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Daouda Cissé

With their growing interest to invest far from Chinaʼs borders, the Chinese have set up and developed businesses abroad, including in many African countries. Even though Chinese businesses in general and shops in particular are located or concentrated in specific areas people wrongfully call such places ʻChinatownsʼ.

Chinatowns in the United States and Canada as opposed to those in Southeast Asia have formed in a rather more complicated and complex era for the acceptance of ethnic Chinese in North America. Far from the political characteristics which contributed to their setting up, Chinatowns (in Chinese 唐人街/tángrénjiē) have become part of Chinaʼs global cultural expansion and cultural diplomacy. They have become Chinaʼs cultural showcases overseas as well as tourist places. They are major tourist attractions particularly during Chinese New Year celebrations.

This piece sets a comparison between Chinatowns (唐人街) and ʻChinatownsʼ (中国商城/中国商务城市) as seen in African cities and portrays Chinatowns through a historical glance.

Chinatowns: a historical reminder

Most of the Chinatowns in the US and Canada formed with the arrival of Chinese workers to build the railway networks and work mainly in the mining industry. Chinese workers were brought from China (including Taiwan and Hong Kong). They were exploited, did not have rights and did not have much freedom of mobility. Chinese were not accepted by their host societies by large. They then lived among themselves in places where they could culturally and linguistically congregate together. In some cases, they were not allowed to work out of Chinatowns and had to create self-employment. They suffered from racism and discrimination mainly through violent anti-Chinese attacks. Furthermore, based on the exclusion acts in the US (from 1882 to 1943) and Canada (from 1885 to 1947) Chinese were excluded to immigrate to these countries.

As they faced housing discrimination and were excluded from the host societies, Chinese did not have the right to live in certain areas and could not afford expensive housing price, hence the settlement of Chinatowns. By living in these places, they developed facilities that, like in any urban planning/development, go with a particular Chinese touch in the architecture and decoration of the buildings and surrounding areas (see pictures below).

Chinatowns were solely for the Chinese as they were secluded. Generally, out of the work places, they did not mix and local populations did not want to mix with them either. The presence of ethnic Chinese communities were considered to be a threat to Caucasian society. Such a threat or fear contributed to reinforcing discrimination and disdain towards them. Chinatowns were particularly ethnic Chinese enclaves overseas. They were homes to the largest Chinese population overseas.

Progressively, as political changes occurred, particularly with the end of the exclusion acts in the US first and in Canada later, and as there were claims for freedom and rights, Chinese slowly started to be accepted in their host societies. While some of them started to move to other areas they did not have freedom to live in and could not afford the housing price in any case, host populations were also curious to discover Chinatowns as exotic places that developed in their cities. Then, host populations started going to Chinatowns to discover Chinese culture and cuisine in general. Progressively, Chinatowns have become places to learn different Chinese languages, martial arts, Chinese calligraphy as well as areas to go out to Chinese bars, gambling centres, restaurants, karaokes, Chinese brothels and massage parlours. Later, Chinatowns started being living places for locals and other Asians and more broadly for people of diverse origins as housing and rent price were affordable compared to expensive urban areas and centres.

Chinatown, Flushing, New York

Photo credit : author


Food court with Chinese restaurants at a Chinese supermarket in Flushing, New York

Photo credit: author


At a Chinese supermarket, Flushing, New York

Photo credit: author


Chinatowns were places for immersion into the Chinese world and China for those who had plans to travel to China to relocate, study, do business or work and and constituted a foothold for many Chinese immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants.

Chinatowns (唐人街/tángrénjiē) vs ʻChinatownsʼ (中国商城/中国商务城市)

With their growing interests to invest far from Chinaʼs borders, Chinese have set up and developed businesses abroad. For that reason, Chinese businessmen, traders and entrepreneurs are interested in investing in African countries. Mainly from the 1990s onward, Chinese have opened up businesses in African cities and rural areas. Even though in many African countries Chinese businesses in general and shops in particular are located or concentrated in specific areas (i.e. Centenaire in Dakar, Katatura in Windhoek) people wrongfully call such places ʻChinatownsʼ.

As opposed to what I described above about the history and characteristics of Chinatowns in the US and Canada (that could also be the same setting in other parts of the world), I consider places as such in African cities to be business areas/districts with Chinese businesses, mainly shops and restaurants. Chinese themselves donʼt call such places Chinatowns (唐人街/tángrénjiē) but rather call them China business districts/China business cities or at times China mall (中国商城/中国商务城市) [See pictures].


China business city, Katatura, Windhoek, Namibia

Photo credit: author

Therefore the difference is already set between Chinatowns and China business districts for various reasons: mainly historical and cultural reasons for the former (as seen in the US and Canada for example) as opposed to purely business interests in African countries for the latter.

I have visited Chinatowns (唐人街/tángrénjiē) in many cities around the world: New York (Manhattan and Flushing), Sydney, Kuala Lumpur, London (Soho area), Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto (see selected pictures below) and I have not seen such Chinatowns in African cities.

Many people might wrongfully mention the Cyrildene ʻChinatownʼ in Johannesburg, South Africa to be a Chinatown (唐人街) rather than a China business city/district. Cyrildene hosts an important ethnic Chinese population (South African Chinese and Chinese newcomers) and is not an area predominantly populated by ethnic Chinese. Other Asian cultures are also represented in Cyrildene. Most of the ethnic Chinese who live in Cyrildene neither own nor run businesses there. Those who run businesses in Cyrildene often live in other areas in Johannesburg which may offer affordable housing price.

In many African cities, what people call ʻChinatownsʼ are business areas where at times the Chinese are not the only ones who run businesses there rather than typical ethnic Chinese enclaves with the concentration of Chinese population.



Chinese shop, Katatura, Windhoek, Namibia

Photo credit: author


For instance in Katatura-Windhoek, Namibia such business areas or China business districts/cities are at times developed by a Chinese investor who builds commercial spaces with shops and restaurants to rent out to his fellow Chinese. More often, areas called ʻChinatownsʼ in African cities (i.e. Dakar, Maseru, Windhoek) are avenues or streets with Chinese shops and other businesses. More often those shops and businesses are set up among local businesses owned and run by African traders and entrepreneurs in the different African cities.


Chinatown, Sydney, Australia

Photo credit: author


Chinatown, Sydney, Australia

Photo credit: author


Chinatown, Vancouver, Canada

Photo credit: author


Beijing building in Chinatown, Vancouver, Canada

Photo credit: author

* DAOUDA CISSÉ is an independent researcher, based in Montreal, Canada. He was a research fellow at the China Institute, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.



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