Food by VICE

Africans Immigrants Find a Taste of Home in Southern China

The city of Guangzhou is home to between 50,000 and 100,000 Africans, but they still struggle to be accepted as part of Chinese society.

by Kait Bolongaro and Hangwei Li
Nov 16 2016, 7:00pm

Jessica Luo decided to make smaller portions of African dishes to appeal to her Chinese clientele. Photo by Kait Bolangaro.

The sounds of African traders bargaining with Chinese vendors flood the streets in Sanyuanli. People flock to this district full of wholesale markets to purchase products—from clothing to wigs to electronics—in bulk, for a good price.

As China opened itself to trade with the rest of the world, pockets of immigrants began arriving to the mostly homogenous nation. The southern city of Guangzhou, dubbed "Chocolate City" in Mandarin, is now home to between 50,000 and 100,000 Africans.

After a day of business deals, dinner at an African restaurant is a popular way to unwind.

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Guangzhou's Sanyuanli neighborhood is often called "Little Africa." Photo by Hangwei Li.

"Food is very important for Africans," says Frank Millen, originally from Ghana. "They need their home food."

Millen opened the African Pot Restaurant three years ago with his wife, Jessica Luo, who is Chinese.

"Jessica is more Ghanaian than me," laughs Millen, smiling at his wife.

"I really like the people and the culture," says Luo. "Every time I go back to Ghana for holiday, I wish I could stay longer."

While the couple originally planned to only offer Ghanaian fare, the demand for dishes from across the continent saw them quickly expand into a Pan-African restaurant.

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The African Pot doubles as a community meeting place for many Africans in Guangzhou. Photo by Hangwei Li.

From jollof rice (the original jambalaya) to pap (a maize porridge), the restaurant serves specialties from across the continent. True to Millen's Ghanaian roots, West African fufu, made with cassava, is the best-selling dish.

At the bar, customers are greeted by a jar of golden liqueur. The couple makes the homebrewed alcohol by adding spices such as ginger and chili to akpeteshie, a West African palm wine spirit. However, the secret ingredient is kraman kote—a Ghanaian spice whose name translates to "dog's penis."

"In Ghana, kraman kote is considered an aphrodisiac for men while helping women with digestive issues," explains Millen.

Looking for a taste of home, customers jostle for tables as Africans from the continent's four corners wait to be seated. Some patrons come to the restaurant on a daily basis.

frank-millen-and-jessica-luo-owners-of-the-african-pot-photo-by-kait-bolongaro

Frank Mille and Jessica Luo, owners of The African Pot. Photo by Kait Bolongaro.

"It tastes like my mom's cooking," says South African Henry Motsemme, digging into a plate of pap and drumstick chicken. "I have been in Guangzhou for eight days and I have come here to eat every day."

Rémi Lusambya, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, agrees. He sips a local Tsingtao beer while waiting for his order of ugali and tilapia soup, specialties from East Africa.

"Eating here is a nice way to try different African dishes," he says.

fufu-right-served-with-a-variety-of-sauces-is-the-restaurants-best-selling-dish-photo-by-kait-bolongaro_

Fufu (right), served with a variety of sauces, is the restaurant's best-selling dish. Photo by Kait Bolongaro.
jackie-thomas-always-eats-at-the-african-pot-when-she-is-in-guangzhou-photo-by-kait-bolongaro Jackie Thomas always eats at The African Pot when she is in Guangzhou. Photo by Kait Bolongaro.

The offerings also have the approval of fellow Ghanaians. Jackie Thomas, from Accra, appreciates being able to relax a day spent negotiating business deals.

"I love coming here to enjoy a Ghanaian meal," she says. "I can't always eat Chinese food."

While popular among Guangzhou's African crowd, there are a few Chinese guests, some of whom have never tasted African food.

For Hugh Wong, it was the first time eating at an African restaurant. After ordering several dishes with his girlfriend, he was pleasantly surprised by the taste.

"We have had a nice experience here," he says. "The chicken is great and it's affordable. We will be back."

When the establishment first opened, owner Jessica Luo noticed that many local diners stared at the menu, unsure of what to order.

"Chinese customers like to order many small dishes, which is the opposite of the larger African portions," she explains.

Luo invented the Jungle Feast, a mini-buffet with small portions of different dishes, to allow her customers to try a variety of food. The combination has even become popular among the African clientele.

All of the restaurant's employees are Chinese—including the chef. Despite having worked in several African eateries, Guojun Li, from Canton province, has never traveled to the continent.

"Some customers are surprised when they meet me, but I learned how to prepare this cuisine from African chefs," he tells us.

this-jar-holds-a-special-alcohol-elixir-offered-to-guests-photo-by-kait-bolongaro

This jar holds a special alcoholic elixir offered to guests. Photo by Kait Bolongaro.
the-african-pots-customers-come-from-all-four-corners-of-africa-with-some-chinese-trying-the-cuisine-photo-by-kait-bolongaro The African Pot's customers come from all over Africa, with some Chinese as well. Photo by Kait Bolangaro.

According to Adams Bodomo, a professor at the University of Vienna, restaurants like the African Pot are an important social space for the African community in Guangzhou.

"African restaurants are places where Africans from different countries, faiths, and professions meet to interact with each other and develop community networks," he explains.

However, African migrants and their Chinese-born offspring struggle to be accepted as part of Chinese society. Chinese netizens have even set up online organizations that attempt to block Africans from coming to Guangzhou, such as Chinese Against Illegal Africans and the Anti-Black Africans Alliance.

Negative stereotypes and racism toward people of African descent can also be felt at the African Pot.

"I have had new staff members quit after a few hours simply because they aren't used to being surrounded by Africans," says Luo.

Dealing with law enforcement is also challenging. Because of the clientele's nationalities, local police occasionally visit the establishment, hoping to find undocumented workers and migrants.

"There have been incidents where the police have checked our clients' passports while they were eating," says Millen. "We spoke to them about our concerns, so now they have agreed to leave us be."

Despite the occasional hiccup, Millen and Luo are determined to make their restaurant a success.

"This job is tiring and stressful, but I am very happy to provide this service to the African community and let them feel home here," explains Luo.