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China in Africa...no Chinatowns here

Dispatches intern Gene Law used his Chinese language skills and experience in China to track down a few stories on the internet for us.   Here's an essay he wrote that explains why there aren't North American-style Chinatowns in Africa, even though hundreds of thousands of Chinese are on the continent.

"I've been in Africa for too long and my brain is getting dumber," writes Guan Yuanyuan in her blog. "Everyday I just know how to go online, eat, work, and sleep; I don't know what books are anymore."

On her blog she shares, in Chinese, her sense of isolation living in an unfamiliar country so far from home. "There's no sense of security like back in China, here I've been robbed and cheated and there aren't any of the conveniences of China," she writes. (read more, click below)

Gene's essay continues...

"In China I can get whatever I want, I can get whatever entertainment I want. Here, if I have nothing to do then I just stay at home, surf the web or watch television."

Guan is a Chinese hostel manager in Cameroon.  She blogs of a lonely life, despite the sizeable Chinese community there in Douala. Relationships tend to be based on provincial and family ties - and there are few from her region in the city.

Besides, most tend to stick to themselves and focus on their businesses.

"We mostly just work and work long hours," says Anita Zhang, who's running a family business in Botswana. "The lifestyle here isn't as good as back in China, for example food and general quality of service."

That's sentiment echoed by Zhuang Wei, secretary of the Accra-based Ghana Central-China Chamber of Commerce.  "Most people just go eat dinner then go to karaoke and sing," he told me when I called him. "There's not much in entertainment choices. Options for Chinese groceries are limited too."

So why are there Chinese independently going to Africa? Zhuang, says it's all about business. There are more opportunities, particularly for small entrepreneurs. Beyond that, there are few attractions.

Local groups like Zhuang's try to break the tedium by organizing events. The website promotes a garage sale held in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant, an outing to the beach with roast turkey for lunch, and lectures about Ghanaian commercial regulations.

"Living here has good and bad points, but when the locals see a Chinese, the first thing they think is money," says Guan Yuanyuan in Cameroon. "Especially some of the police, it's like when they see a Chinese, they see a mobile bank machine. I think it's because most Chinese can't speak the language, sometimes it's just easier to give them so-called tips to avoid trouble."

According to Zhuang Wei, Ghanaians' views of the Chinese are split: "The ordinary people like the Chinese for bringing in cheap goods and creating employment opportunities, but the local merchants resent us as competition."

When I asked whether they know any Chinese who've decided to permanently reside in Africa, the answer from all three is the same: no. Unlike early Chinese migrants to Canada and North America, who were fleeing poverty and instability, they have many more options.

My great-grandfather arrived in Canada in the 1870s as a merchant selling goods to gold miners setting off into British Columbia's interior. My father tells me my great-grandfather was able to earn enough money to return to China and send his sons over to Canada to take over the business.

According to family legend, we once owned vast swaths of land in a Vancouver suburb, until my grandfather lost it all through investment speculation - to the great sadness of this grandson.

My grandfather became a naturalized Canadian in 1905, eventually bringing my grandmother over in 1912. That itself was unusual in the community, because many of the Chinese migrants at the time were stuck in menial jobs and only planned on temporarily staying in Canada. They lived mostly in male-dominated sojourner communities. Despite the institutional and popular racism of the day, settling in Canada turned out to be far more attractive than returning to a turbulent China.

Although the strike-it-rich overseas dream is still the same, China is now a prosperous and stable country, with a mass of returning Chinese who studied or worked overseas.

They even have a nickname, haigui -- 海龟 -- returning sea turtles.

And for those who don't return to China with their money or education, migrating to more developed countries in Europe or North America is an easy option.

So it's not likely there'll be long-term settlement from this current wave of Chinese in Africa. Zhuang Wei's has this telling statistic: with more than 50,000 Chinese in Ghana, he can't recall if there's a Chinese school in the country.

For more on Sino-African relations from a social and cultural perspective, here's an interesting blog to follow.

Gene Law is a journalism student at BCIT in Vancouver.

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