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Africans In China: My Surprise and Delight at Finding an African Town in China's Tropics

Updated on May 22, 2017
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Originally from Birmingham, England, Ava has been living in Shenzhen on South China's tropical South East coast since 2013.

A trader from Zambia sits outside a clothing wholesale market in Guangzhou
A trader from Zambia sits outside a clothing wholesale market in Guangzhou | Source

It's Hard To Believe That You're Still In China

Let me paint a picture for you.

As soon as you alight the train at Xiaobei underground station in Guangzhou you start to see signs of Africa in China.

Leaving the station you head towards the well known Elephant Mall for shoes, clothes, hair care, personal items, DVD's and just about everything else you can think of apart from food.

Nearing the mall you pass black ladies adorned in African dress, more and more of them until they outnumber the Chinese women. You also notice that some of the Chinese women you do see are caring for mixed race children who are a rare sight in China.

Outside Elephant Mall are stores and restaurants run by Arabs, Turkish people, and Africans selling food and snacks from all over Africa. The air is filled with the scent of exotic cooking and the sounds of African languages and dialects bounce off your ears.

Inside the mall, again, you quickly realise that the customers buying African goods in addition to Chinese and European articles are almost exclusively African. In fact if it wasn't for the vendors who are mainly Chinese you'd be convinced by now that you were on African shores.

So yes, with this unplanned and unregulated situation, tensions are bound to occur, but as I've outlined below, thankfully unrest is a rare thing. The people of this part of Guangzhou, both Africans and native Chinese just want to get on with their everyday lives.

Africans In Effect In Guangzhou, China's Biggest Tropical City

Africans from all over the continent are studying, working and raising families in China.
Africans from all over the continent are studying, working and raising families in China. | Source

Africans In China

During my first few months in China I lived in a city called Xu Zhou which lies close to China's eastern shoreline and is situated about 2 hours south of Shanghai. At 2,000 years old it still has many landmarks and a variety of cultural heritage sites preserved from its original beginnings.

A modern day metropolis with approximately 10 million people and a fair number of English language learners and speakers, I was amazed to find that I could go for weeks without seeing another foreigner and even longer until I met someone with the same skin colour as me.

After enduring two months of a brutal winter where the combination of bitter cold and pollution gave me bronchitis and pneumonia, I relocated to China's south coast. Here the palm trees, sandy beaches and significantly shorter, milder winters promised better health and, I was told to expect a larger and more diverse foreign community than in Xu Zhou.

In addition to enjoying tropical living, something which had always been a dream of mine, I was also glad to be in a province where it was easier to obtain hair, make-up and skin care products for black women.

The supplies I'd brought from England were on the verge of running out and trivial as it may sound, when you're being stared at almost all day, every day, how you look takes on greater importance. I'm sure that every woman will agree that in any circumstance, if your hair doesn't look right nothing about you feels right!

In Shenzhen I eventually met other black women who consistantly directed me to the same place to find what I needed; 'Africa Town' in the neigthbouring, regional capital of Guangzhou where I was guaranteed to find a hairdresser able to 'make my hair' for a fair price.

Chinese locals call it 'Chocolate City,' but I've never seen the charm in naming human skin colour after food and in any case, the geography in no way covers all of Guangzhou, just a small part, so I'll stick with the nickname, Africa or African Town.

An African Lady Checks Out Fancy Dresses In The Chinese Market

China has fostered increasingly strong ties with African countries since 1971 [Al Jazeera]
China has fostered increasingly strong ties with African countries since 1971 [Al Jazeera] | Source

What Do Africans Do In China?

The reason for the African presence in China is multifaceted with purposes of study and trade ranking high

There are several agreements in place with various African countries which facilitate the ability to gain a degree from a Chinese university.

From speaking to African friends who are students here, the degrees tend to average approximately six years in length which allows time for students to become proficient in Chinese as courses are not taught in English or any of their native languages.

The Chinese language is complicated enough at a conversational level so I'm full of respect for those who study in academic Chinese. Could you do it?

An African Trader Doing Business In Hong Kong

Ramadhan Myolele comes to Hong Kong regularly to buy mobile phones to sell back home in Tanzania
Ramadhan Myolele comes to Hong Kong regularly to buy mobile phones to sell back home in Tanzania | Source

Trading Opportunities Among Chinese And Africans

If you put this title into Google the search engine results would have you believe that the trading is all one way, with China forging into Africa, but this is misleading.

Perhaps in terms of longterm, large scale investment China has made inroads into African countries and has been doing so for a long time, but at the other end of the proverbial stick, African businessmen/women and small traders travel in and out of China conducting business activities on a regular basis all year round.

Some set up brick and mortar shops dealing in food, clothes, personal, electrical and technological items and cosmetics. Others export goods made in Chinese factories for sale in Africa.

Despite copious amounts of confusing paperwork for foreigners doing business in China, most of which is rarely translated into English let alone a specific African dialect, trade continues undaunted as the opportunties to make money for both parties are attractive and seemingly endless.

African Traders Doing Business In Guangzhou

Bargaining is part of both African and Chinese culture
Bargaining is part of both African and Chinese culture | Source
Trader from Cameroon selling black hair and skin care products in Africa
Trader from Cameroon selling black hair and skin care products in Africa | Source

Chinese Universities Welcome African Students

"More African students are expected to arrive as China plans to double the quota of Government Scholarships for them, a senior official said."  Quoted from China.org
"More African students are expected to arrive as China plans to double the quota of Government Scholarships for them, a senior official said." Quoted from China.org | Source

Studying At A Chinese University

With processes such as scholarships and grants faciltatating the arrival and care of African students, numbers are growing.

A wide range of undergraduate and degree courses are undertaken with International Trade and Commerce being a popular choice. Some students live on Campus, others prefer to reside in their own accomodation.

Speaking to friends who are African students in my city they cite culture shock as being the hardest things to get used to. Something which the Pastoral care within the universities doesn't seem to have taken into consideration in any large degree.

Most students, although not all, return to their African home country during the long holidays, I have yet to meet one who intends to settle in China on completion of their degree.

African Students Describe Their Experiences In China

Interracial Marriage

Although far from common in China, marriages and relationships between Africans and Chinese do occur and, as being married to a national does not automatically grant you permanent residency in China or Chinese citizenship, the union of a Chinese national and African migrant is more likely to be for love than convenience.

From personal conversations with African and Chinese people it seems that the biggest opponents to inter-racial marriage are some (definitely not all) Chinese men, who prefer their women to marry the same race and may not understand why a Chinese woman would love a black man.

Chinese men and women who are in mixed marriages, often along with their family members, are open minded and see people as people not as a colour. They're also strong willed enough to deal with any societal negatitivity which may arise from long held stereotypes. or just plain ignorance.

Two ex-pat writers who cover this topic brilliantly are Jocelyn Eikenburg and Jo Gan, both of whom have lived and worked here for many years and married Chinese men. You can check out their blogs here

https://lifebehindthewall.wordpress.com/

and here

http://www.speakingofchina.com/

Friendship And Romance

On Chinese streets it's rare to see African and Chinese people hanging out together. Each culture tends to mix with their own, which, of course, is not unusual.

The same can be said within the universities as the African students tend to mingle more with each other than with their Asian counterparts. This is due to having shared identities and experiences with one's countrymen and perhaps even a certain amount of shyness on both parts.

Having said that, friendships are forged between the races and attractions are stirred, some of which even turn into marriage.

Africans and Chinese forging friendships in China
Africans and Chinese forging friendships in China

A Nigerian Chinese Wedding In Beijing

Tensions In Africa Town In China

HIstory shows us time and time again that whenever a large group of non native people are planted among a large group of native people who've existed in that place for many years, the result is often trouble.

Sadly this can be applied to the city of Guangzhou which is the capital city of Guangdong and home to China's largest African population. It's the city I referred to as African Town in my introduction to this article.

Tensions arise and erupt on occassion for various reasons. Some Africans feel that they are unfairly targetted by the police and wrongly blamed for crime in their area. Some Chinese feel that 'all the black boys' are illegal, that there are just too many of them and they should be deported.

The situation is complex and would probably require another article in order to examine it properly.

African Expats Fight to Stay in Guangzhou as Policies Tighten
African Expats Fight to Stay in Guangzhou as Policies Tighten | Source

African Sunday Service In Guangzhou

Two African women leaving church in Guangzhou
Two African women leaving church in Guangzhou | Source

What Do You Think?

Despite stories of rising tensions between races, cross cultural interaction resulting from Africans in China is a good thing

See results

Political Alliances

I'm not a political pundit so I can't speak with any authority on the relationships between China and African countries. All I know is that these alliances are growing and appear to be strong.

Chinese military is in Africa. Chinese companies are building roads, schools, and other types of infrastructure across the continent. Chinese leaders visit and receive African rulers on a regular basis and the photocalls show the obligatory handshake with smiles and friendly back-patting all around.

Is this show of apparent solidarity genuine or fake? Do the Prime Ministers and Presidents have the same agenda in mind? Who actually benefits from these partnerships?

Who knows? Certainly not me.

"Over the past few decades, China's rapid economic growth and expanding middle class has fueled an unprecedented need for resources. The economic powerhouse has focused on securing the long-term energy supplies needed to sustain its rapid industrialization, locking down sources of oil and other raw materials across the globe.

As part of this effort, China has turned to Africa. Through significant investment in a continent known for political and security risks, China has helped many African countries develop their nascent oil sectors in exchange for advantageous trade deals. However, China faces growing international criticism over its controversial business practices, as well as its failure to promote good governance and human rights.

At the same time, Beijing's complex relationship with the continent has challenged its noninterference policy in the affairs of African governments."

From cfr.org. China in Africa Authors: Christopher Alessi, and Beina Xu

China Building In Africa

Ghanaian miners and Chinese workers
Ghanaian miners and Chinese workers

Africans Were Here first?

Finally something else for you to consider.

There is a growing school of thought which claims that Africans were the first people on the planet and did not remain confined to that continent but indeed, travelled the globe settling far and wide.

I have read in various sources that Asians are consequently descended from Africans.

Everyday I see people on the streets, on public transport, in cafes and restaurants whose broad noses and afro type hair could prove this theory, as could possibly the first photo below.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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