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
It was while sauntering through the delightful Chateau Fontainebleu during our Parisian stint this summer that I first made the connection between the 13th arrondissement and industry. Le Gobelins, a stop on the metro line (7) we often took into town from our suburban abode in summer, was where the French aristocracy got its tapestries from. Up until the ’60s, from what I understand, this area of Paris that lies south of the Seine was a marshy mish mash of industrial workshops and village like neighbourhoods interspersed with patches of gardens and farms. Inspired by Corbusier’s ideas of city planning, a massive urban project called Italie 13 was planned here in the ’60s for the urban professional classes, dominated by high rise towers and large interconnected public spaces on the ground level.
I had the chance to visit Les Olympiades, one of the prominent high-rise complexes built in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with a colleague recently. We were out to get some lunch and he kindly decided to show me around the China Town nearby. Which, against my expectations, was amid this giant brutalist complex of monotonous and monumental high rises! The tall towers of Les Olympiades, which I hear are now rapidly gentrifying, frame a large plaza with a market and access to multi level shopping centres. The design of the Pagode shopping plaza, with its pagoda style roofs, turned out to be prophetic because this neighbourhood saw the arrival of ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, Camobodia and Laos in the late ’70s, most of them escaping the Vietnam War.
Though architecturally this area hardly looks like the ‘China Town’ one expects, many of the businesses here are Chinese owned. A south-east Asian style set of vendors selling greens on the streets and a number of food stalls selling Vietnamese food were the most obvious signs here. Sitting on the sidewalk, we enjoyed a quick meal of ‘bo bun’, a dish of rice vermicelli with grilled meat, raw vegetables and tangy sauce that has become my favourite food in Paris. This one in ‘China Town’ was way better than the bo bun I have had around the university I work at, which is only a few blocks away within the same arrondissement, part of a later and arguable more successful redevelopment project called the Rive Gauche.
One of the nicest things about being interested in urbanism is that there is pleasure to be derived from the simplest things in a city like Paris. Walks, commutes, lunches and visits to friends are all part of a giant educational and sight seeing experience. And this is how the pursuit of a good bo bun taught me quite a bit about a chunk of Paris’ urban and immigration history.
All content and photographs © Mukta Naik
Indian cuisine is an explosion of flavors. It is perhaps possible to live an entire year without repeating dishes if one had unlimited access to cuisines from across my country. I’ve been lucky to have reasonable exposure to food from many parts of India. And so, even though I’m not a foodie and that is something I must emphasize, I found myself looking out for the food I ate in these two back-to-back trips to Indonesia I’ve made.
Javanese cuisine, I realized, is incredibly diverse with a mix of influences- Arab, Chinese, Indian and European. Friends I made on my recent trip to Surabaya in Eastern Java told me I’m lucky to be Indian and tolerant to spices so I could enjoy this diversity. And enjoy I did!
My first meal in Surabaya, had with French and Indian colleagues, was a tentative exploration. To my delight, I tasted tamarind in the Sayur Asem curry we ate which tasted remarkably similar to the rasam my grandmother used to rustle up! I later realised that asem (tamarind) is a popular taste to look out for in this part of the world. We also sampled lontong, or rice cake, made out of steaming rice pressed into banana leaves, though we clearly were not aware of the right combinations as yet. Fruit juices are a big deal in Java and I tasted soursap (jus sirsak) for the first time, opting for the unsweetened version since a generous dollop of sugar is normal in these parts!
At the grand dinner that the Mayor of Surabaya threw for the delegates of the Habitat III Prepcom3 conference, I was urged by my friend Ashok who is intimately familiar with Surabaya’s secrets, to try rawon, a delicately flavoured beef broth with moong dal sprouts, sambal and kluwak nuts topped with pieces of roast beef. My friend Ashok graciously took it upon himself to be our guide in Surabaya, having the known the city for a long time, and this was the first of his many culinary recommendations.
At lunch on Day 2, I tried the lontong lodeh, that had rice cakes in a vegetarian curry with jackfruit and beans in coconut milk broth. This signature dish, commonly eaten during Id-ul-Fitri celebrations I later realized, became a hit with the vegetarians in the group, though us non-vegetarians added on a sprinkling of meat on top.
Dinner on Day 2 was simply out of this world, with Ashok (he had taken on the grand role of food guide by now for a bunch of us) introducing me to the famous Padang cuisine. Now, this is not just about taste, but also about the style! In a padang style restaurant, you would be confronted with a mountain of dishes being placed in front of you. Each dish is only a small bowl and you are given a larger plate with some boiled rice. You eat what you want and leave the rest and you’re charged for what you dig into only. It’s a fascinating practice, allowing you to intake the sight and smells of a larger variety while eating what you prefer. The spread included boiled greens including the tasty cassava leaves, chicken, fish, squid, the slow-cooked and really tasty beef redang and dishes with hooves and internal organs as well. Spicy and coconut milk based, padang food hit the sweet spot as far as I was concerned! I was one happy girl that night and a post dinner stroll through the city to spend a few hours in a homely little pub with live music only added to the appeal!
Day 3 was spent on the streets of Surabaya visiting traditional neighbourhoods called kampungs (more on this later). We ended up at ANDA Fit, a well-known establishment that boasts of authentic Javenese cuisine. Here, we were introduced to another defining flavour, the tomato and chilli based penyet that is eaten in vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions. We had it with the signature tempe, made of fermented soy beans. The gule kambing, or mutton in coconut milk, accompanied by a ginger-based warm drink (wedang jahe) was definitely something to write home about!
This short trip to Bali presented a set of varied and interesting experiences. I had heard from friends and family about the quaint Balinese worship rituals and sure enough, the carved stone statues and beautifully decorated offerings to the Gods and demon spirits were everywhere. So was the tourist-oriented commerce with its plethora of souvenirs and knick-knacks, though the large number of designer clothing and accessory stores with high quality products and tasteful displays were the icing on the cake during our sojourns through Seminyak and Kuta. And, of course, there was the glorious sea!
We had done little advance planning for this trip, and I had the sense of floating from experience to experience over the three days we were in Bali. And because we had known each other so long, we were able to laugh at the imperfect decisions just as well as we savored the ones that turned out well. Which is just as travel ought to be, spontaneous and rich in detail, and stress free to boot! Presenting a set of small stories from our Bali sojourn….
The kindness of strangers
Bali offered us the perfect escape into anonymity, allowing us to have a reckless element to our capers on the beach. One evening, a couple of us were caught in strong currents and taken a tad further out to see than we had anticipated. Reaching the shore rather breathless (and a bit shaken) after a strenuous swim back, we were touched to find that the man from whom we were renting our deck chairs was already in the water, genuinely concerned for us and ready to get help!
Laughing at ourselves
One night, we ventured into Kuta to sample the nightlife and got lost trying to walk our way to Hard Rock Hotel. Now this is hard to do in Kuta, which is small and linear, but clearly we have talent! After resorting to an exorbitant cab ride to get to our destination, we caught the last one and a half songs of a talented rock band at Centrestage, in Hard Rock Hotel. After the band wound up and we downed the drinks we had hastily ordered, we moved to Hard Rock Café, only to find that the live band there, the one producing screechy noises in a language that was hard to identify, was also on its last song. And so, much amused by our pathetic attempts to enjoy Kuta’s nightlife, we spent a few silent and awestruck moments on the beach, watching the bright moon and sparkling stars reflected in the rhythmic waves, before heading back to the hotel.
For happy senses, go to the local Warungs
With two vegetarians in our midst, one of them prone to a number of allergies, we were slightly skeptical about food. We need not have been. We delighted in the local Warungs (equivalents of dhabas in India) as well as the streetside cafes and restaurants we found. The Warungs specialised in local Balinese and Indonesian food. Our first meal, in the tiny Warung opposite our hotel, was chosen from a limited menu but was deliciously prepared, happily customised and served with side dishes of conversation and friendliness! My favourite meal in Bali it was. Warung Ocha in Seminyak allowed you to pick what you wanted from a buffet and the most tasteful dishes were the salads and veggie stir fries.
There’s also a lot to be said for the highly developed sense of aesthetics in Bali and the sinple Warungs capture this well. In Ocha, the landscaping and interplay of indoor and oudoor spaces would put most high-end restaurants to shame! Warung Damar in Kuta was more upmarket and the beef redang and veggie gado gado were memorable. Dinner at La Sal, the Spanish eatery down the road, with its sense of space, stood out for its careful preparation and assembly.
Unexpected celebrity status
That Indian cinema is popular worldwide is not news. Two young girls who offered us a share of the their offerings at Tirta Empul giggled about Salman Khan and Shahrukh. But we were all rather surprised that soap operas from Indian television seemed to really capture the Balinese imagination.
Wayan, our taxi driver for the day trip we took to Mount Batur, had me down as his contact person. Even as we discussed how common his name was in Bali, he expressed how delighted he was to have met a person called Mukta in person! Now this was a bit strange, as mine isn’t a particularly common Indian name. He murmured something about Mukta being a character in a daily Hindi soap called Utaran that he watched (dubbed in Bahasa, of course). At the buffet lunch we ate that day, our server Putu (another common name in Bali), was ecstatic when I introduced myself. She beckoned to her friends in excitement, pointing to me and saying “Mukta Rathore, Mukta Rathore…” once again referring to the character in the soap. I sure did not expect to be a celebrity in Bali!
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.
So much when you cook and before you can say ‘Jack Robinson’, it’s on the kid’s blog 🙂
Our breakfast this morning was an innovation by our mother and it evolved from the constant demands from me and my sister.
Pancake Tacos: Serves 8
- 2 cups whole-wheat flour
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- 2 eggs
- Milk (as required)
- Any cheese
- Butter/Olive oil
- Put everything except butter/olive oil, milk, apples and cheese in a bowl. Stir and add milk until the batter flows back into the bowl when you tilt a ladleful. Leave the batter to rise for an hour.
- Peel and chop apples finely then set aside
- Heat pan and spread butter/olive oil on it.
- Put a heaped ladleful of the batter on the pan move the pan until batter is equal everywhere.
- Put a lid on the pan until one side is cooked.
- Then flip it and on one half put the cheese and the apples. Then carefully put…
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I didn’t want to be the tickmark tourist on my recent visit to London. Of course I still ended up doing a bunch of touristy things, of which the most fun was our Saturday morning spent exploring Portobello market. We had been advised to get there real early if shopping was on the cards, but too much wine and excellent company the previous evening ruled out that possibility. So we ended up strolling out of Notting Hill Gate tube station mid morning, eager to experience the famous Portobello all-day market. Here’s my quick run-down of what I loved about it, with some of the zillion pictures I clicked that day!
1- If you’re a crowd hater, don’t go! I loved the hustle and bustle, the jostling… and even the irate look on the face of a well turned out Londoner that had “Bah! Tourists!” written all over it!
2- The colours of Notting Hill and Portobello are so not London. It’s like being transported to the Mediterranean in the middle of England! Pastels and bright colours on building facades make me smile indeed! And the random details too…
3- The antique market is the best bit here, in my opinion. I bought an original map of India, circa 1820 for 40 pounds, quite a steal (Tip: Cash begets discounts)! And just pottering around this section made my day!
4- Food haven, indeed. From crepes to paella, there was quite a spread if you had the appetite!
5- The sheer length of it. Portobello is never ending or so it seemed. Lots to see, lots to do, if you have the patience and the spirit. And if you’re not here to buy, it’s all the more enjoyable with that pressure off!
We chose The Netherlands as our summer destination primarily to visit family. It had been a while since I saw my uncle, aunt and cousins who live there. Plus Rahul and the kids had never been to what Rahul teasingly refers to as uncle-land! As soon as we landed, we were enveloped in the warmth of family, but the highlight and the most amazing demonstration of family love was the way Udai’s tenth birthday was celebrated; in his own words, “the best birthday ever!” The large share of the credit, of course, goes to Liduine who the kids call Oma, Dutch for Grandma. But everyone chipped in. Follow the fantastic day in this photo essay of the “best birthday ever”!
Our breakfast pit stop came highly recommended by Davino, a friend who is passionate about Harleys and biking. The Google Aunty, who was the 4th woman on the road with us, was not very good at locating the Parsi Bakery, which we had been told was in Talaseri. Trusting her blindly, we landed up at the local police station and the folks we asked for directions clearly thought we were a tad gone in the head!
With a few hits and misses and much determination, we did find the wonderful Parsi joint a few kilometres ahead at Verwada. ‘Parsi Da Dhaba’, with the tag line ‘Chills and Grills’ is quaint, simple and authentic. We were the only customers there. We downed a breakfast of Kheema Ghotala (scrambled minced lamb meat and egg, spicy and yum, accompanied by pav, a special soft bread), Parsi French Toast and cheese toast washed down with good old chai and spent an hour lounging in the sun under flower-laden mango trees, watching and hearing two ladies sweep sweep sweep the dried leaves off the ground (this was an incessant and peculiar sound, it tickled us so much and we just couldn’t understand why so much sweeping was required!).
This is also where we all got on the same page on social media, deciding to adopt the #girlyroadtrip hashtag that I was already using and reaching out to our networks for advice, feedback and with updates about our adventure.
I am now sorry that I have insufficient images to support my story, but last night Rahul and me had a really good meal in Gurgaon. We set off after putting the kids to sleep in pursuit of a small, cozy place to grab a tasty, well prepared meal. We didn’t have a preference for cuisine, but the discussion had started with finding that the biryani joint that we wanted to try happens to be close on Mondays (Biryani Blues, which I hear great reviews of from reputed food enthusiast friends, you know who you are!). So we were predisposed to Indian food, which we rarely ever eat out of the home.
We decided to go to one of the local markets in DLF Phase IV where we hadn’t been for a long time. Roaming around, we chanced on Ki Hangla. It struck a chord with Rahul, who had read a review somewhere and in any case, he needs no excuse to try a new place! The lady at the door with her warm smile and quintessential Bengali look probably sealed the deal and we went on to order (trust Rahul’s excellent food instincts) and eat an excellent Mutton Chop, filled with succulent pieces of cooked mutton. For the main course, we tried the Pabda fish cooked in mustard gravy with boiled rice.
Our lady the shop owner was endearing, as she spontaneously broke into Bangla as she took our order, so totally into the flow she was! She was eager, attentive and upfront about her reccomendations. The contrast between her genteel elegant presence and the crazy dance-and-song numbers playing on the Bangla TV channel created a quirky real-world atmosphere that I quite enjoyed. If you’re awkward about conversation with someone, this is a good place to go to, you could spend the evening commenting on the strange costumes and bizarre choreography in current Bangla films!