The shifting sands of tradition

The Sens are a family of Chinese heritage who reflect their South African roots in all they do. This story explores the life of this family that navigates its way between three distinct attitudes towards tradition and finds a middle ground that allows them to remain connected.

The Sens are a Chinese family whose contemporary house in Johannesburg’s affluent northern suburbs gives no obvious indication of the origin of its inhabitants, save for the red Chinese tea set gleaming in the entrance hallway. On every family occasion, this family of three grapples with either loosening the ties of tradition or holding them firmly in order to preserve their history for future generations.

Its members own tradition in three very distinct ways. For mother, Joy, tradition is an experience she engaged with at her wedding and for the first couple of years in her marriage. But, after 30 years, she is no longer concerned with upholding custom.

In contrast, her husband Teddy is a staunch traditionalist and steadfast in his beliefs. He is bound to tradition by a sense of loyalty and duty. Their daughter Nicole believes Chinese traditions are outdated and she should not have them imposed upon her.

So how does this family navigate its way through the dynamics created by their different attitudes to traditional values?

The history

Joy Sen’s grandmother was a coloured woman. It was from her Chinese husband that her grandchildren inherited their pin-straight hair and barely perceptible Chinese eyes. And from her, their richer complexion, and their title of being “mixed”.

“It was from her Chinese husband that her grandchildren inherited their pin-straight hair and barely perceptible Chinese eyes”

Coming from a mixed family, Joy has never completely claimed Chinese traditions as her own. Her mixed family never strictly observed Chinese culture and, growing up during apartheid, Joy’s family settled in areas that were previously set aside for coloured and black people. The mingling of different lives, cultures and traditions blurred the lines of her Chinese tradition and her understanding of it.

Joy never thought she would marry a Chinese man. She dated many white boys but it was Teddy who won her heart by bravely telling the head boy, who was dancing with Joy at a school dance, to “piss off”.

When Joy married into Teddy’s traditional family, her mother told her she should do whatever her mother-in-law saw fit, and that she should take whatever she was taught by the family, regardless of what she had learnt in her mother’s home. That is how Joy ended up having a traditional Chinese tea ceremony at her wedding.

The modernist

At the start of their marriage, Joy found herself observing traditions, as the Sens did, out of a sense of obligation. When the Sens insisted on having a Chinese tea ceremony, Joy and her family willingly participated. But not having had much previous experience of Chinese traditions, the family found themselves thrown into a world they really did not understand.

During a Chinese tea ceremony, the parents of the bride are supposed to present the bridegroom’s parents with red lucky packets. Joy’s family were unaware of this and felt embarrassed when they didn’t have them. Joy laughs as she recalls the photograph taken of Joy’s mother complaining to Teddy after the ceremony while Teddy is shrugging his shoulders.

After the wedding, Joy had to make sense of these traditions. Although she tried her best to understand and make an effort to play her part, she soon decided it wasn’t for her. She found the customs a burden and, in some cases, she did not even believe in the ceremonies. She remembers two that she refused to participate in. The first was her daughter’s introduction to the ancestors and the second was the Chinese burial of her father.

In Chinese tradition, when a child turns a month old, a munyat is observed. This is a ceremony in which the child is allowed out of the house for the first time and is introduced to other family members. The child is also taken to a shrine and introduced to the ancestors.

Joy participated in the festivities but when the time came to present Nicole to the ancestors, she chose not to go. Instead she let her mother-in-law and Teddy present Nicole at the shrine. Her reason for not taking part was a simple one: “I don’t believe in that.”

Joy also has different beliefs about death and the afterlife. When her father died, Joy was content to let him go and say her goodbyes.

However, it was at his traditional Chinese burial that Joy learnt “the Chinese don’t say goodbye”. Her face twists in confusion as she explains how money and expensive liquor were put into her father’s casket. The items are believed to be for the use of the deceased person in the afterlife. “My mother even insisted that they put his spectacles in.”

When Joy thought she had said her final goodbye to her father, the rest of the family “brought him back home”. They placed his photograph in their house, not just as a reminder, but as a representation of him.

Joy recalls the day she came home and found her mother cooking some fish for her husband, as it was his favourite. Later, she placed the fish and a drink in front of his photograph. Joy says she was shocked by this and remembers that it “creeped” her out a little bit.

As Joy discusses Chinese traditions, she speaks of “they” rather than “us”. She brightens as she declares that her in-laws have never made the traditions intrusive. Her mother-in-law once told her that when her side of the family were all “asleep” she would not have to carry on with the traditions.

However, Joy has already started to rid herself of the customs she views as “cumbersome”. The Sens no longer observe Chinese New Year. For her, New Year is on December 31, at midnight. Yet, in spite of this, Joy celebrates the global New Year in a characteristically Chinese way.

Every year, she sets off fireworks at all the entrances of their house to chase out the bad luck of the previous year and make way for good luck in the coming year. For Joy, this is as Chinese as she gets. For husband Teddy though, there is more.

The traditionalist

Unlike Joy, Teddy grew up in a home where Chinese tradition was observed quite strictly. He has kept many things he learnt from his mother close to his heart.Teddy recalls spending a lot of time with his mother learning about traditional ceremonies.

In a conversation with his mother- in-law about munyat, it was Teddy who corrected her interpretation and understanding of the ceremony. “It’s not ‘if’, Mother, it’s ‘when’ ” a child is being introduced to the ancestors, he told her. Teddy is the first point of reference for the extended family when they are uncertain about the finer details of particular ceremonies.

Teddy learnt the customs from his mother because he had to. “When you are a child, you do what you are told.” One of the first traditions that springs to his mind, when he remembers his childhood, is the offering of food and drink to the ancestors at a shrine in their home. This is a practice Teddy’s mom still follows today.

For Teddy, tradition and its passing on, is the responsibility of the matriarch. As in many other cultures, the mother teaches the children and instils cultural values in them. “The child will practise the teachings from the mother,” says Teddy.

While he would have liked to practise Chinese traditions more overtly in his family, Teddy has taken a back seat, allowing Joy to teach Nicole about life, culture and tradition – a bitter-sweet arrangement in the Sen household, as Joy is intent on raising her daughter as South African, rather than as a Chinese girl.

Even though Teddy does not impose his traditions on his family, he insists on sticking to his roots when he can. At least twice a year, Teddy and his mother visit the cemetery to pay their respects to all their relatives who have died. His wife and daughter no longer go with him, but he is steadfast in this. He believes it is a matter of respect.

Teddy attributes his family’s disassociation from Chinese traditions to being in a different country. “It’s now not about not wanting to practice tradition, it’s about not being able to.”

Before 1994, there was no temple where Chinese people could worship. By the time the Chinese temple in Bronkhorstspruit was built, he says many Chinese people had started to let go of their traditions. “You can’t expect to do what you do in another country.”

Teddy laughs as he explains that he calls his daughter a banana. “She’s yellow on the outside, but white on the inside.”

The Chinese girl who wanted to be a Zulu girl

Nicole was delivered to the Sens when she was just three weeks old. This was just after her father turned 40 and, because of this, she is affectionately known to the family as “Teddy’s 40th birthday present”. The baby girl of Taiwanese origin landed up with the Sens after a phone call from the social worker who had been helping Teddy and Joy adopt a child. “We have a baby. Can you come fetch her today?”

Nicole spent her early childhood immersed in Chinese culture. Relatives bought her Chinese dresses. One aunt even bought her a Chinese doll, so that she would have a doll who looked more like her.

Nicole remembers “going all out” when it came to heritage days in school. Clad in her button-up outfits, hair in pigtails, she would pitter- patter around in the Chinese slippers her mother had fashioned by painting flowers on her ballet slippers. Nicole was always enthusiastic about displaying her Chinese culture and tradition but, when she was five, her enthusiasm died.

When Nicole was five years of age, she came home from nursery school in a state because her teacher had told her she would have to play a Chinese girl in the school’s cultural showcase. “Mommy, I don’t want to be a Chinese girl, I want to be a Zulu girl.”

At school, Nicole had the chance to negotiate being Chinese but at home she could not suddenly become “un-Chinese”. Like many other Chinese children, Nicole was exposed to Chinese traditions by her father. She would visit the cemetery with Teddy, who also tried to teach her Mandarin and Cantonese.

“My dad used to teach me how to count in Cantonese and say Seng fo before we ate, which means, “the food is ready”.

Now 16, Nicole believes she is ready to negotiate just how Chinese she will be. Although she has an understanding of the importance of tradition for her father and grandmother, she is closer to her mother and follows her convictions.

For Nicole, tradition is not the be-all and end-all. She believes the traditions her father follows are outdated. “I feel like the people like dad’s side of the family that left China a long time ago are holding on to traditions that the people in China don’t even have any more.”

The cultural events she has participated in, she has done so because she felt obliged to. “I feel like I have to do it.” Her grandfather’s funeral earlier this year was the most traditional event she has ever taken part in.

“We had to fold paper boats, I swear I folded like 2000 of them and then we had to burn them as people came in.” Yet, even though she took part in the ceremony, she is unable to explain the significance of the boats.

Like her mother, she does not claim Chinese tradition as her own, but takes part because it makes her grandmother happy. “My dad guilt trips me,” laughs Nicole, “then I feel bad.”

On the surface, Nicole is only as Chinese as her pin-straight hair. “I don’t even look Chinese.”

Her father and her grandmother are the only two people who call her by her Chinese name, Yuklan. To everybody else, she is Nicole Sen, and according to her Instagram account, a “fashion obsessed lover of art and collar bones”.

“My friends don’t even think I’m Chinese. People always ask me what I am.”

Nicole’s parents represent two opposing views on tradition. Like any family, they fight and they compromise. When it comes to Nicole though, Joy and Teddy share the same view: they want her to be happy, a happiness that is not hinged on Chinese traditions or the lack thereof.

“I have no Chinese wishes for Nicole,” says Joy, and Teddy believes “what will be, will be and what must be, must be. Once they have their wings, they will ultimately decide what they want to be”.

FEATURED IMAGE: A family portrait of the Sen Family. Photo: Nomatter Ndebele


“I’m pretty much South African” – Identity and culture among Chinese youth in South Africa

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.


Lost in translation: Chinese migrants and the language barrier

Chinese migrants who arrive in South Africa with a lack of English depend on local shop assistants to help them speak to their customers. For shop owners and their assistants to understand each other, they have to come up with creative ways to communicate.

Wishes Kondowe has been working at China Multiplex for over a year now, but she still does not know the name of the general store she works for and only refers to it as “shop number 46”. Though she has no idea what the Chinese printed board hung boldly outside says, she is familiar with more than 500 items in the store. Kondowe starts her day at 7.30am. She cleans the store, helps with stock-taking and stands ready to sell anything from faux Polo handbags to large, brightly-coloured, rubber water guns.

Neither she nor her employer know each other’s names and have come up with a way of addressing each other. Kondowe calls her employer Madala, a common slang word in isiZulu which refers to an elderly man and Madala calls her Sisi, which means sister in isiZulu, a term commonly used at Multiplex for black female cleaners and shop assistants.

Kondowe (23) came to South Africa two years ago after leaving Zimbabwe for a better life. Like her employer she is an economic migrant. She was one of the many men and women who queued for work outside China Multiplex shopping centre. Zimbabweans, Ugandans, and Malawians are some of the foreign nationals who work as shop assistants for Chinese shop owners. Kondowe says the majority of their customers are South African, but it is rare to find South Africans who work as shop assistants at China Multiplex.

It is common for Chinese shop owners to hire foreign nationals to help them communicate with customers in China malls. Foreign nationals who are proficient in English have been an ideal choice for shop owners in the day-to-day running of Chinese businesses. Kondowe believes that Chinese shop owners prefer foreign nationals to South Africans because they can interpret better and are more creative in how they communicate with the owners.

Clarrissa Borman*, one of the managers at China Multiplex, says most Chinese immigrants at the centre speak very little or no English at all. This makes Chinese shop owners vulnerable in the sense that they do not have direct communication with their clients and have to leave negotiations in the hands of their shop assistants. Chinese shop assistants also manage the stock, help communicate with the drivers of delivery trucks and ensure that the shop owners get what they want.

According to Borman, Chinese shop owners have very little control over what goes on in their store because of the language barrier. Shop owners do not approach customers, do not market their goods using sales tactics or even interact with customers. They do however step in when it is time to pay for the purchase.

Pricing practices

The one aspect that Chinese shop owners manage tightly is finances, Borman says.  They solely manage the till, step in with price negotiations and the costs for stock deliveries.

“The word price they understand very well. They have two prices, single purchase prices and stock prices.” A single purchase price is the price if one item is bought and the stock price is what they charge when customers buy in bulk.

Regular customers are also given discounts and some stores work on a card roster system to manage discounts given. The more times a customer comes to the store, the more discounts they are eligible for.

Doreen Maseko is one of Madala’s loyal customers. As soon as she walks into his store, he smiles and waves frantically. He starts shouting Sisi at Maseko and calls Kondowe to stop mopping the toy aisle and help with the sale. Maseko asks for a chair from Kondowe and starts pointing at the bags on display she would like to see.  Maseko buys handbags at Madala’s shop and re-sells them at higher prices to her clients. She is a regular customer and, whenever she stocks up on her handbags, she presents a card to Madala at the till and on her fifth purchase she will be eligible for a free handbag.

Borman says the language barrier between Chinese shop owners and South African customers has resulted in multicultural business negotiation. Borman says shop assistants, mall security and neighbouring shop assistants are sometimes required to step in to translate and help shop owners to make a sale. Many foreign nationals are not proficient in South African languages and mall security usually has to help whenever an Nguni-speaking customer communicates with shop owners.


Kondowe considers herself lucky to be Ndebele. This means she does not need much help from mall security guards when dealing with Nguni-speaking customers as Ndebele is similar to isiZulu. Kondowe says she can understand a lot of South African languages because she rents a room in Soweto with her sister.

“Some of the people I stay with are Sotho, Tswana and Zulu so I have learnt to pick up the things they say.”

Kondowe has a diploma in management of business from Tourword College in Zimbabwe, and she says her qualification helps her run Madala’s business. She assists in managing the stock, customer relations and sales.

Poor working conditions

While Chinese traders believe they have a good relationship with their African employees, the tale is sometimes different for their employees. One female Malawian shop assistant says: “Working with the Chinese traders we have [a] language barrier; the communication is based on simple words in broken English. I was working in another Chinese shop before this one but because of strict rules from my boss [no days off] I resigned. If you miss a working day, you are not paid.”

The shop assistant says, because of the arrival of Chinese traders in South Africa and the large numbers of China malls in the city, the job market is better than in her home country. “I found an opportunity with the arrival of Chinese traders.”

“When you work for the Chinese, some things they don’t understand. Like public holidays, how can you explain that?”

Kondowe works seven days a week and, because of the language barrier, she does not know how to ask for days off. “When you work for the Chinese, some things they don’t understand. Like public holidays, how can you explain that?”

Communication techniques

Kondowe and Madala have invented their own language to communicate with each other.  Kondowe says the language consists of a system of gestures, a mixture of languages and sometimes re-enactments to communicate.

“[We communicate] with a little bit of Chinese language, looka looka [to look, or check], and sign language. Sometimes if he doesn’t understand, I show him pictures or draw things customers want.”When customers bring toys or damaged bags back, Kondowe finds out why and tries to explain the damage to Madala. She is not allowed to touch the till and needs permission from Madala to approve an exchange or return.

When customers do complain about a purchase, Kondowe says Madala shows them the “no refund” sign.

Borman says South Africa is home to various communities of Chinese people who arrived at different times from different parts of China and Taiwan. Chinese shop owners speak different languages, practise different religions, and have vastly different levels of integration into society.

 “There is an absence of an organised Chinese traders’ association to defend their interests, and communicate the needs to management.”

Chinese shop owners complain about not receiving assistance from the complex with matters relating to rental. “There is an absence of an organised Chinese traders’ association to defend their interests, and communicate the needs to management.”

Borman says China Multiplex is in the process of trying to find a Chinese manager. There are instances where management has tried to implement a new policy and conditions of the lease, but they fell on deaf ears as Chinese shop owners were left confused or just did not understand.

“When we ask them something, they tell you straight that they don’t understand, and this can be very frustrating.”

Help from mall management

George Mystris, a restructuring consultant for China Mall and China Multiplex, says language is a major problem within China malls. “Chinese people have their own negotiation style but it gets complicated when you have different cultures and nationalities negotiating. Things don’t always end up as intended.”

Mystris says the mall has put in place support structures to help shop owners with customers. The mall has a few South African security guards with walkie-talkies on every floor if a translator is needed. Most of the shop assistants at China Mall are Malawians and do not speak local languages.

“People that work here try to do their translations [into local languages]; although there are a lot of workers here, their English is not good but they do speak Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho.  But the majority of [Chinese shop owners] use their staff to find out what their customers actually need,” Mystris says.

A new family

The work relations and relationship between Chinese shop owners and their assistants has evolved. New traditions have emerged and relationship bonds strengthened.

Henly Gumibe (24), has been working at China Multiplex for more than three years. He left Malawi after his father died from a long illness. He has been working with Allen Lui for three years now and considers her as his family.

“I work here every day, all year without any public holidays, so I spend a lot of time with my boss and we have an easy relationship here at work.”

Lui sometimes brings lunch to work for Gumibe and they have created a communication system for themselves. “For example, if she wants a pen, she will start writing in the air and, if I show her a pencil, she will say ‘no another one’ and I will bring out a pen.”

Gumibe guesses what Lui wants until he gets it right. He says their relationship is mutually beneficial. He complains that the wages are low but appreciates the fact that Lui will give him old clothes, shares lunch with him and that they even play games together when the shop is not busy.

“When we are bored we use Makro[wholesale store] pamphlets, I will show her what I like and she will smile or nod or show me what she likes.”

Chinese shop owners

Ron Yang (44), runs Nizams, a supermarket in Protea South.  He is a qualified medical doctor in Fujei, China. Yang came to South Africa with his wife and son in 2006 and cannot practise medicine in South Africa because he is not proficient in English.

Yang says he loves Soweto because of its safety aspect. “People in Soweto treat me well. Bad experiences towards Chinese people are scarce. They greet me saying ’Chinese, China’ and I say ’hello’ to them”. Yang cannot speak a local language but he can pick up what customers want and if he struggles, he calls one of his assistants.

When customers are looking for items in the store, he can pick up things such as rice, tea and washing powder and show them the aisle in which they are located. Yang says he is learning to memorise South African phrases. When he first arrived to South Africa, he spoke little English. “I was using smaller English,” he says. “Now in South Africa, I can hear what customers want but I don’t talk too much.”

Yang is not the only Chinese foreign national in the shopping centre as Korean and other Chinese shop owners also trade. Yang prefers hiring people from Malawi to help translate in his store. Though they do not speak South African languages, they are more proficient in English. “William, speak nice English.” William is Yang’s assistant who has been the store manager for three years.

William can understand South African languages, mainly Setswana and isiZulu, which he attributes to living in Soweto. Yang also says Soweto and its people treat Chinese people well. “Chinese people are too much [many] in Soweto, you get Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese – in Soweto are all welcome.”


More than a merchant, more than a migrant

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.

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.

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.

“Asians are not safe in this country”

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 exempted 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.

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 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.



We too, are black

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.”


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.

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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.