GUANGZHOU, China – It started during the late 1990s, when thousands of African expatriates, most of them traders and business people, began to move to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in search of better lives.
Then in the 2000s, during economic boom times in China, the country’s African population started rapidly growing, with settled African migrants building their own small businesses and creating the biggest African community in China, now known as “Little Africa” or the “promised land.”
The area stretches for about 7 kilometers from Dengfeng urban village, the heart of Guangzhou’s Little Africa, to Sanyuanli area, a place full of wholesale markets where people can buy almost everything – from clothing to wigs and electronics.
On the streets and in the shops of Dengfeng it is common to hear Africans speaking Mandarin as it is required for communication with local Chinese customers.
Around half of the businesses in the area are owned and operated by Africans, with some establishments full of African shoppers.
It is hard to determine the exact number of African expats living in China nowadays. According to the book “Africans in China” by Professor Adams Bodomo, around 100,000 Africans had settled in Guangzhou by 2012. City border checkpoints recorded some 430,000 arrivals and exits by nationals from African countries in the first nine months of 2014.
But since 2014, thousands of African migrants have begun to leave Little Africa after the Chinese government initiated a so-called “beautification” of Dengfeng, imposed more restrictions on the African-populated area and deported those who, for example, overstayed their visas.
By February 2017, according to a Guangzhou police official, there were around 10,000 Africans officially registered in the city. It is however, likely that the number of Africans living in Guangzhou is higher than the official figures suggest.
Other reasons more African expats are leaving Guangzhou include China’s slowing economy compared to a decade ago, and unfavorable exchange rates.
But the African community in Guangzhou has also been experiencing various social challenges: many Chinese people are reluctant to share space with African migrants.
Some Africans who spoke to epa said the Chinese will do business with them but racism against the African community means developing friendships is difficult.
And so, despite living numerous years in Guangzhou, many expatriates are disappointed to discover that they are still not accepted by Chinese society.
Despite the social barriers, many Africans have experienced success in their businesses, including Alush, a fashion model from Chad who spoke with epa in a gym where he was lifting weights.
Alush said he’s happy living in Guangzhou and is glad that he has found success as a model, though he plans to leave China someday.
Several Africans told epa that the tougher economic environment of Dengfeng compared to previous years could see them move to India or other Asian countries next.
While many Africans still come to Guangzhou in search of their own “Chinese dream” of a better life, the multitude of challenges facing the biggest African community in China leaves the future of Little Africa fraught with uncertainty.