BEIJING — Chinese companies have invested heavily in Africa in recent years and trade among Asian and African nations has soared. As their economic ties have grown, so have the number of African immigrants to China, now estimated at around half a million people.
Turay Lamin owns Africa House, the sole restaurant serving pan-African cuisine in Beijing. Although many of Turay’s staff and friends are new to China, he is not. Turay moved here in 1989 and says China was a part of his life even as a child... in Sierra Leone.
“There was a time when the Chinese were building a cross border-bridge about 10 minutes away from where I grew up and there were so many. That was the first time I saw so many non-Africans,” Lamin said.
The construction workers were also the reason he began learning Chinese at 13.
“My home was a bread-making one, a kind of catering, and we were supplying them with bread. They actually gave me a book, a Chinese book. That’s when I first learned the word 'xie xie' (thank you),” Lamin said.
Many Africans say they come to China for the opportunity to build their entrepreneurial dreams. Adams Bodomo is a professor at Hong Kong University, who spoke to VOA via Skype.
“These two parts of the world, China and Africa, are having closer and closer relations at the government level. You are also having closer and closer relations at the people to people level,” Bodomo said.
Rose Lin Zamoa moved here six years ago to work as a fashion model and start a catering business. She says China was a shock from her native Ghana. “I felt almost like an alien, if you know what I mean,” Zamoa said.
She says she is treated differently because of her race, but the questions she faces on a daily basis are more from curiosity than judgment.
“The kind of racism I experience here is completely different to the racism you would probably experience in America or in London, for example. And, by far, I prefer the kind of racism I get here in China because it’s kind of cute, in a way,” Zamoa said.
Many immigrants have more serious concerns with their treatment in China, where they complain they are routinely scrutinized by police. Their physical appearance makes them stand out, but Professor Bodomo says Africans are treated worse than other foreigners.
“This is a fact. You can see it for yourself. I have experienced it for myself. Africans in Guangzhou, on the streets of Guangzhou, are often stopped more than any other group of people in the world,” Bodomo said.
Despite the challenges, Rose says that, for her, Beijing now feels like home. She is able to bond with her Chinese friends and customers because of a shared passion -- food.
“The Chinese culture and the European culture is completely different. It’s very close to African culture. Very,” she said.
Although many immigrants like Rose say they eventually plan to leave China, restaurant owner Turay says he is here to stay. With more Africans moving to Beijing, he says business is booming.