Megan Song is South African Chinese but that is where her link with the stereotype of Chinese in South Africa ends. She does not live in Cyrildene, the neighbourhood east of Johannesburg that has become home to thousands of Chinese families. Her parents have no ties with the communities that have come to be associated with Johannesburg’s Chinatowns.
Now 22, Song remembers that her parents encouraged her to “play with children of all races and be fully immersed in what it meant to be South African”. She is part of a group of young Chinese South Africans who have found their sense of identity in Johannesburg’s cosmopolitan nature.
Song is a second year economics major at Wits University who enjoys “a good movie with friends” when she isn’t spending time with her boyfriend. She plans to move with him to North Korea, where he is from, as soon as they are both ready. She does not feel very connected to her Chinese heritage.
There has been an increase in the efforts of Chinese immigrant communities across America and the UK to become more integrated in the communities into which they settle, according to sociologist Ben Scully. He says a similar trend in South Africa would not be surprising. “There are higher chances of their children succeeding in school and so on …”
The experience of Chinese youth in Johannesburg is too complex to view simply as a cultural balancing act between traditional backgrounds and modern South African culture. To begin with, there is no single “Chinese-South African experience” to speak of. In addition, Chinese communities are complex and diverse.
Yangjiao “Jill” Cheng is a 26-year-old journalist from China. She moved to South Africa almost a year ago to improve her English and to work for the South African bureau of the China News. Like Song, she enjoys movies and spending time with her white South African boyfriend.
When we met she was carrying a box of fruit and vegetables because she was planning a meal for her friends. “I’m like the housewife of the group.” Her weekend plans included a picnic on Saturday and a friend’s party in Sandton on Sunday. Apart from language, there are no obvious barriers between Cheng, her boyfriend and her friends, who are mixed in race, gender and origin.
“The parents are more the people who have to wrestle with the idea of raising their children in a different culture. The people who are born here, well, that’s all they know.”
Balancing the “old” with the “new”
Some Chinese South African youth feel removed from the Chinese community in South Africa. Scully argues that Chinese immigrants might feel a sense of cultural sacrifice when moving to South Africa but it would be strange to expect the same from their children.
“The parents are more the people who have to wrestle with the idea of raising their children in a different culture. The people who are born here, well, that’s all they know.” He compares their feelings to those experienced by children of people who came from “the countryside”. The children consider themselves to be “city kids” and have no attachment to their parents’ rural homes.
Howard Ahhon was born on Macau, an island which, like Hong Kong, is administered by China. His mother and father moved to South Africa when he was two years old. “I’m pretty much South African, but there is a traditional [Chinese] influence because of my family,” Ahhon says, fiddling with his hip hop-styled snapback cap.
He still celebrates his Chinese (lunar calendar) birthday along with his Western (Gregorian calendar) birthday and enjoys “real Chinese food – not sweet and sour noodles” but does not feel sufficiently connected to his heritage to consider himself Chinese. “I consider myself more South African than Chinese. I can still never understand their way of doing things.”
“Local” versus “Foreign” Chinese
Many Chinese youth who move to South Africa have difficulty relating to first-generation Chinese South Africans who consider themselves “South African first”. Ahhon explains that language acts as the first barrier between the “local Chinese” – born and/or brought up in South Africa – and “foreign Chinese” who were born and brought up in China.
“You see it at these [Chinese] events, local people hang out with the local people and the foreigners hang out with the foreigners.” Asked if he would like to see more integration between “local” and “foreign” Chinese youth, he says: “It would be nice but I personally think it will never happen.”
Chinese youth appear not to have many opportunities to meet and work on establishing relationships. Apart from the annual Dragon Boat festival, the Chinese New Year, charity and sporting events, members of the community “pretty much keep to themselves”, Ahhon says. Cyrildene, the “new Chinatown”, doesn’t hold much of an appeal for the South African-born Chinese youth. The “foreign Chinese” youth are bound to the area, at least while they settle into being in a new country.
Freedom of association
Simon Chan was born in Hong Kong in 1986. In 1993 his family decided to move to South Africa as they were uncertain of their future if they chose to stay. “China was going to take over Hong Kong in 1997 and we weren’t certain whether China was going to convert Hong Kong into a communist or capitalist culture.”
His family wanted to save what they had made and work towards securing their future. “I mean can you imagine? That means all your assets are going to be shared equally among everyone in the country, which is not very fair.