The dynamics within immigrant societies are complex and difficult to navigate. The Chinese community in Johannesburg is an example of this complexity. Within the Chinese South African community exists a group of young people who consider themselves more South African than Chinese. We meet this group and find there is no real balance between traditional heritage and the “modern” present – as they are unapologetically in tune with the latter.

Megan Song is South African Chinese but that is where her link with the stereotype of Chinese in South Africa ends. She does not live in Cyrildene, the neighbourhood east of Johannesburg that has become home to thousands of Chinese families. Her parents have no ties with the communities that have come to be associated with Johannesburg’s Chinatowns.

Now 22, Song remembers that her parents encouraged her to “play with children of all races and be fully immersed in what it meant to be South African”.  She is part of a group of young Chinese South Africans who have found their sense of identity in Johannesburg’s cosmopolitan nature.

Song is a second year economics major at Wits University who enjoys “a good movie with friends” when she isn’t spending time with her boyfriend. She plans to move with him to North Korea, where he is from, as soon as they are both ready. She does not feel very connected to her Chinese heritage.

Urban Identity

There has been an increase in the efforts of Chinese immigrant communities across America and the UK to become more integrated in the communities into which they settle, according to sociologist Ben Scully. He says a similar trend in South Africa would not be surprising. “There are higher chances of their children succeeding in school and so on …”

The experience of Chinese youth in Johannesburg is too complex to view simply as a cultural balancing act between traditional backgrounds and modern South African culture. To begin with, there is no single “Chinese-South African experience” to speak of. In addition, Chinese communities are complex and diverse.

Yangjiao “Jill” Cheng is a 26-year-old journalist from China. She moved to South Africa almost a year ago to improve her English and to work for the South African bureau of the China News.  Like Song, she enjoys movies and spending time with her white South African boyfriend.

When we met she was carrying a box of fruit and vegetables because she was planning a meal for her friends. “I’m like the housewife of the group.” Her weekend plans included a picnic on Saturday and a friend’s party in Sandton on Sunday. Apart from language, there are no obvious barriers between Cheng, her boyfriend and her friends, who are mixed in race, gender and origin.

“The parents are more the people who have to wrestle with the idea of raising their children in a different culture. The people who are born here, well, that’s all they know.”

Balancing the “old” with the “new”

Some Chinese South African youth feel removed from the Chinese community in South Africa. Scully argues that Chinese immigrants might feel a sense of cultural sacrifice when moving to South Africa but it would be strange to expect the same from their children.

“The parents are more the people who have to wrestle with the idea of raising their children in a different culture. The people who are born here, well, that’s all they know.” He compares their feelings to those experienced by children of people who came from “the countryside”. The children consider themselves to be “city kids” and have no attachment to their parents’ rural homes.

Howard Ahhon was born in Macau, an island which, like Hong Kong, is administered by China. His mother and father moved to South Africa when he was two years old. “I’m pretty much South African, but there is a traditional [Chinese] influence because of my family,” Ahhon says, fiddling with his hip hop-styled snapback cap. 

He still celebrates his Chinese (lunar calendar) birthday along with his Western (Gregorian calendar) birthday and enjoys “real Chinese food – not sweet and sour noodles” but does not feel sufficiently connected to his heritage to consider himself Chinese. “I consider myself more South African than Chinese. I can still never understand their way of doing things.”

“Local” versus “Foreign” Chinese

Many Chinese youth who move to South Africa have difficulty relating to first-generation Chinese South Africans who consider themselves “South African first”. Ahhon explains that language acts as the first barrier between the “local Chinese” – born and/or brought up in South Africa – and “foreign Chinese” who were born and brought up in China.

“You see it at these [Chinese] events, local people hang out with the local people and the foreigners hang out with the foreigners.” Asked if he would like to see more integration between “local” and “foreign” Chinese youth, he says: “It would be nice but I personally think it will never happen.”

Chinese youth appear not to have many opportunities to meet and work on establishing relationships. Apart from the annual Dragon Boat festival, the Chinese New Year, charity and sporting events, members of the community “pretty much keep to themselves”, Ahhon says. Cyrildene, the “new Chinatown”, doesn’t hold much of an appeal for the South African-born Chinese youth. The “foreign Chinese” youth are bound to the area, at least while they settle into being in a new country.

Freedom of association

Simon Chan was born in Hong Kong in 1986. In 1993 his family decided to move to South Africa as they were uncertain of their future if they chose to stay. “China was going to take over Hong Kong in 1997 and we weren’t certain whether China was going to convert Hong Kong into a communist or capitalist culture.”

His family wanted to save what they had made and work towards securing their future. “I mean can you imagine? That means all your assets are going to be shared equally among everyone in the country, which is not very fair.

We wanted to avoid stuff like that happening to us,” says Chan. He has few Chinese friends and cannot remember the last time he was in Cyrildene. He was looking forward to going to Caribbean pop star Rihanna’s concert with his friend, Mpho. He was also planning to do RUNJozi (a local youth marathon) “with an Indian friend of mine and next week I’ll be with my Jewish friend”. He says it never occurred to him to choose friends based on race. “I consider myself South African and we’re a multicultural society. I have Chinese friends but they’re not my friends because they’re Chinese.”

Cultural reflexivity

The young Chinese people interviewed feel removed from their “roots”.  Visiting Hong Kong last year, Chan chose to speak Cantonese during his stay. At a shopping mall he asked a woman for directions. “She responded to me in English. That was really strange, but I think she could pick up that my Cantonese wasn’t so good and I wasn’t from there.”

Journalist “Jill” Cheng has made it a rule only to speak English while in South Africa. After her boyfriend referred her to the Wits Language School for English classes, she decided to make the most of her studies. “He told me I must speak English every day. The only time I should speak Chinese is when I phone my parents. My speaking is not so good.” While she values her Chinese heritage and feels learning about one’s culture is important, Cheng enjoys warming up to South African culture.

“I love this country, it’s very beautiful and South African people are very friendly.” She has been to five provinces since being here and wants to go to KwaZulu-Natal later this year: “I want to be in Durban for Christmas.”

The cultural differences appear not to have fazed Cheng. She laughs off some of her experiences: “I went to the shopping centre and met some strangers. They greeted me by saying ‘Hi, love’ and I was so shocked.” Terms of endearment are only used between “close friends, family or your lover” in Chinese culture. “I learnt later that it’s just a friendly greeting.”

She has also noticed the difference in South Africans’ approach to work. “There are so many people in China … so everyone must work very hard.” Her introduction to South Africa’s “no work on weekends or public holidays” policy was not easy to get used to. “Sometimes over the weekend in China we have to work and if you don’t want to, you are fired because there are so many other people wanting to do the job.” She has come to enjoy her free weekends: “I now read or spend time studying or with my boyfriend over the weekend.”

A study in 2004 by the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies on Asian communities in Britain describes the communities’ sense of political and cultural identity as “reflexive” – open and usually bound to change.

Howard Ahhon’s future plans may illustrate this point best. While considering himself South African and admitting he feels no deep connection with Chinese culture, he would like to marry a Chinese woman who will help him teach their children “about Chinese culture and heritage”. He is “open to love in whatever form” but Ahhon says that “preference” would please his mother. “She’s always told me how happy she would be if I married a Chinese girl. I agree with her… It would just be easier, I think.”

“I love hip-hop and house, I listen to YFM and am basically South African, but I feel proud and attached to the victories of China. I remember being very excited to hear that China would be hosting the Olympics.”

Twenty-nine-year-old investment banker Jackie Keong is another example of this cultural reflexivity. While she says she identifies with black South African culture, she would support China during a match against South Africa. Having grown up in Troyeville, Johannesburg, Keong became friends with black and coloured South Africans. “It just happened naturally and I’ve just always felt accepted in those communities.”

She explains how she self-identifies: “I love hip-hop and house, I listen to YFM and am basically South African, but I feel proud and attached to the victories of China. I remember being very excited to hear that China would be hosting the Olympics.”

Her colleague and first generation South African, Andrew Fok (26), feels less connected to China. He calls himself a South African “patriot” and has strong views about the country he considers his home.  “I will definitely be voting in the next elections but it’s unfortunate that we’re kind of voting for the lesser evil. I’m not interested in the ANC and Juju Boy, so I’ll probably be voting for the DA. “Their track record in the Western Cape is a clear indication of what they can do, so it only makes sense.”

When he is not working as a chartered accountant, Fok enjoys “watching a game at the pubs or bars around here [northern Johannesburg] with some of my mates”. He keeps himself informed about what happens in Hong Kong but Fok sees himself as “South African through and through”.

Simon Chan shares Fok’s sentiments and feels well integrated into South African society, except “when I’m filling in a form and there isn’t a Chinese or Asian option. I usually have to tick Indian or Coloured”.

Chan says this sometimes serves as an uncomfortable reminder of the “middle ground” the Chinese community at times finds itself in. “You can’t tick white because you don’t want to be discriminated against because of BEE [Black Economic Empowerment], but you can’t tick black because you really aren’t black.”

While he doesn’t feel marginalised by this, Chan says filling in forms has become “one of those awkward moments you just laugh off and don’t look too much into”. He sees himself as well placed in South Africa’s “rainbow nation” and takes pride in hoping to form a new heritage for his children.