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Bonds and boundaries: Chinese South Africans at Wits

In a year marking 20 years of diplomatic ties between China and South Africa, UFRIEDA HO looks back on steps in the longer journey of Chinese South Africans at Wits University. Originally published in Wits Review Magazine, April 2018. 

(Image courtesy of Dianne Leong Man, Wits Review Magazine, April 2018).

The first steps I took onto Wits campus were probably skipping and running – with my mother trying to keep pace.

I imagine her penetrating voice catching up to me, my brother and my two sisters. Stern shouts in Cantonese telling us to stop running, shooing us from the edge of the pools at the fountains under the Macrone Mall as we kids raced up the stairs towards the Great Hall.

Here we’d stop, draw breath and wait. We’d be waiting for something quite special: a bride in blinding white, sequinned flowers maybe on her gown, turning Joburg’s golden afternoon light into starbursts. As part of her auspicious entourage, we had arrived at the Great Hall steps to immortalise her happy day in photos.

In my growing-up years in the 1980s I repeated this ritual a few times – finding myself on the same steps, straightening a corsage on a dress, fixing my hair into place and being told to say “cheese” or “siew” (smile in Cantonese) as part of a bridal party.

Wedding photos on the Great Hall steps became an entrenched phenomenon for many families in the Chinese community. Sunday was the day almost all Chinese weddings took place, mostly to accommodate the many shopkeepers and fahfee men and women who couldn’t afford to take a Saturday off work. The grand Great Hall steps were backdrops of aspiration and things lofty – as well as a perfectly pragmatic option for a tiered group pic.

As the photos survive in frames and yellowed, sticky photo albums they tell a story of history, of access and prohibition, of guarded privilege, prejudice and pragmatism. Inevitably they reflect on the long and at times complicated relationship the university has had with Chinese students.

Wits and the University of Cape Town (UCT) were the only two “open” universities under apartheid. But “open” in a time of segregation meant a toe in the door, not the doors of learning flung open. Chinese students were subject to quota systems, permits and special permissions to gain admission.

In Melanie Yap and Dianne Leong Man’s book Colour, Confusion and Concessions (Hong Kong University Press, 1996) they write that in the 1920s and 1930s non-whites in South Africa were allowed to study only theology, education and law, and only at the University of Fort Hare and the University of South Africa. Studying medicine, for instance, was out of the question.

They tell the story of a student, Luke Nain Liang, who was barred from studying medicine at Wits. His family was forced to scrape together money so he could study abroad. He enrolled at the University of Edinburgh in 1920 and returned to South Africa in 1927, a qualified doctor.

“Even decades later, those who did get into university looked to qualify for professions where they could set up their own practices and businesses because they knew that they would not easily find jobs as Chinese graduates,” says Leong Man, herself a Wits graduate (BA 1970, PDE 1972) with a degree in Afrikaans en Nederlands. She worked at the university’s staffing office between 1974 and 1979 and in the libraries from 1980 to 2007 and again in 2010 until her retirement in 2013.

For decades the admission and staffing policies were realities of bigotry and segregationist mind-sets. The authors quote historian Bruce Murray: “Wits very much reflected the prejudices of the society to which it belonged … The official policy at Wits was one of ‘academic’ non-segregation and social segregation.”

The first Chinese person admitted to the university, the authors found, was a man called Ted Wong Hoption, in 1941. (He graduated MBBCh in 1947, practised medicine in Hong Kong and Singapore, retired to Vancouver in 1984 and died in 2009.) Leong Man and Yap interviewed Dr Hoption for their book. His words still speak volumes: “I think it was probably because they didn’t realise with my surname that I was Chinese … at medical school there were five or six Africans and Indians in my class. We were segregated as far as which patients we could treat”.

Chinese students participating in a student protest in front of the Johannesburg City Hall (image courtesy of Melanie Yap, Wits Review, April 2018).

It was the same story more than two decades later for Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong (see Wits Review Vol 31, March 2015). Now a US citizen, he was born in Port Elizabeth in 1952 and graduated MBBCh from Wits in 1975. He is a surgeon, entrepreneur and bio-tech innovator, the power behind companies like NantHealth and NantWorks, and famously owns the LA Lakers and most recently The LA Times.

Dr Soon-Shiong earned an internship at the old Joburg General Hospital, becoming the first Chinese doctor to work there. He was accepted only because he was in the top four of his graduating class of 189 students that year. All kinds of prohibitions remained in place, like non-white student doctors not being allowed to work on white cadavers.

Education, and a quality education, remained the emphasis for the Chinese community. If you lived in Johannesburg it meant a degree from Wits. Chinese children were pushed by their parents and teachers to study hard, work hard and graduate out of their parents’ working-class drudgery.

Chinese Girl Scouts participating in a jamboree at Wits in the 1950s (image courtesy of Melanie Yap, Wits Review, April 2018).

In the early 1990s both my older sister Yolanda and my brother Kelvin became Witsies. Their world expanded from a sheltered all-Chinese school to one in which they were making floats for Rag, going to discos at the Bozz and slotting in their squash dates on campus. My sister did the odd library shift at Jan Smuts House and my brother dated a fellow Witsie, the girl who would become his wife.

It was a world I touched only lightly at first. I chose to study journalism and to enrol at the Pretoria Technikon. (At the time, Wits didn’t have a journalism programme.) This was a missed opportunity and a downgrade in my parents’ eyes. Their own wedding photo was taken at Wits even though they had little in the way of formal education.

Years later I did end up studying at Wits, completing my honours in Anthropology in 2008 as a part-time student. I didn’t run up steps the way I had all those years ago as a child. I did often take walks through campus, sometimes moaning to myself about how the available parking spots always seemed to be at the bottom of the ridge while my lectures were at the top. I sometimes took the route back to my car via the koi pond so I could watch the greedy fish break through the surface with hopeful burps and bubbles. I spent time in the libraries, realising that once these were restricted areas for non-whites. I soaked in the quiet, the walls of books and the forever landscapes of Baines’ paintings.

In 2015 the Wits Art Museum held an exhibition called Ngezinyawo – Migrant Journeys. It included a section on the Chinese mineworkers who arrived in South Africa in 1904 as part of what curators called “The Chinese Experiment”. The exhibition detailed how these men revived the reef’s mines after the Anglo-Boer War. But within six years these men, who were confined to compounds, paid poorly and worked hard, were all repatriated or dead. That labour “experiment” stopped there. The exhibition was a reminder of the entanglement of mines, migrants and inevitably of Wits too.

Fast forward to the dawn of democracy: the early 1990s brought a new wave of Chinese migrants to South Africa. Newcomers at the time included a tiny handful of government officials and business people but mostly they were small-scale entrepreneurs, hawkers, and those willing to try their luck.

This year marks 20 years of diplomatic relations between China and South Africa. Deepening economic and diplomatic ties have called for a different lens to be trained on the China-Africa relationship. Dr Mahomed Moolla, head of the Strategic Partnerships Office at Wits, says the emphasis has been on bonds between universities and a plan to set up a Centre for Chinese Studies.

The partnerships focus on physics and maths but also on broader subjects like urbanisation. Moolla says the opportunity to do in-depth, independent research is essential for students who want to become global citizens.

There are Chinese students in all faculties at Wits, but two students this year have registered specifically to learn isiZulu. Relaxing on the library lawns during a lunch break are (from left to right) Li Jingcheng, Lu Tianqi, Yin Xinmin, Chen Siyu, Dr. Huang Lizhi, Qin Changbiao and Li Zhiwei (image courtesy of Peter Maher, Wits Review, April 2018).

A project has been set up in the Wits Journalism department to promote deeper understanding and more balanced reporting. In 2016 it changed its name from the China-Africa Reporting Project to the Africa-China Reporting Project – a shift of focus in itself. The name change is a significant reminder of a necessary Africa-centric focus to review, research and report on the relationship between the two countries. The Africa-China Reporting Project has a full calendar of events planned for this year to reflect on the 20 years of diplomatic ties.

Wits has 16 Chinese nationals registered as students this year and LinkedIn shows up 115 Wits alumni who are currently living in China.

The story of the Chinese at Wits – and in South Africa – keeps evolving. Some bonds remain and others fray. New histories are being made even if there are no more brides on the Great Hall steps on Sunday afternoons waiting for the right light and the click of a camera.

Ufrieda Ho is a journalist and the author of Paper Sons and Daughters: Growing up Chinese in South Africa (Pan Macmillan, 2011). 

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