Visiting Nairobi's new Chinatown - and the incredible possibilities it can bring to African cities

There are at least three major Chinatowns in Africa – though they’re not where you think they might be.

THE SUPERMARKET is inconspicuously tucked away on the ground floor of an apartment block in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. This is clearly an establishment which did not need advertising, or feel the urge to reach out to the general public—its business comes by word of mouth.

Early in September this same supermarket, called Yi’Sheng, was raided by surveillance teams from Kenya’s certification body. A large amount of goods were seized from the shop, one of the reasons was that the products had poor labelling - many had no English or Kiswahili on them. 

The owner of the supermarket claimed that she was not aware that they needed to have other languages on the products since the products are not meant for Kenyans, but for Chinese people.

The seizure of the goods on the shops shelves was apparent. Glaring spaces were seen down all of the aisles, and the owner, not knowing I was aware of the run in with the certification body assured me that this was simply a “supply problem”. 

But this is not uncommon in the area where Yi’Sheng is located. This is Nairobi’s new Chinatown, where Chinese businesses are thriving, focusing primarily on Chinese clientele. 

Signs like this one are cropping up.

This used to be a sign that simply read “Chinese Restaurant”, but the establishment received a quick makeover following a revealing scandal in which black, African patrons were turned away after 5pm. The fact that it doesn’t even have an English translation any more speaks volumes. 

This part of Nairobi stretches from an area called Kilimani to Kileleshwa, and along Hurlingham and Ngong road - a principal road artery linking the suburbs with the Central Business District (CBD). 

Aside from supermarkets, you will also find inconspicuous restaurants with no name - so as not to attract too much attention, green grocers which specialise in imported oriental produce, car washes with casinos attached to the back and even huge blocks of Chinese serviced apartments.

The most defining Chinese landmark however is the Eastland Hotel. An enormous structure with 185 rooms, conference facilities and at $120 a night is highly competitive in a city where the average room in a good hotel will go for around $200 a night.

This hotel was clearly made with Chinese clientele in mind and, as the manager who took me around said, even has a floor solely dedicated to Chinese patrons - though he did quickly add that this was more because of smoking habits than anything else. 

It hosts a variety of small shops which offer tour information, with pamphlets in Mandarin. It also had a casino, a spa specialising in Chinese massage and a gem store. 

Even the no parking sign and room accessories were Chinese imports. 

This Chinatown, though currently slightly scattered around this area, is growing - fast. 

This isn’t surprising though. Howard French in his book “China’s Second Continent”, put the number of Chinese that have moved to Africa in the last two decades to over a million. And when the Chinese come and settle, a cluster tends to form where the population becomes increasingly of Chinese origin, as does the business.  

There are at least three major Chinatowns in Africa – though they’re not where you think they might be. The coastal African nations of Madagascar, Mauritius, and South Africa were areas that received a high number of Chinese immigrants from the 1890s to the early part of the 20th century. 

Looking at the Madagascar experience, the Chinese population there is now about 100,000 strong - the third largest on the continent - and the Chinatown in Antananarivo is firmly established. Madagascar’s Chinatown has in fact become a crucial feature of the city, bringing in endless supplies of new goods which were otherwise unavailable. In Johannesburg, South Africa, Chinatown has become a tourist attraction in itself. Offering authentic oriental cuisines it has become a must-do feature on any foodie’s list and is extremely popular. 

In fact, whilst there is a lot of criticism over the influx of Chinese goods and the segregation between local and Chinese populations - Chinatowns have proved extremely valuable for cities across the world. 

In the US for example, the Chinatown in Oakland was protected and promoted since it is considered one of the top sources of sales tax revenue for the city. Whilst in Singapore, Chinatown is one of three major sites integral to its  cultural tourism. 

Time will tell how Africa’s new Chinatowns will develop, but properly incorporated, regulated and encouraged - the benefits it could reap for a city could be huge. 

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