longer than that. The Chinese don’t like us, and will never let us be at home here.”
Some names have been changed to protect identities.