More than a merchant, more than a migrant: A look at Chinese traders in Johannesburg

What do we really know about small Chinese businesses in Johannesburg? We might think of red lanterns, black-bean pastries, herbal teas, doll-like chiffon dresses and a fat, golden cat with a metronome paw. We delve a little deeper and speak to Chinese business owners about their struggles to fit in – and their struggles to get out. By Caro Malherbe.

Johannesburg is home to a vast number of small Chinese businesses. Crown Mines, Cyrildene and various China Malls around the city are recognised as a nexus for all small Chinese traders.

Generally offering a good deal, not many have explored how they came to be here. Chinese traders have a distinctive way of managing their money.

Not entirely integrated into the South African banking system or the tax system, Chinese business owners feel targeted and unsafe in this country.

The history of the Chinese trader 

Alexander Chou is a Taiwanese diplomat at the Taipei Liaison Office of South Africa. Speaking with a slight American twang, he paints a picture of the unhappy Chinese merchant in South Africa.

“Even today there is a large group of Chinese in Johannesburg waiting for more gold to be found, wanting ‘to make it big’.”

Small Chinese businesses developed when independent Chinese immigrants started coming to South Africa in 1870, says Chou.Unlike indentured Chinese slaves who were forced to work for a fixed term and salary in the mines, these independent immigrants were prohibited from obtaining mining contracts so they turned to trade instead.

During a more recent wave of immigration, Steve Yeh arrived in South Africa with his family in 1991 when he was 10. His uncle’s family had already settled in Johannesburg and was convinced that more gold would be discovered.
Chou confirmed this by saying that even today there is a large group of Chinese in Johannesburg waiting for more gold to be found, wanting “to make it big”.During apartheid Chinese traders were affected by the Group Areas Act of 1950 and forced to operate from areas designated as “non-white”. These small businesses catered exclusively for the black community.

Chinese traders have been part of the city of Johannesburg for generations but many still feel they will return to China one day. Photo: Dinesh Balliah.

Chinese traders have been part of the city of Johannesburg for generations but many still feel they will return to China one day. Photo: Dinesh Balliah.

Although apartheid has been officially over for almost 20 years, Chinese traders still seem to be separated from the rest of Johannesburg, choosing to do business in specific areas.

Yeh works as a general manager and head of security at China Mart in the Crown Mines area of Johannesburg. He is a South African citizen but desperately wants to return to Taipei, Taiwan, with his wife and child.

“Asians are not safe in this country,” Yeh says. He feels that Chinese people are specifically targeted by criminals in Johannesburg.  “It’s because we don’t like banks.”

The miserable merchant

According to Chou, Chinese traders do not plan to stay in Johannesburg forever. He says, if there is one thing to understand about the Chinese, it is that they are not scared to face hard times. Most Chinese put a great emphasis on education and working hard for their families, unlike other cultures.

“They will live off vegetables for the rest of their lives, to be able to afford a good education for their children. White people are so selfish. They will never sacrifice anything. They will never give to their brothers and sisters. Each and every one lives for themselves,” he says.

The honorary white

Skilled Taiwanese traders came to South Africa in large numbers between 1970 and 1990. South Africa saw Taiwan’s potential to help increase foreign investment and provided incentives to start up manufacturing companies in the rural and industrial areas of Johannesburg. This also helped the apartheid government keep non-whites out of urban Johannesburg as the Taiwanese businesses provided jobs for them outside the city.

These Taiwanese traders were given “honorary white” status. They were exempt from segregation legislation. The benefits did not seem to last long, though, as many Taiwanese immigrants later decided to leave.

This was due to the lack of job opportunities, the increase in crime, difficulties with South African labour legislation and strict laws on importing goods. In 1998 South Africa also officially recognised the People’s Republic of China, which created a strong economic relationship between the two countries, yet subsequently alienated people of Taiwanese origin.

“They [Taiwanese immigrants] were so well skilled, but they couldn’t find jobs. The unions did nothing to protect them and the South African government flushed away their investment like one flushes a stool,” Chou says.

Yeh explains the Taiwanese attitude towards government officials: In Taiwan, if someone doesn’t get an answer within 15 minutes of inquiring at official state institutions, the head of the department will have a big problem, “to the point where he might even be asked to step down. We as citizens pay your [government officials] salary. If you are not capable then you must step the hell down!”

Avoiding tax

Yeh says Chinese merchants do not trust the South African government. They do not want to pay tax or be “on the record”.

Almost all of the small business owners in Cyrildene only accept cash. Yeh says small Chinese businesses are “barely getting by” and they do not want to have to pay extra for bank charges. Instead they choose to have a substantial amount of cash on hand daily which makes them “easy targets” for robbery, says Yeh.

China Mall in Crown Mines is a hub for Chinese wholesalers. Surrounded by containers, it is where most Chinese small business owners come to purchase goods in bulk for their stores in other areas of Johannesburg.

“I have to stay here, thanks to your home affairs.” 

“A family that comes to Johannesburg to make money doesn’t want to lose money by becoming involved in the tax system when they know it is all corrupt,” says Frank Zhang, a restaurateur and clothing shop owner.

Zhang explains that when traders come to China Mall to purchase goods, they are spending hundreds of thousands of rands in cash at a time. “There is no way they will swipe for that and lose money from the bank charges.

“Of course this makes them vulnerable to crime because then criminals know they have large amounts of cash on them. That is why many people will live behind, or very close to, their business,” says Zhang.

Recognised, registered and taxed

It is not only bank charges that prevent Chinese traders from making use of bank services. Like Yeh, who says he still has not received his South African passport, which he applied for 15 years ago, many Chinese traders have a non-resident status. “I have to stay here, thanks to your home affairs,” says Yeh.

This makes opening a bank account difficult and further removes Chinese traders from the South African business network.

Chinese traders tend to avoid the formal banking system in South Africa preferring to operate on a cash-only basis. Photo: Dinesh Balliah.

Chinese traders tend to avoid the formal banking system in South Africa preferring to operate on a cash-only basis. Photo: Dinesh Balliah.

According to Anile Hlalukana from the South African Revenue Services (SARS), a small Chinese business owner can only be taxed if they are registered as a sole trader with SARS.

To make use of card machines, they would need a business bank account and the only way to get one is to be registered as a business with SARS.

Alycia Jacobs, a business banker at Standard Bank, says as long as someone is receiving a monthly income in South Africa, foreign or not, they have to be taxed.

“Where does the money go if they don’t have a bank account? Are they sending it abroad? Are they keeping it in their homes? They must have an account.”Zhang says some small Chinese traders register their businesses under the name of a company to get a tax number.

This company will usually be associated with a freighting or shipping firm. Traders can then open a bank account for their business which they use “for show” as all major money transactions are done in cash only.

Unhappy in Johannesburg

For the most part, Chou believes Chinese and Taiwanese people living in Johannesburg live unhappily. He says crime is rife, unions do not protect them and, if they study and become professionals, there are no jobs for them in South Africa.

“Sacrifice for the betterment of your family is part of the Chinese spirit.” 

Chou says: “Since this country has managed to deter all Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers, some of the manufacturers decided to settle down and become importers. They know the language, and it’s easier than trying to get into the industrial division here.”

South Africa is my home

Zhang sees himself as part of a small percentage of the Chinese in South Africa who have made this country their home. “Every country has its problems and there is crime everywhere. I laugh when they try to rob me.”

Both he and his wife are from northern China. Their eight-year-old daughter is the only Chinese pupil in her school and, according to her dad, she is excelling academically and does not have any problems socially. Zhang has bought a house in Bramley, a suburb of Johannesburg, and is very happy with his job.

Yeh feels differently “You have to consider where a person comes from to understand why they feel the way they do about being in South Africa.

“Northern China can be compared to a Zulu homeland. So do the math, what is better? If you come from a shitty place, you will love it here in South Africa.  If you come from Shanghai, this place is a shithole.”


“Have you ever been in poverty all your life? Have you ever been so hungry that your hands shake automatically? Where you wake up in the next morning and think: ‘Hmm, I just made another day’? Well, the fat guy sitting in front of you used to be in that situation.

For us, sacrifice is a virtue, something to be proud of. Something you don’t enjoy, but something that you have to do. Sacrifice for the betterment of your family is part of the Chinese spirit,” says Chou.

Yeh agrees that it is part of the Chinese culture to suffer in silence in the hope that your children will have a better future. “Up until the age of 30 we are living for ourselves. After that we get married, we have kids. That is when the weight of our responsibility shifts.

We don’t live for ourselves anymore, our kids come first. Our children are the ones who will carry our family name. They are the ones who will carry on what we leave behind,” he says.

Chou explains the Chinese philosophy on work. “The Chinese and Taiwanese alike work hard, they will do anything to make money. They will sacrifice their family life and their joys.”

He says he knows of a family in Cyrildene who owns a small supermarket. The five family members live together in one room behind their store. They share one toilet and use a bucket of water to wash as they do not have a shower or bath. The family sleeps on a double bunk bed with the parents at the bottom and their two adolescent children and 32-year-old cousin on top.

“To the Chinese, these are mere hardships to go through to taste the fruit of success. In your eyes it is suffering but to them it is living. They will sell anything, all in one store, as long as they can make a profit,” says Chou.

Gordon Lee came to Johannesburg and started a nursery called Golden Rod, which has grown over the years to the point that its net value is currently R15-million.

Lee has two children who went to university in South Africa and are both very successful in their respective industries. Because jobs are scarce, he says, his son moved to Australia to work as an engineer and his daughter moved to England.

He has no family in South Africa but closing up shop to be closer to his children is virtually out of the question for him.

“The reason I stayed on is, if I close it up, I will lose everything,” Lee says.

The business of family

Simon Hong, a curtain and bedding store owner at China Discount Mall in Randburg, says he sends money to his parents in China every month. “When that money arrives it is a sign that everything is well and good and that you are thankful to have been brought up in a way where you can be a successful business owner.”

Eva Lang and her husband own a small Chinese business in Cyrildene. She lives in South Africa with her six-month-old baby and manages their family business while her husband lives in China. Her husband sees Lang and their child twice a year when he comes to South Africa to monitor the progress of his business.

Chou explains that this kind of lifestyle may not be ideal and can cause strain on family life, but it is part of the Chinese culture to have a “spirit filled with hope for the tomorrow”.

“Often the reason they stay is that they believe they have little or no choice.”

“There are many people in South Africa who are poverty-stricken and live under the worst circumstances. But they are at least in a community, with their loved ones,” says Chou. The reason the Chinese do not mind going through hardships is because they live in the hope that things will get better – unlike South Africans, who don’t see their future improving, according to Chou.

Today, some Chinese small business owners in Johannesburg may be unhappy with their situation but there seems to be very little they can do to get out of it. Often the reason they stay is that they believe they have little or no choice. Whether they are suffering or embracing South African culture, they just want a better life for themselves and their children.

Chinese culture, their traditions and history influence the way they do business. Chou strongly believes that other cultures can learn a lot from the Chinese and what they prioritise in life. Although they emphasise financial success, their professional goals also lie in education.

Small Chinese traders are part of the community that makes Johannesburg the diverse city it is today, a city that houses many different cultures, each with its own story of how they came to be here. It is these merchants and migrants who are often overlooked and whose stories make Johannesburg distinctive.


This feature was originally produced for the 2013 in-depth project of the Wits Honours in Journalism class. See more here.

An appetite for family: The story of a Chinese family bound by history and values

The long relationship the Chinese community has with South Africa can be traced as far back as the early 1600s. Their presence surged in the late 19th century following the discovery of gold. The Pon family, a well-known South African Chinese family in Johannesburg, first arrived here at this time. The history of this family can be seen as a microcosm of the larger history of the Chinese people in South Africa.

It was a spring day in mid-October. The air was thick with the smell of the traffic backed up on Commissioner Street. At lunch time, the Pon family gathered in a small Chinese restaurant near the end of the street.

Laughter could be heard from the parking lot across the street and the pervasive smell of hot noodles and the chatter of the Pon family created a friendly and welcoming picture for any outsider visiting old Chinatown in Commissioner Street.

Ten family members sat close to one another at the round table. This circular picture of the family eating together seemed to be a metaphor of the Pon family’s history in the city of Johannesburg. A subtle representation of the eternal unity and love shared among this Chinese family.

However, the joys the Pons indulge in today were once considered a luxury. The history of this South African Chinese family tells the story of the greater Chinese presence through the difficult times in Johannesburg from the end of the 1800s.

Unity within family

The Pon family living in Johannesburg began with family patriarch Pak Kwong Pon and his wife Ng Shue Chee and their 11 children, of which eight are still alive. There are 19 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren. Two of the children of Pak Kwong and Shue Chee were born in Canton, China, and the others were born in Sophiatown and Commissioner Street, when it was known as Malay Camp.

While Pak Kwong and Shue Chee were the first generation of the Pon family to settle permanently in South Africa, they were not the first to visit. In the late 1800s Pak Kwong’s grandfather, Hopley Pon, came to South Africa as a “sojourner”.  In contrast to those classified as settlers – Chinese who immigrated to South Africa permanently – the sojourners came to South Africa with the intention of making their fortune and returning to China rich.

This was the case with Hopley. He came to South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and made La Rochelle, in what is now the south of Johannesburg, his home for about 10 years. Hopley opened his own grocery store called General Dealers, which sold goods to locals.

Hopley also assisted in founding the first Chinese school in South Africa along with a Chinese consulate. His business succeeded and he returned to China a wealthy man. He married three women polygamously – on the instructions of a fortune teller who promised him long life – and had several children.

King Pon (63), Hopley’s grandchild, says his grandfather’s polygamous ways led to humorous situations. Hopley’s second wife, Lai Yee Moi, was blind and the third wife, Ho Yan Kan, was deaf.  So when the two women met each other for the first time – King’s face takes on a huge grin as he tells this story – one could not hear the other and one could not see the other.

A photo of members of the extended Pon family back in their homeland China with Lai Yee Moi (Granny 2) in the 19th century. Photo: Courtesy of the Pon family.

Shue Chee, Hopley’s daughter-in-law and King’s mother, is 99 years old and has lived in South Africa since 1939, fleeing with her young family the war and hardship in her native China.

Japan invades China

Japan invaded China in the 1930s, causing mayhem and violence throughout the country. Many people were displaced and they faced a struggle for survival on a daily basis.  Shue Chee fled China with her young children, first-born Henry and newborn daughter Violet.

They first fled their hometown of Canton for the safety of the then Portuguese colony of Macau off the Chinese coast. From there they escaped to Hong Kong before making their way to South Africa, where her husband Pak Kwong had arrived the year before.

“I’m glad I left China but coming to South Africa was a whole new ball game for me.”

“We were running away from the bombs,” Shue Chee says, describing her memories of the war. Travel was difficult for the family, not only because of the war that was tearing the country apart, but also Shue Chee’s mother’s small feet. For traditional, elite Chinese, the women practised foot binding, which stopped their feet from growing. Small feet demonstrated a woman’s high status, but also effectively crippled them.

Shue Chee says the journey was a difficult time for her family. It was a fight to survive and stay together. But she would soon learn that leaving China would only be the start of her family’s challenges. “I’m glad I left China but coming to South Africa was a whole new ball game for me.”

Shue Chee and Pak Kwong were fortunate to have jobs waiting for them when they arrived in South Africa.  They were the first Chinese people who entered the country as legal immigrants and they came as professionals. Pak Kwong was principal of the Pretoria Chinese School and Shue Chee worked as a teacher at the Johannesburg Chinese Kuo-Ting (country) School in Malay Camp. She taught Chinese classics and literature in Mandarin to her Chinese students.

 The Pon Family Tree

The Pon family are an exception to the haphazard way many Chinese had to immigrate to South Africa. In the pre-apartheid years, many Chinese entered the country using fake identity documents, which they bought in China.

In the book Paper Sons and Daughters by Ufrieda Ho, she explains that some Chinese families today do not share a common surname because they lost their original names when they entered South Africa. These Chinese were known as “paper sons”.In the 1950s, following the victory of the National Party and the beginnings of total apartheid, Chinese immigration to South Africa was banned. Legal immigration from mainland China would not resume until 1994.

Shue Chee and Pak Kwong lived separately in South Africa. Shue Chee lived in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, with her children Henry and Violet. Pak Kwong lived in Pretoria, closer to his workplace.

The difficulty of simplicity in Sophiatown

Shue Chee burst into laughter as she thought back on her initial years spent in Sophiatown. In the mid-1900s in South Africa life was hard for the people of colour, particularly for Shue Chee who had come from a life of luxury in China.

“It was a complete shock and this was a life I didn’t know, I just wanted to go back to China.”

“I did not know how to cook and I did not know how to chop wood because I had never been in a kitchen before as I grew up as an elite in China and had many maids which cooked and cleaned for me.“

It was her black neighbours who showed Shue Chee how to live and make do with what she had. “It was a complete shock and this was a life I didn’t know, I just wanted to go back to China.”

But the family could not return because of the civil war in China at the time, when the nationalists fought the communists. Following the end of the war, mainland China was controlled by the communists and she could not return because of purges against those who had been wealthy or intellectuals. Instead, Shue Chee had to learn to adjust to her new life, amid the hardships of mid-century Johannesburg.

“It was a dark evening in Sophiatown and I did not have electricity to light up the house or cook food. I decided I would chop wood and make a fire to cook. So I took the chopper and picked it up high in the air and gave it a strong push and slashed the piece of wood directly in the middle.

The chopper got stuck and I could not get it out of the wood. Luckily my African neighbour came to my rescue. She told me that the trick is not to hit the wood in the middle but rather on the side, and chop the big piece into smaller pieces,” said Shue Chee.

Shue Chee said she learnt to live as a black South African. During apartheid the Chinese people were considered as “Asian” or “Asiatic” or “coloured” and therefore they fell victim to apartheid laws. Shue Chee thanks her African friends for helping her survive in Johannesburg during that time.

RELATED VIDEO: The journey of 1000 milesThird-generation Pon and their family motifs

Sitting in his firework shop on Commissioner Street, King remembers his childhood in 1950s Johannesburg vividly. This firework shop was started in the late 1950s by his mother Shue Chee, along with a grocery store across the street.

“When you are drinking the water, think of the source,”

“Fireworks have always been a huge part of our family. We started burning fireworks at the ages of two and three; it was a sign of maturity. If you could burn a firework properly you were considered a grown-up. It was the same with eating with chopsticks,” he remembers. “If you could hold the chopsticks properly and eat with them, you were considered grown-up.”

After speaking to several members of the Pon family it is obvious they are a traditional Chinese family. “When you are drinking the water, think of the source,” King says, reciting his late father Pak Kwong’s words.

The Pon children were taught that respecting your elders comes first in life and, secondly, respect is only gained through education. Education was the important thing to the Pon family and was engraved in the minds of every generation of Pons.

After 10 years of teaching, Shue Chee started the Sui Hing Hong business, which included the grocery shop and firework shop. The business flourished even though, under apartheid, they were only allowed to trade among themselves in Malay Camp.

The shops became a recreational centre for the Chinese community who lived in Malay Camp and Shue Chee was able to send all eight of her children to school and enabled them to get a university education.

“People will always discriminate against you in South Africa but the only thing that will give you power and give you a leg to stand on is your education,” 

Shortly before this, the National Party had come to power, along with total apartheid, restricting the lives of black South Africans, including the Chinese. The Group Areas Act was passed, separating the Chinese from other races. There were roughly 20 000 Chinese in South Africa at the time.

For the Pon family, education provided some protection from the oppression. “People will always discriminate against you in South Africa but the only thing that will give you power and give you a leg to stand on is your education,” says King.

Today, every member of the Pon family has a degree to their name and some hold prestigious roles in the Chinese community of South Africa. King runs his family’s business with his three older brothers, Henry, Walter and Bonnie, and nephew Erwin Pon is chairman of the Chinese Association of Gauteng.

But the success of the family has been tempered with sadness. Many members of the family left South Africa after Steven Pon, the eldest of King’s nephews, was murdered in a hijacking.

Violet, who came to South Africa as an infant in Shue Chee’s arms, left the country with her own family in 1960 because of apartheid. Violet emigrated to Toronto, Canada. They were later joined by her younger sisters Lily and Dorothy. Other members of the Pon family live in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

The history of the Chinese in South Africa carries with it much of the history traced in the Pon family. Unlike many Chinese immigrants, the second generation of the Pon family arrived as professionals rather than illegal immigrants.

But, like many of their fellow Chinese immigrants, the Pons have firmly integrated themselves into mainstream South Africa.