Doa Aly

Doa Aly

Chinese Sweet, Chinese Pretty

Single channel digital film projection, 16:9, 2006, 14 min 10 sec

Chinese Sweet, Chinese Pretty is a film-portrait of three Chinese women, Lulu, Susu and Mama, who worked as door-to-door vendors in Cairo in the summer of 2006. The video focuses on the women’s physical performance, the movements of their hands, eyes, as well as their daily scuffle as they navigate the density of the city. Chinese Sweet was commissioned by The Maghreb Connection, curated by Ursula Biemann.

Chinese Sweet, Chinese Pretty

Essay by Doa Aly, published in The Maghreb Connection: Movements of Life Across North Africa, edited by Ursula Biemann and Brian Holmes, 2006 

Susu and Mama 

A little over a year ago, two Chinese women came to my door. They were panting under the weight of huge backpacks. They put their sacks down as I looked through the peephole and asked who they were. “Wahed sini byebi’ hagaat” came the answer in broken Arabic: “A Chinese person selling things.” 

I thought they must be selling works of authentic Chinese craftsmanship: embroidered handbags or hand-painted Chinese fans. But their bulging bags were weighted down with nylon pyjamas, highly flammable nightgowns, lace  panties and cheap make-up. It may all have been made in China but everything they sold was readily available in Cairo’s wholesale stores and street markets.   They were called Susu and Mama (Susu’s mother). They sat down on the nearest couch and Mama started unpacking neatly folded lingerie from one of the bags. She moved slowly and methodically, looking at me every once in a while. When nothing sparked my interest, she pointed at the other sack and asked—again in Arabic—“More?” There was a lot of unpacking and unfolding and not much talk. She spoke enough Arabic to sell lingerie, such as the words for each garment and its price, and a few phrases useful for bargaining like “no,” “not possible,” “last price.” When I hesitated over a burgundy stretch-lace baby doll she held it up and said, “This Chinese: Chinese, sweet and pretty.”   It was impossible to engage in a conversation with them, they barely spoke Arabic and I didn’t speak any Chinese. Mama thought I wanted to learn it, and she started pointing at objects around the flat and pronounced the Chinese  word for table, chair and carpet, and even wrote the symbols down. Twenty eight year-old Susu couldn’t read or write. I wasn’t really interested in the merchandise and asked them to come back the following week with the intent tion of hiring an interpreter. I later found out that their rhyming, two-syllable nicknames are only used on duty. Chinese door-to-door vendors refrain from using their real Chinese names because they are too difficult for Egyptians to  pronounce and memorize. 

Susu and Mama never showed up at my door again. A year after our first  encounter, as I was clandestinely following another group of Chinese vendors, I bumped into Susu and her husband—who had just flown in from China—waiti ing for the bus that would take them from central Cairo to the suburb of Helw wan. This time I had my camera on me and was in the company of Tarek Morsi, a Chinese-language interpreter who calls himself Li Bin. She put her hand on the camera’s lens; she didn’t want to be filmed but said she remembered me.  

Susu is not the only one who refused to be filmed in action: nearly every Chi-n nese I approached through Tarek exhibited intense paranoia at the idea of being recorded on tape. For the most part they are ashamed to be labeled a door-to door vendor. Some of them are worried about their illegal status in the country: they entered Egypt on a tourist visa and have no right to work. Rumors spread  about us within the Chinese community; they are convinced that we will sell the tapes to some party in China seeking to scandalize Chinese women. 

I took Susu to my sister’s house so I could film her in relative comfort. Nerv-o ous and shy, she hated every second of it, hiding her face behind her nightgowns and pyjamas and showing clear signs of irritation. When I accompanied her back to her flat she was relaxed and smiling and didn’t seem to mind the camera one  bit. I was offered a huge supper and Chinese cigarettes. When we’d eaten, Mama sang a Chinese song she wrote while Susu and I smoked cigarettes on the balc cony. We only ever spoke through Tarek, but Mama still managed to introduce me to the old Chinese saying, “A bosom friend from afar brings a distant land near.” 

The Ant’s Nest 

With Susu and Mama, I had barely scratched the surface of Cairo’s strong community of 3,000 Chinese citizens living and working on tourist visas. My attempts to penetrate their world came up against the same problems they meet on a day-to-day basis in the city, the same repeated rejection and inability to communicate. Egypt became a destination of choice for thousands of unem-p ployed Chinese in 2002, when the country was finally approved as a suitable  destination for Chinese tourists by the Exit-Entry Administration Bureau of  the Ministry of Public Security, and a Permanent Tourism Office was opened in  China. Between 2004 and 2005 an estimated 80,000 Chinese citizens entered Egypt on tourist visas.1 Chinese vendors fly to Egypt on an extendable tourist  visa; when these visas expire they return home to invest their savings in the booming Chinese economy. Their Egyptian wages may be low, but compared to  what they can expect to earn back home, the trip is still lucrative. Lulu, birth name Su Gui Yong, used to farm a patch of land in a village north-east of China with her father and two brothers. “I make around 100 to 150 EGP ($17 to $26)  per day,” she explains. “I save some money and still manage to send some to my family.” The average net income of a Chinese farmer was estimated at 2,936 yuan ($354.59) in 2004.2 

The Chinese in Egypt operate within a close-knit community. Business owne ers send for workers and workers recommend their friends or relatives. Assets come from collective pools: established investors (i.e. the 186 Chinese business owners legally operating in Egypt) put them in contact with the garment indus-t try and help them buy their initial stock on installment. Their work and social lives follow traditional Chinese patterns: they live on Chinese food cooked with ingredients they bring in from China, share low-rent flats four or five at a time  and show no particular interest in the host culture. 

Although this lifestyle creates a gulf between the Chinese community and their Egyptian neighbors, it has its benefits. Quickly settling in, they learn the  few words necessary for the trade and set out for work almost immediately. They are not afraid of carrying heavy loads up seemingly endless flights of stairs and  keep their ears shut to racist comments. “I wish Egyptian young women were  that robust,” says university professor Amani Marai. “When you look at those tiny women carrying huge bags you are amazed! A man wouldn’t be able to walk up seven or eight flights doing this, and all of it on the off chance of selling a 30  EGP ($5) nightgown or pyjama. But Egyptian girls are too conservative.”  

Lulu heard about Egypt through a friend from her village. The friend, also a  farmer, worked as a part-time nurse. Lulu says ten farmers from her village are already in Cairo. Once settled, she found her way to wholesale retailers and is now the owner of a fine collection of lingerie. “I do not have to report to anyone, I keep my own profit and pay my own installments,” she says. “I share the flat  with four other people and we all do the same thing.” 

Thousands of Chinese live like Lulu and her flat-mates. She has only been  here for nineteen months; others have been coming and going for more than four years. They share run-down flats in Nasr City’s Tenth Quarter, a housing  project created by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s on the outskirts of Cairo, to  provide moderately priced housing for working-class Egyptians. Nasr City mostl ly consists of tasteless condominiums and grim concrete high rises. The Tenth Quarter, with a much lower population density than most of Cairo, is home to  low-income Egyptians and foreigners such as Sudanese refugees, Indonesian  housekeepers and the newest wave of Chinese workers. 

Yet the neighborhood is not so much cosmopolitan as fragmented. Egyptians  are not tolerant of those sharing their already limited resources. “The flats were  much cheaper, you used to be able to rent a flat at 350 EGP ($61) a month, now  it’s 400 ($70) and 450 EGP ($78)… the rent went up when the Chinese starting  coming,” says a mechanic across the street from where Susu and her family live. Drifting around Cairo’s dusty fringes, these foreign interlopers seem detached, abandoned, unwanted.  

A typical day in Nasr City goes as follows: rise at noon, go to the local In-t ternet café to call relatives using Skype, return home to eat lunch and have a nap, rise again at five to hit the road with the backpack (destinations: upper middle class neighbourhoods like Heliopolis, Dokki, Pyramids Road, or towns  like Tanta or Helwan), return at midnight or one in the morning at the latest, cook dinner, then stay up munching and chatting until 4 am. “I don’t know any Egyptian singers or actors; I don’t watch any TV,” said Lena. “I’m only here to  work and can’t wait to go back home.”  

Most of the Chinese door-to-door vendors in Egypt are women. Their hus-b bands, brothers or male friends may occasionally accompany them on their rounds but it’s the women who knock on the doors. A group of women will travel together to a given neighborhood then spread out in opposite directions, movi ing through the streets in a grid-like pattern to make sure they cover the whole area. If the area proves lucrative they return the following week. If the trip is a failure not only will they not return, they’ll also warn off their colleagues.   To get a sale someone has to let them in and give them the chance to unpack their goods, but for the most part people are too suspicious of these women to open up. They answer, “No, thank you,” in English behind closed doors. “No-b body lets anyone in these days, it’s just not safe any longer,” says Ghana Ali, a forty-year old housewife. Ali only lets the Chinese women in if her husband is home. “I once beat one of these women up at the building entrance,” says Umm Hebba, a doorman’s wife in Heliopolis. “When I see them I kick them out, when they manage to sneak in the doormen next door comes over to warn me.” Why does she do this? “The tenants complain about them, they don’t want them in the building.” Nobody knows where the Chinese women come from, nobody can  tell who they are affiliated with and most importantly, nobody can communicate  with them. In a conformist and conservative country like Egypt, the Chinese  door-to-door vendor stands very little chance. 

In response to the increasing hostility of the capital city’s upper-middle class, Chinese vendors started making day-trips on public transport buses to small provincial towns like Tanta, Helwan or Suez where such fear of the other is less acute. They have also developed selling techniques and catch phrases like “Chinese pretty” or “authentic Chinese,” tapping into the average Egyptian’s  natural prejudice against locally made produce in favor of imported goods. 

The Chinese Dallala 

One common complaint is that Chinese vendors take jobs from Egyptians.  Yet far from taking work that would otherwise go to Egyptians, the Chinese  have managed to create their own jobs, or to be precise, have revived a dying profession: that of the dallala

Dallala is the Arabic word for “woman vendor.” The dallala used to go from door to door selling clothing, lingerie, perfumes, fabrics and jewellery to women in a neighborhood. She linked housewives with all variety of dealers. She was considered an inspiring example of resourcefulness in the face of poverty.   The dallala first appeared in Egypt during Mohamed Ali’s reign. At a time of  open culture and trade encouraged by Mohamed Ali, she emerged as a practical solution for conservative women who dared not venture outside their homes and into the markets. The title was usually passed down from mother to daughter. The dallalat were—and had to be—very versatile: the nature of their profession required them to enter various households and connect with all classes of people. They usually bonded with their clientele, becoming confidantes, even acting as  go-betweens in clandestine love affairs. During the British occupation they were employed as spies by the Egyptian authorities. Nowadays the dallala only exists in rural areas in the Delta and Upper-Egypt. In some highly conservative provi inces, the job is taken by young unemployed men. “Those Chinese women sell the same merchandise for much higher prices, which makes my job harder,” says Gamal Ahmed Abdallah, a young men working as a door-to-door vendor in Assyut, Upper-Egypt. Though she may lack the versatility and communication skills of her Egyptian predecessor, the Chinese dallala carries her own set of connotations. She represents the infiltration of China into our daily lives and is a constant reminder of the economic state of the world. If not exhilarating, the sight of the Chinese vendor at one’s door is intimidating to say the least. 

The Giant Investor and the Poor Farmer 

 Investigating the lives of the Chinese vendors in Cairo was like strolli ing into the Minotaur’s labyrinth, only I bumped into the monster’s rear-end before its head. The vendors’ story ends where that of the People’s Republic of  China begins. It is as though the country and the people were not bound by the same fate. 

China began to pursue reformist policies and opened up to the outside world in the late 1970s. When the reform began in 1978, it stressed economic developm ment and social stability. The switch from a planned economy to a more mark ket-oriented economy ushered in a dramatic economic boom. Reform’s success,  however, has been increasingly challenged by the dark side of the swift socio economic transformation. Unemployment has risen to its highest level in China since 1949.3 Living standards in rural areas have not increased at the same rate as those in towns, where the booming economy has had the most noticeable 

impact. Nowadays, eight hundred million Chinese farmers suffer from low agric cultural production returns and low educational levels. Most of these individua als come from impoverished districts where they make their living from grain production and have limited means to increase their income. 

China continues as a result to be a major source of immigrants into dev veloping countries and major industrial nations. The Egyptian government is  discreetly applying more regulations to visa extensions for Chinese visitors. Visas are now extended for no more than a month or two, rather than a whole  year as was previously the case. Fearing uproar from local entrepreneurs and owners of small businesses, Egypt recently turned down a request to set up a  Chinatown in Cairo. 

In the meantime, Chinese-made goods flood Egyptian markets, gradually  replacing EU, Japanese and American imports. At the Visit Tourism & Shopp ping Festival 2006, held at Cairo’s International Conference & Exhibition Centre  (itself built with a loan from China), hundreds of booths are taken by Chinese vendors. “They can buy a booth if they want to,” says Khaled El Belbessi, in  charge of Hall 4 at the CICC. “It’s not up to us to inquire about their status.” Standing behind heaps of lingerie and plastic slippers, they unfold, bargain, bag and pocket with bewildering speed. With a vocabulary of five words and  sign language they service streams of Egyptian ladies who talk back in broken  Arabic. “I always buy from them,” says Abir Zidan, a stewardess with EgyptAir.  “I bought all my bridal lingerie from them. I think they are very efficient.”   As a matter of fact it all started at the conventions: when the number of Chinese in Egypt exceeded the number of events they turned to door-to-door  delivery. However, working behind a booth is considered a step up. “I would like to own a booth somewhere or open a restaurant,” Mama declares, before asking, “Would a typical Chinese food restaurant work in Cairo?” 

If these Chinese salespeople run into any trouble they will seek help with anyone but their own embassy. The Chinese Embassy in Cairo denies the pres-e ence of the thousands of Chinese nationals living and working in the country. “We deal with a different class of investors,” says Mrs. Sheng from the embass sy’s economic department. Further questioning runs up against the same blank wall. These 3,000 workers are not meant to exist; they are a menace, a plague, a threat to the Asian giant’s image. 

Sino-Egyptian ties 

China keeps investing heavily in Egypt and the region. Most recently, Egypt  received a $16.3 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of China (Eximbank)  to refurbish polyester production. The loan will be used to upgrade the polyester factory and will be repaid over twenty years, at 2% interest after a grace period of five years. Trade between both countries is expected to reach US $2 billion by  the end of 2006.4 

“Egypt enjoys a crucial status in the Arab world, and I believe the developm ment of a Sino-Egyptian relationship of strategic cooperation will have a positive  impact on the development of the relations between China and other Arab count tries.”  —Chinese President Hu Jintao at a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak.5 

Any mention of Sino-Egyptian bilateral exchanges is always accompanied by  statistics outlining the economic achievements of the two countries and followed by grave words on the necessity of a “dialogue between two ancient civilizat tions.” Needless to say, China’s aim at the end of the day is to secure access to  vital natural resources in order to maintain its economic growth. Egypt on the other hand, being the most populous Arab country, is keen on expanding trade links. Despite all forced similarities suggested by diplomats, China and Egypt’s  relationship has almost no cultural component. The very way the two peoples deploy their resources is startlingly different. Egyptians differ in pace and dis-p position. Slow-and-easy Egypt will be swallowed up by China in the blink of an  eye. The only true similarity is one no diplomat would dare mention: China and Egypt are two conservative people well rehearsed in the arts of obedience, quieti ism and national pride. The pride and love of one’s homeland that characterize these two peoples often results in a reluctance to mix with “the other.” 

Mama’s Song 

“A song I sing from my heart to myself” 

How courageous Chinese girls are 

Tread the gates of China and go to faraway Egypt 

They climb high buildings with their strong hands 

They love working hard for the happiness it brings to their heart 

Sweet Chinese, don’t fear goodbyes and bitter distance 

Tomorrow will be sweeter than honey 

May it be sweeter than honey 

How beautiful is my land 

Every morning I long to return home; become complete once more

The days roll by, day after day my hand rings the bells 

And my heart is filled with anxiety  

Hello! Bye Bye! Chinese sweet, Chinese pretty! 

Life is filled with care and worry 

Ah me! I do not know when I shall return to my land 

How deep is the Yellow River, how great is the Yangtze 

My longing for my family is even deeper 

My tears, my sweat are more abundant than all rivers 

My town, Jin Lin Liu He 

Where beautiful flowers grow on the meadows 

Sweet waters and sweeter people 

All four seasons are like spring 

My town is more beautiful than a painting. 


1 “Out of the Red,” Cache Seel—Egypt Today, vol. 27, no. 8 (August 2006). 

2 “China Questions and Answers, (all websites accessed in August 2006). 

3 Cheng Li, Rediscovering China: Dynamics and Dilemmas of Reform (Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 1997). 

4 “China Invests $16m for Textile Makeover in Egypt”

5 “China-Egypt strategic cooperation benefits world peace: President Hu,