The white man received a five pound fine for killing the Chinese man. It was a harsh lesson for Pon. In South Africa, Chinese people were considered “coloured people” and the life of a coloured person was like that of a black person – not worth much.
When Pon came to South Africa she was 24. She came to teach at the Chinese school in Chinatown, on Commissioner Street in Johannesburg. Her husband had come out a year before, and was principal at another Chinese school in Pretoria. She had never seen a black person before she arrived in South Africa, on her arrival, she was given a place to stay in Sophiatown, among black people. She was also told that she was now “coloured”.
The story of apartheid in South Africa is well documented. Textbooks have been written and movies have been produced about how black people were used and abused by a white apartheid government. In these textbooks and movies, these black people are usually of African descent. They were, after all, in the majority and bore the brunt of the apartheid system. During apartheid, though, Chinese people were classified differently in different Acts – as black or coloured or Asiatic. Much like the story of people of African descent, the story of the Chinese during apartheid was often that of humiliation, degradation and abuse.
Chinese people were considered “coloured people” and the life of a coloured person was like that of a black person – not worth much.
Pon came from a wealthy family. She left China to escape the Sino-Japanese war. She had barely ever set foot in a kitchen, never mind cooked. So it was her black neighbours who taught her the skills needed in the kitchen and for keeping a home. When she needed to chop wood for the stove, it was a black neighbour who showed her how to do so.
“The black people were kind to the Chinese people and the Chinese people were kind to the black people,” she said.
Stay in your lane
But the National Party, which was in power at the time, was intolerant of different races living together and co-operating in this way. In the early 1950s, the government introduced the Group Areas Act. This law was introduced to ensure that different races did not mix or interact with each other.
Melanie Yap, a South African-born Chinese journalist and co-author of the book Colour, Confusion and Concessions, said the Act terrified Chinese people. If they were put in one area they could only sell to each other and they were a small group, most of whom were traders: “You could not have a group of shopkeepers living and trading together. Where will your customers come from? Eighty-five percent of them were shopkeepers. They would have lost their livelihood instantly.”
Chinese community organisations had to convince the government not to put Chinese people in one areas there were not enough of them to make such a thing viable. Even though Chinese people in other towns were put in restricted areas as stipulated by the Act, the Chinese community in Johannesburg managed to keep the government from assigning them an “area”. Instead they moved to “grey areas”. Grey areas were places the government had not specifically assigned to any race.
Francis Lai Hong was six years old when his parents received an eviction notice. Their fish and chip shop was in a “white area”, and they had to move. They moved to an area designated for coloured people. Because the number of people they could trade with was restricted, the business suffered and they barely managed to keep it afloat. When his father died almost a decade later, they sold the business. It could no longer bring in money.
VIEW GRAPHIC: The in-between race
In order to continue trading in white areas after the Groups Areas Act was introduced, the Chinese had to get what was called a “white nominee” to operate businesses in a “white area”. Chinese traders had to pay a white person to be the official owner of their business.
After completing his matric in 1975, Hong worked for his uncle’s butchery to save up money to go to university. The butchery was in a “white area” as his uncle had found a white nominee who agreed to the business being in his name in exchange for a share of the profit—a very large share.
“He [the white man] took a huge part of the profit, 30-40%, just by signing his name on a piece of paper.”
White nominees were not only for securing businesses in “white areas”, but sometimes for houses as well. Chinese people could only buy houses in white areas if the white neighbours agreed.
“Chinese people have always tried to stay below the radar, they always feared that if they became visible then they would become targets, targets of jealousy, racial hostility or anything along those lines.”
Xian Che’s* son-in-law’s family had lived in Sophiatown, but wanted their children to live much closer to their school, which was on Commissioner Street. The house they liked was in a white area so they asked the neighbours for permission. When their request was rejected, they found a white man willing to have the house put in his name – at a cost of course. But the man disappeared with the money the family had given him for the house. They lost both their money and their house.
“They could do nothing about it. What they had done was illegal,” Che said.
Desperate for a house in a “good area”, the family found another white nominee to sign as owner of the house they wanted. The second nominee was true to his word.
“He put the house in his name and later transferred ownership to them,” Che said.
According to Yap, the Chinese community commonly used white nominees during apartheid. ”They would give white nominees money and say: ’Buy the house in your name’.”
Yap said some white nominees took advantage of their desperation. “They [the nominee] realised, ‘I got this great asset, I can chuck the other one out. They would have fights and the white nominees would say: ’Get out of my house’.”
The Group Areas Act was harsh on black people, including the Chinese. So harsh it forced them to do the one thing they had been reluctant to do, get involved in politics.
“Chinese people have always tried to stay below the radar, they always feared that if they became visible then they would become targets, targets of jealousy, racial hostility or anything along those lines,” Yap said.
Taiwanese-born Michael Sun, who is now a councillor for the Democratic Alliance, said Chinese people stayed away from politics because they were “naturally timid” and did not want to draw attention to themselves.
“As a politician you are seen as someone who is out there, outspoken, out there in the front, expressing your thoughts.”
But the increasing restrictions on their lives and businesses pushed them into politics “basically to fight for their own survival”, said Yap. In the book she co-authored, Yap reported on a Chinese community member who met with the ANC Youth League in the early 1950s and made donations to them.