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Rooftop Revolution in Jozi

August 8, 2015

Things are looking up for Jozi, quite literally. Smart and creative types are exploiting the potential of the city’s abandoned buildings, breathing new life into them and showing Joburgers there are views to sigh for after all in a city that doesn’t have skyscrapers and too many buildings that reach for the stars.

I loved checking up Jozi’s emerging rooftop culture for the August edition of HIGH LIFE magazine  – the British Airways mag. Yes, I managed a sneak-peek at the urinals in Randlords. Can you believe that the guys slash against clear (well, mostly) glass wall that looks 22-storeys down. The ladies’ are far classier, I have to say, with a very sexy swing to enjoy the view. And yip I had to  stop saying “wow” and “sjoe” with every sentence while I got the tour of  the Michelangelo penthouse in Sandton. The Cupola Suite is the dome at the top of the towers, and you’ll read in my piece that its hosted the likes of Prince Harry and Floyd Mayweather. The price tag is a whopping – R55 000 a night. It’s what you pay for your own private lift to go up one or two levels and to have a TV set bigger than my car. I am jealous of Ade Ashaye’s rooftop fire-pit and his home in a converted Gordon Leith building in downtown Jozi. Imagine the silence of waiting up in the inner city on a Sunday morning, then the contrast of a city jolting to life by 5am on weekdays. My eny of Ade’s “pad” aside, I did get to do the Jacuzzi thing on the deck of the penthouse at The Residence in Houghton, sipping bubbles and star-gazing and yip … I could get used to the lifestyle.

But bubbles and laps of luxury aside, this article is a celebration of the beauty of re-invention, about the vision some people have and the guts and creative genius they pull out of the hat to make it come together.

It’s about taking a fresh look at Joburg, this one with a view from above.

(The text version of the story follows at the bottom of the layouts  – in case your eyes fail you)

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For a city obsessed with what lies beneath the ground, the ‘place of gold’ has been turning its gaze skywards, redefining vertical life and embracing the rooftop revolution. Self-confessed Jozi addict Ufrieda Ho gives the view from the top two thumbs up.

These days if you venture above Joburg street level you’ll find rooftop bars and markets, wedding venues that are almost heavenly, yoga with a view and cinema nights under a canopy of stars. It’s not bad going for this city I call home that has no mountain to speak of, no ocean view, only a few skyscrapers that dot the horizon and a tallest building – the Carlton Centre – that at 50storeys ticks the box for Africa’s most lofty, but comes in at just over a quarter next to the world’s tallest building: Dubai’s Burj Khalifa at 829.8 metres.

I’m under Joburg’s spell it’s true, bewitched by what the city offers on street level from galleries in gardens like the Spaza Art Gallery, places to order good dim sum in downtown Chinatown, getting a fix of coffee brewed by Ethiopians in Little Addis, or just shooting the breeze with transients, transplants and true blood Jozi-ites alike.

But things are looking up literally for Jozi. It’s come with the transformation of the buildings from abandonment and neglect to city Cinderellas. It’s given those like me, who play and stay in the city, 360 degrees of falling in love with Joburg again.

Ade Ashaye is a convert too. The Brit born to Nigerian parents splits his time between Lagos and Joburg working for a payments technology company. When Ashaye is in Joburg, the place he calls home is the penthouse apartment of 87 Commissioner.

87 Commissioner is the re-imagined old Barclays Bank building that was designed by one of South Africa’s premier architects in the 1940s, Gordon Leith. The sandstone beauty boasts art deco features, imposing colonnades and a triple-volume entrance hall.

Ashaye bought his first apartment in the downtown building in 2007 but by 2011 he’d upgraded, buying the split level penthouse apartment on the ninth and tenth floors and the rooftop terrace.

‘It’s a great space; I had lived in Sandton and in Morningside before, but it can be a bit of a bubble.

‘I grew up in North London where it’s never quiet and downtown Joburg has that same energy and the old buildings here have character. At the same time my lifestyle hasn’t changed – there’s everything I need here in the inner city now and many more in my circle of friends are choosing to live downtown,” says Ashaye.

It helps that his Joburg home includes a fire-pit on the roof. It’s perfect for braaiing, perfect for warming cold nights and by day, the perfect spot to appreciate one of his favourite things about Joburg: the razor-sharp blue of a winter Highveld sky, he says.

It wasn’t always like this; downtown Joburg by the late 1990s was a write-off. The exodus of big business added to the sense of doom and decay. The terribly swanky Carlton Hotel closed its doors after 25 years in 1998 and by 2000 the Johannesburg Stock Exchange relocated to Sandton. The process of reclaiming hijacked and abandoned buildings in the early part of the naughties were hit and miss and stop-start at best.

But by the late 2000s new developers were ready to get their feet wet. Lessons had been learnt, city management had caught up to the potential of urban regeneration and Africa’s first-ever football World Cup was a goal opportunity not to be missed. Up came boutique hotels like Faircity Mapungubwe hotel apartments and the Reef Hotel. Chief among their charms were the promise of a CBD experience and rooftop venues for a new kind of partying, chilling or just for watching inner-city sunsets.

But arguably the venue view with the “most-est” is at the western fringe of the inner-city in Braamfontein. It’s 22-storeys up and it’s a view that belongs to Randlords.

‘People’s reactions to the view are always the same – they’re wowed by what they see,’ says Tatiana Prihodova, marketing manager for Randlords.

She says there’s something about a building being at the city’s core but also separated from the chaos and commotion by being 22 storeys up. Prihodova is right. Everything’s a little quieter, slower from up here. Even the sun’s autumn rays seem to reach me lazily before extending below to the plaits of railway tracks running under the arching spectacle of the Nelson Mandela Bridge that dominate Randlord’s view.

‘We have used the cityscape to our advantage and we offer a true 360° view of Joburg,’ says Prihodova. It makes the exclusive venue that got its start in late 2010 a favourite for corporate functions, public events, weddings, birthdays and photo and TV shoots. A visit here though is not complete without a sneak peek (if you’re a girl) of the guys’ loos. The glassed urinals look all the way down to street level, making these “must-wee” toilets.

Along with the exclusive venues of Braamfontein is the hipster market of Neighbourgoods. The rooftop terrace throbs with people on Saturdays sipping artisanal beer or quaffing champagne with shucked oysters. In the same block there’s also The Beach, up on the roof of 68 Juta Street. In summer expect white sand, beach umbrellas and ice-cold drinks all a hundred miles from any lapping waves.

If Braamfontein flies the flag of the rooftop revolution from the west of the city, it’s Maboneng that reaches equal heights in the east. Like Braamfontein, Maboneng, which is in Jeppestown, rose from the ashes of urban decay with the calculated mad genius of private developers who’ve dared invest in broken parts of the inner-city.

Maboneng is framed by the M2 motorway on the one end and the suburban sprawl of Johannesburg East on the other end; vertically though the boundaries are elastic.

Here there are yoga classes on the deck of the rooftop eco-urban café The Living Room. Even the gardens here are vertical – as plants grow up against the walls and inverted pot plants dangle from the roof.  On Sunday afternoons it’s salsa at the Canteen dancing get patrons sashaying their hips and losing their inhibitions. Across the road is Poolside – think pool party on a rooftop as DJs work the mixing decks and bartenders mix the cocktails. The precinct is also home to the independent cinema, The Bioscope. While the cinema has operated on street level for about the past six years, last year it launched open-air cinema nights, which have included cinema on rooftop venues.

Russell Grant, co-owner of The Bioscope, says: ‘Even back in 2009 when we started we had the idea of outdoor screenings and the idea of rooftop screenings is about utilising previously neglected industrial spaces in the city.’ The outdoor movie nights are often themed. It’s means getting creative about locations. A screening of college vacation flick Spring Break found its perfect location on the rooftop of The Beach in Braamfontein.

‘We try to mix it up and not to do the same thing every time but being outdoors and being on a rooftop is always about celebrating our unique Jozi skyline – whatever angle you look at it from, it’s a view that never gets old,’ says Grant.

The view he’s talking about from the vantage point of the East includes the cylindrical statement of Ponte Tower, the Hillbrow Tower, Brixton’s Sentech Tower and the Ellis Park stadium dome.

Beyond this skyline lies the north, but in-between are excellent reasons to pause to take in the treasures of suburbs that creep up alongside the ridges of the city. Observatory ridge at 1808 metres is Johannesburg highest point. It’s boasts a Herbert Baker built meteorological observatory that turns 110 this year. Hopefully after years of being closed it will reopen for public night tours by the end of the year.

All things heritage are the domain of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation that regularly conducts tours that take in historic hilltop mansions. These lofty panoramas from Parktown Ridge mansions like Northwards and Villa Arcadia once enchanted the mining elite of Johannesburg’s heady gold rush days.

In Houghton there’s the Munro Drive viewpoint and boutique hotels that disappear like hidden treasures into the lush suburbs. One of these is The Residence. Entrance to the secluded penthouse stretches out from an oversized private deck with a view of the minarets of the Houghton Masjid, Rosebank in the distance and Jacaranda blooms that add a lilac blush to the vista.

Yes, there’s something about being in a Jacuzzi, sipping bubbly with the night view an exquisite blur of treetops and stars. I fell asleep tracing the path of the Southern Cross, courtesy of the bedroom ceiling that has a built-in skylight with a retractable cover.

The Residence is the opposite of flash and swag, but what the five-star establishment shows in restraint it makes up with an unexpected view and an offering of a discreet rooftop bar and rooftop spa located east of the penthouse.

General manager Sanet van der Westhuizen says they’ve hosted dignitaries, diplomats and ordinary folk ‘who want the exclusivity but also want it to feel like they’re in a home away from home – just a little bit more special. We are a hidden gem; many people don’t even know we’re here or that we have this view,’ she says.

Neighbouring Houghton is Norwood where the main drag of Grant Avenue has since the end of last year welcomed The Factory on Grant that includes a rooftop chill spot for this burgeoning art hub.

Developer Craig McLeary says they were restricted by only being able to be three storeys high when they set out to rescue the building he describes as one of the worst on the street before it was reclaimed. ‘I happened to climb up onto the roof of the neighbouring building while we were building and realised we could use the roof space,’ says McLeary.

What they have now is a rooftop for sundowners, for unwinding and relaxing. The view here is of the sun fading behind the eastern horizon – a perfect way to mark off the end of the day. The vibe at The Factory, McLeary says, is deliberately laid back, not party or high volume. “We’ve had jazz afternoons on the rooftop before but they wrap up before the neighbours start to complain,” he says.

It’s true; Joburg is a place of contrast, contradiction even. And up north in Sandton things are unapologetically flash. This is the place that puts the ‘up’ in upmarket and with apartment living becoming all the rage in about the last five to eight years, apartments here have sold for record sums. The penthouse in Morningside’s The Regent fetched a whopping R60 million in 2013 according to Business Day newspaper. When the Legacy Group’s The Leonardo comes onto the market, it will be Sandton’s tallest building at 42 storeys. It will also fetch top dollar with price tags of R180 million per apartment, according to Financial Mail reports from 2014.

The Legacy group also own the Da Vinci and Michelangelo Towers in Sandton. Inside the 11th floor Da Vinci penthouses, guest relations manager Talita Bos shows off swish apartments that make it clear what extra zeros can buy.

When I step through the doors I watch where my handbag swings and I have to physically return my dropped bottom jaw to its normal position and try to stop saying ‘wow’ every step I take.  There are indoor private elevators, TVs wider than my car, butler quarters, display kitchens to show off your teppanyaki and hotpot skills and, of course floor to ceiling windows and decks that make everything about the views.

“Apartment living has really taken off. The lock up and go environment appeals to a lot of people, so does the investment potential of these units and the convenience of being in the heart of Sandton,” says Bos.

But it’s the penthouse in the Michelangelo Towers – the Cupola, that is Sandton’s crowning glory. All the obligatory touches are here – lifts to transport guests between the split levels, two kitchen areas, boardroom with its own entrance, gym, decks, with private pool and all you might expect for R55 000 a night.

I don’t get to ring for a butler in white gloves (truly!) or call a top-level meeting and ask guests to use the private entrance to my boardroom. But it’s pretty cool to know that up here you are queen of the castle, literally on top of the world.

But what really steals the show is of course, the view. I can’t get enough of the circumferential horizon the Cupola delivers. It’s what would have greeted the likes of Sepp Blatter, Prince Harry and Floyd Mayweather when they chose the Michelangelo as their choice of Jozi accommodation.

It’s a view that stretches out in every direction, as far my eyes can make out. These forever vistas are wide open, like the story of urban Jozi life – a narrative full of promise, being told one rising storey at a time. – UFRIEDA HO


July 30, 2015

I have to confess that I couldn’t remember my password logging on tonight. It’s been a looooog time since I’ve blogged here or even posted some of my recent articles. I guess one of the best ways to explain my abandoned blog comes from an article I did last year for THE STAR. Appropriately, it was published under the headline of “Blogger Burnout”. I got to speak to two top SA bloggers who despite their A-type personalities and their amazing successes in other aspects of their lives, maintaining a blog while having full lives, simply became an extra task at the end of the day  – blog slog (I so get that as a freelancer). I pretty much laughed my way through those interviews because I could relate to almost everything that Emma and Marc chatted about.  

But blogs have their place and yes, I should give this dear one a bit more TLC – especially as there has been a lot on the go. This city, this country offers up so much for storytelling and reporting. I always say this country is a place where it’s impossible to have a luke warm reaction to anything – gotta to love it!

Anyway, if you don’t hear from me often enough here – find me on Twitter, my handle is @ufrieda or good ol’ Google will connect you to some of the articles that have been keeping me busy of late. 

Here’s  a link to my article  “BLOGGER BURNOUT – It became a slog so I quit” article. 



Blogger burnout: It became a slog so I quit


Copy of st blogger burnout emma wilsonSuppliedSouth African food stylist Emma Wilson just could not sustain her blog.

Johannesburg – Ahhh… your first blog post! Remember finally succumbing to Fomo so you would not be left behind? The seduction of how cool it would be to put a “.co.za” or, better still, a “.com” behind your name or to have a catchy URL cleverly summing you up?

You took the leap and plunged into the blogosphere. You set up your page with a stunning photo of yourself, a couple of paragraphs about your favourite bands, your thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s latest offering, nostalgia over your long-lost Goth days and your perfect water-to-coffee ratio for the best brew.

And people liked it, or the curated version of you at least.

Traffic to your site was steady and views stacked up as peaks on your site-stats graph. It was like the rush of the cute guy at gym flirting with you – and you didn’t even have to put on a smear of lipstick.

Blogging became an addiction. And a vicious circle. You had to post more, sound wittier, do more interesting things so you could blog more. You had to keep your readers happy.

Soon, though, the pressure began to make you think slog every time you thought blog. Months would pass and you wouldn’t log on even though you were racked by guilt about abandoning your blog and your readers, all 18 of them, including your mom, your best mate living in Tokyo and your stalker ex.

Copy of st blogger burnout Marc PendleburyWhisky expert Marc Pendlebury freely admits on his Twitter profile that he is a ‘blogger on hiatus’.Supplied

Your blog became too high-maintenance, too demanding and just too much hassle. Frankly, you weren’t that into each other anymore – you became a victim of blogger burnout.

You’re not alone.

Recently a couple behind a popular home renovation blog in the US, Sherry and John Petersik, made headlines in The Washington Post and The New York Times simply because they stopped posting.

This after 80 months of regular Thursday posts discussing their week-by-week DIY renovations, from paint colour choices to roof repairs, on their blog, www.younghouselove .com.

When readers started to notice the lag in posts, the couple eventually admitted on their blog they had been “feeling off for a while” and confessed to missing the days when they blogged “for the love of it” as well as the guilt of “letting you guys down repeatedly” – and their advertisers, too. They had blogger burnout – wiped out from trying to come up with fresh, interesting content every week.

South African food stylist Emma Wilson, who is also a recipe consultant and owner of the Eat with Emma café in Loop Street, Cape Town, can laugh now about her orphaned blog of the same name that she started in 2012. Before the year was out, she walked away from the blog.


Like most entrepreneurs, Wilson bought into the importance of having a web presence, about developing her brand and social-media profile, especially because she’s a freelancer.

Wilson completed a two-week blogging course and got a professional to design her site. She set the goal of a new post once a week.

But soon it became added pressure to her busy life, and her posts became patchier.

She says there was the challenge of meeting deadlines and clients’ expectations during the day, then finding interesting things to post about at night. It took time to craft posts and to style images for the blog.

After all, styling is what she does for a living, and she couldn’t afford to be casual about what she presented on her blog.

“A blog is like a marriage: if you’re not committed, it’s not going to work,” she says.

“I’m a freelancer and blogging wasn’t putting food on the table, whereas my other work was, and I had to respond to that.”

She adds: “I’m typical A-type personality, so it wasn’t easy for me to just let my blog go. I love blogs, I have great admiration for food writers and bloggers, and I follow many blogs, but do I miss blogging myself right now? Absolutely not!”

One day in the future, she jokes. she and her blog might rekindle their relationship. There will be new boundaries, though, she says. For one thing, it would have to be more website oriented than blog oriented. That way she can retain a web presence without the TLC of constant updating.

She’s also not sworn off social media and loves Instagram. She says: “It’s instant and quick and it’s also often just a picture with a few words. I’m addicted actually.”

For Marc Pendlebury of www.whiskybrother.com, there’s no denial that he and his blog are officially in a phase of separation. On his Twitter profile, he describes himself simply as “blogger on hiatus”.

Pendlebury, who works in finance, started his blog in 2010 because of his love for whisky. He took time crafting tasting notes and transforming them into blog posts. So popular was his blog that his reputation as a whisky aficionado grew and he had the confidence to quit his job and open his speciality whisky store, called WhiskyBrother, in Hyde Park, Joburg.

Today the store is running, Pendlebury is back working in finance in London but the blog has gone into hibernation. It has been 11 months since he last posted.

“I wasn’t blogging for the readers, really. I was blogging for myself and I was trying to blog once every second week,” says Pendlebury, via Skype, from London.

But when the store opened and he later decided to rejoin the corporate world, Pendlebury couldn’t sustain the blog, leading him to openly declare that he and his blog had reached “hiatus” status.

“The blog is something I’m passionate about and I think I will go back to it one day,” says Pendlebury, admitting to missing his blog.

He’s an avid tweeter, though, and maintains a Facebook page for his brand.

The reality for Pendlebury and Wilson is that blogging is sometimes a full-time job and there’s a line between a hobby and earning a living.

Crystal Espin is the blogger at www.joburgsdarling.co.za, which is owned by Velocity Media. Being employed as a full-time blogger is a dream come true for Espin.

“I used to have my own blog but the truth is that a successful blog does need a support system and a network that you can build on,” says Espin, adding that IT support, advertising and networking are critical.

Now Espin posts daily, writing reviews of restaurants and eateries, things to do, things of interest and trends. The blog gets 60 000 views and 130 000 impressions every month. It’s a medium Espin loves.

“I love how the blog helps small businesses that may never have had a chance to get the exposure that they do from something like Joburgsdarling. We also have a community that’s so responsive with suggestions and comments,” says Espin.

Blog burnout may claim it victims. But some have emerged from the haze of the blogosphere wiser. Like the wisdom that social media is meant to be tamed to be enjoyed, that there’s a right time for everything and that there’s life after letting go of your blog.

The Star

RIP – Rhino Man (Dr Ian Player)

November 30, 2014


I never met Dr Ian Player. I did however, get to chat to him last year as I worked on THE SATURDAY STAR’S year-long Towards 20 Years of Democracy series. He was a gentleman and graciously made time to chat to me. I expected to have to do a lot of explaining about a rather unusual piece I wanted to write for the “I am a South African” topic that we were running as part of the series. I wanted to make the rhino, a South African that needed to have a voice but I need Dr Player to highlight the problems and the context that he felt was most important at that time. After I wrote the piece, I emailed it to him, I wasn’t sure what his reaction would be. He wrote this back to me:

“Your article was outstanding and brought tears to my eyes.   I would just add one more thing somewhere in your text.  ‘You call yourselves homosapiens “.  You are not. You are homo-non- sapiente, ferocious destructus.’

I was struck by the emotion he felt and the big heart he had for the creatures that share our planet. I was struck too by his words of what makes us humans and what should make us hang our heads in shame. 


This is the piece that was published in THE SATURDAY STAR in December 2013.


Rhino don’t talk, they don’t have a human voice. If they could speak, men like Dr Ian Player(conservationist, author and the pioneer behind Operation Rhino, which bought back the white rhino from the brink of extinction in Southern Africa in the 1950s) would know better than most that a rhino’s message to us today, would look something like this. (Written by Ufrieda Ho)  


I have walked this earth for millions of years and watched a million suns rise on the grassy plains that are my home.

I have called the ancients – the elephant and the baobabs – my brothers, like I called you brother when your time arrived to be among us. We grew up together in our evolution story and for a time we shared this Eden. My kind kept to the grass and bushlands, satisfied with the sure rhythm of the seasons, knowing lean times would pass to times of plenty and we rhinos would flourish – also die – in the equilibrium nature knows best. We stayed on this path, you though raced along another evolutionary track.

Now millennia have put distance between us, we are further apart than ever. You call us, the rhino, one of your “Big Five”, you put us on the back of your R10 note and I am part of what you parade as proudly South African. But you keep us in your cages and your fenced parks. You’ve annexed our habitats but you are no custodian of our wild places. Our rivers and waterways are choked, our soils are depleted or washed into the oceans and the air we breathe fills us with toxic chemical cocktails – the byproducts of your progress. The less space we have the fewer of us survive, not just rhino, but all who are left to hold up the web of life, the birds in the sky, the fish and coral in our sea, the smallest of the small insects everywhere.
You tear at our web, you tear at my heart too as you’ve butchered my kind (more than 900 of us died in last year’s annual death count). Our horns of compacted keratin have become a commodity that drives your trade in aspiration and mythical medicines.

It makes me cry. Have you ever heard me cry? Have you heard me cry out as you’ve come with your guns and your hacksaws? Have you heard me cry as I have watched calves unable to separate from the butchered carcasses of their mothers? If you have heard me cry, you’ll never forget – you’ll know it to your primal core, it imprints on your psyche and find you in your dreams and your quiet moments.

Now hear my last cry because my time is running out. Your gods of politics, big profits and self-interest have served you poorly.  We don’t need your grand gestures, not even your rage. We need you to walk among us with light footsteps, treading mindfully showing that you are relearning that this earth is our home too.

Then into the future maybe you will remember that once we walked closer to each other. Once we were brothers.




Notes from an Unhappy Island

July 22, 2014

This June I got to visit Hong Kong as part of a group of African journos attending the N3 (New, Now, Next) Journalism conference with the Wits University China-Africa reporting.

It’s been years since I have been back to visit Hong Kong, which made it a perfect opportunity to take a fresh dipstick test of changing sentiments in a Hong Kong that has since 1997 been returned to the Chinese mainland.

I arrived to find an island hot and bothered. It wasn’t just that mercury that soared to the early 30s (along with humidity that leaves you melting). It was an island in fiery mood with the the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square being commemorated and with Hong Kong seething as the “One Country, Two Systems” policy looked to increasingly be shifting the balance of power more firmly in favour of Beijing.

It was difficult to ignore the thinly veiled resentment towards Mainlanders – the noveau riche who have the might of a yuan that trumps the HK dollar. They’re blamed for buying up property so that Hong Kong locals believe they’ll never be able to own their own properties; they’re blamed for forcing the closure of mom and pop shops, congee joints and nik-nak shops  along the likes of Nathan Road, in favour of  gold jewellery shosp lined up one after the other to cater for the Mainlanders who can’t get enough of the bling. And they Mainlanders are blamed for being coarse, rude and disregarding the way of life of Hong Kongnese, who have long been accustomed to world view that looks outwards to the global stage.

Many mainlanders arrive on the island with empty over-sized wheelie suitcases that they fill  up with baby milk formula, shampoos, body lotions and canned foods stuff before they leave. They’ll buy the lux goods at the  LV store and they’ll dine at top restaurants and drive in vehicles that have number plates that say “Playa” on them, but they also need the basic stuff because they don’t trust the products sold to them back in China.

A distinct anti-Beijing sentiment seems to be growing. One Hong Kong man told me he refuses to turn on the TV for the evening news till the very minute that the broadcast begins – he refuses to listen to even one bar of the Chinese national anthem, he said. Another tut-tutted as he told me that English used to be the desired second language to Cantonese, now it’s Mandarin as near us a shop assistant muddled through her Mandarin, apologising for not hitting the right intonations or not being able to find the right words for her Mainland customer.

These are interesting times indeed on the island and just days after I got back to South Africa, the 1 July commemorations – marking the 1997 return to the Mainland, saw a staggering 500 000 Hong Kongnese take to the streets in one of the biggest pro-democracy protests the island has seem. Predictably, authorities from the Mainland poo-pooed the march and said only around 90 000 people attended.

**There are some eerie parallels between what Hong Kong is experiencing from the Mainland and the pressure that South Africa (and Africa) feels as the Beijing footprint enlarges on our content. I wrote a piece for the World Policy Journal’s African Angle blog. I’ve copy and pasted it below or check out the link. The article has also been cross-posted on the Africa-America Institute website




Hong Kong’s Warning Signs for South Africa

July 16, 2014 – 9:22am | admin

By Ufrieda Ho

It’s busy and noisy in the fast food joint not far from the old Hong Kong airport where Mak Yin-ting is sipping a cold red bean drink at a corner table. The noise doesn’t bother the journalist, who’s also head of the Hong Kong Journalism Association (HKJA), but the stranger at the next table leaning too far back in his seat, as if straining to hear what she’s saying, does. It’s enough for Mak to decide on a different venue to continue her conversation. She’s not prone to paranoia, but she also can’t ignore the HKJA’s recent experience with the tightening stranglehold on press freedom on the island.

China is digging in its heels more firmly in Hong Kong—a special administrative region that it governs under the One Country, Two Systemspolicy. Meanwhile, more than 7,000 miles away from the island, China is also exerting indirect pressure on freedoms in South Africa, a squeeze that bears an eerie resemblance to that which Mak and the HKJA are experiencing in Hong Kong.

Chinese investment entered South Africa’s media industry last year, most noticeably with the purchase of a 20 percent stake in Independent Newspapers, one of the country’s dominant newspaper groups. The investors, China International Television Corporation and China-Africa Development Fund, are wholly owned by the Chinese state. It’s a deal that was made possible with the smoothing over by the pro-Beijing, ANC-led South African government that has its own 25 percent stake in Independent Newspapers. With the Chinese purchase, 45 percent of ownership of the newspaper group is effectively put into the hands of two firmly allied governments.

It’s also a deal framed within the recent passing of the South Africa’s Protection of Information Bill. The so-called secrecy bill, which is awaiting President Jacob Zuma’s signature, is slated to be the biggest threat to press freedom and freedom of expression since the dawn of democracy in the country. The South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) has called for South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, to rule on the constitutionality of the bill.

Of course, trade in and of itself is not the problem, and foreign investment in South Africa and foreign ownership of newspapers are not new. China is neither the fiery dragon hell-bent on new colonization, nor is it the first superpower to flex its muscles in Africa. Rather, China has brought in gifts and deals in exchange for Africa’s raw materials and minerals, deals that have made China Africa’s biggest trading partner in recent years. The Economistreported that in 2012 alone, around $200 billion worth of goods moved between Africa and China. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in South Africa reported that by 2011 South Africa had imported $13.5 billion worth of goods from China, while South Africa’s chief export of iron ore to China topped a record $15 billion.

It’s a relationship that has given Africa significant boosts in terms of infrastructural development, investment, and aid. Importantly, it has provided Africa, and specifically South Africa, alternatives to its traditional trade partners: the European Union and the United States.

Beijing though, is the master of exerting subtle pressure, putting on the squeeze not through policy or the contractual fine print, but through something altogether less tangible, less obvious, but potent and real all the same. And this soft power is not just about creating new narratives for China as the benign partner for the continent or about balancing news and views, as Beijing is repeatedly at pains to stress.

Within months of the Independent Newspapers deal going through, senior editors at one of the national dailies in the group were called in for a “special management meeting.” On the agenda: why the editors chose to run a travel feature on Taiwan—one of the thorns in China’s side. It makes for nervous times in South Africa for editorial independence and freedom of expression, and raises worrying questions about China’s role in decision-making in Pretoria.

Influence begins with indirect meddling over published articles promoting Taiwanese tourism and progresses to an agreement between China and the South African Department of Education that adds Mandarin Chinese to local schools’ curriculum. And it’s also political pressure that compels the South African government to kowtow to Beijing’s whims.

China’s presence was clear in the repeated and deliberate bungling by South African home affairs authorities over the Dalai Lama’s recent visa applications. The Tibetan spiritual leader was first denied a visa by South Africa in 2009 for a World Cup peace celebration in the country, and was denied again in 2011 as he sought to attend celebrations for Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday. Archbishop Tutu has repeatedly criticized South Africa’s ANC-led government for its all-too-cozy relationship with Beijing, having been quoted in the Sunday Tribune in 2009 as saying, “We are shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure; I feel deeply distressed and ashamed.”

Chinese pressure also played a key role in setting up road blocks to prohibit the Dalai Lama from attending former president Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December 2013. This despite the fact that, in 1998, then-President Mandela invited the Dalai Lama to establish an Office of Tibet in Pretoria—the equivalent of a consular office for this government in exile.

However, that same year of 1998 saw the ANC government officially sever its diplomatic ties with Taiwan to keep Beijing happy. It’s a trend that is dominant in the rest of Africa: keep China happy because it affects everything from trade and aid to military and UN peacekeeping assistance.

Back in Hong Kong, the ‘keep China happy or else’ model is firmly in place. In June, China released the State White Paper on its One Country, Two Systems policy. It has been widely received as China’s attempt to further blur the terms of the economic and political freedoms originally promised to the special administration region as it moves towards reunification in 2047. Pro-democracy groups are outraged by Beijing’s backpedalling, especially over critical issues like universal suffrage for Hong Kong citizens, without which citizens will not be able to elect key members to their Legislative Council in 2017.

Rising anti-Beijing sentiments have made it a summer of discontent in Hong Kong. The anger exploded onto the streets at the beginning of July when an estimated 500,000 Hong Kong residents braved 34-degree Celsius heat and rain in a mass pro-democracy rally coinciding with the commemoration of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China.

As the 2013 HKJA reports states: “Despite its promise to abide by the One Country, Two Systems principle, China has placed greater emphasis on One Country since the end of 2003, and exerts greater influence on Hong Kong affairs. The media is no exception.”

Attacks and harassment of journalists are at their highest ever, the HKJA notes 18 cases in 2013. Mak says cases are not taken seriously or properly investigated by police. Media is also under pressure from advertisers, forced to pull ads from publications that are not pro-Beijing. And, perhaps worst of all, there is a definite rise in self-censorship, she says. Journalists will not openly criticize Beijing or tackle issues that place a critical spotlight on China.

Hong Kong is not South Africa; Hong Kong will eventually return to Mainland China’s jurisdiction, whereas South African is a sovereign nation. As Mak says: “Of course Hong Kong is part of China, but China should use Hong Kong to look to international horizons, not inwards to the hinterland.”

South Africa must learn from what Hong Kong is experiencing if it’s to protect its civil liberties and freedoms. The HKJA’s latest report is titled Dark Clouds on the Horizons – Hong Kong’s freedom of expression faces new threats; it’s a bad weather warning and one for which South Africa would do well to prepare.



Ufrieda Ho is a Johannesburg-based freelance journalist and author of Paper Sons and Daughters – Growing up Chinese in South Africa. She travelled to Hong Kong this summer as part of Wits University’s China-Africa Reporting Project.

The Day I met a Madiba Angel

December 31, 2013

We find ourselves at the final exhale of 2013 now, what a year it has been. It felt fitting to make my last post of the year about my journey to pay final respects to Madiba as his body lay in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. This is a story that begins with a journey but is about the connections we make along the way. It’s about fellow travellers we meet on the path. They share our quests even as they make their own footprints. And it’s about how the final destination surprises us more often than not – and that’s a good thing.


It was the first day of the three days set aside for ordinary South Africans to file past the coffin of our fallen giant, when I got the call from friends. It was a little after midday.

“Want to go to the Union Building to pay our respects?” the question came down the line. There would be four of us and the plan would be get from The Star building in Sauer Street in downtown Jozi to Park Station, catch the Gautrain to Pretoria and walk about 3km from the station up to the arch of the Herbert Baker building that is the seat of government.

Yes, I wanted to be part of this momentous quest. With a bit of haste and good luck we would beat the clock, the weather of moody distant Highveld thunderclouds, the queues and even the no food and drink rule on the Gautrain to make a silent bow at our president’s coffin, as I wanted to do.

We four had what we needed for the journey: bottles of water, rain gear, shoes to pound the Pretoria tarmac, sunscreen and my expired (yes they expire) Gautrain card revived with enough money to make the 40-minute up North from Jozi.

We arrived in Pretoria, hopped of the train and were pointed in the direction of a bus. As the bus pulled out of the station we hit our first snag. The conductor came round to us and said the bus would not be going near the Union Buildings. Everyone who was making the trip to pay respects had to make it to the showgrounds first. The showgrounds was one of about three locations where the public could be “screened” and then bused off to the Union Buildings. We couldn’t simply do our 3km hike up the hill, we were told. Our bus though was not headed near the showgrounds and we had to get off at Church Square, in the centre of the city.

It was virtually everyone on the bus who got out, because we all had the same idea that day to get to the Union Buildings. Now we Joburgers were stranded and a little confused without our cars and GPSes. But that’s when Angel Mpho took us under her wing. Mpho had been sitting at the front of the bus. She had an ANC bid on and was a volunteer looking to help the crowds she knew would descend upon Pretoria. “My name’s Mpho, but everyone calls me Angel Mpho”, she joked.

“Okay let’s go,” she said, a little uncertain herself, but unfazed because she knew that this could not be the end of the quest for all us. We clotted around her on the pavement, making suggestions, thinking through some options.

“I’m just going to hijack this bus,” Mpho said, frustrated. Church Square filled with Oom Paul’s brooding gaze, marquees, TV screens and people milling around catching glimpses of the coverage of Madiba’s passing could offer no help for our quest.

Mpho did flag down a bus, half demanding it to take us to the showgrounds, but the bus was on a schedule and it wasn’t ours. We waited around a few more minutes but then Mpho had enough of waiting. She marched up to a group of taxi drivers seeking shade under the awning of the public men’s toilet. She did some negotiating. The man was not about to take us in his taxi and anyway we would need two taxis and he wanted R12 a passenger because he also had a route – to Attridgeville, not the showgrounds – that he had to keep to.

Mpho worked her magic. She even negotiated him down to R6 a passenger and she convinced him we only need one taxi. So the driver, 21 passengers and a stick-on Garfield stuffed toy jammed into the taxi. I sat on S’s lap, another guy was squeezed into the wheel well, someone else wedged himself into the space just behind the front seats, facing the back of the taxi where there was a peeling sign that read “Certified to carry 14 passengers”. Angel Mpho was part standing, part stooping between the door and a row of seats.

Here we were a busload of all sorts of strangers on the same journey. Some people had never been in a taxi before – never had reason to be in with their middle-class comfort of having private vehicle. Among us were Aunty Joyce with a faded dyed perm and serious bling on her fingers, a Bryanston pastor who looked more ageing country rock chick than clergy, Sechaba “the IT guy” because he Googled where we should be headed, two colleagues who had moved their appointments around so they could squeeze in a trip to the Union Buildings, two teens with a Mandela T-shirt that said “Freedom” on it.

Madiba’s body would not be transported after sunset. His spirit guided by the voice of his living relatives could wander off in the dark. We had to hurry as the clock ticked past 3pm and the sun dipped below the tallest buildings. We cheered our taxi on, screaming at other cars cutting in front of us. We had to get into a queue soon because the cut-off at the Union Buildings was 5.30pm. Now the taxi driver got into the mood of our quest. He turned up the volume on Harold Melvin’s version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and the whole taxi, yes the whole taxi, rocked in union as the chorus was belted out ….” aaaaaaah baby, my heart is full of love and desire for you, so come on darling and do what you’ve got to do …” The taxi driver played the song twice.

We weren’t making too much headway though he though we knew we had to “do what we had to do”. Gridlock in the capital city had set in. We were crawling now trying to cut through lanes. Eventually the driver told us we’d have to get out and walk the last few hundred metres to the showground entrance.

“Ok let’s get out here, careful of the traffic,” Mpho shouted, taking responsibility for us again as we filed out of the taxi into the middle of rush hour traffic.

We walked briskly past people selling bananas, sweets, cooldrinks and everything Madiba as we made our way to the showground entrance. We pushed forward and could see thousands of other who had made the same trip. Little did we know then that some had woken up in the early hours of that morning to secure a spot in the queue. Over the next two days, hundreds of thousands more would do the same.

Mpho was in the front again, talking to a guard, we had to get into the queue, we had come so far. But when she turned around to face us her smile was gone.

“I’m sorry guys they’re not letting in anymore people. We’re going to have to try again tomorrow”.

Now we were joined in disappointment, reflecting on a pavement again we knew we would not be able to say the goodbye we wanted to say. Angel Mpho urged us to come back again the next day, she would be back volunteering again. She also intended heading down to Qunu for the funeral with busloads of her fellow ANC comrades. A few people said they would try again thinking about how early they could wake up, but yes, they would try again. I knew I wouldn’t getting a second shot at saying goodbye. This was the end of the quest of me as I asked for asked everyone to squeeze together for a photograph.

Mpho flagged down another bus, commandeered it to take us back to the Gautrain. Crestfallen we filed back onto the bus, each traffic light putting us further from the Union Buildings. Madiba deserved this, this impossible demand, this profound longing each one of us had for a personal tribute.

As I got off the bus I hugged Mpho, thanking her for taking us under her wing for making a plan and bringing together a group of strangers for a quest that joined us together for a few short hours. We failed in our quest, we never got near the Union Buildings.

“Thank you for everything Mpho. It’s up to you now, please take my final respects to Madiba for me,” I said.

She hugged me back and said: “I already have”.

My quest would be fulfilled after all, I just had to surrender it to the hands of an angel.







The Tokoloshe Commeth

October 31, 2013

How could I let midnight on Halloween pass without a post?

And for this one I thought I’d share a piece I wrote for VISI magazine’s 2013 Collector’s Edition, earlier this year. The commissioning editor called and asked if I’d write a piece for their Voices section – six authors were asked to write an essay on a theme. And for the Collector’s Edition the theme was: “Winter in the Country”. It was as wide open as that.

In my nine to five as a journo I seldom get to write anything with so much leeway, so what a pleasure to write whatever, without waiting for comment from some official, feigning patience with arrogant PAs and spokes people or running into dead-ends and watching stories ideas go belly up. What a treat to write  “whatever inspires you about winter in the country”, as the editor said.

By chance I ended up in Dullstroom as I started working on my piece – it’s the country by all counts, about 2,5 hours outside of Joburg. Winter arrives here with dense fog to hide all kinds of mystery, wailing winds call out at all night and you lose yourself in the dark, dark heavens lit by smudges from the Milky Way.

I typed this story up in the cab of a bakkie, with windows closed to keep out the wind, watching as the dried grass remembered a time it was green and waiting, as one does in Dullstroom, for the flyfisher person in your life, to get a bite.

Of course the obvious thing was to write about this scene in front of me, the antithesis of my life in the concrete jungle and the stranglehold of wi-fi, electric fences and road rage that’s part of living in the big smoke.

But as I deleted intro after intro I ended up writing this sort-of ghost story … perfect as the witching hour creeps closer to this night of ghouls and ghosts, or as we would say down South – this night for witches disappearing into forests on hyenas’ backs or for the tokoloshes to slip between shadows and maybe slip into your dreams.

Sleep tight precious!


 vis story





If you listen, really listen, maybe you’ll hear the ghost’s lullaby, that song that connects all that thrives in winter’s quiet.



I know there’s a ghost here. I can feel him in the cool hollow of this one-time foresters’ dorm, this place where I must sleep tonight.

I can feel him in the bathroom at the end of the passage, disappearing into the stained cracks in the tiles. I know he’s peering into the mirror with its rusted edges, I don’t dare look.

He’s beckoned us here, with a trail of painted footprints scattered here on rock, there on a tree bark, sometimes missing for long stretches then appearing in staccato, rushing us to him.

We can’t resist his command and we climb higher and higher up, weaving a slow zig-zag up this Magoebaskloof mountainside.

We crunch through dried grass, crispy tufts that only hold the memory that in another season they were green and lush.

The last bit of winter sunshine surrenders to the determined mountain chill and the wind finds its way through zips and Velcro and all the cleverness of the layers and layers we’re piled on, fabrics with labels of “something, something-tech”.

“Let’s stop here for lunch,” one of my fellow hikers says. We five have happened upon a small clearing with a few rocks that will do as chairs.

Country dining hikers-style is always al fresco, mostly squashed and comes standard with an invitation to let loose your boot laces for a precious little while.

We eat, we pause. But the mist doesn’t stop rising like incense coils seeking out the tops of the pine trees again and again till a dense fog smudges the branches leaving only the trunks standing sentinel. They stand also as hiding places for familiars, secretive creatures that announce themselves as a shrill, eerie call with no origin point you can isolate; a rustle too quickly muzzled by the damp cushion of pine needles; apparitions fading in and out of the grey mist veils.

“Sjoe guys, looks like we’re sitting on top of a graveyard,” someone says as we gulp back our day’s rations of energy drinks.

True enough there are tombstones not far from us. We take a closer look. It looks like a family graveyard of no more than six tombstones. Maybe at one time the epitaphs stood up better to the elements, maybe at one time there were more graves, now there are just bumps of soil reclaimed by nature.

“They look lonely these old graves. When we visited the cemetery as kids my dad always told us to leave a flower on the neglected graves. He said it was so the dead person didn’t feel forgotten,” I say, thinking out aloud of those blooms like missives to the hereafter.

We hike on, higher and higher, deeper into the stillness till we can see the foresters’ dorm. There’s a donkey boiler, a few candles, no 3G, and no one else. But the ghost is here, he knows we’ve arrived.   

Night falls and we cook by gas and light a fire, trying to warm up and trying to ward off dark. I light candles in the dorm room we will share and work by the burning wax to spread out my sleeping bags, zipping and unzipping my rucksack pockets for the extra pair of socks I know I’ve packed.

Then I notice the candle’s flame flickering against the window pane showing up a reflection I can’t quite make out. I look away too scared to have a second look. Later I hear the door down the passage creak open and shut. No one is using that room.  

I need to go to the toilet but I can’t. I know there’s a ghost here but I know I don’t want to walk down the passage to make sure.

“Night guys,” each one of shouts as the last candle is blown out and the last headlight turned off. I close my eyes, I must sleep. My minus-five rating sleeping bag must keep out the cold it must also keep out the ghost.  

Morning comes with the exhale of having made it through the night. The light of day has tamed the ghost and he hides as we eat our instant oats and head back on the path.

We will back up on yesterday’s path then veer along a new trail that will be the start of our day two. Sunshine has broken up the mist and the morning’s hike comes with the mercy of winter sun warming our path.

We pass the cemetery once more. We turn to have another look.

“Wow, looks like someone’s left a flower on one of the graves,” my friend says. We can’t be sure it wasn’t there before. We say nothing we walk on in silence, in that stillness, that ghost’s lullaby that fills mountain scapes and quiet places.




Life Under the Dragon’s Arches

August 29, 2013

Few things stay the same and it couldn’t be more true for Chinatown in Cyrildene

It’s a place of transience – people stay only as long as they need to. There few proper curtains here, few pets or pot plants because there’s no room for permanence. If you’ve made it you’re out of there, that’s the trajectory of aspiration after all.

At the same time it’s a community that develops and evolves. The karaoke bar is all glitz, the security guards are hardcore and there’s even a recycling centre.

Never an uninteresting place and if you can have noodles and bubble almond tea too … bonus.

Here’s a piece I did for the Mail and Guardian (12 July 2013).

Check it out. There’s also a box about the old Chinatown in Commissioner Street too. The sun is setting on this Chinatown but it’s a part of the evolution too.  Truly, nothing stays the same …


The arch angle on booming Chinatown



Twin structures spanning Cyrildene’s main stretch has bridged the community’s dual identities.

Cyrildene used to be a predominantly Jewish suburb in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, it has outpaced its big sister - the city’s first Chinatown in downtown Jo’burg, which was squeezed into the last blocks of Commissioner Street. (Skyler Reid)

Hot water from an urn rushes over a clay teapot so small it looks like a doll’s. But it’s the perfect size for a perfect cup of High Mountain tea.

Betty Wu lets the water run off the pot so the heat penetrates the clay to the brew she’s made. She rests the pot, then picks it up to release a steaming stream of tea into the tiniest cup. It looks like it belongs in a toy shop.

But this isn’t a toy shop. It’s her teashop, called Simplicity. It’s at the edge of Chinatown’s main drag on Derrick Avenue, Cyrildene, Johannesburg. It’s a converted foyer space in the entrance of the flats she has called home for the past seven years.

She also gives English lessons to Chinese children here. The children are newcomers, trying to slot into the South African school system. Wu can relate; she remembers what it was like 18 years ago when she arrived in South Africa, where not just the language was foreign to her.

It was easier to get papers to travel to South Africa than to the likes of the United States, Australia or Canada. And, anyhow, she could learn English and see the world, she figured.

“It’s a small cup so you can hold it in your hand and feel when it’s cool enough to drink, and it’s also small enough to finish drinking in a few sips so your tea doesn’t gets cold.

“Your host will keep pouring. This is our way as Chinese; it’s our culture,” says Wu. She lifts the pot again to share more of the fragrant tea grown in her former home, Taiwan.

From her teashop you can see the concrete frame of a giant arch, part of a pair  that went up about 13 months ago, at either end of Derrick Avenue.

Together, the pair cost R2.4-million, the money raised by community, they stand as two stakes in the ground — invitation and proclamation.

The arch at the Friedland Avenue end is bold, ornate and deliberately over the top.

The other is not complete.

“This arch hasn’t been finished because there’s a problem with some electricity cables,” Betty says, shrugging her shoulders.

Even this unequal state of completion is the perfect metaphor for Chinatown — always two faces, the hidden and the public, the legal and the less than legal, the big welcome and the middle finger.

The duality is not too difficult to understand for those who constantly renegotiate identities. Eric Hwang is such a person. He arrived in South Africa in 1991 as a 14-year-old from Taiwan.

An imagined homeland
The Taiwanese make up a distinct wave of Chinese immigrants who arrived from the island mostly during the late 1970s and 1980s. South Africa, as a pariah state, looked to other world orphans for trade, including Taiwan.

Twenty-two years later Taiwan is an imagined homeland. He’s been here so long he remembers a Chinatown before the arches, before trade spilled on to the streets and Chinese signs filled every shop facade.

“There was a noodle shop and a small supermarket; then more people came,” he says.

He acknowledges that maybe in the early days the community was more open to teaching South Africans how to sauté jicama root or what to do with 100-year-old preserved duck eggs. Now they need the outside world less and the new shops reflect this growing self-sufficiency.

There are hairdressers, karaoke bars, cellphone shops, acupuncturists — a library, even. There’s a company specialising in signage in Chinese and there’s even a satellite temple, an offshoot of the Nan Hua Buddhist temple in Bronkhorstspruit.

Cyrildene used to be a predominantly Jewish suburb in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, as a Chinatown, it has outpaced its big sister — the city’s first Chinatown in downtown Jo’burg, which was squeezed into the last blocks of Commissioner Street.

First Chinatown’s few restaurants, backroom mah jong tables, steamed bun shops and provisions store selling fahfee papers and incense sticks were what the Chinese South Africans had to make do with under apartheid’s unhappy gaze. It was also in the shadow of the old John Vorster Square police station. Newcomers didn’t settle here.

Chinese South Africans, most of whom speak Cantonese, English and Hakka, trace their roots to the southern Guangdong province, but also claim forefathers who have been South Africans for generations.

They were as foreign as everything else in South Africa to later migrants, making Cyrildene Chinatown a better choice.

Hwang, who works in property, still spends time in Cyrildene Chinatown. He’s a bachelor and has most of his meals in Chinatown. His parents are sojourners between the two countries.

He chats while he sits down to a bowl of noodles with wilted greens and a simple broth. There’s a fried egg with a splash of soy sauce on the side.

There goes the neighbourhood
“The newcomers have been in gold-rush mode and they don’t have roots here, that’s why they don’t care about things like the litter in Chinatown. They just want to make their money; people who have money have already moved out of Chinatown,” he says.

The litter is just one of the bylaw infringements that has Chinatown’s neighbours up in arms.

Other Cyrildene residents and local councillors keep catalogues of all that’s wrong with a booming Chinatown, a boom out of control as far as town-keeping and municipal administration is concerned. Their lists range from illegal construction, ignored court orders, traffic infringements, subdivided houses and rearing livestock in residential areas.

Hwang says it’s difficult to solve these problems because no one’s getting close to the source of the problem — changing people’s behaviour.

He is on a different mission though. Hwang wants Chinatown to be a place that offers a different quality of life, where the arches don’t just have metaphorical significance but in their permanence signal an era of grounding and commitment for migrants.

Hwang himself hasn’t got firm plans to be anywhere other than South Africa, or maybe Mozambique, in the next few years. He jokes that his parents would like him to find a good Chinese wife and for that reason keep pushing him to head back East.

But, he says, setting his chopsticks to his noodles: “I’m a South African; I’ve been here such a long time.”

Hwang works with another Taiwanese woman in trying to shift things in the community. Ann Chang has lived in South Africa for 20 years. She’s beyond finding her pot of African gold.

Hwang and Chang have outreach projects that include setting up home-based care and food gardens across the East Rand townships. The Buddhist organisation she belongs to is called Tzu Chi. They do winter relief projects and in Chinatown it has a recycling project.

“We try to get people to change their ideas about Chinatown,” says Chang.

Volunteers don gloves and white caps, and go from shop to shop along Derrick Avenue collecting cardboard on Fridays and Saturdays.

The waste is sorted inside a prime piece of retail space donated by a Chinese businessman. Her volunteers pick through plastics, glass and whatever else can be recycled and sold. “It is not a lot of money that we get from the recycling, but it’s not about the money; it’s about cleaning up,” she says.

People volunteer because Chang is the one they turn to when they have to fill out a form in English, make a report at a police station or find a school for their child.

She’s even been known to deal with the taboos of dressing a body for a funeral or stepping in when someone has fallen off society’s neat edges.

She laughs off how much she has helped newcomers, but more volunteers shuffle in over the course of an afternoon. They greet, chat a bit, then dig into the waste.

Subtle fragmentation
More Chinese still make their way to South Africa. But the Chinese arriving now make up new waves of migration. While the 1990s saw Chinese arrive from big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, the newcomers come from across the expanse of the Middle Kingdom — as one of China’s names for itself, Zhong Guo, translates into English.

It’s the country cousins from the rural hinterlands who the Chinatown locals say are oblivious to the p’s and q’s of “polite white”. They blame these migrants for enforcing stereotypes that all Chinese hock and spit in the streets, string bedsheets across windows as curtains and shovel rice into their mouths and speak at the same time.

The sheer size of the mainland is only one reason why geography makes for regional differentiation and allegiance. It’s a subtle fragmentation that is a reminder that the Chinese are not a homogenous group; they can’t possibly share identical stories, even though they share the same skin colour.

Even in Chinatown migrants seek out regional affiliates. At present there are 54 associations represented in Chinatown, though some say there are more than 60. The number changes because new groups are always forming, disbanding and reforming. The high number speaks to fractures — lines of distinction drawn along regional barriers that have found their way from the mainland to South Africa.

There’s another imported mainland trait too — everyone toes the party line. There’s a loyalty to the desires and demands of the motherland.

It’s why the overarching body to which every association belongs is the All African Unification Association formed, with the intervention of the Chinese government, in 1999. It’s meant to pull together all Chinese, be they from Taiwan, Hong Kong or overseas Chinese.

The arches are at least one sign the community can pull together. It’s expected the Marcia Street arch, which will be smaller because of the location’s limitations, will be completed by year’s end. But with 54 associations there are always squabbles.

Anderson Lee, the deputy editor of China News, one of three locally produced Chinese language newspapers and chief executive of the community policing forum (CPF), says: “Sometimes people have their own agendas, but the community did raise the money together to build those arches.”

Lee adds that the All Africa Unification Association sets boundaries.

“It means there is a red line; no one crosses that line,” he says.

Lee estimates that there are close to 300 000 Chinese nationals in the country today.

He adds: “Chinatown is not the only story of the Chinese in South Africa; this is just a business district, not the story of the 300 000 people here.”

The CPF is based here though and is a collaboration and co-operation forum with police. But the CPF has a level of mobilisation and reach (right across the country) that makes it different to run-of-the-mill policing forums.

These parallel functions are apparent in the two rooms that make up the forum’s offices. One room serves as the satellite police station. The main function of the second room is as a boardroom where community disputes are settled with CPF mediation.

“Say someone buys stock from a wholesaler but doesn’t pay up and things go sour. We try to get them around the table to work out something. If we don’t, then, who knows, maybe the wholesaler finds some bad people to sort out the problem,” says Lee.

The forum’s statistics show that 100 Chinese nationals were killed between 2003 and 2011 in South Africa. In 2004, when the CPF was formed, 22 people were killed, but they haven’t seen violent crime peaks like that since.

The drop in crime can also be attributed to the police attaché dispatched by the Chinese government to South Africa. There’s something Big Brother about the move, but Lee insists it doesn’t cut out the South African authorities.

The upside of the attaché’s presence is that Chinatown has seen a decline in serious crimes in the past few years. Brothels, illegal abortion clinics, human trafficking and smuggling are not the things that fuel rumours and reports as much any more, Lee says.

Raids by the police and the South African Revenue Service — showboating for the media — have dropped off.

These are steps in the right direction, Lee says, especially for a community only 15 or so years old.

Further, similar improvements are necessary for Chinatown to get a more upmarket sheen. He adds plainly: “Even I don’t want to walk down this street, because it stinks.

“We can’t have the arches be beautiful flowers on top of a rubbish dump. But people don’t want to hear it when we tell them that to develop properly with the council they will have to pay more money. They don’t see the future benefits because they feel that if their businesses are going to be successful, they would move them to Rivonia or some place like that,” he says.

People move on; it’s part of the evolution of suburbs. Once people assimilate they don’t need the soft landing of a Chinatown any more.

Lee himself lives in Midrand. He has been in South Africa for 14 years. He carries a South African passport and has two children, an eight-year-old and a newborn, who are South Africans. He sees straddling the two worlds as perfectly ordinary. He is Chinese, but his life is where he is right now.

Back in Wu’s teashop, she’s greeting customers and passers-by. Sandy de Beer walks into the shop and orders a juice with honey and an iced coffee.

De Beer is a Chinese woman with an Afrikaans surname — her husband’s. “I come here to buy drinks for my road trip back to Bloemfontein,” she says. She runs the Matsuya restaurant in the Free State capital and makes regular trips to Chinatown to stock up on supplies. “I married my husband for his name. But he’s not one of the rich De Beers,” she jokes.

Wu chirps in with a giggle: “We see a lot of Chinese marrying South Africans of all races; we are a rainbow nation here in Chinatown. We are not all gamblers and illegals here, you know.”

She picks up her teapot, tips it once more. It’s the Chinese way; it’s the Chinatown way.





One city, two Chinatowns – it’s one of Joburg’s claims to fame.

Long before a single lantern went up in Cyrildene Chinatown it was the Commissioner Street Chinatown that held the story of the city’s first Chinese settlers.

Across three blocks was where the community bought noodles and winter melons, took meals in restaurants where the cooking styles of China’s South delighted their palates. They gathered for news and gossip.

This year the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation unveiled heritage plaques at the United Mansions Club and the Chinese United Club. The buildings date to the 1940s but the clubs were founded in the early 1900s.

A few anchors remain today like the Swallows Inn restaurant, the Sui Hing Hong shop and the clubs. But the next generations who may take over are the professionals their parents wanted them to be. Many no longer live in South Africa. Chinese South Africans number only between 8000 and 10 000 today.

A handful of ageing Chinese South Africans still live in the rooms and flats here, but most people have moved to the ‘burbs. A small group of newcomers are here too, but buzzing trade doesn’t reach this end of town. It hasn’t for years.




Hearts for our Hero

June 24, 2013

I do some volunteer reading for a couple of kids who battle with letters, words and how they merge to make sense.

Two weeks ago we decided to do messages for Madiba who had been admitted to hospital at the time. It’s sad news that he’s still in hospital today and that government reports now say his health status has deteriorated to “critical”.

What the kids wrote and drew reminds me just what a giant of a man Nelson Mandela truly is. It’s also a reminder of how precious and beautiful it is to call yourself a South African when we choose to live engaged lives and when we strive to get closer to the ideals Mandela asked us to hold closest to our hearts. It’s what we must never forget, especially now when things are uncertain and when days seems dark.

These are pictures from Lerato, Nephatile and Kiana.

We love you Madiba!

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You Know It’s Easter When …

March 31, 2013

  • – One day there is veld then the next day there’s a confetti of white, pink and fuchsia as the first harbingers of Easter, the cosmos flowers,  annex the Highveld.




  • – You reach for something with long sleeves in the evenings; the 30 degree + days are a fading memory.
  • – Hot Cross Buns stand in for something religious, like raisins and a sugar water glaze can stand in for something all together more spiritual.
  • – Gauteng’s in pause mode as the first quarter of the year is ticked off and there’s a gap for trips to the Vaal, pilgrimages to the Zion City of Moria and long weekends at Sun City to ride fake waves and push buttons on a slot machine.
  • – Stores are in big display mode because big spin means big spend. Bunny ears on alice bands equal the cha-ching at the tills and so too does chocolate fashioned into rabbits, eggs or anything that actually lays eggs.




  • – School’s out for the hols so kids are left to do the mall trawl. They’re handed over to bigger kids, students dressed up as in mothballed rabbits suits who are made to hold treasure hunts of mashmallow eggs. The kids mean business, frisking bunnies on display, upending flower pots of fakes bushes and pulling the cartooned students’ dirty cotton tails for not handing over more of the sugary booty.

HAPPY EASTER EVERYONE – blessings of spirit, chocolate and even cotton tails to pull

Is it all about the springrolls and chow mein?

January 22, 2013

Next week Tuesday (29 Jan)  I’ll be in Cape Town to give a lecture as part of the University of Cape Town’s Summer School programme.

The theme of my talk is “Being Chinese in SA Today”, mostly it’s informed by the journey of Paper Sons and Daughters in the nearly two years since the book was launched and the conversations around belonging and identity that have as a result.

This mornng while I was piecing together the elements  of what I want to present at the talk, I found myself simultaneously trying to secure a table reservation for the biggest Chinese celebration next month (unrepentant multi-tasker that I am).

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I struck out at first choice – Swallows Inn in First Chinatown and had patchy success in Cyrildene Chinatown, leaving me a little undecided and and not being able to commit till I conferred with others expected at the feasting table for the Year of the Snake.

But as I hung up, I realised that there were half a dozen clues about “being Chinese”.

First was that food matters, that’s the quality of the food matters and the skills of the chef especially when it comes to celebrating a new year. It while I was comfortable to say yes outright. Another clue was that my first choice was for First Chinatown, in Commissioner Street. It’s the Chinatown of the childhood – the place of memory and connection and personal history. Also my Cantonese palate finds most of the food served up there, most familiar. Years of isolation has meant food preparation styles have had a constancy and dependability I know well. Only with the arrival of the new migrants and the rise of new Chinatown in the mid-90s have new dishes been served up.

The fact that Joburg is a city with two Chinatowns also speaks volumes about the waves of migrations that have taken place as people through the decades have sought the fortunes of the mountain of gold.

What’s also clear are the separations and distinctions that make up the Chinese community, or more accurately the communities within communities. It’s obvious that the imprint of history, socio-political context and personal choices are never far from these stories.

At the end of the all though there’s always room to bread bread together, or in this case to split a springroll and share a plate of noodles.

* JOIN me at UCT on 29 January 2012 for my lunchtime lecture. For more information check out the UCT Summer School web page at http://www.summerschool.uct.ac.za/