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Chinese karaoke fans sing Angola's praises

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Thousands of Chinese entrepreneurs who flocked to Angola to capitalise on rebuilding the economy after its civil war are enjoying a better life, new opportunities - and even the odd karaoke night.

We had done our best to put our new friends at ease.

We had chosen a picturesque Chinese restaurant on the beachfront with dragon motifs and Chinese lanterns swinging in the breeze.

We had laid on a supply of chilled Tsingtao beer and the waiters were bringing out steaming plates of delicious Chinese food. Yet we still did not seem to be able to get past a kind of anxious "first date" formality.
“ I earn twice as much as I would at home and I have got a better job ”
Deng, construction worker

One young entrepreneur, Jet, told me he had set up an air-conditioning business here five years ago. He laughed and chatted nervously about the trials of life in Africa, and his ambitions for his firm. Meanwhile, Betty, a 22-year-old Chinese woman who has various projects here including the local Chinese language newspaper, buzzed among our 15 or so guests, gossiping and giggling.

But even her charm failed to put them at ease. I was starting to think that we would never be able to break the ice.

Then our translator, Poppy, put on the karaoke machine. Just as she had promised, the atmosphere was transformed.

In a moment, even the shiest of our guests was up and competing to choose a song from the thousands on offer - everything from Chinese peasant anthems to Californian soft rock classics.

"Many of my friends in China have never even heard of Angola," Wang admitted later, as he picked at a plate of sweet roast duck with his chopsticks.
# Justin Rowlatt has embarked on a global journey to explore the effects of China's policy of "going out" into the world to secure the energy and raw materials its rapidly growing economy needs
# A two-part documentary series will air on BBC Two in early 2011
# He will also be reporting regularly for the BBC News website

To get things started, Betty and I sang an unlikely rendition of I Will Always Love You. Betty sang beautifully, I did not. But no-one seemed to mind.

Chinese karaoke appears to be more about taking part than tunefulness and our guests were now competing for the microphone. At last, our little party was beginning to swing.

Importing from China

Foreign travel is still rare for Chinese people and Africa is considered a very exotic and dangerous destination.

Like Jet and Betty, he is an entrepreneur, here to run the African arm of his uncle's aluminium window company.

"At first I found it frightening. You hear lots of stories of Chinese people being robbed by the locals."

So why did he stay, I wanted to know?

"There are great opportunities here," he replied without hesitation.

You hear the same from Chinese entrepreneurs all over Angola.

After 27 years of civil war, the Angolan economy - once one of the strongest in Africa - was in ruins.

"Everything had been destroyed," recalled Jet, remembering what it was like when he arrived here shortly after the civil war ended.

"There were no roads, railways, shops, nothing. Some Western companies were already here selling their products but I knew I could import things cheaper from China."

Betty nodded vigorously. She has only been here a couple of years, but also sees real potential in Angola.

"I am doing much better here than if I had stayed in China," she said.

And it is not just small businessmen and women who have come to Angola.

Some of China's biggest construction firms are here, building roads, railways, hospitals and vast housing complexes.

Vera and Deng both work for state-owned construction companies but, like our other guests, they reckoned they would be able to get on quicker in Angola than back in China.
“ It can still be hard for even the best-educated Chinese to find a good job ”

"I earn twice as much as I would at home and I have got a better job," explained Deng.

"Chinese companies can be very traditional and it can be hard to get promoted."

Looking around, two facts stood out about the people at our table.

They were all very young, the eldest in his early 40s, and all were well-educated - virtually all of them were graduates and most spoke excellent English.

In search of opportunity

You might imagine young graduates like these would have a bright future in China, well on their way to becoming the country's new elite.

But our guests - and tens of thousands of others like them - have decided to take the risk of travelling across the globe in search of opportunity.

There are now an estimated 100,000 Chinese people in Angola, and about a million across Africa.

Their presence reveals an essential truth about China which is often ignored - in terms of per capita incomes, China is still a very poor country, despite its dazzling economic growth.

Indeed, it can still be hard for even the best-educated Chinese to find a good job.

The latest Education Ministry figures show more than a quarter of this year's 6.3 million Chinese university graduates are now unemployed.

The West fears a Chinese invasion, but the fact is that most people in Western societies are simply too well-off to do what the people around our table have done - taking the risk of moving to a very alien society in search of a better life.

By the end of the evening, we were all a little worse for wear and Jet was back at the microphone singing a mournful Chinese ballad.

He had told me he would like to return to China one day - but it was clear there would be a few more karaoke nights here in Angola he returned home.
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