African Dreams in the Middle Kingdom

ABSTRACT. This paper investigates one of the least analysed issues within the wider framework of Sino-African relations: the African presence in China, and more specifically, the emergence of an African community in Guangzhou, and the cultural, historical, political and racial issues surrounding its establishment. Throughout the paper: cultural and economic trends structuring the idea of the emergence of a community are stressed; the difficulties that Africans find in China are highlighted; and an attempt is made to try and locate this phenomenon within the wider framework of ‘multiple globalisations’. By presenting the story of Myers, a young man from Sierra Leone, this paper suggests that, if we are to attempt to understand how the dynamics of globalisation are affecting the lives of ordinary people, we need to pay more attention to individual tales. This paper is a preamble to future research about Africans in China and Chinese in Africa, and was submitted as an assignment for the Identity, Place, and Culture course in The University of Sydney, back in early 2010.

Keywords. Africans – Guangzhou – China – Community – Globalisation – Sino-African – Chocolate City

When you take train T98 from Hong Kong to Beijing in Kowloon’s Hung Hom Station, you first need to pass through Hong Kong’s immigration service – China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) are still divided by a border. Once an exit seal is stamped in your passport, and you cross a yellow line painted on the floor, you are no longer in the HKSAR, but you are not yet in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), either. On that ‘stateless’ train platform, passengers are expected to know what to do: they must locate their carriages and wait to be transported into the PRC. In this modern bordered world, humans are not supposed to loiter in those in-between non-places* – we are required to move efficiently from one state to another.

Between 2006 and 2009, whilst working in Beijing, I often took the train to escape to Hong Kong or Macau. On one occasion, whilst making the journey back to China and ‘loitering’ in that non-place outside the train, a man approached me and asked (in English) where I was from and if I had ever been to Beijing. ‘Of course, I live there,’ I replied. ‘Then, you’ll be able to help me,’ he said, handing me a piece of wrinkled paper. ‘You can read that,’ he said, patting me in the back. Clearly, someone non-literate in Chinese had carefully copied some hanzi onto the piece of paper – I could tell by the awful writing that was almost as bad as mine. I was only able to recognise half of the characters, but I understood enough. ‘It’s an address. A place not far from where I live,’ I said, proud to show off my basic Chinese reading skills. ‘Yes,’ he said with a broad smile on his face, ‘it is the address of the embassy of Sierra Leone. In Beijing, you can help me get there,’ he suggested. I agreed, but not without hesitation – I wondered if I was getting myself involved in the smuggling of illegal immigrants into China, before reproaching myself for having such a stupid prejudice. Our carriages were contiguous. ‘See you there, then. My name is Myers,’ he said. As the stewardess led me to my hard-sleeper, the only thing I could think was: What is a man from Sierra Leone doing here, in China? Clearly, I knew nothing about Africans in China.


African presence in China came to international and Chinese media attention in July 2009, when traders from several African nationalities had a conflict with the law enforcement authorities of Guangzhou, a southern Chinese city in Guangdong province. In a ‘routine’ raid for illegal immigrants, police cornered a group of illegal African immigrants – one of whom jumped from a second floor apartment to escape the police and fatally injured himself. As a consequence of this, a crowd of around two-hundred angry traders gathered in front of Guangzhou’s Municipal Security Bureau demonstrating against what some of them described as police harassment and racial persecution. The incident was – as Adams Bodomo (2010) suggests – reported by Western media to create the impression that ordinary Chinese and members of the African community ‘were at each other’s throats’. Surprisingly, Chinese media (Xinhua) did carry the episode, but portrayed it as evidence of an uncontrolled growing population of illegal aliens, and made no mention of any injured or deceased foreigners. Both Chinese and international media highlighted the fact that the incident was the first time in the history of the New China that a group of foreign nationals had demonstrated against the law-enforcing authorities on Chinese territory. Nevertheless, the history of the African presence in China dates back to long before 2009.

People of African origin in Guangzhou (and in other cities such as Yiwu, in Zhejiang province) are part of the last and most significant –but not the only– wave of migration from Africa to China. The roots of this pattern of migration extend back to the early 1980s. Since the implementation of Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up policies, the Chinese economy rapidly started to rear its head, attracting businessmen, entrepreneurs and traders from all over the world, and Africans did not stay behind. There was, however, a previous stop-off in African migration to China: Hong Kong. Prior to China opening its doors in the early 1990s, African traders began to congregate in the then still British colony. By the mid-1990s, Hong Kong’s strategic position (as a point of contact with the already booming economy of the southern Chinese provinces) fostered a dramatic increase in the numbers of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian traders in search of Chinese goods (Mathews, 2007: 170). By 2001, four years after the ‘Return’ of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty and as China began to relax its previous restrictions on the entrance and settlement of foreign nationals in the country (a consequence of China joining the World Trade Organisation [WTO]), African traders shipping Chinese products back to their homelands via Hong Kong decided to reduce their expenses and relocate to the port city of Guangzhou – where, it must be said, they found significantly different social and institutional conditions. By 2003, as foreign traders of all nationalities had become a common sight in major Chinese cities, Africans were very active in southern China’s import-export sector (Michel, 2009: 13). It could arguably be said that two major global processes thus inform the more contemporary African presence in China. The first is China’s ‘opening-up’ after joining the WTO in 2001; and the second is Beijing’s renewed interest in investing in, and extracting resources from, the African continent. Between 2002 and 2007, trade between the two regions – mainly oil, timber, copper and diamonds – increased by about 700 per cent to US$73 billion, ranking China as Africa’s second-largest trading partner, behind the United States (Osnos, 2009: 52).

Nobody really knows how many Africans live in China. There are no official statistics, no authoritative account, and there is an immense silence around the African presence. It is as if both sides had signed a tacit agreement to not disclose information about their mutual businesses. However, different accounts locate the size of the African population in the whole country at different figures within the range of 20,000 to 100,000 (Bodomo: 2010: 9). Not all Africans living in China are traders or businessmen, though. Adams Bodomo – a Ghanaian researcher based in Hong Kong University – argues that there must be around 5,000 to 12,000 African students in the PRC (Brautigam, 2010; Bodomo, 2009). In fact, the presence of African students in China predates that of tradespeople.

Since its inception, the PRC has courted African governments in search of recognition and geopolitical advantages (Osnos, 2009; Shen, 2009; Alden, 2007). Scholarship programs proved to be a useful tool for furthering those goals. As far back as the 1960s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set in motion several scholarship programs that mainly assisted African students. In 1961, for instance, more than a hundred students arrived in Beijing – greeted as comrades in revolution. However, due to frictions with school authorities and harassment by local students, less than a year later, more than 80 percent had returned to their home countries (Sullivan, 1994: 444). Despite the initial setbacks, by the 1970s international students from many African countries were seen in all the major Chinese cities. Although, generally speaking, relations between Chinese and African students were not complicated, there were several minor frictions and fights (usually over African students dating Chinese women) reported throughout the 1970s and 1980s. As Snow (1988), Sullivan (1994) and Osnos (2009) suggest, tensions arising from disillusionment with what many Chinese students saw as a failure of the Chinese socialist system mixed with patriotism and racial prejudices culminated in what was known as the 1988-89 Nanjing anti-African protests, a series of violent skirmishes between factions of Chinese and African students (for more details about this incident and its relation to the discourse of nationalism in late 1980s China, see Sullivan, 1994). Today, however, as Osnos (2009) reports, Chinese campuses are not at all marked by racial tension and various surveys report substantial declines in incidents of discrimination against African students. Still, there is not much evidence of racial sophistication in contemporary China.

When in the 2009 Shanghai’s Go Oriental Angel talent show Lou Jing, a 20-year-old Chinese girl born to an African-American father and a Chinese mother reached the finals, her ‘blackness’ was a matter of national controversy. How could a black woman be so Chinese? Lou was dubbed qiaokeli nushi (‘chocolate girl’) and she became the subject of a heated, and not very politically correct, online debate. In the same vein, the stir caused by the story of a Chinese kindergarten female teacher in a relationship with an African man is also remarkable. The story was carried by several Chinese online portals under the headline of ‘Kindergarten teacher reveals her shocking romance with a black foreigner’ (my emphasis – club.sohu.com). The massive interest that Lou and the kindergarten teacher attracted from Chinese media opened up serious debates about interracial relationships, racism and racial prejudices in present-day China (research on contemporary race and gender issues in the Sino-African exchange is badly needed). In his study of online perceptions of Africa in China, Simon Shen (2009) suggests that Chinese Internet users see illegal African immigrants in China as ‘paralysing Chinese society by unfairly tapping into the resources of the socialist welfare system’ (435). According to Shen, in the online realm, Africans are prototyped as poor, lazy, sexist and threatening, with the added burden of being possible AIDS carriers (435 – 436). While online images and comments cannot be taken as representative of major social behaviours, in a country where offline public spaces of expression are highly striated, the online realm could give us an indication of certain popular perceptions.


Later that evening, moments after the train lights had been switched off, I heard Myers calling me. ‘So, what in the world is a Mexican guy doing in China?’ he asked me. This was not the first time Myers had been out of Sierra Leone; he had lived in Europe for 18 months. ‘Once an African steps on European soil, he is not an African anymore,’ he told me. ‘You are changed forever and there is no way back. It feels as if you’d lost the track back to your village while walking in the jungle. You lose Africa forever.’ After trying his luck in Germany and the Netherlands and being deported back to Sierra Leone, he decided to look for an alternative. ‘Europe is not easy; there’s a lot of racism and you don’t make enough money to send home. They were difficult days there,’ he said. ‘Things in Sierra are getting better, but there’s nothing for me there. I used the last remaining money I had from Europe to fly to Hong Kong. Back in Freetown, a lot of people are talking about coming to China. This is the land of opportunities now. Here I can set myself up,’ he told me.

As he kept talking about the possible businesses he could start up in that new ‘land of opportunities’, I was thinking how difficult it must be to arrive in China (that immense country/civilisation) directly from West Africa without knowing anything about the place and the people, let alone the food or language (not that I knew much when I first arrived there in 2006). I suddenly realised that I was starting to worry about Myers. How was he going to find his way out of the massive Beijing West Station? Finding a taxi would be impossible. Many taxi drivers in Beijing refuse to take foreigners (let alone Africans or ‘Muslim-looking’ ones – like me*). Would his embassy help him? He seemed pretty relaxed about arriving to China with nothing more than a piece of wrinkled paper and a few American dollars. ‘A friend of my cousin knows someone that works in the embassy. They’ll help me. They’ll put me somewhere. Maybe they’ll send me to Canton. It won’t be a problem,’ he said, as the Chinese man on the next sleeper shushed us.


Several sources account for up to 20,000 traders and entrepreneurs (mainly from West African countries like Nigeria, Mali, Benin and Ghana), legally living, visiting and doing business in what Guangzhou’s taxi drivers have baptised qiaokeli cheng (‘chocolate city’). Bodomo reports that the great majority of them (nearly 70 percent) are young Nigerian males, (Li, 2008; Osnos, 2009; Li Z. et al, 2008; Bodomo, 2010). The greatest concentration of Africans is in Tianxiu Building, located at a walkable distance from the core of qiaokeli cheng: the Canaan Export Clothes Trading Centre, in Yuexiu District. The rest of the population is spread through the neighbourhoods surrounding the trading centre – the Nigerian neighbourhood, the Malian, the Ghanaian, and so forth (Brautigam, 2010). While nationality and language still play an important role in forging bonds amongst Africans in China, religion (Islam and Christianity) provides a more fundamental divide (Li, 2008). The Huaisheng Mosque and the Shishi Church are cultural landmarks that work –as Li suggests– as places of ‘enforceable gathering’ in which ‘ethnic’ and ‘inter-ethnic’ ties are being built.

One of the biggest obstacles for ethnographic researchers, nevertheless, has been that many of the African migrant traders settling in China do not see any benefit in providing information about their backgrounds and activities (Wei, 2009: sina.com.cn). Notwithstanding some obstacles, Li (2008) reports that most of the traders are self-employed importers who enter China on tourist visas with limited capital, and outsource many different types of merchandise (Li, 2008; Li Z. et al, 2008). Once these visas expire, it is possible to renew them in Hong Kong, but visa runs can only be made a few times before exhausting the possibilities for consecutive renewal (renewal is strongly dependant on nationality). In the last three years, the Chinese government has tightened its regulations on visas, making it particularly difficult for Africans to renew their visas – as a result, many of them have been forced to stay illegally in China. As depicted by several media reports, the lack of visas (or residence permits), and the consequent police harassment is perhaps the most widely experienced problem amongst Africans in Guangzhou (Wei, 2009: sina.com.cn). This situation has created a vicious cycle in which Chinese police and Africans play the old game of ‘cat-and-mouse’ (Wei, 2009: sina.com.cn) – one that many Africans with previous diasporic experiences are well equipped to play.

In theorising about the community, Adams Bodomo (2010) – fond of predictions – argues that at the rate Africans are arriving to China and the way in which they are interacting with locals, ‘it is not far-fetched to foresee that in a hundred years from now, there would be an established African-Chinese minority ethnic group demanding self-identity and full citizenship rights in the heart of Guangzhou and other major Chinese cities’ (2010). He also furthers the idea of the ‘emergence of a community’ that works as a bridge between civilisations. Bodomo tirelessly promotes the image of a harmonious and largely peaceful interaction between Chinese and Africans (2010). Not all researchers share Bodomo’s hopes. Li (2008) and Li Z. et al (2008) have, from different perspectives, argued that there is no emergence of a population that shares a sense of a community, but only the creation of what they call an ‘ethnic enclave’ comprised of the congregation of ‘Blacks’. In this debate, the idea of the ‘enclave’ seems to be linked to a physical place: the market, the ghetto of exporters; in turn, the idea of ‘community,’ seems to be linked to people’s identity and how they make sense of a place. For Bodomo, it seems the ‘community’ is not limited to Guangzhou. Although it involves Africans in Guangzhou, it is also built from the outside by their counterparts in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as those in places like Bangkok and Addis Ababa. So whilst Chinese researchers seem to reject the idea of an African community thriving in the delta of the Pearl River, an African researcher supports the view of the emergence of a community – there seems to be some political agenda involved in this debate.

From a macroscopic perspective, Li (2008) suggests that the formation of spaces such as the Tianxiu Building is a consequence of the evolution of spatial dynamics at the neighbourhood level (like those in Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, see Mathews, 2007) and ‘represented a local reaction to changing market opportunities brought by globalisation’ (2008). However, along with economic implications there are socio-spatial implications of globalisation in Chinese cities. Arguably, new ‘transnational social spaces’ have been appearing (and will continue to) as consequence of ‘from below/low end’ globalisation processes. Li Z. et al (2008) argue that these transnational social spaces add a new dimension to Chinese cities: that of sociospatial segregation based on ethnicity. Capitalism and its developments, as Doreen Massey (1994) reminds us, determine (to a certain extent) understandings and experiences of space (147).

Few things are known about Africans in China (as was stressed above), and even fewer things are known about the transnational networks and social structures that inform this diasporic process. To try to understand these ‘transnational’ social relations, we need first to try to make sense of place in these days of intensified modernity – ‘supermodernity’, as Marc Augé puts it (1995: 78 in Tomlinson 1999: 109). There might be a number of ways to describe Guangzhou as a global place (Manuel Castells [2000] calls it a ‘global-city’, for its critical role in the network of the global economy). However, if we think of it as a ‘transnational’ place – understanding ‘transnationalism’ as a ‘process by which migrants, through their daily activities, forge and sustain multi-stranded social, economic, and political relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement, and through which they create transnational social fields that cross national borders’ (Basch et al. cited in Li Zhigang et al., 2008) – then we can start setting the foundations for a more concise global understanding of the localities in which those migrants (and ultimately many of us) live. As a transnational social space, ‘chocolate city’, for instance, is not limited by geographical constraints. Furthermore, as Li Z. et al (2008) suggest, it is a space in which decisions taken by organisations, institutions, networks and people, based in different countries, converge in a geographical location. Places like ‘chocolate city’ embody and exemplify the intensification and interconnectedness of contemporary globalisation (Mathews, 2007: 169), as well as its expansion.

If we were to accept Castells label, it would require a slight modification – for Guangzhou is not only a place in which different flows converge (a ‘global city’) but also a space of ‘multiple globalisations’. What happens there is not simply a product of ‘top-down’ globalisation driven by international capitals and multinational corporations (Li, 2008). Different studies (Mathews, 2007; Bodomo, 2010; and Li Zhigang et al, 2008) have framed the analysis of the African community in Guangzhou from a macroscopic perspective, within what they call ‘low-end globalisation’. Mathews explains that this kind of globalisation can be understood as ‘the transnational flow of people and goods involving relatively small amounts of capital and informal, sometimes quasi-legal or illegal transactions, commonly associated within the developing world’ (2007: 170). In other words, low-end globalisation in places like ‘chocolate city’ does not entail rich countries outsourcing their manufacturing to poor countries (as is typical), but rather, poor countries seeking manufactured goods from less poor countries: ‘the extreme periphery seeks the goods of the semi-periphery because they are cheap’ (2007:179) These ‘multiple globalisations’ also concern stories of ordinary people (not all global stories are stories of successful business dinners in Hong Kong, champagne breakfasts in Venice, and buying stock on the NYSE).

Myers suggestion that he lost Africa when he first stepped onto Europe soil is an ambiguous one, but a clear example of how these stories of contemporary migration and deterritorialisation reflect major globalising trends. Myers had clearly lost the sense of a place strictly linked to a territory: he is not able to go back, not because he does not know how to go back, but because he feels that he does not belong to that place anymore. Nonetheless, he still feels a connection to some things back in Africa: his cousins and his friends, perhaps, as representations of a Sierra Leonean community. A community that, as one is imagining it, can be taken practically anywhere – even to China. Myers carries his community with him (as many of us in the exile do), and he is planning to find a position within that community in a new place: China (or ‘chocolate city’, perhaps). Globalisation and the search for a better life have drawn Myers into a wider geography. As Massey (1994) suggests when talking about social relations within the framework of globalisation, Myers social relations have stretched through time and space. In the past, he relied on his community in Freetown for employment and subsistence, and even now that his relations are somewhat more ‘global’, he still relies on certain Sierra Leonean social structures to insert himself into an economic, social, political and cultural set of relations in China.  If we ‘carry’ community with us, to what extent was Myers in China? Was he really alone? As depicted in his story, the ‘global place’ is, thus a network of social relations, clearly structured by the way each one of us imagines it, experiences it, and more importantly, understands it. In discussing the emergence of ‘transnational’ identities or communities, we need to consider that the sense of place is a deeply perspectival one (everyone experiences it from a different position in the geometry of global power, as Massey argues [1994: 149]), if we are to set the foundations for more progressive senses of place and identities.


When we finally reached Beijing West Station, 25 hours later, I hopped off the train and looked for Myers.

As the train cleared of its more than a thousand passengers, Myers did not appear. I waited for a few more minutes. When the doors of the empty train closed, I asked the stewardess from Myers’ carriage if she had seen an African man. Somewhat dismissively, she said that there were no black people in that carriage. I waited for a few more minutes until finally accepting that he had disappeared. What could have happened to Myers? Did police take him from the train in the middle of the night? Did he jump out of the train? Was he hiding from me? I could not shake the idea that police might have abducted him during the night. In many cases, race and skin colour still define the way people experience a place. Myers vanished in that in-between (a non-place), where life is clandestine and ‘illegality’ is the norm. There are people that live on ‘international train platforms’, permanently. Those in-betweens might be experienced as ‘established’ places, as ways of living. How these places/non-places might signify to the lives of illegal immigrants is what we need to endeavour to investigate.

* French anthropologist Marc Auge’s describes non-places as spaces that ‘cannot be defined as relational or historical, or concerned with identity’ (Augé, 1995: 78 in Tomlinson, 1999: 109). Augé cites the examples of transit points, hotel chains, supermarkets, airports and shantytowns.

* Throughout the four years I spent in China, several taxi drivers rejected me on the basis of ‘being a foreigner’. Some friendly taxi drivers explained to me that those rejections might have been because I looked like ‘Xinjiang people’ or ‘like a Muslim’. Taxi drivers that refuse to take African people often argue that it is because they are ‘too big’ or ‘a bit to loud and extroverted’. In general, many taxi drivers do not like to take foreigners because of the hassle of trying to understand each other. However, the majority of taxi drivers in Beijing are really friendly, especially if you try to speak the language.


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