Steven Peng Yongxin, 28, works as a waiter at African Food, a restaurant and bar in Lujing Road in Guangzhou’s Little Africa – known to irreverent locals as ‘chocolate city’ – thanks to the number of African vendors who trade, live and eat there. The cafes and small eateries offering African and halal Arabic cuisine are the closest tastes they can find to those of home. Peng (pictured) came from Fujian four years ago with a journalism degree hoping to become an investigative reporter, but after two months as a cadet at the New Express, a Guangzhou tabloid, he left because of low pay. Since then, he’s had 30 various jobs. Today Lujing Road is the cradle for his future career. His business card in Chinese is for local clients looking for good massage therapy, his card in English is to introduce women to his non-Chinese speaking clients, and he has a third business card for clients needing translations and merchandising suggestions.
How would you describe the part of town you work in?
This is a business hub and yet it seems to be another country within China. It’s unique and exotic; there is no other place like it. Every time I walk across the railway bridge to the entrance of the business area, I feel as if I am passing customs to enter a different country. This part of Guangzhou has its own scents and sights. Our restaurant is packed whenever an African sports team is playing. It’s a way for Africans living in Guangzhou to party, celebrate their continent and be proud of their race. But it can be quiet some nights, such as when the police do random visa inspections, which send many of our customers with invalid visa documents or passports into hiding.
How do you mix with your customers?
Sometimes it’s really hard to get local waiters to work among African customers because of the language barrier. Once when I was training some of the new waitresses, I asked if they knew the meaning of ‘how are you’, and one told me it meant ‘I love you’. I think 70 per cent of the Africans are very nice, although the local mentality is that most of them can be quite impolite, and a small number even approach girls in public areas in a lewd way and get into fights, which can be quite disturbing. But I think most of them are nice if you show them respect.
I try to make an effort to remember their names, where they are from, what their businesses are, and remember what they usually order. That way, I build up a good rapport with them. A few of my customers are now my close brothers. I think I’ve really learned a lot from my customers.
Out of the so many dozen jobs I’ve had in the past four years, nothing is more rewarding than waiting on tables here. In two to three years, I think I can make a lot of money.
Is it tiring to work late hours and not have a stable job?
I work from 7.30pm to 4am. If your heart and soul are not free, you will feel tired no matter what you do. My mind is free and active, no matter how tired I am physically. This is what keeps me going.
What do people normally order?
For the poor ones, they normally order a bottle of Tsingtao, which costs five yuan (HK$5.70) at our place, but some richer ones go for Guinness, which is 15 yuan, and some even order foreign liqueurs. If we relied only on selling Tsingtao, we’d be out of business fast. It is the richer clients who spend thousands of dollars every night who sustain our business.
What about your career in the future?
I’m hoping to tap into the vibrant trade relationship between China and Africa. I’ve learned that working as a guide for businessmen or merchandisers can be quite profitable. My family back home doesn’t know what I’m doing in Guangzhou; I only tell them I work very hard here. I know many Nigerian, Congolese and Ghanaian businessmen are hunting for factories to make fine machinery to help harvest gold and minerals in mines back home. If I can get just 10 per cent of the commission from factories here, a month of work will be enough to pay my living costs for a year.
How did a university graduate with a journalism degree end up as you did?
There are only two kinds of jobs in this world – work for others or be your own boss. Many of my fellow waiter friends don’t understand why a university graduate would be a waiter. They don’t see what I see; they’ll never understand me. No matter what job I’m doing, the key is how much experience I can get out of the job. Working as a journalist in China is hopeless. I want to stay in Guangzhou because of the opportunities it has to offer. I’d take on any job that comes my way as long as it pays all right and gives me the freedom to explore other interesting things.