Chocolate City - A fictional story by Michael LEUNG

 

Mamby was a popular member of the community in the Yuexiu District in Guangzhou. Despite being only seventeen years old and just finishing secondary school, he had a good relationship with every shop, distributor and cafe in the neighbourhood. On weekends and school holidays Mamby would run around and help local shops unload, package and deliver stock to the distribution centre, and also help with translation (emails and Skype calls with Chinese factory representatives).

 

Mamby was part of a unique demographic in Guangzhou. Him and his friends were the first generation of African migrants to be completely fluent and literate in Putonghau, a language spoken by 70% of China’s population.[1] This made them important members of the community, and as more and more Africans moved into Yuexiu, their help and linguistic skills were very in demand. They families were the first dozen African families to move to Guangzhou at the end of the 1990s. At the age three, barely mastering French and Bambara, him and his family migrated to Guangzhou to start a new business – distributing roofing and tiles for export to Africa.[2]

 

Surrounded by Uighur bakeries and Chinese foot massage parlours was their ground floor roof and tile shop, named "Roof Over Your Head Ltd."[3] Under the acrylic shop sign displayed the tag line "Four walls and a roof make a home". When Mamby's family first moved to Guangzhou business was slow, but after a decade of hard work, it was paying off and the family now make a slight profit. Being foreigners to the city they were marginalised by Chinese people and were often discriminated by landlords and everyday shops. Fortunately the Uighur communities were friendly, welcomed them and even gave them advice in renting apartments and shop spaces in the neighbourhood.

 

The Chinese in Guangzhou nicknamed the district "Chocolate City" and rarely ventured into this part of town, which was heavily monitored by policemen carrying ‘police restraint sticks.’ Each street intersection had a police booth that made sure that all illegal activities were kept to a minimum and that people didn’t overstay their 30-day tourist visas.[4] When Mamby and his friends were children they never understood why people called their neighbourhood Chocolate City. The neighbourhood mostly sold apparel, customisable objects, halal meat and shoes. No chocolate!

 

Mamby and his friends had a childhood dream of opening a chocolate shop. This dream continued into their teenage years and they even scouted potential shop spaces, most of which were unused spaces and small gaps between walls where weeds and wildflowers grew.

 

One space was behind one of the police booths at a busy pedestrian intersection. Mamby and his friends would often hang out there and speak to Jiang, the policeman who had lunch at the nearby Muslim Tea Restaurant every day. Without realising it, Jiang functioned as a quasi-babysitter for Mamby and his friends for over a decade. When they were young, Jiang let them sit in his police booth on extremely hot days with the electric fan on full blast. Jiang still reminisced with the teenagers about all the trouble they got up to when they were children. He even entertained them with stories of other policemen in other districts.

 

It was the middle of July and it was decision time for every seventeen and eighteen year old in the neighbourhood. The more affluent families had the choice of continuing their children's' education. At their local school, a teacher introduced the students to diplomas, higher education and the dozen universities in Guangzhou. Mamby loved his neighbourhood and he felt uncomfortable about spending most of his week away from his family and friends. He never enjoyed school but always obtained good grades in all courses, especially art. His preferred medium was watercolour. Acrylic paint was expensive and oil paints took too long to dry.

 

Mamby's parents were aware that he was a natural learner and that he was taught many things by the people that he worked with in the neighbourhood. For example, having a job as an occasional porter at the New Donfranc Hotel pushed him to practice his English whenever foreigners checked in. Mamby supplemented his English reading by always watching films with subtitles. His favourite director was Woody Allen and he dreamt of the day when he would visit New York and meet Mariel Hemingway in Central Park.

 

Mamby had a couple of weeks to decide what he wanted to do with his future so he carried on working and thinking during his lunch breaks. In late July, when working at the hotel, Mamby helped two tall bearded Americans unload their leather suitcases from a red taxi. Their tags said that they were from Brooklyn, New York. Mamby knew exactly where this was and the three bridges that connected it to Manhattan.

 

“Hello, welcome to Guangzhou!” Mamby welcomed them with a confident English greeting. The two Americans were impressed by Mamby's fluency and introduced themselves and where they were from. Mamby discovered that the two brothers were in Guangzhou after a friend in New York told them about a place called Chocolate City in south China. The two brothers were visiting chocolatiers around Asia. They had already visited "Chongqing Confectionary" and "Shanghai So Sweet," and were curious about Guangzhou’s Chocolate City. Mamby told them about how his friends and him dreamt of opening a chocolate shop further down the road. Mamby even showed them a watercolour painting that he done (it was his WeChat background image).[5]

 

During their three-day stay in Guangzhou, the brothers couldn't find any chocolate shops in the neighbourhood and later found out that the name was coined by Chinese taxi drivers and was a derogatory term towards the African communities that had moved into the district. A curator that the brothers met at a contemporary art museum in north Guangzhou also revealed to them that Chinese people looked down on the Africans and Uighurs and their businesses.

 

After three days, the brothers checked out of their hotel and saw Mamby again, this time helping other hotel guests with their luggage. It was a scorching day and Mamby was soaked in sweat. The brothers said hi and Mamby asked them how their holiday was. "Amazing thanks!" they answered in unison. The brothers asked Mamby how his chocolate shop dreams were going and if he had decided to go to university. Mamby said that if he could open his chocolate shop by the end of the summer he would definitely not continue studying. He was happy working in the neighbourhood and his parents supported whatever he decided to do – his friends too.

 

Mamby loaded their luggage into a yellow taxi and the brothers gave him a present that was roughly the size of a brick but a quarter of it’s weight.[6] The brothers said that they hoped to see him in the not-too-distant future. Mamby wished them a safe trip and they sped off down the road.

 

Mamby was excited to open his present but wanted to open it with his friends in the evening. After dinner, they met up at their usual place (next to Jiang's police booth). Mamby arrived first to see Jiang packing his electric fan into an undersized cardboard box. "What are you doing?" asked Mamby. Jiang replied that crime was now very low in Yuexiu and that he was being reposted to another part of the city where they needed more police presence. Jiang said, "I guess that's a good thing right?" Mamby was disappointed to hear the news but knew that they would keep in touch. They often liked and commented on each others’ posts on WeChat. Mamby also supplied Jiang with the most up to date WeChat Stickers.[7]

 

Jiang's box of possessions were packed and he was ready to vacate his police booth for the last time. Before leaving he noticed Mamby's gift from the New York visitors. "Hey, what's that? A leaving present for me?" Mamby offered to open it with him and together they unwrapped the gift whilst sitting on the raised red brick wall built around the booth.

 

The gift were six bars of chocolates, each wrapped in decorative paper. Mamby had never seen chocolate packaged so beautifully. He noticed that the logo had the same surname as the two brothers. A handwritten note was tucked between the third and fourth chocolate bars. In blue joined-up handwriting the note said:

 

Dear Mamby,

 

It was a pleasure to meet you.

 

Let us know if you need any help setting up your chocolate factory and shop. It's pretty easy!

 

R & M

 

(Their business card was stapled to the back of the note)

 

Mamby instinctively gave a bar to Jiang. Before departing Jiang gave Mamby a hug and slowly walked away with his heavy cardboard box. Mamby's friends arrived and Jiang turned around, placed down his box and shouted, "Hey! Why don't you guys open your chocolate shop right here?" before throwing a key to Mamby. It was the key to the police booth attached to a metal and leather police keyring. Mamby shouted, "Doesn’t the police want this booth any more?" Jiang replied, "Just give it a paint and no one will ever know!"

 

Mamby and his friends couldn't believe their luck. That night they ate all five chocolate bars together and planned how to transform the police booth into a chocolate factory and shop.

 

After a summer of decorating, planning and emailing with the brothers in New York, Mamby and his friends opened their chocolate factory and shop, and sold their first Guangzhou-made chocolate bar under the apt name of "Chocolate City."[8] On the opening weekend, friends from their neighbourhood flocked to their shop. Mamby reserved a special Sichuan pepper chocolate bar with unique watercolour-painted packaging for Jiang, who was the last visitor on the opening day.

 

Every weekend Mamby and his friends sold out of the chocolate bars that they made during the week. None of them ever went to university but instead continued supporting their families and friends and helping local and independent businesses in Yuexiu. Chocolate City is now also sold in limited quantities in the brothers’ shop in Brooklyn, and has since taken on a completely different meaning.

 

 

Friday 29th June 2015, Guangzhou

[1] Luo, Chris, One-third of Chinese do not speak Putonghua, says Education Ministry – www.scmp.com/news/china-insider/article/1598040/3-10-chinese-citizens-do-not-speak-putonghua-says-education

[2] Lingua franca in Mali spoken by 80% of Malians

[3] Many of which are frequented by African business women

[4] Schiller, Bill, Big Trouble in China’s Chocolate City – www.thestar.com/news/insight/2009/08/01/big_trouble_in_chinas_chocolate_city.html

[5] WeChat 微信 is a mobile messaging application released in January 2011. It is the most common messaging application used in China.

[6] Around 350g

[7] A simple animated moving image

[8] Whilst decorating, Mamby and his friends would listen and dance to the 2002 album by musician Damon Albarn in collaboration with Malian musicians Afel Bocoum, Toumani Diabaté & Friends, and also featuring a cameo from Ko Kan Ko Satawww.youtube.com/watch?v=yl5mR0aM_T0