A prequel: surprised ending

July 2015, Swift returned to Guangzhou from Togo. First thing she did after landing was to meet with me at the place where we had arranged beforehand. I’ve lived in South Africa and done research in other African countries, so she wanted me to help her make sense of her experiences with Anna in Togo. I should mention that if my friend had not lived with an African, her stay in Togo would have been like any other Chinese person’s. The Chinese shop owners I’ve spoken with in different South African towns described their daily lives as monotonous. They interacted with the local people who came to buy goods from their shops or worked for them during the day and video chatted with family members in China or watched Chinese programs on tv or online at night. Not only do they not know any local people personally, most try to also avoid other Chinese people, especially those who are in the same business. That is to say, my friend would probably have heard about “juju” in passing from Togolese customers in the jewelry shop, but not experienced its power in everyday life if she hadn’t shared a house or the business arrangement with Anna.

During our meeting, “juju” wasn’t Swift’s primary concern. She emphasized that she couldn’t understand how Anna could be one way towards her and then suddenly become a different person. She described Anna’s relationship with her “husband,” wondering how it could be sustainable. My friend shared about Anna’s second or side business, a grocery store that also sells some cooked food. It seemed that Anna was putting more money into stocking goods there compared to the jewelry wholesale business. This was her own business that the “husband” doesn’t have a hand in – meaning, he doesn’t contribute money to it. Was it possible that the earnings from the jewelry business were going to that food business, Swift played with the idea? Culture shock. These two words best capture Swift’s confusion. She had no sense of Africa’s history, which would’ve shed some light on complex social relations, prior to her going to Ghana and Togo. At our meeting, she wanted to know, especially because she’d have to explain to her business partners what had happened in Togo and why she’d proposed staying in Ghana when she returned to oversee their business in Togo. This also differentiates my friend from other Chinese entrepreneurs in Africa. It’s common to project their own values onto the local people or uncritically accept Western stereotypes of Africans without trying to understand the people on their own terms.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, there are Africans in China, mostly concentrated in Guangzhou. Rather than going into the figures of how many Africans are in the country and this city in South China, a controversial topic in itself, I want to point out that many of them, from Senegal to Zambia, are entrepreneurs. While most of the factories are on the outskirts of the city or in neighboring cities that are accessible by buses or hired cars, Guangzhou attracts Africans as well as many other foreigners in the private business sector because of the number of wholesale trade centers or markets.

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Between 西郊大厦 (xijiao dasha), where Swift and YC’s businesses are located in Liwan District, 御龙服装市场 (yulong fuzhuang shichang) in Baiyun District, and 天秀大厦 (tianxiu dasha) in Yuexiu District one could find jewelries, different kinds of clothes/fashion and shoes, cosmetics, wigs and braids, suitcases and bags, and mobile phones, among too many other commodities. Within this five mile radius, there are many freight and logistics companies as well as the main Guangzhou railway station, an important transportation node. Focused on business, Chinese and foreigners, alike, don’t spend much time on getting to know one another on more personal levels.

The next day after our meeting, Swift met with her business partners, YC and Mr H, and their spouses at YC’s office in 西郊大厦. She asked me to join them later that afternoon, mainly to explain to the others the possible danger she’d be in if she were to continue to stay in Togo for their business. She wanted me, the “China-Africa expert,” to convey to them the story about the Togolese woman who was murdered, perhaps, because of her connections to manufacturers in China. The point was to let YC and Mr H understand that there’s an existing anti-Chinese sentiment around the market and that they must tread carefully so as to not jeopardize their investment. Everyone around the table seemed to understand the situation. All agreed that they had to move forward cautiously, so Swift could stay in Ghana on her next trip back to Africa. This was ideal for my friend, who had already been invited to join a Chinese steel company in Accra. Because of her fluency in English, the company wanted her to assist with marketing and selling steel bars (钢筋).

It must have been less than a week after this meeting – which happily ended with an invitation for me to join them in a celebratory dinner – that Swift informed me that the partnership was teetering on the brink of collapse. Until this day, she’s still unclear what had transpired between YC and Mr H and their wives. She couldn’t understand their dialect and no one wanted to talk about it in detail. Mr H, Swift told me, complained about YC and his wife not knowing how to do business. YC and his wife have accumulated a lot of debt with manufacturers and banks as a result of the credits they continue to give to customers. Their financial situation seemed unclear to Mr H when he agreed to enter the partnership. This was surprising for me to hear because Mr H is a jewelry manufacturer. Did he not make orders for YC and his wife? And, how large is the jewelry manufacturing business around Guangzhou that Mr H had not heard of YC’s reputation beforehand? Or, did Mr H suddenly realize that the “African dream” (a term spawned from President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” that resonates with America’s) was harder to achieve than he initially assumed? So, the reason for the breakup of the partnership remains a mystery.

Sharing what she knows about the unhappy ending of that partnership on her recent trip to Togo, Swift wrote me on WeChat, “Mr H gave [YC and his wife a] good discount when they decided no work together again.” The discount was for the jewelries that Mr H’s factory had sent to Togo in the early days of the partnership. “His goods value 13w [130,000RMB], but he asked to pay 8w [80,000RMB] because he really want[ed] to [get] out of that partnership,” my friend elaborated. Apparently, a contract was signed between Mr H, YC’s wife (the jewelry business, I recently learned, is hers and YC helps her with it), and Swift, agreeing that this amount would be paid in full before the end of October 2015. Everyone understood that Swift was only a third party, a witness of sort, to the contract. She withdrew from the partnership, asking that her investment of 26,000RMB be returned to her. She didn’t ask for compensation for the time and effort she spent on setting up their business in Togo. While Mr H has already returned half of that money to Swift, YC and his wife still owes her the remaining half.

YC’s wife has managed to pay Mr H 30,000RMB. He has extended the deadline for payment, but his patience has worn thin. According to Swift, YC’s wife needs to urgently pay him. This is why my friend was asked to return to Togo upon the expiry of her Nigeria visa, to see what has happened with Anna, who was sending money from the business to China but suddenly stopped without any reasonable explanation. Certainly, YC and his wife decided to persevere with the business in Togo. And, my friend has agreed to continue to help them, hoping that they would come out ahead.

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