Derrick Avenue in Cyrildene is home to a plethora of Chinese-owned shops and restaurants, crammed together along with sidewalk vendors hawking exotic fruits and vegetables and boxes of frozen seafood thawing in the sun. Walking down the street means dodging crates, puddles of foul-smelling water and illegally parked cars.

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.



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.

Hang Cheng Palace on Derrick Avenue is one the commercial buildings being used for accommodation. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

Hang Cheng Palace on Derrick Avenue is one the commercial buildings being used for accommodation. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

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.

“There are a number of shops and shopping centres close by.  This centre is being built right on top of residential houses [single family homes]. I have very irate residents in the area about this,”

Referring to attempts to deal with illegal building, Van der Molen said: “There have been legal processes, some spanning 8 to 10 years.  But I believe that the levels of corruption exceed the ability to deal with the problem legally.

“Council also has too small a budget to deal with the problem so people get away with illegal use and illegal building.  I have it on authority that bribes of up to R500 000 are offered to ‘smooth the way’.  The City has lost the battle and the war,” added Van der Molen.

“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.”

The ghost town

In stark contrast to the frenzied atmosphere of Cyrildene, old Chinatown – referred to as first Chinatown by some – at times feels like the ghost of a Chinese neighbourhood. Walking along Commissioner Street, which used to be the epicentre of the Chinese community in Johannesburg, the vacant shops and minimal activity show old Chinatown to be just a shadow of what it once was.

There are only a few restaurants open for business. Two of the oldest buildings in the precinct house two of the oldest family owned businesses in the area, both owned by the Pon family. The only signs of anything new are two dragons outside the Chinese Association’s building.

The grey pillars were put up in an effort to jazz up the precinct, to emulate some of the developments in new Chinatown in Cyrildene. There are plans in place to revamp old Chinatown and to try and restore some of its former glory.

“As you can see there is not much going on here anymore,” said Theresa Pon, who chooses to do her shopping and dining in Cyrildene rather than in old Chinatown. “If you go to [new] Chinatown there’s more variety.”

Architect Heather Dodd said the precinct was “a hard sell” to develop because the Chinese community in Commissioner Street was now a shrinking community. She was part of a team of architects who drew up the old Chinatown precinct plan in 2009. The plan outlines ideas to renovate old Chinatown.

The plan has its own version of the archways to be erected in old Chinatown, as well as a strategy to re-open and renovate shops which have been shut down along the street. This plan was put in place to try to bring people back to old Chinatown and make it a hub for the Chinese community once again.

But besides introducing some signage providing information on old Chinatown, half the things mentioned in the plan have not been achieved. The plans were handed over to the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) for implementation and development purposes.

Jay Jacobs, project manager at JDA, said so far the only parts of the old Chinatown precinct plan to have been implemented were the public environment upgrades. These included upgrades like parking bays and installation of street lamps. Two aesthetic structures that have been put up are the two stone dragons that stand just outside of the TCA building.

Boom town

Containers at China Mall, Crown Mines. The mall stays ahead of their competition by having their containers shipped right to the mall.

Containers at China Mall, Crown Mines. The mall stays ahead of its competition by having containers shipped directly to the mall. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

Chinatowns are not the only places in Johannesburg the Chinese diaspora finds itself settling. Chinese-owned malls and shopping centres are springing up all over Johannesburg, particularly in the Amalgam and Crown Mines industrial areas.

The emergence of several Chinese shopping malls has brought retail to the area and turned it into a wholesale haven. Thousands of feet now make their way through the doors of various Chinese-owned malls in the area during the week. Since the early 2000s, more than six Chinese-owned malls have been built in the area. The shops in the malls sell everything from homeware to traditional Zulu clothing to designer perfumes.

Chairman of the TCA, Erwin Pon, said people came together, pooled their money and — in many cases — managed to acquire run-down properties, which they renovated. While the trend of China malls started in Crown Mines, they have now started to spread across Johannesburg to more affluent places such as Rivonia and Randburg.

Jackie Wang, owner of two clothing shops in Cyrildene and in China Mall, said there were too many Chinese malls being developed and they “aren’t good for Chinese businesses” because of increased competition.

Pon agreed that a concentration of Chinese-owned malls was leading to an unwelcome saturation in the market. In the future he sees a need for more upmarket malls. This shift is already happening in the Chinese retail industry.

Lisa Keyser, marketing manager of three China Mall branches, defended Chinese malls. She said they provided people with cheaper alternatives that “normal” malls didn’t have. “There are bargains here that you will never find at commercial stores. People come here because the economy is bad and they just can’t afford to shop exclusively at commercial stores.”

Upmarket malls and integration

Malls that have gone the upmarket route are Rivonia Oriental City and China Discount Mall in Randburg. The former is a “fusion” mall which houses local stores like Pick n Pay and Truworths. Chinese tenants said this diversity was beneficial to their businesses and would help them to mix with locals better.

China Discount Mall has about 100 stores owned by a variety of traders. Centre manager Angelique Gu said they went out of their way to help local business owners because opportunities in South Africa were scarce and they would not get help anywhere else. The mall Gu manages has a range of Chinese, Indian and African-owned stores.

Gu said she felt that ethnic spaces were not really necessary anymore because apartheid was over. This was a popular opinion with many Chinese shop owners who believed it would be redundant to build another Chinatown and more China malls. They would like to be less insular and more integrated into the local community.