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Hoe's my China nou?

Staff Reporter

It's just one of those Johannesburg phenomena you have to get you head around, I suppose. I currently live in the eastern suburb of Observatory and my nearest friendly shopping neighbourhood for food and such like is the formerly predominantly Jewish suburb of Cyrildene.

It’s just one of those Johannesburg phenomena you have to get you head around, I suppose. I currently live in the eastern suburb of Observatory and my nearest friendly shopping neighbourhood for food and such like is the formerly predominantly Jewish suburb of Cyrildene.

The Jews have quit Cyrildene big time in recent years, of course. The joint is now famous for being Chinatown. There is the odd functioning synagogue (the main one, on a quiet suburban street off the main drag, looks more like a Dutch Reformed Church and, with its English/Afrikaans cornerstone, very much represents the good old apartheid time in which it was constructed.)

Chinatown used to be in downtown Johannesburg, having established itself in Newtown during the times when that was still a racy, pacey, funky place to be. Newtown nowadays, of course, is undergoing something of a renaissance, and the city authorities are doing everything in their power to bring it back to its place of prominence in the inner city after its long decline, and the haemorrhage of money, talent, and whites generally in the direction of Rosebank, Sandton, and Rivonia to the north, leaving the Barbarians to take over where the former Randlords left off.

White business cleared out of downtown Jo’burg in pretty short order once it was clear that the Mandela people were on their way in. The Chinese were a little more sluggish, but eventually saw the oncoming trend and packed up and trekked northwards in their own turn. Downtown Chinatown rapidly became a shadow of its former self, although you can still see the odd emporium here and there in the shadow of the formerly formidable environment of John Vorster Square, the grim Home Affairs building, and the Indian trading area, now invaded by sangoma shops selling ‘traditional” medicine, colourful blankets, cheap shoes, belts and sandals from the Far East.

But the new Chinatown that was rapidly established in Cyrildene turns out not to be particularly associated with the old Chinatown of Newtown. The old Chinese community, bless their cotton socks, appears to have been overtaken by new realities on their new long march out of the pending doom of the swart gevaar that was making central Johannesburg look increasingly like a rowdy suburb of Kinshasa, Abidjan or, God forbid, Umtata or KwaMashu.

The new Chinatown that sprang up virtually overnight in Cyrildene represents the new-wave China that we all have to be very aware of, if not directly terrified and scared. The days of mysterious fah-fee traders and inscrutable hawkers in fish and chips and chopsticks are long gone.

The new Chinatown that the former Jewish landlords sold lock, stock and barrel to the neo-Chinese is a different story all together.

At least in the old Chinatown downtown you could have a reasonably sensible conversation in English, and sometimes even in Zulu, when you were negotiating buying cigarettes, cheap clothes or a plate of chop suey.

This new Chinatown is a different story altogether. The suburb is owned and run by hard core Chinese from China itself. The lingua franca is Mandarin, or whatever they speak out there. English is a foreign language and when you try to do the most basic vegetable shopping on the strip the traders look at you askance. No use putting on a bunch of bravado and telling the dude, ‘How’s it, my old China?” If you don’t sound like Mao Tse Tung himself, you’re toast.

This, of course, is merely the tip of the iceberg. Duke Ellington told me personally way back in 1973 the following: ‘The whole world is turning rapidly Oriental, so much so that soon no one will know who they are. Not even the Orientals.”

The prophetic point he was making was that China was on the way to get us, willy nilly, and soon there was going to be no place to hide. With a few billion personalities in the back pocket, the Chinese authorities have little incentive to give a damn about anything. Think about it. China has said precious little about key events of recent times: the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the execution of Saddam Hussein, global warming or anything else. It doesn’t need to. It’s got it all under control.

So the advent of the new, modern, South African Chinatown in the formerly Jewish suburb of Cyrildene (which was home, incidentally, to a wide range of peculiar individuals in the past, including L Ron Hubbard, founder of the bizarre cult of Scientology), and its monolingual Chinese behaviour is a harbinger of how the world is going to look in the near future. South Africa can boast, once again, that it is at the cutting edge of world change.

It’s interesting, pleasant, fine and dandy to stroll down the main drag of Chinatown, formerly Cyrildene, and pick up your daily necessities. You discover new things all the time — and so you should, because the world that our children are going to inherit is going to be full of stuff you and I never dreamed of.

Different varieties of fresh spinach and fish are one thing. All the other stuff that comes in tins and bottles, whose secrets you are given little access to by the baffled stares of the nouveau Chinese in the hood, is quite another.

The Chinese have taken the immediate streets around here and the Jews, let alone the natives, appear to be helpless, hopeless, and possibly indifferent to their own impending fate.

So now we have to learn to say, ‘Hoe’s it, my China?” in Mandarin. Get with the programme. Your life depends on it.

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