A HIGHWAY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, BUT THAT’S NOT the way it feels. Even after midnight, the cabs weave an invisible web as they glide from one lane to the other in search of the fastest way through. Compared to Kinshasa, however, the traffic is quiet as a graveyard. Not much honking. No rumbling DAF trucks of prehistoric vintage, driving at a snail’s pace and discharging a cloud of diesel fumes thick as marsh gas. No battered VW vans with thirty passengers or more on wooden benches, the last row dangling their legs out the back. And absolutely no holes the size of a volcanic crater in the asphalt. The green and white cab skims over a busy eight-lane highway through endlessly expanding suburbs, past drab residential housing blocks. Closer to the center of town we cross highway overpasses suspended between office buildings and apartment complexes. Sometimes there is a highway above us and one below. A vertical loom. And below, much further below, we see little food stands with lanterns and bright-red neon signs. Guangzhou.
I’m sharing the taxi with three Congolese; we’re on our way in from the airport. We left Kinshasa a day ago. Kenya Airways brought us first to Nairobi, where we waited for seven hours, and then, after a stop in Bangkok, to Guangzhou, seven time zones to the east. The other flight path goes by way of Dubai. From its hub at Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Airlines also uses that route. In the last few years both airlines have started offering almost a dozen weekly flights between the African continent and southern China, flights that leave with an empty hold and return full to the brim. “Why would we take clothes with us? We can buy them there, can’t we?”
The first time out, Dadine had been a bit wary. “Right after takeoff I went to the toilet. I hid all my money and my passport beneath my clothes, because I’d heard you had to watch out for the Nigerians. They drug you with something and then they take everything you have. I had fifteen hundred dollars with me that time: the big traders go with as much as twenty thousand dollars in their pocket. You have to stay on your toes.”
The cab driver is in no danger. Plastic bars have been installed behind his and the passenger seat. We, prisoners in the backseat, are kept entertained. The seats are comfortable, and at the base of the plastic bars is a built-in TV screen showing cartoons and commercials for skin cream. The volume is turned down low. One of the Congolese is up in front, talking to the driver about the fare. They’ve been at it for twenty minutes already. He, Georges, speaks fluent Cantonese. After a few years in Guangzhou he has the language down pat. I knew that almost all Congolese are multilingual and learn new languages easily, even when they are older, but that a person could learn Chinese without going to school was more than I could imagine. Georges didn’t think it was anything special. One young African woman had taught herself the language within three months.
The taxi takes us to the area close to the Tianxiu Building, in the north of town, right beside busy Huanshi Dong Lu and Guangzhou’s big inner ring, a neighborhood of dilapidated high-rises, TV towers, switching yards, and messy urbanization. In recent years, a real African neighborhood has arisen here. This section of the city is home to about a hundred thousand Africans, most of them here only very temporarily. This is where Georges has his cargo office, alongside hundreds of others. His sector is “air and ocean freight, full and groupage container,” as his impressive business card says. In the days that follow I notice that all Africans here have equally impressive cards, flashy cardboard rectangles printed in English, French, and Chinese and showing six different mobile numbers, in China and in Africa. The streets around the Tianxiu feature a host of hotels offering, for twenty dollars a night, extremely comfortable double rooms. Those hotels are full of Africans. I will spend the next ten days in the New Donfranc Hotel and not see a single Westerner.
The taxi drops us off at a pedestrian way crowded with men and women, Chinese and Africans. After checking in, I go out to explore the neighborhood; the shops, as it turns out, are open round the clock and sell shoes, suitcases, T-shirts, mobile phones, and lingerie. The streets are lined with farmers wearing reed hats and peddling piles of fruit completely unfamiliar to me: apples smaller than cherries, still on the branch, and grapefruits bigger than soccer balls, which are peeled patiently and skillfully; beside wooden handcarts bearing tanks of butane, men in sleeveless T-shirts are wokking like mad, the sweat pouring from their faces; they mix up noodles, pak-choi cabbage, and oyster sauce, sway the pan to and fro, fill little Styrofoam containers. Suddenly a shrill whistle rings out: the police are coming and they all race off with their handcarts, the gas fires still burning vigorously—the blue flames flicker like torches, the oil hisses hysterically, soy sauce flies in all directions—and within a matter of seconds they have disappeared into a darkened alleyway amid the garbage cans and fleeing rats, leaving the customer alone on the shopping street, bewildered and supperless. I buy a kilo of mandarin oranges from an old farmer; he weighs them on a bamboo scale that he holds up in front of his piercing eyes; I pay in a currency that is strange to me, not even knowing if they think in kilograms around here, and nod by way of thanks, wondering whether that’s actually the appropriate gesture. The little man with the weathered face, in any event, smiles, baring two rotten teeth. My hotel is not a separate building, but part of a labyrinthine mall where hundreds of boutiques sell the same gold necklaces, imitation Nokias and soccer shirts, Barça jerseys, Chelsea jerseys, and Dutch national team jerseys reading: Ruud van Nistelrooy, number 9. I locate the elevator doors that lead to the hotel, but when I climb out on the sixth floor, I find myself not in the corridor with rooms on each side, but in a darkened space completely unfamiliar to me. The situation has something dreamlike about it; the strains of stringed music cut through the darkness, two koi carp swim slowly in a softly lit aquarium, and, as I stand there with the bag of mandarin oranges in my hand, gradually coming to terms with having taken the wrong elevator, an extremely charming young lady comes up and asks if I am here for the “very special massage.”
Later, when I finally reach my hotel room, I see that the display containing city maps also features a decree noting that “according to the Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Administrative Penalties for Public Security whoring legally forbidden is” because, as it turns out, “recently some aliens suffered stealing or robbery during whoring.” What a thing to have happen to you, pity the poor alien; nevertheless, the same display contains three packages of condoms, two packaged pairs of panties (“Antisepsis & Healthy”), and four packets of the unfamiliar South Pole (“Liexin Resispance [sic] the Germ Liquid”); as that description clarifies very little indeed, I read on the back that the product is made from natural Chinese herbs and effectively kills 99.9 percent of all bacteria “for male and female privates itch and other social disease.”
Night has come, but it doesn’t feel that way; the jetlag and the deluge of impressions keep me awake for hours; sleepless, I zap past thirty-six channels full of screaming samurai and businessmen in the throes of debate and become stranded at last in the middle of a game show in which candidates in colorful outfits have to negotiate a perilous obstacle course; very few of them succeed, most end up ignominiously in a tank full of water, to the vast merriment of the audience and the host, who seize the chance to laugh at them mercilessly. It is 4 A.M., I miss Kinshasa and slide open the curtains; on the other side of the courtyard, in a smoky room two floors down, four bare-chested men are playing mahjong under dingy neon lighting—a gambling hall, an opium den, who’s to say. Their voices are just out of range, but every once in a while I see them rise to their feet and shout at each other furiously.
JULES BITULU SAW IT ALL CHANGE. I met him in his office on the tenth floor of the Taole building, in the hectic business district of Dashatou. “In 1993 I was the only African here. Along with a Chinese partner, I started a company in Shunde, not far from here; two years later we moved to the city center. To the Chinese I was a creature from outer space, an attraction. There was no racism back then, more like curiosity. Wherever I went they pulled up a chair for me right away. Now there are about two or three thousand Congolese living here. Most of them come from Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Goma, and Bukavu. Five hundred of them have no visa and live here illegally. Some of them get into trouble with drugs, but there are also lots of Nigerians here who carry Congolese passports.”
Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong Province, an area five hundred kilometers (310 miles) in diameter with about one hundred million inhabitants, almost twice the entire population of Congo. It was here, back in the late 1970s, long before Shanghai, that Deng Xiaoping relaxed the reins of the planned economy for the first time. It was, after all, his home region. The great distance between the coast and Beijing made it a safe laboratory for an experiment in liberalization. What’s more, Guangdong is located right across from the even-freer Hong Kong and Macau, and so could enter competition with them. Thirty years later, it is the manufacturing center of the world. The province is the leading global producer of air-conditioning units, microwave ovens, computers, telecom systems, and LED lighting. Guangdong is the third largest exporter of textiles and makes 30 percent of all our planet’s shoes. The factories of Shenzhen export toys to all corners of the globe, and until recently produced two-thirds of all the world’s artificial Christmas trees—not bad for an officially atheistic region. This tightly circumscribed area accounts for 12 percent of the Chinese economy and more than one-quarter of the country’s total exports. That astounding success was due in part to a system of highly subsidized raw materials, but the financial crisis of 2008 gave the region a major buffeting—the Chinese state-owned banks remained solvent, but foreign customers disappeared. Hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs. Today an attempt is being made to transform a serial production economy, based solely on export, into an innovative, knowledge-based industrial center that can also serve a fast-growing local market. And that seems to be working: in the crisis year 2008, telecom giant Huawei closed contacts worth more than $23 billion, an increase of 46 percent.
With its propitious location in the delta of the Pearl River, Guangzhou has always been a spot for international trade. It constituted the point of departure for the maritime silk route and established contacts with Christianity and Islam early on. The city still has a lovely mosque, dating back to perhaps as early as the seventh century, the century when Islam arose, and a Catholic cathedral of much more recent date. Persians, Arabs, Portuguese, and Dutchmen found their way here. Little surprise, therefore, that today as well it is the hub for new foreign trade relations, this time with Africa.
Bitulu came to China on a scholarship in 1988. He was part of a group of seventeen Zairians selected to attend university in Beijing in the context of friendly ties between the two nations. The first year was taken up by a mandatory linguistics course, followed by four years of computer science. Today his Mandarin Chinese is better than that of most Cantonese (according to Beijing, Cantonese is not a language but a variation on Mandarin, the standard language), and he draws Chinese characters at a pace equaled by few foreigners. An African who can write in Chinese, that takes some getting used to.
One day, during his linguistics year, he saw the word democracy written on the wall of the administration building.
I wondered: what’s going on here? I had noticed some unrest, but I didn’t understand. There was nothing about it on TV. Our professors warned us not to go to Tiananmen, but I took the bus there and saw that the square was packed with students. There were no classes being held, everything had been suspended. At the university I saw two coffins; occupied or vacant, I couldn’t be sure. Back at my apartment I saw, from the ninth floor, the American students being picked up by a minivan from the embassy. The students from the former French colonies, like Gabon, were also leaving. We, the Zaïrians, were the last to go, then our consul picked us up too. On the way to the embassy we saw burned-out army trucks along the street. There was a massacre going on. The Japanese students told us later that it was very well organized, with trucks to pick up the bodies and cleaning crews. We slept on the floor of the embassy for nine days. It was cold and there was no food.
As a recently qualified computer-science engineer in a land full of recently qualified computer-science engineers, Bitulu did not find a job right away, but he possessed another talent: music. During his student days he had already led a band manned by the few Congolese students present in Beijing, and now he joined a traveling Chinese orchestra. “We spent six months going from village to village in the interior. I visited the provinces of Guangxi, Hunan, Yunnan, Huizhou, and Sichuan. At first I only played guitar, later I sang in Chinese too. For the audiences, that was a real attraction. But I didn’t feel comfortable. I never saw another Congolese and we didn’t eat well, only that Chinese food.” His experiences remind one of the fate of the Congolese who had built their huts at the Tervuren expo a century earlier. Then too, a black person was more circus attraction than human being.
But later, after I had already started my business, I kept playing. At the weekend I played in a reggae band in Hong Kong, at the Africa Bar. Later on I sang Chinese songs in bars and restaurants, sometimes three sets a day, sometimes six days a week. I earned good money. I sang in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. Un Congolais, c’est bizarre. I played in big hotels. Lots of karaoke, too. My work took me all the way to the Mongolian border. In 2000, when I had a gig in Beijing, I met six Congolese students who were here without work and without a visa. I took them back with me to Guangzhou. That was the start of the Congolese community here. They worked in the discos. That phenomenon was becoming immensely popular. After that everyone left the music scene and started their own businesses.
From sideshow attraction to migration pioneer. Bitulu had been more or less the Peter Stuyvesant of Congo, I realize. He turns out to be a gifted storyteller and very well informed. During our talk, I fill ten pages with notes. He tells me how it had all started in Guangzhou in 2000, when a group of West Africans, Senegalese, and Malians, arrived within a few months of each other. They stayed at a Muslim hotel close to Tianxiu. He tells me how easy it was to obtain a visa back then, even for six months, even for a year. What a difference compared to the situation today, where you’re lucky to receive a visa for just two weeks, he sighs, where people go underground once their visa runs out and risk prison sentences of one to six months. “The situation is becoming unbearable, even for people with an official visa or residence permit, like me. The flights keep getting more expensive, the price of merchandise has gone up, transport is pricy, the Congolese customs costs are sky-high, and the market in Kinshasa has become saturated.”
He’s not homesick for Congo. “I’ve really become permeated with Chinese culture. The Congolese should organize themselves better, the way the Chinese do. They should start working collectively, but they don’t want to do that, even though that would help them to negotiate much better prices. It’s like a virus. The contract that Congo signed with China, that was badly negotiated too. No one in the Congolese delegation spoke Chinese. Now China is going to build a few roads, quickly, which no one will keep up.” What he says is what many Congolese in China are thinking: this deal, the biggest in their country’s history, was a rush job; the country has been sold downriver for a little pocket money. “I’m perfectly willing to admit that I’m ashamed to be Congolese. Since independence, Congo has never been a real country. Nothing there works. All the people think about are their own wallets. In twenty years’ time, I’ve seen China develop.” In the villages where Bitulu went to sing his songs in 1990, less than 5 percent of the families had a television in 1990; by late 2006 that was 90 percent.1 “I’ve watched Vietnam grow. I’ve been to Dubai and I was amazed. It’s a desert, right, but flowers grow there, they put tubes under the lawns. No, they’ve done a good job of developing their country. If God had put the Congolese out in the desert, would they have done the same? Papa, c’est fini! It’s not the white people’s fault, or Mobutu’s fault, that things are going so badly at home; they’re just the scapegoats—that’s all over and done with. Look at the Chinese. They learn from Europe and they know that there’s no magic involved, only hard work.”2
THE DASHATOU BUSINESS DISTRICT is dedicated entirely to electronics. There are shopping malls just for digital cameras, next to shopping malls for laptops or LCD screens. After my meeting with Bitulu, I seize the chance to get lost there. That leads me to a windowless megastore where they sell only cell phones. Hundreds of boys and girls man the little stalls there; when they get hungry, they duck down behind the cash register and wolf down a paper cup of noodles. Participative observation being unequaled as ethnographic methodology, I inspect their wares. “Chinese copy!” they say frankly when I hold up something that looks like a perfect iPhone. “This one good copy. This one bad copy.” That seems clear enough. “This one original.” No, I’m not interested in anowigina. A real fake seems much more original to me, especially since these copy phones offer features the original does not, like room for two SIM cards, useful for the frequent traveler. In the brave new world, the line between real and fake fades. Fake is no flimsy replica, but technological avant-garde. And so I buy a few fake iPhones and imitation Ericssons for about fifty dollars apiece. Back in Kinshasa I will sell a couple of them to help pay for my ticket home. What I don’t know at this point is that I should have bought thirty of them instead of five: within a single day, I will sell them for many times the price I paid.
At one of the stands I meet Enson, a young, hyperactive Chinese who, installing SIM cards and replacing batteries all the while, speaks to me in fluent Lingala. No, he’s never been to Congo, he says, he works in this windowless space every day, but a lot of his customers are from Kinshasa. He doesn’t speak French, though: without realizing it, however, half the technical jargon he uses consists of French words. “Ozana besoin sim mibale?” (Do you need one with a double SIM card?) “Ay, papa, accessoires mpo modèle oyo eza te.” (Sir, this model has no accessories.)
THE TIANXIU BUILDING is a multilevel shopping mall with bright neon lights and a cacophony of Muzak. The narrow corridors consist of tiny glass shops where extremely extroverted merchants ply their wares. Many of these shops are outlets for factories elsewhere in Guangdong. Along a twenty-meter (sixty-five-foot) length of corridor I see industrial batik textiles, flip-flops, sneakers, boots, dress suits, jogging suits, T-shirts, g-strings, jewelry, cell-phone chargers, cell phones, electric fans, antimosquito coils, chainsaws, generators, motor scooters, and drum sets. As soon as the customer comes in, the salesperson jumps to his feet. Your wish is their command. Lengths of cloth are unfolded and put away again. Suits are lifted down off the rack with a stick and held up to see if they fit. The verbal communication is a disaster, but the adding machine always saves the day. This results in absolute gems of pantomime. The merchant types in his asking price in renminbi, as the yuan is called these days, and holds up the little screen for the customer to see. The African converts this to dollars, frowns, says: “No, no, no!” and types in a price that is half that. The Chinese smiles but looks pained, shakes his head and punches in a number that hurts him less. Upon which the African rests his arms in despondency on the glass counter and casts a bored look out the window. After a dramatic pause full of inconsolable longing and deep indignation, he keys in a new number and turns the calculator around for the merchant to see. This goes on for a time, back and forth, until the African makes as if to leave for another shop and new sources of possible friendship are found after all.
One shop sells only g-strings, including a fantastic model printed with the Angolan flag. The strings and triangles bear the national red and black colors; the Communist logo—a gear, a machete, and a star against the jubilant yellow of dawn—is printed at vulva level. When I ask cautiously what it might cost, it turns out they are sold only by the thousand. “Thousand,” the woman says, “not one,” as she types in a one and three zeros on her calculator.
Dadine is hesitating over a few pairs of jeans. The price, seven dollars, appeals to her; in Kin she can get thirty-five for them, but jeans are so heavy in her baggage. That means she can’t take as many with her, and the way customs is at home . . . She’s going to think about it a bit first. “At home it’s a war zone. You come back from China, exhausted, and the customs people at the airport pounce on you while you’re still waiting for your bags. They demand thirty dollars a bag to let you through, sometimes even up to a hundred, but often enough they just open your baggage with a pen or a key and take a shirt or a pair of pants, right before your eyes.”
The sisters Fatima and Fina, rare Congolese Muslims, are in a fix. I met them on the plane and a few days later I see them sitting on a bench, recovering from their bout of shopping. They had been planning to fill a sea container with cans of tomato puree, they explain to me, a twenty-foot container, not forty, those are too expensive, but at the factory they were told that the order could not be ready before December. That means the cans would arrive in Kinshasa no sooner than February, too late for the year-end parties they had been counting on. Maybe they should try their luck with nutmeg? But then again, the price of nutmeg rose from $7,200 to $8,200 a metric ton (2,200 pounds) between January and October 2008, and a container easily holds twelve metric tons (over thirteen U.S. tons). And then the transport! It costs $5,600 to have a twenty-foot container shipped to Matadi, $10,000 for a forty-foot container. Plus you have the import duties, and Congolese customs are the most expensive in the world: up to $15,000 for a small container, $20,000 for a big one. They explain it all to me. The official rates are, as always, negotiable, but a lot of people these days prefer to have their cargo shipped to Pointe Noire in Congo-Brazzaville. Maybe that’s what they should do? The container would be brought by truck to Brazzaville and then their hundreds of bags of nutmeg would be loaded onto the ferry to Kinshasa, where the cargo handling is traditionally done by people in wheelchairs, because they don’t have to pay as much for the crossing. Crippled porters, I’ve seen that with my own eyes. The handicapped people I spoke to considered it an acquired right to accept pay for loading their wheelchair with sacks, piled so high they couldn’t see over them, and then roll onto the boat as a passenger.
Lina is, without a doubt, the most successful young businesswoman I’ve met. Within four days she has had two large sea containers filled with building materials: tiles, doors, air-conditioning units, glazed earthenware, sinks and toilets, and lighting fixtures. In Kinshasa these days you find Aomeikang brand toilets, Meijiale brand sinks, Hefei Chenmeng brand fire alarms, and, yes, even Wij Mei brand toilet paper. Lina’s first container is already sealed; now she is looking around for a couple of plasma screens to go in the second one. When she’s done with that, she’s going to have some clothes made for herself. She brought along a few photographs from an African magazine, it’s up to the Chinese to do the copying. The only thing is: she has this nasty pain in her stomach. Her niece came along with her this time; the younger woman wonders whether it might be a good idea for them to undergo fertility treatment in China. Why, after all, buy only goods when there are also services to be had? But Lina will become acquainted with the Chinese medical system sooner than she thought. When I see her again a few days later, she tells me she went to a clinic. The nasty pain in her stomach was an inflamed appendix. “Normally, I would go to South Africa for an operation,” she says, “but this time I’m going to have it done in China. They say Chinese medicine is good.”
THE AFRICAN GROUP MIGRATION TO GUANGZHOU is becoming a factor of growing significance. More and more people are arriving all the time and becoming a deeper part of the country itself. Some of the migrants share a home as though they were family: while everyone is out buying goods, one of them stays home to prepare the most African meal possible with the available ingredients. Others eat with chopsticks as though they have never done otherwise. One Congolese man had started a café and dance hall, Chez Edo, which every African I spoke to said was the most fun place in the whole megalopolis, but the government closed it down because he didn’t have the right papers. Others have started barber shops or design clothes. Homosexuals, who have a bitterly hard time of it in Africa, have discovered new possibilities in China and have no plans to return home. I met a young Congolese gay man who had been disowned by his family in Kinshasa, but had started a relationship with a Nigerian in China. For him, China was not the land of repression, but of freedom.
One of the big merchants, Monsieur Fule, is informally recognized as “chairman of the Congolese community in Guangzhou.” Neither the function nor the organization itself are official, but the role he plays is rather like that of consul. Anyone arriving in town goes by to talk to him. When I meet him, he is sitting at a desk covered in women’s shoes. “I’ve been here for nine years and I have a residence permit,” he says confidently. Fule was one of the needy students who Jules Bitulu convinced to go with him from Beijing to Guangzhou. “But for foreigners without a visa, the Chinese have a prison. The golden years are over. Commerce here has become slippery ground, but in Congo it’s even much worse. Our country is destitute and things aren’t getting any better. Everything is dirty, but thanks to China everyone is now at least dressed properly.” He is fairly positive about the big contract between the two countries. “It may sound a bit vague,” he says, “but people have been stealing ore from Congo for years already. Now at least there are billions of dollars being paid for it. Congo is still flat on its rear end,” he concludes from behind his wall of ladies’ footwear, “but we’ll go back someday anyway. The Congolese migrants in Europe don’t care about their country; their social life takes place there, but those of us here in China realize that commerce alone is not enough to satisfy us. Someday we’ll go back.”3
One Sunday morning I enter office number 3105, on the thirty-first floor of the Tianxiu Building, high above the shops. It is a sparsely furnished space with a worn-out carpet, but a Congolese merchant has set up his own church here under the ambitious-sounding name Église Internationale pour la Réconciliation. Prayer meetings are held three times a week; on Sundays there are two services of three hours each. As I enter, I noticed that, in this particular diaspora, God has lost a little of his sparkle. He matches the interior. There are only eight worshipers, including the Chinese keyboard player. During a lengthy meditation on a Bible verse, the preacher says: “God’s word is like the rain. It only rises back up to Heaven after watering the earth, so that we know . . .” “WHAT SUCCESS IS!” the congregation answers in unison. This game of call and response is nothing new to them. “In all our . . .” “PROJECTS!” “So that they all may . . .” “SUCCEED!”
Then the congregation stands to pray. Their eyes closed and arms raised, they talk out loud, beseeching the Lord loudly for strength and commercial insight. The pastor also asks them to pray for notre frère David, who is here today for the first time. During the singing afterward the Africans dance limberly, while the Chinese organist simply shifts his weight back and forth from one foot to the other. “It’s not easy for them,” the evangelist tells me afterward, “they don’t know much at all. They don’t even know who Abraham is. If you have to explain all that first . . .”
THAT AFTERNOON I pass by the home of Patou Lelo, a trader who sends a hundred to a hundred and fifty containers to Africa each month. He took his MBA at Wuhan and now lives in a modest apartment on the ground floor of a housing block where the sun rarely enters. His daughter, who is almost two, is playing on the carpet. She has African features, but Chinese eyes. Her skin has a warm, ochre tint to it.
When I first got here a lot of people asked whether they could touch my skin. They thought I was Chinese, but that I had stayed out in the sun too long and would soon turn white again. When I walked down the street with my girlfriend, a lot of people thought she was my interpreter, or even a prostitute. We’ve been married for two and half years. Her mother was dead set against it. “It’s either him or us!” she said, but my wife’s stepfather didn’t make a fuss. “Listen, he’s a calm and serious man,” he said. In Congo, it was the same way: my father didn’t give a damn, but my mother was very upset. She didn’t accept my wife until after our child was born. In China, the family is as sacred as it is in Congo; it’s not like in Europe, where the couple is the most important thing. Here the grandparents are very important, we care for them. The couple with one child and the grandparents, that’s the nuclear family here.
Atop a chest of drawers are some photographs of Lelo’s wedding. They show him and his wife in traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Western outfits. A radiant couple. His nephew and his brother flew in from Congo for the wedding; the entire Congolese community in Guangzhou was there. Still, things here are not always easy, he admits.
It’s a totally different culture, and diametrically opposed to our Congolese one. The Chinese are hypernationalistic. My wife will automatically start defending someone, simply because they’re Chinese. She’s atheistic too. Not many Chinese are religious, or maybe they’re Buddhists, but that’sune petite religion. Here they burn their dead. That’s hard for us to take. When a Congolese person dies, the community gets together to raise money to have the body flown back. In economic terms, the Chinese are highly developed, but they’re morally backward. That spitting on the floor in big restaurants . . . Although I have to admit that Chinese women are much more open than the men, my wife certainly is.
He knows he’s lucky; racism is rapidly becoming more common in Guangzhou. More and more taxi drivers refuse to take a Congolese fare. They no longer call them hçi rén (blacks), but hçi gŭi (black devils). The streets around Tianxiu are known as the neighborhood of the black devils or chocolate city. If an African woman touches the vegetables at the market, the sellers will sometimes throw them away.
“But the blacks themselves are partly to blame. They don’t integrate, they don’t adapt. The drugs gangs of Nigerians and people from Sierra Leone give us a bad name, while a lot of Congolese people here work very hard.” Harder than in Congo, Lelo insists. “Look, people who are a hundred percent honest don’t exist in Congo. They’re always out to make some easy money fast. They don’t understand the principle of investment, because the family always takes all the money. There’s no room for reinvestment. But here there’s more distance between the businessperson and the family, you understand?”
Everyone in his own family has emigrated—his brother lives in Spain, his sister in France, another sister in Manhattan; his old mother was the only one who stayed behind in Kinshasa. Many Congolese go abroad to escape suffocating family ties. The oft-praised African solidarity has something touching about it in times of crisis, but in times of reconstruction it generates an infernal logic that makes long-term projects impossible: the little bit of money that is available is immediately distributed to feed many hungry mouths. Reinvestment and planning are not highly valued. In China, things are much easier. There are no uncles and nephews to accuse you of sorcery when you refuse to share the little bit of money you’ve earned; witchcraft in Congo is the ultimate argument for enforcing solidarity.
“No one here ever talks about witchcraft,” Lelo says, visibly relieved to be rid of that higher metaphysics. In Congo, many people have turned to the Pentecostal churches to protect themselves from witchcraft, but this morning I witnessed how little need there is of that in China. “Fake pastors and false shepherds only proliferate in Congo because of the poverty, but here work is more important than religion.”4
THAT EVENING I stop in at the office run by Georges, the man who picked me up from the airport. Even on Sunday, he is hard at work. “We have to work while we’re still young,” he says, “because someday we’ll be old.” His transport company’s motto is Vous server, c’est notre devoir (serving you is our duty) and that is definitely no empty slogan. Two employees, César and Timothée, drag huge cardboard boxes around and lug them up onto a scale, where they can barely even read the display. Georges is on the phone constantly. Can that container be sealed yet? How many tons can still go in? When does the truck leave? Has someone already gone to the airport? Wait a minute, David, how many kilos of baggage allowance have you still got? What, forty kilos! But what have you been doing for the last few days? Didn’t you buy anything at all? Only five cell phones and two suits? Forty kilos, are you sure? Do you want to sell them? Fourteen dollars a kilo, okay?
And while I am literally selling thin air, at the back of the little office, two Chinese staff members, Iso and Jodo, are filling out forms. Iso, a young woman with a delicate-looking pair of reading glasses, flips through a dictionary; she’s trying to learn English and French. Working for a Congolese trader is a good way to earn some money and to brush up on your languages. On the wall is a DHL poster and a world map with China in the middle: Europe and America have become outlying areas, Asia and Africa constitute the new center. European-American relations may have been the most important intercontinental contacts of the twentieth century, but Sino-African relations will be those of the twenty-first.
A printed sentence in Lingala is hanging on the wall: “svp Ndeko awa ezali esika ya mosala” (Dear friend, this is a place of work). “I printed that out and hung it up there,” Georges says, “because otherwise the Congolese come in here and want to chew the fat all day.” The Congolese in Guangzhou are incredibly industrious. One of the traders I called for an interview told me: “Today I’m much too busy, but tomorrow I have forty minutes for you. Will that be enough?” Vastly different from Congo, where almost everyone is available all the time, and where most people are disappointed when you make moves to leave after only four hours.
When the two cargo personnel are done with their weighing and stacking, they suggest we go out for a beer. Right next door is a snack bar with a few chairs out on the pavement. Darkness has already fallen, but in Guangzhou nighttime is a relative notion. We sit on the sidewalk and watch the girls from the massage parlor across the street. They wear white robes and a red ribbon draped over their shoulder. They are experts in the traditional techniques of Chinese massage, and they are trying to draw in customers. For a real massage, César explains, not “the very special one.”
César is in a class all his own. His eyes are bloodshot and his voice vacillates between mirth and blues. In Congo he was a police commander for years; “Commandant César” was what he still liked to be called. He served under Mobutu, Kabila père, and Kabilafils.
You still had the tough training back then. I once spent two days standing in a pool of water, up to my chest. Dirty, filthy water, if you fell into it you were dead. Or four days’ guard duty, on your feet the whole time, without sleeping, no problem. But in 2002 I’d had enough. My whole family had taken off, all six of them. My parents were the only ones who stayed behind, with my sister to take care of them. I went to Thailand and from Thailand I tried to get to Germany. A friend of mine who was already in Germany sent me his passport by DHL. But when I got to the German border, the immigration people saw that something was wrong. I was thrown into jail for a month, then put on a flight back to Thailand. From there I traveled around to all the countries: Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Korea, the Philippines . . . I had to move every month to keep my passport valid. That’s how I ended up in China, but my visa has already expired. They could come and pick me up any time.
He puts down his glass and shouts to the proprietress in Cantonese that he wants another beer. The alleyway is drab. On the ground beside our plastic chairs is a fat rat that doesn’t move but keeps chewing on something the whole time. “I met a beautiful woman here, a woman with long black hair. She came from western China. She didn’t look Chinese at all, more Indian or Russian, I don’t know.” Uighur, probably, but I don’t interrupt him. Timothée is plucking at the label on his beer bottle. César starts in on his second draft. “It was all going wonderfully. We ran a phone shop together and we did good business. She wanted to have children, but I already have eight in Kinshasa. Then she started trying to corner me. She demanded that I sever all ties with my friends and family. It had to be just her and me. Mais je suis un africain!” He shouts it out, but the rat still doesn’t budge. “I felt so imprisoned, I was ready to kill myself. But she was such a beautiful woman, everyone looked at me when I went out with her. The phone shop was doing well. Then, after hesitating for a long time, I broke up with her; it was really hard. She kept the shop, but she blackmailed me: if I ever went into the phone business again, she would report me. So here I am. No job, no visa; all I can do is a few odd jobs for Georges.”
The rat is gone, and Timothée suggests we go out dancing. Have I ever been to Kama? It’s really something special. In the taxi on the way over he fills me in on the disco’s history. “The owner of Kama is Chinese, he’s married to an Arab woman. But the DJ is Nigerian.” When we enter I see that the disco is housed in a pitch-black temple, there are both Asians and Africans walking around. The DJ plays Chinese techno, Asian beat, and, of course—what else, it is after all the country’s major export product after copper ore—Congolese rumba. We find a table and order our beers. Commander César is starting to perk up. He swings along with Magic System’s “Bouger bouger” (Move, move), the catchiest number to come out of Africa in this third millennium. No Western music is played; pop and rock are irrelevant genres from the far corners of an old world. A band is setting up to play. The DJ makes way for a female Cape Verdean reggae vocalist; her backup band comes from the island of Mauritius. The go-go girls are three Philippine singers whose latex boots are four times as long as their skirts.
There are all kinds of side rooms one can rent for a karaoke party. César doesn’t understand why you would want to go off and croon on your own when you could watch such an, um, interesting performance. Cutting back and forth between the tables is a gorgeous Chinese girl selling flowers; she even has a teddy bear for sale that’s almost as big as she is. That, too, is puzzling to César. “Les chinois,” he sighs.
After a couple of hours we head off for a beer at an outdoor café in the African neighborhood. There we’re able to hear each other again, although our ears are still buzzing. The traffic leaves red and yellow trails as it zooms past, neon signs scream for our attention, ladies of easy virtue float up and float away again. Timothée, who hasn’t said much all evening, begins to loosen up as well. “I’ve started discovering all kinds of new flavors,” he laughs. “Russian, Chinese, Thai, Tanzanian, Rwandan . . . whoa, no, no Rwandans, I hate them! But the most expensive women are the Africans; there aren’t a lot of them. For an African girl with a nice butt you easily pay two hundred RMB for one go. That’s thirty dollars!”
“Or four hundred RMB!” César chimes in. “For one go!”
“I always pay 150 RMB for two goes, sometimes only a hundred. The Chinese girls only get thirty RMB, less than five dollars. What do you expect? They’ve got nothing, and they do nothing!”
“In Bangkok I saw some weird things,” César laughs. “Boys who turned into girls, no kidding! Their . . . their . . . how do you say that? Their thingamabob was cut off, their penis, yeah, that’s it. And then they had a hole drilled in it. Vraiment!” Once again he shakes his head at this remarkable Asia where a twist of fate has brought him. And to think that he had been planning to live in Germany. He turns to watch the girls as they walk by and smiles at them. His eyes are red, his face is weathered, but something vulnerable comes over him. Is it the alcohol? Is it lovesickness? The nostalgia of the exile? “I don’t want women anymore. On very, very rare occasions I’ll take a girl home with me, but almost never. I usually just go into the bathroom at night and take some douche gel. I rub it on myself and that’s how I relax.”5
IT IS NO LONGER THE SOUND of the slit drum that spread the news from village to village, no longer the dull thump of the tom-tom, no longer the crack of the whip, not the pealing of the mission bells, not the thunder of the train or the rattling of the drill in the mineshaft, no, it is no longer the ticking of the telegraph, the crackle of the radio or the cheering of the people that sounds the nation’s heartbeat today. It is not in the stamping of manioc in the mortar, not in the slap of water against the canoe’s hull. The heart of this country is not in the rattle of weapons in the jungle, not in the table pounding against the wall while a woman screams that she never wanted this, no.
It is night, but that is not the way it feels.
The new Congo reverberates to a different tone, the new Congo sings in the arrival hall of an airport thrumming with noise. It is the sound of tape, brown rolls of tape around packages and boxes, tape that screams as it is unrolled and grunts as it is torn,grrrreeeeee . . . clunk, tape that scrapes and shrieks and bawls, tape, meters and meters of tape in the airport arrival hall, a quiet wailing around the baggage trolleys, as in an incubator. Everywhere people are swaddling their things in brown plastic. And once the goods are packed, they are inscribed in magic marker with name and district and street.
That shrilling sound is no complaint, but the cry of new life.
I HAD NOTICED THEM ALREADY during boarding: two women with bleached-blond hair, no, with bleached-blond, bobbed wigs. They were chattering happily, slapping each other on the back, laying their heads on each other’s shoulders and giggling wildly. Their suitcases and bags were in the hold, their names scribbled on the tape. They were both wearing the same brand-new outfit, pants and a blouse with a floral motif. With the labels still attached. Just wait till the people saw them in Kinshasa! When you have something new, you flaunt it. The men didn’t cut the label off the sleeve of their new suit, did they? Children didn’t take the plastic wrapping off the brakes of their new bicycles, did they? Well then!
The atmosphere on board was festive. The two bleached-blondes had put on headphones, they were watching a cartoon and commenting loudly on what they saw. We were flying back to Central Africa. This was only the second direct flight between Guangzhou and Nairobi, the first had left two days ago. No stopover in Bangkok or Dubai, just straight across the Indian Ocean in one shot: it felt like a historic happening.
In Nairobi I saw two young Dutch tourists with sunburned faces sprinting for their gate. They were wearing short pants and sandals and carrying a big wooden giraffe, a souvenir wrapped in local newsprint. I didn’t know what exactly, but something about the scene irritated me. In the last few days I had felt as though I were being granted a glimpse into the third millennium, but now I was being tossed back rudely into the last century, the century when Europeans bought wooden giraffes in Africa. My reasoning wasn’t completely lucid, but I was too tired to worry about being consistent.
During the last stretch of the journey we flew straight across Congo. The bleached-blond women lay sleeping, their mouths open. Through the little window I saw the huge, moss-green broccoli of the equatorial forest, crisscrossed on occasion by a brown river glistening in the sun. That Congo’s natural riches have helped lend hue to the world’s economy is a familiar enough story. From billiard ball and rubber band by way of bullet casing and atomic bomb to the cell phone. But that purely utilitarian jingle seems to me too limited and too cliché, as though Congo, this wondrously beautiful country, were only the world’s storehouse, as though—with the exception of its raw materials—it had not contributed much to world history. As though its subterranean layers were important to all mankind, but its own history merely a domestic matter, richly permeated with dreams and shadows. While I, in my conversations and reading had so often seen the exact opposite. In the early twentieth century the rubber policies gave rise to one of history’s first major humanitarian campaigns. During both world wars Congolese soldiers contributed to crucial victories on the African continent. In the 1960s it was in Congo that the Cold War in Africa began, and that the first large-scale UN operation was held. The point is not whether those were achievements on the part of the Congolese themselves: the point is that Congolese history has helped to determine and form the history of the world. The wars of 1998 and 2003 prompted the biggest and most costly peacekeeping mission ever, as well as the first joint military effort by the European Union; their conclusion produced a unique combination of multilateral and bilateral diplomacy for the purpose of minutely monitoring agreed policies. The 2006 elections were the most complex ever organized by the international community. The International Criminal Court is currently establishing invaluable jurisprudence with the prosecution of its first defendants—three men from Congo. Clearly, the history of Congo has on any number of occasions played a crucially important role in the tentative definition of an international world order. The contract with China, accordingly, is a major milestone in a restless world in motion.
They walked out in front of me, across the tarmac, on their way to the yellow airport terminal. A few planes were parked haphazardly here and there. The jet engines of one of them ripped the world in two like a giant buzz saw. In the midst of that extraterrestrial roar hung the odor of burned kerosene, mixed with the odor of smoldering plastic from the nearby slums. The air sizzled in the heat and it was not yet noon. I had been too tired to approach them, too tired from traveling and from my attempts to understand. But I saw them walking, still in high spirits, clearly proud of the journey they had just made. I saw the blond hair of their wigs bounce with every step they took. I saw how the wind tugged at a few strands of it. And while they stepped briskly across the crumbled tarmac on the way to their homecoming, I saw the labels on their sleeves flap and spin in the morning air, frisky and playful, as though they had something to celebrate.