Influx of Chinese transforms the landscape of Madagascar

Fujian traders are doing good business in the capital’s newly built Chinatown, even if locals aren’t exactly welcoming them with open arms

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 11:29am

I was on holiday in Madagascar over the past three weeks.

There were no herds of elephants and gazelles traipsing over the savanna. That's in Tanzania. Neither were there any lions, zebras, hippos or penguins as shown in the DreamWorks blockbuster.

There are soul-humbling mountains, poverty-stricken yet cheerful Madagascans, lemurs and many mainland Chinese. In fact, there are more residents from the mainland than there are lemurs. The island is home to more than 70,000 Chinese, double the figure less than a decade ago.

In its worn out capital, Antananarivo, there is a "Chinatown" - an area of 20-plus shopping malls and countless vendors, as well as eager traders and shoppers. I elbowed my way into one of these malls. It was a maze of box-like shops, selling all sorts of made-in-China goods - clothing, shoes, cosmetics, 2G mobile phones for HK$40 and various electronic gadgets.

The island is home to more than 70,000 Chinese, double the figure a decade ago

They are counterfeit, but, they are brand new. That's something. In most Madagascan markets, anything man-made is usually second hand.

"We do wholesale to the locals," said Li Min, showing me a tube of "l'Oréal" face scrub for a pre-haggling price of 3,000 ariary (about HK$13).

The 20-year-old Fujian moved to Madagascar a year ago to help out his uncle. His dream is to become Cai Guowei, who's also from Fujian.

Cai, an ex-police officer, arrived on the island in 1997. He bought an "antique" Peugeot (there's not much choice) and started selling shirts and shoes in rural villages for three times their price in the city. He made a bucket of gold and then parlayed it into the building of the above-mentioned Chinatown shopping malls.

Yes, this is a country where people earn HK$10 a day. Yet, having travelled the country's handful of bone-shaking "roads" and its two nobody-knows-when-and-whether-it-will-arrive railways, I know the villagers don't have much choice but to pay a premium.

Why is the influx of goods tolerated by the local government? "The Fujian and local customs agents are friends," said another Fujian I met on the plane home. He has just been "escorted" to the plane by some customs "friends".

"The government is banning the export of seahorses and semi-precious stones. They search everything. It's nothing but an excuse to ask for money," he said.

The Chinese are not only bringing in low-end goods. In Antsirabe, where the French colonials used to relax in a now-dried-up spring, I met He Weimin. He had been working there as a clothes designer for two years.

His employer is a European-Chinese joint venture involved in the knitwear business. "I do the design and the prototype. We are here for the labour, the cotton and the African market," He explained.

In Toliara, where only cactus and cotton grow, I met engineer Ye Xiaoping, who travelled there with a cotton-processing machine made by a non-state-owned factory in Zhejiang.

The machine was to replace a 40-year-old American one. The French factory-owner had opted for the cheaper Chinese machine partly because of American sanctions imposed on the island since a 2009 coup.

Ye spent three months in the town with no fresh water to train the local workers to use and maintain the machine. It was tough. He had to speak through two interpreters - one for Mandarin to French and another for French into Malagasy.

"The workers are poorly educated and paid only 300 yuan a month. You can't expect too much," said Ye. "Anyway, it's better than Mozambique (where I have also trained workers)."

These Chinese new rich have had little involvement in the local community, including Cai, the mall owner, who has donated a fortune to Fujian.

What do the locals think of the mainland Chinese? Here's what my four driver-cum-guides said: "They are rich," said one.

"They have spoiled the police. To pass checkpoints, I used to pay them 500 ariary. Now, they won't even smile at 2,000 ariary," said another.

"I have had some Chinese tourists. They were noisy. We called them 'wala wala'," said the third.

"I don't know. I have never bought any goods from them. Their shoes fall apart quickly," said the fourth.

All four were too discreet to mention the riot in Chinatown in 2011. The fracas started after a Chinese boss slapped and kicked two Madagascans over a few pairs of sandals.

Nor did they mention the media's criticism of a mainland steel producer for its failure to build a hospital and other public amenities as promised in return for iron ore mining rights. The project was shelved in 2012.

Nor did they bring up the repeated safety warnings issued by the Chinese embassy after several Chinese were robbed. One of those warnings said:

"If a policeman requests entry to your home, check their identity card and write down their car's licence plate number."

Given the dissociation of the Chinese from the locals, more warnings may yet come.

[email protected]