More than a merchant, more than a migrant: A look at Chinese traders in Johannesburg
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.
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.
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!”
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.
“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.
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.
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”.
“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.[hr]
This feature was originally produced for the 2013 in-depth project of the Wits Honours in Journalism class. See more here.