“You know I never think about this. But sometimes I hate I am a girl,” my Chinese friend, Swift, wrote on WeChat one day. She was feeling annoyed with the Chinese man who’d agreed to rent one of his rooms to her in Lagos, Nigeria. Because her last experience living with her Nigerian customer was
so uncomfortable and awkward (for details, see “A Chinese friend goes to Africa”), all Swift wanted was to find a place that would allow her to cook, have hot water for her bath, and relax after being at the (dusty) market
all day. She didn’t want a house all to herself, however. She explained to me that she wanted “to share with someone, that person already [has] kitchen and cooking tools in the house, so I won’t spend big money again.” Above all, she just wanted a nice house. How difficult could this expectation be, especially because she wasn’t picky about who her housemates would be?
It hadn’t occurred to Swift that being a woman could be an obstacle in a foreign country. Prior to this experience, the Chinese men she’s encountered in Ghana and Togo have been very helpful and generous. They have invited her for meals, given her rides to stores that sell Chinese products, communicated with the Chinese embassy on her behalf, transferred money to China for her no matter how small the amount, and given her legal advice, among other things. She had pointed out in earlier communications that age (it’s common that the men would be older than her) as well as the fact that she’s a petite woman and they’re all from China are reasons for these men to be kind to her. Of course, none of them were confronted by the issue of sharing a house, a space that is regarded as private, with my friend like the Chinese man who would be her new landlord. He did eventually agree (again) for her to move in, but after less than a week he raised the issue of her moving out. It wasn’t that Swift was a horrible tenant, who refused to pay rent or made a mess in the house. The landlord was a married man with a wife in China, so a woman’s presence in his house would constantly remind him that his sexual needs and desires were not being met. He found it difficult to view her just as his tenant. His openness harks back to my earlier blog, where I pointed out that China-Africa scholars have focused on African men’s sexuality in Guangzhou, China but not Chinese men’s in Africa (see, “What relationship China-Africa”).
Being a woman at that moment created a stressful situation for Swift, not wanting to be a problem to the landlord, who she views as a kind as well as honest man, and not wanting to be homeless in Lagos. “Only men stay in Africa. There isn’t a single girl like me stay [here],” Swift cried out of frustration. My friend’s experience reveals a situation that China-Africa scholars have yet paid sufficient attention to, and that is the male-female ratio and gender relations among Chinese actors in Africa, especially the relatively larger number of small-scale entrepreneurs. According to Swift, there are more Chinese men than women in Africa. In my own research, when I first started fieldwork in 2007/8 in South Africa (Johannesburg, in particular), it didn’t occur to me that the majority of people I interviewed were men. I had subconsciously accepted that migrants were naturally male, which is what most scholars have done as well. It was later, in 2011/12, when I was a postdoctoral fellow at Rhodes University that I observed a strong presence of Chinese women in all the shops I visited across the Eastern Cape province. They were at the cash registers or on the shop floors following customers. If there was a strong presence of Chinese women in the small towns that I visited, then was Swift wrong? Perhaps she hasn’t been in the right places to meet other Chinese women?
Swift wasn’t wrong. Her observation in fact reinforces the reality that there are different Chinese actors in different parts of Africa. The prominence of one group of Chinese actors in a particular African country cannot simply be projected onto another country. Context is important. In the instance of South Africa, it has a longer history and denser concentration of Chinese entrepreneurs than other African countries. The country’s economy and government are regarded as the most stable as well as infrastructure most developed on the continent. That is, the environment is conducive for foreign investment. Its proximity to other Southern African countries that are also economically strong makes the country an important springboard. At one end of the spectrum, South Africa has attracted financially endowed Chinese state-owned-enterprises in spite of the country’s strong labor unions. At the other end, the country has attracted larger numbers of independent small-scale entrepreneurs compared to other African countries (though that has gradually been changing). South Africa’s restrictive immigration policy gives preference to those with the means to invest or with special talents unavailable in the country. The policy’s aim to ensure employment for the domestic labor force reflects in the far fewer numbers of Chinese laborers in South Africa. In contrast, there are many more small-scale entrepreneurs or traders, who have set up retail and wholesale shops in the country.
Among my research participants, irregular migration into South Africa wasn’t uncommon. There were stories of entering the country via a third country or by applying for a study or tourist visa and subsequently overstaying – stories that underpin curiosities about “snakeheads,” but haven’t received as much attention as in the US or Europe (see Smuggled Chinese Travel Circuitously to the U.S., Human Smuggling from China and the 1996 Amendment to the U.S. Statutory Definition of Refugee, Snakeheads and Illegal Chinese Immigrants). Regardless of their means of entry, scholars and journalists (borrowing figures from one another) have estimated that there are at least 1 million Chinese on the continent. But, how many of them are men and how many are women? Is counting even possible?
More interesting about my friend’s above cry was her point about being one of a kind or an exceptional case in Africa. I’m not familiar with other African countries, but she would be absolutely correct if she was in South Africa. When I was there
doing fieldwork, there were very, very few independent women and even fewer who started as independent entrepreneurs. The Chinese women who were independent were mostly students or professionals, employees of Chinese or South African companies (including the Confucius Institutes). The majority of the women, however, were “wives” of men who have earned enough money to return to China to get “married” or daughters of entrepreneurs who needed extra help in their shops. The two terms, wives and married, are in quotation marks because the marriages were not necessarily legally bounded in China or South Africa. Such marriages were sanctioned by both set of parents’ verbal agreement. The couples referred to each other as husbands and wives, lived as married couples, and, even, had children in South Africa (these children often get sent home to China). Similar to daughters, who were brought to South Africa to assist with family businesses, the new wives (some are from the same hometown, but, due to the difference in bride prices, it’s common that they’re from neighboring villages) would travel to South Africa with their husbands to assist with their businesses or take care of household tasks. One male research participant
shared with me that he had brought his wife to South Africa because he wanted someone to wash his clothes and cook Chinese food for him. He didn’t want to hire a local (Black) woman, which is a common practice in South Africa. Not all returned to China to find wives. Some men married daughters of other Chinese entrepreneurs, who were already in South Africa. After marriage, these women would assist with the husbands’ businesses and their children would be sent to the husbands’ parents to be raised in China. These women share the sentiment that they wouldn’t survive on their own in Africa; and the men share the belief that a woman (e.g., like myself or my friend Swift) shouldn’t be in Africa alone.