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
As if on cue, following yesterday’s post about the need to give students a more challenging and enriched learning environment, mHS had a visit from an enthusiastic young man called Brian today representing the University of Minnesota’s ACARA program. From what I understood, the program asks undergraduate and graduate students to prepare a business plan for an identified need in the development sector. The University partners with academic institutions in India and students work in mixed groups of Indian and American students. The business plans are then presented to a jury and a couple of winners selected, which then get helped in terms of mentoring, investor contacts or simply funding for feasibility studies, depending on the group’s intent.
Previously, the program specified a particular area of work, but in its new avatar, students are being put through a three week immersion exercise and will then decide on their own what sort of needs they want to address through their solutions. This change was made because they found previous graduates of the program have veered off their conventional career paths to opt for more socially aware jobs. Some have gone on to set up new organizations working in the development sector in different parts of the world.
Clearly, someone thinks allowing students to decide basis their interests and motivation brings out the best in them. And doing their best in turn inspires confidence, which is certainly the key to creating positive, motivated and solution-oriented professionals.
The change the program has undergone exemplifies the new thinking in education. A move from top-down to bottom-up, as those familiar with development-speak would see it! And that’s primarily what I wanted to highlight through today’s post. That even as we theorize about the changes we want to see, those are happening already, in India and elsewhere. Hope is alive as long as we continue to experiment.
I have met a few young people who came from impoverished backgrounds who have given me immense hope. Mohan, who came from his village in Orissa and then worked in Delhi and Gurgaon as a domestic help for 6-7 years (4 of them in our house; Udai is still terribly attached to him and at times spends time in his shop as sales boy….), decided to become an entrepreneur in Gurgaon. Its been four years and his business has grown, stabilized and he is able to financially support his aging parents back home in Orissa. How has he been able to do it?
A basic education, no English, but oodles and oodles of self-confidence, a willingness to take risk, learn from mistakes and not lose heart. He asks questions without hesitation, consults us and others before making investments or taking significant business decisions. He is scrupulously honest with money, taking care to return loans on or before time and building credibility and trust with his patrons (like us) and his customers (which we also sometimes are). In the beginning, he felt obliged to us for helping him out and being his general de facto family so far from home, there was a certain deference and distance. Stuff like refusing to take money for things we bought created some awkward moments.
Today, he no longer shies from taking his payments, shares a cup of tea with us when he visits as an equal; its a remarkable change. He hasn’t needed any English to achieve it, but he has needed trusted English speaking people to step in for him now and then to buy a vehicle, do bank work, etc. I do see him struggle with doctors though, a bunch of educated professionals who specialize in fleecing the poor (harsh, but true!).
The point I am making is that people like Mohan should be encouraged, not tied down. If we can create systems where language and background are not huge barriers, this country has immense potential because entrepreneurship and innovations are built into our DNA!