Some struggle, others thrive in African oasis

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 July, 2009, 12:00am

Guangzhou is the heart of the mainland's African population. Tens of thousands have flocked to the city on the doorstep of the 'world's factory'.

When Africans first began moving to the city in the mid-1990s, many made Xiaobei district their home. Known among locals as 'chocolate city', the area is an incongruous sight in a major mainland metropolis.

Shops have English and Arabic signs, and the streets are full of Africans - who outnumber the locals - hanging out in front of cafes and restaurants.

To many Africans, Guangzhou is a place that produces mixed feelings. Many succeed in their business ventures, but others struggle to make a living and find themselves in trouble with police due to strict visa rules.

'Most of us come for business,' said Ike, a 27-year-old Nigerian who has been in the city for two years. 'We are selling Chinese products back to our countries.'

Some Africans earn a living working as porters in the wholesale markets, helping to carry goods between stalls and vehicles. Others are employed in Chinese-owned cafes and restaurants as cooks.

'My business is OK, but many other people live very hard lives here,' he said.

Ike has a small shop in the Tangqi Foreign Trade Clothes Plaza, where two Nigerians were injured trying to evade a police visa check on Wednesday, prompting a rare public protest.

He said such incidents were common. He echoed the belief in the community that the accident was caused by unfair immigration policies that make it difficult and sometimes impossible to stay beyond the visa expiry date. Guangzhou police complained in 2007 about the drug-trafficking network that was threatening to turn the city into a narcotics hub.

Ike said crime happened in every city, and that most Africans were employed in legal businesses.

A man surnamed Zhuang, who sold tattooing equipment in a shopping mall in the district, said it was a perfectly safe place to live in.

'There are so many Africans in the city,' he said. 'Sometimes the Africans fight on the street but so far there hasn't been any major conflict between local people and the foreigners. The community is safe.'

The exact number of Africans in the city has never been counted.

Official statistics released in May show that the city had a little over 20,000 foreigners of all nationalities. But Huang Shiding, a city management expert of the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, estimated that was probably the amount of Africans alone.

In 2007, the Guangzhou Daily, the government newspaper, reported there could be as many as 100,000 Africans living in the city.

Ike insisted that the majority of locals made Africans in the city welcome, saying only about 5 per cent did not.

However, he admitted that not all his Nigerian friends in the market saw things that way. He also complained about the constant visa checks, saying they took place in their apartments, in the markets and even on buses.

His girlfriend is a Chinese trader in the market, and he said he planned to marry her.

'I like her so much and introduced her to my family. They asked me to bring her back sometime and we will get married,' he said.

According to a dealer in the market, who gave the name Joy, many of her fellow traders were dating Africans. 'From daily association, they are very nice guys, polite and friendly,' said Joy, who is from Hubei province.

But not all Guangzhou residents agree. Taxi driver Ma Shishi said the African community was not well integrated into the city due to different living habits, adding that generally he would not accept African passengers in his cab.

Additional reporting by Kelly Chan