Guangzhou: An African oasis for business

By Huang Pin

“Mama, I am coming,” says the black man as he enters the hotel, opens his brawny arms, and hugs a middle-aged woman. The woman is the hotel’s Chinese cleaning woman, and the man is an African businessman who often stays there.

Located in the LeJia Road, Sanyuanli, Lejia Hotel targets African people in Guangzhou. It is a small hotel—about a 200-square-foot storefront with 40 rooms on three floors.

In this hotel, Africans are the majority. Pokam Balerg, 25, has been a frequent customer at LeJia Hotel for a long time. As special citizens living on the edge of this big city, many Africans get along with the hotel staff, including Balerg. The hotel staff might be these black people’s only Chinese friends.

Balerg, who comes from Cameroon, can speak quite fluent Chinese that he learned since he came to China three years ago. It is hard to figure out his African identity just by his accent. With a great language advantage, he communicates with locals well.

“Here there are products that we don’t have, so many Cameroons like me to come here to do business,” said Balerg. For a decade, a wave of Africans has been doing business in Guangzhou. However, the tide doesn’t seem to recede.

As a matter of fact, most African people come and go and do not stay as permanent residents, while they carry products to the African continent. Like migratory birds, they come for two or three months, buy what they want, and get back to Africa.

In Guangzhou, thousands of Africans live with the locals, 10,000 kilometers away from their homelands. By the end of 2015, Guangzhou had more than 5,000 residents and 6,000 transients from Africa, according to the Guangzhou Security Bureau. And the number of African residents is climbing every year.

Dengfeng Street, Xiaobei, known as the center of Africans in Guangzhou, sees 5,000 to 6,000 Africans every day.

These black people tend to live in groups, gathering around the Muslim community in Xiaobei. Then they spread to Sanyuanli and Taojin. Moreover, they often hang out together in the evening. When night falls, these Africans go out along the Sanyuanli Road. Because the Africans are often seen together, locals think the population is much higher than it actually is.

Illegal residents are always a problem that the Guangzhou Security Bureau faces. Since the end of 2014, the Guangzhou police have tried to ferret out illegal residents, illegal immigration, and illegal employment. The number of illegals declined after those activities, the Guangzhou Security Bureau reported recently.

The police often raid restaurants at meal times, which makes African customers uncomfortable. Moreover, police officers almost come to check once every two days. “Business this year is not as good as the previous year,” a Muslim restaurant’s waitress Ma ZiYang said, “because our target is foreigners here.”

Foreigners who want to come to China are required to meet certain standards to live such as income and airfare out of the country.
Balerg complained that they are not allowed to rent a house in Guangzhou.

Nowadays, the African floating population like him have to live in a hotel instead of renting a house. It raises their living costs.

“The Chinese government is welcoming. When you go to the Chinese embassy in our country asking for a business visa, it is just very easy to get it,” said Mwalimu Rashid from Tanzania. Having been in China for three years, Rashid buys supplies and printing machines in Guangzhou and takes them back home.

The main reason why the Africans come here is business. Rashid rattled out, “It’s also about currency devaluation. Chinese currency is not very big and not very small, but it’s like moderate. Anybody can afford to come.” He thinks that hotels here are cheap, compared with other countries. Rashid suggested that is why a massive flood of people from all over the Africa come to China.

Since 2009, China has been Africa’s largest trading partner. From then on, the Chinese government eased policies to develop the trade relationship to Africa. Thus, individual trade has a suitable backdrop for growth.

But more Africans mean more competition. “It was easy to make money before, but now it is unsatisfying,” Balerg said, adding that prices have gone up a lot in the three years since he first came. The rising costs and hotel expenses stress him somewhat.

Rashid shows the same concern. Now he has business in Tanzania. Though he is a middle-class businessman in his country, he still thinks that living here is too expensive. Also, he doesn’t want to lose his business in Africa.

As National Bureau of Statistics of China reported in June, the general level of consumer prices in China rose up 1.5 percent in May. And the national consumer price index grew by 1.4 percent over the same period last year during the January to May monthly average. It means a higher cost of living and higher trade costs for these migratory birds.

However, these people are still running through Xiaobei, searching for an opportunity to make money.

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