[Please enjoy this Tea Leaf Nation bilingual brew. The article is first shown in English, and then in the original Chinese. 亲爱的读者，欢迎享受我们的 “双语茗茶”。英文翻译在上，中文原文在下。]
On June 19, I saw the oft-retweeted images on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, which showed black people in Guangzhou city protesting together. My first reaction: This image was from three years ago. Only after an online search did I realize the image was of an incident from last Tuesday, where thousands of Africans amassed on the streets of Guangzhou to demand that police explain the death of a Nigerian national in their custody.
The protest of 2009
Africans in Guangzhou staged a similar protest in July of 2009. On July 15 of that year, while attempting to avoid a passport check by police, one African man fell 18 meters from a building and died. The next day, hundreds of his compatriots confronted police in front of the local police station, demanding they “have a talk.”
Three years ago, Sina had not yet released its Weibo platform. In August of that year, Sina carried out internal tests of the service, and in September it added “@” and private messaging functions. During that time, I was interning at a media organization in Guangzhou, assisting a newspaper office in conducting in-depth interviews of Africans in Guangzhou.
The creation of today’s Little North Road
Before the passport-related incident occurred, domestic Chinese media had very seldom reported on the country’s African population. Although we lived in the same city, I was like many around me in having no understanding of African people in Guangzhou. Only after conducting the interviews did I realize that not only did a great number of African people live there, but within the Little North Road and San Yuanli areas of town, an entire African community had come into existence. There were African-style bars, Muslim restaurants, specialized hair salons, stores selling African food products, and even African prostitutes.
At the end of the 1980s, Muslims from China’s northwest provinces began moving into the Little North Road area of Guangzhou. Later, they brought with them businesspeople from Arab countries, and those Arab businesspeople brought North Africans seeking riches. At the beginning of the new millennium, attracted by their North African compatriots, traders from mid-western Africa moved into the area, and a “African business district” gradually came into being.
In May of 2009, Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-Sen University conducted a study which showed that district contained people from over 50 countries, with the majority coming from Mali, Togo, Gambia, Guinea, Ghana, Senegal, and Congo along Africa’s Gold Coast. In addition to Africans, the area contained Middle Easterners, South Asians, and South Americans.
A simple life
African businesspeople in Guangzhou mostly engage in the import of textiles and electronics. One South African whom I interviewed named Ossy had managed a convenience store back home. In Guangzhou, he was responsible for purchasing every kind of electronic part and sending it back to South Africa. Ossy said, “I sell everything in my store, according to whatever my friends and relatives back home tell me they want via text message, principally cell phone parts.”
Besides trading, there is little that Africans in Guangzhou do on a daily basis to entertain themselves. Ossy lived in a new African community in the outskirts of Guangzhou–in fact, it was a street next to a business district, with stores on either side and apartments for rent up above. In the evenings, African people who lived there would gather in front of the street’s only convenience store to drink beer and chat. The majority of them did not own computers, had no use for smartphones, and did not have local friends. A rented apartment; a convenience store; a wholesaler; to these people, along with their church, those places made up the whole of their lives.
The majority of Africans in Guangzhou were men, and the first question they would ask me when we talked was, “Can you introduce me to any girls?” Sometimes, they would ask me to help translate as they gave their favorite Chinese girls a phone call. The girls’ first reaction was always to reject their invitations, telling me that the African men courting them were just clients. To them, these foreign businessmen with black skin were not ideal partners. They felt the African people had body odor and bad tempers. This was also the impression that Guangzhou citizens usually had of Africans, even though many of them had never met one.
How things get ugly
Due to a lack of mutual understanding and to business disputes, conflicts between African people and Chinese people would often occur in the area around Little North Road. A guard there once told a reporter, “In fact the foreigners’ tempers are all right, but many Chinese are dishonest, and purposefully try to sell them inferior goods.”
Some taxi drivers also have complaints with Africans. They complain about body odor, and think that Africans tend to haggle over change. As a result, many drivers are unwilling to pick up passengers by Little North Road. Because of this, African people mostly ride in unlicensed cars for hire, also called “black cars.”
On June 18 of this year, a Nigerian man died because a dispute over fares with a driver escalated into physical conflict. Police took him away, and later informed his family that the African man fell into a coma four hours later, and they were ultimately unable to save him. The sudden death of a compatriot has led to widespread attention among the African community in Guangzhou, and thus the image of a demonstration that I encountered on Weibo.
China, now a part of the world
Economic globalization and the rapid development of China’s economy have attracted more and more foreigners to China, speeding up the formation of “transnational immigrant” communities. During this process, it will be hard to avoid conflicts. Like New York’s Chinatown or Little Italy, Chinese cities will also come to have their own foreign business districts. Through development, struggle, and adjustment, they will ultimately integrate into China’s cities, becoming a part of local culture.