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!
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
One of the interesting contradictions in my life is how little I research my travel before I set off, despite being a researcher by profession. This trip to Indonesia, which Greg and I had planned as a recce visit to explore collaborations and case sites for a new project, was one of those in which I literally landed up at the airport with a lets-see-how-this-goes attitude. Part of this was related to how much we had riding on this trip work-wise, the nature of the visit was exploratory. We didn’t even have a fixed itinerary- except for the knowing when we arrived in and departed from Jakarta, we were literally making this up as we went along!
Far from being apprehensive, I was enormously excited about this trip. It felt like a true adventure, which would entail seeing a bunch of places I had never imagined going to and a couple that I didn’t even know the existence of! There were a few comforts though. One, Greg speaks Bahasa Indonesia and had spent enough time there to act as guide and interpreter (he did a fantastic job of that!). And I had been to Bali and Surabaya earlier this year (yes, this is my 3rd trip in a span of 3 months!), gained an initial understanding of Indonesian people and had a few reliable contacts there.
My expectations about how much I would be able to “see” on this trip were low from a touristic perspective and because I really enjoy the urban wandering as much, if not more than straight-jacketed tourism experiences, this wasn’t much of a concern.
And so I land up seeing four Indonesian cities and some of its countryside in eleven days. First: Jakarta, the sprawling capital and primary city, where the country’s economic and political power concentrates, where young people dream of living and working, where life is buzzing and traffic is painful. Second: Yogyakarya, fondly called Jogja, city of universities and students, a special region where the Sultan still rules, once laid back and pretty, now seeing new wealth. Third: Kupang, out there in eastern Indonesia, capital of the province of Nusa Tengarra Timor (NTT), a sleepy city with hilly outcrops and stunning beaches. Surrounding by hinterland that is arid and poor. Fourth: Semarang, a large industrial port city in Central Java, a city that celebrates its colonial history even as the part-rural counties around it pulsate with the excitement of promised new industrial investments.
We do this by buying tickets hours before we fly out, sometimes even deciding on the go! We use Whatsapp shamelessly to contact NGOs, academics and government officials wherever we go. We end up working long stretched in cafes, using their free Wi-Fi connections to take Skype calls, write emails, consult collaborators and download data, all for the price of a few cups of coffee! We try budget hotels and budget-budget hotels and laugh at the Spartan decor and not-really-there breakfasts. We meet people who go out of the way to help us (some of them were meeting us for the first time!), giving us their time, inviting us into their homes on weekends, finding us contacts and even accompanying us to difficult meetings. Everything works out and we accomplish nearly everything we had hoped we would, with minimal pre-planning, mostly by being able to take reasonably quick decisions, by keeping our wits around us and by listening carefully to what our Indonesian contacts had to say to us. In my opinion, the Indonesian cultural traits of respect for outsiders, gentleness of manner and inordinate helpfulness were our biggest assets on our trip. And since we weren’t overthinking the trip before we started, I think we got a lot of the ‘pleasant surprise’ factor out of it than if we had had everything perfectly lined up!
Watch out for more posts about our experiences in beautiful Indonesia!
Already published: Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua
After two days of meetings that started post breakfast and went on all day, we felt we deserved some beer and decent music last night. And so we headed to the Camden Bar next door. Great vibe, cold beer, lovely music and lots of energy but the food was nothing to write home about.
On the short walk back to the hotel, I see what looks like a street party. Music from a mobile karaoke vendor was the start attraction from me but also the wonderful idea of claiming a bit of public space to talk, eat, laugh, click pics and even sleep! I was so excited but Greg pointed out it’s not unusual in Indonesia cities at all. Me likes! Me likes a lot….
To everyone who has followed #TheCityasMuse contest, to all who made the effort to send their work in, to all aspiring writers and artists and most of all, to all who care for cities, the moment we’ve all been waiting for is finally round the corner. But before we reveal the results, a little bit about how the contest unraveled…..
The judges met on Tuesday night to discuss the entries. Passion, clarity, writing style and expression were the chief criterion. All in all, we got 27 entries from a very diverse set of people, located in India and abroad. Our youngest competitor was 12 years old. We had people from all walks of life join in – students, architects, home-makers, artists, writers, IT professionals, business consultants, among others.
Most entries zeroed in on a specific city, either experienced as a traveler or as a resident. Many of the entries were deeply nostalgic and successful in capturing a flavour of the city they chose to be inspired by. A fair share of the entries built upon an imaginary city, either entirely utopian or built out of the fragments of several cities the author knows and admires. Every once in a while, a piece stood out that couldn’t be ignored. Many pieces had a seed of a fantastic idea in them, but were not able to execute it well enough.
All in all, I gather from our judges that they had a fun time reading entries, debating their value and finally picking out 10 that were the worthiest. My deepest gratitude to all of them for the time, effort and passion they put into the contest. Their own diverse backgrounds added considerable value, of course- Devapriya is a published author, Amritha an architect, Greg a policy researcher and Kiran an entrepreneur and writing coach (see bios here). I will get back to all participants with a few lines of feedback about their piece, information I gleaned from sitting into the final round of selections we did Tuesday night.
Hold your breath folks…. #TheCityasMuse results are out tomorrow- Friday, the 16th of October!
We’ve got in some interesting entries for #TheCityasMuse contest.
I’m excited that all sort of fun people are writing in…from teenage schoolchildren to professionals, from travel enthusiasts to foodies, from bloggers to those making their first attempts at writing. The entries are pouring out straight from their hearts and that’s exactly what the ethos of #TheCityasMuse is!
What? You haven’t sent in your entry yet? What’re you waiting for?
Just take half an hour out from your super busy schedule. Transport yourself to that place you love, admire, yearn for, detest, want desperately to improve….. And then write or draw your feelings and experiences! Mail it in to firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s really very simple!
Look forward to seeing your entry in my mailbox soon 🙂
I’ve been following UK’s housing crisis with a lot of interest. Without knowing a lot about the history and political context of the housing industry in that country, it amazes me to read the stories coming out about homelessness, huge shortage of units and now, the idea of building new ‘garden cities’ to solve the problems (read about it here). With housing production at an all-time low and the industry being declared incapable of meeting demand, prominent people have been advocating for changes in the planning norms to allow a slew of new cities to be built in what former BBC Chairman Michael Lyons (who has been given the task of drafting a plan for more homes by the Labour party) calls post-war spirit (read here)!
Of course it is logical and of course, greenfield developments have the power to jump start the economy and of course, this means an opportunity for a new kind of thinking about cities. With all the analysis and knowledge, all the criticism out there (some days my head spins with the number of media articles analyzing cities) about what has gone wrong with the cities we have built over the last couple of centuries in the Global North and the Global South, I’m looking forward excitedly to what will be proposed as the model for these new urban entities.
I hope they will not be boring replicas of what we already have. I look forward to at least some space for a new architectural language. More public spaces, more walkable and cycle-able networks, a lower carbon footprint, an exploration of cutting edge research on high-density, sustainable urbanism. There is a long wishlist out there. I know all of it cannot be achieved, but some of it certainly can and it would be fitting for the UK to show the way ahead in doing so.
The thought popped out at me as I read an interview of Jonathan Solomon, who has authored (along with fellow architects Clara Wong and Adam Frampton) what appears to be a fascinating book called Cities Without Ground on alternate networks and spaces in Hong Kong. In the interview, Solomon talks about how the impracticality of trying to impose solutions in other contexts. He says, “Paul Zimmerman (HK district councillor and urban design activist) and I disagree vehemently about this — his position is that all the footbridges are more or less bad and that Hong Kong should act more like a Dutch city. We need to make safer, healthier streets for pedestrians. Pedestrianizing Queen’s Road makes a lot of sense. But there’s a lot of wishful thinking involved thinking that Hong Kong will suddenly turn into Linden or Delft.”
To me, that sort of summed up a lot of how urban designers and planners function. Delhi, where most of my work is based, is also unique in the layers of history and social complexity. While we admire experiments in other cities globally, we find it challenging to replicate best practices in the context of Delhi because of its unique structure and settlement typologies. Furthermore, the urban poor in Delhi have incrementally built highly dense settlements that require context specific solutions to enhance quality of life. To offer those, we need to deeply understand how this density works or doesn’t, it’s networks, how spaces inter-relate and a whole lot more. To assume that Delhi must become a Shanghai or a Singapore, or even Curitiba or Medellin is obviously naive.
I am piqued by the graphic approach Solomon’s book takes. Could we use advanced graphics software and innovative observation to first understand and then re-imagine Delhi’s dense informal spaces?
Of course, as an architect, my eye gets drawn to works of art that express themes that are urban in nature. But this time at the India Art Fair in New Delhi, there was no escaping the fact that artists are thinking of urban issues and concern, romancing the city, and expressing the nuances of urban life like never before. Not only does this mean that our urban identity as humans is now perhaps mainstreamed, at least for art appreciated by city folk, it also means an increased focus on urban issues that need urgent attention. Art contributed to enhancing awareness about these issues among a wider audience and we need all the help we can get to fix our cities if human life has to be sustainable for the future.
Here are a few glimpses of the fair.
The skyline and the streetscape were the most common representations of urbanism and featured in the work of many artists, even those who were prolific in the ’60s. However, new forms of expression that used mixed media, digital art, recycling of waste etc was interesting to see. Some of these works moved into the realm of activism and highlighted issues related to migration, urban identity, ecological concerns, etc. I was tickled to see that many of the artists exhibiting here were trained as architects.
Hema Upadhyay’s work ‘Mute Migration’ particularly impressed me. Firstly, migration is my area of research and I am passionate about the need to accomodate migrants into our cities. Her mural highlights that informal settlements are where migrants get absorbed, where the type of mixed-use lifestyle flourishes. Certainly, we need to learn from the amazing tenacity of these self-evolved informal settlements rather than constantly shun them in a bid to redevelop and relocate!
And on a humorous note, another architect Gautam Bhatia brought tears of laughter to my eyes through his sculptural commentary on the Indian politician. The text on his sculptures uses his classic tongue-in-cheek over-the-top style to push the point through. The Minister for Public Health has to leave for New York for a stool test after gas build up post a meal at Parliament Annexe. The Minister for Women’s Rights sells his wife to the private sect…you get the drift!
It’s always a fun experience to see this Fair. I have watched it grow and it’s great to see so much interest in India both as a nation that produces great art but also for its buying power. I watched many deals negotiated, haggling and also the satisfied smirk on some faces after buying a Chagall or a Raza in the original! As for me, I had no urge to buy. I was here for the visual treat…..perhaps some day……