Chinese Expatriates in Kenya

Updated: 04 Jul 2007
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Wang Shan Kun, a Chinese from Jiangsu Province, arrived in Nairobi in 2000.


Like many Chinese in Kenya, Wang first came on a three-month tourist visa to survey business opportunities. He has stayed. Operating Dong Fang Development - two textile shops, an interior design shop, a construction shop and new car garage - Wang now employs more than 70 people in Nairobi.


Of the 70, nearly 40 are Kenyans working side-by-side with a handful of Chinese at the popular Dong Fang Auto Assembly Company Ltd in Hurlingham. Wang says: "China and Kenya good friends. Business is easier here than in China. I import many things. No factory. Import everything," he says in broken English, compensating for his speech barrier with a loud and authoritative voice.


While his family lives in Nairobi, and Wang travels to China twice a year, chances are he will remain in Kenya. He says: "If business is good, maybe stay."


Wang is not alone. Between 3,000 and 5,000 mainland Chinese live in Kenya.


But some Chinese put the number at 10,000 - unregistered and foreign-born Chinese. In addition, there is a growing tourist trade which saw 14,000 Chinese travel to Kenya last year, a significant increase over the 10,000 in 2005.


Zhu Jing, a Chinese Embassy spokesman says: "Since 2004, when China gave Kenya an Approved Tourist Destination Country, more tourists have been coming." Many arrive not for vacation, but scouting for business in the fast-emerging African market.


The Chinese interest is a far cry from where Kenya was in 1996. Eleven years ago, the Chinese were hardly in Kenya, and there seemed to have only been one Chinese restaurant, The Shanghai, in Nairobi. Now, it is estimated that there are about 40 restaurants - Fu Yong, Beijing Restaurant, JiangSu and ChopStix.


Also noticeable are traditional Chinese medical clinics that line the city streets. Enterprises owned by large Chinese companies operate in Kenya.


Among them are Chenghong Electronics (TV assembly and dry-cell batteries), Hwan Sang (furniture), CITCO (gas) and China Road and Bridge (construction).


Most noticeable, however, is the China Business Centre on Ngong Road, a shopping complex which houses Tafuna CafÈ, China KaiYue Hair Handicraft and Xiamen Wingin Machinery Company Ltd. Adjacent to it is a complex owned by the Xinhua News Agency. Further down the street is the China Economic Embassy.


What is China doing in Kenya? Why have average Chinese migrated to Kenya? Yuan Ming Yu came in 2000 to try something new. Yuan worked in a supermarket before moving to Kenya. She now owns the Sonic Auto Centre.


"Before, I worked during the day at the garage and night at restaurant. But very tired so I gave the restaurant to my best friend," says Yuan.


Then there is Beijing native Tan Wu, his wife and daughter. A jovial personality, Tan and his family own a struggling Chinese restaurant in Westlands. He fears that his daughter is forgetting how to read Chinese. They have not been home in five years.


Despite the uncertainty of life abroad, many Chinese have managed to bring China to Africa. At a cost of $2,600 for a TV satellite dish, CCTV can be watched in Nairobi. If that price is too steep, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation airs two hours of CCTV everyday as does Citizen TV.


Also available is 91.3 FM China Radio International in Nairobi.


Not only is the Chinese entertainment fix being met, but more consumer products are stamped 'Made in China'. As it is on Beijing city streets, fresh fruits and vegetables can be bought cheap. Add the Kenyan tea industry, the equatorial weather and the myriad Chinese restaurants, and it is no wonder Chinese citizens are making Kenya a home away from home.


However, life abroad is not without its setbacks. The Chinese deal with the rising locals' complaint that their enterprises are stealing jobs. This quibble exists throughout Africa. Kenyan journalist Khamis Ramadhan says: "The Chinese are distributors, retailers, and producers. China is cheaper than Kenya, so they have an advantage over everything."


Other voices see the issue as more complicated. Mr Mike Chang, a senior manager with an East African shipping company, says: "It's a vicious cycle, a very fine balance for Kenyans. What is better: Importing cheap Chinese products or manufacturing more expensive products?"


Not all Chinese are businessmen. Some are doctors, NGO and church workers, journalists and teachers. Some work at the Confucius Institute at the University of Nairobi, the first of its kind in Africa.


Kenyan traders also visit China. Mr John Ndegwa, the owner of Amarati Safaris, says: "Kenyans were importing products from Dubai. But now we buy from China because the Dubai stuff turned out to be Chinese-made."


For scholars of Sino-Kenyan history, the fascination dates back to 1405 when Chinese traders arrived in Malindi.


SOURCE: Ted Fackler



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