Chinatown, Kazakhstan?

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

Is there a Chinese restaurant in town? The front desk clerk at our hotel answered that he knew of none in the city and could only direct us to a Japanese-Korean establishment, complete with waitresses in kimonos and chopsticks sanitized in Seoul. While the food was good, it wasn’t what we were looking for.

Aktobe is our latest stop through the region tracking China’s influence in Central Asia. We had heard this was the oil town where China National Petroleum Corporation runs the show and we wanted to try to get a sense of China’s role on the steppe. Local Kazakhstani’s have nicknamed the city ‘Chinatown’ – a reflection of the size of the Chinese population. But, how could there be no Chinese restaurants in Chinatown?

The answer of course, is that there are some, though they maintain a low profile. One local Chinese worker mentioned his favorite. It’s ‘not high quality’ he said, as though our palates would only accept the most refined food. It was as we were wandering around to see Aktobe’s brand new, immaculate Russian Orthodox Church that we noticed a building with a big CNPC logo atop and the word ‘restaurant’ in Russian. Right around the corner from our hotel, it was obviously something our concierge had never noticed. Inside a surprised waitress from Hubei pointed out the menu was only in Kazakh and Chinese. ‘没关系’ (‘never mind’) we responded with a smile to the empty dining hall.

Next door was further evidence of China: a Bank of China office. Walking in to ask whether a UnionPay card would work here, a Kazakhstani receptionist informed us in fluent Chinese that these cards could not be used here. When asked whether this was a bank only for companies, she shook her head – it was open for retail customers too, but had no capability to manage UnionPay transactions (UnionPay is the Chinese debit card system). It was obviously a bank for local Chinese.

Chinese companies and foreign workers in Kazakhstan do not advertise their presence. A vast country with long stretches of sparsely inhabited territory and a relatively small population, many Kazakhstani’s look warily at their overpopulated neighbor to the east. In 2009 plans for a Chinese agricultural firm to lease parcels of land for soybean production were met with vehement nationalist protests.

Stories abound of low pay and bad working conditions at Chinese companies. There is evidence that they import unskilled laborers from China to fill jobs that could go to locals; they even advertise for chefs that speak Chinese. But back in Astana, Kazakhstan’s gleaming capital, energy analysts point out that nobody really knows what occurs on Chinese work sites. Kazakhstan’s government is very strict about enforcing ‘local content’ quotas. Local rumours may in fact be just that.

Nevertheless, in Aktobe it is quite clear that CNPC is the big player in town. A new hotel and office complex houses a number of CNPC-AktobeMunaiGas subsidiaries, with a bustle of smart Chinese professionals coming in and out for meetings. Visitors from Beijing use the lobby bar to check emails, while colleagues take cigarette breaks in front of the building. Smaller offices can be found dotted around the city and a local sanatorium on the outskirts has apparently been turned into a rest home for the CNPC workers in from the field.

With no pagodas or chinoiserie to draw attention, relative to most American or European cities, the overt Chinese presence in Aktobe is minimal. One has to go looking for it. It therefore says something about the watchfulness of ordinary Kazakhstanis that Aktobe has earned its sobriquet.

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