Chinese Johannesburg

DAY 11

The Language surprise

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.

I walked into the Canton Shop today, purely by chance and hoping to try my luck. For a while, fellow journalist Nomatter Ndebele and I just spoke to Ling, trying to gain her trust. As she opened up more and told me little titbits of her life, I thought she would be a very good source. The family came to South Africa in the early 1990s, just like Jilly Sue and have their story to tell.

But the most interesting conversation of the day I had was not about my in-depth project, nor was it with a source.

The most interesting and shortest conversation I had had with a Chinese person during the week so far had been with an Chinese man, a customer who came into the shop and then disappeared, raising more questions for me than answers.

This is my quirky, little story for the day. And it has actually stayed with me more than any other conversation.

As I talked to Ling, her attention was drawn to an old man who just walked into the shop, while thunder growled outside. He was very old, one could see, but to guess his age was harder than winning Cluedo. Ling walked out from behind the counter to go and greet the man.

He had liver spots on his face and hands, his shoulders sagged and his faded dark green t-shirt was covered in lines of dust. Tufts of fluffy grey hair stuck up from his head. Ling spoke to him in Mandarin, but I could guess the questions, as she pointed to his shirt. Suddenly she spoke in English, presumably for my benefit.

“You all covered in dust, you sweep the floor?” She looked at me and smiled.

The old man noticed me and said hello before he turned to Ling and asked her for some green vegetables (which were an unknown type to me).

While Ling weighed the vegetables, the old man silently appraised me. Then, abruptly:

“How many languages do you speak?”

The question caught me off guard. I was used to asking the questions, or to explain my project. I did not see this one coming.

“Errr… I speak three: English, Afrikaans and German.”

I don’t count my knowledge of French, most of my undergraduate French flew off to Paris after graduation. I could only remember the travel phrases.

“Praat jy Afrikaans? Hoe gaan dit?” (Do you speak Afrikaans?)

“Ja Oom. Goed dankie en met Oom?“ (Yes Uncle. Well thanks and how are you?)

He was distracted for a moment and spoke to Ling’s husband. Then he turned his attention to me again.

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” (Do you speak German?)

“Ja so ein bisschen, aber ich habe seit lange nicht viel gesprochen.” (Yes, a little, but I haven’t spoken it for a long time.)

Next question.

“Parlez-vous francais?” (Do you speak French?)

“Pas du tout.” (This was the only response I could think of. There goes my French.)

He paid for his vegetables and then hovered at the entrance.

Ling looked at him and laughed. “Why you stay now? Because there is a pretty girl you don’t want to leave?”

The old man scowled at her. “I can speak her dialect and understand her, but she can’t speak my dialect or understand me.” He said this in English, three times.

Still he hesitated. Next question. He spoke in Russian and in Zulu. I think he asked the same question but I shook my head and apologised. Cannot answer back in those languages.

“Where did you learn all the languages?” I asked.

“I learn them.” Short answer.

Ling decided it was time for a new game.

“You know how old he is?”

Time to guess. “Eighty years old.”

Ling shook her head and smiled. “More than eighty.”

Guess number two. “88 years old.”

Again shake of the head and the smile. “No. more than 88 years old.”

Guess number three. “Ninety years old.”

Shake and smile. “No. More than ninety.” The joys of guessing games.

The old man looked at me and said: “93 years old.”

Hit me over the head with the waving Chinese (or Japanese?) cat. And the old man still worked and went about his shopping down in first China Town.

Before I could ask him his name, he disappeared through the door, his shirt still covered in dust, his feet in his old leather shoes shuffling on the ground and out of my sight.

The downpour from the thunderstorm came a moment later. And when I greeted Ling and walked outside, the old man was nowhere to be seen.

Posted in JOURNALISM, Wits Journalism | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Witsies celebrate 2013 Nobel Prize

Prof Bruce Mellado who is one of the lead physicists with HEP, a project at Wits University that contributes to the Atlas project. Photo: Mia Swart

Prof Bruce Mellado who is one of the lead physicists with HEP, a project at Wits University that contributes to the Atlas project. Photo: Mia Swart

By Dinesh Balliah and Mia Swart

The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded today to physicists François Englert, 80 (Belgium) and Peter Higgs, 84 (Britain), “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles.”

Known as the Higgs Boson particle, the work of these two physicists was confirmed by discoveries made during the Atlas experiment at CERN’sLarge Hadron Collider.

Wits University is today celebrating the achievement of the Nobel Prize as a team of Witsies are regular and significant contributors to the Atlas project.

Speaking to Wits Vuvuzela, Professor Bruce Mellado said: “It’s an accolade for everyone involved and it’s great that a few strong people in South Africa had contributed.

Together with Dr Trevor Vickey and Dr Oana Boeriu, Mellado leads a team of Wits staff, students and post-doctoral scholars at the High Energy Physics Group (HEP), in the School of Physics who directly contribute to the work associated with the Nobel Prize winners.

Mellado said that it’s good that the theorists who proposed the mechanism received the Nobel Prize and that the scientific community acknowledged the greatness of the discovery.

“In the end we want to have South Africa make a strong contribution to future accelerators and experiments to explore the Higgs Boson.”

Higgs and Englert share the prize money of 8m Swedish kronor (about R12,5 million) for their theoretical discovery made almost 50 years ago.

Earlier today Wits University released a statement indicating that the lead physicists were available for comment:

Dr Trevor Vickey at or on 27 11 717 6884 or 072 966 0617

Professor Bruce Mellado on on 27 11 717 6889 or 061 303 2579

Dr Oana Boeriu on on 27 11 717 6885 or 072 971 6333


Posted in JOURNALISM, ONLINE ARTICLES, WITSVUVUZELA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chinese Johannesburg


So close… and yet so far

Today I headed out to the China Discount Centre in Randburg. But I did not find exactly what I expected. To me it seemed that not that many Chinese people owned the shops or they simply were not there. Many of the shops had signs that said shops were closed on Mondays.

“They don’t have a good sense of business,” one African shopkeeper commented when I asked her if she knew of any Chinese shopkeepers that might be able to help me.

The few Chinese shopkeepers that I were able to find, did not understand me at all and one man even asked if I wanted to learn Chinese and asked if I needed a Chinese tutor. Curse the translation barrier!

Maybe I should explore what fellow journalist Nolwazi Mjwara suggested: type a letter and translate it on Google translate into Mandarin, to have at least some form of recognisable language or information. However, I’m a bit sceptical as to whether the language would be in a comprehensible form. But no harm in trying I guess.

Later I was able to find Angelique Gu, manager of the China Discount Centre. I thought I had struck gold. She knew of two families where the parents still stay in Johannesburg but the children have moved to New Zealand to study further and the other family’s children have moved to Cape Town to complete their university education.

Unfortunately, when she asked the family in Cape Town whether they might be willing to help me, they replied that they were simply too busy and did not want to be disturbed.

She did not have any contact details for the family in New Zealand but explained to me why the children were sent there. When the children were in high school, they were robbed and the family deemed it safer and better for them to study in New Zealand.

This was not the first mention of Chinese families who have left Johannesburg due to crime and victimisation. Another source has also mentioned this fact to me.

My train of thought headed in a new direction as I headed back in a South African hailstorm. It would be interesting to know whether the Chinese communities in Johannesburg are victimised because of xenophobia or whether they are just seen as easy targets. But are the Chinese families that have been victims of crime part of a trend or just statistics of isolated crime incidents….

It’s another interesting topic to explore later.

Posted in JOURNALISM, Wits Journalism | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Chinese Johannesburg


Weekend workout

The weekend was not as productive as I would have liked it to be. Jilly Sue asked me not to visit her as she was too busy running her friend’s shop in Bruma Lake, but I did contact Jarod for some information.  The same applied to Monica at China Mall. Weekends were the busiest time for them and they needed to focus on their work.

Emma Chen also helped me out with a contact detail and I have arranged for an interview with the friend.

While working on a multimedia project over the weekend, I stopped by the Kung Fu kitchen in Edenglen for a bite. There my interest was kindled in how this franchise actually functions. Is it a family business and how do the other Chinese franchise owners know each other or decide to take over the Kung Fu Kitchen business.

I tried to approach the shop managers and even the waiters, but they could only speak limited English and barely understood me. So much for satisfying my curiosity.

Time for some more research into family businesses and whether the children want to take over the shops or restaurants or whether they have other aspirations. Hopefully Emma Chen’s friend and Mr Walter Pon can help me out by answering those questions.

Posted in UNCATEGORIZED | Leave a comment

Chinese Johannesburg


Traffic Woes

The forces of the universe seemed to conspire against me today. As I headed out to Randburg to the China Discount Centre, karma decided to throw a few broken down trucks and buses at me.

Just as I got onto the M2 westbound.

Just as I missed the offramp.

I had carefully planned my road trips so as to be on time for another interview on Friday afternoon.

But fate had it that I spend more than three hours on the road, only to stop at the Discount Centre in Randburg and then having to turn back to make it in time for my interview in Bedfordview.

Fortunately, one of the topics of discussion during the interview was the history of the early Chinese workers at the mines during the imperial rule. I discussed Chinese Johannesburg with my interviewers which seemed to find the topic fascinating.

Chinese Johannesburg is a project that will teach people more about the Chinese community, especially since there is a wider spectrum of the community to be gained than just what you think you know of the Chinese community in Johannesburg and the average Chinese shop.

The day ended off on a good note with Erwin Pon providing me with a few sources and Jilly Sue’s son, Jarod who agreed to speak to me. I might even meet him next weekend as he will be visiting from Cape Town.

Posted in JOURNALISM, Wits Journalism | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Chinese Johannesburg


A lonely life

This morning I met Monica (her English name) in her wedding dress shop at China Mall. It was evident that she at least knew who I was and although she still did not trust me completely, she was willing to answer some of my questions.

One thing I have to mention is the hospitality of the Chinese. Monica was kind enough to offer me something to drink and sent out a shop assistant to buy me a “Coco” or Coco Cola. Later, as she grew accustomed to having a conversation with me, she let me sit next to her behind the counter and we talked as if we were both working together for years.

Monica is married and has two small children, both born here in Bedfordview, Johannesburg. When I asked her how she came to be here, she said she came to South Africa because her ‘auntie’ had a shop here in Johannesburg and she came to help out. She mentioned that her friend from the shop next door had also come to South Africa. She had followed her aunt and to help with the business.

But Monica only has her small family and a few friends from the Chinese community. The rest of her family, her mother, father, grandmother and university friends all still reside in China. None of them wanted to move to Johannesburg. They would visit occasionally, but the end verdict would always be that it is not safe here in South Africa.

This, in part, fuels the Chinese’s sense of distrust. Monica explained that even in China the population is so vast that the Chinese in the cities do not always acknowledge each other or get to know each other. Only in the small villages do the communities know all about each other’s lives.

As I started to learn more about Monica’s life, I wondered if she must be at least in some way, a bit lonely. She told me she doesn’t have many friends.

The corner behind the cashier desk where we sat contained a camper cot, where her baby daughter Michelle sleeps during the day when she is not looked after by other shopkeepers in China Mall. On the wall were photos of Monica’s parents and her son and photos of his birthday party. On the floor was a little kettle with a tin of baby formula and a plastic bag of Monica’s lunch for the day, home-made Chinese food. As she became more relaxed, she took out her phone and showed me pictures of her family gatherings and visits in China. I was also privileged enough to have her show me her private wedding day photos.

Monica would tell me stories of her family and her friends at the university she had in China and then would speak of her business. Her husband would help with the business. She even asked her uncle to come and help out at her shop. The uncle came, but had to leave his wife and children in China.  Monica said she needed his help.

The uncle remained silent and mostly gestures to the shop assistants when he needed something. He helped to arrange new stock on the shelves and then quietly observed the customers.

I asked Monica if he could speak any English to which she said no. Did he not want to learn English? No. Does he miss his family very much? Yes very much. But why couldn’t they come? No answer.

It seemed so lonely for the uncle. To live in a strange new country where the rules were different, the food was different and the people were different and you could look at them and gesture but the words were not understandable. And as much as you did not understand them, they did not understand you. And you could not even read the signs to gain more knowledge of this unfamiliar place. Why would you want to leave what you know and leave the ones you love for what is considered to some to be very basic work?

The uncle had been a driver in China, had owned his own car and made a living of driving passengers and goods before he came to South Africa.


Later that afternoon, I had to resort to desktop journalist mode and contacted Emma Chen and Erwin Pon from the Rand Merchant Bank and the Gauteng Chinese Association to ask for further help with sources.

I also contemplated whether any of the Chinese shops in the more affluent malls, such as in Sandton or Melrose Arch, etc would be a good choice to pursue.

Then I thought of Monica and her young children and the uncle with the soulful eyes.

Posted in JOURNALISM, Wits Journalism | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Chinese Johannesburg


Talismans and trust

Today we had to brainstorm for our multimedia projects. One of the perks of the multimedia is that it can be based around a topic that is different to the topic of your feature.

What I would like to do is explore the Chinese worshipping rituals, of how, where and when the Chinese community worships or has religious practises in Jozi. This is an interesting topic for me, as the Chinese do not seem to have that many public places of worship such as temples or gardens per se. Also, apart from what other cultures know about Chinese culture and religion is that the Chinese celebrate Chinese New Year.

The question I would like to explore is whether there are other important days for worship, what rituals the Chinese attend to, etc. For example: do the Chinese burn candles or incense? Do they have ritual prayers? Do they keep symbolic talismans or statues which symbolise deities? The list can swiftly increase to become a new Great Wall of China.

Then Mfuneko Toyana, fellow journalist and group member touched on another, equally fascinating idea regarding symbols and talismans. It relates to the topic of the reverse spice route and to those family members and parents of children who have immigrated or are moving on to other cities in South Africa and in the world.

Do they receive good luck charms for their journey or talismans for a prosperous life in a new, far off place? Do the Chinese people take something of their culture with them to remind them of where they came from, where home really is? What sort of physical objects or even prayers or ceremonies are given or held to bless them or to instil the good?

This myriad of questions means it is time for good old-fashioned research.

After a Chinese lunch from the Chinese Lantern at Wits, I tried to speak to the manager of the shop, but he was out on business.


It was time to head out to China Mall near Main Reef Road to see if I could find Monica, the young woman Jilly Sue told me about. I went to the first wedding dress shop that I could find- Jilly sue said she owns a wedding dress shop- and browsed around. Among the glittering gowns I found a slender Chinese woman who tended to customers. At the back of the shop, keeping a watchful eye on customers, sat a middle aged Chinese man. He looked around but seemed disinterested in any conversation.

I observed the woman first to see if I could find out anything about her identity and when a shop assistant asked a question and tagged on the name “Monica” I approached her. It was not an easy task to explain my project and how I came to know of her. Monica did not trust me and repeatedly said she did not know any Jilly Sue. When she finally admitted she did know her and understood why I needed her help, she became a bit friendlier and agreed to an interview the next morning.

As I realised, it takes time to build a bridge of trust, no matter who the person.

So with my interview scheduled and a new interest in talismans and worshipping and religious rituals I headed off, but not without buying a small talisman of my own.

Posted in JOURNALISM, Wits Journalism | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment