When Yang Jie left home at 18, he was doing what people from China's hardscrabble Fujian Province have done for generations: emigrating in search of a better living overseas.
What set him apart was his destination. Instead of the traditional adopted homelands like the US and Europe, where Fujianese have settled by the hundreds of thousands, he chose southern Africa, making his way to this small landlocked country.
"Before I left China," said Yang, now 25, "I thought Africa was all one big desert," a place forever bathed in terrible heat. So he figured ice cream would naturally be in high demand, and with money pooled from relatives and friends, he created his own factory at the edge of Lilongwe, Malawi's capital. Malawi's climate, in fact, is subtropical, but that has not stopped his ice cream company from becoming the country's biggest.
Stories like this have become legion across Africa over the past five years or so, as hundreds of thousands of Chinese have discovered the continent, setting off to do business in a part of the world that had been terra incognita for their countrymen. The Xinhua News Agency recently estimated that at least 750,000 Chinese were working or living for extended periods on the continent, a reflection of burgeoning economic ties between China and Africa that reached US$55 billion in trade last year, compared with less than US$10 million a generation earlier.
Even when Yang arrived here in 2001, he said, he could go weeks without encountering another traveler from his homeland. But as surely as his investments in the country have prospered, he said, an increasingly large community of Chinese migrants has taken root, and now runs everything from small factories to health care clinics and trading companies.
During the previous wave of Chinese interest in Africa, in the 1960s and 1970s, an era of radical socialism and proclaimed Third World solidarity, European and American companies held sway over economies across most of the continent. Here and there, though, the Chinese made their presence felt, often as a curious sight: drably dressed, state-run work brigades that built stadiums, railroads and highways, often crushing rocks and performing other heavy labor by hand.
Today, in many of the countries the new Chinese emigrants have settled in, like Chad, Chinese-owned pharmacies, massage parlors and restaurants serving a variety of regional Chinese cuisines can be found. The Western presence, once dominant, has steadily dwindled, and essentially consists nowadays of relief experts working for international agencies or oil workers, living behind high walls in heavily guarded enclaves.
At first, this new Chinese influx was driven largely by word of mouth, as pioneers like Yang relayed news back home of abundant opportunities in a part of the world where many economies lie undeveloped or in ruins.
Conditions like these often deter Western investors, but for many budding Chinese entrepreneurs, Africa's emerging economies are inviting precisely because they seem small and accessible. Competition is often weak or nonexistent, and for African customers, the low prices of many Chinese goods and services make them more affordable than their Western counterparts.
You Xianwen sold his pipe laying business in Chengdu this year to move to Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, to join a startup company with a Chinese partner he had previously only met online. "Back where I come from, we are pretty independent people," You, 55, said. "My brothers and sisters all supported my decision to come here. In fact, they say that if things really work out for me, they would like to move to Africa, too."