Market forces

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am

The wholesale clothing market at No 88 Guangyuan West Road is a lone finger of concrete between two arteries of electrified railway. The tracks converge at the building's rear before snaking down to Guangzhou station 500 metres to the southeast.

It's Friday evening and the tide of traffic flowing north from the city centre runs thick and fast. Spring rain is falling on the elevated motorway overhead but it does not hinder the scores of tall black men dodging the cars to cross the carriageway. They then duck down into the basement of No 88. A glass door is pushed open and the rhythms of Africa come leaping up the staircase and out into the crowded road.

Inside, a band playing Ghanaian hi-life music is pumping its way into the weekend. A lanky bass player, the sleeves of his red baseball jacket rolled up, works with a thick-set drummer dressed in a white shirt and waistcoat. Together they beat out a tight loop of rhythm. Keyboards, guitar and two vocalists belting their hearts out to a room heaving with young Nigerians complete the scene.

The band's name is Unique African and their manager, Destiny Ifeanyi, sits to one side of the throng, enjoying a meal at a table cluttered with bottles of Guinness. In front of him are a plate of cooked semolina dough known as fufu and a bowl of rich stew, called egusi, made from okra, smoked fish and ground dried melon seeds. He breaks off a ball of dough and makes an indentation with his thumb with which to scoop up the sauce.

'Music is a big part of African culture and it was high time we had some here,' says Ifeanyi, who was a professional musician in Lagos before he came to Guangzhou and started a shipping company. He had little trouble finding musicians of a professional standard who could play at the weekends. Guangzhou's first African band was born in January, a small milestone in the evolution of the city's African community.

From a few hundred traders who came seeking opportunity a decade ago, the number has ballooned into more than 10,000. There are migrants from just about every African country working as hairdressers, restaurant owners, community leaders, including priests, and professional musicians.

So visible are Nigerians in the city's Sanyuanli district - around 88 Guangyuan West Road and its neighbouring wholesale markets - that some locals call the area Little Africa or Chocolate City. China's first African quarter evolved in Guangzhou because the city anchors the densest region of light manufacturing on the planet.

The growth of the community shows no sign of slowing despite China's reputation as one of the world's most culturally homogenous countries. Yet Little Africa's boom days may be numbered. While welcomed by most locals, Guangzhou's Africans have been getting a much cooler reception from the city authorities in the past 12 months. Their livelihoods are also threatened by rising costs in the Pearl River Delta, which has prompted a shift in trade to other cities, most notably Yiwu in Zhejiang province to the northeast.

'THERE AREN'T many factories in Africa,' says Congolese priest and businessman Pastor Christian. 'Most merchants have mixed businesses and deal in all kinds of goods. They might arrive with only cash and no specific idea of what they want to buy. But once they've looked around they have no trouble spending their money because in Africa almost everything is needed.'

Until the 1990s, most Asian trade to Africa flowed through Dubai. Bangkok and Jakarta were also used, offering African merchants access to manufacturers in Southeast Asia. In the 80s, as the Pearl River Delta emerged as the focus of Deng Xiaoping's industrialisation of the mainland, with Hong Kong as its gateway, African trading posts began to appear in the city, often in Tsim Sha Tsui's Chungking Mansions. From then on all eyes were on the rise of Hong Kong's hinterland. The east-Asian financial crisis in 1997 gave a nudge to the trend. Scores of African merchants moved to Guangzhou after the ethnic Chinese merchants they were buying from were chased out of Indonesia and manufacturing was disrupted in Southeast Asia as a whole.

'I started out with textiles in Dubai,' says Paluku Ngahangondi, a Congolese merchant who came to China in 2002. 'It got to the point where everything I was buying there was made in China.'

Hong Kong lost its role as a middleman as the mainland opened up to trade after its accession to the World Trade Organisation at the end of 2001. African merchants moved out of Chungking Mansions and north of the border.

Since then, the mainland's thirst for resources has pushed it into closer relationships with African rulers and given their subjects the income to buy its cheap goods. Trade between China and Africa has mushroomed from US$10 billion in 2000 to more than US$70 billion in 2007, according to the Ministry of Foreign Commerce in Beijing.

Observers agree the number of Africans in Guangzhou has taken off in the past four years. No census has been conducted but most estimates put the number at between 10,000 and 20,000, with more than half from Nigeria.

Wamar Ventes is typical. The 32-year-old first came to Guangzhou from the inland Nigerian

city of Ibadan eight months ago. Most afternoons he can be found shopping in the Canaan wholesale clothing market. Fifty metres north along Guangyuan West Road from No 88, this yellow structure is at the heart of Guangzhou's Nigerian community. A warren of corridors stretches back into the building's interior, chock-a-block with small shops piled with shoes and clothes. Nigerians wearing striped pastel shirts loaf around the entrance, some with mobile phones pressed to an ear.

Ventes obviously takes time over his appearance. He is dressed in baggy black corduroy trousers, a bright orange T-shirt, a hooded white hip-hop jacket, blindingly white trainers and lots of gold jewellery. 'I like homey style,' he says. 'Shoes always have to be clean. A man has to make his things flashy so that people see and admire him.'

Nigerian appreciation for good clothes has been a boon for Canaan's shopkeepers. Ventes bought 5 cubic metres of shoes on his first trip and despatched them home in a shared container. A month later he sold his merchandise in Ibadan with a 200 per cent markup. On this trip he intends to stay longer and buy more, satisfying Nigerian hunger not only for new shoes but hip-hop gear and jewellery too.

Ventes, like most African merchants on the mainland, arrived on an 'F', or business, visa.

A minority of Africans go one step further, setting up what is technically a branch office of a company headquartered back in Africa.

This allows them and a few African staff members to bring their families over on long-term 'Z', or employment, visas. They can also issue the invitation letters needed for others to apply for F visas.

Triones Nusa Asia is one such company. Its Malian founder, Dioncounda Diawara, moved his business to Guangzhou from Jakarta in 2000. His company functions as a middleman between African retailers and Guangdong factories. 'Give us a sample and we take care of everything, from finding a manufacturer to quality checks and delivery to West Africa,' says Gassama Kougne, Diawara's nephew.

The company's office and showroom is in Tianxiu Building, a few kilometres southeast of Canaan Market, in the city's Xiaobeilu area. This pink, three-towered structure is made up of 20 floors of mixed-use space stacked on top of a podium full of wholesale shops. It's Guangzhou's equivalent of Chungking Mansions; the central landmark of Little Africa. Along the walls of Triones Nusa Asia, sheets of fabric in brown, green and other African hues vie for space with racks of shirts and brightly coloured flip-flops. Glass cases are cluttered with cans of insecticide and shoe polish, nail varnish, broom handles, steel scouring pads and toothpaste. Another room contains electrical goods encased in cheap silver-coloured plastic: floor fans, stereos, television sets and even diesel generators and an ice-cream machine. There aren't many genuine branded goods in this trade. Imitation and fake logos abound.

Kamal Elneil is a 50-year-old Sudanese businessman who has risen to the top of the ranks of Little Africa since setting up Hello Partners, a branded chain of shops selling office stationery and school-related products. Elneil is a product of another era of Sino-African engagement. In the 70s, when Mao Zedong's continent became a battleground between the Soviet Union and the west, the Chinese leader sought friendships with nations that were aligned with neither.

The Great Helmsman was still alive when Elneil was invited to study language at Sun Yat-sen University, in Guangzhou. He came back for medical training in 1987. But instead of going to work as a doctor in his homeland, he took advantage of the language skills and contacts he had made to set up Wins International in 1991, the first African company to register an office in Guangzhou.

Since then, Elneil has become more a part of the city than many of its Chinese residents. His four children were born in Guangzhou and attend school here. Every day his driver picks him up from his family's villa in the south and drives across two wide channels of the Pearl River to Hello Partners' head office, near the East Railway Station. Every Friday morning he attends prayers at the Haobanjie mosque in the west, one of four in the city.

Two years ago, Elneil raised the US$200,000 needed to set up a foreign-invested company. Hello Partners has stores in Guangzhou and Khartoum, Sudan's capital, and a network of suppliers throughout China. Many of the 1,000 branded products it sells - none of them counterfeit - are designed at the head office.

'When I started doing business in Guangzhou there were no direct flights from Africa,' says Elneil. 'Outsiders couldn't rent apartments. Nobody spoke English or knew how to do business with foreigners. If you wanted to buy stuff you had to go direct to the factory.'

The wholesale markets, Elneil recalls, initially sprang up in the Liuhua area, opposite the train station, in about 1997. These outlets were the first to accept orders of less than a single container in size.

Arab merchants were the first foreigners to set up shop in Tianxiu Building, which subsequently became nicknamed Yemen Building. In the past few years they have made way for black Africans by moving west along Huanshi Donglu to another building. More recently, Nigerians and other West Africans have moved up into the Sanyuanli area.

As Guangzhou's African population has grown, its structure has changed. These days, the city has a large service sector with an extensive range of businesses that had hitherto been unheard of on the mainland.

Sophie Toheep has been running her hair-braiding business in Guangzhou for the past two years. Her workplace is an apartment high up in the Tianxiu Building that she rents for 2,000 yuan (HK$2,230) a month.

'I knew if I came to China I would make it in life,' says Toheep, who reckons she makes three times as much as she did in her native Ivory Coast. 'Wherever there are Africans, they are always going to need someone to do their hair.'

One of the flat's two bedrooms has been converted into a salon. A barber's chair in the centre of this small space is surrounded by shelves stacked with hair treatments and walls pasted with posters showing a multitude of African hairstyles. A full braid takes two hours and costs 250 yuan.

While Toheep painstakingly weaves extensions into one customer's hair, another waits her turn in the living room. Soul diva Toni Braxton's videos are playing on the television. 'These days my clients include some Chinese and Russians too,' says Toheep. 'They watch American music videos and they want the same style of hair.'

With the Africans has come a thriving breed of evangelical Christianity, an element the authorities watch with suspicion. In the Hubin Hotel, in the city's Haizhu Square area, for example, the Church of Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace meets every Sunday. A congregation of 100 worshippers from Cameroon, Angola, Tanzania, Burundi, Ghana, Ivory Coast and both Congos come together to sing, pray and listen to the preaching of Pastor Christian.

'Worship is a very important part of African culture,' says Christian, who hails from Bukavu, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and cuts an elegant figure in his immaculate white suit and black cavalry hat. 'We are born again and it's in our blood. We can't live without prayer and worship because the church is within us.'

While some Africans attend services at officially recognised houses of worship such as the city's Stone Cathedral (also in the Haizhu Square area), the majority of African Christians pray at unlicensed churches. Most of these belong to Christianity's fastest-growing denomination, Pentecostalism, which is characterised by ecstatic singing and religious fervour. Christian reckons there are more than 10 such churches in Guangzhou. The largest - the Nigerian Oasis of His Presence Church - can pull in congregations of more than 500.

The city government's attitude towards this underground Christianity is ambivalent. No ban has been enforced yet worship is periodically disrupted. Christian's congregation, for example, started life in the Tianxiu Building at the beginning of 2004 but was asked to leave by the complex's managers. It found a new venue - a hall in Lujin Road - before it was turfed out again, after three months. Since then it has been forced to relocate several times. Ifeanyi's first performances in Guangzhou were of gospel music, as part of the regular lineup playing every Sunday in the services of the Oasis of His Presence Church. Since then he has quit the congregation. 'My business is going well now and I don't want any problems,' he says.

When contacted by Post Magazine, the Oasis of His Presence Church's leader Pastor Basil declined an interview, citing fear of repercussions.

In addition to churches, informal national trade associations, with leaders who speak to the authorities on their behalf, have sprung up.

What Guangzhou's Africans do not have is their own schools or community centres. The mainland's immigration rules, in fact, ensure there will never be an outside ethnic community like those in the US and Europe. Permission to settle permanently on the mainland is almost never granted to foreigners. Even the so-called 'green card' - introduced in 2004 - is really just a seven-year visa, open only to big investors, long-staying top-tier professionals and those who take a Chinese spouse.

At the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, lecturer Barry Sautman is conducting surveys of Africans in Guangzhou. 'I know some Africans who've been married to Chinese for several years and still can't get a green card,' he says, adding that he's never met a foreigner who was given permanent residency.

In the short term, three things look set to influence the future of Little Africa. The first is the rise of Yiwu as a competitor city, with lower costs than Guangzhou and bigger wholesale markets. The second is the entry of the Chinese themselves into the business of exporting to Africa. Many of those who initially travelled to the continent to work on resource-related projects have chosen to stay there, establishing businesses that include importing from their homeland.

'Before, the Chinese didn't have the contacts needed to send goods to Africa,' says Kougne. 'Now they've set up warehouses and shops. They're trading in the same goods as us and they're undercutting us.' Along with many other African traders, Kougne blames this for two years of falling business.

Lastly, there is the issue of tolerance. Most Africans in Guangzhou have noticed a recent change in the attitude of the authorities. Starting about 18 months ago, the police have held meetings with community leaders to remind them of the law and the behaviour expected of African nationals. Visa checks in African areas have become a common occurrence. Border officials are on the alert for drug moles from Africa after seven traffickers were arrested in the last three months of 2007.

At her salon in the Sanyuanli area, Cameroonian beautician Akam Gloritina explains why she moved her business from its original location in the Tianxiu Building. 'Police checks were scaring my customers away,' she says.

Does this mark a hardening of attitudes? While it's not hard to find a taxi driver with something bad to say about Africans, the opposite is more likely to be true of Guangzhou people as a whole. Take a walk around the Canaan or Tianxiu markets and it's easy to see how much locals enjoy working with Africans.

'Africans have a gaiety about them. They're cheerful and straightforward when they haggle. Dealing with them is easier going than with Chinese, who tend to nitpick,' says a Chinese shop assistant in the Tianxiu Building.

Elneil's driver, John Du, says his boss treats his staff with more respect and fairness than most Chinese businessmen he knows. He attributes this to Elneil being a conscientious Muslim.

Some relationships between Chinese and Africans are more intimate. In the Sanyuanli area, it's common to spot Africans with Chinese girlfriends. Nigerian representative Emmanuel Ojukwu says he knows more than 150 of his countrymen who have married Chinese women.

Christian comments on an improvement in the attitude of locals: 'It's very different now from three years ago, when most Chinese didn't really understand Africans and African culture.' But, he says, the past two years have witnessed a growing problem with people overstaying their visa. These days, Christian says, Guangzhou attracts not only merchants with money and clear business aims but also people drawn by a general sense of opportunity.

To replace an expiring visa a trip to Macau, where US$3,000 in cash must be shown at the border, is common. When they don't have this sum, some simply choose to forgo their visa run.

'We encourage those who don't have the means to renew their visa to return home,' says Christian. 'You can't blame the authorities for enforcing the law. They only want legitimate businessmen to come to Guangzhou.'

There's no doubt Guangzhou's Africans work hard but that may not be enough to guarantee their future in a nation that has seen many foreign communities fail to put down roots. As one aspect of China's economic miracle, ethnic diversity may be fleeting.