The arch angle on booming Chinatown

Cyrildene used to be a predominantly Jewish suburb in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, it has outpaced its big sister - the city’s first Chinatown in downtown Jo’burg, which was squeezed into the last blocks of Commissioner Street. (Skyler Reid)

Cyrildene used to be a predominantly Jewish suburb in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, it has outpaced its big sister - the city’s first Chinatown in downtown Jo’burg, which was squeezed into the last blocks of Commissioner Street. (Skyler Reid)

Hot water from an urn rushes over a clay teapot so small it looks like a doll’s. But it’s the perfect size for a perfect cup of High Mountain tea.

Betty Wu lets the water run off the pot so the heat penetrates the clay to the brew she’s made. She rests the pot, then picks it up to release a steaming stream of tea into the tiniest cup. It looks like it belongs in a toy shop.

But this isn’t a toy shop. It’s her teashop, called Simplicity. It’s at the edge of Chinatown’s main drag on Derrick Avenue, Cyrildene, Johannesburg. It’s a converted foyer space in the entrance of the flats she has called home for the past seven years.

She also gives English lessons to Chinese children here. The children are newcomers, trying to slot into the South African school system. Wu can relate; she remembers what it was like 18 years ago when she arrived in South Africa, where not just the language was foreign to her.

It was easier to get papers to travel to South Africa than to the likes of the United States, Australia or Canada. And, anyhow, she could learn English and see the world, she figured.

“It’s a small cup so you can hold it in your hand and feel when it’s cool enough to drink, and it’s also small enough to finish drinking in a few sips so your tea doesn’t gets cold.

“Your host will keep pouring. This is our way as Chinese; it’s our culture,” says Wu. She lifts the pot again to share more of the fragrant tea grown in her former home, Taiwan.

From her teashop you can see the concrete frame of a giant arch, part of a pair  that went up about 13 months ago, at either end of Derrick Avenue.

Together, the pair cost R2.4-million, the money raised by community, they stand as two stakes in the ground — invitation and proclamation.

The arch at the Friedland Avenue end is bold, ornate and deliberately over the top.

The other is not complete.

“This arch hasn’t been finished because there’s a problem with some electricity cables,” Betty says, shrugging her shoulders.

Even this unequal state of completion is the perfect metaphor for Chinatown — always two faces, the hidden and the public, the legal and the less than legal, the big welcome and the middle finger.

The duality is not too difficult to understand for those who constantly renegotiate identities. Eric Hwang is such a person. He arrived in South Africa in 1991 as a 14-year-old from Taiwan.

An imagined homeland
The Taiwanese make up a distinct wave of Chinese immigrants who arrived from the island mostly during the late 1970s and 1980s. South Africa, as a pariah state, looked to other world orphans for trade, including Taiwan.

Twenty-two years later Taiwan is an imagined homeland. He’s been here so long he remembers a Chinatown before the arches, before trade spilled on to the streets and Chinese signs filled every shop facade.

“There was a noodle shop and a small supermarket; then more people came,” he says.

He acknowledges that maybe in the early days the community was more open to teaching South Africans how to sauté jicama root or what to do with 100-year-old preserved duck eggs. Now they need the outside world less and the new shops reflect this growing self-sufficiency.

There are hairdressers, karaoke bars, cellphone shops, acupuncturists — a library, even. There’s a company specialising in signage in Chinese and there’s even a satellite temple, an offshoot of the Nan Hua Buddhist temple in Bronkhorstspruit.

Cyrildene used to be a predominantly Jewish suburb in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, as a Chinatown, it has outpaced its big sister — the city’s first Chinatown in downtown Jo’burg, which was squeezed into the last blocks of Commissioner Street.

First Chinatown’s few restaurants, backroom mah jong tables, steamed bun shops and provisions store selling fahfee papers and incense sticks were what the Chinese South Africans had to make do with under apartheid’s unhappy gaze. It was also in the shadow of the old John Vorster Square police station. Newcomers didn’t settle here.

Chinese South Africans, most of whom speak Cantonese, English and Hakka, trace their roots to the southern Guangdong province, but also claim forefathers who have been South Africans for generations.

They were as foreign as everything else in South Africa to later migrants, making Cyrildene Chinatown a better choice.

Hwang, who works in property, still spends time in Cyrildene Chinatown. He’s a bachelor and has most of his meals in Chinatown. His parents are sojourners between the two countries.

He chats while he sits down to a bowl of noodles with wilted greens and a simple broth. There’s a fried egg with a splash of soy sauce on the side.

There goes the neighbourhood
“The newcomers have been in gold-rush mode and they don’t have roots here, that’s why they don’t care about things like the litter in Chinatown. They just want to make their money; people who have money have already moved out of Chinatown,” he says.

The litter is just one of the bylaw infringements that has Chinatown’s neighbours up in arms.

Other Cyrildene residents and local councillors keep catalogues of all that’s wrong with a booming Chinatown, a boom out of control as far as town-keeping and municipal administration is concerned. Their lists range from illegal construction, ignored court orders, traffic infringements, subdivided houses and rearing livestock in residential areas.

Hwang says it’s difficult to solve these problems because no one’s getting close to the source of the problem — changing people’s behaviour.

He is on a different mission though. Hwang wants Chinatown to be a place that offers a different quality of life, where the arches don’t just have metaphorical significance but in their permanence signal an era of grounding and commitment for migrants.  

Hwang himself hasn’t got firm plans to be anywhere other than South Africa, or maybe Mozambique, in the next few years. He jokes that his parents would like him to find a good Chinese wife and for that reason keep pushing him to head back East.

But, he says, setting his chopsticks to his noodles: “I’m a South African; I’ve been here such a long time.”

Hwang works with another Taiwanese woman in trying to shift things in the community. Ann Chang has lived in South Africa for 20 years. She’s beyond finding her pot of African gold.

Hwang and Chang have outreach projects that include setting up home-based care and food gardens across the East Rand townships. The Buddhist organisation she belongs to is called Tzu Chi. They do winter relief projects and in Chinatown it has a recycling project.

“We try to get people to change their ideas about Chinatown,” says Chang.

Volunteers don gloves and white caps, and go from shop to shop along Derrick Avenue collecting cardboard on Fridays and Saturdays.

The waste is sorted inside a prime piece of retail space donated by a Chinese businessman. Her volunteers pick through plastics, glass and whatever else can be recycled and sold. “It is not a lot of money that we get from the recycling, but it’s not about the money; it’s about cleaning up,” she says.

People volunteer because Chang is the one they turn to when they have to fill out a form in English, make a report at a police station or find a school for their child.

She’s even been known to deal with the taboos of dressing a body for a funeral or stepping in when someone has fallen off society’s neat edges.

She laughs off how much she has helped newcomers, but more volunteers shuffle in over the course of an afternoon. They greet, chat a bit, then dig into the waste.

Subtle fragmentation
More Chinese still make their way to South Africa. But the Chinese arriving now make up new waves of migration. While the 1990s saw Chinese arrive from big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, the newcomers come from across the expanse of the Middle Kingdom — as one of China’s names for itself, Zhong Guo, translates into English.

It’s the country cousins from the rural hinterlands who the Chinatown locals say are oblivious to the p’s and q’s of “polite white”. They blame these migrants for enforcing stereotypes that all Chinese hock and spit in the streets, string bedsheets across windows as curtains and shovel rice into their mouths and speak at the same time.

The sheer size of the mainland is only one reason why geography makes for regional differentiation and allegiance. It’s a subtle fragmentation that is a reminder that the Chinese are not a homogenous group; they can’t possibly share identical stories, even though they share the same skin colour.

Even in Chinatown migrants seek out regional affiliates. At present there are 54 associations represented in Chinatown, though some say there are more than 60. The number changes because new groups are always forming, disbanding and reforming. The high number speaks to fractures — lines of distinction drawn along regional barriers that have found their way from the mainland to South Africa.

There’s another imported mainland trait too — everyone toes the party line. There’s a loyalty to the desires and demands of the motherland.

It’s why the overarching body to which every association belongs is the All African Unification Association formed, with the intervention of the Chinese government, in 1999. It’s meant to pull together all Chinese, be they from Taiwan, Hong Kong or overseas Chinese.

The arches are at least one sign the community can pull together. It’s expected the Marcia Street arch, which will be smaller because of the location’s limitations, will be completed by year’s end. But with 54 associations there are always squabbles.  

Anderson Lee, the deputy editor of China News, one of three locally produced Chinese language newspapers and chief executive of the community policing forum (CPF), says: “Sometimes people have their own agendas, but the community did raise the money together to build those arches.”

Lee adds that the All Africa Unification Association sets boundaries.

“It means there is a red line; no one crosses that line,” he says.

Lee estimates that there are close to 300 000 Chinese nationals in the country today.

He adds: “Chinatown is not the only story of the Chinese in South Africa; this is just a business district, not the story of the 300 000 people here.”

The CPF is based here though and is a collaboration and co-operation forum with police. But the CPF has a level of mobilisation and reach (right across the country) that makes it different to run-of-the-mill policing forums.

These parallel functions are apparent in the two rooms that make up the forum’s offices. One room serves as the satellite police station. The main function of the second room is as a boardroom where community disputes are settled with CPF mediation.

“Say someone buys stock from a wholesaler but doesn’t pay up and things go sour. We try to get them around the table to work out something. If we don’t, then, who knows, maybe the wholesaler finds some bad people to sort out the problem,” says Lee.

The forum’s statistics show that 100 Chinese nationals were killed between 2003 and 2011 in South Africa. In 2004, when the CPF was formed, 22 people were killed, but they haven’t seen violent crime peaks like that since.

The drop in crime can also be attributed to the police attaché dispatched by the Chinese government to South Africa. There’s something Big Brother about the move, but Lee insists it doesn’t cut out the South African authorities.

The upside of the attaché’s presence is that Chinatown has seen a decline in serious crimes in the past few years. Brothels, illegal abortion clinics, human trafficking and smuggling are not the things that fuel rumours and reports as much any more, Lee says.

Raids by the police and the South African Revenue Service — showboating for the media — have dropped off.

These are steps in the right direction, Lee says, especially for a community only 15 or so years old.

Further, similar improvements are necessary for Chinatown to get a more upmarket sheen. He adds plainly: “Even I don’t want to walk down this street, because it stinks.

“We can’t have the arches be beautiful flowers on top of a rubbish dump. But people don’t want to hear it when we tell them that to develop properly with the council they will have to pay more money. They don’t see the future benefits because they feel that if their businesses are going to be successful, they would move them to Rivonia or some place like that,” he says.

People move on; it’s part of the evolution of suburbs. Once people assimilate they don’t need the soft landing of a Chinatown any more.

Lee himself lives in Midrand. He has been in South Africa for 14 years. He carries a South African passport and has two children, an eight-year-old and a newborn, who are South Africans. He sees straddling the two worlds as perfectly ordinary. He is Chinese, but his life is where he is right now.

Back in Wu’s teashop, she’s greeting customers and passers-by. Sandy de Beer walks into the shop and orders a juice with honey and an iced coffee.

De Beer is a Chinese woman with an Afrikaans surname — her husband’s. “I come here to buy drinks for my road trip back to Bloemfontein,” she says. She runs the Matsuya restaurant in the Free State capital and makes regular trips to Chinatown to stock up on supplies. “I married my husband for his name. But he’s not one of the rich De Beers,” she jokes.

Wu chirps in with a giggle: “We see a lot of Chinese marrying South Africans of all races; we are a rainbow nation here in Chinatown. We are not all gamblers and illegals here, you know.”

She picks up her teapot, tips it once more. It’s the Chinese way; it’s the Chinatown way.



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