Like the harvest moon, SA’s Chinese will rise again from this dark season

The Year of the Rat, signifying prosperity, has been anything but, with people financially and personally broken

01 October 2020 - 19:12 By Ufreida Ho
Johannesburg restaurateur Emma Chen is clawing her way back into business as she wades through anti-Chinese sentiment.
UNDAUNTED Johannesburg restaurateur Emma Chen is clawing her way back into business as she wades through anti-Chinese sentiment.
Image: Alon Skuy

To the untrained eye, the script on the brown takeaway bag looks unfamiliar: beautiful loops in a flow of black ink. To restaurateur Emma Chen, the calligraphy is her heritage, a personal touch and an unapologetic statement. 

Chen is a doyenne of the Joburg restaurant scene. She is the owner of Red Chamber in Hyde Park, a Joburg icon that is 30 years old this year, as well as its cheeky sibling, PRON, the noodle and dumpling den in Linden.

Like all other restaurant owners, Chen has been bruised and battered by lockdown. Putting personalised calligraphy on takeaway bags is her reminder that the enjoyment of a restaurant meal is theatre for the senses. It’s also a declaration that what’s inside the bag are her Chinese heritage stories told in big-hearted cuisine. 

Clawing out of lockdown to survive will take business grit. Chen will take those deep breaths, plunge in and swim against this tide. Making sense of the surge of anti-Chinese sentiment that arrived with the Covid-19 virus is a whole other deluge. It’s heartbreaking, she says.

“Anti-Chinese sentiment has never been higher and especially in the early days of the virus I did feel like my community was under attack.”

Emma Chen is putting personalised calligraphy on takeaway bags to remind people that a restaurant meal is theatre for the senses. She is also using it as a declaration of Chinese heritage.
DRAWING ON HERITAGE Emma Chen is putting personalised calligraphy on takeaway bags to remind people that a restaurant meal is theatre for the senses. She is also using it as a declaration of Chinese heritage.
Image: Alon Skuy

Criticisms and cynicism over China’s missteps, lack of transparency and disclosure about what came out of Wuhan turned to casual bigotry, slurs and then xenophobic threats. Comments such as “thanks a lot for the virus” and “you people should stop eating bats” were presented as jokes, but then repeated often enough to be barbs, meant to imply culpability. There’s deepening suspicion as people have needed someone to blame for a killer virus. Falling back on stereotypes is an easy trap.

Social media is another snare. Retweet after retweet makes replication of hatred real. The parade of hurts has grown in fervour. Each like, each heart and each hashtag becomes dangerous confirmation bias. People are driven to their corners, they retreat in indignation and outrage, but are as deeply infected by division and polarisation as the other side.

“I feel I must defend my roots more now because of how the Chinese are being portrayed in some media, and even in movies, as all being villains, and this is not what being Chinese is to me,” says Chen, who grew up in Taiwan. “It does not mean I agree with the authorities in China or any president there. It is about Chinese people as a group. I was brought up to know that we care for each other; we make others feel at home; we make sacrifices that benefit the group.”

Covid-19 has become weaponised. It’s a distraction and a political tool. Chen says it is used by politicians intentionally. Keeping agendas pitted against each other entrenches a China-against-the-West narrative. It’s a win for populism. It makes captured minds even easier to bend, flexed towards retaliation as solution. 

“Rising conservatism is what is making me feel vulnerable,” Chen says. 

Like many restaurants and businesses, one of the concrete dragon sculptures that stood in old Chinatown has not survived lockdown.
CASUALTY Like many restaurants and businesses, one of the concrete dragon sculptures that stood in old Chinatown has not survived lockdown.
Image: Alon Skuy

Meanwhile, across town from Chen in Cyrildene, the two arches of Chinatown on Derrick Avenue are ornate parentheses framing a street that is only now, in lockdown level 1, starting to re-emerge. Some restaurants, however, have shut their doors forever.

Like Chen’s Red Chamber restaurant, this Chinatown is just more than 30 years old. Newer arrivals from China settled in the suburb from the late 1990s. In two decades it has added texture and diversity to an evolving Joburg story. The maturing community has also moved from simply surviving by slaving over a sizzling wok, or hawking spring onions and bitter gourds, to organisation that includes proximity to political power. It is an essential strategy of reciprocity to ensure that favours can be called in when need demands.

So great was the influence of some community leaders among this newer wave of Chinese arrivals that in 2013 they were able to secure the presence of then-president Jacob Zuma to cut the ceremonial ribbon on the Friedland Avenue arch, even though this second arch was still incomplete at the time.

The second arch on Marcia Street was completed only late last year and came into being with little fanfare. Zuma’s exit from the position of number one has shifted the story of the relationship between the ruling ANC and various factions within the Chinese community. Politics is part of life, and so are celebrations. In this year of Covid though, Chinese New Year celebrations were one of the first calendar highlights to be scrapped. By the end of January, even as the Year of Rat was just days old, public events were called off as a precaution against the coming of Covid-19.

In normal years, at least three major events take place over three weekends, all celebrated as South African experiences. Fireworks light up the city sky, spring rolls and noodles fill tummies, and drumbeats summon a mythical dragon to rise and fall in glittering undulations on closed-off Jozi roads. This year, festivities were cancelled and, as borders shut, Chinese nationals who had travelled from SA to China for the New Year had no way of getting home. Chinese tourists have also been absent and the knock-on impact for businesses has been dire.

A colourful arch welcomes visitors to Chinatown in Johannesburg.
ENTICING A colourful arch welcomes visitors to Chinatown in Johannesburg.
Image: Alon Skuy

Some South Africans still fear Chinatown, assuming it must be a Covid-19 hotspot. But it hasn’t been. Chinatown adapted quickly and easily to implementing safety protocols. Communication with family, friends and networks in China served as early warnings about embracing a regime of temperature checks, hand-sanitising and face masks. Even now, many stores in Chinatown sell full PPE and visors, even for children. Produce in stores sits behind thick plastic sheeting and mask-wearing is normal.

Another normal is that there are mooncakes for sale even in a year of Covid. The moon grew full in time on Thursday for the Chinese to celebrate the traditional mid-autumn (in the northern hemisphere) festival. Traditionally these festive cakes are made with a preserved salted egg yolk in the centre. It symbolises the moon and is shared by family members gathered under a harvest full moon to give thanks for nature’s abundance of autumn harvests. This is a kind of metaphor for resilience and traditions that hold.

Taryn Lock, the founder of a media campaign called Proudly Chinese SA, says the Chinese need to find new strengths. She thinks the sinophobia worsened by Covid-19 is not new. She launched her campaign in 2017 because hate speech against the Chinese was at another peak in the wake of a justified animal cruelty outcry that turned into a targeting of all Chinese as perpetrators of animal abuse. 

“The actions of some Chinese at the time made me feel like I couldn’t be proud or couldn’t stand up to the hate,” says Lock. “But I believe that not saying anything empowers the racists. I use the Proudly Chinese SA website to tell positive news about the community and to profile Chinese people in the community.”

This is her way of standing up for her identity, history and culture. She knows it may not end all racism, but it is planting a seed and pushing a message that generalising about people is a failure of logic.

“Hate speech is very personally hurtful, even if it’s not said directly to me,” she says. “I’m a third-generation South African. I can speak Afrikaans, but not Chinese. I can’t ‘go back’ to China. I’m a foreigner there.”

Chinese people and businesses adapted quickly to Covid-19, armed with information from family and friends abroad, but anti-Chinese sentiment didn't help them.
HOTLINE Chinese people and businesses adapted quickly to Covid-19, armed with information from family and friends abroad, but anti-Chinese sentiment didn't help them.
Image: Alon Skuy

Identity and heritage stories are plural. They may thread together, but remain a complicated tangle because there will always be individual experiences, agendas, allegiances and circumstances. That there are two Chinatowns in Joburg tells of complexities and multiple perspectives. The first Chinatown, in the old CBD, has an origin story that begins as part of the Malay quarter in the gold rush days of a newly formed Johannesburg in the late 1880s. The old Cantonese Club building still stands and now has Blue Plaque heritage status. Sui Hing Hong, the legendary family-run provisions store owned by the Pon family in Commissioner Street, has remained steadfast for many decades.

There are enduring memories here, such as advocate George Bizos’s meals with his friend, the young lawyer Nelson Mandela, at Swallows Inn (in its heyday referred to as Little Swallow). Bizos wrote about these meals in his autobiography, 65 Years of Friendship. In a time of vehement segregation, Chinatown was a liminal space. In this Chinese restaurant a black man and a white man could sit down and eat together. Mandela’s office in Chancellor House was two blocks away.

Bizos, who died on September 9, also headed up and won the legal challenge through the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in 2008, fighting for the definition of “black” to be extended to include Chinese South Africans in terms of BEE legislation. Before 1994, Chinese South Africans were classified as “coloured”, but in a democracy they faced having their history of discrimination erased. The court challenge was less about gaining BEE advantage and more about setting the record straight; telling the fuller history of Chinese South Africans and what they endured under apartheid’s incomprehensible laws.

Covid-19’s impact will go down in history. It will tell of the things that stand and those that fall away. Like many businesses and eateries, one of the concrete dragon sculptures — that stood as sentinels on either side of the main strip of old Chinatown — has not survived lockdown. It was hit by a bus and today lies forlornly on its side. It may be battered and broken, but the dragon can be repaired. And the community will find a way. It’s what its members do. 

I belong in South Africa, but I also identify with where my forefathers came from. I think all people are like this.
Shirleen Man, The Chinese Association’s women’s federation chairperson

Shirleen Man, chairperson of The Chinese Association’s (TCA) women’s federation, says collective action will keep heritage and identity alive. The TCA is one of a number of associations that represent Chinese interests in SA.

The TCA hosted virtual Heritage Day celebrations last week, simultaneously marking the 14th anniversary of the women’s federation and the mid-autumn festival. This three-pronged celebration honoured Chinese heritage, SA as home and women as a pillar of the community. The online platform has also connected Chinese Diaspora groups from across the world for the first time.

Man says of the tangle of history, heritage and identity: “Our federation exists to remind especially the younger generation that we are South African, but we mustn’t forget our roots and where we come from. Coming together for a celebration reminds us of our culture.

“I belong in SA, but I also identify with where my forefathers came from. I think all people are like this.”

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