Jozi City Feature

A golden city in the city of gold

Known for its special crispy skin chicken, steamed pork ribs, seafood, duck and egg rice, Golden City Chinese Restaurant used to be the dining place.

It was situated at the western end of Commissioner Street, which has a rich history of Chinese businesses. Chinese grocery shops, club houses, schools, music groups and even a Chinese newspaper used to have a place in this community during the last century. Today Chinatown continues to exist in a much smaller form, as many of these operations have either moved to safer areas outside the inner city or closed down.

Golden City is a good example. It was a family restaurant known for serving authentic Cantonese cuisine. It had its heyday during the 1980s. Many people, not only Chinese, would travel from the suburbs into the CBD just to have supper here. The restaurant was run by a partnership between Ken Whyte and Ken Ford. They had bought it from the previous owner and turned it into a successful business.

Change in Johannesburg

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the urban blight in Johannesburg affected much of the CBD. At this time everybody was aware that the apartheid era was coming to an end. Unsure of the future stability of the country, many people and businesses (predominantly white) left the city for the suburbs, particularly Sandton. According to Nechama Brodie in The Joburg Book, black working-class people from the townships, faced with a scarcity of housing and political trouble, moved to the inner city in search of a better life. The poorer among them and people from other African countries occupied vacant buildings. Structures deteriorated as landlords did not receive enough money to maintain them. The CBD deteriorated rapidly.

This led to confusion, lawlessness and crime. Customers were no longer prepared to travel so deep downtown, and Golden City eventually had to close down.

The restaurant no longer exists, but its memories linger on. Ken Whyte’s son, Vernon, lives in Johannesburg’s South. He is married, with four grown children, one grandchild and teaches tai chi. He recalls working for his father at Golden City part time. “I just helped my dad run the spot on weekends to give him a break.”

Chinese through the ages

Whyte took me on a walking tour of Chinatown. As we passed a shabby building on the southern side of Commissioner Street, he pointed out his dad’s old restaurant. I peeked through an open door with two sets of burglar bars and saw an empty room with one ray of light streaking down from the roof. It was silent and empty – a stark contrast to the legendary hustle and bustle there must have been 20 years ago.

We travelled further west on Commissioner, and saw the two dragon statues on either side of the road, facing each other. They were gifts from the People’s Republic of China and are meant to fulfill two purposes. Firstly they form a type of gateway into Chinatown, and secondly they stand as a symbol that the Chinese have been in Johannesburg since the discovery of gold. The forefathers of today’s Chinese South Africans came here in search of Gam Saan “the Gold Mountain” (the Gold Reef). Some, like Whyte’s grandparents, didn’t come as labourers but as traders. They left China for South Africa during the world wide depression in the early 20th century.

It’s unclear why the Chinese established themselves in this area of Johannesburg or on this side of Commissioner Street, in Ferreirastown. Brodie mentions in her book that the “Malay Camp”, as it was called, began here in 1886 because that’s where a tent was set up for daily prayers.

Clubs and communities on Commissioner

Chinatown and its buildings are now run down, with people seemingly oblivious of the history of the area as they casually walk past them every day. Bright and bold signs with both Chinese and English writing still hang over the doors of shops and businesses that have closed down. The buildings may be old, but they are certainly resilient and stand as a testament to a people who have lived in Johannesburg since its birth.

This can be seen, for example, behind the southern dragon statue. To the left of it is the United Chinese Club, on the corner of Commissioner and Margaret Mcingana (previously Wolhuter) streets. Originally there were three clubs. First, there was the Cantonese club. According to Melanie Yap and Dianne Leong Man in their book Colour, Confusion and Concessions, the Cantonese club or the Kwong Hok Tong was a major community centre for Chinese South Africans. It was formed as a social club on June 1 1898, with 150 members who would gather regularly on Sundays.

Subsequently the Transvaal Chinese Association (TCA) was established. Its building sits just opposite the United Chinese Club, and the association is still active today. The TCA and the Cantonese Club joined together in a passive resistance campaign at the beginning of the 20th century. The protest was aimed at a new law which required Indians and Chinese to surrender previous permits in order to re-register and to submit their fingerprints when re-registering (as only criminals were required to do in those days).The resistance was led by Mahatma Gandhi. After three years of resistance not much had been achieved, and a group of people broke away and started the United Chinese Club in 1909.

Today, its building on Commissioner Street hosts a few treasures, including old Chinese instruments and a wall hanging with ancient Chinese writing. The United Chinese Club makes a great effort to record and preserve the history of its people in Johannesburg.

One faithful family

Although the CBD underwent a dramatic change, not everyone left. One family, who came to this country as merchants, still runs a business in Old Chinatown (or First Chinatown as it is also known). Their Sui Hing Hong supermarket on Commissioner Street sells Chinese products. It is run by Walter Pon in a building on the north side of the street. Pon’s parents fled China after Japan bombed their country at the start of World War II. Pon was born in 1940 in South Africa. His father opened the shop three years later, naming it after his mother. Pon explained that in the 1940s, as the Malay Camp grew, there was more demand for imported Chinese products and so the business was set up.

Originally it was behind Marshall Street and there were a few other shops like it. Today, Sui Hing Hong is the oldest remaining shop in Old Chinatown. Inside it you can find a large range of Chinese products, such as noodles, soy sauces and even a “sex tea”. The dragon decorations hang between the aisles. And above the shop, about three stories up, is Pon’s office. From his window he pointed at the place where he used to live.

It was a house directly across the road from where the shop now is. That old house is now empty with boarded windows and a dilapidated structure. When he was an adult and got married, Pon moved into a flat on the right hand side of the street facing east. When they had children he moved into another apartment near the United Chinese Club. Now in his older years, he has moved to the suburbs.

In his kind and humble manner, he commented on the state of the city and the old area he used to lived in. “It’s not as bad as people make it out to be. We feel safe in Chinatown… but at one stage we did feel unsafe. We were robbed twice about seven years ago. Now we take precautions. We don’t sell high value things, we are rice merchants.”

Old Chinatown then and now

Vernon Whyte also saw the dramatic changes in the CBD and how it affected his father’s restaurant. Referring to the decline of Commissioner Street he said: “Prior to 1994 there were discussions about the new [government] dispensation. Every weekend there would be a protest march. People were too afraid to come into town, the clientele diminished as people didn’t want to travel at night. All the clubs and restaurants moved north… Chinatown used to be thriving. There were up to eight restaurants at one time.”

Given the extraordinary changes since the late 1980s, it’s not surprising that Pon’s clientele also completely changed. He used to get a lot of Chinese cuisine-loving white customers during the apartheid days. These days he gets a lot more black customers, especially from other parts of Africa. He said people from Nigeria, Somalia and Malawi now come to buy rice and tea. They are usually quite wealthy and drive Mercedes or BMW cars.

Pon was welcoming and very willing to talk about his life here. Although he mentioned a lot of cases where the Chinese were treated badly and discriminated against by the apartheid laws, he did not seem bitter.

Old vs new Chinatown

The Chinese who settled in the region were a tight-knit community, especially because of organisations such as the Cantonese club. One reason that the club was formed was because most of the Chinese who came to the country and established Chinatown were from the southern part of China, from regions such as Canton and Guangzhou. With the advent of democracy in South Africa, the immigration laws changed, and so different groups of people were allowed to come.

One group of Chinese who have since entered the country are those from mainland China. This new wave of immigrants, along with the deterioration of the CBD, led to a creation of a second Chinatown in the 1990s outside the inner city. New Chinatown is situated on Derrick Avenue in the eastern suburb of Cyrildene. There are 20 to 30 Chinese establishments and at least 10 restaurants, and Mandarin is the main dialect.

Pon knows both communities. He said the language is different and so is the food. “We eat differently.” He believes that the people in First Chinatown have actually become more western over the years.*

Vernon Whyte explained the differences by describing the new immigrants as a group of people from all over China, who have simply congregated in one area. He also noted how most of the Chinese in First Chinatown had lived through the struggle of apartheid. They were considered “other coloured” by law. Being Chinese meant being a part of the larger term “black”, and therefore they were not allowed to vote.

Chinese South Africans have maintained their traditions through an ever-changing First Chinatown. Plans have supposedly been put into place to regenerate the area, but right now there are only a handful of shops which are a reminder of a once dynamic Chinese community. It brought a group of people together as they persevered during the oppression of apartheid.

As I ended my research into the history of a single man, Whyte smiled at me and said: “Now you can say that you spoke to your black friend, Mr Whyte.”

[The embedded slideshow gives a visual comparison of Johannesburg’s two Chinatowns.]


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About Ainsley Haag

Ainsley completed her undergraduate degree at Wits University in 2010. She majored in philosophy and film studies and continued to study at Wits for an honours degree in journalism in 2011. She specialised in photojournalism and hopes to combine both writing and photography in her journalistic career.

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