“Chocolate City” – Africans seek their dreams in China

Written by Buxi on Saturday, June 14th, 2008 at 7:44 am
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This feature article (??,published Jan 2008) from the Southern Metropolis Daily provides a candid, street-level view of the lives of African traders in China. I translate this article to provide some depth to the discussion of racism in China, as seen in this previous thread. In an era when China-Africa relations are making headlines in Western newspapers, it’s time to hear the story from a Chinese perspective. If the 20th century was defined by the American Dream, what can China bring to the world in the 21st century?

In Guangzhou, a 10 square kilometer area centered around Hongqiao has been given the name “Chocolate City” by taxi drivers.

Every day after noon, “Chocolate City” begins to turn lively. Tens of thousands of black people seem to erupt from the ground in groups of twos and threes. Carrying large black plastic bags or wearing backpacks, they look through the stalls along the street. The stalls are filled with “tail goods” (??, excess production that did not meet quality standards) from thousands of small factories throughout Guangdong: blue jeans, unbranded television sets, hand-assembled cell phones.

In distant Africa, nearly 50 countries exploding with demand have opened their arms wide, and are rapidly digesting all of these consumer products not produced locally. Based on Chinese official statistics, during this period of China-Africa trade fever that started in 2003, the number of Africans headed to Guangzhou has been growing at annual rates of 30-40%.

Enticed – “Go to China!”
Clem quickly cuts through the flow of car traffic, like the fish you can never catch. He hesistated when he saw the Southern Metropolis reporter, but finally crossed the road using the pedestrian bridge nearby. He embarassedly stuck out his tongue, saying: “Sorry, I still don’t have the habit of waiting for traffic lights and crossing at pedestrian bridges.” When he’s warned that “Guangzhou’s public security isn’t very good, be careful with your backpack”, his eyes open wide with shock. “Are you joking? Public security here is the best!”

25 year old Clem comes from Nigeria. Before, he saw Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, as heaven. But after he arrived in Guangzhou, he felt he truly stood at the gate to heaven; China is the true heaven.

He couldn’t stop explaining to this reporter: many public buses in Lagos don’t have doors, so that during heavy traffic some passengers will hang outside the bus! The roads in Lagos basically don’t have any traffic lights, only on major intersections will here be two traffic police officers. Lagos doesn’t have so many passenger cars, instead, motorcycles imported from China dominate the streets…

If he hadn’t come to China, Clem would have continued managing his auto parts store. He would be working with partners to resell tires, steering wheels, and seats imported from China at up to 10 times profit. Every time he went to pick up parts, he’d run into clothing store, leather store, jewelry store, or just convenience store bosses, all of them waiting together for packages from China. Every time they see a Chinese person walk-by wearing a suit and carrying a leather suitcase, someone would whistle. “Look at that, we buy all this cheap crap from their country, but they’re shipping away Nigeria’s valuable oil!”

About five years ago, Chinese petrolem companies and businessmen poured into Africa. This led many locals to feel that China was grabbing their resources and rice bowls (jobs). And yet from tractors to toothpaste, everything was “Made in China”; this stimulated many of them into looking in China’s direction. Many of Clem’s friends encouraged him, “Go to China! Nigeria’s using petroleum to trade for foreign currency, and the Chinese are buying it to build heaven!”

When he watched CCTV’s satellite broadcasts, Clem saw Chinese cities were filled with skyscrapers, wide boulevards, orderly traffic. And the most shocking, factories in the Pearl River Delta (Hong Kong/Shenzhen/Guangzhou) were as dense as an ant hive! And Nigeria, other than oil resources, seemed so difficient. Manufacturing industries were extremely backward, and 80% of every-day consumer goods were still being imported – this is in fact the situation in many African countries.

In September of 2007, Clem’s father, working at a Nigerian embassy in Europe, was able to arrange a Chinese visa for him. His friends were envious. More and more Africans are patiently lining up in front of Chinese embassies in Africa, fighting for visas permitted under a limited quota. A guy who received his visa at the same time as Clem had paid a fee to a visa application service nine months ago. When he finally received the visa he had been waiting for, the guy who had been muttering and cursing under his breath finally calmed down; he fiercely kissed his passport.

In October of 2007, Clem dragged a few large suitcases out of Guangzhou Baiyun airport. After trying three or four times, a cab finally stopped for him. He handed a piece of paper with a Chinese address to his driver, and didn’t say another word. Clem’s new home is a 10 square meter single room; another Nigerian had arranged it for him. The room has a single bed, a set of drawers, and a sofa. He shares the bathroom with three other African drivers. He opened the window, and then quickly closed it. No more than half a meter outside his window was another building. He quickly crossed himself, praying that he’d see some sunlight in the morning.

The first impressions many Africans have of Guangzhou start in these local villages.

A mutual divide – “Annoying, so annoying!”
Many taxi drivers aren’t willing to take on “chocolate” customers. They don’t like the nose-irritating perfume, nor the constant bargaining on every trip. Some drivers will use excuses that “you’re too big, the car won’t fit you”, or “I don’t understand your foreign language”; but some don’t care, “driving anybody is just business.”

Based on official statistics, since 2003, the number of Africans in Guangzhou has been growing at 30-40% annually. Based on a report in the Guangzhou Daily, there might already be 100,000 in the community. They come from Nigeria, Guinea, Cameroon, Liberia, and Mali. Amongst these, Africa’s most populous country Nigeria claims first place.

They primarily live in village-districts in the city of Guangdong (like Dongpu, Dengfeng Jie, Yongping Jie). They do their business in a few large-scale China-Africa commerce malls.

The stalls in these commerce malls don’t have much in terms of decoration; at most, there will be a black plastic model at the front door. Samples are piled up the ground, and hung up on the walls and placed in display cases. In one building, the warehouse and sales offices are one and the same. Stall owners pile their blue jeans on the walk-way itself. When it gets busy, you have to step over the piles of pants.

These centers have accumulated basically all of the world’s top brands — Dolce and Gabbana blue jeans, Adidas shoes, Gucci high-heels, Louis Vuitton purses, Chanel purses, Armani underwear. Their prices are ridiculous: Dolce and Gabbana jeans are 20 RMB (3 USD), Gucci high-heels and purse together for 100 RMB (15 USD)…

AP reporter Arnold previously lived in Africa for 10 years. He told a Southern Metropolis reporter that because Africa has almost no factories, most people don’t really distinguish counterfeits: “As long as the shoes have the Adidas stamp on it, that’s good enough. The key is it has to be cheap.”

Cote, a clothes merchant from Liberia, is a frequent guest in these stores. Many of the Africans who’ve come to dig for gold in China are, like him, n the clothing business. They consume many of the out-of-fashion goods in China. A Chinese stall-owner said half-jokingly, “they don’t care about style, but it has to be flexible, and should wrap a woman’s thigh tightly, like a dumpling (zongzi).” According to a manager at one clothing mall, the total amount of commerce at their mall had reached more than 70 million RMB in 2007.

While picking through clothes, Cote claimed that he had many Chinese friends here. To prove his point, he walked up, and pats the store-owner on his head. Or, he playfully kicks at the store-owner’s leg. He’ll loudly greet them, “Friend, how are you recently?” His “friends” don’t respond. Some pull out a cell phone and intentionally ignore him. Others impatiently wave at him, and say in a combination of Chinese and English: “if you’re not buying anything, then go… quickly GO!”

It seems friendship only exists between the Africans. When he runs into a fellow clothes dealer, Cote trades fists and claps with them, and quickly chats in their native tongue. Not many travel alone like Cote, most are in groups of twos or threes. They walk all of the malls from afternoon until the evening. They fold up the plastic bags full of clothes, and use a rented car to haul it away.

On one stall, Cote is told that the jeans he’s interested in are 20 RMB a pair. He fiercely throws the pants at the stall-owners head, angrily asking, “how it can be that expensive!?” He turns and goes. After the shocked stall-owner recovers, he stares at the back of the thick shoulders of the departing Cote. He opens his mouth, and then closes it, changing to a single phrase in Cantonese: “Crazy black guy!” (????)

After 40 minutes, Cote finally decides to buy 500 pairs of women blue jeans. He asked that the store owner remove the packing material and label for every pair. “Most customers only care about a low cost. But me, I care more about shipping costs!” He explains to the reporter, even as he keeps an eye on the store owner working with the clothes. When he finds packing paper isn’t removed from a pair, he shoots up and rips it out, screaming: “I’m buying so much of your stuff, can I get some service please?” The store-owner rolls his eyes and mutters, “Annoying!”.

This sort of unhappy encounter is seen in these Chinese-African trade malls every day. Sometimes, the police are called. A security guard in the mall says he really doesn’t understand it; how can some people be so poor, and yet still so outlandish!

Talking about the customers they deal with every day, stall-owners often pout their lips. The ability of some black people to bargain for discounts annoys many Chinese businessmen. Some will order 200 pairs of pants, but then only purchase 10, insisting on the original price. Some, when they’re picking up their products, will reach down and grab another pair as he walks out the door. Many stall-owners are too lazy to learn English; they feel using a calculator to deal with the black people was good enough. One stall-owner says that if she could do business with white people, she’d definitely improve her English.

Cote has stayed in China for 8 years, but he also doesn’t know a sentence of Chinese. “Why does that matter?” He loudly tells the reporter. His visa is only good for a month at a time, and just like a bird, he has to constantly fly between China and Africa. “I don’t care how you Chinese see us; we’re only here to make money, and then we’ll go home and build a home!”

Boredom: “Guangzhou is still Guangzhou, Chocolate City is still Chocolate City”
Clem doesn’t like to hear “criticisms” of China. Whenever he hears friends complaining about Chinese visas, or Chinese not being trust-worthy, Clem doesn’t say a word. The only thing that he agrees with is, it’s very difficult for Africans to make Chinese friends.

He likes to walk outside this little kingdom. The Guangzhou outside these village-districts is like the one that he saw on TV. Every time he sits on the bus or subway, he lets his friends who speak better Chinese help him buy a ticket, as he stands on the side watching. When he sees the automated machine spit out the subway ticket, he always says softly, “Not that hard at all”. But when friends encourage him to give it a try, he sees the curious looks from all sides, and quickly slides away to the side.

“After I’ve been here longer, after I learn Chinese, I will make Chinese friends”. Clem always comforts himself this way. He feels the problem is in language, and his shy nature. “I will try and change.”

But every time Clem praises China without reservation, Williams will coldly interrupt him. “Once you stay longer, you’ll know. China isn’t just like what you’ve imagined; it’s not only a language problem!”

25 year old Williams is also Clem’s countrymen, a good friend always by his side, and a young man with excess energy. When he has free time, William turns on the stereo and dances to the rock music. He points at a reporter next to him, “I admit it, China is better than Nigeria in many ways. But in music, you can only copy us!” A customer walks in, and he quickly turns off the stereo, takes off his sunglasses, and goes to work. “I’m busy, don’t talk to me,” he points at the reporter. “But you can take a few more pictures of me, try a few different angles!”

Williams came to China a year ago, and opened a hair salon in one of the malls. Everything in the salon, from wall paper to sofa to the customer’s chairs, are all the same color: bright red. His customers are all the same color: black. “Chinese salons don’t understand African hair styles, so they all come to my store.” He says boastfully. Although his “design” (of hair style) often just involves a total shave. “Africans especially trust, and depend on their fellow people; that’s why we call each other ‘brother’ and ’sister’.” Mall management Chen Lianren told the reporter that every store opened by an African becomes a focal point, and attracts many of his fellow countrymen, increasing the traffic flow for other stores in the mall. For that reason, they lowered the rent for African tenants.

Unlike the always migrating Cote, Williams and other Africans with an economic foundation all share a “Chinese Dream”. They hope that by struggling for 4-5 years, they will be able to open a trade company or service center, and make large profits from servicing the rapidly growing Chinese-African trade. Based on published research, more than 20,000 Africans are long-term residents in Guangzhou (more than six months).

But just like Clem, the lives of many Africans never extends out of the 20 kilometer “Chocolate City”. Just about all African visitors can’t name a single tourist spot in Guangzhou, and can’t name many Chinese friends. They don’t open accounts with Chinese banks, and few purchase bus passes, even though it’s their primary mode of transportation. If all of the Africans in Guangzhou evapored overnight, they would leave almost no mark in “Chocolate City” or Guangzhou. “My daughter asked me what I saw in China.” A Nigerian getting his hair-cut said, “I answered, jeans and black people!”

But Williams likes to interact with Chinese, and uses every opportunity to learn Chinese. Once, he chatted with a little Chinese girl, and had a picture taken of the two of them together. He developed the picture, and has kept it in his wallet ever since. He joined a local amateur African soccer team, and competes with local Chinese teams.

“Interacting with Chinese people, it’s really complicated,” Williams said. On this point, most of the people in his circle of friends agree.

Once, on a bus, he chatted with an university student for half an hour. Right before separating, they traded telephone numbers, and agreed to watch a ballgame together next week. But when he called that number the same night, it was an unused number.

Another time, he was chatting with an old lady in front of a church. When he learned she had a grand-daughter, he asked, “Your grand-daughter must be beautiful! How old is she?” The old lady suddenly turned around in anger and left, saying, “Why are you asking so many questions?…”

“I really didn’t mean anything by it, just wanted to practice my Chinese.” Williams shrugged his shoulders. “This time, after you’re done with the interview, will we still be friends?” He asked the reporter. Without waiting for an answer, he laughed drily, “Whatever.”

Another method Williams uses to learn Chinese are TV shows and movies. But the more he watches, the more he feels he’s living in a foreign country. “I never knew Chinese women were tougher than the men. You can refuse to do housework, refuse to have kids, or have only one kid!” He called out to Clem, “You love China, but how much do you know about it? Did you know this? Can you accept it?”

As if he forgot he denied he had chased Chinese girls before, he puts on an exaggerated expression for the reporter, “Luckily, I’ve never successfully dated a Chinese girl!”

“Of course they can’t get a Chinese girl.” 23 year old Ms. Lee is both angry and amused as she talks about this topic. She feels “being normal friends with them is okay, but dating is too strange”. Besides, friends will mock you. From her point of view, many young Africans flirt with girls out of boredom, as a form of entertainment. As soon as they’re refused, they turn around and start expressing their love to someone else.

When Cote was walking around the mall, he repeatedly asked the reporter, “How many boyfriends do you have?” “Just one? Why not get a few more?” Before separating, he graciously invited in a gentlemanly manner, “Will you have dinner with me? Come to where I live, I’ll make the best African food for you.” After being denied, he could only spread his hands, “Why are Chinese girls so hard to date?”

After watching a Chinese TV series, Williams had some insight into the reason for his failure in love, “Maybe Chinese are shy, and prefer to take it slowly.” But his guess might also be a case of wishful thinking. Wang Jia, a girl working in the same mall, once screamed at a suitor who refused to take no for an answer: “Stay away from me, even if you wait 100 years, I won’t be your girlfriend!”

On Christmas Eve, still-single Williams invited Clem to go bar-hopping, but was refused. The reserved boy who usually preserves peace and quiet instead pulled out a newly purchased phone card. He called his parents in the Nigeria capital of Abuja, “I like China, I really want to stay here as long as I possibly can! My New Year’s wish, would be starting a clothing company in Guangzhou!”

Williams put on his jacket, and went through the door. At 1 AM, he came to Dafengche Bar. The heavy beat of rock music booming, and black brothers wearing Santa hats and held beers. They danced and laughed loudly together. The afternoon of Christmas Day, just sobering Williams gave the reporter a telephone call, “Remember how you said the place where I live is called Chocolate City? That’s too true! I’ve been here a year, and Chocolate City is still Chocolate City, and Guangzhou is still your Guangzhou.”

Love – “I’m already very China!”
Compared to the Africans who live in peasant-villages in the city, young Omar belongs to the minority that the Chinese people like. He lives in a small gated apartment community. His life had long moved passed the lonely phase, everything was already in his grasp.

Although business was busy, Omar arrives at the Stone Chamber Church every every week. English mass is held from 3:30 until 4:50 every Sunday afternoon. The church capable of fitting more than two thousand people still can’t squeeze in all of the religious. Some late arriving Africans kneel quietly in the aisle. The sound of softly sung hymns, along with the sharp scent of perfume, circle in the space above the heads of the faithful.

Religion and business are the two things that most closely bind Africans and Guangzhou. Catholicism and Islam are the two dominant religions. Every Friday is the holiest day of prayer for the Muslims, and African Muslims also stop their work. They congregate at the mosque across from Yuexiu Park; carefully they wash their head, hand, and feet, and kneel in the direction of the mosque, saying their prayers to the true Allah.

After prayers are finished, Omar walks over to the adjacent hall, and joins a ceremony unique to African Catholics. A few hundred Africans clapped and danced to a religious music that only they can understand. With the dance finished, one person stood up, and called on everyone to raise their hands, close their eyes, their mouths muttered and gradually grew faster and faster; their faces showed a frantic expression. After Omar faithfully finishes the ceremony, he returns to his typical well-mannered attitude. Pulling out his cell phone, he uses fluent Chinese to tell his wife that the brothers are meeting for dinner that night, he won’t be returning for dinner.

Amongst the Africans who’ve come to Guangzhou, Omar belongs to the small number who’ve received higher education. He even studied Chinese in university. He came to China from Nigeria three years ago, thinking that his advantage in language would allow him to quickly adjust to this new life. But he tried Beijing, no luck; moved to Shanghai, still no luck; continued onto Zhejiang, and still no luck. At the time, one of Omar’s countrymen in America tried to talk him into going to the United States. There, people of different skin colors live together, and no one can tell at a glance that he’s a foreigner.

Finally, he ended up in Guangzhou and set down roots in Chocolate City. Guangzhou has the densest concentration of African businessmen in China. Areas and cities surrounding the area has thousands of factories that take tens of thousands of African orders, originating from Chocolate City, every day.

To Omar, brothers and the factory are equally important. “When I got to Guangzhou, I finally realized why I could never stay in any other place, ” he said, “in Chocolate City, at least no one is coming over and lecture to me, ‘Hey, this is China!’”

This is the attraction of Guangzhou. On Yongping Street, many black illegal immigrants live together in homes that rent for 100-200 RMB per month. They come out only at night, either selling physical labor by offering to carry goods, or sell drugs and other illegal activities. According to police in the area, starting in November of 2007, they had searched out a group of Africans in the country illegally. They were sent to Yunnan and deported.

Omar’s life was all smooth sailing. After he had been in Guangzhou for a year, he opened a clothing store. Quickly, he built a reputation. Everyone knew that Boss Omar not only spoke fluent putonghua, the way he behaved and did business was also very solid. Omar’s store was almost always the last to close at night, including Christmas Eve. After the lights to the store are extinguished at 7 PM, he rushed home to spend the holiday with his wife. In his homeland of Nigeria, on Christmas Eve, the only thing working are the Christmas lights. But in China, both people and the Christmas lights remain as busy as always on Christmas Eve.

His skinny wife comes from Shandong. She met Omar on business about a year ago. After they were married in 2007, Omar’s parents came to China to visit. They couldn’t stop compliment their son and his yellow-skinned wife, and even agreed to their daughter-in-law’s preference to delay having kids.

In their building, there are four or five African bosses who, based on their talent, sincerity, and of course a certain level of economic foundation, won the love of Chinese women. Some have had kids; yellow skin and curly hair, they look just like Barbie dolls. Based on the understanding of the mall’s manager Jiang Ganglong, for an African to lay down roots and open a store, it typically takes around four years of hard work. The primary reason they’re successful, is because they “have integrity, do things the Chinese way.”

The changes that marriage brought Omar go beyond becoming accustomed to a new way of celebrating Christmas Eve. He gradually left Chocolate City, and was accepted and welcomed by his wife’s family and friends. As the other stall-owners in the mall complained about the low quality of Africans, they always add a sentence, “but look at Omar, he’s not at all Africa!”

“I’m already very China!” Omar laughs as he says this. Today, the man from male-chauvinist Africa has happily been infected by China’s specialty: “management by wife”. Friends are always teasing him that the first he does with every cent earned, is to hand it over to this wife. He’s not offended by this, and laughs along.

Future – “I hope she has a Chinese brain”
From the perspective of AP reporter Arnold, formerly stationed in Africa, the various collisions between Chinese and Africans are a necessary part of the “wearing in” process, between two peoples who’re only in the early stages of establishing contact. Chinese aren’t prejudiced in a racial sense, “compared to Americans, the amount of contact between Chinese and Africa is still very little, far too little for mutual understanding. So-called prejudice, is more analogous to the way city-dwellers with money view poor villagers who don’t understand manners.”

Arnold feels that the primary difference between the way Africans are pursuing their “Chinese dream” and the way Chinese are seeking the “American dream” lies in that most Africans don’t really wish to integrate into China’s mainstream society, and become true Chinese citizens. The harsh conditions behind China’s emigration policy, as well as a drastically different culture, and the lack of religious tradition makes China unattractive to many Africans. They like to drink milk, but have no interest in living in a dairy farm. They prefer to squeeze the milk, and then bring it home with them.

The boss of the #9 stall in Building B, Cisse, his “Chinese dream” is designed for his CBB (China-Born Baby). He raised up his less than one year old black baby, and excitedly said: “Look, she’s a Chinese girl!”

Cisse and his black wife have no plans to apply for a Chinese green card. Cisse has another wife and four kids back home in Nigeria. Cisse is Muslim; three years ago, he brought one of his wives from Mali to Guangzhou. They gave birth to their darling daughter in a Guangzhou hospital.

Two months ago, they hired a Chinese nanny to teach their baby Chinese, and Chinese manners. “In the future, our baby is going to go to kindergarten, middle school, and university in China!” He emphasized, “China’s influence in Africa is growing more and more, and Chinese brains are very sharp. I hope she has a Chinese brain.”

After his business becomes stable, Cisse’s long-term plan is to spend three months in each of Guangzhou and Nigeria. Normally, he’ll call his wive in their homeland every few days, and in front of his present wife, pour out his guilt and sadness for not having her there.

In response to the shock on this reporter’s face, this calm Muslim volunteered to explain, “According to the Koran, you can marry the women that you love; two wives, three wives, four wives. But if you can not treat them equally, then you can only have one wife.” He smiled as he said, “I think I’m a good husband.”

As far as China’s one-wife/one-husband and family planning policies, Cisse said that from both a male/female ratio and national population point of view, he understands. “These policies benefit China, so they’re good policies.”

Cisse’s younger brothers don’t share his benevolent feelings. When China is brought up, just like many other recently arrived Africans, he’s filled with anger – Chinese get African visas far easier than Africans can get Chinese visas, and this is unfair; Chinese don’t believe in religion, too terrifying…

Whenever this happens, Cisse smiles without responding. After his younger brother is done complaining, then he’ll say, “One day, you’ll understand.”

On December 22nd, after Islam’s holiest holiday Ramadan has passed, Christmas quickly follows. And every year at this time, Cisse’s store, and indeed the entire mall enters the off-season, and Chocolate City becomes almost empty.

And during this time, workers at Guangzhou Baiyun Airport’s international airport enters into their highest level of alertness. Behind the tens of thousands of African passengers, trails a small mountain’s worth of luggage.

Cote, the “migratory bird” from Liberia, almost looks drowned in his luggage. As he’s picking up his boarding pass, he’s told that his luggage is overweight. He tries to talk his way through it, even calling the workers “sister”, and begging his “sister” to give him a break. After this is denied, he’s frustrated as he stuffs his luggage back onto his cart. “China, so annoying! Really annoying!”

Finally, he still paid the surplus. As he crossed the security check, he seems to have forgotten that momentary unhappiness. He turns around and waves at the reporter, “March of next year, I’ll be back!”
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