Beijing: beyond smog, high-tech bargaining and a scary market display

BY: Ajoa Yeboah-Afari

A recent news report about a review meeting in Accra, took me on a memory lane trip. The news item was about an African regional review of the UN 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, ahead of its 25th anniversary next year.

The report catapulted me straight to that far-away city, awakening memories of my two visits to the Chinese capital, beginning with the first in 1995, courtesy of the Women’s Feature Service (WFS).

At that time, I was a correspondent for the India-based WFS, and one of a team of journalists the WFS had put together to attend the conference and produce a free conference daily newspaper, the Beijing Watch.

However, this piece is only about some other aspects of my visits to Beijing then.

One of the first noticeable things about Beijing was the smog, reportedly caused by the many factories, and I recall that there were even signs warning about the air pollution.  

The NGO Forum on Women ’95, held parallel to the UN Conference, in Huairou, about 35 kilometres away from Beijing, had a special attraction. Apart from the hectic brainstorming sessions, so many activities were going on there, notably trading.

Needless to say, vendors of all sorts of things pitched camp at the site and not being able to speak Chinese was no barrier. Calculators served as very able ‘intermediaries’ for the bargaining.

Call it high-tech bargaining: The vendor would bring a calculator, punch in the price and show it to the prospective customer. The customer in turn would punch in their price. This would continue, amid laughter, until agreement had been reached, and money and commodity had changed hands. 

There were also other interesting places. In our free time, colleagues and I wandered around the bigger of the two markets near our hotel.  

To the discomfort of those of us who were black Africans, everywhere we went we were the object of huge interest and some of it seemingly demeaning, with racist undertones. However, generally, it was friendly curiosity.

When I went to explore the second market alone, I made an extremely unnerving discovery: at the meat stall, in a cage were, unmistakably, a number of snakes slithering about!

Yes, snakes on sale evidently for consumption! Just like in Ghana one would see live crabs and snails on sale in a market for the soup pot. But snakes! I backed away in fright!

Back at the hotel, when I told my colleagues about what I had seen, some of them said I was just pulling their legs. So, the next day I led them to that market to see the scary display for themselves. They, too, fled!

Hmm, our ancestors knew what they were doing when they coined the expression, ‘travel and see’!   

Then there was our visit to the iconic Great Wall, one of the Wonders of the World, which I confess I didn’t see much of. Halfway up the section we had chosen to climb up, I decided the steps were too many for me and turned back. But that’s another story for another day!

Now fast forward to September, 2005 and my second visit to Beijing, when I was the Editor of the Ghanaian Times and I was among a group of journalists invited by the Chinese Government to visit that country. The following are excerpts from an article I wrote, published in that paper on September15, 2005.  


Call Beijing a Garden City, and anybody who has been here in recent years will surely not accuse you of exaggeration.

Anywhere one stands, the horizon presents a marvellous picture of wide streets, bordered and decorated by trees, flowers and well-trimmed hedges. Even the central traffic reservations could win awards with their lovely greenery.

The wide avenues make a great backdrop for the elegant, massive buildings and countless flyovers that boost the city's skyline and put Beijing in a class of its own as a very modern city.

It is also clean and breathing-friendly, very different from what it was a decade ago. Then, air pollution was so bad that there were warning notices about it for the benefit of visitors to the capital.

The world's most populous country – with a population of 1.3 billion – with a capital home to some 15 million, could be intimidating. The (Beijing) streets are choked with cars of every brand, peerage and origin. However, the wide roads, many of them 10 lanes, have pedestrian bridges to complement the flyovers.

And a steady stream of bikes flank the vehicles in their special lanes.

Beijing is as modern as any western city and the people in the street look like city folk everywhere … and, of course, mobile phones are glued to ears.

Beijing is more than nine hours flying time from London; and it is equally far from most places. The distance and the language barrier are no doubt the reason why in my first two days here I came across only two black people in the streets.

 Fast forward again, to 2019 and a report in the Regional Spotlight, Western Region supplement of the Daily Graphic of Saturday, July 6, 2019:

“One of the communities where Chinese activities in small-scale mining has assumed alarming proportions is Wassa Akropong, in the Amenfi East District in the Western Region, which has gained the nickname ‘China Town’ … because of the large settlement of the Chinese in the town.” 

But I don’t suppose it’s a one-way street, as indicated by the flood of ‘Made in China’ labels in Ghana.

And given the rise in the number of Chinese Government scholarships to Ghanaian and other African students, I guess that if I’m lucky enough to make a third visit to Beijing, I will be seeing many more than just two black faces in the streets.

Indeed, earlier this year, The New Internationalist magazine of the UK published a feature article about the Chinese city of Guangzhou, highlighting the large number of Africans there, including Ghanaians: “More than 15,000 Africans are estimated to live in (that) bustling city.”

As there is now a ‘China Town’ in Ghana, I found most intriguing, conversely, the nickname that has been given to Guangzhou, the magazine noted: ‘Little Africa’.


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