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Guangzhou's Little Africa
Foreigners in China

Barbecued chicken smoke and Senegalese pop music fills one hallway. On another floor, mosquito coil incense and the odour of new leather bean-bags bound for Angola commingle.

Welcome to the Tianxiu Building, the home of China’s largest African enclave and a microcosm for the billion dollar trade boom taking place between African nations and China.

Located along the bustling Xiao Bei Road in downtown Guangzhou, tens of thousands of Africans flock to Tianxiu to purchase everything from school erasers for Darfur to hair-weaves for Kinshasa’s beauty parlours.

Whilst at least 2,000 make it their own, thousands more are just here for export shopping runs.

“It is hard to get hair like this in the Congo,” comments Alice Clarisse as she peruses a Tianxiu shop specialising in hair extensions.

“I come here about twice a year to Guangzhou for a week, the prices are very good.” Clarisse, whose home-town is Kinshasa, adds, “This city of markets is becoming famous all over Africa.”

Indeed, since China opened in 1979, African students and merchants have been flocking to both Beijing and Guangzhou in droves. However, whilst Africans number into the thousands in Beijing, there are no areas that are considered to be wholly African in the capital.

Not so in Guangzhou. The Tianxiu Building began seeing hundreds of Africans move into the apartments above the lower shopping mall in the late 1990s. As more Africans moved in, more Chinese moved out to rent to them.

By 2001, when China entered the WTO and the Beijing 2008 Olympics were announced, the building was considered Guangzhou’s answer to Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong. It’s only grown since then and has seen an infusion of thousands of traders from the Middle East too.

Currently, the blocks around Xiao Bei Road are chock full of Halaal restaurants and Turkish coffee shops. Tianxiu itself is honeycombed with everything from mobile phone counters to African tailors to travel agents.

“I’ve lived here for five years and I can say that more and more people from Africa will come here,” comments Samuel Caam of Mali as he haggles with a Chinese merchant over a motorbike buy. “But most will only stay for about a week.”

In fact, Guangzhou has seen a spike in direct routes to destinations in Africa: Nairobi, Luanda, Lagos, Kinshasa and Cairo.

The expansion of the routes out of Guangzhou is emblematic of China’s dramatic investment in Africa.

Since 2006, the Chinese government has been taking measures to expand trade volume with Africa so that by 2010 it reaches USD 100 billion.

In the past two years, China’s trade with Africa has annually hovered in the 45 billion range, a 42 percent spike over 2005.

At the third Beijing Summit Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in November 2006, President Hu Jintao committed to double aid to Africa by 2009.

This olive-branch also included expanding the number of tariff-free imports from 190 to 440 and a provision for USD 3 billion in preferential loans.

Another USD 2 billion in export credits by 2009 was also promised to African nations, as was a special fund of USD 5 billion to entice Chinese investment in Africa.

The forum, which was established in 2000, has allowed for Chinese investors to pour in USD 6.27 billion into African economies and has led the Chinese government to cancel RMB 10.9 billion (USD 1.4 billion) in debt.

Overall, there are nearly 700 Chinese state owned companies operating in Africa, from mining to fishing to lumbering to telecom to oil drilling.

That means more African business people will be coming to Guangzhou, if you ask Edmuondo Dywill of the Congo.
Comments Dywill as he checks his boss in at Guangzhou’s Garden Hotel, “For we Africans, this is one of the hottest cities in China. It’s similar in climate Africa, and not so cold or expensive as Beijing or Shanghai.”

This sentiment is shared by Michael Osei Prempeh of Ghana. Prempeh recently launched his own trading company, Vokal Communications LLC, based in Guangzhou.

Donning a pressed suit, he walks down Xiao Bei Road flanked by Ghanaian associates in hip-hip garb. That’s not surprising given that hip-hop gear is one of the main commodities he exports to Ghana.

He’s also keen to point out that the African community is stretching beyond this area towards the Garden Hotel, which is where most of the European expatriates congregate.

“See, we are now getting more money and the community is mixing with more people from Europe and North America.”
They’re also moving into other suburbs outside Guangzhou, especially into the neighbouring city of Foshan.

Just ask “Mr. Foshan” himself.

In 2006, 28-year old Ndongo Abdallahi of Mauritania entered a karaoke contest for the Fosham Charm Ambassador. He won and became known in the Chinese media as “Mr. Foshan.”

In fact, when a delegation of overseas Chinese from Malaysia visited their ancestral city of Foshan, they were welcomed home with a serenade by Abdallahi — much to their shock.

Of course, Abdallahi, who arrived in Guangzhou in 1999 to study medicine and later mastered Mandarin is an exception.

A lot of Africans living in Guangzhou are still struggling to overcome the cultural and linguistic barriers presented in China.

Prempeh adds, “Most of the Africans here are from Nigeria, Angola, Togo, Congo and a few from Ghana…Many Chinese people don’t understand when we speak, but we’re getting there.” (By Christopher Cottrell)


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