Hong Kong entrepreneur profited from trading in Africa

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 August, 2012, 3:38am


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Jimmy Chan Chi-ming was among the thousands of enterprising Hongkongers who were ahead of China's rush into Africa. A million Chinese moved there during the past 10 years as China overtook the United States and Europe to become the continent's largest trading partner.

During the decade the annual growth in trade between China and Africa was more than 30 per cent a year, reaching US$166 billion last year.

"I first went to Togo in 1988 with a group of friends, and for the next 20 years I worked in Ghana, Mali, Guinea, Gambia, Mauritania and Senegal. I don't have much education but even in the beginning I knew more about Africa than most Hongkongers do today."

Chan specialised in trading dried shark fin. He would haggle with African fishermen in his broken English and French, and send the fins in monthly, three-tonne shipments to Hong Kong. Agents in Hong Kong sold the shark fins to local businesses.

At the peak of his career, Chan was making US$50,000 a month, with an average monthly income of US$35,000, but that was before growing global concern over the inhumane practice of shark finning, which depleted shark populations in African seas.

A large number of Hongkongers migrated to Africa from the 1960s to the 1980s to do business, with 1,000 Hong Kong businessmen going to Nigeria during the second half of the 20th century, running manufacturing companies and restaurants or trading in textiles and other goods.

Chan, 60, now lives in Hong Kong with his African wife and their eight-year-old daughter. He met his wife while trading in Guinea and the family moved to Hong Kong with him in 2008.

Sipping a beer outdoors on a hot, humid evening on Lantau Island, Chan reminisced about his time in Africa. "Over there, you always felt comfortable. It's hot, but there was always a beautiful breeze. I have a lot of African friends and I miss them. Actually, they're not my friends; they're my brothers."

Business began to slow down for Chan in the 1990s as Hong Kong settled into a service sector economy.

More mainland migrants arrived in Africa. "Their money was not like our money. Many of the mainland companies had the backing of the government, and really undersold us. We couldn't compete. The Westerners definitely couldn't compete."

Joanna Chiu and Lilly Zhang