Chips*, Here Come the Chinese!

me and lucy pic
Me and my friend, Lucy, who owns Hot and Spicy Szechuan Food in Milnerton This is easily the best Szechuan restaurant in Cape Town but you’ve probably never heard of it because it’s not on Bree Street.

Some weeks ago, over lunch at a new Cape Town restaurant everyone is queuing to get into but is actually crap de luxe and the kitchen staff secretly laugh at you for paying R135 for dry chicken in Nola mayonnaise I had a conversation with a friend’s 65-year-old mom who comes from a country the name of which I won’t mention except to say its climate is dodgy, lots of (sorry) South Africans live there and it has more sheep than people. And the conversation was irksome and went like this: *Someone makes a reference to Chinese people living in to Cape Town*

Her: You won’t believe how many Chinese have moved into our neighbourhood. In fact, parts of it don’t even look like Wellington! (oops, I said the place) anymore.

Me: (1,5 glasses of Chenin in and already forgetting my manners. Though lately, being nanoseconds away from The Menopause, it doesn’t take much to make me stroppy): How lucky for you! Must be a great improvement on the local cuisine.

Her: Well… I know what you’re getting at, Xenophobia and everything, but really… it’s just overrun! They’re everywhere!

Me *moving my leg so my husband can’t kick it anymore*: I don’t know why everyone is so nervous of the Chinese. What’s wrong with Chinese people? I mean, look at Chinatown in Milnerton. Chinatown in Milnerton has saved my bacon many times when I needed cheap things in a hurry and pretend soccer shoes for my 9-year-old and also did you know you can buy toilet paper for a fraction, a fraction of what Kak n Pay charges for the same thing. So I think we need to all stop being so weird about people who don’t look exactly like we do. Also, they make dumplings (this was the clincher, in my opinion).

Her: * Awkward pause* Well, I think you’re missing the point of what I’m trying to say, I’m not saying I don’t like Chinese people, I’m just saying, Wellington blah blah blah…

dumplings pic.jpg
Dumplings. Is there even anything to discuss?

And yes, I’m probably missing the point, but it aggravates me when people say things like that and assume you’ll agree because personally and speaking for myself, I have less than no problem with Chinese people living in ‘my’ city (or even better, ‘my’ neighbourhood, then I don’t have to travel so far for dumplings) and to anyone who does I have two words to say to you: Peking Duck. Anyone who has ever tried to make Peking Duck will immediately have the deepest, most abiding respect for the people of China. Recently I decided to celebrate my new stove and its fancy rotisserie function by attempting to make Peking Duck.

I purchased a frozen duck (since I don’t live in China) from a trendy, overpriced butchery and also enough Chinese 5 Spice to season all of Yingdong and Fangshan and Poongking combined and followed the recipe to a tee. Significant was my excitement around my own cleverness because who on this planet doesn’t adore Peking Duck? (yes, yes, the vegans, but never mind them for now). Well. The fact that that duck had to leave its pond of murky happiness to end up a leathery grey thing on my sad dinner table fills me with shame and regret.

I will say emphatically that Peking duck is not a dish for non-Chinese people to attempt. Neither, for that matter, is Szechuan Spicy Boiled Fish. Which I haven’t tried to make but after the last thing won’t even bother. So, if for no other reason than the plethora of places in this (and every) city you can visit and order delicious dishes for a lot less than R135, let’s try not to say crappy things about the ‘foreigners’ who arrive on our shores. Because unless you actually did that swab test at Home Affairs and are 100% Khoi San you are also a foreigner, FYI.

szechuan beef dish.jpg
Szechuan Spicy Boiled Fish. Yes, those are chillies and yes, you will cry like a little girl and then come back the next night for more.

I’ll be the first to admit that the Chinese have a reputation for being insular and are often not the friendliest folk you’ll encounter when you’re out shopping (although there are huge, massive exceptions to this generalisation, like my friend Lucy in the above pic who is basically sunshine on speed). But, in instances where we feel inclined to put people in boxes, it’s very good to stop for a minute and consider the reason why some people may behave in a certain way. Generally speaking, I’d say that living in a dictatorship on the brink of abject poverty (this is turning, but it will take a while) in a country where full-term girl babies were routinely aborted and where you work your fingers to the bone seven days a week for a wage below the breadline and never see your children is enough to make anyone a little taciturn.

Add to that the fact that basically everyone in the world hates you (last time I checked there wasn’t a notable lack of space in New Zealand) and you’re going to turn inwards and stick with your own kind. A few centuries ago, when everyone and their brother was arriving on South African shores in the hope of finding diamonds and living a better life (don’t we all hope for diamonds and a better life?), a large contingency of Chinese people arrived as slaves of the Dutch East India Company. And you can imagine that being a slave in the household of one Gerhardus Poephol van Schipol wouldn’t exactly have been a barrel of laughs.

guv 2
Gerhardus Poephol van Schipol not looking thrilled about how the poffertjies turned out.

Then, to add insult to injury, between 1904 and 1910 over 64 000 Chinese were ‘imported’ to colonial South Africa (love the euphemism) as indentured labourers to work on the gold mines. So they basically helped build our country. And while most of these Chinese were returned to China (thanks for that, and good luck not dying on the ship), the Chinese population that exists in South Africa today are, for the most part, the great-great-great-grandchildren of independent migrants who trickled in in small numbers from Guangdong province as early as the 1870s. I would say that if your people have been living here for 150 years you pretty much qualify as a local.

And for these people, life on the whole has not been a thing of joy. Discrimination and racist legislation prevented them from obtaining individual mining licenses (pretty ironic, that). The ugly laws that governed South Africa at that time denied citizenship, prohibited land ownership and restricted trade for the Chinese. Classed as non-white and barred from entering the formal sector, most Chinese had to go under the radar to support their families, playing Mah Jong for money in the townships, getting arrested by the apartheid police and eking out an existence by running small businesses. Nobody wanted Chinese tenants or neighbours. To be eligible for a rental property you had to get written permission from every person living in the street that they didn’t mind you moving in there. Can you really blame them for being a bit poesbedroef**?

china mall pic.jpg
China Mall, Johannesburg

When you drive through dusty little towns like Vanrhynsdorp and Pitsonderwater and see the inevitable Chinese shop in the middle of nowhere selling everything from cheap clothing to fly swatters you’ve got to wonder at the lives of its owners. If this isolated, lonely existence miles from home and anything familiar is better than where you came from… wow. So, I say from our places of white, middle class privilege let’s try and keep the arrogance in check. You’d be hard pressed to find a race who work harder, longer and are tougher and more resilient than these.

Also, rather than going to cool establishments that serve Nola mayonnaise and don’t need your custom, support small businesses in off-the-beaten-track places run by people who work insanely long hours and try really hard to serve consistently good food. Many of them are supporting entire families back home in China. You don’t find a lot of Chinese people hanging out at Clifton and going for drinks at Caprice. They understand the value of money and what it takes to survive. Plus, there’s no reason on god’s green earth to make your own Peking Duck.

*South African for ‘watch out!’

** South African for ‘very sad.’

(If you want to also cry like a girl and go back the next night, Hot and Spicy Szechuan Food can be found about 500m up Bosmansdam Road if you’re coming from Koeberg and is tucked behind an establishment called Sables Bar and Bistro. I don’t think they have a phone and nobody speaks English. Go hungry and point at things).

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17 thoughts on “Chips*, Here Come the Chinese!

  1. Oh my word…! While I enjoy most of your blogs, this one, was probably one of your best work. You used the word p**sbedroef and that, in my books, is just fab. As a non-white, I appreciate that you use your platform to cut the overly opinionated Caucasians of the world – and in particular white Souf Efricans – down a peg or two. I happen to love the fact that there is a fantastic Chinese restaurant 3 minutes from my home in Gordons Bay and they make the most devine EVERYTHING. Fresh and tasty and wonderfully reasonably priced, so that I can get two portions if I need to. Thank you for your sharing your perspective with us. I enjoy reading it. Lots of love and good vibes to you! V

  2. This is so true. As usual I enjoy your humor. Humans are more the same than we are different but I always try to look at the bigger picture and some nations do have the highfalutin self-importance arrogance, forgetting that as heirs to this arrogance, it started with invasions, murder and looting of many countries’ natural-resources then selling it back to the indigenous inhabitants, robbing them of their own wealth, entrapping them in binding contracts, which keeps them poor and enslaved, as it is done still today with the wars in the Middle East and N Africa. The self-importance didn’t stop there. It managed to turn around on their victims by using a derogatory word ‘slavery’, thereby deflecting from their criminal behaviour as human-traffickers, abductors and kidnappers of people wrenched from their families and trade to serve these criminals and bullies. Dr Sashi Taroor explains it so eloquently at Oxford Uni, (on YouTube) as it had happened in India. Interesting how they adopted the name Dutch East India Company = Human Traffickers & Kidnappers (PTY) Ltd. Its like ‘migrants’ have replaced the word ‘refugees’ in other parts of the world, the very parts responsible for the wars. Like the self important Royals, who are just bums, living off the life-blood from these war-torn countries. Keep using powerful ‘impact’ words. But then, you cant blame everyone for their ignorance, but you can blame them for their self-importance. I buy from a Chinese shop, love the sushi sets etc, but I have a problem with their shoes and style of clothing, which seldom fit to the SA’n size, even if I do not shop as much anymore, but love their sushi. I just spoke to someone yesterday, an ex cop, Afrikaans, (so was my late husband), who readily wanted to point out the problems with our crime in townships and I said, but look at the western crime from pretentious sophisticated gangsters in suits, with all their pomp and ceremony and mink and manure, with manure being the operative word, warring and murdering thousands daily, while the world looks on. Then there are those who know, but are denialistic for selfish reasons. Thank goodness for the youth, a growing true global unity against racism emerging. As my one son would say, ‘mom, the human race should be wiped out and the earth will thrive’. I say, shame the animals must be thinking ‘ why do we have to share this planet with them’.

  3. Aah Susan, you are a tonic for the soul! Variety is the spice of life I say! Love love love all spicy and interesting food and people. Come to Cape Town, one and all, you are welcome here! Thank goodness we don’t live in that other boring place..

  4. I love you. This is exactly it. This. Oh I don’t even know what to say but you really spoke my mind about people being assholes to other people and Chinese in particular, but in a more eloquent and funny matter. Thank you, thank you!

  5. I just love your posts. Dont worry Australians are the same about the chinese. Never mind the fact that without chinese trade and investment the would be no upper class bogans 😄

  6. Another wonderful article and so well written – thank you for your humour and wit! I resonate with all your articles and look forward to the next one 😊

  7. Thank you. While I can totally understand why people gravitate towards people who are alike, in this day and age it looks like we need a bigger voice to tell the world that “different” is OK too.

  8. I always enjoy your posts , even when don’t agree with some of the things you write!
    I deal with Chinese traders regularly and find them to be polite and friendly but I have a huge problem with a lot of their human rights issues as well as the horrific trade of ivory and rhino horn which they perpetuate .and this does NOT seem to be changing…it appears to be getting worse.
    I have travelled around China and it was an eye-opening experience to say the least…the sheer masses of humanity all trying to make a living in seriously space challenged cities was a complete shock to the system for a girl who grew up on a sprawling farm in South Africa ….it also gave me clarity on why they behave the way they do and definitely why they are ‘different’ from us.
    Their work ethic i legendary and they are law abiding (on the whole) and doing business with the factories and wholesalers was an absolute pleasure. They were incredibly accommodating and eager to assist us with whatever we needed.
    I think South Africa and the West in general could learn a huge amount from the Chinese, not least how to cook Peking Duck!!!

  9. The arrogance of people drives me barmy! After 30 reluctant years in Europe, British-passported, I now live in France, thanks to Britain’s membership of the EU. You would be amazed at how many of the local Brits (immigrants all, chasing cheap housing and more sunshine than you can shake a stick at) refer to the French sneeringly as “they”. And adding insult to injury, after an education where the words “noun” and “verb” never featured, can speak scarcely a word of French … I could go on. Alas, the world is full of such people.

    1. I absolutely get what you mean. A few years ago we were holidaying near Dinah which has a very high rate of Brits because of it’s proximity to the South of England and the ferry. We were having lunch one day in a delightful (busy) French restaurant trying (and succeeding) to use our best French to order from the menu.

      Shortly after we placed our order this group of ignorant British tourists arrived (or maybe they were even residents as you have observed) and attempted to order lunch while making no attempt whatsoever to use any French. They simply asked, in English, repeating themselves LOUDER, and S_L_O_W_E_R to the waiter, ‘Do you serve s_a_n_d_w_i_c_h_e_s?” It was like something out of Fawlty Towers. The waiter feigned ignorance and French ‘stupidity’ and in the end they gave up and left hungry, grumbling about the dim French who can’t speak English.

      Turns out the young waiter could speak perfect English. It was a family run business where the mother, was front of house, and French while the young waiter’s father, the chef was English. he was bilingual. One got the impression they regularly dealt with the arrogant English reluctance to even try speaking French in this way. Hats off to them.

  10. That woman’s comment made me automatically imagine an ACTUAL South African from a few hundred years ago (not very long in fact), standing there, spear in hand (or whatever), looking at that woman and the rest of Wellington, and marveling at what is (not) left of how things used to be.
    As a German living in Cape Town I find it ironic how there can be so much xenophobia in a place as culturally diverse as the one we live in.
    Before we judge/speak we must reflect and remember where we ourselves come from.

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