Being Chinese in South Africa by Yoon Jung Park (2008)

Yoon Jung Park’s illuminating work on the Chinese in South Africa examines their identity formation as ongoing processes of construction in light of state laws towards immigrants, their “in-between” status during the apartheid, and their encounters with other Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants. The group Park focuses on number around 10,000 to 12,000 who are descendants of immigrants who arrived after 1870. Many came from Guangdong province of south China and were motivated by economic hardships brought about by the loss of jobs due to the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 which caused the loss of twenty million people. Just as the Gold Rush had enticed many to head to California, some of them were lured to South Africa for gold. The Cantonese tended to live in Transvaal and the Haaka in coastal towns.

If we compare her work to studies on immigrants elsewhere, for example, Paul Stoller’s Money Has No Smell: The Africanization of New York City, common patterns emerge. First, there was the pattern of chain migration based on kinship networks from common places of origin. Usually, boys and men came first, then the women came later. Second, the level of acculturation and assimilation to the host society depends on myriad factors, perhaps most importantly, the acceptance of the host society. The attitude of the government of the departing society is important as well. For many centuries, as Park, Pheng Cheah and Wang Gungwu have pointed out, the Chinese state called Chinese migrants traitors, vagabonds, fugitives, outlaws, and later sojourners, guests, and visitors. From 1370 to 1893 due to inward-isolationist laws, the Chinese were not allowed to leave the country. This changed under the Manchu Qing dynasty. Sojourners played an important role in later national affairs when they became involved in financing projects back home; some have argued that because they were considered economic assets, the Chinese government tried to cultivate their loyalty to the homeland. Giovanni Arrighi in Adam Smith in Beijing makes a very interesting case that the overseas Chinese who were engaged in capitalist activities, but unlike in England, did not have the same sort of influence over the state, which prevented China from industrializing in the early 19th century.

Huaqiao, meaning overseas Chinese, was used to describe Chinese sojourners to mean that they would “be good filial sons who loved their homes, always planned to return, and never stop being Chinese” (62). China’s call for overseas Chinese to be patriotic was met with mixed responses, especially when the view of the host society of China changed when it became Community. Suddenly, every Chinese was suspected of being a Community. Then there was the issue of whether the Chinese Nationalists or the Communists would be considered the legitimate government of China after 1949. As in many overseas Chinese communities, it seems the KMT held dominance. South Africa recognized Chinese Nationalists as the legitimate government.

Like many other immigrant groups, adaptation to the host society differs across generations. The first generation, in general, was inclined to try to hold on to an essentialized and romanticized version of the “Chineseness.” The second generation began to question how “Chinese” they were and had different ideas about their sense of belonging. Yet part of the reason why the homeland continued to persist in their imaginations and provide a sense of rootedness was due to the rejection of the host society. In fact, what I enjoyed most about this book was Park’s comparison of the South African Chinese to the Chinese in America. She quotes, “sentimental identification with parents’ or grandparents’ homeland arises out of a continuing reluctance of larger society here to see the Asian Pacific Americans as they are — citizens of color — and as they would be : full-fledged participants in a pluralistic American enterprise. ‘Homeland’ here becomes a refuge, a state of parity, a myth of their own hearts” (74).

In South Africa, shopkeepers born in the 1920s and 1930s were treated as second-class citizens, though better than non-whites. Many experienced discrimination and oppression during the apartheid. They were not allowed to go to public facilities, white hospitals, schools and technical colleges. Although they were later allowed to live in white areas and go to white schools, they remained second-class citizens. The Population Registration Act of 1950 divided everyone into white or “European” or “non-European.” The latter was later divided into “native” (then “Bantu,” “African,” then “black), “Indian,” and “colored” (and the Chinese also fell into this category). Later, “Chinese” was defined as “any person who in fact is or is generally accepted to be a member of a race or tribe whose national home is in China”. In 1959, the Extension of University Education Act passed, allowing the Chinese and other non-whites to apply for permits to attend university. This also meant more integration with whites and eventual upward mobility. Some who attained economic success and became affluent adopted certain racist attitudes. As Park observes, “These young people appear to exhibit what one scholar refers to as ‘non-reflective’ racism, learned from their increasingly white social environment. This racism was further informed by a sense of uniqueness and superiority in their Chinese-ness, learned from parents and grandparents” (98). This also coincided with numerous attempts by Chinese South Africans to “woo white community leaders and decision-makers” to gain access to certain privileges.

When compared to the Mississippi Chinese, Park argues, the Chinese were similar in achieving economic success and in just two generations, shifting from shopkeepers to “highly educated set of professionals with high levels of acceptance by white South Africans” (105). The difference was the degree to which they maintained their unique status and also made efforts to preserve Chinese culture and heritage. In the 197os and 1980s, they were given offers to be “white” and therefore have full rights, but they rejected this offer on the grounds that they wanted full rights but also wanted to keep a separate ethnic identity. In 1994, the Chinese community like many others, felt let down when their hopes of a democratic state providing quality healthcare, decent education and other social services were lost in the face of what they perceived to be corruption in the government and rise in crime. Many remained quiet and politically inactive, because “their acceptance of concessions from the white government also turned them, unofficially, into honorary whites — an awkward position under any circumstances,” so they “feared that others judged them as having been co-opted by, or worse, having collaborated with the apartheid government”.

Race is, as Park argues, the most important variable in determining the distribution and redistribution of resources in South Africa. Labels have implications for the Chinese. They might fit into “Coloured” as they had been labeled in some cases during apartheid. Because they’re not mentioned in affirmative action laws, particularly the Employment Equity Act (EEA) of 1998 and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) Act of 2003, they are excluded from remedial actions. Park concludes that although the Chinese community is quite divided on their position in affirmative action policies, she believes that they should qualify as disadvantaged. They were not permitted to vote until 1994. She argues, “if they do not qualify as ‘black’ and previously disadvantaged, then what of the experiences of the Chinese to came of age in the 1950s, 60s and 70s? To my mind their current exclusion from the employment equity legislation clearly denies them their history of discrimination, humiliation and suffering. These new Acts continue to rob them of equality in post-apartheid South Africa”.

Park’s study is very comprehensive, but left me with many questions,which I believe is a hallmark of an overall excellent ethnographic study. She briefly talks about what happens when South African Chinese, the ones who had been there for two or more generations interact with newer immigrants of Taiwanese, ethnic Chinese from other parts of the world, and mainland Chinese. She explains that because these multiple groups have their own view of what is authentically Chinese, “Chinese-ness” has come under heated debate. I have witnessed this in southern California where I grew up — tensions among different groups of immigrants, all calling themselves “Chinese” or in some cases, “Taiwanese.” Some of the Taiwanese were not welcoming of the mainland Chinese immigrants that arrived in the 1990s. Aihwa Ong among others has published on this in detail referring to the examples of “parachute children,” children whose affluent parents and families in Hong Kong and Taiwan purchase homes for them in the US and they maintain ties to their homeland due to frequent travel afforded by mass amounts of wealth. I went to university with many “parachute children”. She calls this “flexible citizenship” which is the “cultural logics of capital accumulation, travel and displacement that induce subjects to respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing political economic conditions” (Ong). What is the nature of their interactions and how are these interactions impacted by different labor settings? Gillian Hart’s Disabling Globalization about the treatment of South African black workers in Taiwanese factories can be put in fruitful dialogue with this book.


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