The restaurant that Joey and Ugo Okonkwo own was packed on a recent Saturday night, with meal-time banter alternating between English, Cantonese Chinese, and Nigerian dialects among the mainly Nigerian patrons and the occasional Chinese girlfriend. In this bustling southern port city, it’s not an uncommon sight.
Nor is the sight of marriages like Joey and Ugo’s. In Guangzhou, just next door to Hong Kong, a growing number of African traders and immigrants are marrying Chinese women, and mixed families like Joey and Ugo are grappling with questions about race and nationality, in a country that is often proud to be monocultural and is known for sometimes harsh xenophobia.
Joey, who is native to Guangzhou, speaks English with a West African lilt, which she picked up from Ugo, who is from Anambra State in southeastern Nigeria. Joey, whose Chinese name is Li Jieyi, says people regularly look at her 2-year-old daughter Amanda and wonder about her origins.
"Foreigners say she looks like me, Chinese say she looks like her father. I don't know why," Joey says as she bustles around the restaurant.
While China is home to 56 ethnicities, 90 percent of the population belongs to the Han ethnic group; just 0.04 percent are foreigners, such as Africans. Even in Guangzhou, a cosmopolitan city of 10 million once known as Canton, they stand out. Around 20,000 Africans — mostly Nigerians — live here, thought to be one of the largest groups of foreigners in the city. Local media have reported the true number could be closer to 100,000, counting visitors and those without valid visas. Émigré groups estimate there are now an estimated 400 African-Chinese families in Guangzhou.
For Africans, settling in China can be particularly fraught. While Americans and Europeans gain some respect from their nations’ economic strength, prejudice results in mistaken assumptions toward African migrants, such as: “they still can't run their own countries in Africa," says M. Dujon Johnson, author of the book “Race and Racism in China.” “So [Chinese] people feel ‘we’re definitely better than them.’”
As a result, says Mr. Johnson, when mixed marriages do happen, the Africans tend to be better educated or wealthier than the average Chinese person: “Although there may be social stigma, there's still the upward mobility."
Mixed families face unique challenges in China. Complex residency rules and tightening immigration laws have precipitated a spike in the number of Africans staying illegally, and raised questions about fake marriages. Foreign spouses don’t qualify for residency unless they’ve lived in China for five years. Many Africans in Guangzhou have to renew their visas every few months, and live under the constant threat of separation from their families.
Ugo came to China 10 years ago because he was finding it impossible to run a business in Nigeria. He started exporting clothes to Nigeria, and finally made money handling manufacturing orders for Nigerian companies. He used some of his profits to start the restaurant with Joey, whom he married about four years ago. Ugo was planning to launch another business back home, but he wasn’t sure his family could cope with life there.
Race was never a problem for his in-laws, he says. He speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin and respects his wife's obligations to her parents. For other locals who didn't know him, however, the assumption is that he can't understand the language, and they sometimes hurl abuse at him: "You go to rent a house, and people say 'You are a black monkey, there is no use in giving you a house,' " he says.
He confronts people and while some are brazen, some apologize. "Now it's getting better," he says, "because they're getting used to us."
There are few if any reports of racial violence targeting African migrants in Guangzhou, though a fight last year between a motorcycle taxi driver and a Nigerian passenger resulted in the Nigerian man being picked up by police and later dying in police custody under unexplained circumstances, sparking protests.
Some Africans also worry that they’re being forced to compromise their parental rights. Some biracial children in China don't qualify for a government-issued identification document unless they are registered under the Chinese mother's family name. Children need that identification document to enroll in state schools, and have to pay tuition if they don't have it.
Many Africans don’t realize this, or refuse, according to Ojukwu Emma, who heads a network of African community groups and who is also married to a Chinese woman, and they end up having to pay school fees that range from 2000 RMB to 5000 RMB a year (roughly, between $300 and $800).
“The cost of education is very high, most of the children are not going to school,” Mr. Emma says. The community has been trying to start an African-Chinese school, and even has a building, but it would take diplomatic intervention for it to be approved, he says.
There is a sense that interracial families are still a taboo, says Elochukwu Chikwendu, head of a support group for mixed families and one of the first Nigerians in Guangzhou to marry a Chinese woman. Chinese relatives with coveted Communist Party memberships even fear they will be thrown out if a relation marries an African, he says. But none of that stops people from falling in love.
“Love doesn’t have any boundaries, you do anything for someone that you love,” says Mr. Chikwendu.