While they add to economic vitality of their respective locales, Chinatowns also become a source of social isolation for their overwhelmingly foreign residents.
The influx of new Chinese migrants in Africa is no longer news. The Economist cites that by 2013, more than a million Chinese nationals are residing in Africa, taking advantage of increased business opportunities that emerged due to Africa’s closer trade ties to the Far East.
One immediate result of the massive influx of Chinese migrants is the rapid emergence of new Chinatowns in Africa’s major urban centers. In major regional economic hubs such as Nairobi and Lagos, specific neighborhoods have seen mushrooming of Chinese business clusters, anchored by offices for state-owned construction firms, small import-export firms, and supporting institutions ranging from markets for displaying products to hotels and restaurants that provide tastes from home.
In many ways, these emerging Chinatowns in Africa reflect a global trend of Chinese communities’ strict focus on commercial success in host countries. But while they add to economic vitality of their respective locales, Chinatowns also become a source of social isolation for their overwhelmingly foreign residents. The presence of ethnic neighborhoods such as Chinatowns, in many cases, only serve to strengthen the stereotyped cultural caricatures of foreign ethnicities, making it all the more difficult for the said foreigners to integrate socially in their host societies.
To vindicate the isolationist plight of new Chinese immigrants in Africa, I recently visited a burgeoning, yet small African Chinatown in order to witness firsthand how the community interacts with the general African populace. What I saw was a near carbon copy of a thriving mixed-use neighborhood in China that still sadly sees too little participation in mainstream society. The socio-political repercussions of the isolationist attitudes are already beginning to appear as they become direct cause for biased and even hostile views from the local population.
Cyrildene Chinatown, a one-street commercial zone in a quiet middle-class suburb of Johannesburg, only emerged in the last few years. But in those few years, it quickly displaced a century-old Chinatown in downtown to become the most concentrated congregation of Chinese in southern Africa.
As expected of a recent upstart, Cyrildene Chinatown is a strictly functional affair. Lining both sides of its two-lane main street are truly minimalist establishments. Half-crumbling three-story buildings of bare concrete exterior each house half a dozen offices of small firms along their dinghy and dimly lit corridors. Restaurants occupy bottom floors, identifying themselves only with large Chinese signage boards that sit above nondescript metal doors so narrow that they barely give a hint of what lie beyond.
During the day, makeshift stalls hawking everything from raw vegetables to grilled lamb skewers spill onto the street, further concealing the shops that lie behind them. Only at night, when the street is emptied of any pedestrians save for patrolling security guards, do flickering streetlights reveal the identities of bored shopkeepers playing around with smartphones under hanging bare lightbulbs of their non-painted shop interiors. Pasted on the shops’ outside walls, slanted flyers on white paper advertise everything from taxi drivers to English lessons, of course, all in Chinese. If African employees of the shops are taken out of the picture Cyrildene Chinatown could be an exact replica of any neighborhood in a Chinese provincial town.
Unlike a Chinese provincial town, however, the Cyrildene Chinatown serves a secondary purpose as an almost exclusive social quarter for many of Johannesburg’s new Chinese migrants. For poor new arrivals from China, top floors of Chinatown’s bare concrete buildings offer the most socially protective, if not the most comfortable, long-term accommodations.
One of the reasons why residents are willing to sacrifice residential comfort is that Cyrildene Chinatown has acquired an exceptionally high degree of social function often not even present in more established Chinatowns around the world.
One way this shows is the overwhelming focus on the daily needs of Chinese residents. Aside from myriad supermarkets, eateries, and shops specializing in Chinese foods and products, Chinese language services of all sorts are available to make the homesick resident feel right at home. These include Internet cafes where the youths hang out to play computer games, mahjong and cards parlors were the middle-aged bond over tea and tobacco, and travel agencies helping people plan their vacations back home.
Moreover, to protect the safety of its residents at night time, Cyrildene Chinatown took security into its own hands in ways that few Chinatowns outside Africa even find necessary. To bypass lowly paid and thus highly corruptible public police force, residents set up Chinatown’s own policing authorities to pool funds for hiring a private security detail to deal with Johannesburg’s notoriously high crime rate.
The result of such efforts is that the neighborhood’s Chinese residents find little reason to step outside it unless absolutely necessary. Food, services, and even business opportunities can be had right in the little Chinatown, all conducted with a language and cultural norms that they find familiar. They simply need not go through the hassle of interacting with Africans or other foreigners to make ends meet and live their lives.
The result of its residents’ insular nature is obvious on the streets of Cyrildene Chinatown. Few businesses have proper English signage and few people have understanding of English (or any other local language, for that matter) that goes beyond a few practical broken phrases used to communicate with local employees and customers.
And what is worse, Chinatown’s residents are not in any hurry to make the place more accommodating for the non-Chinese.
I spotted a few white South Africans walking along the street, looking at different restaurants for their fill of Chinese food for dinner. The bored Chinese restaurant staff did not even bother to move their eyes away from smartphone screens. As the whites entered one of the eateries to inquire timidly about opening hours, they are met with poker faces from the staff followed by terse, cold replies of “yes.” The whites’ smiles are returned with blank expressions from the staff, who threw down menus on the table and immediately went back to smartphone gaming.
Such attitude certainly will not help new Chinese migrants win friends in Africa. It helps to explain why the locale remains so exclusively Chinese and other-worldly distinct from the surrounding neighborhoods, despite widespread knowledge of the place by locals and promotion by municipal authorities as a new tourist destination.
There is little doubt that Cyrildene Chinatown will have its place in Johannesburg due to its clear economic dynamism in a country hit with corruption and recession. But what it can offer economically does not automatically get rewarded with acceptance by and integration with mainstream African society. Socially and culturally, the Chinese remain perceived as foreign, and at times even hostile given their economic success not enjoyed by locals.
Mysteriousness of the economically successful Chinese fuels African political leaders’ anti-Chinese sensationalism. Fearing populist retribution, the Chinese understandably put a massive distance between themselves and Africans. But if Chinatowns in Africa remain the social and cultural fortresses that they are today, it will only lead to a vicious cycle of interracial hostility and alienation. It is a darkness that continues to envelop the Chinatowns’ economic brightness.
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