By Daniel D. Zarazua
Although it’s premature to call Taipei the next Black Mecca, there’s no question that the residents of African descent in this Asian economic powerhouse are contributing to a vibrant lifestyle.
Their reasons for living in Taiwan are varied, although economics is a driving force for many. Others cite a sense of adventure or a relationship, while a growing number are coming over on academic scholarship. Most only stay for a predetermined period of time, but others have chosen to create more permanent lives, with most having arrived within the past 15 years.
Drawing people from many countries, including Haiti, Senegal, Togo, and the U.S., the island’s Black population is still small, with estimates ranging in the hundreds, out of an overall population of over 23 million. While there are more established Black communities in countries such as China, which includes at least one “chocolate city,” Taiwan has its own appeal.
Oliver Harley, a Jamaican national, came with the intent of setting up a record label and promotion company to push reggae music. Eight years later, the company is still going strong, promoting shows and recording both foreign and local acts under the Black Reign moniker. “There’s not really too much of a Caribbean music scene here – so why not?” He said. Harley’s ventures have grown to include co-founding an entertainment website, as well as a ticketing company.
As Taiwan joined the ranks of Asian countries heavily investing in Africa, many Africans began immigrating. Shaibu Hasamu, a native of Ghana, splits time in his home country and Taiwan, importing and exporting goods. In effort to promote African culture, he’s also a lead musician in the Pan-African music troupe. His wife Kathy, a Taiwanese local, manages the group.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges. Ghanaian Oliver Ghana, a businessman and Taiwanese resident for more two decades, can cite countless tales of discrimination and harassment from officials. He cautions countrymen about coming to Taiwan with rose-colored glasses as they often cite his life as what’s possible, including marrying a local and having a son successfully compete in Taiwanese schools.
Yet a common theme among those interviewed was that racism was hardly unique to Taiwan and thus not enough of a factor to leave. According to American Warren Fox, “The things I’ve run into have been related to ignorance, whereas the issues I’ve run into in the States have been related to hatred – so here it’s easier to deal with. I say a word or two in Chinese and that changes (their) perspective.”
Fox has been able to carve himself a niche as a martial arts instructor and hip hop performer, appearing in movies and commercials, as well as performing with high profile American acts such as Ciara.
Another hurdle, particularly for women, is hair care. “There are no hair care products for Black hair,” said American Elissa Russell, who often relied on international students doubling as stylists. Nearly a decade ago Russell created a group, Descents of African People, to help address issues such as these, and also included activities such as Juneteenth celebrations and dialogues.
In spite of its challenges, Taiwan became home. Asked how she’d rate living in Taiwan on a scale of 1-10, Russell gave it a 9. “I wouldn’t trade the experience,” she said.