An African in Guangzhou

A unique urban ecology prompts a new look at globalization.
By Naohiko Hino

Photo Naohiko Hino.

Extending from the interior of the mainland to the southern regions west of Hong Kong, the Pearl River Delta is home to Guangzhou, China’s third-most populous city. Compared with the development of Beijing and Shanghai as cosmopolitan metropolises, Guangzhou has less international appeal, attracting relatively few visitors beyond those who travel there for work. With a population of some 17 million, Guangzhou on its own is not an incredibly big city, but together with Hong Kong, Macao and Shenzhen it comprises one of the world’s largest mega-regions. Yet even in the series of major international events recently hosted in China – namely the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 Shanghai World Expo and, in Guangzhou, the 2010 Asian Games – the city’s position in the country’s regional hierarchy is apparent.

As with China’s other economic boomtowns, Guangzhou is a city of new skyscrapers. In the Pearl River New Town district, a park with dramatic vistas toward the Pearl River is seemingly pinned against the water by a cluster of a dozen or so glistening skyscrapers, with another cluster under construction nearby. For good measure, the area is also home to the Zaha Hadid-designed Guangzhou Opera House and Eric Owen Moss’s Guangdong Museum, throbbing with now-ness.

Hadid’s Opera House is certainly an impressive sight, but “New Town” has little else to offer. Ultimately, a skyscraper is a skyscraper, and here all there is to see are the glass curtain walls of still vacant edifices – so glaring in their brand-newness – and the domestic tourists who nevertheless intently gaze up at them. As with McDonalds franchises the world over, New Town is no different from the next urban development.

However, an article in the May 2010 issue of the French periodical Le Monde Diplomatique on Guangzhou’s resident African community suggests that it may be worth paying more attention to this city. (1) How could Guangzhou, which compared with Shanghai appears so provincial, be home to such an extensive enclave of foreigners? Intrigued, I traveled there on my own to conduct further research into this phenomenon.

Le Monde Diplomatique’s reportage was no exaggeration. In fact, there are several African enclaves in Guangzhou: one in an area about one kilometer to the northwest of Guangzhou Station; another two kilometers east of Guangzhou Station in the vicinity of Guangzhou Metro Xiaobei Station; and perhaps others as well. It’s not just that there are numerous Africans living in these areas – businesses are also emerging and, in establishing their own way of living, the inhabitants have truly formed something of their own community.

Including undocumented immigrants, it is estimated that there are an astounding 150,000 Africans in Guangzhou, a majority of them male. It should come as no surprise then that among Guangzhou’s foreign residents, those from Africa make up the largest proportion. These immigrants essentially operate on an individual basis. Working in China as buyers, they can be seen determinedly ranging the streets of central Guangzhou’s wholesale district. There are variations in density, but among the passersby on some bustling streets, half will have African features. There are those from East Africa and West Africa, of all kinds of builds from all different countries. They come to stock up on goods ranging from clothes to cosmetics and sundries, even fake brands – probably collected from factories forced to compete with prices in the Guangzhou region – seeking out deals for everything. Gathering together enough to fill a shipping container, they send these miscellanies home and then flip them for twice the cost, with Guangzhou’s customs duty apparently accommodating such motley trade.

The Africans and Chinese don’t seem to be on particularly friendly terms. They keep their relations strictly business, with the Chinese staff selling to all comers, and the buyers haggling for better prices. Among the negotiations conducted in broken English, there is not any sound of laughter. The African buyers are incredibly diligent, single-mindedly doing the rounds of wholesalers from morning to night. As they size up goods, their eyes are the picture of intensity, and as soon as they complete a deal they stuff the goods into large vinyl bags with rapid movements. If they have too many purchases to carry, they call upon idle Chinese workers to deliver the packages, and then briskly continue to the next shop. Not once have I seen them killing time on the streets. Should they pass an acquaintance, the most they do by way of acknowledgement is to raise their hands, never interrupting their walking.

The individual buyers are supervised by North African or Middle Eastern controllers, and when night comes they gather at restaurants to carry out microloan-style finance meetings. There are several such restaurants near Xiaobei station, all observing Halal practice. Based on their appearances, the staff at these family-run establishments seem to be Chinese Muslims – probably from Xinjiang – who are recruited through ethnic networks. As night deepens, the restaurants become sites for the buyers to exchange information among themselves, with groups of men gathered around different tables, all speaking intently in any number of languages. (On one visit coinciding with the recent revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, several men looked as though they were about to be sucked into a television relaying broadcasts from Al Jazeera.) All the services necessary to support their lives are concentrated in these enclaves. There are restaurants serving cuisine from the Congo and Nigeria, stalls with cheap telephone rates to Africa, mobile phone brokers, specialty barbers, vendors hawking cassettes and CDs of African music, and in some buildings that have been completely occupied by African tenants, the rare African-run intermediary wholesaler doing order-made customization.

To put it simply, Guangzhou’s African enclaves can be seen as an effect of globalization. African buyers seeking cheap products come to China, “the world’s factory.” Yet if globalization is generally understood as the reproduction of standardized conditions across the world – as with the buildings of Pearl River New Town and McDonalds franchises – the African enclaves present an exceptional case study of globalization. With different ethnicities convening in a competitive, mixed environment, and all kinds of social functions developing there under the tensions of conflict and negotiation, these enclaves constitute a unique urban ecology. The surrounding Chinese neighborhoods are closed off and so overcrowded they evoke the notorious congestion of Kowloon Walled City; they are rarely if ever visited by the Africans. Without any pretence to mutual integration, these communities individualistically pursue their own distinct values. There is no place for so-called neo-liberalism here, only a bare coexistence made possible by a commodity economy that surpasses all context.

Neither the stultifying homogeneity of McDonalds-style franchising, nor the radical mixing of Guangzhou’s African enclaves is the definitive reality of globalization. On the one hand there is the globalization of fluid capital, which, seeking profit, flashes up in all corners of the globe, as expressed concretely by Pearl River New Town’s cluster of skyscrapers. On the other hand, there is the globalization of Guangzhou’s African enclave and its unique urban ecology. But what does the overlaying of these different models mean for our understanding of relations between the global and the local?

For example, in his What is Globalization? (1997), Ulrich Beck proposed the following as counter-aspects to the franchise effect of globalization. First, we are already implicated in social and power relations that are organized at a level that differs from the Modern social unit of the nation-state. Second, the real experience of living and moving beyond the borders of national units is actually now routine. The social system of the Modern nation-state that defined citizens in terms of territory is unable to completely govern multinational corporations, NGOs, worldwide media and other bodies that transcend national borders, while the circulation of people, funds and capital between nations now encompasses us. In encountering and then consuming these phenomena, as in the concrete form of redevelopment, we transform our living environments, and in this way reality has been more or less globalized.

However, for those with a keen interest in cultural fields, this analysis may come across as rather conservative and obvious. It’s not as if only society as a national unit has been internationalized, or only that neighbors may now be of differing nationalities. For us, a globalization that penetrates even deeper into the living experience, complicates social relations and compels communication across cultural barriers is a real and pressing concern.

Guangzhou’s African enclaves can be considered a somewhat exaggerated version of just such a reality. There, multinational conditions constitute an intrinsic order. This is no longer a situation of just casual interactions between neighbors, but rather one that necessitates confronting a heterogeneous mix of others. Under conditions of friction, and in order to stabilize relations, the diverse inhabitants must weave together a specific ecology that is regulated by the local conditions of the site.

This unique adaptation cannot necessarily be applied in the same way in other locations, and it’s possible that even in Guangzhou it may not be sustainable. For example, the African communities in Paris lead completely different lives compared to those of Guangzhou, while Africans in Southeast Asia are subject to more extreme degrees of discrimination. The lone-wolf start-ups of Guangzhou may sooner or later undergo expansion, and businesses that relied on an informal economy may be subjected to systemic pressures. And it’s entirely possible this situation may be nothing more than a passing reflection of international dynamics precipitating the intensification of China’s relations with Africa. But certainly current conditions are being produced through a process of accumulation of creative responses to shifting trends, and certainly the residual traces of the large-scale and complex reality that has existed to date will continue to impact the future. In that sense, globalization itself has perhaps become a condition for the production of contemporary locality. Neither globalism nor locality can be explained in terms of exclusion; the former determines the latter, while the latter is a precondition for the former, in a mutual function of interdependent development.

Guangzhou’s African community may be a unique case, but as an outlying element of a massive spectacle it still relates to our everyday lives. From the Filipinos who gather by the thousands every Sunday to picnic on the pedestrian decks in central Hong Kong; to the Hong Kong natives who left in droves prior to the territory’s return to Chinese control, establishing overnight a new Chinatown in Toronto; to the Japanese-Brazilians, comprising over 15 percent of the population in the town of Oizumi in Gunma prefecture, who enter the Japanese production force and attempt to commit to regional society even as they are affected by fluctuations in the world economy; or Africans who have never lived in the US but are employed as sales staff in Shibuya hip-hop fashion outlets simply because they look the part: we may assume that such phenomena are isolated elements of everyday reality, but actually they share a strong sense of contemporaneity and cohesion. In this way, globalization is generating a vivid new reality all across the world.

Looking into the past, just as the Chinese themselves established Chinatowns across the globe, there is no shortage of historical examples of diaspora communities. Yet globalization has volumetrically accelerated the flux of populations, expanding the capacity of nationality such that it potentially extends anywhere, and occasionally manifests in unconventional ways. This leads to a new kind of specificity, or even, in a broad sense, the formulation of creolized lifestyles, which recursively converge with the characteristics of each place and become a part of that locality. Considered this way, in its mixing of multiplicities globalization produces not standardization, but rather a quite specific hybrid locality. So what is locality? What is globalization? Such questions can no longer be understood through the logic of dichotomy. At least in some small measure, even if we always remain in our countries of origin, we may already be a diaspora.

Translated from the Japanese by Andrew Maerkle.

Based in Tokyo, Naohiko Hino is principal of Hino Architect’s Office. He is also active as an independent curator and critic.

  1. “Where the Lion Rides the Dragon: Africa does business in China” in Le Monde Diplomatique, May 2010 (subscribers only); complete article available in French:

Copyrighted Image