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.
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.
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.
Cannabis, ganja, weed, dagga , pot, marijuana – a wild plant which has many South Africans up in arms debating over – To dope or not to dope?
This has been the question on the lips of many people over the last three weeks over whether South Africa should legalise medical or recreational marijuana.
Julian Stobbs and Myrtle Clark – dubbed the “dagga couple” are a middle aged couple who live on their plot in north Gauteng and are both in the TV industry.
They have been smoking for almost 20 years in the comfort of their home. The couple claim they are creative people and smoke the drug to enhance their imagination. They are both in the television industry.
In 2010 the couple’s home was raided by police after they received a tip off that there was a drug lab on their premises.
Their home was broken into by the police at 2am on an August morning. The police poked and messed around for six hours in their home, ravaging their belongings in search of weed.
They searched the garden and found no drug lab on the premises. The pair admit they felt criminalised and unfairly treated for the mere fact that they smoke marijuana.
The couple has dedicated their lives for the fight to legalise this drug in the country.
They will try to convince the constitutional court to completely relegalise dagga in South Africa and not only decriminalise it. To decriminalise it means would mean that you will not have a criminal record for possesion of the drug but it will still be wrong within the legislature of the country.
Gareth prince – another dagga activist started his campaign in the late 90’s after the law society in the Cape of Good Hope refused to admit him as an attorney.
They said he was not a fit and proper person because of his two previous convictions of possession.
Prince –a Rastafarian took them to the Cape High Court – they ruled against him. He appealed and lost again. In 2000 he turned to the constitutional court.
Weed smokers believe that they should have the right to put into their body whatever they choose to and government should not take a paternal role by trying to protect them from using marijuana.
The cannabis society spoke on Street Talk SA about their reasons why they feel growing and using cannabis should be legal.
Cannabis has been shown to cure epilepsy and attention deficit disorder in children by using the drug in cookies.
Professor Michael Herbst – Head of the Cancer Association of South Africa explains that while cannabis can have superficial benefits for people and children, it is still harmful and prolonged use could endanger the user’s life. long term use of cannabis has shown to increase the chances of testicular cancer, lung cancer and cancer of the throat.
The Professor says while it seems like the drug has positive and negative attributes – the CANSA institute cannot implement the use of cannabis as it is still deemed as illegal and it is a criminal offense to have it in your possession.
Doctor Tshidi Gule – Founder and Director of the Medispace Wellnes Clinic explained why exactly cannabis is an illegal drug. This is because it is a more harmful than beneficial product and it is a drug and can cause addiction in teenagers and adults,
If cannabis is relegalised in South Africa – Herbst says it is important to know the difference between marijuana and medical marijuana. The THC levels in medical marijuana are reduced significantly which reduces the side effects the drug has on the user. THC in pure marijuana is high and this is how weed smokers prefer it because the high after smoking it is heightened significantly.
Colorado in America is the most recent state to legalise medical and recreational marijuana. Nancy Grace – a legal commentator, television journalist and former prosecuter – says it is a horrible idea.
However, in South we see Mario Ambrosini from the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) being a strong front line member in the fight to legalise cannabis – after he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer last year. He made his appeal in parliament, saying using cannabis and bicarbonate soda is what has kept him alive thus far.
The Minister of Public Service and Administration Lindiwe Sisulu along with Aaron Motsoaledi, the Health Minister said they would strictly consider his request as this is a “caring society”.
However health professionals say cannabis is not needed for cancer.
If this wild plant is legalised – questions around how the growth and use of it will be regulated are hot topics.
These questions remain unanswered – people speculate that it would be treated similar to alcohol laws and if a person is caught driving under the influence for example they will be arrested and jailed.
A report from a UN agency shows that around eight percent of South Africans use the recreational drug, twice the global average of four percent.
For now Dr Gule says the government has a big task ahead of them in the decisions which lie ahead of them.
I did a news package for Vow FM on the looming Eskom nightmares this past week.
Listen to the full package: ESKOM: Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
How is it okay that the biggest electricity parastatal in the country is not efficient and is failing the demands of the citizens of the country with regard to electricity supply.
People complained about being without electricity two weeks ago, for more than 24 hours, some places in Pretoria were without power for days on end.
As a result it seemed as life as they knew came to a stop. Businesses closed down or went out of business. Traffic lights were out causing major traffic pile ups on the roads and some people could not even cook their food.
For the first time since 2008 load shedding became a very dark reality in the country.
Last week Thursday Eskom declared a power emergency due to the severe constraint on the power grid as a result of the rainy weather.
Eskom’s spokesperson Andrew Etzinger says this is due to the severe wet weather the country has experienced recently.
Whether is was an issue of wet coal or the matter that Eskom does not buy good quality is yet to be known.
This was the fourth power emergency warning which was issued over the past several months. Etzinger said last week that if the situation remained stable – load shedding will be a last resort.
Etzinger said last week that the electricity situation in the coming week will depend entirely on the weather.
The Deputy CEO of Business Unity South Africa Raymond Parsons says Eskom needs to take more responsibility of the problem.
The parastatal says while the grid might stabilise quickly – it will remain vulnerable for at least another two years.
Millions of South Africans were without power for between two and four hours on Thursday.
This resulted in traffics jams, businesses closing and families being unable to cook food. Emily Parsons – a small business owner says buying a generator is too expensive and unrealistic for her.
At the same time, the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry says load-shedding will hurt businesses badly if the problem persists. Raymond Parsons says in turn the economy won’t be benefiting either.
Hospitals and clinics face the biggest problem as load shedding hits the country. The Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (Denosa) spokesperson says hospitals have huge responsibilities towards its patients and need to avoid risky situations which endanger patients’ lives – by having efficient generators on standby.
Energy expert Cornelis Van der Waal says the implementation of Independent Power Producers known as IPP’s are important.
In the meanwhile the DA is calling on the electricity giant to pay back the R31 million bonuses awarded to directors immediately, in order to buy generators for emergency services such as hospitals affected by the power cuts.
On Monday the DA revealed a nine-point plan to address South Africa’s electricity crisis immediately.
It includes investigating why Eskom executives get huge bonuses and asking the National Energy Regulator of South African to launch an independent probe.
The DA erected billboards along Gauteng highways reading – “Load shedding: Proudly brought to you by the ANC.”
The DA’s Wilmot James says Eskom needs to meet South Africa’s electricity demands before the demands of neighbouring countries.
Whether there is a light at the end of the tunnel for South African’s and Eskom remains to be seen – for now Eskom urges people to exercise sustainability.
An article by Khadija Patel on the Oscar Pistorius Trial. Khadija Patel is a writing fellow at the University of Witwatersrand’s Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser).
With the Oscar Pistorius trial, it’s not the South African justice system on trial.
“Is it still not over?” an exasperated court official asked me as I sat down next to the water cooler outside his office at the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court. The Oscar Pistorius bail hearing had captured the world’s attention, and it had also sent reporters like me to narrow corridors of the court, searching out a plug and some silence, to file a story.
I smiled apologetically to him.
The circus would go on for another day at least.
“You see,” he said gesturing at the queue of people sitting on a wooden bench ahead of us, “We deal with vulnerable people in this section of the court, and this racket is not helping us do our job.”
I nodded in understanding, slinking back against the cold, brick wall, aware that I was as much the problem as the noisy scrum of photographers a few meters away.
And why exactly were we there anyway?
Earlier that day, another court official had asked me, “So, every time we have a murder case, can we expect all of you here again?”
I offered a coy smile in response to that too, unsure why it was so important for me to be there, to cover this particular bail hearing and not any other.
And as I spied the queue of people on the wooden bench, speculating what had brought them there, breathing the muggy, unforgiving air of the fourth floor of a Pretoria court house, I wondered what exactly made them “vulnerable”. I was forced to confront the reality of other people’s problems, but I also had to be oblivious to them. As though the only thing worthy of my attention in that entire courtroom, the only case that merited my presence, involved Oscar Pistorius.
Sitting cross-legged on the dusty floor, these questions were an unwanted distraction, an unwelcome intrusion, much like the French radio reporter who had just asked if she could share the plug point.
I had a story to file.
More than one year later, I’m still not sure why it was so important for me to be there, telling the story of that bail hearing, rushing to file that story.
The inimitable celebrity of Oscar Pistorius is the most obvious answer, but it is not the whole answer.
And now, with a trial one Sunday paper has billed, “South Africa’s OJ Simpson” moment, those two remarks from the Magistrates Court officials are a pertinent commentary, a valid observation of media behaviour throughout the last year.
There’s no denying this trial makes for a great story. It will have a definite beginning, a middle and an end. There is a victim and a potential villain. The protagonists are clearly defined. The twists and turns will not be predictable. The criteria for a great story are all satisfied, and journalists, in all their guises are essentially storytellers.
But as this story unravels on our television screens, Twitter feeds and radio waves in pockets of sensationalism, some argue that the attention riveted on the Oscar Pistorius trial is valuable as an analysis of the state of the South African criminal justice system.
These attempts to justify the attention for this particular trial and not any of the other hundreds of murder trials that pass through our courts, however, deny the relevance of the courts to our everyday lives.
Whether it is a traffic violation to settle, or maintenance money to chase, the courts do touch our lives. It is not some distant institution that deals with other people’s problems. It handles our problems. It impacts our lives every day and not just when a wealthy sportsman finds himself hauled before a judge.
This trial, however, is not the test of the South African judicial system.
It is Oscar Pistorius on trial for the premeditated murder of Reeva Steenkamp. It is not the South African judicial system. Because whatever shambles the courts are (allegedly) in, the true reality of the judicial system will not be exhibited in the Pretoria High Court for the next few weeks. Pistorius will not be denied a fair trial. If anything, more attention will be paid to the mechanics of justice to ensure our justice system does not exhibit weakness.
The real test of the South African judicial system lies in those murder cases we’ll never hear about, those “vulnerable” people queuing on the wooden bench, the people passing through the court rooms every day whose stories do not make for compelling television. The real tests of the South African judicial system are ignored.
I did a radio package for a current affairs show on the Voice of Wits (VOW) radio station this past week on the NSFAS issues and what students were feeling and the current situation now.
In the first month of the academic year many students around thecountry started protesting because of the lack of funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)
Students argued that they were not being allowed to register for the 2014 academic year because NSFAS had not allocated enough funds to cover a their tuition and residence fees. Students at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) were asked to leave their residences with immediate effect because of their protests at the university.
Students at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) burnt tyres in anger because the institution refused to allow them inside to register.
Students at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) protested for one full day about the lack of funding from NSFAS, they were arrested by police and appeared in court on February 15, 2014 for the court interdict from the university to stop protests immediately.
The university was ordered by court to allow all students back into campus to register to study for this year, hwoever the university refused to allow the students back in to register.
“One must have a thick skull, a heart of a lion and deaf ears,” said Mzilikazi wa Afrika as he began his presentation on the good, the bad and the ugly of investigative journalism.
Wa Afrika spoke about his own experience as being an investigative journalist for the Sunday Times. The seminar kicked off directly at the FNB building at Wits University as part of the Power Reporting conference.
“Investigative journalism is very, very tough and you need to be prepared to swim with the crocodiles in the river and dance with the lions in the jungle,” said wa Afrika.
The problem journalists face, especially investigative journalists is the problem of intimidation by government.
Investigative journalists throughout the African continent are targeted and silenced. Wa Afrika said this is a big problem the continent is facing and it is also something South Africa is facing.
The notion Mandela had about a “critical, independent and investigative press being the lifeblood of any democracy” should have been said in front of all the African presidents, according to wa Afrika.
It should not be the case that the media become the opposition to the ANC, said wa Afrika. The work of an investigative journalist is very important in balancing a society and yet in other African countries “journalists are treated worse than hobo’s, media houses are forced to close down and journalists’ lives are in danger,” said wa Afrika.
“This is a job that needs to be done, you are [as a journalist] doing a favour for your country,” he said. Wa Afrika said investigative journalists report on stories which affect their people.
He related story of when he was detained at Libreville airport in Gabon for 15 hours because he was a journalist. “My colleague and I were detained with no food or water for 15 hours based on our occupation which we filled out on the forms.”
Both journalists spent the night in a cell with six other men and the next morning they were taken to Mpumalanga where they were interrogated further and only released once their host spoke with the police.
In 2013 a total of 17 journalists have been killed on duty in Syria, six in Egypt and five in Pakistan.
In response to these numbers wa Afrika says, “We need to act now and show them [the government] that they can’t push us around.”
The problem also lies in the lack of reporting on this issue. Over the past weekend journalists were killed in Somalia however “I am yet to read a story in print about this,” he said.
While investigative journalism is expensive and risky, authorities need to be held accountable for their actions. “I do this because I love my country,” he said.
Wa Afrika has eight cameras throughout his house and a neighbourhood watch in order to protect his family. He explained that he often gets death threats.
When Wits Vuvuzela asked wa Afrika if he had any advice for a young investigative journalist he said, investigative journalism is not glamorous, it is blood, sweat and tears. It’s different and you should always watch your back.
“The good is great, the bad is scary and the ugly is death,” said wa Afrika.