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.

Working life: Being a journalist

“A veteran journalist has never had time to think twice before he writes” – George Bernard Shaw

The view through the eyes of a journalist is not one easily seen through the eyes of the professionals, philanthropists and terrorists of the world – instead it is a combination of all.

This year I took huge leap into the very rigid and responsible sphere of the working world. The thought of leaving behind my years of being a carefree, oblivious and drunken student – in the least – terrified me.

Taking this leap of life was like walking with a blindfold into trouble. All I had to base my perception on was the endless bills I watched my parents pay, all the dreadful responsibility of being an independent adult and the distant thought that I would be answerable to someone – someone like a boss.

This “working life” I speak of came to me in the form of Eyewitness News (EWN) from Primedia Broadcasting in South Africa.

Having being a diligent student throughout my academic career – I was sure that will not drown as I take on my next career – this being journalism and the media.

I perceived myself as an informed honour student from Wits Journalism and when I got that email from EWN offering me a job – I perceived that it would be the perfect place to take the next step in this new career I was yet to embark on.

“A person without any ideas but with an ability to express them; a writer whose skill is improved by a deadline: the more time he has, the worse he writes” – Karl Kraus

Coming into a newsroom every day – you become less vulnerable to the little things in life. The small arguments from day-to-day with people you encounter, the tough criticism and the unshy sometimes unrealistic demands on you – all become something simple – like drinking tea.

You learn to become a tough and unconquerable person – immune to the things that would normally affect the average person.

A colleague of mine – in a long deep conversation – said to me that life is about friendship and acknowledgement. That’s exactly what I think about being a journalist. You need to have a lot of friends as contacts and the foundation of why we [journalists] do the work we do is for acknowledge. We want people to take notice of what we say, write and produce.

“The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read” – Oscar Wilde

Seeing reporters in and out of the newsroom – going to places of danger, celebration and sadness –  and coming back to produce some kind of content as if it were just one of those things is a talent that not many have – I believe.

This same colleague I spoke of earlier – told me that he lives a two-fold life and it’s important to dream – not just in your deep sleep – but in your day-to-day life. In line with the title of this blog – journalism is the dream in reality and – while we are not regarded as professionals in the “working world” it is something some people only dream of. It is a life experienced like no other. There is very little left to dream about – expect a better paycheck at the end of the month – I suppose.

Sometimes I do wonder how these journalists do it every day, with the minimal sleep, the long hours and the crazy deadlines – because you really do give your life to be a journalist – but suppose its about we live – the passion within that life.

As a young one starting off – I am excited of what the “working world” has in store for me. It turned out okay with some minor bumps, but an exciting career it is.

“I still believe that if your aim is to change the world, journalism is a more immediate short-term weapon” – Tom Stoppard

Reflections of my life since Vuvuzela

First of all…apologies to my followers of this blog. I have been out of the scene for quite a while due to hectic transformations happening in my life. Here is an update of what has been going on in my world of journalism.

Wits Vuvuzela

I did not have time to write a my final post to the amazing class of 2013 of Wits Journalism…I will therefore wrap it all up into one post.

So I finished up my year at Wits Vuvuzela in November last year. While I knew the end would come one day….when it did…it felt way too soon.

It was the most amazing year of my life. The year that I fell in love with journalism. I met 16 very different people who I spent the year with. Through the process I learnt to understand them, I grew to love them and I adapted to work with them.

Each and every person including my lecturers’ all taught me something. Tears, laughter, screaming, singing, dancing, drinking, stress, deadlines and wanting to jump off the 11th floor of Senate House of Wits University with everyone with me is how I will forever remember this year.

My last year of being a student has ended and as sad and heart-wrenching as that is to swallow, it is the brutal truth. I could have not chosen or wanted a different way to spend my last year at varsity.

I wish each and every one of my classmates of 2013 the utmost best in the future endeavors, where it be in journalism or not. I hope you all end up doing what truly brings you joy. We made history at Vuvuzela and we were the best. The world of journalism definitely needs to prepare themselves for the amount of talent that is going to hit them next week when most of us will officially start work.

You all have bright futures ahead of you and I hope to meet you guys on the field together. I will miss all our laughter, singing and most of all twerking in the Vuvuzela newsroom.

To my lecturers’ thank you for all you taught me this year…education is priceless and without your guidance, I would not be as “wise” as I am now.

Eyewitness news

I have started work at Primedia at EWN and have been here for the past month. A shock to the system might be an understatement. This is the real world okay and wow have we been thrown in the deep end.

As my boss told me on the first day “You will be thrown in the deep end, try not to drown.”
I am glad to report that I have not drowned.

This place is full of senior reporters who are excellent at their work and the passion that flows through their veins for journalism is kind of unreal.

Radio is predominantly what I have been working on, mainly for 702 Talk Radio, 94.7 Highveld Stereo in Johannesburg and 567 Cape Talk in Cape Town and Kfm.

Yesterday I got a the load down on how the EWN website works…I must say that WordPress is much simpler.

I still have a whole year to spend at this place, but for right now I am trying to dig myself out of a very big hole from underneath all this experience in this newsroom. I do hope I get there someday today.

Final thoughts

Being and living in the “real world” is tough and its hard and its tiring but its what has to be done.

Cheers to upward mobility, happiness and progress!

So we say good bye to the first semester

This post is something which has come too soon. I honestly cannot believe that the first four months of this course is already over. It seemed like yesterday when I met all my soon to be classmates and family, when we all came together to meet each other, get to know each others’ names and share a drink to toast to the year ahead.

Nostalgic view

And now I sit here thinking back on the past months and how close I have become to all these people, how many good and bad times we have had and what chaos we have caused within the Wits community but also in the national press.

I feel privileged (sounds cliché) but there seems to be no other word to describe the feeling I have to be a part of #teamvuvu. Not only are we a close group but we are also a group which thrives off each other.

The Wits Journalism honours programme

This course by itself is something very few get to experience and be a part of. It is something I think every aspiring journalist needs to live through. The course has taught me things which one could never study or read about or theorize. The experience and skills I have gained by being thrown in deep end, is shocking. The speed at which we had to learn things and adjust to our new environment, seemed unreachable in the beginning. We were given a newspaper and told to takeover and run it. And we have done it!

From generating stories, setting up interviews, writing with transparency and accuracy to taking the best photo’s for our articles and designing a newspaper. These were things we learnt and with that came working with a team together and successfully. I think that this cannot be taught, it can only be learnt through trial and error.

Our experience thus far…

The course has exposed us to amazing, talented and experienced journalists, which otherwise we would have never met at this point in our careers. People like Gia Nicolaides, Mondi Makhanya, Justice Malala, Ron Nixon from the New York Times in the US and James Oatwey. These journalists came and spoke to us and gave us some valuable advice which enhances a person’s perspective more than a textbook ever could.

The transformation

In the past four months the student journalists of #teamvuvu, I could say have lived through almost all of it. We have been attacked by the public, sworn at, critiqued, debated over endless issues, investigated and exposed the deepest secrets of the university and continue to be hunted by the national media. Wits Vuvuzela has gained a new life, it matters now, it is feared now and it is known.

People read our paper and they cannot deny that it is a good paper because they continue to read it every week, but all I can say is that sometimes the truth is hard to handle. So as much as we are hated we are loved.

In journalism if you are hated, I have learnt that this is a good thing, it means you are making a difference and whether the reaction is good or bad you have been heard and created a reaction in people, and that conclusively means, you as a journalist have done job.

I think along the way we all had a tough incident which taught us a lot. Whether it was spirit breaking or feisty arguments, we learnt valuable life lessons and also valuable journalistic lessons. This is the beauty of the course. We as young journalists can now go out there into the world with a good head on our shoulders, a focused mind and kindred spirit and a tough skin to deal with everything which comes our way, with ease.

With the first four months down I look forward to what the rest of the year has in store for #teamvuvu and I now it is going to be an exciting and tiring one.

Well done #teamvuvu – we made a hell of a change this semester!