The first wave of Chinese women immigrated to South Africa in the early 1900s, after their husbands had employment or business opportunities. These women came from a country that had a culture of traditions that valued men over women. When they moved to South Africa some of these traditions fizzled away with the birth of first and second-generation South African Chinese women.  What contributed to these women losing some traditional customs? What are the traditions they still cling to?


By Nokuthula Manyathi.

Dianne Leong Man sits behind a desk littered with papers and files as she swings her crossed feet back and forth. She plays with her ring finger in the same manner married women do when they play with their wedding rings — but her finger is bare.

“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.

“When you move to a new country you do lose certain traditions. I think my mom and dad had to change and move away from tradition because of their environment,” she says. “We lost a lot of our traditions primarily because we went to a Westernised school.”

“Chinese girls my daughter’s age are more career orientated. They want to be self-sufficient. My daughter wants to have her own business or her own career. This is the trend.”


In her family, receiving a good education was of utmost importance. “My parents would rather starve than not give us a good education,” says Kee.  Her mother always emphasised the importance of academic excellence. “My six sisters and I were expected to get the same marks as my brother or even higher.” After graduating as one of the top achieving students in her grade, she studied fashion design and later worked as a fashion buyer for Edgars before becoming a yoga instructor.

Kee emphasises that, because she received an education, she was able to become self-sufficient and independent. “I think the more educated you are the less subservient you become.” She says she would never live in China because patriarchy is still prevalent. “In certain villages women still walk a few steps behind their husbands.  The powerful and independent women are those who are educated.”

The 49-year-old mother of two says her 19-year-old daughter wants independence more than anything. “Chinese girls my daughter’s age are more career orientated. They want to be self-sufficient. My daughter wants to have her own business or her own career. This is the trend.”

New trend alert?

There are no accurate statistics regarding the direct relationship between education and South African Chinese and Taiwanese women’s quest for independence.  According to Yu-Shan Wu, researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), there are a greater number of Asian women who are career motivated than five decades ago.

“I know about 15 [Taiwanese and Chinese] women my age and older who are well-educated and live independent lifestyles,” but thus far there are no studies that support her observations.  Wu holds a Master’s degree in international relations and specialises in China-Africa relations– looking specifically at South African trends, social consequences and the media’s relationship with China.

“There are no current studies on this topic but it could be a field for research.”

As a first-generation South African Taiwanese woman, Wu has also broken away from tradition, by living according to Western standards.I grew up in South Africa.  Most of my relatives are abroad, which eased the pressure of tradition. My father is more strict and traditional but I did not grow up with him since I was 12 years old.”  She says many Taiwanese and Chinese women in modernised countries have started to seek a career over marriage.

“Independence is a good thing; it means you do not rely on your parents.”

The matrimonial delay

Tiffany and her sisters have little interest in getting married and her parents have put little pressure on them to find husbands.

In Taiwan, having unmarried daughters in their 20s is still considered a problem. Traditional parents do not want their daughters to reach the unspoken marriage deadline of 30. This is the biggest problem that Tiffany’s grandparents have with their Western upbringing. “I don’t have a problem with my daughters being unmarried. I just want my daughters to be happy,” their mother says. Ivy says her parents did not agree with her decision to allow her daughters to delay marriage. “That was one of the biggest upsets in terms of the way we have chosen to live.”

“More women my age and those a little older are starting to postpone marriage, there are just so many opportunities,” says Tiffany. Her father, Spencer, agrees. “I feel the same way as Ivy. I don’t mind if they get married later as long as they are happy.” Spencer has come closer as the tea is midway through preparation. Earlier he sat in the living room with his headphones on, watching a movie subtitled in Chinese.

Clinging to heritage

Although there is an emerging trend among first and second-generation women to follow Western customs there are certain traditions these women still cling to.  As Ivy talks she unpacks the different parts needed to make the tea. She unpacks the dried leaves, the yixing teapot, the porcelain tea-tasting cups, the smelling cup and the tea tray and infuser mug and puts them out on display.

“We believe that tea is meant to awaken the senses and is a form of body cleanser. That is why tea making and drinking tea is such an art,” says Ivy who studied the art of brewing Chinese tea traditionally.

Another tradition she insists on is following ancient wisdom and Buddhism. Tiffany explains ancient wisdom as a form of fortune telling. She walks towards the bookshelf and returns with a thin, yellow A4 book.

“We use this book to help decide on major life decisions. If there is a business deal on offer and my father is not sure if he should take it, we [the women] will go to the book to see if the month is good for business.” The book accounts for the days of the year and on each day there are symbols that indicate whether there is good fortune on the day or not. She says referral to the wisdom book is often seen as a feminine task, although men are always eager to find out what the book predicted.

Yoga teacher Kee says she feels neither Chinese nor South African but somewhere in-between. In the same way that Ivy still clings to certain aspects of her culture, so does Kee.

“I know I’m Westernised but I find myself keeping to the essence of being Asian. When I was growing up my mother would recite proverbs about humility, mindfulness, hard work and respect. These still echo within me.”  At family gatherings, Kee still follows the patriarchal hierarchy.  “The one thing my mom did teach me was that you always greet your uncles by their Chinese names. In a family you always have a hierarchy, number 1, 2, or 3 uncles, and you’d call them by their Chinese name [which indicates their position in the family].”  For Kee, life has been about balancing the two worlds.

Dancing between culture and modernity

“When we go to Cyrildene [a Chinese area], and my children observe some of the behaviour of the people in the community they joke ‘Mom these people are off their rockers’,” says Kee. She says there is a rift between members of the Chinese community who are traditional and those who are not.

“There are is separation between members of the Chinese community that were raised traditionally and are more connected with their Asian traditions. The rest of us who are more Westernised are looked down upon because we don’t have strong ties.”

Heavy exposure to Western cultures makes women like Man, Kee, Tiffany and Wu participate in a tango dance of negotiation. Daily, they navigate between Western norms and their Eastern cultures.  But because the rhythms of the two worlds are so different, they find themselves having to stop and recount their steps.