Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Africans in Yiwu, China’s largest commodities city

Adams Bodomo and Grace Ma
2010-06-03, Issue 484

In this paper, Adams Bodomo looks at how Africans are received in Yiwu and in Guangzhou, which contains the largest community of Africans in China. Bodomo argues that because of the relatively negative reception of Africans in Guangzhou compared to the more efficient and civil treatment of Africans in Yiwu, Yiwu is fast overtaking Guangzhou as the best place for Africans to thrive in China.

China is not only fast establishing itself as a superpower on the African continent, it is also fast establishing itself as the locus for the establishment of Africa’s newest diaspora: the African diaspora in China. For Africans in China, the moral then may said to be: we are here because you are there! Indeed, there are more Chinese in Africa than there are Africans in China - in the proportion of roughly two million Chinese in Africa to five hundred thousand Africans in China, including traders, students, teachers, diplomats, sportsmen, and many other professionals.

Africans can be found in major Chinese cities such as Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou and Beijing. There are already numerous academic studies and journalistic reports about Africans in Guangzhou (e.g. Bertoncello and Bredeloup 2007, Li Zhigang etal 2008, Le Bail 2009, Bodomo 2009, 2010, and numerous reports in Le Monde, SCMP, New York Times, etc) but very little about Africans in other cities (but see Bodomo 2007 for Hong Kong, Bodomo and Silva 2010 for Macau, Bodomo 2009 for Chongqing, among others).

In this paper we demonstrate that, besides the well-known presence of Africans in Guangzhou, the next most prominent presence of African traders in China is in Yiwu, Zhejiang province. In section two, we first describe the Yiwu location, its environment, and particularly its rise from a rural area to become the world’s largest commodities city. In section three we then describe the African presence in this large trade city where its market of commodities extends over one kilometer. This African presence is not limited to trade activities in that market, it also involves an unusual freedom of worship at the largest mosque in China and in many churches dotted throughout Yiwu. In section four, we do an in-depth qualitative study of one African life in Yiwu to complement the broad brush painting we did in section two. In section five, we compare the way Africans are received in Guangzhou and in Yiwu and argue that while Guangzhou was the first to entertain Africans and indeed boasts the largest community, it is losing a golden opportunity to Yiwu to become a model international multicultural trade city because of the way its law enforcement officers maltreat Africans.

Yiwu: from a small Zhejiang village to the world largest commodities market

The idea of Yiwu is an idea that should be borrowed by major countries with vast expanses of land in which different products are manufactured in far flung areas of the country. In the 1980s, the Chinese government came up with the brilliant idea that since many products are manufactured all over this vast country, perhaps it would be best to assemble reasonably large quantities of these commodities in one city located relatively in the middle of the country. This gave birth to the world’s largest commodities market. No one knows exactly the political decision that favoured the choice of Yiwu, but Yiwu it was. Yiwu is in the middle of nowhere, yet relatively well accessible from nearby major cities. It is two hours by air from Guangzhou, one hour by bus from Hangzhou, arguably China’s most beautiful city, and it is just a 40 minute taxi ride from Jinhua city, where China’s largest African Studies Institute is located.

The African presence in Yiwu

As mentioned earlier, most Africans in Yiwu are traders, so their lives revolve around the commodities market. The market itself is located on ChouZhou Bei Lu (ChouZhou North Road) and the following field note excerpt indicates how large it is and which parts are mostly frequented by different groups of Africans:

“Yiwu’s international trade city is located at ChouZhou Bei Lu and includes six sections or divisions. The items of trade include almost every conceivable manufactured item, but particularly jewelry and ornaments, toys, artificial flowers, building materials like keys and locks, electrical appliances, and so on. So far, only Sections One, Two, and Three of the mammoth market are open for business while the rest are still under construction. African Arabs and people from the Horn of Africa are mostly found in Section One. On the other hand, Section Two attracts many Africans from Sub-Saharan African countries such as The Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Burkina Faso, and Kenya. This is because Section two mainly contains building materials and other kinds of hardware that these Africans come to buy. The booming housing market and general building construction in many Sub-Saharan countries is the main reason why many household electrical items and appliances, even including items as minute as electric sockets and nails, are bought and sent back home to Africa. On the whole, as in Guangzhou markets, it is very hard to pin down these businessmen; it always requires a lot of research techniques and people skills to succeed in getting them for an interview during their peak buying seasons.” (Bodomo’s Field Survey Diaries: Dec 11, 2008)

Life in Yiwu for Africans is mostly about trade, but not exclusively. Community bonding activities such as eating and praying is an important part of life beyond the mammoth kilometer long market. The following excerpt from our field diaries illustrates life beyond trade for Africans in Yiwu.

“We (Prof Bodomo, Jiang Jun and I) departed from Jinhua at 9:00 am, and arrived in Yiwu 40 minutes later. It was Friday that day, a day of Muslim worship. Therefore, after checking into our hotel, we immediately took a taxi to the mosque. We learnt from the taxi driver that there were many traders from the Middle East and Africa, and they would go to the mosque at 1:00 pm on Friday when many people would literally mob them like superstars in order to distribute advertisement fliers and business cards with all kinds of information to these African traders. Many of these traders are frequently found at the Mahéde Restaurant located in Downtown Yiwu. As there was still some time, we first visited the Mahéde Restaurant located specifically at No. 235, Chouzhou North Road. This restaurant was not large, but very exquisite. It is situated opposite to other restaurants such as the Tajima Herder Restaurants and Al-Arabia Restaurant, all of them being obviously Arab restaurants. There were several guests dining in the Mahéde Restaurant. Meanwhile a few Arabs were sitting outside in front of the restaurant, among who was a man from Mali, who had been living in Yiwu for one and a half years. This man told us he knew of a Malian restaurant and also a Ghanaian restaurant, though he didn’t know the exact location. He too was on his way to the mosque after the meal. We looked around and found that there were quite a few more Arab restaurants in the neighbourhood, which were said to be livelier at night. After lunch, we drove to the mosque at the Bay Village. The mosque was located on the Riverside Road. We were still far away from the entrance to the mosque, but our car could not move an inch, the reason being that this large mosque, the largest in China, was already so crowded. We got out of the taxi and walked along the crowded pedestrian market. In the pavement there were many stands selling roasted lamb, all types of medicinal capsules, and many Muslim accessories. Business appeared to be really brisk. Despite the burning sun with temperature as high as 36 degrees Celsius, people still came in droves. Inside the compound of the mosque, were many flashy cars in the parking lots. Muslims of all colours and from different countries came into this mosque. It seemed that we had just landed in a foreign country. There were South, West, and East Asians as well as Africans and Chinese, a vivid illustration of globalization in progress in Yiwu, which was only twenty years ago a forgotten village in Zhejiang province. The worship finished at 1:30 pm, and there were anywhere between six or seven thousand people pouring out of the mosque. On both sides of the gate, there were many people distributing their business cards. I talked with a Muslim from Nigeria whose first name is Jibril (surname omitted). Jibril’s son now does business in Yiwu and he, Jibril, just came on a brief visit. He told me Africans did not live together in an Africa Town-like place in Yiwu, as Chinese often do in Africa and elsewhere, but they do indeed live very close to the International Trade Center. I also went up to three women in veil talking on the street, one from Somalia, and the other two from Guizhou, China. The Somalian woman had just been in China for only three months, but she succeeded in sustaining simple communication in Chinese with the Chinese ladies from Guizhou, who like her are also Moslems. Her elder brother does business in Yiwu and she came to him, and now she was learning Chinese. She told me in Yiwu there is a school specializing in teaching foreigners Chinese. The two Guizhou girls came to Yiwu with their families to take part in the booming trade. Here was a situation in which people from all over the world met in Yiwu and made friends, a fact which touched me a lot.” (Ma Enyu’s Field Survey Diaries: May 15, 2009)

From the above then, the African presence in Yiwu revolves around the international trade market, restaurants, and places of worship, particularly at the largest mosque in all of China.

An In-depth Interview with Wufei

The foregoing section comprised a broad brush painting of the life situation of Africans in Yiwu. But what is also needed is an in-depth focus on how a particular African or groups of Africans are living their lives in Yiwu, focusing on their experiences, opportunities, constraints, and aspirations. Luckily for us we found one in Wufei (surname omitted) from Ghana.

Wufei’s office is located in Chengxin first district. Wufei came to China from Ghana in 2007 in order to learn Chinese, and ended up living and working in Yiwu, where he started a small shipping company (name omitted). He used to be a journalist, and is a relatively fluent speaker of English, Spanish, and Portuguese. He first learnt Chinese at Zhejiang University, and was at the time of the interview pursuing a course in Chinese at Zhejiang Normal University on part-time basis. During his stay in Zhejiang, he realized that business was flourishing in Yiwu, and interestingly for him he noticed that many traders from his country came to Yiwu to procure goods. According to him some 70-80% of Ghana’s manufactured goods are imported. A major constraint for African businessmen in Yiwu, as in many parts of China, probably with the exception of Hong Kong and Macau, is the inability to sustain communication in English with their Chinese trading partners. Realizing that newly arrived businessmen from Africa (who don’t speak Chinese) needed his services, he took advantage of his knowledge in Chinese and created a business out of it, providing services such as translating and interpreting business transactions, finding accommodation for his fellow Africans, and so on. This is how he ended up starting a small company; he even rented a warehouse to store these traders’ goods and shipped goods to Ghana on their behalf. The business opportunity is so good that he usually ships about 10 containers a month to Ghana. Now his company employs as many as 15 people, six Ghanaians including himself, with the rest being Chinese. Wufei said he is so successful in his Chinese sojourn that he has become somewhat of a celebrity among his fellow Ghanaians in China, and some in places as far away as Shanghai and Hong Kong would call him up for all kinds of assistance. He believes he is warm-hearted and aspires to help whoever needed his help.

How Africans are received in Guangzhou and Yiwu

The euphoria of the African presence in Guangzhou and in China as a whole seems to have died down. As early as 1997 when I (the first author) arrived in China, Africans were attracting photo-taking crowds more than creatures from other parts of our planet. I was always embarrassed when I was called out from among my Chinese and Western friends for photos at the Windows of the World in Shenzhen and at Tianxiu market in Guangzhou way back in the early 2000s. But no more! The African presence is now well-established in Guangzhou and other major cities, and Guangzhou people have learnt to trade with them, though I am not sure if they have fully accepted them in their city. For one thing, unlike the Nanjing incidents of 1988 when Chinese students rose up against their fellow African students, there is no general public outcry against Africans in Guangzhou. On the contrary, Guangzhou businessmen find Africans as avid business partners and happily trade with them. Africans are very well-received by their Chinese business partners.

On the contrary, the state law enforcement officers in Guangzhou paint a different picture and it is where we draw a contrast with Yiwu. In recent years, beginning with the Olympics in 2008 there have been incessant complaints from Africans in Guangzhou about how hard it is for Africans to get visa renewals in that city. Often they are told to go to Hong Kong or Macau or even to go back to their home countries for simply doing visa renewals, while other foreigners from Europe and America do not have this problem. Indeed, Africans resident in Yiwu and other parts of China do not experience this problem to the same degree as Guangzhou Africans do. Worst, it is only in Guangzhou that Africans are asked to carry their passports with them at all times. The message at the entrance of Canaan market in Guangzhou says all foreign “friends” must carry passports but in reality it is Africans who are overwhelmingly stopped, interrogated and usually harassed. Even restaurants are not safe havens for Africans; the police follow them into these ethnic enclaves to ask them rather rudely about their immigration status, and arrest them at the least opportunity. I doubted these reports until I experienced it at first hand as shown from this field notes excerpt:

“Today, I arrived from Hong Kong with Dr Grace Ma to research an article on the role of food and food-making venues as elements and spaces that shape the identity of Africans in China as they form new communities.

We met up Raymond - a young Ghanaian who usually serves as our field guide, and we went to the ‘Africa Bar’ located at No 56 Bao Han Street, Xia Tang YueXiu District, Guangzhou. Hardly did we settle in to eat at around 7pm than about six policemen (about four men and two women) barged in and literally invaded the restaurant. What they did in the next 20 minutes shocked me and my fellow Africans beyond words.

They just went from table to table, ignoring Chinese-looking people, like my colleague, Dr Ma, and just picked out every African-looking person on each table and rudely demanded to see their passports. They shouted at the top of their voices for my fellow Africans and I to show the latest versions of our visas to them.

In all of my 50 years of life, apart from at border check points and immigration counters, this was the first time I was asked to show my passport in this rude and barbaric way.

This police rudeness and verbal brutality were beyond my imagination. You would think that it was a flashback to apartheid South Africa before 1994!

I had to interpret from English to French for two Congolese women who could only communicate in French to these uneducated barbarians unleashed onto the streets of Chocolate city to harass Africans going about their normal business. The story of these women was this...they were eating (and as anyone would know we Africans use our fingers to each our fufu and other starchy foods in soup) and how could they just demand in a minute to show their passports - they would first have to wash their hands before dipping into their pockets for their passports. According to them, in any case, why harass people taking their dinner and start shouting at them as if they were presumed to be overstaying their visas and thus criminals?
The police won’t listen. Their thug of a leader unleashed by the Guangzhou authorities to harass Africans came up and shouted: “Give me your passports”. After terrorizing these two ladies until they inspected their passports they went to the next table, repeated the same rudeness and arrested a Ugandan lady who explained in vain that her passport was left back in her hotel.

In my case, they came up and flipped through my Ghana passport for a very long time (I have many visas from around the world, and I am a permanent Hong Kong resident) and ended up with a loud stupid question: “Do you live here?” I also replied “no” in a very angry and defiant mood against this naked racial profiling and discrimination, and asked them “Why would I live illegally in Guangzhou when I am a permanent resident in Hong Kong?” They hesitated a bit, looked again at my passport, spoke some Chinese to each other, threw it back to me, and left our table, heading off to their next victims!

Africa-China friendship? What friendship?” (Bodomo’s Field Survey Notes: Dec 10, 2009)

It is hard time more exposure of such naked brutality is carried out by researchers, human right activists, and even progressive government and law enforcement officials, because as a result of such incidents, Africans in Guangzhou seem to be having a hard time living in Guangzhou and were it not for the lucrative business in the city they would start to find other places to live.

This is in sharp contrast to the situation in Yiwu, where both ordinary Chinese and the Chinese law enforcement agencies treat Africans with more respect, dignity, and civility. Of course, Yiwu Africans also experience constraints in their Chinese sojourn but these are not different from what any foreigner living in China would experience: linguistic misunderstandings, cultural differences, and even having to put up with socially unacceptable practices like spitting profusely. But Yiwu Africans, in most cases, are treated respectfully by Zhejiang law enforcement officers. Civil liberties are well respected. For instance, freedom of worship among these Africans seems to be one of the highest in China. There may be a number of reasons why this difference is there. One, it may be that Africans who number less than 30,000 in Yiwu can be contained easily. Two, most of the Africans in Yiwu are from the Magbreb region of Africa, while most Africans in Guangzhou are from Sub-Saharan Africa. My fellow West Africans in Guangzhou report that even the brutal Guangzhou police treat Arab Africans more respectfully than Black Africans. But, third, and more importantly, the difference, we propose here, is due to the differences in efficiency and fairness on the part of Yiwu law enforcement officers such as the police and immigration officials. We propose here that, partly as a result of these differences in treatment, and also if Yiwu gets more developed into an international trade centre, it may overtake Guangzhou as a model residential city for Africans and many foreign businessmen from developing parts of the world, such as West Asia and Latin America. In that sense then, Guangzhou is missing an early opportunity as a model multi-racial business city in China.


China is now the locus of Africa’s newest diaspora. Africans can now be found living in most major Chinese cities, with Guangzhou having the largest African community. But while Guangzhou boasts the largest African community, Yiwu, once a village in Zhejiang province that has now risen within the last 20 years to become the world’s largest commodities city, is quietly shaping the best African trading community in China. The Yiwu state law enforcement officers appear to be more efficient, professional, less corrupt, and more racially-tolerant than the Guangzhou law enforcement officers as far as African experiences are concerned. As a result, the African community in Yiwu is living more harmoniously with its Chinese hosts than the African community in Guangzhou is experiencing.

This is clear evidence for the role state law enforcement officers can play in shaping harmonious migrant-indigene relations or otherwise. More importantly, the way Africans are treated in China would most likely have important consequences for the way Chinese would be treated in Africa, and ultimately for general Africa-China relations. So it is important for African and Chinese governments to put in place business-friendly and racially tolerant immigration laws to facilitate, not just freedom of movement, but indeed freedom of living and working in peace and dignity in each others’ countries.


Le Bail, Helene. 2009. Foreign Migrations to China’s City-Markets: the case of African merchants. Asie Visions 19.

Bertoncello, Brigitte and Sylvie Bredeloup. 2007. The emergence of new African “Trading posts” in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. China Perspectives, No.1, pp 94 -105.
Bodomo, A. B. 2010. The African trading community in Guangzhou: an emerging bridge for Africa-China relations. China Quarterly 203.

Bodomo. 2009. Fresh faces for future Africa-China relations: A note on the experiences of newly-arrived African students in China on FOCAC funds. Paper read at the Symposium on Reviews and Perspectives of Afro-Chinese Relations organized by the Institute of African and West Asian Studies/Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, October 13, 2009, Beijing, China

Bodomo A. B. 2009. Africa-China Relations in an Era of Globalization: the Role of African trading communities in China [全球化时代的中非关系:非洲在华贸易团体的角色]. WEST ASIA AND AFRICA 《西亚非洲》. 2009 Vol 8, Pages 62-67.
Li Zhigang, Xue Desheng, Michael Lyons, and Alison Brown. 2008. Ethnic enclave of transnational migrants in urban China : A case study of Xiaobei, Guangzhou. (paper draft).


* Prof Adams Bodomo is chair of the Department of Linguistics and Director of the African Studies Programme at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). Dr Bodomo has done pioneering work on 21st Century Africa-China studies, with a particular focus on the African Diaspora in China. His research in the area of Africa-China Studies, diasporan, and migration studies have been featured in major academic journals and magazines such as China Quarterly, China Review, West Asia and Africa, and Pambazuka. He is currently finishing up a 300-page book manuscript titled, We Are Here Because They
Are There: The African Presence in China and its Consequences on Africa-China relations. He can be reached at abbodomo@hku.hk

* Dr. Grace Ma is Head of the Center for African History and Culture at the Institute of African Studies, Zhejiang Normal University. She has spent nearly one year studying Africans in Yiwu and Guangzhou. She can be reached at maenyu@zjnu.cn

* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

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