Xu left Queens High less than a year later, because of xenophobia and his inability to cope linguistically. Some of the pupils at Queens would tease him by calling him “ching-chong-cha” and “sfebe” (slang for prostitute) whenever he battled to understand something in class. He had to repeat two grades because of his poor English. He is 19 and still in grade 11. Between selling bok choy (Chinese cabbage), dao-mieu (Chinese spinach) and strawberries at his mother’s shop on Derrick Avenue in Cyrildene, he attends his new school where his attempt to matriculate continues.
Xu’s story is one of many which demonstrate the gap left by the closing of the Chinese school in Johannesburg .
The school that disappeared
The school that used to be a pillar of Chinese culture and the community is now the quintessential public school in Johannesburg. Today, the blue walls in the reception area bear only one trace of its Chinese incarnation – a red and yellow fan that faces you in the receptionist’s office.
The school, which was called Chinese Kuo Ting, is now Sandtonview School. Though the property still belongs to the Chinese community, it does not serve the community in the way it used to.
According to Melanie Yap and Dianne Leong Man, authors of the book Colour, Confusion and Concessions, the Chinese school enabled students to speak and write in Mandarin as well as learn about the Chinese culture.
Lin Lieshout, who taught at Kuo Ting for 12 years, says the school also offered facilities that assisted children of Chinese immigrants to integrate more easily into the South African community.
The school offered different levels of English classes to suit the competencies of English for each learner. This arrangement helped Lieshout’s daughter Liv to learn enough English eventually to pass her final matric English first language exam with 89%. Lieshout says the Chinese school helped her daughter initially as it ensured that she did not fall behind in her studies while she learnt English. Lieshout took Liv out of the Chinese school in primary school once she was comfortable with English. Liv was sent to an English-medium school so that she would be forced to talk to English home language students.
Howard Ahhon attended the Chinese school from pre-primary school until matric. He says that if he was sent to another institution later in his school career, he probably would not have coped as well.
“At the Chinese school we were encouraged to speak English with one another even outside the classroom and this helped a lot. I was put into the first level English class which helped me to learn English. The school also organised for me to go for extra classes when they recognised that I was battling.”
During the mid-1990s, he says, the school began to change. “Before then the school hall had a photo of a Chinese politician but after the start of democracy, it was all stripped away.”
Ahhon and Lieshout’s stories serve as examples of how the Chinese school enabled them to strengthen their English without falling behind in other subjects.
“They [GDE] say the plan for the school sounds good, then they give it to the next person, then people resign or leave the department … There is a lot of red tape.
Dr Yoon Park, a co-ordinator at Africans in China Research Network, explains in a chapter of her doctoral thesis: The whitening and upward mobility of Chinese South Africans: Shifting race, class and social position that, in the mid-1990s, administration of the Chinese school was taken over by the South African government.
Another reason the school lost its Chinese identity, according to Park’s research, was the tendency of parents to send their South African-born Chinese children to white private schools.
The need for a Chinese school in Johannesburg
Park says there are between 350 000 to 500 000 ethnic Chinese in South Africa, with only 10 000 born here. “There’s very little accurate statistical information about the Chinese in South Africa. These figures are estimations.”
Erwin Pon, chairman of The Chinese Association of Gauteng (TCA) in Johannesburg, says this large immigrant population illustrates a need for a Chinese school to assist the children of new immigrants to learn English without falling behind.
These immigrants, who make up most of the Chinese population in South Africa, increased during the 1990s, which is the same decade in which the government took over the Chinese school.
“There definitely is a need for a Chinese school to serve the new immigrants’ children as well as the South African community who would like to learn Mandarin and the Chinese culture. I often get colleagues of mine at Rand Merchant Bank who are not even Chinese who ask where their children could learn Mandarin.”
Pon says the association has been trying to work on a school project for a long time. One of their main barriers has been the Gauteng department of education (GDE). He says the school changed because the Chinese pupils reduced in numbers – one of the reasons being the school’s location.
The association is concerned about whether the revival of the original Chinese school would work in practical terms, he adds. Situated in Bramley Park, it is close to Alexandra township, which means most Sandtonview pupils are from this area.
“There definitely is a need for a Chinese school to serve the new immigrants’ children as well as the South African community who would like to learn Mandarin and the Chinese culture.
Pon stresses that the last thing the Chinese community would want is “to kick out the people that are already there”. Instead, they are looking into building a school in the Cyrildene area, as most of the community who need the school live there.
The Chinese community is looking at a way in which the government and the association can work together. He says the TCA board has been communicating with the education department for more than 10 years.