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
A couple of weeks ago, I was attending the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society in London. It was a huge conference, with several parallel sessions and I could obviously attend only one at a time. Even so, I was exposed to multiple facets of geography and it was particularly interesting to see various research methods being used in the world of social science.
The use of visual methods for research is a particularly exciting field now and I noticed it was a recurrent theme in several sessions. Film and photography in particular are gaining ground as legitimate means to document how humans experience spaces and situations. Combined with interviews, focus groups and more traditional methods of qualitative research, they promise to take research a step ahead certainly.
I’d like to show you a glimpse of a piece of research presented by independent researcher Silvia Sitton, who is based in Modena, Italy. She set out to study the way Italians in London lived. Without visiting London herself, she did this through a system of self-reporting by participants using photographs of their home, living space and neighbourhood. Silvia supplemented the visual documentation with skype interviews to create profiles of Italian people in London city and understand their experiences. To me, as a researcher interested in migration and housing, her work appealed instantly. She had been able to capture how they felt about their adopted city, how they used space, their daily routines, their challenges and high points as well.
The website she built to house this information (screenshots below; to visit the site, click here here) is in Italian, but its stunningly simple and Silvia told me she would love to replicate this sort of research in other geographical contexts. The value of gathering data without the bias of the researcher is immense here, isn’t it?
Dubai has been on the cards for a while now. The last and only time I visited was in early 2010 for a conference. I vaguely remember doing a brief spin of a city deep in the doldrums of economic depression, staring at half-built buildings and getting the sense that I was experiencing a ‘freeze frame’. That first impression and the idea that I am motivated by (hi-fi?) stuff like art, culture and history and not so taken in by glitzy glass-clad skyscrapers (sarcasm, confusion, loads of self-judgement in those words!) ensured that Dubai wasn’t really on my radar for some time. But then, Rahul started to come here every year for his annual training refresher and Dubai was back on my list!
This time round though, the city feels very different. Alive and buzzing with the energy of the Dubai Shopping Festival and a renewed construction boom kicked off in part by the fact that the World Expo 2020 is being hosted here. I promised myself to reserve the judgement before I came and have been happy tramping about the city by myself (while Rahul is working), exploring the Metro and meeting friends and shopping! Despite myself and because of the way this city is, it is impossible not to appreciate the sense of organization, the aesthetic of opulence, the ease of getting around, the effortless intermingling of cultures very different.
In conversations with those who live here, friends as well as strangers I met on the Metro, I can see how it is easy to get used to the conveniences of Dubai, especially in the face of the employment opportunities and improved pay packages it provides as compared to ‘back home’. Dubai has attracted people from a plethora of nationalities- Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Yemenis, Syrians, Egyptians and many more- for whom it represents a better life. Yes, by corollary it also means that life ‘back home’ wasn’t that great for many of those who have come here. By all accounts, most of these immigrants will never ever go back, or even want to go back. Despite the big brother watching, despite the controlled media and the heightened awareness of the need to mind your own business if you want to survive, Dubai is a good experience, a place that treats you well.
Both strangers and friends confided to me that a sense of personal safety, the lawfulness and speedy execution of justice were what made them most comfortable here in Dubai, as compared to India. I wasn’t too surprised by this admission, even though I had to curb my urge to fiercely defend my country. You have to read papers here to see that nearly all news out of India is negative! In contrast, the media reports about the UAE are a mix of heady, positive, self-congratulatory stories interspersed with rather watered-down criticism. My analysis: You cannot compare apples and oranges, you gotta see things in perspective. By this I mean that living in a democracy and an autocracy are very different, but I can also see that this difference may matter little for citizens who are happy to have their daily needs well met. Walking among the glitzy edifices and seeing families out carefree and happy in the middle of the night, it’s hard to push this point without sounding defensive!
And so, I let it go and shop some more. I click pictures of dancing fountains and ornate ceilings. I enjoy the pleasure of the us-time Rahul and me are getting as we choose from a fantastic selection of restaurants, eat, talk, laugh… I savour Dubai, I refrain from judging, I miss home.
From a politics of exclusion to a society of inclusion and diversity: Can we move in the right direction?
It is hard to miss the irony in calling Bal Thackeray as nationalist and paying him last respects with “full state honors” considering his politics was divisive, which is what attacking immigrants from within India as outsiders certainly is. Many on twitter and even Markandey Katju have elucidated the essential conflict between Thackeray’s propagation of the idea of ‘bhoomiputra’ or sone of the soil, and what the Indian state is founded on- a belief that everyone born in India, anywhere, is a citizen in equal right. We Indian do not know it, but we are incredibly lucky to live in a nation where moving from one city to another, from State to another, is rather easy. In fact, mobility has increased considerably over the decades alongside rapid urbanization in India. In India’s cities, most social interactions begin with an elucidation of how diverse, multilingual, multicultural we are as individuals. Our exposure to cultures within the nation that are other than the one we are born into endows upon us a certain sheen of understanding and sophistication that most of us wear with pride. Our diversity enriches us, helps us bridge gaps and find common ground, even bailing us out in adverse circumstances at work and otherwise. Or at least, that has been my experience.
Migration has been a favorite subject of study for me, for the longest time. In my view, societies within a geographical frame of reference can be categorized as those who are against immigrants and those who welcome them. Of course, the response varies from immigrants from different social classes, economic classes, caste, religion, etc. But essentially, immigrants are resented because they are perceived to impinge on resources that are scarce. And residents feel they have a higher claim on these resources (jobs, water, land, infrastructure, etc) than those coming in from the outside. Yet, migrants come in to fill specific needs that the city/region is unable to meet with the existing resources. Unless there is opportunity, migrants would not come in. Governments and private investment create an economic climate that attracts migrants; and measures to keep migrants out through artificial means (not allowing land/residency rights like in China, quotas for jobs) are simply illogical in a nation like India where the Constitution confers equal rights on all citizens irrespective of state of origin.
We are therefore obliged to develop an inclusive approach to people from diverse backgrounds. A rational approach to the conservation, allocation and management of resources is a better way to deal with the issues that are arising than using violence to exclude some and favor others.
Of course, the matter of identity is one that is emotionally charged. To manage the sense of identity in a globalizing world where mobility and migration are only going to increase, is a serious challenge. This, more than others, is an intensely political issue and political parties worldwide have always been quick to step into this space and play with people’s minds and hearts. It is very easy to succumb to the psyche of fear and believe that our best way forward is to protect ourselves and ‘our own’, while pushing ‘others’ away. However, our lives are too intertwined to be able to define who is who- who is ‘apna’ and who is ‘paraiah’. Those definitions change with age, exposure, circumstance, sometimes even from day to day.
Of late, I have been gripped by the fear that India is imploding, that we are disintegrating into a chaotic state where we will no longer be able to make sense of our world. That we are moving into a psyche of fear and paranoia, a state of mind to which communalism, regionalism, casteism and any kind of similar ‘ism’ appears like a safe refuge from the ‘other’.
I want to desperately fight for the last breaths of fresh, rational, liberal air. I want to believe that the democratic tools that we are lucky to be entitled to can give us a way out of the chaos. I want to know if India’s liberal voices can become more politically engaged and move beyond intellectual debate, which is very important indeed. But we do need to do more. We need to make the tone of discussion and engagement calmer, move away from the shrill shrieking finger-pointing circus that politics and media have become and address real issues, make sense of the chaos for ourselves and motivate people around to do so as well. That is the only way forward that makes sense to me at this point.
This morning, I headed out of my home with Udai to meet a prospective music teacher for both of us. It was a lovely relaxed morning. Out on the streets, there were few cars, but many shared autos full of people wearing white skullcaps, just out from the Eid namaaz.
Gurgaon has not been a city that most associate with a Muslim culture. There is no tangible Islamic presence among the white collar migrants living in high-walled bungalows and gated condominiums. Outside of those gates, though, live an unestimated but significant number of Muslim immigrants from West Bengal. Often, they are loosely referred to as Bangladeshis as well, though most appear to have Indian voter IDs.
This is a community integral to Gurgaon. Househelp, drivers, sweepers and cleaners come from this hardworking bunch, who are diminutive in size and mild in their mannerisms. Their Islamic practices, to me, appear very different from the ones my Muslim friends in Lucknow followed, for instance. Roza, or the Ramzan fast, is not something they keep. And in previous years, I do not remember the Eid after Ramzan being a big deal for them. It’s the other Eid that they seem to be more excited about.
Slowly, though, things seem to be changing. I had the chance to interact with a local mosque earlier in the year (during the Jalti Jhopdi project), a mosque that largely caters to this immigrant population. The volunteers at the mosque said that they understood that regular namaaz attendance was not a priority for these people, earning a living took a lot out of them and turning up for work every singly day was far more vital for survival. The bonding of language seemed to be stronger than the bonding of religion; they were happier to work for Hindu Bengali families. Even my two sentences of Bangla thrills them! Yet, in the absence of any other form of support, the masjid is beginning to assume the role of community organizer.
We used the services of the masjid to distribute aid to a burnt down jhuugi in the Jalti Jhopdi initiative. The mosque also lent the contractor money so that their huts could be speedily reconstructed. The children in these hutments have no access to education at all. Government schools often don’t take them in; private education is unaffordable for most. The masjid is soon looking to fill that gap as well.
Which is great. That is what community organizations, religious ones included ought to do. And yet, we live in the crazy paranoid times that makes us look at this with suspicion. Understandably so. Growing evidence points to the fact that the “neighbouring nation” is where the volatile content in the form of morphed images of atrocities against Muslims originated from; the content that has sent shock waves among north-eastern Indians and triggered the crazy exodus we are reading about everyday.
In India, terror and Islam and the ISI are all intertwined in our consciousness. And the innocent white skullcaps of Eid revellers become symbols of danger, spark worry and fear. I fight hard to not fall prey to stereotypes. But as I watch my nation torn apart, I feel helpless and angry as well. It takes much strength to not let the anger and frustration destroy your faith in humankind. Do we have that sort of strength?