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Mandarin, food and kung fu; the popular Chinese cultures in The Gambia

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By Talibeh Hydara

A historian said Chinese always travel with their culture and the fact that Mandarin is close to becoming the most spoken language in the world and different Chinese cultures now prominent in different countries, his statement is quite logical.

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Considered one of the earliest ancient civilizations, Chinese culture has profound influence on humanity for thousands of years and even though it didn’t start in the 17th century like the UK, The Gambia too came into direct contact with Chinese culture just four years after independence.

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On 20 December 1994, The Gambia’s first Solicitor General S.H.A George and the first Gambian male to achieve a PhD in science Dr L.J Marenah, wrote a beautiful tribute to Bo Hong, the owner of Bamboo Restaurant who lived in the country for twenty-five years.

Hong, originally among the Taiwanese team of rice specialists that arrived in 1969, stayed in the country until his death in 1994 and he was the pioneer of Chinese cuisine in The Gambia.  

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Bamboo Chinese restaurant located at Kotu junction

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The tribute, published in The Daily Observer, reads in part:

“Hong was unique in many ways in terms of hours, hard work, seven days in the week, dedication, love of work, honesty and profound knowledge of practical agriculture and understanding of the farmers whom he motivated well.

This affable man was the friend of all – Ministry of Agriculture officials, commissioners, Local Authorities, farmers, the young and old. Without doubt, all these attributes contributed most to the success of the team’s assignment in The Gambia.

All the other members of the team eventually left the country but Hong stayed behind because he loved The Gambia and the people. He was later joined by his family and his sons attended ordinary schools here.

Hong later moved from the Sapu area to the western part of the country.

He was engaged as farm manager by a prominent businessman and commercial farmer whom he successfully assisted in developing various farming enterprises, notably the establishment of fruit orchards and the production of selected vegetables for export to European markets. In 1985, to no one’s surprise, Hong sought and obtained without any difficulty, naturalisation as a Gambian. This is a clear manifestation of Hong’s entrenched aspiration to continue living in and contributing to the development of the country.

Then Hong became self-employed and he bought a plot and built a house and the Bamboo Restaurant in Fajara, the first Chinese restaurant in The Gambia whose success led to the existence of many others to date.

The Bamboo Restaurant is one of our most popular Chinese restaurants which is patronised by foreign tourists and Gambians alike. During the tourist season it is always too crowded and queues to enter are common. The attraction of Bamboo, among many others, stems from the expert management, delicious meals (with home-cook by Mrs. Hong), very friendly atmosphere with its ever smiling and polite owners and unusual hospitality.

Throughout his very busy and rewarding life in The Gambia, Hong was steadfastly supported by his charming wife and children.

When he took ill, he was flown to China for treatment but his condition did not improve. Although he was advised to stay on he decided to return to The Gambia which he accepted and claimed as his native land.

We share the grief of the family and join them in mourning the loss of a lov-able, humble man and a true friend who selflessly contributed so much to the socio-economic development of his second home-land, if not his first.”

Bamboo, even after almost four decades since it opened, continues to dominate the Chinese culinary scene in the country. Despite undergoing a change in ownership, the restaurant has managed to preserve its timeless charm and vitality, and currently provides employment to over twenty Gambians.

Bamboo inspired dozens of other Chinese restaurants at different times for the past thirty-nine years. Wonderful Chinese Restaurant, a moderate restaurant on Garba Jahumpa Road, was established fifteen years ago.

The owner, Haijian Huang, said his customers love the variety of Chinese foods, which include both Africans and Westerners.

“In fact, we have customers who have been with us since we established in 2009. That means they love our food, and the prices are very good as well,” Huang, locally known as John, said.

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Wonderful Chinese Restaurant on Garba Jahumpa Road

Huang keeps the restaurant tidy and continues to attract foodies with his chow mein, pak choi in garlic, Sichuan chicken wings, dumplings, fish with tofu and coriander soup or the delicious egg fried rice. 

There is also Hua Fei, which has both a restaurant and a minimarket. Other small Chinese restaurants are dotted across the Greater Banjul Area as more Gambians crave the rich and unique flavor of Chinese food.

Language is the bridge

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Bo Li, Lifang Xu, Zhang Chao, Kailin Xu

In October 2024, the Confucius Institute at the University of The Gambia will be five years old. Jointly established by Guizhou University and the University of The Gambia, the institute has been teaching students Mandarin and other cultures since it hit the ground in 2019.

Zhang Chao, the director of the Confucius Institute, said there are incentives for learning Chinese language.

“As an incentive, if you pass HSK 3 test, you can apply for a short-term scholarship to study in China, like half a year. If you pass HSK 4, you can apply for a full scholarship to pursue your masters or a doctorate degree in China. Another advantage is that, if you learn the Chinese language, you have the chance to apply for the Chinese Ambassador’s Scholarship,” Mr Chao, who has been director for more than two years, revealed.

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The Confucius Institute also offers Youth Chinese Test to primary and secondary school students, a strategy that makes learning a new language convenient for Gambians.

“By the time the young students come to UTG, they already speak Chinese, so they can start at HSK 2, and they can quickly finish the rest of the modules. The younger you are the quicker you learn a language.”

In a little under five years, nearly one thousand students have learned or are learning the Chinese language at the Confucius Institute with the trio of teachers offering free classes to even people outside the university.

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Zhang Chao, Bo Li, and Kailin Xu teach not only language but also calligraphy, paper cutting, and making simple Chinese foods like rice dumplings while Lifang Xu teaches singing, dancing, painting and helps organise exams and activities.

“We also want to introduce Gambian culture to our Chinese colleagues. We did a video in which one of our students was talking about Gambian clothes and it was posted on Chinese social media.”

Nusrat Senior Secondary, British International, West African Academy of Science and Technology, and Banjul American International schools have all been offering Chinese language lessons to students. Nusrat students sang a Chinese song on courage at the award of the ambassador’s scholarship on Friday, 17 May 2024.  

Kung fu; a form of fighting but not for fighting

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The oldest Chinese culture in The Gambia is probably kung fu, which crept into the country through movies in the 1960s and ‘70s, with popular actors such as Jackie Chan, Cheng Pei-pei, and Bruce Lee, still fondly remembered for their mesmerizing fighting skills.

“There was no form of entertainment in The Gambia except cinema; no internet, no TVs, we only went to the cinema starting at 6PM. Like Odeon Cinema in Banjul, Liberty Cinema in Serekunda, Ritz Cinema in Churchill’s Town opposite the fire service, where the GTBank is. It used to be a very popular cinema. There was also another cinema house opposite the Brikama garage in Serekunda. These cinema houses used to show a lot of kung fu films. There was a series called the Shaolin Tiger; that is where the craze for kung fu started. Young children used to imitate kung fu kicks. Of course, Chinese also coming into the country in 1968 influenced the culture,” Hassoum Ceesay, historian and director at the National Centre for Arts and Culture, said.

As early as 1992, a group of Gambians formed a kung fu association, which was incorporated into the national karate association until 2008 when it became a standalone.

“Kung fu was not that common when the group was formed, so they joined the Gambia Karate Association, but it was realized that karate and kung fu are different, not just in strikes or punches but in forms as well. In kung fu, we have taolu and sanda, which are different from kata and kumite in karate. Lamin Drammeh, Tijan Colley, Musa Colley, Moussa Balde, Muhammed Jatta gathered in 2008 to discuss forming a separate association and a letter was written to the karate association,” Alieu Bah, president of Gambia Kung fu Wushu Federation, narrated.  

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Kung fu federation president Alieu Bah in practice

Alieu said the federation has since sprung into life with thousands of young people developing a strong desire to learn kung fu, which he considers the highest form of self-discipline.

“We have up to three thousand members in over thirty clubs across the six regions of The Gambia. Since I came in as president in 2022, I tried to first unite all these clubs to make sure members know one another. Before, there was a belief that only illiterates do martial arts but now people have understood that it is more than that. I always tell people that the highest form of discipline I attained in my life was when I trained in kung fu. It is a form of fighting but not for fighting. You are trained on how to fight and why not to fight as well. It trains you discipline.”

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Alieu, who is on a mission to introduce kung fu in schools to promote discipline in young people, said there is a general acceptance of the art in training minds.

“Looking at China where kung fu originated, the Chinese are one of, if not the most disciplined people in the world. Kung fu can inculcate discipline in our people too because it is fundamental in Chinese culture as well.

“The level of interest in kung fu in The Gambia is at the highest right now. The number of people registering in kung fu clubs is on the rise.”

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History teaches that in 495 AD, the legendary Shaolin Temple was built among the Song mountains in the Henan Province.

Alieu and two of his colleagues will go to China this year to visit the Shaolin Temple, a monastic institution recognized as the birthplace of Chan Buddhism and the cradle of Shaolin kung fu.

“I call the Shaolin Temple the heart of kung fu. Visiting the temple, as a federation, is a dream come true for us. It is the first time, I think, Gambians will train at the Shaolin Temple.”

Now that The Gambia has transitioned into the technological era with internet facilitating easy access to film industries, more young Gambians are becoming enamoured with C-dramas. Popular actors such as Zhao Lusi, Yang Mi, Dilraba Dilmurat, and Wang Hedi are religiously followed by the Gen Z population.

Traditional medicine

Just like advanced agricultural techniques, Gambians also got to experience Traditional Chinese Medicine, TCM, decades ago with the arrival of Chinese into the country.

China has sent six different teams of doctors to The Gambia since diplomatic relations were resumed in 2016 and over 200 doctors between 1974 to 1995.

Shu Jingwei, a member of the 6th medical team currently in the country, said traditional medicine is a component in their medical outreaches and it is growingly popular.

“China Medical Team has used TCM in our medical outreaches in Bansang General Hospital and Brikama District Hospital. TCM is very popular here and it involves two categories; inner pain which we use Chinese herbs and outer body which we use cupping, moxibustion, acupuncture, massage but the most popular in these two hospitals is acupuncture.

“When we are doing our medical outreach, our traditional Chinese medicine doctor is usually bombarded with patients. Normally, they have lots of pain like back pain, waist pain, and leg pain but the medicine is very effective. After 20 minutes of acupuncture, the pain will subside,” Mr Shu said.

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TCM expert Gao Ao attending to a woman with leg pain

It is not only TCM that plays a key role in The Gambia’s healthcare system, but conventional Chinese medicine has also been equally central in the pharmaceutical industry.

What a lot of people don’t know is that there is actually a Chinese pharmacy in The Gambia. Mr Guan and his two other colleagues started the pharmacy in 2020, named Sino Pharma Co. Ltd. on Kairaba Avenue almost opposite the Comium building.

It is a wholesale pharmacy importing quality medicines which are resold to health centres, clinics, hospitals and other pharmacies.

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I walked into the pharmacy on Thursday and it took me back to when I was in China. Mr Guan, the pharmacist, doesn’t speak English and I do not speak Chinese but there was something that profoundly connected us: WeChat. We didn’t need to speak each other’s language; WeChat was our language.

Mr Guan is from Shanghai, a city that represents modern China in all aspects and I left the pharmacy knowing he would either learn English or I would learn Chinese; the latter is a more possible scenario.

Even though it is difficult to get quality Chinese tea in the country, sipping cha is a shared culture. In fact, there is a particular Chinese tea which is widely credited for shrinking fibroid, which has been a menace among Gambian women. 

For diplomatic relations to work smoothly between two countries, the peoples must first appreciate each other’s cultures and traditions. The signs are clear that Gambians and Chinese are on the right track.

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