Words & Photos: Yepoka Yeebo
West African traders flocked to Guangzhou in the late 1990s to do business. Some chose to stay, establishing vast business empires with links back to Africa. But daily life in China is not just about money. Food and religion matter too.
A congested port city of elevated highways, glass towers and grubby tenement blocks on the Pearl River Delta, Guangzhou is home to the single largest African community in Asia. This minority community, which currently numbers tens of thousands, is also one of the least understood forces now transforming relations between China and Africa. Merchants from West Africa first arrived in Guangzhou— China’s oldest trading city and south China’s economic powerhouse—in the late 1990s. They were drawn by the cheap consumer goods on offer, which they sent back to market stalls and shops in Lagos and Accra; instead of returning, many traders chose to stay in China and run manufacturing operations and cargo companies. Over time the older members of this community have emerged as diplomats, protectors and benefactors, intervening in what has become an increasingly fraught relationship. Guangzhou’s black African population has in recent years been the target of immigration raids.
Deaths during those raids, and in police custody, as well as accusations of drug trafficking levelled against African residents have soured a once peaceful and lucrative period of trade and everyday interaction. Leaders within the immigrant African community have had to step in: not only to negotiate with local authorities and Guangzhou’s police force, but also to help fund emergency medical care, tickets home and funerals. Inadvertently, their actions have contributed to building one of China’s most significant foreign communities. Until the Opium Wars forced China to open up from the late 1840s, Guangzhou—then called Canton—was the only city in China foreigners could trade in. In the early 1980s, reformist leader Deng Xiaoping declared it a special economic zone, part of an experiment that turned China into the world’s second largest economy, and Guangzhou into a global workshop.
In just 30 years, Guangzhou and the cities in its surrounding Guangdong province have rapidly transformed from moribund farming and fishing towns into sophisticated mega cities. Collectively, they account for 30% of China’s gross domestic product. There are over 60,000 factories in Guangzhou alone, their products some of the cheapest anywhere in the world. A highway, crossed with overpasses and rail lines, loops around Guangzhou’s city centre. The road is flanked by wholesale trading malls offering everything from fur coats to new kitchens. Here and deeper into the city lie the wholesale malls, retail stores, shipping offices and money transfer agents catering specifically to African traders. They are signposted by massive hoardings featuring black models. The Chinese merchants doing business with African traders not only speak English, but also do so with audible West African accents.
They negotiated with local authorities and Guangzhou’s police force, funded emergency medical care, tickets home and funerals, and established a network that has helped hundreds of thousands of Africans in Guangzhou
As they have done in Thailand, Dubai and Britain, Nigerian traders now also run a growing number of these businesses, facilitating trade between Africa’s most populous country and Guangzhou’s biggest consumer market in Africa. Cheap clothing and shoes, jewellery and consumer electronics are the chief items of trade. Since the late 1990s, these products have helped wean the poor in Africa off second-hand cast-offs, and they have even established a market among middle class buyers used to shopping in Europe and America. Traders and shipping company clerks tend to work late into the night. Afterwards, they head off to one of the growing number of bars and restaurants that have sprung up around the trading malls. The laminated menus at the Chimamanda Kitchen, recognisable for its salmon pink walls and lurid green lighting, offer jellof rice, abacha (cassava) and moi moi (a pudding of black-eyed beans), as well as soups of bitter leaf, stockfish, and bush meat flown from Africa. The dining area has two flat-screen televisions. They display Nigerian hip-hop videos, a concession to the mostly young male clientele— the African population in Guangzhou is roughly 80% male.
Joey Okonkwo co-owns Chimamanda. Although born and raised in Guangdong province to Chinese parents, she speaks English with a thick Nigerian accent. The accent is genuine: she learnt English largely from her husband, Ugo. The restaurant, which opened recently, is the Okonkwos’ second business. When business slowed down in their fashion export company, they opted to open a business that turns income everyday. “This business is something that is daily sales,” said Ugo of his decision to go into the restaurant trade. “You see your money immediately.”
He planned to work in the restaurant for six months, before handing it over to employees and moving on to his next business: a drinking water plant or a chicken factory back home in Nigeria. Ugo left Nigeria when his first business crumbled. He looked for a visa out, and the only country that would take in a migrant with few marketable skills and little money was China. That was in 2005. The first Chinese vocabulary he learned was how to negotiate a commission. He started out helping established Nigerian traders deal with factories and ship their purchases, claiming a cut for his input. He used his profits to buy small batches of goods—thongs, motorcycle parts, women’s shirts—and send them home for his sister to sell. Year after year he made small deals. And then, “Boom,” he said, a deal involving 80,000 cotton shirts. Ugo’s total profit amounted to $13,000. Ugo’s story is not uncommon. I heard several variations, each underpinned by the same get-rich determination. Some traders, arriving with only a few thousand dollars, made enough money to afford residency permits, offices and warehouses in Guangzhou. They have also built enterprises in Africa, replete with hawker-to-mogul houses, cars, generators and businesses that have uplifted entire extended families into the middle class. But such stories are also the exception. To continue reading subscribe or get a copy of the print edition