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
We visited Nantou on the last leg of our 2016 week-long field trip to Shenzhen on a hot, humid day. In contrast to the pulsating lanes of Baishouzhou and its unapologetic messiness, where we had spent relatively more time, Nantou appeared quaint and well suited to touristic exploration. After all, the settlement had once been a walled city of considerable political importance, and the remnants of that history were strewn across the village in the form of arched gateways, temples and sacred niches. My most vivid memory is that of an active main street full of the myriad tastes of China punctuated by a select number of restored (or being restored) buildings. This, in stark contrast to Hubei, a true blue urban village dating back to the 15th century that faces redevelopment.
This year, Nantou was the venue of the UABB, the bi-city biennale of Urbanism/Architecture that brings together artwork related to the urban experiences of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Walking towards the South Gate of Nantou, we recognized familiar landmarks – the ancestor hall, the ornate gate itself, the garden and its sculptures. And further in, the smaller gate that enters the settlement itself.
Once we stepped inside, we realized how transformed the space was from what it used to be. The street before us, full of vendors and teeming with life, was now a subdued cleaned-up version of itself. New open spaces had been carved out and designed with great taste, but ‘no climbing’, ‘no touching’ signs all over the street furniture in these made us wonder what the village residents were thinking about the redesign interventions. At the very least, these spaces were being used in many ways and by different kinds of people. Newspapers were being read here, mothers and children were catching the winter sun and old women were resting as well. Further in, we found another lovely large open space – a new basketball court, temporarily in disuse. Presumably it will be resurrected and used as it should once the UABB is over.
Shaun Teo, whose PhD research is looking at the UABB’s transformative impacts, pointed out many more interventions in a very interesting tour he conducted that afternoon. He showed us some of the redesigned shops in the village, which looked beautiful but to my eyes were a clear push towards gentrification. Shaun showed us two interventions that emerged from a competition: 1- An attempt at entrepreneurship by a migrant renter who was running a cafe at the UABB in partnership with one of the organizers, and 2- A young urban designer’s redesign of a ground floor shop into the Nantou Living Room, his living space that doubles up into a space for village residents to meet and interact. Already, fresh interventions are spinning off of these. The entrepreneur is gathering capital to set up shop on a more permanent basis and the urban designer is taking baby steps forward with the landscaping of a “secret garden” tucked away behind his alley.
What does an event like the UABB signify to the residents of a neighborhood like Nantou? It is obvious that many have been displaced to make the event possible. Vendors, for sure, have been asked to leave and even some factories in order to get clear floor space for the exhibition halls. Most likely, the UABB has sped up the process of gentrification and the pricing out of current renters, in a location where rents are already quite high. This might mean higher densities and I’m unsure how Shenzhen authorities will balance the heritage value of Nantou will the unfolding densification processes.
On the positive side, the redesigned public spaces and wall art have added value too. From what I heard, the design of the venue was not exactly a consultative process, nor have the venues of previous editions of the UABB retained their look and feel after the event. Perhaps Nantou will reclaim its spaces back and make of them what they want to. Given that Shenzhen is currently working on the redevelopment of urban villages, a gentrified Nantou with a smattering of resident-friendly spaces and interventions is perhaps a best case scenario!
If you were to force me to pick the best from the myriad experiences Shenzhen offered, I would choose the morning we met the ‘Happy People’ of Shiuwei (term coined by Partha that morning, using it with due credit). When Mary Ann told us we were going to meet women of the community, I expected an informal conversation. Instead, we walked into a hotbed of community activity in which village women had congregated to cook together in preparation of the Dragon Boat Festival.
The sights and sounds of the semi-open enclosure located within the compound of the village office reminded me strongly of childhood visits to my native village in Goa. There was a certain aura of ritual and a sense of comfort in the practiced way these women were working together, very similar to culinary preparations during Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations at our ancestral home (read about chavath elsewhere on my blog). The dishes themselves, called zongzi and made of rice with multiple fillings that are carefully wrapped into palm leaves and then boiled in water, reminded me more of Kerala’s culinary repertoire. Besides the plain sticky rice, we observed fillings of cane sugar and peanut as well as duck eggs, pork and beans.
As the women worked, they chatted and laughed incessantly. I drew up a plastic stool next to one group and let myself be hypnotized by their rhythmic actions. They weren’t shy, sometimes making eye contact and smiling, but largely they seemed too engrossed to be distracted by my staring and filming (watch video below).
Unlike the group cooking sessions within extended families or religious groups in India at occasions like weddings and festivals (increasingly being replaced by catered food or contracts to professional cooks, sadly), I was surprised to find out that cooking together is not traditional in this part of China. Instead, a few women in Shiuwei village with the patronage of Shuiwei Holdings Ltd, the village corporation or ‘company’, have taken on the responsibility of bringing women together thrice a year for ten-day periods to cook traditional food items together as an expression of community solidarity and feeling.
Behind the scenes, company employees and retired husbands of some of these women sat around smoking and chatting. They also cooked meals for the group making zongzi. In contrast to the cooking ladies, the men were a curious lot, asking about us and why we were here. On hearing I was from India, one of the men got very animated. “Indian women are always wearing clothes from which their fat tummies can be seen,” he exclaimed, “but you are not dressed like that!” In between feeling shocked at his lack of tact and laughing at the way he said it, I was tempted to show him the pictures from my #100sareepact page!
For me, meeting the Happy People was a great entry point into thinking through the social issues around transforming urban villages in Shenzhen. Located in Futian, Shenzhen’s commercial and administrative epicenter, Shiuwei is among a clutch of urban villages that had the business savvy to redevelop land in a profitable manner. Rural land in China is collectively owned and by setting up shareholding corporations with village families as shareholders, villages have been able to partner with construction companies to build modern apartment buildings, factories and commercial blocks. In Shiuwei, a well-connected, educated and business-minded CEO (who also incidentally has a fascinating collection of stones housed on the ground floor of the well-landscaped corporation office that also houses recreation spaces for the elderly) appears to have played a crucial role.
Walking around Shiuwei, we saw ‘handshake’ housing blocks located on family plots similar to the ones in Baishizhou, though general standards of infrastructure were much better. We also saw the towering higher-end ‘commercial’ apartment blocks. A set of twin blocks, one carrying the village logo and the other the signage of the construction company, we learned, is a tell-tale sign of village-led redevelopment. On ground, shops specialized in fashion, massages and spa treatments, targeting tourists and rich Hong Kong merchants. The enormous amount of fresh housing stock created is let out to migrants (some of them second wives for the aforementioned rich Hong Kong merchants!).
It stands to reason that cooking together assumes enormous meaning for a community of village folk that is so vastly outnumbered by migrants from other parts of China. Savvy business strategy and increasing wealth cannot a community replace, that’s the takeaway here. Even as the exclusion of migrants from redevelopments processes in urban villages in Shenzhen is an area of significant concern, Shiuwei is a reminder of how transitions are not easy for native groups either.
Looking through my notes as I write about Shenzhen (I learnt to pronounce it correctly around Day 2 of our trip- it’s Shun-jun for your information), I try to reconstruct the thoughts behind some of these doodles in my notebook. Order, structure, urban forms, technology, the incorporation of nature into cities, human adaptation are some themes I see.
Doodling has been a habit for as long as I remember, predating my training as an architect, usually geometric forms. The doodles usually emerge out of the subconscious, barring the odd sketch of a scene here and there, and its hard to see patterns at times though I keep trying. I’d love to hear about how other people interpret their own doodling. Do share!
I first heard of a possible trip to Shenzhen in mid-March from Partha (we work together at the Centre for Policy Research) during a taxi ride from Delhi to Gurgaon. The name Shenzhen triggered memories of conversations we had about the buzzing Chinese city across the water from Hong Kong back in the early 2000s when Amma and Papa (my in-laws) lived in Macau. Those were the years shortly after Hong Kong (in 1997) and Macau (in 1999) were handed over to China and much was changing in the Pearl River Delta. Papa was flying helicopters for a private airline at the time; and in addition to his usual stories of the rich folks he ferried between Hong Kong and Macau on the famed casino circuit, he was talking about the rich business investors he was flying to Shenzhen and Zuhai, both among 5 Special Economic Zones set up by China along the Eastern seaboard in 1980 as key elements of economic reform. On my trip to visit them in 2000, a year before my wedding, they even took me on a day trip to see the wonders of Zuhai’s swank streets, tall glass buildings and sparkling amusement parks. I wondered if I should expect Shenzhen to be something similar. Over the next few days, however, Shenzhen slipped my mind and I got busy with other things.
Then, in the last days of April Mary Anne and Fu Na arrived in Delhi from Shezhen, full of immense curiosity and enthusiasm, surprisingly unaffected by the oppressive heat of the Delhi summer. Over the intense conversations we had while showing them around the urban villages and slums of Delhi and Gurgaon, I began to piece together a different picture of Shenzhen. Of spaces similar to the ones we work in here in Delhi where migrants and long-time residents squeeze together, feeding off the glitzy growing city and yet, strangely distanced from it. Of a city of hope and entrepreneurship but also struggle and despair.
Our plans to visit Shenzhen began to crystallize over the month of May and I crammed as much reading about the city and its environs as I could. The picture became fuzzier with every paper I read. Facts and figures, strains of urban history and theory mingled together, shapeless and drifting. I stored as much as I could in a mental shelf labelled “Shenzhen, China”.
We landed in Hong Kong airport in late May and the mountains rising out the water greeted me like familiar friends. On the ferry across to Shenzhen, I finally allowed myself to give in to the excitement of anticipation coming to an end, of the relief of seeing and feeling a city that I’ve tried in vain to conjure out of mere words. Join me on my journey as I attempt to synthesize and interpret what we saw over an intense week of exploration in Shenzhen. Presenting, the Shenzhen Diaries.
I won’t say I am shocked by the news that China is moving 250 million rural residents to newly created towns and cities over the next 12 years. In keeping with an economic policy restructuring that aims to rely less on exports and increase domestic demand, China is re-engineering the lives of rural people in a bid to convert them into urban consumers who will boost their economy in the future. As rural homes are bulldozed and replaced by highrises, people’s lives are being thrown into turmoil and I can only imagine the sense of loss and outrage being experienced by those who are the guinea pigs of this economic experiment.
It seems to be standard for governments, not just in China, to simply decide what’s good for thousands of their citizens; no skin off their backs, just a steely face and a shrug!
It’s not just China, where in the absence of democratic institutions, it is perhaps easier to implement sweeping decisions like this. When Delhi decided to relocate slum dwellers to far-flung resettlement colonies before the Commonwealth Games 2010, it also subscribed to a notion that world-class cities were those that did not have slums, were exceedingly clean and I would say, devoid of anything spontaneous at all! What gives governments the right to take decisions that benefit a small minority in the name of the greater common good, decisions that often follow no proven success mantra (indeed defy everything suggested by previous experience!) and put those who are poor and disadvantages through suffering and misery? When such massive changes are carried out without consultation, without debate and without any window for recourse, it violates not only democratic principles, but humanistic ones as well. What is the hope then for societies, indeed civilizations, based on the premise of exploitation?
Yes, yes, I know. The poor cannot hope to move toward prosperity if there is no economic growth and therefore they need to sacrifice their lives at the altar of national growth. I am familiar with that line of thinking and I find it hard to agree.
Urban planners like me are trained in the great tradition of modernism and taught that everything can be planned. I have come to believe that there is much to be said for not planning, simply leaving things be. A balanced perspective would mean that we neither over-plan, nor abandon planning completely. We try to propose the future based on an informed understanding of the present, including physical and socio-economic conditions as well as aspirations of the people whose lives will be impacted by what you propose. This is not just a question of human rights, but also a matter of common sense, if our objective is to build a society where people can hope to lead happy lives and contribute meaningfully to the collective progress of their communities, cities, nations. I am suggesting that the desire for growth needs to be balanced with measures that allow people to opt for alternatives ways of life.
In China, would it not be possible to identify areas slated for urbanization and then allow options for farmers to either opt for urban jobs by retraining for them and changing their lifestyle, or be offered alternative space where they can continue to live rural lives. I am sure enough young people would opt to join to new economy, while others would still be able to live lives of dignity and earn enough to feed themselves. This way, reports say, the old and the infirm are reduced to playing mah-jong all day without having any useful role to play in these new cities and towns.