The Chinese school in Johannesburg was a hub of culture, language and development for the Chinese community. In the mid-1990s the school was taken over by the government and no longer serves the Chinese community. This feature explores the consequences for the children of the most recent Chinese immigrants.


By Nolwazi Mjwara.

When Peter Xu first came to South Africa three years ago, he was sweet 16 and had never been to an English-language school. Upon arrival, his parents sent him to Queens High School in Johannesburg, where most of his fellow pupils had been taught in English throughout their school careers. Xu on the other hand had been taught in Mandarin back in the Fujian province of China.

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.

“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. We have also been given the run-around. It has also been difficult because you do not only deal with one person. Every two, three years the person changes. And all the different people keep pushing us from pillar to post. There is a lot of red tape.”

Pon says the perception is that nobody from the department ultimately wants to make the final decision. “There is the assumption that the school will only be for the Chinese, but never would we want for the school to be segregated.”

Before Chinese Kuo Ting closed down, some pupils were from non-Chinese backgrounds. Pon would like the new school similarly to accommodate pupils from all backgrounds.

GDE response

After having been in contact with the GDE for three weeks, the department finally reacted to queries about the Chinese school: “The department’s records show that there was no Chinese school, only a pre-school. It was closed around 1996/7 when the department was streamlining schools.”

No comment was given to queries regarding “red tape”.

An evolving family structure        

One of Park’s research papers from 2012, Living In Between: The Chinese in South Africa, highlights the fact that newer immigrants who have children are increasingly leaving their children in China to be raised by relatives.

Pon says one of the reasons for this is that it would be difficult for their children to cope in an English-language South African school. The parents choose to leave their children in China rather than spend money on tutors and resources to equip their children to pass through the South African education system.

Lisa Keyser, manager at China Mall in Crown Mines, works with many families who have just come to South Africa and who trade at China Mall. She agrees that it is challenging for the children to integrate into the education system. “It is incredibly difficult for them when they come here. They spend hours on tapes [that teach English] and endless money on tutors.

“I really miss my children, I often wish things were different.”


Kelly Ling (32) has been in South Africa for two years. She has two children who are seven and four years old. Her children live in China. “It is better for my children to learn there. Here they would struggle. It is either they would forget Mandarin or they would do badly in an English school.”

Ling does not want her children to suffer at school here,  and neither does she want her children to forget their mother tongue. “When they learn in China they learn better Mandarin. I really miss my children, I often wish things were different.”

Ling struggled to integrate into South Africa because of the language barrier.  Now she attends English lessons at the professional development hub at Wits University on a full-time basis. This directly affects her and her children’s livelihoods as most of her time is spent at the language school, rather than in a full-time job.

Ling says some immigrant families would ideally like to bring their children to South Africa, as parents are allowed to have more than one child here. In China there is a one-child policy. Because Ling has two children, she has to pay financial penalties.  If Ling fails to pay her fine, her second child will suffer by not having a hukou.  Hukou is the equivalent of an identity document.                                               

The plight of a young immigrant

For those immigrants who have brought their children to South Africa, extra language courses that equip the children to cope in South African schools are expensive.

*Paul Long’s parents are immigrants in Johannesburg.  His days are also spent at the Wits language school. He is 15 and still in primary school.  At the end of the year he will write tests that will determine whether he is ready to cope in a South African school.

His parents pay the Wits language school almost R9 000 for each language level he has to pass to equip him to cope in an English-medium South African school. Long is now on level three English.

Course co-ordinator at the Wits language school, Trish Cooper, says even after Long has passed level three, he will not be adequately prepared to cope in an English school.

“Students are definitely not prepared to cope with English as the medium of instruction at a pre-intermediate level (level 3). We recommend that students who are planning to go to an English-medium high school in South Africa complete at least the intermediate level (level 4).”

The English that some students learn in China equips them with basic grammar and language skills. Cooper says what students struggle with is how “to apply the correct rules and structures in practice”.

The students who went to the Johannesburg Chinese school as immigrants did not have to pay huge amounts for each level of English classes. The former Chinese school pupils also did not have to pay in years that were lost as a result of falling behind in other subjects.

Going forward

Xu, the former Queens High School pupil, is supported entirely by his mother, who runs a Chinese vegetable and fruit shop. She often gives her customers some of her strawberries as a friendly gesture because her English is not very good. She has been living in South Africa for 10 years. Ideally Xu would like to attend extra English classes but is unable to because he has to help his mother.

“I think a Chinese school would help me because by now I would have been studying further to help my mother. Now my mother has to spend the little money she makes from the shop to keep paying for me at the school.”

Xu says when he started at his current school, he would bunk classes. “It is very hard and I did not want to deal with it every day. It was easier and felt nicer not to go sometimes.”

Pon says the TCA hopes ultimately to have a school that serves the Chinese community both as a school and a cultural centre. “We want to have a place where people from different backgrounds can learn about the Chinese culture and language without excluding anyone who is not Chinese from the school.”

*Paul Long’s name has been changed because he is a minor.