The Chinese South African community is small and keeps a low profile. Very little is said about their history in the country, about their history during apartheid. Emelia Motsai asks how they were affected by apartheid? Did they suffer like black groups or did they enjoy benefits bestowed only on white people?

Shue Chee Pon immigrated to South Africa from China in 1939 and took up a position as a teacher at a Chinese school in Johannesburg. Soon after she arrived, a pupil’s father accidentally ran over and killed a white man’s dog when it ran into the street. The owner of the dog got out of his car with a gun and shot the Chinese man dead.

The white man received a five pound fine for killing the Chinese man. It was a harsh lesson for Pon. In South Africa, Chinese people were considered “coloured people” and the life of a coloured person was like that of a black person – not worth much.

When Pon came to South Africa she was 24. She came to teach at the Chinese school in Chinatown, on Commissioner Street in Johannesburg. Her husband had come out a year before, and was principal at another Chinese school in Pretoria. She had never seen a black person before she arrived in South Africa, on her arrival, she was given a place to stay in Sophiatown, among black people. She was also told that she was now “coloured”.

The story of apartheid in South Africa is well documented. Textbooks have been written and movies have been produced about how black people were used and abused by the white apartheid government. In these textbooks and movies, these black people are usually of African descent. They were, after all, in the majority and bore the brunt of the apartheid system. During apartheid, though, Chinese people were classified differently in different Acts – as black or coloured or Asiatic. Much like the story of people of African descent, the story of the Chinese during apartheid was often that of humiliation, degradation and abuse.

Chinese people were considered “coloured people” and the life of a coloured person was like that of a black person – not worth much.

Pon came from a wealthy family. She left China to escape the Sino-Japanese war. She had barely ever set foot in a kitchen, never mind cooked. So it was her black neighbours who taught her the skills needed in the kitchen and for keeping a home. When she needed to chop wood for the stove, it was a black neighbour who showed her how to do so.

“The black people were kind to the Chinese people and the Chinese people were kind to the black people,” she said.

Stay in your lane

But the National Party, which was in power at the time, was intolerant of different races living together and co-operating in this way. In the early 1950s, the government introduced the Group Areas Act. This law was introduced to ensure that different races did not mix or interact with each other.

Melanie Yap, a South African-born Chinese journalist and co-author of the book Colour, Confusion and Concessions, said the Act terrified Chinese people. If they were put in one area they could only sell to each other and they were a small group, most of whom were traders: “You could not have a group of shopkeepers living and trading together. Where will your customers come from? Eighty-five percent of them were shopkeepers. They would have lost their livelihood instantly.”

Chinese community organisations had to convince the government not to put Chinese people in one areas there were not enough of them to make such a thing viable. Even though Chinese people in other towns were put in restricted areas as stipulated by the Act, the Chinese community in Johannesburg managed to keep the government from assigning them an “area”. Instead they moved to “grey areas”. Grey areas were places the government had not specifically assigned to any race.

Francis Lai Hong was six years old when his parents received an eviction notice. Their fish and chip shop was in a “white area”, and they had to move. They moved to an area designated for coloured people. Because the number of people they could trade with was restricted, the business suffered and they barely managed to keep it afloat. When his father died almost a decade later, they sold the business. It could no longer bring in money.

VIEW GRAPHIC: The in-between race

White nominees

In order to continue trading in white areas after the Groups Areas Act was introduced, the Chinese had to get what was called a “white nominee” to operate businesses in a “white area”. Chinese traders had to pay a white person to be the official owner of their business.

After completing his matric in 1975, Hong worked for his uncle’s butchery to save up money to go to university. The butchery was in a “white area” as his uncle had found a white nominee who agreed to the business being in his name in exchange for a share of the profit—a very large share.

“He [the white man] took a huge part of the profit, 30-40%, just by signing his name on a piece of paper.”

White nominees were not only for securing businesses in “white areas”, but sometimes for houses as well. Chinese people could only buy houses in white areas if the white neighbours agreed.

“Chinese people have always tried to stay below the radar, they always feared that if they became visible then they would become targets, targets of jealousy, racial hostility or anything along those lines.”

Xian Che’s* son-in-law’s family had lived in Sophiatown, but wanted their children to live much closer to their school, which was on Commissioner Street. The house they liked was in a white area so they asked the neighbours for permission. When their request was rejected, they found a white man willing to have the house put in his name – at a cost of course. But the man disappeared with the money the family had given him for the house. They lost both their money and their house.

“They could do nothing about it. What they had done was illegal,” Che said.

Desperate for a house in a “good area”, the family found another white nominee to sign as owner of the house they wanted. The second nominee was true to his word.

“He put the house in his name and later transferred ownership to them,” Che said.

According to Yap, the Chinese community commonly used white nominees during apartheid. ”They would give white nominees money and say: ’Buy the house in your name’.”

Yap said some white nominees took advantage of their desperation. “They [the nominee] realised, ‘I got this great asset, I can chuck the other one out. They would have fights and the white nominees would say: ’Get out of my house’.”

The Group Areas Act was harsh on black people, including the Chinese. So harsh it forced them to do the one thing they had been reluctant to do, get involved in politics.

“Chinese people have always tried to stay below the radar, they always feared that if they became visible then they would become targets, targets of jealousy, racial hostility or anything along those lines,” Yap said.

Taiwanese-born Michael Sun, who is now a councillor for the Democratic Alliance, said Chinese people stayed away from politics because they were “naturally timid” and did not want to draw attention to themselves.

“As a politician you are seen as someone who is out there, outspoken, out there in the front, expressing your thoughts.”

But the increasing restrictions on their lives and businesses pushed them into politics “basically to fight for their own survival”, said Yap. In the book she co-authored, Yap reported on a Chinese community member who met with the ANC Youth League in the early 1950s and made donations to them.But still they maintained a low profile when it came to political matters. That came back to haunt them when democracy was finally established.

“Even Winnie Mandela said: ‘What rubbish. Of course the Chinese were a part of the struggle. Of course you suffered’.”

Chinese, not black

In 1998 when the democratic government introduced affirmative action and black economic empowerment policies, Chinese South Africans were not among those who would benefit.

“I was mad. They said we didn’t suffer,” said Gloria Pon. A third-generation Chinese South Africa, she is usually soft-spoken, but when she talks about how Chinese South Africans were excluded from BEE benefits, her voice sharpens.

“They said we had concessions and in some cases we did, but we suffered. They said we didn’t take part in the struggle but it is not so,” Pon said.

During apartheid, Chinese people were sometimes offered concessions not available to other black groups. For example, they could get a concession to board a whites-only bus, though they were restricted to the upper deck.

According to Pon, the Chinese received concessions because they looked like the Japanese and the Taiwanese who, because of the friendly relations the apartheid government had with those nations, were considered “honorary whites” and enjoyed the same privileges as white people.

Pon said the government had been embarrassed after an incident where a Japanese official was denied access to a white bus. They thought the Japanese man was Chinese.  To deal with that problem, the government relaxed the laws for all people who looked East Asian.

Pon was insulted by the government’s refusal to acknowledge their part in the struggle against apartheid. She remembers a Chinese neighbour who lived in a flat next door to theirs in Commissioner Street: “He was always on the run from the secret police. He was with the ANC. There were Chinese people who were in detention.”

She insists they were only a small part of fighting the apartheid system because there were very few of them, not because they enjoyed concessions. “Even Winnie Mandela said: ‘What rubbish. Of course the Chinese were a part of the struggle. Of course you suffered’.”

Yap said many Chinese people were confused by the government’s decision. ”Many people thought it was an oversight on the part of the government.”

But as the leaders from the Chinese community approached the relevant government departments to correct this “oversight”, it became clear they had no intention of recognising them as a previously disadvantaged group. In 2000, the Chinese community took the matter to the High Court in Pretoria. In 2008, thanks to the court’s ruling, Chinese people who had been in the country prior to 1994 were included in the previously disadvantaged group.

Sun said the court’s decision was a “great comfort” to the Chinese, especially the older generation who had been “very much hurt” by the government’s exclusion. But the joy Chinese people felt might have been dampened by the reaction of some members of society and leaders.

Former labour minister Membathisi Madlala responded to the court verdict by criticising Chinese business owners and said Chinese people were now coloured and should have to speak English.

“They can speak Chinese of course in their homes; I have absolutely no difficulty with that. But when we [inspectors] visit them, they must also remember that they are now coloureds. What I know is that coloureds don’t speak Chinese.”

There were also reports of local small business owners saying they were worried that Chinese people would now “take over”.

Yap said Chinese people are viewed with suspicion in most places: “People are always suspicious of Chinese people, so even with the BEE deal, people thought we had ulterior motives, that we wanted to cash in on the situation, but that’s not it. We just wanted recognition.”

You felt that even in your land of birth you were not accepted, you kind of felt apologetic for your existence. 

The “in-between” race

Dr Yoon Yung Park, who did her PhD on Chinese South Africans’ identity during and after apartheid, said the government’s refusal to grant Chinese people BEE status and the negative responses to the High Court ruling reinforced South African-Chinese people’s position as the “in-between” race.

Sun said having to be grouped with someone else and not having the space to be just Chinese also caused frustrations for him.  “I found it very difficult to find an ethnic group I could claim to be a part of. I may speak like any white person but I’m not white. I have hundreds of black friends but I cannot claim to be black. There is always that dilemma: where do I belong? This is the difficulty.”

Yap said being denied the right to be Chinese, not coloured, not black, not white, just Chinese, “lowered the esteem [of the Chinese] a great deal. You felt that even in your land of birth you were not accepted, you kind of felt apologetic for your existence. It also made young people look to China and China being able to stand on its own”.

Che said being the “in-between” race had made her daughter turn from her Chinese culture. She fears that when she dies there might be no one to carry on with family traditions.

Her daughter has embraced Western culture more than she embraced Chinese culture. Che blames that on the fact that she grew up being resentful for not being accepted as a group: “When she thinks of the Chinese culture she thinks of where she grew up and how she grew up. I think it has a lot of hurt.

“She always had to prove she was capable, because she always felt that being degraded as a sub-race.”

Che’s daughter refuses to speak Mandarin. Her granddaughter doesn’t know how to speak Mandarin because her mother does not use it.

Pon, however, had a very different experience. She said that all the embarrassing and degrading experiences she had during apartheid did not affect her self-esteem: “My parents instilled in us that we must forever, be proud of being Chinese. I have never in my life felt inferior to whites.”

Pon said her parents made sure she and her siblings celebrated their Chinese heritage and gave them a good education.

“We were taught that the only way you can rise above those who trample you is through education,” she said. All of her four siblings and their 26 children have university degrees.

Pon said that, although she was made to feel like an alien in this country many times, she saw it as her home.

Sun believes that many young Chinese South Africans are adopting the same attitude. When speaking to young Chinese South Africans they “are beginning to understand that there are more things to life than the family business”.

“You hear this throughout dinner conversations. They are keeping a very close watch on what’s happening. That is a very good indication to me.”