The Chinese Dream: Changing Aspirations of Africans in Canton

What may have started as a search for trade and riches from abroad has become something far more substantial. As Africans have come to the region for business and trade, they have brought they’re own culture, they’re own communities, and they’re own sense of home. In the process Guangzhou is becoming something new, expanding the minds and sensibilities the of “local” and questioning the very definition of the word.

Some estimates now put the number of African’s in Guangzhou at 2-300,000, the majority of which (according to 2013 polls on GDTV’s Face Time) are from Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Guinea, and Senegal in that order. But this number is nothing more than an educated guess. Chinese media reported a conservative 20,000 registered Africans in 2008, but of course a great number aren’t registered today. A great number of Africans are transient staying for periods as short as a few days and as long as a few months, while others have been here for years and even decades opening local business and social organizations. Counting people from Africa crossing the borders into China is also problematic as many are entering and exiting repeatedly within a short period.

A more pragmatic way to understand the African presence in Guangzhou comes from visiting areas like Xiaobei, Guangyuan XiLu, the Railway Station, or Sanyuanli together making up the so-called Chocolate City. Only then can you truly see that Africans are more than a minority here, they are sculpting the very city itself with their presence.

"Chocolate City" Guangzhou - Copyright EB Words

Shopping in So-Called "Chocolate City". Photo Credit to Emeri Burks

Previously assumed to be a body of traders riding the swell of 30% annual growth in Sino-African trade, today we see Africans pursuing musical careers, mastery of Chinese language and culture, family life, and a host of other personal aspirations. Joshua Adjei is one such individual. Having come to Guangzhou from Ghana 3 years ago to pursue an IMBA he hopes to use his knowledge and experience to positively influence the lives of others around Guangzhou. He describes his arrival and the mixed reception of locals:

“The language barrier was a major problem but I overcame that after a few months of actively studying Chinese Mandarin and most Chinese people were intrigued to see an African speak Chinese. Many Chinese people were warm towards me because I always smiled at them but some people were just scared of me and others also just hated the sight of me. There were times on the metro or in a bus when I offered my seat to old folks and they rejected my kindness and looked at me as though I wasn’t human. It used to break my heart a lot. Worse was when as a teacher, my students would pass comments about my color and that I smell bad just because their parents have such stereotypes of foreigners. It wasn’t easy dealing with those treatments and comments but I thank God… I know how to treat others right and how to not get offended when I am being treated wrong so I overcame that obstacle and continued to live my life here.”

While it’s true that Adjei like many African people in Guangzhou has been subject to much ignorance and ill treatment he says that people generally are changing to become more open minded and willing to accept people from other cultures. On the other side, the African community has grown more unified and better able to adapt to local life to further improvement of Sino-African relations.

Though the Nigerian Consulate is set to open next year, Ojukwu Emma, the President of the Association of Nigerians in China and self-proclaimed president of Africa in China today has been the figurehead of one of the largest support networks for Nigerians and Africans in general for nearly two decades. As tongue in cheek as his title may be, he and his organization, the Peacemakers, have taken an active role in promoting Sino-African relations. One of the first things he did when he came to his current position was to address some of the bad elements creating conflicts with local police. When young Nigerians came to the city unfamiliar with the norms of legitimate trade began to act out in unruly ways, the Peacemakers approached them, told them that they were damaging the reputation of African people in the city, and issued a warning that actions would be taken if further disruptions were noted. True to their word, when the group of hoodlums continued their questionable “business as usual,” the Peacemakers apprehended them and brought them to the Guangzhou Police to be arrested. On two separate occasions since when protests or social conflicts between Africans and GZ police arose, Emma was enlisted to reach out to the African community with a voice of reason and cultural understanding.

Emma sends a positive message to all foreigners when he said on GDTV’s Facetime in 2013, “Whenever you travel in another country, no matter [how different to local customs and laws may be] try to love the people… respect the law. Then you can stay. Then you can make your money, you can build your family.” His organization maintains that their primary aim is to support Africans in Guangzhou and improve African’s standing in the region by building positive relations based on such ideas.

To better understand Sino-African relations in Guangzhou I spoke with Roberto Castillo, a researcher with a doctorate in Cultural Studies who’s studied Africans in Guangzhou for more than 4 years. He started studying African trade in China but in later years has turned his focus more towards anthropological studies in how Africans are pursuing their dreams and aspirations in the region.

Entrance to Chocolate City - Copyright EB Words

Castillo says that the greatest obstacle to better Sino-African relations isn’t racism – it’s ignorance. Early in his research Castillo was surprised to find that both Chinese and African people interviewed expressed that the other population wasn’t civilized. Interviews with local Chinese businessmen often expressed surprise that African traders weren’t ripping them off, but rather were fair and reliable. “Once people get to know Africans, they realize that they’re completely different from their original ideas.” Most of these ideas, Castillo contends, come from the media. But with the further expansion of Chinese investment into African interests he says that we will see major changes in the representation of Africans in Chinese society. Furthermore, as Chinese and African people continue to live and work in closer proximity they will continue to share their values and ideas.

We see this clearly in the growth of Sino-African marriages, organizations like the Nigerian Chinese Family Forum organizing events for interracial families in Guangzhou, and even on dating shows like “You are the One” (the English name of Feicheng Wurao非诚勿扰) on which Guinean Economics student made a splash with her poignant and fluent Mandarin comments. Debujiada (德布佳达) as she introduced herself on the show was in the internet storm to follow renamed Feizhou Gongzhu (African Princess) and even Heifumei (A play on words from the term “Baifumei” representing the beautiful girl with white skin and a good background). In all cases we see growing celebration of Africans as breadwinners, mothers, fathers, and desirable partners all sharing a rich heritage and mindset with not only their children but also all who interact with them.

It’s undeniable that the African community has had a hugely positive impact on the region. Some will point to African traders involved in illegal drug trade in order to argue that the changes Africans are bringing to China are insidious in nature. But as Castillo reminds, Africans didn’t bring the drug trade. Rather it has existed and been propagated in the surrounding region for a very long time. More importantly, the vast majority of business Africans have been conducting since their arrival has been legitimate and crucial for local and foreign economies. He insists that positive impact has been overwhelmingly larger than any negative impacts. Economic benefits of trade aside, Castillo emphasizes the human and capital knowledge transfer occurring now to highlight the advantages of a broader global awareness of people and traditions. For example, through the Nigerian Chinese Window of Trade and Commerce exchange that Emma developed, he sends Nigerian developers to see Chinese factories in order to take lessons of Chinese business back home to help local Nigerian Industries. At the same time, he helps facilitate Chinese developers to do the same thing in Nigeria for Chinese industries. Such exchanges pave the way further trade and accomplish much in giving people on both sides more realistic images of African and Chinese people to replace stereotypes.

The UN Population Division estimates that the African population will nearly triple by 2050, with the largest contributing population being Nigerian. With the surge in African influence globally we can only speculate what it will mean for the already burgeoning African population in China. But we can be certain that with all the influence of trade they have already brought Guangzhou, they will bring about an even more far-reaching cultural one as the faces of so-called “Chocolate City” blend ever more into the throngs of Canton.

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