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May 4, 2018

Derb Omar, stronghold of the Chinese traders of Casablanca (Francophone Africa & China series)

By Moroccan journalist Hasnae Belmekki. Translated from French by Gerard Guedegbe.

Chinese traders’ migratory movement to Derb Omar in Morocco is a recent phenomenon. Specialised in wholesale and semi-wholesale goods directly imported from China, who are these small entrepreneurs, where do they come from, what relations do they have with the people of Casablanca?

Note: In 2017 the Africa-China Reporting Project commissioned a series of investigations on Francophone Africa and China, to be undertaken by Francophone African journalists from Morocco, Benin, Burundi, and the DRC and published in the region. The four investigations focused on Chinese traders in Derb Omar (see below), the looting of Beninese forests, the impact of a revolutionary rice strain in Burundi, and a Chinese joint venture for the rescue of a state-owned electricity company in the DRC. These investigations have all been edited and translated by Gerard Guedegbe, and will be published here in the coming days.     

Located in the center of the city of Casablanca, not far from the port, the Derb Omar district is a large commercial area, one of the most important of the country for more than a century. Despite its 140 years of existence and its traditional and often archaic mode of operation, it remains a very lively economic space. At Derb Omar, the past and the present mingle perfectly in the crowd of passersby, in the animation of thousands of shops and galleries and in the nonstop comings and goings of the carters, creating a magical atmosphere.

Big traders from the city of Fez were the first to settle there in the early twentieth century, offering silk, clothing or tea, before being followed by traders from the Souss region located in the south of Morocco. The latter specialised in clothing or in the sale of dishes; they were joined in the early 2000s by a last wave of traders from a distant land: China. If during the first years their arrival was a source of many problems of cohabitation for some, this has evaporated over time.

Today most local traders still occupy the area, and even if the presence of Chinese merchants eventually gave rise to a clearly visible place now called Chinatown, they don’t compete directly with local traders.

From the first hours of the day, busy activity has already taken hold of the neighborhood. Where the merchants have all taken their place on one side of the floor – where are exposed all kinds of low-cost products such as kitchen utensils, food products, fashion accessories, charms of all kinds, or various counterfeit products – the first onlookers roam.

On the other side of the road, the ceaseless movements of loaders are visible around trucks that drove here from all over the country, carrying or hauling on their backs or on carts all sorts of goods packaged in boxes mostly stamped "Made in China". Men rush to load the trucks that will go on to feed many markets of the Kingdom, from Oujda in the north east through Marrakech and Dakhla in the extreme south.

Larbi has been running a clothing shop in the neighborhood for nearly forty years. A few steps from his shop there is a similar shop held by Chinese traders offering fabrics three times cheaper, but that does not worry him, and for good reason.

“We do not sell the fabric coupons at the same price, because we do not offer the same product, nor the same quality, and our customers know that well. Their merchandise is intended for the less well-off social classes, it is not unfair competition ... ”, he concludes before putting on his glasses and getting back to work.

Most of the hundred or so stores that Chinese merchants operate in this neighborhood are wholesalers, and they account for the bulk of the customer base. Their stalls, concentrated for the most part in a gallery, called by the local population "gallery of the Chinese", is like a large hangar composed of a row of boxes, where piles of boxes and bales pile up.

No enhancements or decorations embellish the place; products are presented pell-mell, sometimes on the floor, reinforcing the notion that one can have about Chinese goods, namely that they are cheap but of bad quality.
These shops display on their shelves plastic sandals, scarves, dishes, handbags, shoes, linens, and so forth. There are also light fixtures, hardware, toys, textiles and other products, all imported from China.

Mr. Wang, in his thirties, sells scarves. He settled in Casablanca three years ago. Courteous, he responds laconically in perfect English.

“I have nothing interesting to say, it's only been three years since I've been here. I am not the owner, the boss is in China”, he says, so I cannot tell you anything. He said before plunging his head back into his notebook.

Hang Tao, who seems to be the same age and whose shop is located a few steps away, is more talkative. He has been in this market for more than four years, where he sells plastic tablecloths. Originally from the province of Henan, he came here to do business first, as he bluntly said. “My main motivation is to make money, I knew that coming here to Morocco my business would be successful. Many people in my area have been here before returning home with a small fortune. So I came to try my luck”, he explains with a broad smile. Hang Tao met his Moroccan wife two years ago. He says he feels comfortable and safe in the country, but he does not plan to make a living here over the long run. One day he will leave with his wife for China.

A very discreet community

According to the Chinese authorities there are nearly four thousand Chinese currently living in Morocco, and according to the testimony of local residents, there are nearly a thousand living in the neighborhood of Derb Omar.

Exchanges between Chinese traders and the local population are generally limited to the professional field. Ali runs a small stationery shop and lives in Derb Omar. “I meet them only in one circumstance, when they go door to door, and they go into my shop to offer me pens or other office accessories to buy, but beyond this context I do not see them”, he explains.

It is true that past 5 pm, the closing time of the mall, their presence is rare. The only places where we can still meet them are the Asian market located near the neighborhood or the Chinese restaurant run by Mr. Lee, who represents the Chinese traders of Derb Omar.

Apart from these places, Chinese migrants do not occupy public spaces, and they do not sit at cafe terraces. While the language barrier does not facilitate easy exchanges, the main reason for this behavior is very precise, according to Mohamed.

Sixty years old with graying hair, this inhabitant of Casablanca knows well about half of the Chinese traders. He has been working with them for almost fourteen years. “Once the curtain of the shop is down, you will not find them in the street, or in the cafes of the neighborhood, but at the depot, where they will continue to work at least until midnight”, he explains.

Chinese migrants neither seek to learn the local language nor to integrate, they do not have time for it because they do not intend to settle permanently in the country. The majority settles for a stay of certain period with the motto “To work, to hoard gains and to return to China”. As soon as you see some of them leaving, others will already be there to replace them.

In recent years, economic and trade cooperation between China and Morocco has experienced very strong growth. China has become the third-largest trading partner of the Kingdom, behind Spain and France. In 2017, the growth rate of Chinese direct investment in Morocco soared by more than 1,000% compared to the previous year. Furthermore, the abolition of visas for Chinese nationals is causing the numbers of Chinese tourists to leap prodigiously (100,000 visited Morocco in 2017 from 10,000 in 2015), and this has also facilitated the arrival of businessmen and traders.

The Derb Omar district is far from ready to lose its nickname of Chinatown.

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