Johannesburg has attracted many Chinese immigrants in pursuit of a better life for themselves and their children. Some immigrants have found this life and a home in the City of Gold but for others the city was merely a stepping stone. They dispel the notion of a “Chinese invasion” by wanting to go home.


By Mia Swart.

Jilly Sue first came to Johannesburg in the early 1980s as a tourist. She returned in 1995 to obtain a work permit and to start a clothing business, leaving her young nine-year-old son and husband behind in China.

Sue wanted to own her business and to earn more money, something that she was not able to do in her home country. In China, work opportunities were scarce and the government did not allow private businesses in the clothing industry.

Almost two decades later, aged 60, Sue still lives in Johannesburg and has run her own successful business. But the life she has now is a lonely one, with long working hours, only a few good friends and little family time. It is no longer the life she desires. Sue is ready for a new destination: her home country, China.

Sue is one of the third wave of Chinese people who came to South Africa after the first democratic elections in 1994 to find new opportunities and a better life, not just for themselves but also for their children. Some have found this and to them South Africa is home, but for others, nothing can replace China.

This pursuit of a better life by many Chinese families is often mistaken by some South Africans as a “Chinese invasion”.

South Africa: A new colony?

China has been described as an upcoming world power and notions of a “new colonialism” have been reflected in the media. Journalist Andre Malone, for example, in 2008 used the word “plunder” in reference to China’s expansion in Africa and wrote in an article for the Mail Online: “China is secretly working to turn the entire continent into a new colony.”

Although “there are no official figures on the size of the current Chinese population in South Africa, unofficial estimates range between 100 000 to 250 000” after the establishment of  a new democratic South Africa, according to Professor Karen Harris of the University of Pretoria, who studies the history of the Chinese in South Africa. Official numbers for the Chinese population are hard to come by, especially as they are counted together with other Asian groups.

And, according to the website Reprobate, “huge numbers of mainland Chinese, mainly from Fujian province in China, have migrated to South Africa over the past 15 years, including many illegal immigrants”. The website estimates the number of Chinese to range between 350 000 and 500 000, “making it the largest Chinese population in Africa”.

But Rhodes University senior research associate Dr Yoon Jung Park argues that specific reasons underlie Chinese people’s decisions to migrate to South Africa and they do not necessarily want to “invade” and stay forever.“I don’t think that Chinese people come to South Africa with the sole purpose of invading the market. Many come to South Africa looking to create a better life for their children and for themselves.”


In their studies on new Chinese migrants in South Africa, researchers Park, Tu Huynh, and Anna Ying Chen suggest that, “contrary to media arguments that Chinese migration to Africa is a part of a Chinese state project, the vast majority of new Chinese migrants in South Africa arrived [or made decisions to stay] independently, motivated by their desires to improve their lives”.

Park also says that “most Chinese migrants leave China in the hopes of making more money elsewhere. This is the same motivation that brings them to Jo’burg; and they choose Jo’burg because someone they know is already there and seems to be doing well for themselves”.

Chinese families often initially intend to stay temporarily but various factors can change these plans. “After many years, especially if they have children who have been born and/or raised in SA, they change their minds,” Park says.

A new life in Johannesburg

Unlike Sue’s experience of the city, Johannesburg provided a haven for the Taiwanese Chi family after one of their sons died.  The family decided it was better to leave Taiwan and they had family – an uncle – who served as a Taiwanese diplomat in South Africa, living in Johannesburg.

It has been more than 30 years since Muw-Chuen Chi and his wife Hslu-Hwa first came to South Africa and they still run a wholesale clothing business which they bought from a family friend. Neither Muw-Chuen nor Hslu-Hwa has tertiary qualifications but they were able to offer the opportunity to their son, Yen, and daughter Jessica. Yen studied international relations and Jessica studied law at Wits University.

Both children work in Johannesburg but they did not wish to help their parents with the family business. Yen Chi made a decision not to help in the family business simply because he does not like engaging in sales banter. “I don’t like talking much which doesn’t help when you are in an occupation that is dependent on how well you talk.”

According to Yen Chi, the perception of a “Chinese invasion” is a misconception. ‘I don’t think that Chinese people come to South Africa with the sole purpose of invading the market. Many come to South Africa looking to create a better life for their children and for themselves away from the oppressive rule of the [Chinese] government.”

Although Muw-Chuen and Hslu-Hwa sometimes think of returning to Taiwan because of the crime rate in South Africa, they have not made any definite plans. And their South African-born son still prefers South Africa as his home. “Having grown up in South Africa, my sister and I are more familiar with a Western lifestyle than an Asian lifestyle.”

Yen Chi says a number of their Taiwanese friends who went back to Taiwan have now returned to South Africa because they were not quite comfortable with life there.

For Sue’s 27-year-old son, Jarod Lee, who joined her in South Africa as a teenager, Johannesburg was a stepping stone to a better life. He attended King Edward VII School and completed his undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Cape Town. Now, like the Chi children, the city will be home for him again next year and he will not share a future similar to his mother.

Lee says he returned to South Africa to study because it was very competitive to obtain a place at Chinese colleges. He would like to return to China if he received a job offer but says his PhD, completed in South Africa, would enable him to obtain a job anywhere in the world, whether in Canada, the United States or Australia.


Sue herself does not want to stay in Johannesburg anymore. She says that after Chinese children find jobs, the parents usually feel that their “jobs are finished” as they have succeeded in providing a way to a better life for their children. Now the children and parents can go their separate ways if they want and, while Lee will stay in Johannesburg next year, Sue can move on.

For Sue, her job is done, at least for now. Lee has received a good education and she talks of his finding a wife or even a girlfriend, one with blonde hair and blue eyes.

Sue has no other family in South Africa. Her husband has remained in China all this time and, in September this year, the protracted separation between husband and wife ended in a divorce.

But after almost 20 years in Johannesburg, Sue has three to four good friends and she can tell many stories, including secrets, of some Chinese families and the tragedies and fortunes in their lives. Nevertheless, next year it will be time to move on.“Before, in the 1990s, it was better in South Africa to make money than in China. Now China is a better place to make money.”


She originally planned to move back to China in 2009, after 14 years running a textile factory in Randburg. She closed the factory and the shop and made plans to live in Beijing near her three brothers and one sister.

But the business generated by the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa changed her plans. As a businesswoman, Sue decided to stay and made up clothing orders to be sold to the influx of tourists who visited the country. After the World Cup, she closed her factory again and spent two years relaxing and travelling to Durban and Cape Town while her husband remained in China and her son was at university.

Sue says she had earned enough to spend time travelling and to live comfortably. She now runs the Eastern Arts shop in Oriental City in Bruma as a favour to a close friend. She unpacks stock, manages the finances and alters clothing.

As she carefully unpacks little anime figurines in her friend’s clothing and haberdashery shop, Sue comments: “I don’t like staying in the home every day. I like to do something.”

Her hands are constantly busy, stringing jade-coloured beads, picking yarn off her pants, unpacking new stock, quickly sewing in a new seam to a pair of jeans. She only has a few grey hairs but says she is old and tired. The long working hours are not good for her anymore, she says, before getting up slowly and stretching.

Next year her friend will close the shop and this motivated Sue to think again of returning to China. She has already sent most of her belongings back and has a choice of where to live as she owns two properties there, an apartment in Beijing and another in Shandong province.

Beijing is second on her list as Sue does not particularly like the city. “Too much smoke and bad air,” she says, gesturing with her hands. “Shandong is close to the sea. The sea might be good.”

Opportunities shift

A perceived better life, a better education or career opportunities for their children are not the only factors driving Chinese families to stay.

In Commissioner Street, Johannesburg’s “first” Chinatown, there is a small grocery shop called the The Canton Shop. Ling Cen, a petite 52-year-old, has managed the shop since the late 1990s and her husband, Fok Zi Xian, a maths teacher, assists her. The couple came to Johannesburg with their young daughter Cecilia because some family members had settled here and they wanted to make a better living.

To Cen, China remains her first country and South Africa her second. They would like to return to China as their daughter has already done, but for now they cannot leave South Africa for financial reasons. If they had enough money, Cen and her husband would return but they are barely keeping the business going.

“Before, in the 1990s, it was better in South Africa to make money than in China. Now China is a better place to make money.” However, she and the Ying family believe there are more opportunities for their children in China and less for them. This is partly because of the early retirement age in China.

Crime calls for other destinations

However, some Chinese people have become wary of Johannesburg, which they are now calling a “dangerous place”. Sue, the Chi family and the Cen family have all been victims of crime, some more than once, and these incidents have them looking for other destinations.

When Cen’s husband opened a shop in Denver, Johannesburg, he was robbed at gunpoint not long afterwards. After the incident, Cen decided it was not safe for her daughter to be here and, as soon as Cecilia finished matric, she returned to China.“Busy is money, but I don’t like this. You must have time for relaxing.”


Sue has been robbed three times, twice at gunpoint. For Sue, South Africa’s crime rate is one of the key factors in her plans to return to China next year. Although she is happy her son has two job offers in Johannesburg for next year, she remains apprehensive about his staying here.

“I don’t want him to stay here. It’s too dangerous. I only have one boy, my son.”

According to Yen Chi, the crime rate plays a major deciding role in whether some Chinese and Taiwanese families who live in Johannesburg want to move back to China or Taiwan. This decision is also made easier when their children have graduated from university and are employed elsewhere.

The Chi family were victims of crime in 2007. They were robbed in their home and two weeks later the robbers returned, posing as police officers to look at the crime scene.  “Unfortunately, they were not police officers, so my father and I were held up at gun point and were robbed of whatever the other group did not get away with.”

In her article, “Living In Between: The Chinese in South Africa”, Park says their research indicated that “Chinese and South Asian migrants seem to be inordinately targeted by criminals and corrupt officials [and] while robberies, car hijackings, and extortion may result from their over-representation in the retail trade, the practice of racial profiling is also a possible contributing factor”.

Although these families were all victims of crime, Park argues that the South African perception toward the Chinese can vary. “Most South Africans seemed to have no issue with the Chinese, in part because the Chinese are a familiar part of the landscape…but also because Chinese are not typically seen as competitors.

“In Jo’burg, most Chinese who are ‘trading’ are engaged in wholesale trade, creating opportunities for others, NOT taking away their business.”

But while Yen Chi, his family and Jarod Lee consider Johannesburg as home, the city and its promises of a better life no longer offer a sparkly future for Sue and the Cen family. They are ready to move on.


Until she leaves for China next year, Sue works eight hours a day, seven days a week. In her free time she does ballroom and Latin American dancing and she loves to travel. She has been to most countries in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Once she returns to China, she would like continue her travelling.

Sue does not like “this life”, the life where she has to sit in a small shop every day to earn money. “If you for [a] long time give me this life…No…I don’t like [it],” she says and gestures to her surroundings. She is quiet for a moment.

“Busy is money, but I don’t like this. You must have time for relaxing.”