Guangzhou, China — Never have I been confronted with so much hair. Walking into the International Beauty Market in downtown Guangzhou, one is immediately surrounded by locks from, supposedly, India, Peru and Brazil. In fact, much of this hair, labelled otherwise, is Chinese, or not human hair at all.
Chinese traders sit on stools, bunching the recently delivered hair together into fringes, curls and four-foot long straight extensions. There are no Chinese buyers here though; every buyer is from Africa. Nigerians, Ghanaians, Congolese, South Africans, Angolans and Ugandans scour the impressive hall for the best priced hair extensions available. The hair extension industry in China is a big business as it is one of the cheapest places in the world to source human hair. Since much of Europe and North America refuses to work with many Chinese hair traders due to questions over its sourcing and quality, the industry offers the many African migrant traders arriving in Guangzhou another lucrative business opportunity.
"I can triple my money," Marie* tells me mid-negotiation. "When I go back to Kampala I can sell this hair for three times the price, but I need to buy enough to pay for my air ticket." Marie quickly turns back to the store owner and begins to laugh at the price she has been told for fifteen bunches of Brazilian hair, which she tells me is the most popular type in Uganda.
"It is five thousand Yuan. This is my final price," says the shopkeeper.
"No, no, no, what is your final price, really?" replies Marie.
This negotiation goes on for a while. While I wait for a better moment to talk to Marie, I admire the wigs and frightening mannequins. After completing a few laps of the shop, I decide to leave and come back. Three hours later, I return, only to hear that the negotiation has stalled. "Four thousand nine hundred and fifty Yuan. My final price or you go away." Another hour later, Marie leaves the shop empty handed.
"That is the way with the Chinese, you know. They don't like to negotiate. They don't treat their customers well. In African culture we bargain, we talk, but here, it doesn't matter how many times you make them laugh. They are strict. This is how they lose customers. Soon I will go to Vietnam. Prices are cheaper."
Rising labour costs and greater regulation in the hair industry in China has meant that the price of hair has doubled in recent years, leading many African traders in Guangzhou to look further afield for the products they need. "You know, in Vietnam now, many of my friends are there, I can buy things very cheap. Prices here are too high. I like China, but now it costs too much. My visa is more expensive and hair costs too much."
Marie is not alone. Many African traders in Guangzhou tell me that they are starting to look elsewhere for their goods, with Thailand and Vietnam the most popular destinations.
The next day I return to the same shop where I ask the shop owner, Lily, about yesterday's negotiation and her African clients. "You know before, we used to sell to Europe and America, but now nearly 100% of my clients are in Africa because of the economic crisis." Lily shows me a list of the countries she sells to; of the thirty-nine countries on the list, thirty-seven of them are in Africa. Lily buys her hair from the Henan province and explains that "it is good business for me, but the problem is we pay more for the hair now, and over the past few years it costs me nearly double to buy my hair and the Africans want to pay very little. Some of the shops here use fake scales and mix synthetic hair with real hair to make sure they get a good price. We say it is Indian hair or Brazilian hair, but in fact it is normally Chinese hair or even goat hair. This is the only way we can keep things cheap, and Africans always want things cheap. Africans bargain too much".
Lily goes on to talk about the contrasting way in which her African clients do business compared to Chinese traders . "For them, it is not about price. They have to win. Sometimes I say my price is very high and let them negotiate a little. As long as they think they have negotiated well, they will buy. If I don't negotiate, they won't buy. They have too much pride and forget about the end price."
Secretly mixing synthetic hair and human hair and raising the prices are common tactics used by Chinese traders, often leading to complaints about quality when traders return home with their goods, but as Lily concludes, "if you pay little, what do you expect?"
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
This article was made possible by a grant from the ChinaAfrica Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of Witwatersrand.