“I’ve never been married. There are no major theories. I just never found the right person. It’s the same with my sister.”
Man (56) is the co-author of Colour, Confession, and Concession: The History of the Chinese in South Africa. Her interest in the history of Chinese immigrants is the focus of her book. She is a second-generation South African-born Chinese. As a child she was expected to follow tradition, but away from her family she explored elements of Western culture. “My grandmother was very traditional, she clung very closely to culture, whereas my mother wanted us to go to school and be more independent.”
Independence has become a core goal among first and second-generation Chinese and Taiwanese women in South Africa. Careers and exploring the world have become their prime objectives. These women have fought to dismiss cultural traditions that value men over women. Formal education has emerged as an important tool that has allowed them to combine their Chinese culture with their Western lifestyles.
Historically, in China and Taiwan, filial piety and fraternal loyalty were considered the core values that governed societal behaviour. Women were tied solely to household productivity and male superiority was the underlying force. “In our culture women are seen as second-best to men. I have three sisters and two brothers but my grandmother treated my brothers like kings,” says Man. “My grandmother, who was born in China, believed that women should always listen to men.”
Independence has become a core goal among first and second-generation Chinese and Taiwanese women in South Africa.
The new arrivals
In her book, Man describes how the first wave of Chinese immigrants to South Africa came at the beginning of the 1800s. These were mainly men who arrived to fill the labour shortage and the links to family overseas were still strong. The migrants grew from a sizeable group of men to an identifiable community that soon formed smaller districts all over South Africa.
The growth in the community is attributed to the 1913 Immigration Regulation Act, which allowed Asian men to return to their home countries and bring their wives to South Africa. For the first time these immigrant women were able to experience freedoms they were previously deprived of in their home countries. Man says that when the wives arrived in South Africa they were still subordinate to their husbands.
When the men went home to fetch their wives, they would not take the first wives — who were older. Rather, they chose to return to South Africa with their second or third wives, who were much younger. “I think to some extent that is how women here became powerful. Because the husbands were older than their wives they would often die first and the young wife would now assume the role of provider and nurturer.”
The winds of change
The turning point in the women’s liberation in China came in 1949 when Mao Zedong, leader of the Communist Party, took over the country. He believed in gender equality. He encouraged women to join the workforce, become communist officials and pursue educational opportunities. These changes initially gave females an increased sense of emancipation. Zedong sought to increase business opportunities in China and more workers were needed. Women were welcomed into universities so they could get qualifications to do these jobs.
Women today are in a better position than five decades ago. In a global census conducted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) for literacy, China had the highest percentage of educated adult women and men 15 years and older. In 2010, Chinese men had a literacy rate of 97.1% and women had a rate of 91.3%.
Well-educated women have become catalysts for reducing the equality gap between men and women. Migrant women who came to South Africa in the late 1990s were far more educated than those who arrived in the early 1900s. This new wave of women was thus able to fully monopolise the freedoms available to them in the country. For women with a competitive spirit, there was a world of opportunity, but, although there were significant opportunities, the South African Chinese community still has underlying male superiority.
“Patriarchy is still very prominent in our culture,” says Tiffany Ku an Honours student in international relations. Tiffany is first-generation South African Taiwanese. She is a child of one of the 30 000 Taiwanese who arrived in South Africa between the late 1970s and mid-1990s.
Tiffany only had one grandmother who received a high school education in Taiwan. During her grandmother’s teenage years, financial and social restrictions disallowed many others the opportunity. “My maternal grandmother was considered to be in the minority because she was able to complete high school,” she says.
Tiffany has broken away from a tradition of receiving an education that is capped at high-school level. “After I finish my Honours degree at the end of the year, I want to work for the United Nations or an NGO. And possibly do my Master’s degree.” At 23, she holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in international relations and linguistics. She is single and focused on climbing the corporate ladder.
“My parents are liberal and have tried to adapt to the modern times, but there are still elements of tradition at home,” she says. She shares a home with her parents and her two sisters in a gated community in the northern Johannesburg suburb of Bryanston. In their home, they have tried to mesh Eastern and Western cultures.
Entering their home, one is lost in a maze of Taiwanese culture artefacts: the walls are full of framed calligraphy artworks and paintings. Traditional Taiwanese music serenades the senses. From the passage her mother Ivy appears, smiling: “Welcome to our home. Would you like some tea?” At first, her tea offer seems like a simple token of goodwill but there is more to it than boiling the kettle and putting a teabag into the heated water. Ivy works from home as a calligrapher and Chinese language teacher. During the interview she prefers to speak in her home language and lets her daughter interpret. “When we were growing up, women were expected to marry a good, rich husband and have a family, but things have changed now.”
The rules were very “strict” and men had to receive everything first. “When you cook, he gets the food first. When it’s time to bath, he must shower first. Men were always first.” Ivy was able to break away from the traditional expectations of raising a family because she moved to a different country. Another factor, which also contributed to her liberal parenting, was her receiving a high school education.
Through school in Taiwan she was able to meet people from different cultures and backgrounds and they would exchange ideas about life.
Different sides of the same coin
Debbie Low Ah Kee’s upbringing is quite different from Ivy’s. Kee is second-generation South African Chinese and has spent all her adult years in South Africa. She went to a private Catholic school and for most of her life she followed Catholicism.