From a Chinese Child of the Apartheid

From a Chinese Child of the Apartheid


September 1992

I was about eleven years old. I had lived in South Africa my entire short life, and my home was on the verge of transformation. The end of apartheid was in sight: Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, and in the years to come, there would be the first fully integrated elections in South Africa. At this point, South Africa was the talk of the world.

This is the South Africa we all know about.

Yet I am talking about the seventh day of September that year: the Bhisho Massacre. Like any other day, people would be marching; people would die. The news in South Africa was far more violent than any videogame that the FCC tries to ban.

This particular day, my life changed. I discovered I would be leaving the only home I had ever known.

On this day, over 400 rounds of ammunition were spent. 29 people died on a day of incomprehensible bloodshed. At the end of this day in history, above sprawled corpses stood a white man who led the march. On television and to the world he said, “Today we achieved what we wanted to achieve.”

What did this man intend to achieve? Desecration and murder? South Africa was no longer a political point of interest, but a breeding ground for senseless crime and murder. The value of life had been reduced to nothing.

I have been living in Vancouver for 11 years now I had never become nostalgic about my past life. That was until I saw Cheuk Kwan’s Chinese Restaurants..

Kwan’s foray was to look at those who had left China to set up a restaurant overseas: Canada to Turkey, Mauritius to Israel. But when he got to Cape Town, my birthplace, it hit home.

As the documentary unfolded, I kept whispering to my editor, “That’s my cousin” or “That’s where my grandfather is buried.” Two continents and a decade apart, these images still stuck. Someone could have thrown Skittles at my head, told me to shut up. I couldn’t care less. That was my home, and onscreen were my people.

At a restaurant in Cape Town, Kwan meets a mother-daughter pair at a restaurant. They cook Chinese food, yet the dishes resemble nothing that I would get in Vancouver. Aunty Edna, the Hakka proprietor of the restaurant, talks about her days of the Chinese in South Africa. How she never felt as a South African citizen, but rather a trespasser on White-owned land.

They visited the Chinese cemetery and the Western Province Chinese Association: the Chinese population was so small you could it them in one room. I should know. I’ve been in that room.

I realized that my generation is different from the one depicted in the film. I began to think about how I was raised amongst other white kids, whereas my parents went to Chinese school or lived in designated Chinese areas. I thought about how my understanding of Chinese culture came mostly from Bruce Lee movies. When I came to my first Canadian school, a kid curiously asked me, “You’re from South Africa… why aren’t you black?”

I am of a very different generation than Edna, and the question remains as to how mine is unique.

My generation is pushed to explore the world, and if the opportunity arises, to leave South Africa. This is ironic, since the Chinese population in South Africa are primarily Hakka, a group known for their migrant ways. Canada has become a popular destination for the Chinese children of the apartheid era.

There are currently 40,000 South Africans residing in British Columbia, Canada. Chances are that if you run into a Chinese South African, we know of each other. Across the world we have become Australian, Canadian and American; we have become global citizen. Yet I know we remain Chinese and I know where we came from.