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Sandra

[Bilingual Brew] How Africans Live, and Struggle, in Southern China

[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。]

Many Africans come to Guangzhou as traders. Via 月中人

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.”

Guangzhou's Little North Road fast became an enclave. Via Netease

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.”

A protester in Guangzhou, circa last Tuesday

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. 

[Translated by David Wertime] 
 
 

6月19日,我在新浪微博上看到被到处转发的广州黑人聚集示威的照片。第一反应是,三年前的照片被翻出来了。上网搜索了一下才知道,那是上周二发生的事情,上千非洲裔人在广州街头聚集,要求警方对前一天死去的尼日利亚人作出解释。

2009年7月,广州的非洲裔人也发起过同样的集会。7月15日,一名黑人在躲避警方查证护照过程中,从18米高的楼上不慎坠下身亡。次日,他的数百名同胞在当地派出所与警方对峙,要"讨个说法"。

三年前,新浪还没有推出微博服务——同年8月,微博实行内测,9月添加@和私信功能——我在广州一家媒体实习,参与了报社对广州黑人群体的深入采访。

查护照事件发生之前,国内媒体对黑人群体的报道很少。虽然住在同一个城市,我跟身边大多数人一样,对他们完全不了解。采访时我才发现,在广州聚居的黑人不但人数多,而且在小北路和三元里一带已经形成了一个完整的黑人社区:这里有非洲风情酒吧、 穆斯林餐厅、专门给黑人理发的发廊、专卖非洲食材的商店,甚至还有非裔妓女。

1980年末,中国西北省份的穆斯林开始在广州小北路一带聚居。后来,他们带来了阿拉伯国家的商人,阿拉伯商人又带来了北非穆斯林国家的淘金者。2000年初,在北非同胞的指引下,非洲中西部传统贸易国家的商人进驻这一区域,“黑人商业区”逐渐发展成熟。2009年5月广州中山大学的一份调查显示:这个区域聚集了超过50个国家的人,其中相当一部分来自马里、多哥、冈比亚、几内亚、加纳、塞内加尔和刚果七个黄金海岸周边的国家;除了非洲人,这里还有中东人、南亚人和南美人。

广州的非洲商人大多从事纺织品和电子产品的出口生意。我采访的南非人Ossy在家乡经营"便利店",他在广州负责采购各类电子配件,托运回南非。Ossy说:“我的店里什么都卖,我按照家里亲友发来的短信采购商品,其中以手机配件为主。”

除了做买卖以外,黑人们平日里的娱乐消遣很少。Ossy住在广州市郊一个新兴的黑人聚居区——那实际上是商业区旁的一条街,街两旁是店铺,楼上是出租屋。这里住的黑人每天晚上都坐在街上唯一的便利店门口喝啤酒、聊天。他们大多没有电脑,不用智能手机,也没有广州当地的朋友。出租屋、便利店、批货中心,对一些人来说还有教堂,便是他们生活的全部。广州的非裔商人大部分是男性,我和他们交流时被问的第一个问题都是“你有没有女生介绍?”有时他们还会请我做翻译,给他们心仪的中国女生打电话。对方第一反应都是拒绝邀约,跟我说追求她们的黑人只是客户。对她们来说,这些黑皮肤的外国商人并非理想的交往对象。她们认为黑人有体味,而且脾气不好。这也是市民对黑人的普遍印象,即使很多人没有亲身经历过。

由于互不理解和贸易纠纷,小北路附近时常发生黑人和中国人的冲突事件。保安曾对记者说;“其实老外的脾气还好,但有些中国人不老实,总是故意把次一些的货卖给他们。” 

一些出租车司机对黑人也有意见。他们抱怨黑人的体味,还认为黑人们打车计较零头碎钱,很多出租车不愿意在小北路一带接客。因此黑人们更多乘坐私人出租车,也就是“黑车”。今年6月18日死去的尼日利亚人,就是因为与电动车司机因车资发生肢体冲突而被警方带走。后来警方通知家属,该黑人在被捕四小时后昏迷,最终抢救无效身亡。同胞的猝死引起了整个广州黑人群体的关注,才有了我在微博上看到的聚众照片。

经济全球化和中国经济快速发展吸引了越来越多的外籍人口,促进了城市中“跨国移民”聚居区的形成。在此过程中,矛盾冲突在所难免。像纽约的唐人街、小意大利一样,中国城市中的异国商业区以及其中的移民,经过发展、挣扎、调整,最终将融入城市,成为当地文化的一部分。       

       

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Sandra

Sandra finished her bachelor's degree in Journalism in Guangzhou, China. She worked as an intern journalist at Nanfang Daily Group in her senior year.
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  • kdlmn

    The body odor thing.. That was featured in this week’s Beijing City Weekend as well. Taxi drivers in Beijing said they don’t take Black people for that reason. I’m wondering whether that is just racist non-sense (meaning: there is no smell whatsoever) or whether the taxi drivers smell the different chemical makeup of sweat in different ethnicities…  the reason for why deo spray is harder to come by… and why White people are more smelly than Chinese as well.

    • lalala

      I think it’s both…

  • kdlmn

    The body odor thing.. That was featured in this week’s Beijing City Weekend as well. Taxi drivers in Beijing said they don’t take Black people for that reason. I’m wondering whether that is just racist non-sense (meaning: there is no smell whatsoever) or whether the taxi drivers smell the different chemical makeup of sweat in different ethnicities…  the reason for why deo spray is harder to come by… and why White people are more smelly than Chinese as well.

    • lalala

      I think it’s both…