Portrait of George Shum: A Chinese-Zanzibari Entrepreneur

I first met George Shum, owner of Pagoda Restaurant, surrounded by ubiquitous Chinese restaurant paraphernalia: red-tasseled symbols of good fortune, golden good luck cats and a fish tank, in which lobsters and other sea creatures awaited their fate. It is the only Chinese restaurant in Stone Town, the old quarter of Zanzibar City.

At first glance, I assumed that the 44-year-old entrepreneur belonged to the substantial community of Chinese citizens that had begun to forge a life for themselves in recent years in East Africa. But when I asked where he was from, he replied in a thick Cantonese accent: “Wo shi sang ji ba er ren” — “I’m Zanzibari.”

George’s Cantonese grandparents were sent to Zanzibar in the 1950s to harvest sea cucumber for export to China. High quality sea cucumber was plentiful in those days, said George, and soon the couple started their own business. They had six children in Zanzibar, including George’s mother. Years later, she and her Chinese-born husband took over the family business and had three children of their own.

Dhows at sunset in Zanzibar's Stone Town
Dhows at sunset in Zanzibar’s Stone Town

George was born near Stone Town’s port in 1973. He attended a Swahili primary school, but returned to China with his family during his formative years and completed high school in Macau, China. After working in China for a few years, he then joined his aunt in Kenya, where she had opened a restaurant in the coastal city of Mombasa. But ultimately, Zanzibar was home.

“I was born here,” George said. “All my classmates and my neighbors are Swahili people. I never felt different. In fact, when I arrived in China, once I talked my dialect, they knew I wasn’t from there.”

His parents and siblings eventually emigrated to Australia, but George stayed in Zanzibar.

“I’m the firstborn,” he explained. “My family has business here, houses here … At least one must come back.”

This sense of duty led him to return to Zanzibar in 1993, where he opened Pagoda Restaurant a few years later.

After all these years born and raised away from China, it would have been easy for him to forget his roots. Instead, George honors his Chinese family’s traditions, while embracing the cultural diversity that life in Africa has offered him.

“We have quite a mix of everything in Zanzibar.”

Still, George hasn’t forgotten his heritage. Figurines of guardians from ancient Chinese folklore have prominence in his restaurant. And his children are being raised to speak Cantonese and Mandarin along with Swahili and English.

In many ways, George embodies Zanzibar’s multifaceted identity, yet — unlike most of the Zanzibaris I spoke to — he wasn’t concerned about his hometown losing its identity to outside influences. China had shown him what rapid change really was.

“Say you live in Shanghai or Beijing: If you don’t go there for two years, when you go back you won’t recognize it,” he told me. “In Stone Town, apart from more shops and hotels and restaurants opening, the pattern is exactly the same. For me, Stone Town never changes.”

And maybe that’s why he calls it home.

This post is one in a series of portraits of Chinese living in Africa


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