Home away from home

Emperor Can Wait by Emma Chen (Picador Africa)

Paper Sons and Daughters by Ufrieda Ho (Picador Africa)

What is it that makes people leave their homelands to emigrate? This brave step is often prompted by the perception that life in the place of origin is already intolerable and hopeless, or will soon become so, and that the chances of survival and prosperity are elsewhere.

This was certainly the case for the forebears of Ufrieda Ho and, though Emma Chen’s circumstances were significantly less dire than Ho’s family’s, her family, too, suffered losses.

Ho’s family left mainland China in the mid-1950s to become illegal immigrants and Chen arrived in South Africa in the 1980s as a postgraduate student. Whereas Chen’s memoir focuses on her childhood in Taiwan, Ho tells of growing up in Johannesburg, where she and her family occupied “this state of inbetweenness, this small site of not belonging”.

Despite the many differences in these two memoirs of two South African-Chinese women, they have a bond in their roots in their ancient homeland where paper was invented and where the last surviving emperor in the modern world, Puyi of the Qing dynasty, was still in his palace until the early 20th century.

Turbulent times

Emma Chen composes her memoir, Emperor Can Wait, in a series of vignettes, usually involving more than one incident and various characters, around a particular recipe or dish.
In this way she gradually reveals her family’s history and her memories of her childhood in Taiwan. In a chapter on egg-fried rice we learn that her mother learned to eat fast in the two-and-a-half years that she and 700 other schoolchildren were refugees fleeing from China’s northeast to escape the advancing communist army.

When we first meet her mother she is a schoolteacher and married to a man in the air force. In her prologue Chen says: “The men were young soldiers who’d just lost the war and, with it, their homeland to the communists.” They thought it was a temporary setback and that they would soon “fight back to mainland” (a popular slogan then), but it turned out to be a long wait. Both Emma and her sister were born and schooled in this camp. It was their home community and most of the stories are drawn from there. Singing patriotic songs at school, they “learned to feel hatred for enemies we’d never met and longing for a lost land we’d never seen”.

In the chapter “Little Eatery of Heavenly House”, she mentions the tiny restaurant owned by her sister’s caregivers, who sold spicy Sichuan food, and the discreetly secret games of mah jong. When they were harassed by a policeman they had to bribe him, but got even by giving him heavily overspiced food.

In the chapter that precedes the “nothing noodles” recipe, Chen tells of the noodles that were eaten by little girls going to ballet class. The “shit carriers” also dined in the same eatery. In the security of the military camp they all had relative freedom and they liked the same food; the point is also made that, despite all this, they still used the “bucket system”, as it is known in South Africa.

Paying respect

A particularly poignant chapter is “Emperor Can Wait”, the title taken from a popular Chinese proverb that ends with “... while we eat”, showing the importance of food. When the leader of the Chinese nationalists, Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), died, Chen, her mother and her sister went to pay their respects at the lying-in-state.

The queues were so long that they went home to make food and returned again later. She comments on the outpouring of grief of those for whom the death of Jiang Jieshi meant they would never again return to their homes in mainland China. Chen’s mother never saw her parents again.

In 1989 Chen opened the highly successful Red Chamber restaurant in Hyde Park shopping centre. In the course of her anecdotes we learn that she did a bachelor of arts in Taiwan, but she does not elaborate on her studies, or on her two marriages. Though she is discreetly silent on her experience of South Africa, her childhood stories make subtle points about the social and domestic situation of her family and friends.

Her book is elegantly structured, her stories are both simple and unpretentious—as are the recipes. Anyone with a wok could try them. Food and people combine into a delectable experience and she is at her best writing about food.

Playing fah-fee
In Ufrieda Ho’s memoir, Paper Sons and Daughters, she sketches the lives of her maternal grandparents and parents, all of whom were born in mainland China. Her mother’s parents were rushed into an arranged marriage during the Japanese invasion in World War II. It was never a happy union and began with an 18-year separation when her grandfather stowed away on a ship to Durban. After many years of hard slog he opened a butchery in Silverton and was able to send for his wife and daughter, Ho’s mother.

Ho’s father, Ho Sing Kee, was from a different region and was orphaned at about the age of 13 at a time of great hardship and starvation in China. The villagers dispatched him to South Africa to find two brothers who had left many years before. Apart from a few jobs in shops, Ho’s father worked his whole life as a fah-fee man, mostly working for richer men. But he supported his four children and educated them on his meagre earnings.

She says at the beginning: “Fah-fee in my family meant we stood to lose a lot” and the reader realises just how much only at the end of the book. Although it was their main source of income, it was also a source of “stigma” and “shame” (Ho’s own words). This gambling game was illegal, ­surrounded by secrecy.

She returns to this topic many times. In one section she describes how her father worked, which she observed when he took her with him on his rounds. Whereas Darryl Accone in his groundbreaking All Under Heaven, the first memoir of a South African-Chinese family (David Philip, 2004), gives the whole lexicon of symbols, numbers and dreams (even his successful shopkeeper grandmother ran a fah-fee bank), Ho concentrates on who played and who controlled it, as well as its political and social ramifications.

When Ho’s parents married they lived in one room in a house in Bertrams, a “grey area” in which Chinese people were tolerated. From there they graduated to a house in which four children, a maid (Sophie), a dog and cages of pigeons completed the family. The children went to the Chinese school and from there to ­tertiary education.

Ho’s account of growing up in Johannesburg in the 1980s will have a familiar ring for many. But she describes their life as inward-looking and carefully conformist. They socialised only with other Chinese people and ate mainly Chinese food, which they bought in (old) Chinatown at the western end of Commissioner Street. Filial obedience dominated and hard work was expected of all of them.

Political changes

Ho attended the Pretoria Technikon as a journalism student. Here she shared a room with a friendly Afrikaner girl, Bernadette, and had her eyes opened by the extensive reading list supplied by her political science lecturers. This was also the time when the country began to awaken to the newly unbanned ANC.

In a chapter called “The Under-catered Party” (the greatest social sin one could think of in Chinese circles), Ho discusses how the Chinese in South Africa felt about the new political dispensation. In short, instead of getting the “crispy fried duck” of liberation from previous discrimination against them, they got “stir-fried bean curd”. But she also remarks that they had “little expectation of a good, easy life in South Africa”.

Difficult as things had been before, after 1994 they got worse in some ways. This was partly because of the influx of Chinese from the mainland who began to arrive in great numbers, with the result that those who had already suffered through the years of apartheid now found a new kind of discrimination. Ho tells her father: “These Chinese do not even look twice at us; we are not part of a community, we simply have the same skin colour. Some come from as far as the Siberian border.” She also addresses in some detail the exclusion of pre-1994 South African Chinese from the category of ­“previously disadvantaged”.


Ho ends her book with a letter to her father: “Dear Ah Buk,” she begins. Poignant but realistic, she now has a sharp journalist’s eye for an analysis of what South Africa is today. Though her story is often full of colour, this is an unromanticised, unvarnished account of a family that came from hard circumstances to survive and do well in South Africa.

Ho’s nostalgia is for a past that to her seems simpler, fairer and more hopeful. Chen recognises, as do many emigrants, that the “home” she misses is no longer there in reality.

But both realise that whether it is a “home” in time or in a place, return is not possible, but there is comfort in memory. As Chen says, having realised this: “I am now closer to home than ever.” And both are part of our diverse South African community.

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