An appetite for family: The story of a Chinese family bound by history and values

The long relationship the Chinese community has with South Africa can be traced as far back as the early 1600s. Their presence surged in the late 19th century following the discovery of gold. The Pon family, a well-known South African Chinese family in Johannesburg, first arrived here at this time. The history of this family can be seen as a microcosm of the larger history of the Chinese people in South Africa.

By Prelene Singh.

It was a spring day in mid-October. The air was thick with the smell of the traffic backed up on Commissioner Street. At lunch time, the Pon family gathered in a small Chinese restaurant near the end of the street.

Laughter could be heard from the parking lot across the street and the pervasive smell of hot noodles and the chatter of the Pon family created a friendly and welcoming picture for any outsider visiting old Chinatown in Commissioner Street.

Ten family members sat close to one another at the round table. This circular picture of the family eating together seemed to be a metaphor of the Pon family’s history in the city of Johannesburg. A subtle representation of the eternal unity and love shared among this Chinese family.

However, the joys the Pons indulge in today were once considered a luxury. The history of this South African Chinese family tells the story of the greater Chinese presence through the difficult times in Johannesburg from the end of the 1800s.

Unity within family

The Pon family living in Johannesburg began with family patriarch Pak Kwong Pon and his wife Ng Shue Chee and their 11 children, of which eight are still alive. There are 19 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren. Two of the children of Pak Kwong and Shue Chee were born in Canton, China, and the others were born in Sophiatown and Commissioner Street, when it was known as Malay Camp.

While Pak Kwong and Shue Chee were the first generation of the Pon family to settle permanently in South Africa, they were not the first to visit. In the late 1800s Pak Kwong’s grandfather, Hopley Pon, came to South Africa as a “sojourner”.  In contrast to those classified as settlers – Chinese who immigrated to South Africa permanently – the sojourners came to South Africa with the intention of making their fortune and returning to China rich.

This was the case with Hopley. He came to South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and made La Rochelle, in what is now the south of Johannesburg, his home for about 10 years. Hopley opened his own grocery store called General Dealers, which sold goods to locals.

Hopley also assisted in founding the first Chinese school in South Africa along with a Chinese consulate. His business succeeded and he returned to China a wealthy man. He married three women polygamously – on the instructions of a fortune teller who promised him long life – and had several children.

King Pon (63), Hopley’s grandchild, says his grandfather’s polygamous ways led to humorous situations. Hopley’s second wife, Lai Yee Moi, was blind and the third wife, Ho Yan Kan, was deaf.  So when the two women met each other for the first time – King’s face takes on a huge grin as he tells this story – one could not hear the other and one could not see the other.

A photo taken of members of the extended Pon family back in their homeland China with Lai Yee Moi (Granny 2) in the 19th century.

A photo of members of the extended Pon family back in their homeland China with Lai Yee Moi (Granny 2) in the 19th century. Photo: Courtesy of the Pon family. Photo: Courtesy of the Pon family.

Shue Chee, Hopley’s daughter-in-law and King’s mother, is 99 years old and has lived in South Africa since 1939, fleeing with her young family the war and hardship in her native China.

Japan invades China

Japan invaded China in the 1930s, causing mayhem and violence throughout the country. Many people were displaced and they faced a struggle for survival on a daily basis.  Shue Chee fled China with her young children, first-born Henry and newborn daughter Violet.

They first fled their hometown of Canton for the safety of the then Portuguese colony of Macau off the Chinese coast. From there they escaped to Hong Kong before making their way to South Africa, where her husband Pak Kwong had arrived the year before.

“I’m glad I left China but coming to South Africa was a whole new ball game for me.”

“We were running away from the bombs,” Shue Chee says, describing her memories of the war. Travel was difficult for the family, not only because of the war that was tearing the country apart, but also Shue Chee’s mother’s small feet. For traditional, elite Chinese, the women practised foot binding, which stopped their feet from growing. Small feet demonstrated a woman’s high status, but also effectively crippled them.

Shue Chee says the journey was a difficult time for her family. It was a fight to survive and stay together. But she would soon learn that leaving China would only be the start of her family’s challenges. “I’m glad I left China but coming to South Africa was a whole new ball game for me.”

Shue Chee and Pak Kwong were fortunate to have jobs waiting for them when they arrived in South Africa.  They were the first Chinese people who entered the country as legal immigrants and they came as professionals. Pak Kwong was principal of the Pretoria Chinese School and Shue Chee worked as a teacher at the Johannesburg Chinese Kuo-Ting (country) School in Malay Camp. She taught Chinese classics and literature in Mandarin to her Chinese students.

The Pon family are an exception to the haphazard way many Chinese had to immigrate to South Africa. In the pre-apartheid years, many Chinese entered the country using fake identity documents, which they bought in China.

In the book Paper Sons and Daughters by Ufrieda Ho, she explains that some Chinese families today do not share a common surname because they lost their original names when they entered South Africa. These Chinese were known as “paper sons”.

In the 1950s, following the victory of the National Party and the beginnings of total apartheid, Chinese immigration to South Africa was banned. Legal immigration from mainland China would not resume until 1994.Shue Chee and Pak Kwong lived separately in South Africa. Shue Chee lived in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, with her children Henry and Violet. Pak Kwong lived in Pretoria, closer to his workplace.

The difficulty of simplicity in Sophiatown

Shue Chee burst into laughter as she thought back on her initial years spent in Sophiatown. In the mid-1900s in South Africa life was hard for the people of colour, particularly for Shue Chee who had come from a life of luxury in China.

“It was a complete shock and this was a life I didn’t know, I just wanted to go back to China.”

“I did not know how to cook and I did not know how to chop wood because I had never been in a kitchen before as I grew up as an elite in China and had many maids which cooked and cleaned for me.“

It was her black neighbours who showed Shue Chee how to live and make do with what she had. “It was a complete shock and this was a life I didn’t know, I just wanted to go back to China.”

But the family could not return because of the civil war in China at the time, when the nationalists fought the communists. Following the end of the war, mainland China was controlled by the communists and she could not return because of purges against those who had been wealthy or intellectuals. Instead, Shue Chee had to learn to adjust to her new life, amid the hardships of mid-century Johannesburg.

“It was a dark evening in Sophiatown and I did not have electricity to light up the house or cook food. I decided I would chop wood and make a fire to cook. So I took the chopper and picked it up high in the air and gave it a strong push and slashed the piece of wood directly in the middle.

The chopper got stuck and I could not get it out of the wood. Luckily my African neighbour came to my rescue. She told me that the trick is not to hit the wood in the middle but rather on the side, and chop the big piece into smaller pieces,” said Shue Chee.

Shue Chee said she learnt to live as a black South African. During apartheid the Chinese people were considered as “Asian” or “Asiatic” or “coloured” and therefore they fell victim to apartheid laws. Shue Chee thanks her African friends for helping her survive in Johannesburg during that time.

The Pon family of Johannesburg is a traditional Chinese South African family. To fully understand and track their history, it is important to understand relations within the family. There have been five generations of Pons in South Africa since the family first arrived at the end of the 19th century and the first permanent settlers in 1938.   By Prelene Singh.

The Pon family of Johannesburg is a traditional Chinese South African family. To fully understand and track their history, it is important to understand relations within the family. There have been five generations of Pons in South Africa since the family first arrived at the end of the 19th century and the first permanent settlers in 1938.
By Prelene Singh.

Third-generation Pon and their family motifs

Sitting in his firework shop on Commissioner Street, King remembers his childhood in 1950s Johannesburg vividly. This firework shop was started in the late 1950s by his mother Shue Chee, along with a grocery store across the street.

“When you are drinking the water, think of the source,”

“Fireworks have always been a huge part of our family. We started burning fireworks at the ages of two and three; it was a sign of maturity. If you could burn a firework properly you were considered a grown-up. It was the same with eating with chopsticks,” he remembers. “If you could hold the chopsticks properly and eat with them, you were considered grown-up.”

After speaking to several members of the Pon family it is obvious they are a traditional Chinese family. “When you are drinking the water, think of the source,” King says, reciting his late father Pak Kwong’s words.

The Pon children were taught that respecting your elders comes first in life and, secondly, respect is only gained through education. Education was the important thing to the Pon family and was engraved in the minds of every generation of Pons.

After 10 years of teaching, Shue Chee started the Sui Hing Hong business, which included the grocery shop and firework shop. The business flourished even though, under apartheid, they were only allowed to trade among themselves in Malay Camp.

The shops became a recreational centre for the Chinese community who lived in Malay Camp and Shue Chee was able to send all eight of her children to school and enabled them to get a university education.

“People will always discriminate against you in South Africa but the only thing that will give you power and give you a leg to stand on is your education.”

Click here to lisen to audio —– [AUDIO] Traditional Family Names

Shortly before this, the National Party had come to power, along with total apartheid, restricting the lives of black South Africans, including the Chinese. The Group Areas Act was passed, separating the Chinese from other races. There were roughly 20 000 Chinese in South Africa at the time.

For the Pon family, education provided some protection from the oppression. “People will always discriminate against you in South Africa but the only thing that will give you power and give you a leg to stand on is your education,” says King.

Today, every member of the Pon family has a degree to their name and some hold prestigious roles in the Chinese community of South Africa. King runs his family’s business with his three older brothers, Henry, Walter and Bonnie, and nephew Erwin Pon is chairman of the Chinese Association of Gauteng.

But the success of the family has been tempered with sadness. Many members of the family left South Africa after Steven Pon, the eldest of King’s nephews, was murdered in a hijacking.

Violet, who came to South Africa as an infant in Shue Chee’s arms, left the country with her own family in 1960 because of apartheid. Violet emigrated to Toronto, Canada. They were later joined by her younger sisters Lily and Dorothy. Other members of the Pon family live in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

The history of the Chinese in South Africa carries with it much of the history traced in the Pon family. Unlike many Chinese immigrants, the second generation of the Pon family arrived as professionals rather than illegal immigrants.

But, like many of their fellow Chinese immigrants, the Pons have firmly integrated themselves into mainstream South Africa.

And we cross the finish line

Buddhist Temple in Bronkhorspruit. Photo: Prelene Singh

Buddhist Temple in Bronkhorspruit. Photo: Prelene Singh

Finally, my in-depth project is complete. The Chinese-Johannesburg topic was great and I definitely learnt a lot of the Chinese and their culture. Our website will be launching tomorrow so please feel free to visit to see all #teamvuvu’s work. I will also be hyper linking my feature and all my multimedia to the site in the coming days.

I wrote a reflective piece on my in-depth experience below. Enjoy!

How the seed was planted

Not knowing what I was getting myself into when I embarked on researching my in-depth project, I was filled with excitement and the thought of the unknown was somehow enticing. It was a Monday morning in the newsroom when #teamvuvu was told that our topic is Chinese-Johannesburg.

The first thing I thought was: this is going to be easy, simply because I had already known that Joburg had a large Chinese presence, so it would not be too difficult to research. Then we were given our group topics. I will admit I wished I was in the group that had family and tradition because that is what always interests me.

However, I was placed in the group who had to research history and the future of the Chinese in Joburg. At first I was blank, thinking what I could possibly produce that would be interesting to my readers, I came up with very little. This however, only lasted a few minutes. After meeting with Kenichi Serino, our group mentor, I felt better and I felt I had direction and focus. In my group was Pheladi Sethusa, Ray Mahlaka and Emelia Motsai.

I decided I wanted to make my project personal, I wanted to write about the Chinese in Joburg in such as way that the average non-Chinese reader would be interested and would be able to relate to the story I was telling. I remembered meeting Mr King Pon at the firework shop in Commissioner Street. I remembered being so fascinated by the story about his grandfather’s polygamous ways.

The task was trying to incorporate what I found interesting into my topic. I decided I would use the Pon family as the foundation of my bigger story, which was the journey of the Chinese to South Africa and their presence here since the 1800’s. This would be the historical relationship the Chinese has with South Africa and more specifically Joburg.

The journey

The Chinese in Joburg are very guarded community, they are withdrawn from mainstream society and also fearful of non-Chinese. Bearing this in mind, it seemed quite a task to find a family, like the Pon’s to let me in their personal space with notes, cameras and recorders.

During the first week I thought I would not jump straight into reporting and interviewing the family and scare them away. I went to the Sui Hing Hong firework shop the first day with the intention of just talking to King Pon. I wanted to build some kind of relationship and common ground with him so that he would trust me enough to let me into his family. From the start he did say that they were a traditional and conservative family, of which I had to make sure I respected and make sure he knew that I respected that.

At the shop I spoke to his wife Louis, she is from China and not fluent in English, but as much I could, I tried to start some sort of conversation with her. I spoke to the accountant at the shop, the salesman and King himself. I stayed for a while just talking to them and also offering some similarities my family had with his family. For example: the size of Indian and Chinese families.

Before I left the shop I told King what I was doing and what I needed from him. He seemed keen to help and he said I should email him a breakdown of what exactly I am doing, why I am doing this, what I need to find out and who I wanted to speak to.

I did so, and waited a week for King to get back to me because he is a very busy man running the Sui Hing Hong family business. During this week I visited Cyrildene to try and talk to people about how they came to South Africa but sadly got nowhere because of the solid language barrier between us.

Ther second week I went to the firework shop again to follow-up with King to see if his family agreed to speak to speak to me.  To my surprise, they agreed and I was able to meet all four generations of Pon’s in Johannesburg.

The turning point

On Wednesday of the second week I met many members of the family for a traditional lunch at a Chinese restaurant. I met Shue Chee, King’s 99 year-old mother, his brother Bonnie and his sister Gloria, his niece Theresa and Carla and his granddaughter Gabriella. All four generations. This was perfect and just what I needed to tell my story of Chinese in Joburg and how they came here.

I met everyone and they were willing to talk to me and tell me stories of their family. This was great and for once after a very long week and a half, I finally felt like I was getting somewhere with my personal topic. The other days before this was spent learning about the Chinese, visiting China Malls, speaking to people but nothing that would help me. I ended up blogging about the information I did not use in my feature.

After lunch with the Pon’s is when the real work began. The following week it was production, but before production I had to hand a second draft of my feature to Kenichi. The challenge here was to write a story people would understand, enjoy and relate to. Incorporating the human interest aspect of my story needed work.

The following week I went to King’s firework shop again because I needed to ask him if he had any old photographs of the family I could use for my multimedia to enhance my story and put faces to all the names I speak about.

I thought he would maybe give me five photos because that’s very personal and treasured by the family. When I went back to the shop to fetch the photos, King gave me close to 50 old photos of the family and an architectural project his niece did for Wits as part of her degree, to look at and maybe help.

 Leaving with my extended family

My project was done. Heading into production week I learnt that building a relationship with your sources really helps in your research.

King gifted me with two porcelain antique presents from China and when I returned his photos I gave him a gift too, to say thank you. I feel like he looks at me like one of his nieces and I feel like I have gained an additional family from this project. If not family then good friends for a long while.

This project taught me that the Chinese culture is very diverse and broad. I learnt to be tolerant of other people who are different from me and I learnt that appealing to people on a human level first works best.

Also, researching the Chinese history in South Africa was educational and I have learnt things that I would have never learnt if it weren’t for this project.

Practicality always wins

From mid-week last week till this Monday life has been hard, to say the least. I have mastered the art of learning to “suck it up” when you feel like lying on the floor and playing dead.

Last week was the final week for #teamvuvu to gather their information. The last minute interviews, the quick video footage and sound bites and the last minute photography we needed.

Last minute interview

This was quite stressful because our 2000 word features are due today and our multimedia for our research proposal is due on Friday. It went alright for me as I had been working from the start but I did have a final interview on Saturday. I needed to conduct a final interview with Mr King Pon to get the final details for my feature.

Saturday I came to the department all ready to interview King and he had forgotten about our interview. The stress-o-meter went through the roof because I knew if I did not do the interview then I would have no other time and my feature would suffer. So I gathered my thoughts and agreed to meet King at 4. I needed to be practical, if I didn’t care who would.

The interview went well, I realised when I got to his Firework shop that he was having some problems because his roof was leaking from the heavy rainfall we had on Saturday. The interview went well and I managed to receive more information that I needed. I spent the rest of the weekend trying to perfect my feature and make it a good and easy read. Not as easy as it seems.

The last trek

With another hectic week ahead and Johannesburg in like what it seems tornado season, I hope I make it through alive . Perseverance has never been tested as much as it has in the past few days but I can see then end and it is near, its this last push and soon I will be over the finish line. Practical thinking gets you far.

[VIDEO]: Temple life – the routines and charity

Venerable Hui-Xing, the Temple Master and also a monk agreed to have a sit down meeting with #teamvuvu yesterday. We were able to ask questions and get answers straight from the monk himself. Ven Hui-Xing speaks about the daily life in the Temple for the monks and nuns in the video. He also elaborates on what they do throughout the day.

[WITH GALLERY]: Fo Guang Shan: Nan Hua Temple, Bronkhorstspruit

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Venerable Master Hsing Yun, who is the founder of the first Buddhist Temples had aspirations to propagate Buddhist teachings through cultural activites, foster talent through education , to benefit society through charitable programmes and purify human hearts and minds through Buddhist pratice.

I observed much of this today at the Temple. The main Shrine was massive and the smell of incense burning could be smelt from outside the Temple. Before you enter the Temple you need to remove your shoes as a sign of respect and preferably ladies should not show their shoulders or the legs also as a sign of respect. This I am well aware of as it is the same in the Indian religion.


Entering the Temple was an experience by itself. Stepping foot inside was like stepping foot into a new world. We were greeted by three Buddha’s: on the left is Western Pureland or Land of Ultimate Bliss is Amitabha Buddha who represents longevity and endless light. By praying to this Buddha by bowing down in front of the statue you pray for infinite compassion, wisdom and aspirations. The Buddha in the middle is the teacher of the Saha World called Sakyamuni Buddha. His teachings bring an abundance of joy and benefit to all human beings. The Buddha on the right is the Pure Lapis Lazuli Paradise in the East called Medicine Buddha. By giving your respects to this Buddha you will gain good health and longevity.


Our tour guide took us through the Temple and showed us the different aspects of the place. It was uplifting and quite similar to the Hindu religion. It was also comforting to know that the Temple was built in such a way that some parts of the architecture represented South Africa. For example the straw roof, Buddhist Temples do not have straw inside but this Temple did as a tribute to the African culture and make it unique from the other Temples because it in South Africa.


After the Temple tour we had Chinese lunch with the rest of the people at the Temple. It is all vegetarian and you are required to eat in silence. This is because eating is not seen as an indulgent thing in the Buddhist religion, it is a necessity. You need because it is seen as medicine for your body, you eat to stay alive and not out of greed. The monks, students and guides at the Temple eat bearing in mind that it is a quite place to appreciate the food and the preparation that went into making the food and after you have eaten you leave quietly by saying thank you.

The Temple has a coffee shop, curio shop and museum for guests to come and view. It was a new experience and something I would definitely do again.  This is exactly why I fall in love with what I do on a daily basis, I would have never went to the Temple otherwise.

[VIDEO + GALLERY]: Zuma in Cyrildene

On Friday last week we went to Cyrildene for a meeting and for the opening of the Chinese arch. To my surprise the President Jacob Zuma attended the event. It was a grand affair and my first time seeing Zuma in the flesh. I took some pictures  to document my day. Here is a gallery of some photo’s i took at the opening.

Work. Don’t think. Relax

Earlier this year I met some students from the Taiwan University at an Asian breakfast which Wits Hosted. Photo: Prelene Singh

Earlier this year I met some students from the Taiwan University at an Asian breakfast which Wits Hosted. Photo: Prelene Singh

“It’s a good idea always to do something relaxing prior to making an important decision in your life.”
― Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage

This is exactly what I did today. Sometimes the pressures of life seem to come crashing down all at the same time and that is when timeout is needed. In order for me to write something worthwhile reading, I needed to just breathe and focus.

An interview with Dianne Leong Man today, the co-author of the book entitled “Colour, Confusions and Concessions: The history of Chinese in South Africa” went quick and easy. I found out that prior to this book being published there was no literature available about the history of the Chinese in this country.

This book took 12 years to write, and it tracks the Chinese history starting from the early 1660’s till 1994. I wondered how in-depth they had to go to write this book. Along the same train of thought, it hit me hard when I realised that I needed to write something similar for my in-depth project by the end of the week, after only two weeks of research. Scary thought isn’t it.

Dianne talks us through how her and Melanie decided to start writing this book and how they gathered their information.


Yes the length is a 50th of the book they published but nonetheless I had to write this feature. I realised how I could so easily confuse the information I have gathered. The task ahead of me is quite “deep” to say the least (with a grin on my face).

However, because I have had a whole year of practicing, I think I can pull this off, after my deep breathes though. The interview was great and I think I need to refer to the book a lot more to make sure my information is accurate.

A short timeout was just what the doctor ordered before I began writing the beginning steps of my long journey ahead of production. By the end of today I need to hand over a draft of my feature to my mentor. And I hope to get some feedback which will clear my path which is currently white with mist, to the point of where I cannot see the end.

Ending off: Work. Don’t think. Relax. Mantra for today.