Gao Jing sits quietly occasionally responding to questions from fellow poker players in Kenya’s coastal town of Malindi.
This is his first time to take part in the Kenyan Poker Tour challenge, making him the first Chinese to take part in the tournament that was launched last year.
Gao hardly speaks English, but his friend knows enough to get by. In any case, they are all patrons of Finix Casino, in Hurlingham, Nairobi, which is frequented by Chinese living in the Kenyan capital.
Gao is part of the growing Chinese community living in Kenya and whose population now stands at 7,000, according to the spokesman of The People’s Republic of China’s Embassy in Nairobi, Shifan Wu.
The number, he says, has grown steadily in the past the past five years with many of them coming as experts to execute development projects and trade.
Kenya and China have elevated their relations in the past 10 years with comprehensive partnerships covering various sectors including economic cooperation, infrastructure, skills exchange, finance, environmental protection and new energy.
This has seen China become Kenya’s largest source of direct investment and one of its largest trade partners.
Increased co-operation between the two countries has seen Chinese companies, many funded through their government, win major contracts in Kenya, especially road construction, the port, and the airport expansion among others.
The companies often bring in their nationals to help with the work, some of who end up settling here.
One company that has been active in Kenya is China Wu Yi, which initially set shop in Nairobi in 2010 to construct the Thika superhighway. The coming of the civil engineering company was welcomed by many Kenyans. Even before the company finished and handed over the road to the Kenyan government it had embarked on construction of the Wu Yi Plaza, a commercial complex in Kilimani.
It brought a large number of Chinese nationals to help with construction, many of who are still in Kenya.
There have always been Chinese in Kenya, but in the last couple of years the number has increased making them visible in all corners of the country. A weekend at any of the upscale malls clearly shows that the presence of Chinese shoppers cannot be ignored.
The community though keeps to itself, mainly eating their own food, and spending time in their own restaurants – which are on an increase across Nairobi and major Kenyan towns.
Aaron Chen, director of Kington Construction, a construction firm behind Thika Greens and Fountain Group of Hotel in Kirinyaga County, has lived in Kenya for 15 years and integrated with the local community, but still stays away from the local foods, which he says do not work well with him.
“I used to eat nyama choma and ugali but stopped because I was gaining weight,” he said.
Mr Chen says his government has made it easier for them to work in Kenya. It has also given them the credibility and support they need to win contracts.
They have in turn worked hard not to disappoint – delivering projects in time and even working throughout the night.
“Planning is what makes Chinese contractors efficient. Without planning we can’t make it,” added Mr Chen.
Kenya has continuously awarded contract to Chinese firms. China Roads and Bridges Limited won the bid to construct the Southern by-pass as well as the railway line and supply locomotives.
Geotechnical Exploration Technology of Jiansi has the contract to map Kenya’s mineral resources, while Great Wall Drilling Company is drilling geothermal wells in Nakuru and Naivasha.
An Hui Construction Engineering group and China Aero Technology had won the tender to construct the Green Field Airport but the contract was cancelled after the tendering process was faulted.
Local real estate investors are also turning to the Chinese to develop their projects saying their work ethic leads to timely completion and saving them costs.
A recent visit to a site where Siginon Group is building its Sh1 billion airside cargo terminal found the Chinese cooking their lunch and shortly thereafter all goes quiet as they take a nap. The company has contracted a Chinese firm.
The Chinese live and cook their meals on site allowing them to start work early, and sometimes work 24 hours, with strategic breaks that include afternoon naps. “They all sleep and eat here, including the Kenyan workers,” said Siginon’s aviation project manager Moses Wahome.
Edermann, a Chinese property firm, launched the great wall apartment, hundreds of stylish units on Mombasa Road and has named the small path leading to the high-rise apartments, Beijing Road. On the Western side of Nairobi, in Lavington Ga Yu International Company, another Chinese firm has just finalised construction of Peoney Estate off Gitanga Road, opposite Braeburn School.
The multimillion-shilling construction borrows heavily from Chinese architecture. But the influx of Chinese has not been welcomed by all. Traders on Luthuli Avenue are, for example, unhappy with their presence claiming that the Chinese are sending them out of business.
Chinese traders have stores in the popular street, known for electronics, and flooded the market with cheaper wares dampening prices and running some Kenyan traders out of business.
In 2011, local traders took to the streets protesting what they called a ‘Chinese invasion’. Some artisans have also claimed that the Chinese have been imitating their original designs and selling them at a cheaper price.
But the Chinese expats have been quick to integrate, living a simple life and upholding a high sense of respect for others.
Aaron’s Chinese forehands work alongside locals. They practically live together in construction sites, cook, share meals and also a roof over their heads. Until the construction in finalised, the local masons share a great part of their employers’ culture and language.
In September China launched ‘Experience China in Kenya’ art performance. Hundreds of Chinese guests showed up. In the crowd were Kenyans also, who got to enjoy some of the Asian country’s culture.
According to Li Wufeng, Vice Minister of State of Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, the long standing tie necessitates a deeper understanding.
“The more the relationship evolves, the more people want to know each other,” said Mr Wufeng while gracing the cultural exchange event in Kenya.
“Kenya and China are special friends and natural allies,” said the Chinese Ambassador to Kenya honourable Liu Guangyuan echoing his colleague.
The number of Chinese restaurants have also been on the rise, with over 40 in Nairobi only. Ten years ago, there was hardly any but more have opened up to meet the growing demand.
Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) is wooing China to Kenya. Wausi Esther Walya, KTB’s public relations manager China is a potential market which has grown from about 20,000 arrivals in 2006 to 41,303 last year.
The growth in Chinese nationals and tourists has also meant more business for local casino owners. According to players in the gambling industry, Chinese are their next big clients.
“The market with potential is the Chinese; we expect to see this market growing in the future,” says Daniela Cellini, sales and marketing manager at Casino Malindi.
But even as everyone gets wary of Chinese presence in Africa, the continent only counts the gains in investments.
The investments have grown to stand at $120 billion dollars according to World Bank figures. At present, Kenya has signed investment agreements worth Sh425 billion ($5 billion) with China.