Diversity in Guangzhou’s ‘Little Africa’: Observations about a place of affordability & entrepreneurship
The PhD “flex” room in the Institute of Housing Studies, Erasmus University in Rotterdam is as good a place as any to reflect on the Xiaobei, or Little Africa, a settlement in Guangzhou we visited last month. Why? Because many of the students at IHS, in the Masters and PhD programs, are from African countries and the question of China in Africa is foremost on their minds. While here, I heard Rachel Keeton, PhD candidate at TU Delft, speak about her research on the planning of New Towns in Africa. In her narrative, the Chinese footprint on the creation of new urban spaces in Africa is formidable. Next to me, a PhD colleague worries about the influence of China on the planning and governance of transit systems in cities like Lagos and Addis Ababa.
In Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong province in China’s Pearl River Delta (PRD), we saw the other side. African entrepreneurs have been coming to China for decades, trading, running small businesses, moving back and forth between Africa, Europe and China in what Gordon Mathews and his co-authors have called “low-end globalization” in their book The World in Guangzhou. The epicentre of their activities is the PRD, which has been a trading hotspot for thousands of years and has arguably the most open outlook in all of China. The Dengfeng/Xiaobei locality in Guangzhou, I had heard from colleagues and friends, was the place to experience this phenomenon and so we decided to spend an afternoon exploring its alleys and streets.
The African presence in the neighbourhood is unmistakable with traders from Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Guinea, Senegal, and Angola living here. Yet we noticed that many of the shops on the mainstreet were owned and operated by those with Chinese ethnicity. A number of the shops at the edge of settlement were selling readymade garments and cheap electronics, perhaps the sort of counterfeit or low-cost items that the Africans have been known to trade in. However, as we ventured further inside, the majority of the stores seemed to cater to the daily needs of this bustling neighborhood. We saw grocery stores, outlets for fresh fruits and vegetables, chemist shops, restaurants and food outlets, hair dressers, and tailoring shops. The area had an international feel to it. I could see Turkish bakeries, French baguettes and Asian spices in grocery stores, and African and Indian clothes in the garment stores. The large number of food outlets with halal signs and Arabic signage indicated a sizeable Islamic population and indeed, Dengfeng is just as Middle Eastern today as it is African, with residents from Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and even Iran. In fact, we learned that many Chinese Muslim families also chose to live here.
Among the Africans, we could see many single men and some couples, even a few families with young children. I understand that most of the Africans come on short-term visas and do not stay for very long; yet there are many instances of African and Chinese inter-marriages. I’m not certain about the citizenship of those Africans who marry Chinese women and seek to integrate, but the struggle of Chinese society to accept children of mixed parentage, particularly African-Chinese kids in Guangzhou, has been a subject of some discussion in the media. Overstaying visas used to be rather common, but I believe a crackdown since 2012 has scared away the more transient traders and those who remain definitely face discrimination.
Overall, the African presence was not as dominant as I had expected. Rather, we found a thriving multi-ethnic entrepreneurial space with plenty of affordable rental housing. In fact, the Chinese researcher who guided us through pointed out two buildings where he had rented before, as a student. To me, the visit raised questions about the particular characteristics of places that permit, indeed invite, diversity. Places that are “arrival cities“, as Saunders puts it in his eponymous book, for immigrants from across and within national boundaries. What are the processes, ranging from the use of social networks to the negotiation of rent agreements, that make these places what they are? As article after article, including this one, offer visually and anecdotally rich material as evidence that diversity is indeed something to celebrate and praise, I suspect more detailed investigations of the processes that create diversity might offer a more balanced and perhaps less flattering perspective.
- https://africansinchina.net/: Robert Castillo’s blog has a veritable treasure of facts and observations about the community. He is a lecturer at the Hong Kong University’s African Studies Programme
The first ever UN Human Development report for Africa released today. And the big discussion was about food security. Amid emotional statements [“History is not destiny, Africans are not fated to starve,” – Tegegnework Gettu, UNDP Africa Director], the report present positive case studies as well [Malawi went from food deficit to a 1.3 million tonne surplus in two years, thanks to a massive seed and fertilizer subsidy programme].
However, food security is something we in India need to get very worried about. India has a malnutrition problem that surpasses that of Sub Saharan Africa! One in every three malnutritioned children in the world lives in India, as per UNICEF!
It seems to me we need another Green Revolution in India. Born in the ’70s, I remember the euphoria the nation felt when it was finally able to stop its dependence on imports to feed its citizens and was even able export food grains way back in 1978-79. The main feature of the Green Revolution was to change the practice of agriculture from a one-crop to a two-crop system, thereby stepping up productivity hugely on the same amount of cultivated land. That euphoria still has most Indians thinking we shouldn’t really be worrying about food production, instead focusing on better storage and distribution. And while improvements across the food chain are imperative, production is still a huge issue that has considerable socio-economic consequences, considering the majority of Indians are still dependent on the land for a living!
We get the impression that persistent droughts in India in the winter months and the deluge of rain that follows, thus ruining crops, is some fallout of climate change that we have little short term control over. However, Sunita Narain, in a Business Standard editorial yesterday, attributes the problem largely to poor management of resources like water and land. Water management is ever more urgent, she argues, because climate change has made rainfall unpredictable. Besides the convoluted logic (or lack of it) of the various government schemes that address irrigation, basic actions to recharge groundwater and to increase the efficiency of water usage are not taken. To add to our woes, India’s agricultural land is shrinking owing to the pressure of other uses, not in the least the persistent onslaught of urbanization and industrial growth.
So when I scream at my children to not leave the tap running when they brush their teeth or for leaving food uneaten on their plate (because there are zillion starving kids who really need that morsel of food; however jaded the line, it is the absolute truth!), I’m not entirely unjustified in doing so!