The Canaan market in Guangzhou, China is a Yashow for African exporters. While occasional conflicts between traders and Chinese police have made headlines, Sam Gaskin looks at the daily reality of those trading there.
In many ways, The Canaan Export Clothes Wholesale Market is like any Chinese market.
Shopkeepers’ kids race past your knees on skateboards; there are large displays of plastic sunglasses; a woman boils cobs of corn to death outside. And yet some differences are immediately apparent. Canaan is, for instance, the only place a Chinese saleswoman has ever greeted me with the phrase, ‘How are you, brother?’ The Canaan market may take its name from the Middle East, but traders from that part of the world are mostly found in Yiwu, two hours by train from Shanghai. The Canaan market, on the other hand, caters almost exclusively to buyers from Africa – mostly West African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria.
Estimates as to the number of Africans in Guangzhou range widely, depending on how you count and whom you believe. In 2013, researcher Roberto Castillo posited that there were 10,000 Africans residing in Guangzhou with another 20-30,000 travelling through at any one time. Others, counting overstayers, place the total number as high as 200,000.
Walking from nearby Guangzhou Train Station towards the market, we pass buyers leaving with their purchases – huge plastic bags of clothing carried away on shoulders and heads. There are print shops with T-shirts in the window imploring people to vote for candidates such as ‘Hon.Nana Amoako [sic]’ as MP for Upper Dankyira East Constituency, a former district of Ghana.
Inside the market, fake Versace is popular, as are leopard prints, denim shirts with brown shoulder patches and reddish gold costume jewellery. I ask the price of a white, faux crocodile skin cap with the word ‘Swagg’ written in bolted-on silver covered acrylic. It’s 23RMB (Dhs13.70) per unit if I order 50 or more. Especially à la mode at the Canaan market are black T-shirts and hoodies printed with text reading ‘Alobam’ and ‘#NGNG’ in gold. ‘Alobam’ is a track by Nigerian rapper Phyno, who has an impressive flow and one of the best flattops since Fresh Prince-era Will Smith. It’s a great song – look it up.
Phyno’s 2014 album #NGNG is an acronym for ‘no guts, no glory’, a motto that befits the traders themselves. The pressure to turn a profit leads some to spend all of their capital on goods they send back to Africa. If their requests for visa extensions are denied, they can be left with insufficient funds to travel home, and thus fall on the wrong side of the law.
Anger about the Chinese government’s treatment of traders flared up in 2012 when an African died in police custody following a dispute over a taxi fare. People I spoke to had no complaints about the visa system. At one store, where Cameroon 2014 World Cup shirts were on sale for 20RMB (Dhs11.90), two men were finalising a deal with the shopkeeper. One of them, named Sam, told me he received a year-long H Visa thanks to a friend at the Nigerian embassy.
A 20-year-old from Madagascar named Aina, who said she worked for herself, told me ‘business is good’. She’s been in Guangzhou for two years and returns home every six months.
She plans to stay in China for four more years. Gloria, a Ghanaian who visits for a month or so at a time, likewise said she’d had no problems with the visa system.
Copyright violations are another concern for Chinese law enforcement, or at least one to which they pay lip service. Beneath the main sign for the Canaan market is a banner that says ‘Let’s say no to counterfeit and shoddy goods and build up a store of civilization and honesty together’. With fakes for sale inside, shopkeepers aren’t all that happy for you to take pictures – unless they think it will lead to sales.
Across the road from the market are several small African restaurants where tired-looking businessmen and women sit down to eat, often still on their phones with suppliers. When I ask for a table at one, Jessica, the owner, apologetically says that they only have African food to offer, even though the restaurant’s name, African Pot, gives customers a good idea of what they’re in for.
The food is mostly Ghanaian and Nigerian and the restaurant employs chefs from both countries. Jessica’s husband is also Ghanaian; when they visit Ghana, they bring back spices in their luggage.
‘Most of my customers only know this area,’ Jessica says. ‘They aren’t much interested in exploring Guangzhou.’ Business is okay, she allows, but explains that ‘the dollar wage went up in Ghana so fewer people are coming to China.’
No doubt more people would visit if business visas were forthcoming and renewing them was made more straightforward. But China still seems to tolerate, rather than treasure, foreigners conducting business here.
The Canaan Export Clothes Wholesale Market is open daily 10am-5.30pm with some stores staying open until 6pm. 94 Guangyuan Xi Lu, near Yaotai Xi Jie, Baiyun district.
Need to know
Cathay Pacific flies to Guangzhou, China via Hong Kong from Dhs1,835 return.