Fong Kong hits a chord
Artist: The Hunger Boyz
Album: Fong Kong (1998)
Song: Fong Kong
Although childhood friends Senyaka and Kamazu were already creating hits by the mid-Eighties, their official full-length collaboration would come much later, when they teamed up as the Hunger Boyz at the beginning of the 21st century.
Both preceded the kwaito era by at least half a decade and emerged into stardom at about the same time. Senyaka was already hinting at the prenatal genre’s creative possibilities with the impossibly funky but rhymeless African Rap, released in 1986.
At about the same time Kamazu’s first single, Korobela (a song about a love potion), was being sung everywhere by poor primary schoolkids peddling Liquorice Allsorts and peanuts for bus fare.
Very early on in their careers, both had proved their ability to make an impact on the cultural landscape. The term “korobela”, for instance, would go on to become ghetto parlance for virtually anything that could be bought and administered orally, thus ordaining Kamazu into the Tsotsitaal Hall of Fame.
Senyaka would go on to be a mercurial shape-shifter, a larger-than-life character, always hovering above his peers in conceptual ingenuity but a little rough around the edges in execution.
A fine example of this aesthetic would be the monumental diss track Magents (aimed at Brenda Fassie and her drug habit), which Kamazu had a hand in. Of course, Brenda answered back, somewhat skirting the issue, but the showdown enshrined Senyaka and Brenda in kwaito folklore.
Senyaka and Kamazu’s transition into the kwaito sound was being slowly augmented by sporadic ghost-writing duties and collaborations with other artists, often within the Trompies camp. So it figured that when the pair decided to build on their already existing studio chemistry (they would call on Mandla Spikiri), the results were unexpected.
According to Kamazu, The Hunger Boyz was Senyaka’s concept—two accomplices chained together.
Musically, it seemed Senyaka wanted someone with bona fide singing chops to counterbalance his cartoonish, but often melodiously lacklustre, approach.
“I wanted to rap and have a singer, and Kamazu worked perfectly for that,” he recalls. The formula has proved fruitful.
Fong Kong, their first hit, was written and recorded against the backdrop of a rapidly transforming South Africa and ever-intensifying relations between China and the African continent. Between 2000 and 2007 trade between China and sub-Saharan Africa was growing at a rate of 30% a year, with Africa importing more goods than it exported to the Asian nation. What this translated into on a street level was rows and columns of counterfeit and low-quality goods with “no guarantee”.
“We wrote this song as a protest against what the Chinese were doing to the black man,” says Senyaka. “We were like, how could they come here and do this when we were hosting them so well. They would sell you takkies that were like rotting pieces of meat. In two weeks the things would just literally rot on your feet.
“I remember the one guy complaining to me, saying: ‘It has hardly been a week and my [jacket] buttons are coming off.’ We both knew he had bought it from the Chinese.”
The song itself was standard kwaito fare, with a simple repetitive keyboard melody and complimentary bass line.
The video begins with the pair walking through downtown Johannesburg, pretending to buy a pair of 45c sneakers, which they then decide against, because they stink.
“Me and Kamazu wrote the whole thing and recorded it in one take. We never went back to the studio. We were like, ‘Ja, that’s it. Sharp’.”
By this time Spikiri, the primary producer, had attained maestro status among his peers, but Senyaka recounts that such was the spirit within the camp that “the whole of Kalawa [Jazmee Records] was on the track, with Oskido or somebody else playing a note or two” on it.
The rest of the video was punctuated by some very camp pantsula moves and very dubious martial arts-themed choreography. There are also some lazily delivered outdoor karate chops from the video stars, dressed in what looks like military uniforms. If there is a hidden meaning in the video except what hits you at face value, you would be hard-pressed to find it. The Chinese motifs don’t look particularly well thought out. Even the man selling the shoes looks more Indian than Chinese.
With what was a catchy but decidedly lacklustre outing, it was relevance alone that propelled this song to immortality. The playful and somewhat disdainful echoing of the zeitgeist struck a chord with the kwaito fans and the population at large, ushering in a new term into the South African lexicon.
Today almost everybody in South Africa understands that anything “fong kong” is anything fake.
Senyaka claims that the term’s origins are innocent and were never meant to be disparaging. Back then, he says, when he was of primary school-going age, there was an actual shoe favoured by tsotsis called the Fong Kong.
“I don’t know what it meant in Chinese, but I know that Chinese people here now understand what we mean when we say ‘fong kong’.”
The two dismiss the suggestion that the song had any xenophobic undertones, emphatically claiming that it was written in defence of the black man. “We were trying to empower darkies economically,” says Kamazu. “Most of these things [counterfeits] were bought by darkies. We were just saying let our money satisfy us.”
Although the political incorrectness of the song cannot be ignored, for the authorities at the time silence seemed to be the most viable form of censorship. How else could China go on quietly painting the continent red.
Although most of us are still far removed from the economic freedom the Hunger Boyz were getting at, we were, for a brief moment, able to call a spade a spade. But, if reports published in Creamer Media’s website earlier this year are true, that China is once again South Africa’s leading trade partner, having signed an agreement in excess of R2-billion, anything fong kong may soon be the standard issue of every citizen. When that day comes, Senyaka won’t be so looney after all.
Every week, the M&G chooses one great song that says something about what it means to be South African. We write from the perspective of the listener, and in the belief that art is greater than artists will ever know. Suggest your own great South African songs here.