African Endeavours in Chungking Mansions - Portrait of a Hong Kong Hub

28 August 2014

Hong Kong — Becoming a success in Hong Kong isn't easy, but for many African traders the potential to earn big makes it more than worth the effort.

The old couches, low tables placed in front of them, only amplify the smallness of the room where a 50-year-old Tanzanian lady is serving boiled bananas and chicken. A handful of African customers sit enjoying familiar meals and smatterings of Kiswahili can be heard being spoken. But despite appearances, this restaurant is a few thousand miles from any African shore. The room is on the 16th floor of Block D in the notorious Chungking Mansions of Hong Kong.

The Tanzanian lady who runs the restaurant as well as the guest house connected to it has been in Hong Kong for 5 years and is just one of many Africans who have long made their homes here. Modu Medard, a Ghanaian, has lived and worked at this well-known trade hub for 16 years, selling garments and shoes from his shop on the busy first floor of the Mansions. Not far from that store, Babangida, a Nigerian, sells jeans and shoes made in China, and has been operating his shop for 7 years.

According to some estimates, there are around 20,000 African migrants in Hong Kong which, alongside Guangzhou, Yihu, Macau, Shangai and Beijing, is one of the preferred destinations for Africans going to China. A few thousand of these are permanent residents, while a few hundred are refugees. Most are traders or operate businesses such as restaurants, but some have also started venturing into other activities such as teaching English and playing professional football.

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 filled 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 5,000 people who live in the building, while 10,000 are said to visit daily.

According to Gordon Mathews, professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a fifth of the mobile phones that reach sub-Saharan Africa may have passed through Chungking Mansions. Meanwhile, Issa Ssekito, the spokesperson for the Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA), estimates that some 70% of phones imported to Uganda come from China.

Hong Kong is an important hub of the rapidly growing trade between Africa and China that both sides are keen to emphasise. In 1995, China's trade with Africa was valued at $6 billion; by 2010, it had risen to $130 billion; and in 2013, it was estimated to have reached $210 billion.

However, while the figures are impressive, many African traders in China are less than reassured and report finding it increasingly difficult to buy and sell goods. Ssekito, who deals in Chinese electronics which he buys from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, 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.

He suggests that about 70 Ugandan traders travel to China weekly to buy goods, ranging from cosmetics, electronics, footwear, clothes and ceramics. KACITA helps these traders gain visas, but Ssekito claims that for some groups such as women below 30, it is almost impossible to get a visa.

"They think such girls are going for prostitution," he says.

Indeed, China seems to be increasingly wary of visitors from Africa, and China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative region government recently tightened work and visa rules in a move aimed at barring illegal immigrants.

According to Babangida, Nigerians encounter similar problems over issues of visas in Mainland China. "It is hard for Africans to operate businesses in China," he says. "We tried... and failed...They deport several Nigerians even if they have a visa. It is not fair."

Challenges in China

For those traders who are able to acquire visas and remain for their agreed stays, the promise of profit awaits but not without challenges along the way. One particular issue is the language barrier, which can have repercussions beyond simple difficulties in communication.

"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," claims Ssekito.

KACITA, he says, also handles 5-7 cases a month of traders alleging that they received poorer quality goods than they had agreed.

But despite myriad challenges, many African traders still believe business in China is worth the trouble and lucrative. Ssekito, for instance, says that he 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. The Tanzanian restaurant owner meanwhile explains that she earns several times more money in Hong Kong than she could back home and that she sends enough to her family to support them. And Medard says that he has also educated his children in Ghana using earnings from his shop in Chungking Mansions, and invested in real estate back home.

Despite the increasing difficulties, these migrants making tidy profits in Hong Kong are not about to give up any time soon.

This article was made possible by a grant from the China-Africa Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of Witwatersrand.

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