Eman Okonkwo’s foot-tapping at the altar is not a sign of nerves. It’s anticipation. Today, he realizes a dream imagined by countless African merchants in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. He is marrying a Chinese bride.
Seven days earlier, Jennifer Tsang’s family was unaware of their daughter’s partner. Like many local women dating African men, the trader from Foshan had feared her parents would be racially prejudiced. Today, though they snuck into the underground Royal Victory Church, in Guangzhou, looking over their shoulders for police as they entered the downtown tower block. Non-state-sanctioned religious events like this are illegal on the mainland.
Okonkwo, 42, doesn’t have a single relative at the ceremony but is nevertheless delighted.
“Today is so special,” beams the Nigerian, “because I have married a Chinese girl. And that makes me half-African, half-Chinese.”
In Guangzhou, weddings like this take place every day. There are no official figures on Afro-Chinese marriages, but visit any trading warehouse in the city, and you will see scores of mixed-race couples running wholesale shops, their coffee-colored, hair-braided children racing through the corridors.
Little Africa, located in the Xiaobei district of Guangzhou, is home to the 20,000 to 200,000, mostly male, African migrants who live in the city (calculations vary wildly due to the itinerant nature of many traders and the thousands who overstay their visas). In the bustling 7km stretch from Sanyuanli to Baiyun, in northern Guangzhou, Muslim Uyghurs from the restive northwestern province of China serve freshly baked Xinjiang bread to Angolan women balancing shopping bags on their heads. Somalis in flowing Muslim robes haggle over mobile phones before exchanging currency with Malians in leather jackets, who buy lunch from Turks sizzling tilapia on street grills, and then order beer from the Korean waitress in the Africa Bar.
Africans began pouring into China after the collapse of the Asian Tigers in 1997 prompted them to abandon outposts in Thailand and Indonesia. By exporting cheap Chinese goods back home, traders made a killing, and word spread fast.
With the arrival of numerous African men in Guangzhou, Afro-Chinese romances began to blossom. Amadou Issa, 36, came to China in 2004 from Niger. He arrived at Baiyun International Airport with US$300, simply wanting “to survive.” Today, he owns a five million yuan flat in Zhujiang New Town, Guangzhou’s smartest district, drives a car worth US$64,000 and speaks Putonghua. He ships up to 200 containers home each year – full of construction materials. Per Issa, “they’re the most lucrative.” He averages US$2,000 per container.
Issa married a Chinese woman. “She used to work for a company I ordered from,” he says. “We had a Chinese wedding and a Muslim wedding. Her name was Xie Miemie, but I renamed her Zena.” Zena is from Hainan Island, and Issa was the first African man her family had ever seen. “Initially, they were unsure about me, but now, when I’m not there, they ask my wife, ‘Where is your import husband?'” Issa chuckles.
Outside Little Africa, however, racism remains deep-seated, says Gordon Mathews, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “I know three or four relationships where the couple had expected it to lead to marriage, but as soon as the Chinese family met the African boyfriend, they had to end it,” he says.
In most cases, however, the African bachelors in Guangzhou are good prospects who own a car, have a stable income and speak Putonghua. Forty percent of African migrants surveyed in Guangzhou for the book “Africans in China” (2012), by former University of Hong Kong professor Adams Bodomo, had received a tertiary education – some even held a Ph.D.
Lin believes most African men in Guangzhou marry Chinese women to advance their business deals. “Opening a shop is very difficult for foreigners, you need a Chinese passport,” she says. “A Chinese wife can speak to suppliers. It’s useful to have a Chinese partner. Many Chinese women want to marry Africans because they are from poor rural areas. Marrying a foreigner is a way to upgrade their social status because the Africans have money.”
Genuine devotion, however, undeniably underpins many Afro-Chinese romances. Pastor I.G., of the Royal Victory Church, has a Chinese wife, and children. He met Winnie, a native of Guangdong Province, at church and the pair are united in their evangelic mission. Their tactile body language speaks volumes about their union.
But a Chinese wife cannot solve an African migrant’s biggest problem: his visa. “When Nigerians land at Baiyun Airport many throw away their passports,” Lin says. “They only get seven- to 30-day visas – it’s not enough time to make their fortunes.” Overstayers face a 12,000 yuan fine and must pay for their 6,000-yuan air ticket out of the country.
In 2010, Bodomo predicted that in 100 years’ time “an African-Chinese ethnic minority group could be demanding self-identity and full citizenship rights in the heart of Guangzhou.” But that’s already happening.
In 2012, Ojukwu Emmanuel, 42, formed the Nigerian-Chinese Family Forum. Comprised of 200 mixed-race couples and their offspring, it campaigns the Public Security Bureau (PSB) for longer and more lenient visas for those with families. Then in 2015, the Nigerian government opened the second Consulate of Nigeria in China, in Guangzhou (the first being in Beijing), giving its citizens abroad stronger official support.
“The future of families with one foreign parent is precarious,” says Roberto Castillo, a lecturer in African studies at the University of Hong Kong. Rising labor costs, stricter visa legislation and a downturn in the Chinese economy means many Africans are now considering leaving China. But others like Pastor I.G. remain hopeful. He and his wife have three Afro-Chinese children. The eldest have Chinese passports, and the couple intends to get Chinese citizenship for their youngest son. What do they envisage for their children’s future?
“Maybe one day my son will become a Chinese Obama,” he says.