Ugandan reporter Frederick Mugira was in Hong Kong recently on a Wits China-Africa Reporting tour, and spoke to several African traders in the city.
The old couches, low tables placed in front of them, only amplify the smallness of the room where the 50-year-old Tanzanian lady is serving boiled bananas and chicken. The room is on the 16th floor of Block D in Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. A board pasted onto the wall lists the foods she serves and their prices.
A door leads out of the restaurant into another room, this one with bunk beds. It is used as a guest house. The Tanzanian lady tells me she has been in Hong Kong for the last 5 years.
Modu Medard, a Ghanaian, sells garments and shoes made in China, Philippines and his home country. He has lived and worked as a trader in Hong Kong for the last 16 years. His shop is one of many on the very busy first floor of the same building, Chungking Mansions.
A few feet away from Modu’s shop is another shop owned by Babangida, a Nigerian. He sells jeans and shoes made in China, and has been operating this shop for the last seven years.
The number of Africans living and trading in southern China has been on the rise in recent times. Most are traders, but they have started venturing into other activities as well, including teaching English and playing professional football.
There are about 20,000 African immigrants in Hong Kong alone which, alongside Guangzhou, Yihu, Macau, Shangai and Beijing, is one of the preferred destinations for Africans going to China. 3,000 of these are permanent residents, while close to 500 are refugees. Most of them are traders, usually in electronics, phones and garments, or operate restaurants. Most of them work and live in Chungking Mansions.
Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong’s African market
Chungking Mansions is a five-block 17-storey building located in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong. Evidently aged, the building is stuffed with just about everything: wholesale and retail shops; clothes and shoes stores; groceries; shops selling all sorts of electronics, from radios to computer accessories. The complex also houses several budget hostels and restaurants. It seems that there is a money changer on every floor.
It is a hub for traders from Africa, India, and Pakistan, asylum seekers and illegal workers. These make up the 5000 people who live in the building, while 10,000 are said to visit daily.
A fifth of the mobile phones in sub-Saharan Africa have passed through Chungking Mansions, according to Gordon Mathews, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 70 percent of the phones imported into Uganda come from China, according to Issa Ssekito, the spokesperson for the Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA), which seems to bolster Matthew’s figure.
Booming China-Africa Trade
Officials in both Africa and China are keen to emphasise how fast trade between the two has grown. In 1995 China’s trade with Africa was at valued $6 billion. This rose to $130 billion in 2010, $198 billion in 2012, and was at $210 billion in 2013. According to projections by Standard Bank, it is expected to double by the end of 2015.
However, the Africans in China are less than reassured by these figures, saying they still find it difficult to buy and sell goods with ease in China.
Issa Ssekito, the KACITA spokesperson, deals in Chinese electronics which he buys from Guangzhou and Shenzhen. He believes the growing Sino-African trade relations are tilted in favour of the Chinese.
“China says it has a liberalised economy but it is closed. It is hard for an African to start a company or even open a retail shop in any of the Chinese cities unless you partner with a local,” he says.
About 70 Ugandan traders travel to China weekly to buy goods, which range from cosmetics, electronics, footwear, clothes and ceramics, he says. KACITA gives letters to traders applying for visas to China, otherwise it would be difficult to obtain. However, with traders below 30 years of age, it is almost impossible to get a visa.
“They think such girls are going for prostitution,” he says.
China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative region government recently tightened work and visa rules in a move aimed at barring illegal immigrants from working or establishing business there.
Hong Kong alone is a home to some 6,400 illegal immigrants, most of them from Pakistan and India.
However, even for the few traders who are able to acquire visas, a communication problem awaits them. And it has more repercussions beyond failing to understand the other party.
“Most Chinese traders do not speak English. In some cases when we fail to understand each other, they ask us to show them our passports and when they realise you are Ugandan, they choose the grade of goods to sell you. Sometimes these goods are of poor quality,” Ssekito says
Interpreters, he says, are expensive and are usually agents for middlemen yet the traders prefer to buy cheaply from factories.
KACITA also handles 5-7 cases a month of traders who say they receive poorer quality goods after making orders while in China and leaving before they are shipped.
According to Babangida, the Nigerian, “it is hard for Africans to operate businesses in China.” He means mainland China, where “we tried... and failed. The Chinese arrest us. Even if you have a visa. They deport several Nigerians even if they have a visa. It is not fair. It is not fair, my friend.”
Thriving amidst hardships
Despite those challenges, several African traders I spoke to believe business in China is lucrative. They are not about to give up.
Ssekito is planning to start exporting Nile Perch swim bladders to Hong Kong, where he says they are in high demand due to their use in Chinese traditional medicine.
Meanwhile, the Tanzanian lady tells me she supports her family – children and husband – back in Tanzania. “I send back home about $1500 a month which is enough to maintain my family and educate my children,” she says. She says she was not able to make even a quarter of this money in Tanzania before she moved to Hong Kong.
Modu has also educated his children in Ghana using earnings from his shop, and invested in real estate back home.
Wits China-Africa Reporting project is funded by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.