Guangzhou is a city constantly moving and adapting, orchestrated by flows of cash and people, many from Africa. No label sticks. ‘Chocolate City’ does not exist.
At about five o’clock every morning outside the Don Franc hotel in the Xiaobei Lu district of Guangzhou, I’m awoken by a cacophony of noise. The main culprits ruining my morning lie in are some serious squabblers.
About 20 men from the North-Western provinces of China, dressed in polo shirts and trousers are furiously bartering over currency exchange rates as they transfer what looks like hundreds of thousands of dollars and Yuan. Nearby sit about ten Uyghur men from Xinjiang, with thick, twitching moustaches aggressively touting rides on the back of their three-wheeled motorbikes with make-shift umbrella roofs to keep off the rain. Next to them Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Moroccans and Lebanese argue and laugh over prices of kitchen doors, rubber ducks, clothes, hair extensions, toilet seats, football boots and mobile phone accessories with their Chinese counterparts. Stall holders sit drowning in various products, their heads the only body part visible above their sea of goods. Amongst the morning soundscape one also hears tales of Lagos, Luanda and Lesotho as traders from Cairo to Cape Town and Senegal to Somalia discuss their latest travel and business plans as the morning train chugs along the overhead tracks.
Everyone and everything is on the move, every day. Cash quickly changes hands, goods are hurried into clapped-out Nissan vans, and buyers jump into taxis whilst answering two mobile phone calls at once. It is true that there are many African traders in this part of the city, but to simply label this, as many commentators have done, ‘Africa Town’, ‘Chocolate City’ or ‘Little Africa’ is misleading. In fact, most people who live locally have never even heard those descriptions. This is a part of a city, orchestrated by flows of people and cash, that is constantly moving and adapting. No label sticks. ‘Chocolate City’ does not exist.
The history of the Xiaobei Lu area is fascinating. Recounting the tale told to him by a long-term Guangzhou resident, researcher Roberto Castillo suggests that only 30 years ago the area was farmland. “The first people to come were internal Chinese migrants from Hunan,” he says. “They developed the land and built some of the buildings and structures that are there today. Once the land had been developed, then came migrants from the Middle East.”
Many of these migrants acted as middlemen, sourcing and distributing products for their African clients. However, from the mid-1990s, many of the African traders permanently residing in the city today decided to cut out the middlemen and head straight to Guangzhou themselves. “By around 2004,” Castillo continues, “there were more and more Africans, and by 2006-7 almost all the Arab traders had moved away.”
The early period saw many African traders concentrated around the Xiaobei Lu and Sanyuanli areas. However, over time Castillo suggests that we could no longer talk about a concentration of African migrants in one or two places. “There are many Africans spread in many different places,” he explains. “What was once a more stable, set community is now an archipelago, spread throughout North-Western Guangzhou.” The population is also a larglely transient one, with many traders staying for a week or two before moving onto another destination. Knowing how many African migrants are currently in the city is a difficult to impossible task. [KEEP READING THE ORIGINAL POST AT THINK AFRICA PRESS]