In early July CNN published an extensive feature by Jenni Marsh on the recent trend of Africans leaving Guangzhou; of hundreds or thousands of them “giving up on the Chinese dream” amid a dollar drought and slowing economy in Africa, and hostile immigration policies and racism in China – all said to be putting the city’s competitive edge at risk.
The CNN feature inspired responses from the Chinese media, and in the last few weeks several reporters were sent Guangzhou. They were especially interested to answer for themselves whether there is some mass ongoing exodus of Africans from Guangzhou, and more importantly: China. From the various interviews they conducted with Chinese officials, traders, estate agents and academics in Guangzhou, the reporters concluded that there are several reasons why the city’s small African town has fallen on hard times, and it’s too early to say with certainty if there is a definite trend of Africans departing China en masse.
Chengdu Business Daily, a newspaper published in distant Sichuan province, sent it’s lead reporter to Guangzhou, Wáng Yì, who filed a lengthy feature on July 25. Another article was published online by China Business News on July 27, by Féng Yìqīng and Qiū Yīfēi. Both present the stark decline yet perseverance and idiosyncrasies of the small African town on Xiǎo Běi Road (Little North Road) in the area of Dēngfēng. Their reports aim to infuse recent events with an air of normality, but they also clearly show that while times are tough around Xiǎo Běi Road, times may also have changed.
Are they really all leaving?
Arriving at the once bustling Yuèyáng Business and Trade Plaza in the Xiǎo Běi Road area, where most of the advertising billboards are only in English, the Chengdu Business Daily reporter noted a marked decrease in commercial activity compared with former times. There were only a few customers and several shops stood empty. The reporter found a clothing shop where the owner, a man named Lǐ Qiáng, sat dispirited watching television dramas. He said he had not had a single sale for three whole days.
China Business News reporters arrived in Dēngfēng at 11 one morning, when they expected it would be at it’s busiest. But they were surprised to find the area mostly deserted. They soon realised their mistake, however, when a local Chinese person informed them that all the Africans were at home sleeping at this time; but they should come back at one to two in the morning, the busiest hours. Such is their custom, the local man said, it’s different from the hours the Chinese keep.
Nevertheless, it is clear that many of the African traders who used to frequent Xiǎo Běi Road are gone. And for those who remain, as well as for Chinese shops and businesses in the area, it is equally clear that times are very tough. All the people interviewed by the Chinese reporters seem to agree that things starting changing around two years ago, and that everyone – both Chinese and African – can now only earn about half of what they used to make; most are making losses.
The situation seems to have reached a desperate point, for Yuèyáng Plaza at least. The management company responsible for the building told Chengdu Business Daily that shop rents have been falling repeatedly; those for shops on the second floor have already fallen by 50%. The traders can’t make any money, the customers are gone, and rents cannot drop any further.
For the African traders who have established themselves in China and who are still in Guangzhou, the situation is no better. Chengdu Business Daily also went to speak with Fēilì, presumably the same Felly Mwamba, the Congolese “ambassador” in Guangzhou who also appeared in the CNN feature.
Fēilì told the Chinese reporters that he has been much vexed by the decline of the market. His income has fallen by about 40%, and it’s hard for him to make money at all now in China. The best years for Fēilì was 2005 to 2010 when he sent around ten containers to Africa each year. Then a decline set in from 2011, and the last two years have been especially tough. He now sends home only four or five containers a year.
In the last two years Fēilì has also seen hundreds of his fellow African traders leave the city, now he thinks there’s just about 300 left. He can see a clear trend: the many African traders who used to come on shorter visas are gone; the only ones left are those like him who have longer term visas. Yet the main reason for this, he concludes, is related to the economy: goods and the dollar are more expensive, costs are higher, incomes unstable.
China Business News talked to Kǎlǐfǎ from Sierra Leone, currently an MBA student at a university in Guangzhou and several years resident at Xiǎo Běi Road. Guangzhou’s goods have simply become too expensive, he said, and ever since late 2014 African traders – or the young and adventurous ones, as another African trader named Kùālā put it – have sought better opportunities elsewhere. Kùālā has lived in China for almost 20 years and set up a household, and he agrees that only those long term residents like him are left, the others have gone to India, Vietnam or elsewhere in southeast Asia.
Ālóng from Mali is another very experienced trader, with 14 years of living in China behind him. He is emphatic about the main reason why so many Africans have left Guangzhou: stricter enforcement of visa regulations. Fines of 2,000 renminbi and – in more serious cases – deportation, he says, meant many Africans had to leave. Yet Ālóng also relates another factor: the clampdown on counterfeit goods. It used to be easy for traders like him to buy fake goods in China and ship them back home; but these days, he relates, this has become rare. Punishment can be severe and offenders risk being expelled.
Further indications of the visa clampdown is provided by Ms Zhào, whose real estate company at a small office right in Dēngfēng assists foreigners with long term rental contracts. Some of her customers had to leave because they were unable to renew their visas, and only foreigners with proper long term visas (renewed annually) are able to get longer rental contracts. For those who stay, rent is more expensive: apartments managed by Ms Zhào’s company start at 8,000 renminbi per month. Ms Zhào added that if the Africans remaining in the city can afford this, they must still be earning well.
For a broader perspective on the events in Guangzhou, both of the Chinese articles turned to Wàng Liàng, an associate professor at Guangzhou University who is said to have studied the long term trends of Africans living and working in China. Wàng explained that many of the Africans “scattered” when the so-called Anti-sanfei campaign to deal with the three (三 sān) illegals (非 fēi) was launched. The three illegals refer to foreigners illegally entering, staying and working in China. The campaign was first announced by police in Beijing back in June 2012 as a 100-day operation.
But this, says Wàng, is only one of several reasons why there is a lot less people in Xiǎo Běi Road these days, and it does not necessarily mean there are a lot less African traders in China. Rising costs in the city have also contributed to foreigners heading to other less expensive areas like Húběi and Húnán provinces. Some enter China from other locations, and only then make their way to Guangzhou.
So how many are left?
There is reportedly a rumour in Guangzhou that as many as 200,000 Africans live in the city. Yet Páng Bō of the Guangzhou Entry and Exit Administration was able to clarify that this is certainly not true. In fact, of the total 20 million single person entries of foreigners at Guangzhou annually, around 200,000 are from African countries. Thus, says Páng, the number denotes person entries and not number of people, and especially not the number of illegal Africans in the city.
But is there a trend of many Africans leaving Guangzhou?, the reporter asked. Páng would not give a definitive answer, saying just that it would be better to first analyse more data before coming to a firm conclusion. He said that there are currently around 100,000 foreigners in Guangzhou, the daily rate varies between 80,000 and 120,000. Numbers peak during the Canton Fair in October and reach a low ebb at Christmas.
Chengdu Business Daily also quoted statistics provided by the Public Security Bureau of Guangzhou indicating that the number of foreigners with long term visas living in the city increased from 38,000 at the end of 2013 to 51,000 by June 25, 2016. Of this number, around 5,000 are African. In addition, there are currently around 6,000 Africans in Guangzhou on short term visas, making for a total of around 11,000, a decrease from 16,000 in November 2014.
Waiting for better days
All the traders interviewed by the Chinese reporters in Guangzhou spoke of their loss of income and the gloomy outlook. But all, even the dejected Lǐ Qiáng in his quiet shop in Yuèxiù Plaza, expressed their determination to hold on until things get better.
Fēilì is confident the good times may come back sometime, and Ālóng is philosophical about the future. Things of the future, he says, must be left to the future.
Just outside Yuèxiù Plaza the Chinese reporter found a Nigerian student from Wuhan University in Hubei province taking some pictures. Fēnní came to Xiǎo Běi Road for the summer and sought out some of his compatriots because he believes Guangzhou is a special place for Africans. Referring to the Chinese saying, “Until you reach the Great Wall you are not a proper person”, Fēnní said, Until you get to Guangzhou’s Xiǎo Běi Road, you can’t say you’ve been to China.
From Leadership (Nigerian newspaper)
Mr Lou Jun, Deputy Director General of Guangdong in China’s Foreign Affairs Office, on Friday said that his government would continue to protect the rights of Nigerians.
Lou disclosed this to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in Guangzhou, China, while reacting to recent reports of harassment of some Nigerians and other Africans in foreign countries.
The deputy director general said that it was imperative for the province to safeguard the rights of Nigerians because of the long existing relationship between China and Nigeria.
“There are presently many Nigerians living in and visiting Guangdong Province of China, for different purposes. This is good for the relations of China and Nigeria.
“Presently, there are about 2000 Nigerians with official stay permit of six months in Guangdong Province.
“Let me assure Nigerians and the Nigerian Government that our government will continue to open its doors to more Nigerians, as well as ensure their protection in Guangdong Province.
“We have adequate police force that has continued to offer protection to Nigerians and other foreigners in Guangdong,’’ he said.
Luo said that the government had always encouraged Nigerians to go about with their identity cards, and to also register their hotels and residence with the police to ensure their safety.
He said that investigations had revealed that some Nigerians were in the habit of overstaying their visa duration periods, to be working or “doing deals illegally” in the province.
The Guangdong government’s official, however, urged Nigerians to always identify their reason for visiting China and know whether to have a short or long stay visa.
“What we have discovered is that some Nigerians and other Africans are more interested in just coming to buy our products.
“This has continued to make it difficult for us to grant them visa extensions.
“It would, therefore, be right for Nigerians coming to our province and other parts of China, to always first do their homework, before coming,’’ he advised. (NAN)
The number of Africans sojourning, recurrently visiting and/or ‘living’ in Guangzhou since the early 2000s has no parallel in the history of the region.(1) There are no conclusive figures on the size of the population; however, different estimates range from 1500 to over 20,000 (see Bodomo, 2010; Li et al., 2008).(2) While significant efforts have been made to define the types and origins of individuals in the city (Bodomo, 2012; Li et al., 2012; Zhang, 2008), extant research has tended to represent Africans as a mass of traders (see Bertoncelo and Bredeloup, 2007; Bredeloup, 2012; Haugen, 2011; Mathews and Yang, 2012; Muller and Rainer, 2013) and to conflate their presence in the region with a wave of immigration (see Haugen, 2012; Lan, 2014).
Drawing on my fieldwork in Guangzhou (conducted between 2011 and 2014), I contend that these representations fail to account for the complexities associated with the multiple trajectories, stories and mobilities of individuals in the city. Indeed, if one considers the diverse rationales behind the multiple forms of mobility that drive individuals into transnational movement/activities between Africa and China, then a different perspective emerges: one in which Africans from diverse walks of life arrive in Guangzhou for myriad reasons, and then subsequently occupy various (usually transient) emplacements. Taking these multiple emplacements and trajectories into consideration leads to a more thorough understanding of the dynamics informing place-making processes and the experiences of Africans in the city, and renders representations of the African presence in the region as a wave of immigration problematic. While I suggest that the ‘immigrants’ label should be avoided, it is in no way my intention to characterize these mobile subjects as having no connection to place. Indeed, through ethnographic analysis and the deployment of analytical constructs, I endeavour to describe and discuss how individuals on the move attempt to ‘home’ themselves while navigating through their transnational journeys.
Most migration-related literature on place-making has focused on the ways in which immigrants forge collective identities when facing discrimination or poverty in a host society (Gill, 2010) – less effort has been directed towards assessing how people moving in transnational circuits might (or might fail to) feel at ‘home’ throughout their journeys. This article is an attempt to bridge this gap by bringing together the place-making strategies and the structures of feeling that intersect in the notion of ‘home’. Following Ahmed (2000), I contend that to better understand the ways in which ‘people on the move’ structure feelings of ‘at-homeness’, we need to pay closer attention to the affective, material and symbolic processes through which place-making and ‘homing’ during transnational journeys occur. ‘Home’, I argue, is not necessarily a place to go back to. It can be a process and a feeling (an embodied experience) that can be (re)produced while on the move, and ‘emplaced’ in several locations. Moreover, I maintain that under certain modes of transnational movement, ‘home’ can be emplaced within transiency, and it is by using this notion of ‘emplacement within transiency’ that I highlight how individuals are differently emplaced and how they often attempt to (re)produce a feeling of ‘being at home’ while on the move. I do this by following the stories and insights of two Nigerian community leaders, Tony E. and O. Emma, and by exploring some of the strategies that individuals and collectives employ to negotiate their everyday lives in Guangzhou under conditions of transiency and precarity.
As in many cases of transnational mobility,(3) the precarity experienced by most Africans in Guangzhou is predicated on economic uncertainty; in this particular case, however, the precarity is heightened by the logics of surveillance and control imposed on populations by the Chinese state. While sometimes paralysing, precarity can, nonetheless, function as a trigger encouraging individuals to develop structures of solidarity and networks of support. These networks, structured by (and structuring) the emergence of grassroots forms of organization (i.e. sporting clubs and community offices) are crucial sites for individual and collective attempts to ‘feel at home’ in Guangzhou. Throughout this article, these attempts to (re)create a measure of stability, familiarity and security under conditions of transiency, migrancy and precarity are referred to as ‘precarious homing’. As I will show, precarious homing is intrinsically connected to the notion of emplacement within transiency. This connection not only helps to elucidate the conditions under which individuals are emplaced while on the move but also makes their everyday efforts to (re)create a sense of ‘being at home’ clear. Indeed, through particular place-making practices and ‘homing’ projects some Africans have managed to generate the necessary spaces where senses of belonging to communities emerge.
Looking for ‘greener pastures’ in southern China
A trip to a secret soccer pitch
On a Saturday morning in mid 2013, I waited for Tony, a prominent member of Guangzhou’s Nigerian community, in front of Canaan Wholesale Clothing Market in the area of Guangyuan West Road. For many Nigerians in Guangzhou, Canaan is a landmark. Almost a decade ago, it became the first hub of Nigerian and Ghanaian traders in the city. Nowadays, most of the stores in several of Guangyuan West Road’s wholesale markets are Nigerian-run. At around 11, Tony arrived in his new Korean SUV. With an eclectic mix of Nigerian pop and Americana blaring on the stereo, Tony drove me out to what he had previously referred to as an ‘undisclosed location’ – a somewhat lonely patch of grass serving as a soccer pitch in the northern outskirts of the city.
‘We [Nigerians] have been coming here for 16 years,’ Tony said. ‘Everybody is welcome on the pitch, but we keep the location private. We are safe here. Nobody harasses us and the police never come.’ It is there that Tony and the coach, Ken O, try out new players and select the most talented ones to play for the team they manage – Owners FC – the first African club to have joined Guangzhou’s International Premier League. While some of the players on the field have professional experience, others are newcomers to the sport. ‘Training is an opportunity to play some soccer, meet people, and make friends,’ Tony explained. ‘And if the players make it to the team, they might get exposure to Chinese recruiting agents.’ Out on the pitch that day, Ken was drilling some 15 players to do a combination of sprints and push-ups, while another 10 were laid out among the sports bags and sneakers in the shade behind one of the goal posts. Although it was the tail end of summer, the sun was still scorching. In addition to the players, a 3-year-old was kicking a ball around. With play at the other end of the pitch, the goalkeeper turned and asked sternly for the half-Nigerian, half-Chinese child to show his passport and visa. Everyone laughed. ‘There are many young Nigerians here without valid visas,’ Tony said, explaining the joke. ‘There may be hundreds only in Guangzhou.’ Indeed, at that day’s training session, only five people had valid visas – the rest were overstayers.
The group on the pitch could be a representative sample of Nigerians and, to some extent, other African nationalities in the city. By focusing on personal stories and mobilities, for instance, it is possible to identify three main trajectories: those who attempt to live in Guangzhou; those who recurrently visit the city; and those who pass through it (this group is the majority). Within the first two trajectories, it is possible to discern at least four types of emplacements: the ‘more established’; the ‘semi-settled’; the ‘itinerants’; and the ‘newly arrived’ – and overstayers can and do emerge from all of these emplacements. The ‘more established’ (or pioneers) are a minority comprising those who, like Tony, arrived over a decade ago and who have managed (predominantly through hard work, investment and/or marriage) to ‘establish’ themselves in Guangzhou. The ‘semi-settled’ (or less established), like Ken, move in and out of the country several times every year (mainly for business and visa reasons). Individuals in both these emplacements tend to have deeper engagements in communities and function frequently as mediators between Chinese and African businesspeople. Many also think of Guangzhou as their main ‘home’.(4) In addition to these two groups, there are the ‘itinerants’, who constantly transit through multiple locations in transnational circuits of trade (usually on short income-boosting trips) and whose presence in China is highly transient and relatively superficial. And, finally, there are the ‘newly arrived’, like some of the players, who have only recently left their countries in search of opportunities and success. Despite their different trajectories, emplacements and stories, a common thread runs through the accounts of most of the Africans I met in the city: a lack of certainty about their future in China. Nonetheless, as with the group on the pitch, individuals are differently emplaced and their strategies for coping with difficulties and uncertainties are multifarious.
‘China is a difficult place’: emplacing people on the move in southern China
Southern China has historically been a migrant sending region (Hoe, 2013; Ong, 1993); however, over the last three decades, the region has rapidly become an important destination in transnational and translocal geographies of mobility (see Ngai, 2005; Pieke, 2012). Every year, countless individuals from across the country and the world converge in Guangzhou, and its surrounding cities, looking for opportunities.(5) Arguably, the region is a crossroads of multiple forms of mobility, crucial to the understanding of how several Chinese social, cultural and economic processes are being (re)connected to those in other parts of the world. At the level of individuals, the region is an exemplar of the contemporary intersections and interactions between people on the move in China both transnationally and translocally.
Recently, the salience of African presence in Guangzhou has led to the emergence of a significant body of knowledge on the topic (Bertoncelo and Bredeloup, 2007, 2009; Bodomo, 2010, 2012; Bredeloup, 2012; Castillo, 2014; Han, 2013; Haugen, 2013, 2012; Lan, 2014; Le Bail, 2009; Li et al., 2008, 2009, 2012; Mathews and Yang, 2012; Rennie, 2009; Zhang, 2008). Most of these researchers have framed the African presence in the city through the binary of foreigners (migrants/immigrants) versus a fixed ‘local’ Chinese population. However, in order to better understand the dynamics and (im)mobilities behind African presence in Guangzhou, it is imperative to move beyond this distinction and problematize the notion of the ‘local’. Indeed, rather than a group of foreign migrants encountering a settled local population, Africans in the city mainly intersect and interact with ‘Chinese’ individuals on the move: ‘internal migrants’ of different ethnicities.(6)
A further conceptual move is needed to clarify the nature of the spaces in which such intersections occur. This move requires thinking of ‘individuals on the move’ beyond the lens of methodological nationalism,(7) and to rethink the national scale as a contingent rather than an absolute force in organizing different types of migrant experiences (Ellis, 2012). Accordingly, if the mobile subjects converging in Guangzhou (both foreign and internal) are brought onto the same plane, a different mapping of their experiences is possible. In this mapping, precarity and liminality emerge as shared conditions that characterize both foreign and internal ‘migrant’ emplacements, thus critically problematizing the distinction between ‘locals’ and ‘foreigners’. Indeed, I argue that some of the difficulties Africans face in China, such as structural and legal impediments, renewing visas, immobility from overstaying, police harassment, and the impossibility of permanent residency, bear a striking resemblance to the difficulties experienced by many internal migrants: economic vulnerability, lack of belonging, social exclusion, harassment, hampered residential rights and impaired mobilities. Indeed, the strict visa regulations affecting Africans could be compared to the hukou system used to control internal migrants.(8) While I am not suggesting that foreign and internal subjects occupy the same emplacements or have the same experiences (obviously linguistic and cultural factors need to be taken into account), this comparison is not unfounded and needs to be taken seriously by researchers trying to explain the difficulties faced by Africans in the city.
In fact, since 2008, foreigners in China have been categorized as ‘floating population’ (a common designation for internal migrants) and are supposedly subject to the rules and regulations controlling its management (Lan, 2014). It could then be said that Africans as a group (or ‘minority’ as Bodomo  has called them) have been informally inserted into China’s complex systems of population control and, as a result, have been subject to the dynamics of surveillance used to police ‘Chinese’ ethnic minorities – dynamics that are best characterized by erratic but systematic control/repression. It is these dynamics that have been characterized by researchers, journalists and individuals (who are perhaps unaware of the experiences of other minorities) as racial profiling and discrimination aimed specifically at Africans.(9) So, while the historical experiences of internal migrants in Guangzhou are beyond the scope of this article, this comparison serves two interrelated purposes: first, it contextualizes African presence in the region within the complex translocal mobilities of southern China (mobilities which have been thoroughly explored by Ngai [1999, 2005] and Sun  in their investigations of Chinese rural-to-urban migrations); and, second, it equates the experiences of Africans with the precarity, liminality and unbelonging of internal migrants, thus challenging the common assumption that the difficulties faced by Africans in China are (or have been) unique.(10)
Indeed, as part of a push to control this (African) ‘floating population’, the provincial and central governments have implemented a series of measures to gradually regulate and, as Lan (2014) suggests, hamper its growth. The most relevant of these measures are: a regulation requiring Guangzhou’s residents to report any ‘malpractice’ involving foreigners, such as illegal entry, overstaying and working/doing business without permits (Lan, 2014; Lau, 2012); housing and business registration obstacles (Zhang, 2008); and the tightening of the visa extension system at the local level.(11) It is these measures, along with partial geographical entrapment (most Africans need visas to enter other countries in the region) and, in some cases, economic hardship, that are identified by many individuals as factors exacerbating their difficulties in China.(12)‘China is a difficult place,’ is a pervasive phrase used by many of the Africans that I met in Guangzhou, regardless of their status or emplacement in the city. [KEEP READING HERE]
*This article was published in a special journal issue dedicated to the discussion of how the notion of ‘home’ is being reconfigured in the context of multiple global modernities.
“This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by SAGE in the International Journal of Cultural Studies on 03 March 2015, (PDF) available online at: http://ics.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/03/12/1367877915573767.abstract“
To cite this article: Castillo, Roberto (2015). ‘Homing’ Guangzhou: Emplacement, belonging and precarity among Africans in China, International Journal of Cultural Studies, Online First. doi:10.1177/1367877915573767.
Photos by Zeng Xian Fang
I lived in China for almost a decade. My mother is Chinese, so I grew up speaking Chinese. I also have a lot of family there, and I thought it would be a good place to start working as a photographer and filmmaker. I lived in Beijing and then in Shanghai, but I would occasionally go to Guangzhou for photo assignments.
One day in 2005, I came across this neighborhood in one of the older parts of the city. An immigrant neighborhood. There were lots of Uighurs, from northwest China, and also people from the Middle East. When I found myself on a pedestrian bridge, crossing over a big highway, I was surprised to see a lot of Africans.
In 2007, I had a parallel experience. I was working on a project in Rwanda and saw a Chinese construction crew in downtown Kigali, and I thought, What are they doing here?
I learned that China’s been investing heavily in Africa in exchange for oil and resource rights, and that by some estimates, there are now about a million Chinese people living in Africa. This community of Africans in Guangzhou could be seen as the flip side of that dynamic. People in Africa see China’s economic success, and they perceive China as a place of opportunity.
Whenever I’ve gone back to Guangzhou in recent years, I’ve returned to the bridge. It connects two different neighborhoods — one that’s a bit more developed, with high-rises and shopping malls, and one that’s more residential. But it also functions as kind of a public square suspended above the highway. People pass through, but they also hang out and chat, and at night it becomes an ad hoc market with people selling clothing, electronics — there’s even one guy selling snake oil, literally a snake-oil salesman.
In 2009, I was up there photographing when I noticed a Chinese man who had a point-and-shoot camera and was taking pictures of African immigrants and visitors. He would have them stand at the edge of the bridge with the high-rises in the background, kind of a snapshot of modern China. Then he would take the camera’s memory card out, put it into a portable printer, print out an 8-by-10 photograph, and charge one or two dollars.
I observed this guy for a while, and then I asked if I could take a look at some of his pictures. I was immediately struck by them. They had a lot of energy — and humor. Partly because he was using a pretty basic camera with a hard flash, the pictures had a kind of rawness to them. They were very direct.
His subjects seemed to have a sense of what they wanted. Guangzhou is in the Pearl River Delta, which is known as the workshop of the world. Traders come from developing regions, spend a few months there, buy the goods they want, and then ship them back to Africa and the Middle East. So the photos were a way for some of these traders to make souvenirs of their time there. They wanted to show the new China, with its tall buildings and modern architecture. Others liked to be photographed underneath the bridge, where there were bushes and trees for background. A lot of the women were trading in fabrics and textiles, so they would often wear the fabrics they had bought, which were colorful and beautiful. [KEEP READING HERE]