Cyrildene, also known as new Chinatown, is home to the new wave of Chinese immigrants who have made the area what writer Rian Malan once called “the People’s Republic of Cyrildene”.
Driving onto Derrick Avenue, an unfinished archway straddling Marcia Street doesn’t scream new Chinatown. The structure, made of wooden panels and rusted metal, has been under construction for close to seven years. The construction on the archway has been held up because of an overhead power line, said Rob Crawford, chairman of the Chinese Community Police Forum (CPF) in Cyrildene.
“City Power requires a large financial outlay to move the power lines and the Chinese community need to fundraise to do this,” said Democratic Alliance ward councillor Alison van der Molen. Crawford says, if proper planning and consultation had been done, City Power and city planning might have been able to intervene somehow.
“There have been so many illegal developments, accusations of corruption and ‘weird’ ways in which approval has been awarded to certain developments,” said Van der Molen.
“They do things without following procedures,” said Crawford. “That’s part of the problem we have in the whole area, the illegal buildings and the illegal activities that go on.” Crawford, who lives in Cyrildene, has been working for the CPF on a volunteer basis for the past 12 years.
VIEW THINGLINK: Gateway to Chinatown
A political connection
On the opposite end of Derrick Avenue lies the approximately R6-million archway that was completed in 2010 and stands as a blue, gold and red gateway into new Chinatown. This puts the rusting, unfinished structure on the opposite end of the street to shame.
The completed archway was officially opened by South African President Jacob Zuma on October 11 this year. Zuma said the arch would be a permanent monument that would serve as “a symbol of the presence and diligence of the Chinese community’s role in building this country”. Moreover, the monument would be a symbol of the economic ties South Africa has with China.
“There have been so many illegal developments, accusations of corruption and ‘weird’ ways in which approval has been awarded to certain developments”
His speech was translated into Mandarin and read out to the crowd of Chinese business people and other guests. According to William Leong, a member of The Chinese Association in Gauteng (TCA), new Chinese immigrants are known for being “chummy” with the current political regime.
“The Chinese community and the crime in the area is very well connected with the politicians, is what the word is on the ground. I mean the fact that you can get Zuma to open a gate just says something about the connections that these guys have and how important they are to the South African economy.”
Overpopulated migrant hub
According to the City of Johannesburg’s 2013 precinct plan, Cyrildene is one of the most populated Chinese areas in Johannesburg and has the highest concentration of Chinese in South Africa. This high concentration — and demand for accommodation — has led to the prevalence of illegal building in the area.
Hang Chen Palace — a new building on Derrick avenue — has three sections, all of which look like a traditional Chinese temple with red, gold and blue detailing, in a similar design to that of the completed archway.
This massive commercial structure is easily one of the most striking buildings in Cyrildene. But the entire fourth floor of the palace is being used illegally as rented flats. The basement in the same building, which is meant for parking, has also been converted into illegal accommodation.
“That’s why we have parking problems on the street [Derrick Avenue],” said a frustrated Crawford.
CLICK TO LISTEN: Crime in new Chinatown
Crawford said properties in the area were sold for about R1.4-million and then divided into rooms to be rented, in some cases with as many as 25 rooms on a single property.
Monthly rental for rooms on these properties are between R2 500 and R3 500 a month. “That’s nearly R75 000 a month being made, in two years that property is paid off,” Crawford said.
He claimed that, to accommodate the illegal rooms, plans are rigged to get approval from city planning. Most of the newly built houses had high walls and passers-by could not see that anything was amiss.
Alice Hu, owner and estate agent of Alice Hu Properties, confirmed illegal land use and building were indeed happening in the area. She added that, while it was true residential homes were being converted and sub-letting was happening, it was difficult to tell how many rooms and people there were on a single property.
The city proposed a precinct plan earlier this year to combat the problems the area is facing. In the plan the city recognised the increased influx of Chinese migrants to Cyrildene and admitted that as a result “illegal land use” had also been on the rise. A map in the plan showed where illegal business, industrial and residential land use was taking place in the area. The plan seeks to combat illegal land use by limiting uncontrolled developments in the area and developing existing buildings in Cyrildene.
In Cyrildene, illegal accommodation has spread from the main road of Derrick Avenue to the surrounding residential area. City council is aware of the illegal buildings and does hand out warnings but “people just keep on building anyway”, said Crawford, shaking his head.
“The area is deteriorating because of over-use and the lack of law enforcement … I was told by someone that this is one of the most embarrassing and degraded Chinatown’s anywhere in the world,” said Crawford.
“I mean we’ve got everything from human trafficking, to drugs, to perlemoen [abalone]. We’ve had murders, we’ve had assaults, we’ve got the Triad – the Chinese mafia – in the area.”
He said it was rumoured that one of the property owners in Cyrildene had recently acquired five properties next to one another in order to build a R100-million mall, which is set to be an upmarket mall.
“I am not sure that Cyrildene is the right place for such a large shopping centre as it is supposed to be a residential area,” said Van der Molen.