Among my childhood memories, the ones that I have come to cherish most are Sunday evenings spent with my mom, head laid across her lap as she fashioned my hair into braids interwoven with beads and barrettes. This ritual almost always required a visit to our local “beauty supply store,” with rows of products featuring images of black women luxuriating in the freshness of a new hairstyle.
Walking through the hallways of the Guangzhou Beauty Exchange Center (广州美博城) is nostalgic for one who understands this experience. But there is a distinct difference between some of the beauty supply stores that populate black communities in the United States and this one. In this unlikely site in southeastern China, Afro-descendant entrepreneurs can be found on both sides the counter, and are helping reclaim the business of black beauty.
Guangzhou’s outsized African community has deep roots. During China’s economic boom in the 1990s, a large influx of West-African people flocked to the city to reap the benefits of Guangzhou’s historic port. Though increasingly strict visa regulations have led to a dwindling numbers of African migrants, those who have the resources and connections still make the journey.
The International Cosmetics Plaza in Guangzhou, which houses the Beauty Exchange Center
The Beauty Exchange Center — situated in the area surrounding Guangzhou’s railway station — consists of four floors of small beauty shops that serve as brick-and-mortar stores for factories located across China. Here, vendors primarily deal in the business of fake hair (jiafa, 假发) in the form of hair extensions, wigs and weaves.
The growth of this industry has been supported by new, affordable flights between China and countries in Africa, such as the newly introduced Rwanda-Guangzhou route. These flights enable entrepreneurs from the continent to make the journey to Guangzhou multiple times a year to purchase goods and transport them in checked baggage on their return flight. This allows merchants to make the case that their bundles are for personal use upon re-entry to their country of origin, helping reduce import costs.
If they choose to get their products shipped from Guangzhou, improved logistics and Kenya’s (Chinese-built) Mombasa-Nairobi railway help merchants move goods from the Mombasa port inland for distribution. Merchants that live in countries not served by the major railway can enlist the help of forwarding companies located in close proximity to the Beauty Exchange Center — experts in shipping the most product from China with the least added costs and tariffs — to help them ship their wares.
A local freight forwarding company near the Beauty Exchange Center
A quick walk around the center reveals the impact that these new opportunities have had on the market. Black women can be seen throughout the Exchange Center, clutching bags of extensions — bundles of pure gold. Deals are brokered using a fierce combination of Chinese, English, and French that sounds like a language of its very own. If you were to ask one of the many vendors from cities throughout China what language he was speaking, he’d shrug and reply that he wasn’t quite sure what was spoken around here.
Shops throughout the center are primarily run by vendors from Shandong, Henan and Guangdong. A number are part of large family networks that are involved in every aspect of the industry, from the initial purchase of donor hair, to the production of the hair extensions themselves. Black female entrepreneurs have mainly operated as middle-women who purchase hair wholesale from Chinese vendors and sell bundles and wigs to customers in their home country. But closer relationships between vendors and merchants forged throughout years of doing businesses have led to new collaborations that merge the two roles.
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In the basement of the beauty exchange center, a hair vendor from Henan runs a shop with the help of her husband and cousin. Within the span of 30 minutes, a steady stream of women rush in and out, saying as little as “two bundles, kinky-curly” and handing over cash before making their exit. She explains that these are all returning customers she has come to know throughout her 10 years in business.
An employee at Merry Hair from Guangzhou, though only having entered the business two weeks ago, explains that in addition to working with customers from different parts of Africa, she had also sold hair extensions to a number of Afro-descendant people from France. She notes that though tastes varied, her French customers tend to prefer lighter colors of hair.
Women carrying products outside the Beauty Exchange Center
Nearby, a young woman from East Africa sits chatting in Chinese with the owner of another popular shop. She’s leveraged her relationship with a vendor to become a wholesale supplier earning commissions on her orders, as well as a consultant offering advice to friends looking to start selling hair extensions of their own. When asked if it was worth it to invest in a hair extensions business, she replies simply, “You will make money.” She then adds that she had already set up her own profitable business back home.
While many have had positive experiences, others have not been as lucky. Not far from Merry Hair, a vendor and merchant can be overheard arguing in Chinese. Upon returning to have an order filled for a purchase paid for the day before, the merchant found out that the person he paid was not a vendor employed at their store. He had been a victim of fraud. As she watches the argument, another merchant remarks that the store in question is known for doing bad business and is to be avoided at all costs.
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To a black beauty enthusiast, the intimate relationship between these women and Chinese shop owners feels unique. In the U.S., primarily Korean and Chinese owners of these beauty shops are able to source products cheaply because of contacts with factories in their home countries. Black women attempting to get in the business have found it difficult to get similarly low prices, preventing them from being price competitive.
But the Guangzhou Beauty Exchange Center has opened up new doors in that respect. The collaborations that have evolved from this allow black women from all over to reclaim a piece of this beauty legacy.
For an inside look at the Guangzhou Beauty Exchange Center, watch the full video here:
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