Dianne Leong Man, co-author of Colour, Confusion and Concession, says there have been many Chinese people in Soweto since the township was founded. Klipspruit is where Soweto was born, with the emergence of township clusters housing black communities.Black people continued to move to the township both voluntarily and forcibly during apartheid. At the same time, Chinese people found a home in nearby Kliptown.
“Kliptown had a huge Chinese community and had a Chinese school run by nuns. That’s how big it was. A lot of them had shops in Moroka and a lot of them used to play fafi [a game of chance] in Pimville and places like that. So there was a lot of interaction between the Chinese in Soweto.”
Displaced Chinese move into Soweto
Chinese people lived in Sophiatown and Newclare and when those suburbs were declared white areas in 1950, the Chinese community was forced to move and left displaced.
During the wave of violence against the repressive apartheid system during the 1970s, Gerard Li, a South African-born Chinese man was working for his father in Soweto. He saw people being shot and necklaced in front of him. Li later started a business delivering meat for supermarkets in the township during the 1980s.
“Apartheid was hectic …You could either live in a black, Indian or coloured area.”
“It was hard for me to do deliveries in Soweto. I had to be involved in a lot of community projects to be protected. Not all black people took well to Chinese people in Soweto. Some hated us, especially local businesses hated me.” Li says he was resented as an interloper in the township’s business world, which was run by black men.
Because of the Group Areas Act of 1950, which assigned racial groups to different residential areas, Chinese people could not trade in white areas and the government did not know where to locate them. “Apartheid was hectic …You could either live in a black, Indian or coloured area. You weren’t allowed to live in a white area or have a business there.”
Li said some Chinese people, mostly South African-born, could find a “gap” in Soweto and moved to the township.
After moving to Soweto, they created a community of shopkeepers in Moroka and Kliptown. “They couldn’t be put into a little group area by themselves and trade among themselves,” says Man. “That was the biggest problem for the Chinese, losing their livelihood.”
It was an adapt-and-survive approach for the Chinese community, Li explains: “When you don’t have a choice, you are forced to do things. When you don’t have a choice, you do whatever to survive.”
Choosing Soweto to trade
Li now has a butchery and supermarket, a business that has been at the heart of Moroka for nearly 20 years. Li recounts the criminal violence he has witnessed during his years in Soweto: “I’ve seen people in my store back in the 1990s being put in a car boot and they were gone. I knew they would beat the shit out of him. I think as a Chinese guy, if you operated in Soweto back in the 1990s, you had to be super tough. Now it’s alright. I’ve been here so long, it’s like I’m a black man.”
The reason Chinese shop owners chose Soweto as a location for trade was because of the township’s large, dense population, says Man. “They [Chinese people] could go into the fringes in Kliptown and Moroka, just on the edge of Soweto. It would be a place among the black communities where they would go and buy in local stores and not go to the big supermarket.”
New and old Chinese in Soweto
Soweto is a tale of two worlds with the Chinese. The community in the township is made up of Chinese people who have lived in Soweto for decades and Chinese foreign nationals who have only recently set up shop.
One of the recent arrivals is Leon Feng. The only thing Feng knew about South Africa while living in China was the boom in gold and diamonds. Seven years later, the 31-year-old has struck “gold” in his own right – as a trader of Chinese herbs and medicine. He has three medicine shops, one in Dobsonville, one in Protea Glen and the other in Protea Gardens. He chose Soweto as the location for his business because of the many black people who form part of his clientele.
“So many people stay here. That’s why I opened a shop. I also came to Soweto to help people. Our medicine can help people. There are few Chinese medicine traders, that’s why we do business.”
Feng says doing business outside of Soweto would be difficult because “white guys don’t trust our stuff, they prefer to go to the pharmacy”.
Locals walk through his doors and tell Feng their personal problems. Some customers communicate their problems in Setswana or isiZulu, of which Feng understands a smattering. He then gives a diagnosis and a remedy for the ailment. His shop provides tea, tablets and incense as remedies for a plethora of medical problems, from fertility complaints to matters of the bedroom.
“My products work,” he says emphatically. “If it doesn’t work they never come to buy or they buy once and leave or they talk bad things to other people. They like my medicine.”
Feng is not the only Chinese foreign national in the shopping centre. However, the other shop owners are not as proficient in English, opting to speak African languages.