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The Chinese on the Lion Mountain: Peering Into China’s Evolving Diaspora and Soft Power in Sierra Leone

A water truck for the China Railway Engineering Company plies its way through traffic in the Sierra Leone capital Freetown. Joerg Boethling / Alamy Stock Photo

A casino sits on the northwestern tip of Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. Shining neon lights unquelled by the hourly power outages adorn its exterior, flashing hues of pink, green, and yellow onto the red lanterns hanging outside the main entrance. Women dressed in qipaos deal cards next to golden Buddha figurines, serving trays of Chinese Maotai liquor and pu’er tea to groups of businessmen, laborers, ambassadors, and aid workers.

Across the street, an all-in-one restaurant, sports bar, BBQ joint, and milk tea café surrounds a giant waterpark. Groups settle themselves around tables overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, sipping on bottles of Tsingtao as they dip pork intestines and duck blood into a yuan yang pot.

The locals call this place “Chinatown,” an unmissable landmark as one drives down Cape Road on their way to Lumley Beach. The establishment is owned by the Grand Leone Group, the self-proclaimed largest Chinese leisure and entertainment company in the country – and a testament to China’s incredible investments in the country.

Sitting across the bay from the newly-announced $1.5 billion Freetown-Lungi Bridge – to be built by the China Road and Bridge Corporation in 2024 – Grand Leone serves a growing diaspora community that has found a new home in this seaside republic and helped advance China’s subtle but undeniable soft power in the region.

The Chinese-owned Grand Leone Casino in the Sierra Leone capital Freetown. Photos by Susan Su.

A Home Away From Home

Mr. Li is one of the seven chefs at the Grand Leone Restaurant, where he specializes in huai cai, the cuisine of his home province of Jiangsu. According to him, the company employs about 50-60 Chinese employees, hailing from all provinces in the mainland. They were mostly hired via word-of-mouth, with he himself being recommended for the role by a childhood friend from the same village.

“It was difficult in the beginning, of course, but there’s a big community here,” he said, referring to the on-site employee compound across the street, which has greatly eased his transition into a foreign country. The owner would hold special events to celebrate major Chinese holidays, sometimes in collaboration with the Chinese embassy.

Chun jie here is always a big deal,” he chuckled, using the Mandarin word for Lunar New Year celebrations. He has celebrated five Lunar New Year’s in Freetown so far. This year would be his sixth, a lucky number.

Upstairs, Afrobeats blasted from the speakers, flanked by television screens that flashed advertisements for the latest Chinese dramas. In a few short months, SkyBar – the sports bar above the restaurant – has become a nightlife destination for locals and expats alike. It was opened by a young woman known as Bobo – a fellow Beijinger, and a hustler. I watched as she parted the dance floor in purposeful strides, giving instructions to half a dozen employees in a mix of English, Mandarin, and Krio.

Locals gather at the SkyBar sports bar in Freetown which is also popular with Chinese expatriates. Photo by Susan Su.

SkyBar’s flashy KTV station and a generous buffet of Chinese-style hotpot condiments (“All airlifted from China,” says Mr. Li.) is a bizarre contrast to more common depictions of Africa. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, still recovering from a colonial past and an 11-year civil war.

It has a GDP per capita of $461 and a Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.305 (the sixth lowest in the world, according to UNDP), with nearly half the population surviving on less than $1.90 a day. The prosthetics clinic where I work has no running water, and I’m frequently confronted by children on the street begging for food.

But war and poverty have made the country a target for China’s development projects, and with them, spurred the entry of Chinese migrants in search of opportunity. A unique diaspora has formed over the years, laying roots for the spread of Chinese influence in Freetown.

“China, Good Friend!”

China’s diplomatic relations with Sierra Leone began in 1971 – ten years after the country’s independence from the United Kingdom – a part of Mao Zedong’s vision to unite the Asian, Latin American, and African countries in an alliance against Western imperialism.

More than $2.4 billion has been invested in the country since. Hallmarks of 52 years of collaboration can be seen in Freetown’s Youyi Building (“friendship building”, the official government office of Sierra Leone), National Stadium, and Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) Headquarters. More recently, close ties with the All People’s Congress (APC) – the former ruling party of Sierra Leone – contributed to an influx of Chinese businesses, who were often given lucrative deals in the mining, timber, and fishing industries.

As a Chinese-American, I am often greeted with exclamations of “China, good friend!” walking down the street, along with a flurry of ni haos and other Mandarin words that seemed to have made their way into the local vocabulary.

According to the embassy, bilateral trade relations between the two countries increased from $8.6 million in 2000 to $510 million in 2019, and 4,500 Sierra Leoneans are employed in various Chinese companies around the country. Traditional Chinese medicine clinics and massage parlors have popped up alongside restaurants and grocery stores. A Confucian Institute was established in Fourah Bay College, offering Mandarin lessons to those as young as primary school children.

Further down Lumley Beach Road is another one of such “Chinatowns,” this one literally named the Chinatown Restaurant and Guesthouse, a business emporium that stands beneath a three-meter-tall Chinese arch – apparently inspired by one in London. The owner is a Lebanese man named Jaffa, who established the complex with his Chinese wife over twenty years ago.

Outside the Chinatown Restaurant and Guest House, the first Chinese establishment along Freetown’s Lumley Beach. Photo by Susan Su.

“We were the first here… Back then there were very few Chinese” he told me while checking out the red bean and coconut buns I had picked out from the bakery section of their supermarket. This was the first Chinese bakery I had come across since moving to Sierra Leone, and the old man seemed to sense my excitement.

“My wife came here to sell cakes. But then the war started.” Jaffa and his wife, Lan Lan, had met in Freetown during the Sierra Leone Civil War, an 11-year ordeal that left 50,000 dead and over half a million displaced. They started their business with a Chinese restaurant in 2001, a year before the end of the war, before expanding the compound to include a supermarket, guest house, and massage parlor.

The frayed outer walls and modest interior lacked the flashiness of the Grand Leone, but Jaffa did not seem concerned with the competition on this beach-side strip. While the influx of newer and wealthier Chinese businesses has made it harder for him to survive off Chinese customers alone, his Chinese products have been adopted by locals, as have Asian flavors that made their way into their palates. Freetown has not just become more diverse – it has become more Chinese.

Indeed, I see China everywhere I go. Locals speak of the Chinese-built roads that spiral through Freetown and connect the capital city to the neighboring provinces – including the 61.8-kilometer Wellington-Masiaka Highway, constructed by China Railway Seventh Group (CRSG), that enabled emergency medical supplies to be transported during the 2014 Ebola Crisis. I observed a kekeh (a motorized vehicle similar to a tuk-tuk) driver drinking Kangshifu-brand oolong tea. At a local vegetable stand, a crate of Chinese napa cabbage sits next to plantains and cassava.

When Soft Power Sharpens

As with all stories of China-African relations, growing Chinese influence in the region is not without controversy. During the elections in 2018, videos of Chinese citizens openly campaigning for the ruling APC party raised concerns about Chinese intrusion into Sierra Leonean politics – as with footage of APC members chanting “We are Chinese” at a political rally. The local press often dubs the APC as the “China-backed” party. An article affirming the party’s friendship with China noted the country’s support for China’s position on issues such as the South China Sea.

When the rival Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) was elected in 2018, the new president immediately scrapped a $400 million deal for an international airport in Freetown that his predecessor had negotiated with the Chinese government, citing “economic infeasibility.” The country’s ability to pay off massive loans from the Chinese has been a longstanding point of concern.

The CRSG operates the Wellington-Masiaka Highway, part of a 27-year concession agreement with the government of Sierra Leone. Locals have complained about their ability to pay the Chinese company for 27 consecutive years, with the initially proposed toll fees lowered after numerous protests.

In 2021, a $55 million grant to build a Chinese fishing harbor at Black Johnson Beach drew considerable pushback from landowners, conservationists, and human rights groups, who described the project as an “ecological disaster.” Similar complaints have been raised about China’s dominance in the mining industry, including the uncovering of “massive” Chinese-owned illegal mining operations in a protected territory. Such stories have informed criticisms from the West of China’s involvement in Africa, citing these projects as “predatory,” a new form of colonialism, or simply another means for the Chinese Communist Party to use its influence to suppress international opposition.

Black Johnson Beach near Freetown was at the center of a bitter controversy in 2021 over plans for China to finance a new fishing harbor. Saidu BAH / AFP

China’s aid and investments have undoubtedly inserted its presence into Sierra Leonean politics. Yet locals I spoke to – Chinese and Sierra Leoneans alike – seemed largely indifferent to the constant political tug-of-war. They were used to regime changes and empty promises. Geopolitics and internal rivalries mattered little, as long as business opportunities persisted.

Surviving in Between

At the Golden Beach Casino, a short walk away from Jaffa’s Chinatown arch, renovations were underway. The owner, a woman from Guangzhou named Ms. He, boasted about the amenities that would soon be available, including a cinema, fitness center, and service apartment. She personally recommended the yang zhi gan lu (mango and pomelo sago) from their newly-opened bubble tea shop, made by a young man who used to work for Heytea, a popular milk tea chain in China. According to Ms. He, the Chinese population in Freetown was only about two to three thousand (out of an overall population of 1.3 million), but four out of the five casinos in the area were Chinese-owned.

“Chinese people like to gamble,” she said matter-of-factly.

A young man outside the casino laughed in agreement when I repeated her statement. Going by the surname Zhang, he had originally arrived in Sierra Leone five years ago to work for a Chinese-owned construction company, building casinos and other properties along the Lumley Beach strip. The company pulled out of the country due to increased regulations from the new administration, but he decided to remain, because there were always jobs here for the Chinese, whether they involved casinos or not.

In fact, the Sierra Leone government recently signed a new lease agreement with the Kingho Mining Company for the expansion and rehabilitation of the Pepel Railway and Port, granting the Chinese mining giant a 20-year concession of the project. Along with the Freetown-Lungi Bridge project, the deal was celebrated by the embassy as a milestone in China-Sierra Leone relations and cautioned by critics as another Chinese debt trap. But for people like Ms. He and Mr. Zhang, it meant business. 

Entrance to the Grand Leone Caison in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photo by Susan Su.

Back at the Grand Leone, the iridescent lights continue to gleam over the nightly stream of visitors, here to strike rich or simply enjoy a lamb skewer. A woman affectionately known as Qin Jie (“sister Qin”) waves a Tupperware of chicken feet at me. “Lai, come try!” She has been in Freetown since 2001, initially here to start her own business – the Shanghai Restaurant next door – before it was acquired by Grand Leone. But like the others, she stuck around, persevering through two decades of conflict, cooperation, disaster, and development.

“You simply get used to it,” she tells me. 

I watch as she and Mr. Li chat by the entrance, fanning themselves with palm leaves in the sweltering heat of the incoming dry season. They’ve made a home for themselves here, two oceans away, and they brought parts of China with them.

Africa is not a monolith, nor is the Chinese diaspora in Africa, but regardless of poverty, war, or geopolitics, these people lived on, in continuous pursuit of better opportunities. And from their fragmented yet resilient communities, they’ve advanced Chinese influence into all corners of the world.

Susan Su is an independent journalist, writer, and engineer based in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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