West African traders flocked to Guangzhou in the late 1990s. For those who stayed, daily life is not just about money. Food and religion matter too

Words by Yepoka Yeebo | 21 Sep, 2013

A congested port city of elevated highways, glass towers and grubby tenement blocks on the Pearl River Delta, Guangzhou is home to the single largest African community in Asia. This minority community, which currently numbers tens of thousands, is also one of the least understood forces now transforming relations between China and Africa. Merchants from West Africa first arrived in Guangzhou—China’s oldest trading city and south China’s economic powerhouse—in the late 1990s. They were drawn by the cheap consumer goods on offer, which they sent back to market stalls and shops in Lagos and Accra; instead of returning, many traders chose to stay in China and run manufacturing operations and cargo companies. Over time the older members of this community have emerged as diplomats, protectors and benefactors, intervening in what has become an increasingly fraught relationship.

Guangzhou’s black African population has in recent years been the target of immigration raids. Deaths during those raids, and in police custody, as well as accusations of drug trafficking levelled against African residents have soured a once peaceful and lucrative period of trade and everyday interaction. Leaders within the immigrant African community have had to step in: not only to negotiate with local authorities and Guangzhou’s police force, but also to help fund emergency medical care, tickets home and funerals. Inadvertently, their actions have contributed to building one of China’s most significant foreign communities.

Until the Opium Wars forced China to open up from the late 1840s, Guangzhou—then called Canton—was the only city in China foreigners could trade in. In the early 1980s, reformist leader Deng Xiaoping declared it a special economic zone, part of an experiment that turned China into the world’s second largest economy, and Guangzhou into a global workshop. In just 30 years, Guangzhou and the cities in its surrounding Guangdong province have rapidly transformed from moribund farming and fishing towns into sophisticated mega cities. Collectively, they account for 30% of China’s gross domestic product. There are over 60,000 factories in Guangzhou alone, their products some of the cheapest anywhere in the world. A highway, crossed with overpasses and rail lines, loops around Guangzhou’s city centre. The road is flanked by wholesale trading malls offering everything from fur coats to new kitchens. Here and deeper into the city lie the wholesale malls, retail stores, shipping offices and money transfer agents catering specifically to African traders. They are signposted by massive hoardings featuring black models. The Chinese merchants doing business with African traders not only speak English, but also do so with audible West African accents.

As they have done in Thailand, Dubai and Britain, Nigerian traders now also run a growing number of these businesses, facilitating trade between Africa’s most populous country and Guangzhou’s biggest consumer market in Africa. Cheap clothing and shoes, jewellery and consumer electronics are the chief items of trade. Since the late 1990s, these products have helped wean the poor in Africa off second-hand cast-offs, and they have even established a market among middle class buyers used to shopping in Europe and America.

Traders and shipping company clerks tend to work late into the night. Afterwards, they head off to one of the growing number of bars and restaurants that have sprung up around the trading malls. The laminated menus at the Chimamanda Kitchen, recognisable for its salmon pink walls and lurid green lighting, offer jellof rice, abacha (cassava) and moi moi (a pudding of black-eyed beans), as well as soups of bitter leaf, stockfish, and bush meat flown from Africa. The dining area has two flat-screen televisions. They display Nigerian hip-hop videos, a concession to the mostly young male clientele—the African population in Guangzhou is roughly 80% male.

Joey Okonkwo co-owns Chimamanda. Although born and raised in Guangdong province to Chinese parents, she speaks English with a thick Nigerian accent. The accent is genuine: she learnt English largely from her husband, Ugo. The restaurant, which opened recently, is the Okonkwos’ second business. When business slowed down in their fashion export company, they opted to open a business that turns income everyday.

“This business is something that is daily sales,” said Ugo of his decision to go into the restaurant trade. “You see your money immediately.”

He planned to work in the restaurant for six months, before handing it over to employees and moving on to his next business: a drinking water plant or a chicken factory back home in Nigeria.

Ugo left Nigeria when his first business crumbled. He looked for a visa out, and the only country that would take in a migrant with few marketable skills and little money was China. That was in 2005.

The first Chinese vocabulary he learned was how to negotiate a commission. He started out helping established Nigerian traders deal with factories and ship their purchases, claiming a cut for his input. He used his profits to buy small batches of goods—thongs, motorcycle parts, women’s shirts—and send them home for his sister to sell. Year after year he made small deals. And then, “Boom,” he said, a deal involving 80,000 cotton shirts. Ugo’s total profit amounted to $13,000.

Ugo’s story is not uncommon. I heard several variations, each underpinned by the same get-rich determination. Some traders, arriving with only a few thousand dollars, made enough money to afford residency permits, offices and warehouses in Guangzhou. They have also built enterprises in Africa, replete with hawker-to-mogul houses, cars, generators and businesses that have uplifted entire extended families into the middle class. But such stories are also the exception. Even the wealthy traders have to deal with the complexities of doing business in China, which extend beyond simply learning the languages and adopting local nicknames, connections and customs. One businessman told me how he once greeted 12 policemen raiding his home at midnight with tea and Cantonese jokes.

Some African traders have built even closer ties. An estimated 400 African men have married into Chinese families. Christian Nigerians have also helped transform Guangzhou’s Sacred Heart Cathedral. Father Joseph Peng, who celebrated the English-language mass recently, arrived at the Cathedral at the same time as many of the Nigerians, in 2000. This was after the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s forced many to leave more established trading hubs like Thailand, prompting Chinese trade with Africa to kick off in earnest. Since then, the church has adapted to the needs of its distinctive community.

“We needed more time for confession, especially for the Africans,” said Father Peng. Once a firebrand traditionalist, Father Peng ministers to about 1,400 people every Sunday at his English service. The vast majority are Nigerians, with Catholic Philippinos representing another important bloc of congregants. The first thing new arrivals to China do is look for a church, said Austin Chikwendu, who ran the campaign for an English-language mass. Sitting through Mandarin and Cantonese church services when he first arrived, he said, had left him feeling like a fish out of water. Now there is an English Sunday school, and also a raucous Pentecostal service after the mass.

The Pentecostal service is held in a tin-roofed, fluorescent-lit hall nearby. Cries of “Praise the Lord” resound within as a Nigerian preacher extols the virtues of gratitude. His audience of a few hundred is chiefly made up of African traders and their Chinese spouses. In the row of plastic chairs in front of me, a Nigerian man stared reflectively into a Bible bookmarked with a 100-yuan note emblazoned with the face of Mao Zedong. To my right, surrounded by fashionably dressed young Nigerians, an elderly Chinese woman thumbed a glow-in-the-dark rosary, her lips moving as she rocked gently to the gospel music. Two young Chinese men shuffled in and sat down behind her. By the end of the service, they were up and dancing with the Africans, hands in the air. Much of the Nigerian contribution to Guangzhou is like Sunday at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

There are only crude estimates of the number of Africans in Guangzhou: they range from 20,000 to 100,000. When I first started talking to African migrants living in Guangzhou, the responses ranged from open and friendly to incredibly wary. This is understandable. Many of Guangzhou’s African residents have overstayed their visas and are in China illegally. The fear of detection shapes their lives. Many only come out after noon, believing that immigration raids don’t happen after Chinese policemen have had lunch. There is one rumour about an entire class of African traders who never leave their homes for fear of detection and trade entirely online; another tells of a trader who was arrested after his valid visa was cancelled. Visa issues are a routine point of conversation, even amongst those who can afford the $5,000 in annual visa fees.

Traders who came to Guangzhou in the 1990s say that back then, all you had to do to get a visa extended was to go to a police station. The officers would offer you a seat, ask whether you wanted Chinese or English tea, and then look for the one official who could speak English. Then Nigerians started arriving in massive numbers. Many overstayed their visas, prompting the Chinese government to tighten visa regulations for Nigeria, and begin a series of deportations.

Many of the people deported came back with passports from other African countries with looser visa quotas. Sources confirmed that deported Nigerians would bribe their way to a passport from Gabon or Guinea. For many Nigerians, China offers economic freedom and opportunities that don’t exist elsewhere, so they are willing to do anything to stay in the country.

There are few African diplomats in Guangzhou and no consulates, so people trying to stay on the right side of immigration laws go to community leaders: successful businessmen who spend their time and money negotiating with authorities on immigration issues. The Nigerian community association successfully campaigned to reduce the fine for visa violations, while the Ghanaian community has a fund to buy people tickets home.

Ojukwu Emma is the man behind most of these initiatives. Emma, a Nigerian, settled in Guangzhou in the 1990s and now runs the Nigeria-China Window of Trade, which facilitates trade between the two countries. Much of his time is now taken up acting as an informal diplomat and police chief—he is to all intents and purposes the leader of Guangzhou’s African community. I met him at his well-appointed office by a highway lined with massive construction projects. Emma can still remember when the neighbourhood was home to the city’s original airport. This was when a trip from Nigeria to Guangzhou involved flying to a European capital, then on to Hong Kong, and from there another flight to Beijing, where he connected to a final flight to Guangzhou. Nowadays the flights arrive directly from African capitals.

Emma believes that Africans have contributed significantly to Guangzhou’s current prosperity, in ways that are rarely acknowledged. “Nigerians are supporting the economy: they rent houses, they rent offices,” he said. “There’s no way you can say Africans do not contribute to China.” Emma estimates that African merchants transfer up to $100 million to Guangzhou a day, a sum supported by the volume of business reported by traders and money transfer agents. However, there is no hard data on the economic contribution made by Africans in Guangzhou because almost all business—from money transfers, to sales, to shipping—is done in cash. In turn, the scale and significance of the trade taking place in this little piece of Africa in south China is overlooked.

But this trade has already had far-reaching consequences. Much of Guangzhou’s prosperity was built on replicating the products and methods of the foreign companies and merchants who flocked to the Pearl River Delta in search of cheap and reliable factories. The city’s trading malls are full of examples of this: from counterfeit iPhones to Chinese-made African print fabrics. Now the most successful African traders are doing the same thing. “We learned a lot in China, and we can take it back,” said Emma, offering a sanguine reading of the combination of misunderstanding and opportunity his community faces. “We can copy too”