The heart of Little Africa – or Chocolate City, as it has been dubbed by some – is not easy to locate without a tip-off.
At the foot of an unremarkable tunnel, peeling off the busy Little North Road, in Guangzhou, stands a place that just two years ago was totally unlike the rest of China.
Angolan women carried bin bags of shopping on their heads, Somali men in long robes peddled currency exchange, Uygur restaurateurs slaughtered lamb on the street, Congolese merchants ordered wholesale underwear from Chinese-run shops, Nigerian men hit the Africa Bar for a Tsingtao and plate of jollof rice.
Dengfeng – a previously quiet urban village, or chengzhongcun, in central Guangzhou – had been electrified by migration, both from internal Chinese migrants and those from Africa.
By 2012, as many as 100,000 Sub-Saharan Africans had flocked to Guangzhou, according to Professor Adams Bodomo’s book “Africans in China” – if true, it would have been the largest African expat community in Asia – all chasing the same dream of getting rich in China.
Today, that dream is fading – if not finished.
Over the past 18 months, although concrete numbers are hard to come by, hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of Africans are believed by locals and researchers to have exited Guangzhou.
A dollar drought in oil-dependent West African nations, coupled with China’s hostile immigration policies, widespread racism, and at-once slowing and maturing economy, means Guangzhou is losing its competitive edge.
A promised land?
Guangzhou sits 120 kilometers (75 miles) north-west of Hong Kong, often laboring under a haze of stifling gray smog.
Africans began pouring into this landscape of factories, producing everything from washing machines to fake Levi’s jeans, in the mid-1990s.
China’s economy had recently opened up and, in 2000, Beijing hosted the first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, spearheading a campaign to court good relations with resource-rich African nations.
As Chinatowns emerged in Lagos and Conakry, more Africans started thinking about China.
The type of Africans who migrated to China, however, were different to those moving West, Roberto Castillo, a lecturer in African Studies at Hong Kong University, tells CNN.
“Those people [going to Europe] are usually disenfranchised, with no opportunities, looking to settle,” he says. “Africans in China are much more entrepreneurial. Many of them have the financial capability to move around and explore new places.”
Indeed, 40% of African migrants surveyed for “Africans in China” had received at least tertiary education. Some held a PhD.
As Somali trader Ali Mohamed Ali, a university graduate in insurance working in logistics in Guangzhou, says: “My five brothers and sisters all went to Europe: they ended up as cab drivers or security guards.”
Heading East, he says, there was opportunity for something greater.
Madina Diallo says that in 2002 he would export 250 containers a year, containing everything from mattresses to pop corn machines. By selling these goods in his native, Guinea, he could make up to $1,500 on each container, or $375,000 a year – a genuine fortune in a nation where the gross national income per capita is $470.
Other entrepreneurial Africans set up cargo shipping firms operating out of the the Port of Guangzhou.
Fake goods were also a cash cow.
Moustapha Dieng, a former airplane engineer in the Senegalese air force, says that in the early 2000s, Africans were “still importing original Nike and Adidas from the United States”.
“When we started buying fake goods from China, we could sell them in Senegal for the same price [as the real American goods]. Nobody knew about China and its fakes. Our profit was more than 100%.”
Guangzhou became a promised land, and more Africans arrived.
The Little Diplomats
Felly Mwamba is one of Guangzhou’s “little diplomats”.
Each African country has an “ambassador” in the Chinese city – voted for by expatriates from that nation – who liaises with the Chinese police, arbitrates internal disputes, and organizes community events.
The ambassador also keeps track of the population of his community; migrants usually informally register with their community leader upon arrival in Guangzhou, for support.
Mwamba says that in 2006 there were 1,200 Congolese in Little Africa. Today he believes that figure has plummeted to 500.
“Ambassadors” for Guinea and Senegal report similar drops.
Emmanuel Ojukwu, the self-proclaimed Head of Africans in China, and the ambassador of the Nigerian community – one of the largest African groups in Guangzhou – is despondently spread out on a sofa inside a clothing warehouse, where the halls are eerily devoid of customers.
“So many people went home at Christmas and did not return,” he says.
The true scale of the African population in Guangzhou is hard to ascertain due to the itinerant nature of many traders – some enter and exit the city multiple times per year – and the thousands who overstay their visas.
Castillo believes the Chinese government itself has no accurate idea of the African population’s size, although at the height of the Ebola crisis in late 2014, it said just 16,000 Africans called the city home.
The streets of Little Africa certainly seem quieter than when I first visited 2 years ago.
“There is, indeed, an apparent lessening number of Africans in the city,” says Gordon Mathews, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who has studied globalization in Guangzhou.
China losing competitive edge
One reason the Chinese dream is today failing Africans is the maturing Chinese economy.
Firstly, as China’s profile rose globally, African consumers realized they were buying bootleg not bona fide goods, and naturally wanted to pay less, says Dieng.
Little Africa before "beautification" in 2014
Furthermore, under mounting international pressure, the Chinese authorities have vowed to protect the intellectual property rights of global brands, imposing tougher penalties on trademark infringement.
Dieng pulls up an SMS on his phone: “Adidas. Nike. Unilever. From 2016, no longer copy these logos.”
It was sent by the owner of a factory on the outskirts of Guangzhou last week.
“We’ve also noticed the factory price is higher than before,” adds Dieng. “This is because of exchange rates, and the rise of workers’ wages in China.”
Hourly manufacturing wages in China have risen by 12% a year on average since 2001, while the strengthening yuan has seen profit margins slashed.
China’s competitive edge is fading. “I’ve heard good things about Vietnam,” says Dieng, stirring his coffee, “or maybe Bangladesh.”
‘Culture, lifestyle, hygiene’
As China becomes less profitable, many Africans feel the downsides of living there more acutely.
A 2008 Wikileaks cable reported that the local Chinese authorities had long been “extremely concerned” about the “visible” African population in Guangzhou.
“Many Chinese residents do not want to live in ‘Africa Town’ due to ‘differences’ ranging from culture to lifestyle to hygiene,” an American diplomat wrote to Washington, citing research commissioned by the local authorities.
Dieng tells CNN that locals hold their noses when riding the shared lift in their residential high rise, while a Chinese landlady complained to NetEase, a Chinese news portal, that her African tenant’s black skin color came off on the “snow white walls” – echoing a recent racist TV advert that suggested African blackness can be washed off.
Tina Chan owns a shoe factory outside Guangzhou producing diamante-loaded high-heels, which she sells from her stall at the Yingfu clothing warehouse, in Sanyuanli – the Nigerian area of Little Africa.
In a low whisper, as potential Nigerian customers walk past, she confesses: “But I don’t like African people. I just do the business with them.”
Matthews says: “The Chinese would prefer Africans to come in for two to three weeks, buy goods and go home. China is for Chinese.”
For Dieng, living in Guangzhou, while his wife and three children reside in Senegal, is lonely.
“I think if after 12 years, you cannot make any real Chinese friends in China, it is a big problem.”
Feelings about foreigners
In 2013, China updated its legislation governing foreigners – the Exit-Entry Administration Law – for the first time since 1986.
Africans who had lived in Guangzhou for years, paid taxes there, fed Chinese-run factories and warehouses with business, and perhaps even married a Chinese national, hoped the reforms would offer them a path to genuine residency.
“It was very disappointing,” says Castillo. “Very vague, and very similar to the 1986 law. The message was: you’re foreigners, it’s not going to be easy.” The only clear changes were harsher penalties for those who overstay visas and work illegally.
Little Africa in Guangzhou after "beautification"
The vagueness of the legislature, Castillo says, means visa policies are interpreted in wildly different ways between provinces – jurisdictions with a higher foreign population, such as Guangzhou, tend to issue shorter visas. Many Africans report registering their visas in nearby Foshan, where the authorities they say are more lenient.
Diallo has a permanent residence visa which, somewhat paradoxically, must be reapplied for every year.
“We work, we pay tax, have a 1-year permanent residence visa, but we have no resident’s card,” he says.
“At immigration, I come through the same line as a tourist.”
The beautification of Little Africa
Little Africa in Guangzhou straddles a 7km stretch from the Nigerian annex of Guangyuan Xi Road, in Sanyuan Li, in the north of the city to Xiaobei, home to Dengfeng urban village: the heartbeat of this community.
In 2014, the government embarked on the “beautification” of Dengfeng, disrupting life for many residents.
This year-long upgrade tore down signage celebrating foreign trade, banned street markets that had been the area’s lifeblood, widened and resurfaced roads and introduced a heavy police presence.
Earlier this year the Southern Metropolis Daily reported, “Dengfeng village, after a year-long beautification, has turned into an attractive spot for worldwide travelers. Dengfeng used to be a ‘dirty, messy and bad’ area in Guangzhou.”
Although the “beautification” fell in line with a wider policy of upgrading, or demolishing, urban villages in Guangzhou, the huge police presence thrust into this small strip is unprecedented in the rest of the city.
A Foreign Affairs Service Center, manned by eight police at a time, looms at one entrance, multiple police stands are dotted throughout the 300-meter thoroughfare, while a “Multifunction Service Center” has opened in the heart of Dengfeng, also manned by police.
The Guangdong authorities did not reply to CNN’s requests for comment on the “beautification” process.
Diallo says police check Africans’ passports from dawn ‘til dusk, at their homes, hotel rooms and on the streets, a story corroborated by Matthews.
“Look around the world,” says Mwamba,”you will see Chinatowns, even in Africa. But here they don’t want foreigners to be together here, to do things the way the Chinese do them overseas.”
Since the renovations, the majority of Africans have left this part of Little Africa, either moving to other areas of the city or out of China for good, leaving the once vibrant streets bare.
Trouble at home
In the banks of Nigeria, Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique, one essential thing has been lacking for some months.
As global oil prices plummet, bringing down that of other commodities with it, governments in these nations are restricting access to the greenback to safeguard dwindling reserves.
For Africans, who can’t trade in their local currencies in Guangzhou, the consequences are stark.
Diallo says: “In Angola, if you go to the market the exchange rate for the dollar is over 500% higher than at the bank. But if you transfer money from China to the bank, it can take six months to withdraw your dollars.”
Ojukwu lays it out simply. “We use the dollar to buy things in China. But there are no dollars. It is a very big problem.”
To offset the currency slump, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari negotiated a currency swap deal with Xi Jingping in Beijing this year, which will allow Nigerians to send the yuan back to Nigerian banks.
Ojukwu and others are eagerly awaiting the deal to take effect.
Mwamba says: “I have a shop in Angola, with my brother, selling car accessories that we buy in Guangzhou. No one in Angola now can afford to run their cars.”
To make matters worse, Mwamba reports that astute Chinese vendors are cutting out the middle man by traveling to African nations themselves, to sell the goods produced at their Guangdong factories, sometimes for half the price.
Time to go?
In Mwamba’s office, on the 17th floor of a rundown tower block, the twilight sun is exposing dust on a framed photograph behind his desk of the suited “ambassador” posing before the Guangzhou skyline.
After 13 years in China, he is ready to go home. This is not a retreat – more a decision to use his know-how where it’s needed most.
“Everyone wants to go back to their own African country and start something,” he says. “We’ve learned here about small factories, trade.
“We should return home and apply that knowledge.”
Additional reporting by CNN’s Beijing intern Sean Zhong.