Mon, Feb 12, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Life drains from Little Africa
as China dream fades

Fortune seekers from Lagos to Luanda continue to descend on the area in Guangzhou, but economic shifts and xenophobia are causing an exodus of African migrants

By Tom Phillips  /  The Guardian, GUANGZHOU, China

Illustration: Yusha

Kalifa Feika swapped Sierra Leone for southern China four years ago, determined to manufacture his fortune in the factory of the world.

“The US, you go there on holiday, but to look for money, it is here,” said the 44-year-old evangelical entrepreneur, who grew up in Kenema, but now resides in a quarter of Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city, known as Little Africa.

For at least 20 years, dealmakers and dreamers from across Africa have been flocking to the area around Dengfeng village, an inner-city trading hub that teems with factory outlets hawking every conceivable made-in-China product, from prayer mats and popcorn machines to police uniforms and political propaganda.

At its peak, about a decade ago, tens of thousands of Africans reputedly lived here, all hoping to repatriate a slice of the economic miracle that has made China the second-largest economy on Earth. Baohan Street, Little Africa’s main drag, buzzed with Malian merchants and snappily dressed Congolese sapeurs.

“You would feel you were in Africa,” said Moustapha Dieng, the leader of Guangzhou’s Senegalese community, whose office overlooks the place some locals call “Chocolate City.”

Over the past few years though, the life has started to drain from Little Africa after Chinese authorities tightened visa rules and cracked down on overstayers amid a surge in xenophobia some blame on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) increasingly jingoistic tone.

Today, a Chinese flag and troops brandishing automatic weapons and claw-like man-catchers keep watch over the community’s recently reurbanised main square.

Economic crises and changes have also slowed the African influx, with some low-end manufacturers — and with them their African customers — moving to south and southeast Asia as Chinese labor costs rise.

Dieng, who arrived in 2003, said the number of permanent Senegalese residents has halved over the past decade to about 150 now. The Malian and Congolese communities have seen similar drops.

“Before it was Africa City. Now it is Africa Village,” he said.

The downturn has led many to predict the demise of what was once considered Asia’s largest African community. Police have said only about 15,000 Africans now live in Guangzhou, but while Little Africa might be down, it is far from out.

Some communities are holding their ground, while others appear to be growing. Each Sunday, Guangzhou’s 19th-century Sacred Heart cathedral fills with Nigerian and Kenyan Catholics seeking spiritual succor at its English-language Mass.

Traders from the Ivory Coast have said their nation’s citizens are arriving in greater numbers.

Angola, despite facing its worst economic slump since its civil war ended in 2002, has also been sending reinforcements, opening a consulate there in 2016 to support its citizens.

“This feels like home now,” said Antonio Jose, 42, a furniture dealer from Luanda who first came in 2010 and now furnishes offices across Angola’s capital with Chinese tables and chairs.

Jose said Guangzhou’s unrivaled appeal is its unbeatable range of products and prices: “If you want it done cheap, they do it cheap. If you want it expensive, they’ll do it expensive. It just depends on the size of your pocket.”

One recent morning, Jose embarked on his latest shopping spree, distributing smiles and “bom dias [good days]” to compatriots he passed in the street: “We’re all black so it’s hard to know who’s who, but when I hear someone speaking Portuguese I like to say, ‘Good morning. How’s it going?’”

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