Satellite image of Africa, showing the ecological break that defines the sub-Saharan area (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Written by Kaiyu Shao (1)
When riots broke out in Libya in February 2011, nearly 40,000 Chinese nationals were evacuated. The world was surprised to see so many Chinese doing business within this relatively small African country. Given the close economic relationship between China and Africa since the 1990s, one can, however, understand the central role ‘Chinatowns’ play in China’s existence in Africa. This discussion paper looks at Chinatowns in Africa, focusing on Namibia and South Africa as examples. It then introduces local attitudes towards Chinatowns, followed by a discussion of the factors that dictate their location.
Chinatowns in Africa
The rise of Chinatowns in Africa and the quick development in the Sino-African relationship could be seen as two sides of the same coin. Since the 1990s, Sino-African trade has enjoyed a rapid increase, both in absolute terms and in proportion. In 1990, Africa’s imports from China were valued at US$ 533 million, making up only 1.10% of its total imports. In 2009, this value reached US$ 30.4 billion, and composed 11.54% of Africa’s imports.(2) In this process, Chinatowns played two important roles. On one hand, the large scale of imports from China into African countries bred the development of Chinatowns, and provided the basis of their growth. On the other hand, it is the existence of these Chinese import-distribution centres that made further trade possible – by establishing relatively stable trade channels, while at the same time making Chinese products, as well as the Chinese image, familiar and acceptable to local citizens. It can thus be said that the existence and location of Chinatowns play an important role in Sino-Africa trade.
Though they vary in size, there are Chinatowns in almost every African country. Some are made up of only a few Chinese restaurants, while others contain several hundred businesses with thousands of Chinese merchants. Among these Chinatowns, South Africa and Namibia deserve special attention for the following reasons: South Africa, China’s biggest trading partner in Africa, possesses most of the Chinatowns on the continent. Namibia represents a new trend in Africa’s Chinatowns — not only do they provide products to the country itself, but they also possess international influence and have become ‘transfer stations’ for Chinese products as they ‘export’ the imported goods to their neighbouring state—Angola.
South Africa was one of the earliest destinations of Chinese merchants in Africa, with the first Chinese traders opening their businesses as early as the 1990s. An investor from Hong Kong built the first Chinatown, which opened in 2001. Currently, Johannesburg alone is home to six Chinatowns, each possessing anything from dozens to several hundred booths or shops. Continue reading