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.