[Paper] The Materialities of Transnational Movement in an ‘African’ Neighbourhood in Guangzhou, China*

Roberto Castillo

For the last 15 years there has been a constant ebb and flow of Africans in Guangzhou, in Southern China. They have been mainly congregating in a neighbourhood of the city: Dengfeng-Xiaobei.

Their presence has been conceptualised in scholarship as either an isolated ethnic enclave, called the ‘Chocolate City’ (with low levels of interaction with local Chinese populations – (Li, Xue, Michael, & Alison, 2008; Zhang, 2008)); and as an ‘African community’, encapsulating all Africans into one single sociocultural formation (Bodomo, 2010). I claim that both these conceptualisations fall short in grasping the complexity of the multiple formations emerging in Guangzhou.

By broadly following Manuel Delanda’s (2006) ‘assemblage theory’ methodological approach, this paper has a twofold objective. First, it explores the material mechanisms and connections enabled by the interactions between Africans of multiple nationalities, ethnicities, languages, and religions and Chinese of several ethnicities, and diverse religious and linguistic backgrounds in the area. Through a description of the spatial interactions taking place in Dengfeng-Xiaobei, I emphasise how trajectories, stories, desires, and imaginations of subjects of several nationalities intersect and assemble forming what I call ‘catering networks,’ – these are collectively but unintendedly organised mechanisms that facilitate the reproduction, at the local level, of the conditions that make possible the ebb and flow (presence/recurrence) of Africans in Guangzhou.

Secondly, this paper traces the materialities[1] of particular objects that have emerged within these catering networks to translocal and transnational practices and imaginations. I claim that things like ‘Africa style’ fish, human hair wigs, and DVD movies (the objects I analyse in the last section of this paper) are the material embodiments of ‘transnational assemblages.’ I propose to use the concept of transnational assemblages to make sense of the ways in which the myriad material and immaterial practices and relationships established by and between actors (subjects and objects mentioned above) are produced.

In the following, drawing from my fieldwork, I will first provide a spatial description of the interactions and connections taking place in the area; and, secondly, I will analyse three objects that I argue are material embodiments of the assembling of transnational practices and imaginations.


 [Left: Hong Hui International Trading Mall near the entrance to Dengfeng / Right: View of Dengfeng from Tianxiu Building]

Dengfeng’s main entrance, flanked by a Public Security Bureau Office (police station), is a dimly lit tunnel usually bustling with pedestrians. Most other entries to this urban village are partially gated. In the cramped alleys of Dengfeng, there are African restaurants and bars (some owned by Africans and other by Chinese); 24-hour stalls with cheap telephone rates to Africa; Hui and Uighur Halal restaurants with ‘Africanized’ menus; Uighur naan, fruit and grilled chicken peddlers; local Chinese restaurants with staff speaking a little English or Portuguese; Turkish BBQ houses; small stores trading all kinds of garments; French speaking travel agents; the highly popular ‘cargo’ offices; currency exchange booths; vendors hawking CDs and DVDs of African, Indian, and American music and movies; shoe stores mainly catering for Angolan women (with Portuguese speaking staff); and, micro schools for learning Mandarin. If one goes deeper – asks a few questions and knocks some doors – another layer of material practices is to be found: small mosques in the Malls; clandestine Pentecostal churches; hidden bars; and Ghanaian, Nigerian, and Malian family kitchens run out of apartment rooms. Despite these particularities, the majority of businesses in the area – shops, hotels, pharmacies, fruit and grocery stores, wet markets, dry cleaners, etc. – cater for general consumption.


[Tunnel entrance to Dengfeng]

Xiaobei is a more modern and developed area connected to the southern fringe of Dengfeng via a pedestrian overpass. The 15-year-old Tianxiu Building (天秀大厦) stands as the most prominent and famous landmark in the area. Tianxiu has been portrayed as the place where it all started when the first Middle Eastern and African cargo offices opened in the 1990s. Since then, it has repeatedly been equated with Hong Kong’s famous Chunking Mansions as a centre for ‘low-end’ globalisation in China. Out of the more than 700 apartments (distributed over three 35 story towers), 65 percent are leased to Africans and the rest mostly to Middle Easterns and Chinese. In the first four stories – the officially commercial space in the building – most shops are owned by Chinese and the most pervasive products are computers, shanzhai (山寨) smartphones, usbs, headphones, shoes, garments, sheets and fabrics with African designs, leather products, human hair (100% Brazilian or Indian), wigs, toys, powdered soap and cosmetics. The higher floors of the building are officially designated as residential and semi-commercial. There are several import-export cargo offices alongside residential apartments, as well as a number of apartments with living rooms functioning as eateries attended daily by hundreds of West Africans digging into fufu and other African dishes. Within Tianxiu’s three towers, there are more than 50 African eateries and restaurants. Although most Africans I spoke to identify the building as a place to find people from all over Africa, francophones (mainly Malians, Guineans, Senegalese and Togolese) are amongst the most salient. The Egyptian and Libyan owned cafés on the first floor of the building are critical locales where French, Bambara and Wollof speaking transnational traders broker deals on a daily basis.


[Left: Tianxiu Building / Right: Dinning time inside Tianxiu Building – the building hosts some 50 Africans restaurants and eateries]

The whole assemblage of Dengfeng and Xiaobei is a space of intense activity, movement, competition, collaboration and struggle. Walking from Tianxiu Building on the pedestrian overpass that connects the two spaces, I pass Malian traders; Nigerian businesspeople; graduates from all over China in search of a piece of the trading cake; Ghanaian cooks taking a break from their kitchens; Hunan entrepreneurs offering instant photo souvenirs to passers-by; Chinese beggars that greet me with a salaam walekum; Congolese priests, musicians and acolytes on their way to religious congregations; local entrepreneurs offering ingenious and cheap curios; Nigerian football players, singers, and movie stars; Hui youngsters selling international phonecards and offering on-the-spot currency exchange; Chinese children walking home from school with their grandmothers; and Angolan women looking for garments. As we walk, all of us have to avoid stepping on the many carpets filled with cheap products laid out by street peddlers and bumping into each other. As I get off the overpass and approach the tunnel marking the entry to Dengfeng, the activity intensifies and energies become more chaotic. It is as if you were entering an area controlled by a different regime, another city, a refuge from Guangzhou – a small microcosmos where myriad transnational and translocal stories and trajectories shrink and collapse at different paces, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. In the midst of this vibrant conglomerate of economies, languages and ethnicities, New Dengfeng Hotel stands as a crucial locale – a node at the intersection of several subeconomies struggling over and regimenting the daily activities in the area.

At any one time, New Dengfeng Hotel, a ‘mixed business’ that has trading malls, upscale Muslim restaurants, Sahelian eateries, internet cafés, mini-mosques, clandestine Pentecostal churches and hotel rooms distributed across all floors, hosts around 400 sojourners – mainly from Africa. Seizing the opportunities brought by these transnational activities, Chinese nationals from different ethnic groups have developed several subeconomies in the area. Every day at dawn, an incessant gabble rises from one of the alleys on the side of the hotel. Dozens of middle-aged Hui men glued to their phones with calculators in hand, hold tense negotiations, before swapping packs of dollars and renminbi – they have set up an informal foreign exchange market. After fixing the exchange rates, they distribute smaller amounts of money to their fellow Hui youngsters who then roam around the area offering exchange to foreign traders. These youngsters also collaborate with international phone-card stall owners to sell cards. While older Hui women do not seem to participate in these informal banking activities, they tend to staff and manage many of the highly frequented 24-hour Lanzhou Halal restaurants. Although in most restaurants and hotels there are ‘cautionary notes’ advising foreigners not to exchange money or buy phone-cards from street hawkers, these subeconomies thrive in Dengfeng.


[Left: open space in front of New Dengfeng Hotel / Right: Minivans and porters are important for the catering networks supporting the African presence in the area]

The area in front of New Dengfeng Hotel is a small 200-square-metre open space that bustles with activity for around 20 hours every day. Since early in the morning, hundreds of people converge there offering a plethora of different services. Most of this space is occupied by a non-stop ebb and flow of dozens of grey minivans driven by young men from the central provinces of Hunan and Hubei and loaded with merchandise acquired by African traders. As the minivans park, female porters from the same provinces bustle about waiting for the goods to be unloaded onto trolleys before pushing them towards the hotel rooms. Most rooms in New Dengfeng Hotel are packed to the hilt. Once a room is full, the merchandise gets taken (usually by the same women) to cargo offices in the vicinity of the hotel. There are close connections between the people working as porters and drivers and hotel staff – many of them have familial ties or come from neighboring towns or cities in the above-mentioned provinces. This tightly knit assemblage of people (sharing a regional identity) collectively controls a whole layer of activities aimed at satisfying trading and everyday life specific needs of transnational traders.

All throughout the day, this open space in front of the hotel is a site of intense multiethnic, translocal and transnational interactions. As night falls, the area becomes a social centre for small groups of African men and women to discuss politics and exchange information about prices and markets. As these conversations emerge and trading activities seem to fade, a whole ensemble of people carrying poles hung with colorful clothing, reminiscent of the traditional bamboo yokes, start populating the empty spaces left by the morning exchange market and the surrounding alleys. Around the same time, Uighur grilling carts arrive colonizing the space previously taken up by the minivans and the mostly young men start preparing the chickens catering for Africans in the area. Over the stretch of a day, these same young Uighurs switch from driving the pervasive small moto-taxis, to peddling freshly cut fruit, to finally participating in the grilling activities. Although the scene seems highly chaotic, the whole assemblage of sellers occupying the alleys is highly regimented – the different subeconomic activities having strong ethno-national affiliations. As night deepens, many of the small restaurants become bars and the myriad passers-by from Africa, the Middle East and China dine, drink, shop and socialise in the neighbourhood.

It is out of the complex, multiethnic imbroglio described above that, what I call the ‘material embodiments’ of transnational assemblages emerge. I argue that these material embodiments (things like food, movies and garments, amongst others) emerge from the interplay between local, translocal and transnational imaginations, stories, individual desires, and economies and subeconomies.

In the following, I focus on three objects that I consider impact on a more everyday scale and in the lived experiences of those involved in daily activities in the area.


Tilapia – Africa style Fish

Take for instance the widely available ‘Africa style fish’ (非洲烤鱼 – grilled tilapia).

According to my conversations with Uighur and Han owners of restaurants, as well as with Tanzanian and Angolan patrons, while tilapias (a freshwater Nile species) have been farmed in China for decades, they have never been a popular dish in Guangzhou. It wasn’t until a few years back that some Uighur grilling establishments in the area started experimenting with the fish after several African patrons suggested the need for more ‘African flavours’.

Uighurs are famous across China for their grilled lamb and streets stalls selling lamb skewers can be found practically anywhere in the country. It took their expertise and the popularity of the fish amongst traders to disseminate this dish to practically every restaurant in and around Dengfeng.

M. Bakuza, an itinerant trader, who recently moved his supply chain from the Middle East to Guangzhou, told me that he knew there was an ‘African area’ in the city, but that he never expected to be able to find tilapia – a dish he remembers fondly from his childhood near Lake Victoria in Tanzania. ‘After eating it, I feel like in Africa. I always eat tilapia with naan (Uighur bread). There are many African things here; it feels like home,’ he told me. Selling at 18RMB (about 3AUD) it is often the main meal for dozens of Angolans, Congolese, Ugandans, and Kenyans in the area.Image

[‘Africa Style’ tilapia is popular amongst Africans in Dengfeng]


Human hair

Out of the infinite ecology of garments and beauty products traded in the area, there is one thing that stands out due to its pervasiveness: human hair – advertised as 100 percent Brazilian and Indian hair, to be more specific.

China has been a crucial node in transnational chains of hair supply for a few decades now, and Chinese hair, along with Korean and Indonesia hair, is widely ‘consumed’ all over the world (Jones, 2001) – however, the arrival of Africans has activated hair trade in Dengfeng-Xiaobei.

Shop retailers in Tianxiu Building explain that the quality of hair varies according to its nationality. So ‘Indian’ hair as well as ‘Brazilian’ hair are amongst the most sought after and expensive. ‘Asian’ hair tends to be relatively cheaper.

In fact, of course, there is no way to verify where the hair comes from, as a Congolese hair trader told me. ‘It seems to be a matter of quality [and of belief]. If the quality is good, then we say is Brazilian, although it may have been harvested in central China. If its not as good but still good, then it is Indian,’ and so on.

Trade in human hair involves a complex transnational chain of collection, transport, and chemical processing (for straightening and dyeing) in several countries that connect many distant but unknown locations (Jones, 2001).

Hair trade in Dengfeng-Xiaobei results from, thus, an assemblage of fashion, imagination, subeconomies, desire and transnational technologies of beauty and fashion.


[100 percent Brazilian or Indian human hair is amongst the most popular items on offer in Dengfeng]


DVD Movies

One other commodity widely consumed in Dengfeng is DVDs – DVDs of American, Nigerian, French, Congolese, Mexican and Chinese productions in languages like French, English and Lingala can be found in the same stores. In the evenings, crowds of seemingly bored individuals congregate around small boxes full of Blu-Ray high definition DVD-9 selling at RMB 5 (AUD 0.80). Each individual DVD in these boxes usually host around 4 to 8 films (in a single disc). The covers and titles of these DVDs are psychedelic collages of transnational imaginations/confusions.

You can find titles like ‘Jesus en Kikongo,’ ‘Ninja Assassian – True Grit – American Violet,’ ‘Dix Commandment VS Messager’ (featuring Charlton Heston and Osama Bin Laden in the cover), ‘The lives of Kadafi, Savimbi and Gbagbo’ (special edition), ‘Corazon Salvaje’ (a 1990s Mexican telenovela), ‘Mission Impossible 1-2’ (a Congolese version), ‘L’histoire de la Sapologie Vol.5,’ in French; along with ‘Satanic Kingdom – Dog of War’ (Congolese productions in Lingala), ‘Le Retour de Be yonce, un Film Nigerien’ (a Nigerian film in Lingala), ‘Transformers VS Robocop and Iron Man 2,’ and the complete seven seasons of ‘Xena, Warrior Princess’ (French versions). These DVDs, however, are not produced for local consumption. They are only a miniscule fraction of the massive output of cheap DVDs that are sent from China to Africa.

Africans and Chinese collaborate and compete in this trade. For more than five years now, clients from all over Africa have been carefully choosing the design of the covers, and the contents and languages in the DVDs, before ordering bulk purchases from Chinese providers – after placing an order, it only takes 3 days to produce 5,000 copies.

Chinese DVD producers have kept record of all possible combinations of movies and languages that appeal to African audiences. Although new collages of movies can be decided and designed on the spot, recently Chinese have produced thick catalogues from where Africans are invited to choose. ‘We do not wait for them to decide anymore, we know now what they like and we have tons of African, Indian, and American mp4s,’ a DVD shop owner from Hunan told me.

Not only African traders take movies out of China to distribute in the markets and streets of Africa; a number of ‘Nollywood’ (Nigerian) actors and directors can be found roaming the streets of Dengfeng to make cheap, bulk copies of their own productions to take back home and distribute in the hunt for fame.


[DVD’s in several languages used in Africa are widely available in Dengfeng]


All types of human movement involve material effects. The very act of travelling to a foreign place entails material changes. Transnational and translocal movement (and/or migration) not only impacts on ethnoscapes all over the world, as suggested by Appadurai (1996), but also on previously established ways of doing things in particular locations – this is, in the materialities of things like food, businesses, objects, and so on.

The complex landscape of moving subjects described in this paper further complicates the tracing of these ways of doing things – this is, the social relationships behind a variety of objects emerging in Dengfeng-Xiaobei. I suggest that the ‘new’ hybrid objects presented in this paper are, thus, informed by the constant but unstable interplay between changing ethnoscapes and transnational materialities. Furthermore, the materialities of transnational movement produce, as suggested by Ingold (2007), ‘things in motion’ that are not ‘bound’ but that, for a moment at least, appear as a recognisable and meaningful form to someone, like in M. Bakuza’s Lake Victoria tilapia story.

As suggested earlier, I locate the possibilities for the emergence of these hybrid objects in the interstitial spaces generated by the overlapping ‘transnational assemblages’ of people, things, economies, imaginations, needs, skills and desires. In Guangzhou, these assemblages have fostered the emergence of ‘catering networks’ – networks (or ‘areas of specialisation’) built around commercial, culinary, religious, and leisure activities, as suggested by Giddens (DeLanda, 2006). As shown in this paper, these networks are sustained by the assembling of translocal and transnational subeconomies, ‘ethnic’ microindustries, and service industries, amongst other things. I claim that, in transnational movement, objects informed by these materialities are crucial for place-making processes and, in this case study, for the reproduction of everyday connections and spaces structuring the transnational assemblage that brings about the constant ebb and flow of Africans to Guangzhou.

These are preliminary thoughts of a work-in-progress. However, I contend that the arrival of Africans in Guangzhou, and the kinds of relationships that they and Chinese are structuring, provide us with an exciting opportunity not only to discuss, theorise and wonder about cultural, social, and economic transformations currently taking place, but also to challenge previous (and nurture alternative) ways of producing knowledge about and representations of migrants and other types of moving subjects.


[1] By ‘materialities’, in this paper, I mean the sets of forces, energies, scales, beliefs, and imaginations that give objects and practices their shapes, social lives and stories. My understanding of this notion is strongly influenced by my reading of ‘Materiality: An Introduction,’ (Miller, 2005) available at

* Reading version of a draft paper presented at Materialities: Economies, Empiricism, & Things – Cultural Studies Association of Australasia (CSAA) annual conference hosted by Department of Gender & Cultural Studies, University of Sydney 4-6 December, 2012


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Bodomo, A. (2010). The African trading community in Guangzhou: An emerging bridge for Africa-China relations. China Quarterly, 203, 693–707.

DeLanda, M. (2006). New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (annotated edition.). Continuum.

Levitt, P. (2007). The Transnational Studies Reader: Intersections and Innovations. (S. Khagram, Ed.) (1st ed.). Routledge.

Li, Z., Xue, D., Michael, L., & Alison, B. (2008). The African Enclave of Guangzhou: A Case Study of Xiaobeilu [J]. Acta Geographica Sinica, 2.

Miller, D. (2005). Materiality. Duke University Press.

Jones, L (2001). The Hair Trade in Shohat, E. Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age. MIT Press.

Zhang, L. (2008). Ethnic congregation in a globalizing city: The case of Guangzhou, China. Cities, 25(6), 383–395.


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