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…
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.
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.
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**?
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).