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Chinese South Africans

Chinese South Africans
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Durban · Johannesburg · Port Elizabeth.
English · Cantonese · Mandarin · Taiwanese
Related ethnic groups
Overseas Chinese

Chinese South Africans (simplified Chinese: 华裔南非人; traditional Chinese: 華裔南非人) are overseas Chinese who reside in South Africa—both those whose ancestors came to South Africa in the early 20th century, until Chinese immigration was banned under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1904,[2] Taiwanese industrialists who arrived in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s,[1] and post-apartheid immigrants (predominantly from mainland China) to South Africa, who now outnumber locally-born Chinese South Africans.[3]

South Africa has the largest population of Chinese in Africa,[1] and most of them live in Johannesburg, the "economic hub for all of southern Africa".[4]


  • History 1
    • First settlers 1.1
    • Contracted gold miners (1904-1910) 1.2
    • Early Apartheid Era (1950-1970) 1.3
    • Immigration from Taiwan 1.4
    • Post-Apartheid 1.5
      • Black Economic Empowerment ruling 1.5.1
  • Immigration of Mainland Chinese 2
  • Notable Chinese South Africans 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


South African Chinese Population, 1904 - 1936[5]:177
Gender 1904 1911 1921 1936
Natal Province
Male 161 161 75 46
Female 4 11 33 36
Cape Province
Male 1366 804 584 782
Female 14 19 148 462
Transvaal Province
Male 907 905 828 1054
Female 5 5 160 564
Total 2457 1905 1828 2944

First settlers

The first Chinese to settle in South Africa were prisoners, usually debtors, exiled from Batavia by the Dutch to their then newly founded colony at Cape Town in 1660. Originally the Dutch wanted to recruit Chinese settlers to settle in the colony as farmers, thereby helping establish the colony and create a tax base so the colony would be less of a drain on Dutch coffers. However the Dutch failed to find anyone in the Chinese community in Batavia who was prepared to volunteer to go to such a far off place. The first Chinese person recorded by the Dutch to arrive in the Cape was a convict by the name of Ytcho Wancho (almost certainly a Dutch version of his original Chinese name). From 1660 until the late 19th century the number of Chinese people in the Cape Colony never exceeded 100.[5]:5–6

Chinese people began arriving in large numbers in South Africa in the 1870s[6] through to the early 20th century initially in hopes of making their fortune on the diamond and gold mines in Kimberley and the Witwatersrand respectively. Most were independent immigrants mostly coming from Guangdong Province then known as Canton. Due to anti-Chinese feeling and racial discrimination at the time they were prevented from obtaining mining contracts and so became entrepreneurs and small business owners instead.[7]

The Chinese community in South Africa grew steadily throughout the remainder of the 19th century, bolstered by new arrivals from China. The Anglo-Boer War, fought between 1898 and 1902, pushed some Chinese South Africans out of the Witwatersrand and into areas such as Port Elizabeth and East London in the Eastern Cape.[8] Large-scale immigration into South Africa during this time was prohibited by the Transvaal Immigration Restriction Act of 1902 and the Cape Chinese Exclusion Act of 1904. A host of discriminatory laws similar to the anti-Chinese laws that sought to restrict trade, land ownership and citizenship were also enacted during this time. These laws were largely made popular by a general anti-Chinese feeling across the western world during the early 1900s and the arrival of over 60,000 indentured Chinese miners after the second Anglo-Boer War.[7]

These early immigrants arriving between the 1870s and early 1900s are the ancestors of most of South Africa's first Chinese community and number some 10,000 individuals today.[7]

Contracted gold miners (1904-1910)

Punch cartoon, 1903; The Rand mine-owners' employment of Chinese labour on the Transvaal gold mines was controversial and contributed to the Liberal victory in the 1906 elections.
Around 4,200 miners at the Simmer and Jack mine on the Witwatersrand, taken between 1904 and 1910.

There were many complicated reasons why the British chose to import Chinese labour to use on the mines. After the Anglo-Boer War, production on the gold mines of the Witwatersrand was very low due to a lack of labour. The British government was eager to get these mines back online as quickly as possible as part of their overall effort to rebuild the war-torn country.

Because of the war, unskilled black laborers had returned to rural areas and were more inclined to work on rebuilding infrastructure as mining was more dangerous. Unskilled white labour was being phased out because it was deemed too expensive. The British found recruiting and importing labour from east Asia the most expedient way to solve this problem.[5]:104

Between 1904 and 1910, over 63,000 contracted miners were brought in to work the mines of the Witwatersrand. Most of these contractors were recruited from the provinces of Chihli (Zhili), Shantung (Shandong) and Honan (Henan) in China.[5]:105 They were repatriated after 1910,[1][9] because of strong White opposition to their presence, similar to anti-Asian sentiments in the western United States, particularly California at the same time.[10] It is a myth that the contracted miners brought into South Africa at this time are the forefathers of much of South Africa's Chinese population.[5]:103–104

Herbert Hoover, who would become the 31st U.S. President, was a director of Chinese Engineering and Mining Corporation (CEMC) when it became a supplier of coolie (Asian) labor for South African mines.[11] The first shipment of 2,000 coolies arrived in Durban from Qinhuangdao in July 1904. By 1906, the total number of Chinese coolies increased to 50,000, almost entirely recruited and shipped by CEMC. When the living and working conditions of the laborers became known, public opposition to the scheme grew and questions were asked in the British Parliament.[12] The scheme was abandoned in 1911.

The mass importation of Chinese labourers to work on the gold mines contributed to the fall from power of the conservative government in the United Kingdom. However, it did stimulate to the economic recovery of South Africa after the Anglo-Boer War by once again making the mines of the Witwatersrand the most productive gold mines in the world.[5]:103

Early Apartheid Era (1950-1970)

As with other non-White South Africans, the Chinese suffered from discrimination during apartheid, and were often classified as Coloureds,[13] but sometimes as Asians, a category that was generally reserved for Indian South Africans. Today this segment of the South African Chinese population numbers some 10,000 individuals.[1]

Under the apartheid-era Population Registration Act, 1950, Chinese South Africans were deemed "Asiatic", then "Coloured", and finally:

the Chinese Group, which shall consist of persons who in fact are, or who, except in the case of persons who in fact are members of a race or class or tribe referred to in paragraph (1), (2), (3), (5) or (6) are generally accepted as members of a race or tribe whose national home is in China.[14]

In 1966 the South African Institute of Race Relations described the negative affects of apartheid legislation on the Chinese community and the resulting brain drain:

No group is treated so inconsistently under South Africa's race legislation. Under the Immorality Act they are Non-White. The Group Areas Act says they are Coloured, subsection Chinese ... They are frequently mistaken for Japanese in public and have generally used White buses, hotels, cinemas and restaurants. But in Pretoria, only the consul-general's staff may use White buses .. Their future appears insecure and unstable. Because of past and present misery under South African laws, and what seems like more to come in the future, many Chinese are emigrating. Like many Coloured people who are leaving the country, they seem to favour Canada. Through humiliation and statutory discrimination South Africa is frustrating and alienating what should be a prized community.[5]:389–390

Immigration from Taiwan

Number of Chinese granted
permanent residence
in South Africa
1985 - 1995[5]:419
Date Number
1985 1
1986 7
1987 133
1988 301
1989 483
1990 1422
1991 1981
1992 275
1993 1971
1994 869
1995 350
Total 7793
By citizenship 1994 - 1995[5]:419
Citizenship 1994 1995
Taiwan (ROC) 596 232
People's Republic of China 252 102
Hong Kong 21 16
Total 869 350

With the establishment of ties between apartheid South Africa and Taiwan (officially the Republic of China), Taiwanese (as well as some Hong Kong Chinese) started migrating to South Africa from the late 1970s onwards. Due to apartheid South Africa's desire to attract their investment in South Africa and the many poorer Bantustans within the country they were exempt from many apartheid laws and regulations. This created an odd situation whereby South Africans of Chinese descent continued to be classified as Coloureds or Asians, whereas the Taiwanese Chinese[15] and certain other east Asian expats (esp. South Koreans and Japanese) were considered "honorary whites"[3] and enjoyed most, if not all, of the rights accorded to White South Africans.[9]

The South African government also offered a number of economic incentives to investors from Taiwan seeking to set up factories and businesses in the country. These generous incentives ranged from "paying for relocation costs, subsidized wages for seven years, subsidized commercial rent for ten years, housing loans, cheap transport of goods to urban areas, and favorable exchange rates".[7]

In 1984, South African Chinese, now increased to about 10,000, finally obtained the same official rights as the Japanese in South Africa, that is, to be treated as whites in terms of the Group Areas Act. (Sanctions and Honorary White, Masako Osada) The arrival of the Taiwanese resulted in a surge of the ethnic Chinese population of South Africa, which climbed from around 10,000 in the early 1980s to at least 20,000 in the early 1990s. Many Taiwanese were entrepreneurs who set up small companies, particularly in the textile sector, across South Africa. It is estimated that by the end of the early 1990s Taiwanese industrialists had invested $2 billion (or $2.94 billion in 2011 dollars)[16] in South Africa and employed roughly 50,000 people.[5]:427

In the late 1990s and early first decade of the 21st century many of the Taiwanese left South Africa partly due to official recognition of the Peoples Republic of China and a post apartheid crime wave that swept the country. Numbers dropped from a high of around 30,000 Taiwanese citizens in the mid-1990s to the current population of approximately 6,000 today.[1]


Following the end of apartheid in 1994, impressive numbers of Chinese from mainland China began immigrating to South Africa, increasing the Chinese population in South Africa to 200,000 to 350,000 people, including illegal immigrants. In Johannesburg, in particular, a new Chinatown has emerged in the eastern suburbs of Cyrildene and Bruma Lake, replacing the declining one in the city centre. A Chinese housing development has also been established in the small town of Bronkhorstspruit, east of Pretoria.

Black Economic Empowerment ruling

Under apartheid, some Chinese South Africans were discriminated against in various forms by the apartheid government. However, they were originally excluded from benefiting under the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programmes of the new South African government.[13] This changed in mid-2008 when, in a case brought by the Chinese Association of South Africa, the Pretoria division of the High Court of South Africa ruled that Chinese South Africans who were South African citizens before 1994, as well as their descendants, qualify as previously disadvantaged individuals as Coloureds,[3] and therefore are eligible to benefit under BEE and other affirmative action policies and programmes. However, Chinese South Africans who immigrated to the country after 1994 will be ineligible to benefit under the policies. This means that out of a community numbering possibly as many as 300,000, only about 12-15,000 will directly benefit from the ruling.[3]

Immigration of Mainland Chinese

A "China shop" in Porterville, Western Cape, South Africa in 2010. Since the early 2000s many such shops, usually general dealers, have opened up in rural areas by Chinese immigrants from mainland China.

The immigration of mainland Chinese, by far the largest group of Chinese in South Africa, can be divided into three periods. The first group arrived in the late 1980s and early 1990s along with the Taiwanese immigrants. Unlike the Taiwanese immigrants, lacking the capital to start larger firms, most established small businesses. Although becoming relatively prosperous a large number of this group left South Africa, either back to China or to more developed Western countries, around the same time and for much the same reason as the Taiwanese immigrants left. The second group, arriving mostly from Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces in the 1990s, were wealthier, better educated, and very entrepreneurial. The latest and ongoing group began arriving after 2000 and primarily made up of small traders and peasants from Fujian province.[1][17]

Although the Chinese South African community is a law-abiding community that has maintained a low profile in modern South Africa; there is speculation that local criminal gangs in South Africa barter abalone illegally with Chinese nationals and triad societies in exchange for chemicals used in the production of drugs, reducing the need for the use of money and hence avoiding difficulties associated with money laundering.[18][19]

Notable Chinese South Africans

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Park, Yoon Jung (2009). Recent Chinese Migrations to South Africa - New Intersections of Race, Class and Ethnicity (PDF). Representation, Expression and Identity (Interdisciplinary Perspectives).  
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c d "What color are Chinese South Africans?". Archived from the original on 1 May 2014. 
  4. ^ Lin, Edwin (Spring 2014). "“Big Fish in a Small Pond”: Chinese Migrant Shopkeepers in South Africa". International Migration Review 48 (1): 181–215.  
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Yap, Melanie; Leong Man, Dainne (1996). Colour, Confusion and Concessions: The History of the Chinese in South Africa. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. p. 510.  
  6. ^ Clayton, Jonathan (19 June 2008). "We agree that you are black South African court tells Chinese". The Times (London). Retrieved 28 April 2010. 
  7. ^ a b c d Park, Yoon Jung (January 2012). "Living In Between: The Chinese in South Africa". Immigration Information Source. Retrieved 12 January 2012. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b "In South Africa, Chinese is the New Black". The Wall Street Journal. 19 June 2008. 
  10. ^ Nativism (politics)#Anti-Chinese nativism
  11. ^ Walter Liggett, The Rise of Herbert Hoover (New York, 1932)
  12. ^ Mr Winston Churchill: speeches in 1906 (Hansard). Retrieved on 2013-07-14.
  13. ^ a b "'"S Africa Chinese 'become black. BBC News. 18 June 2008. Retrieved 28 April 2010. 
  14. ^ "A Chinese Color War",TIME, 1 August 2008
  15. ^ Taiwan Review (Taiwan State Information Service, Premier Sun Yun-suan visit to South Africa 1980)
  16. ^ Measuring Worth, Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount - Consumer Price Index, retrieved on the 26 January 2011
  17. ^ Y. J. Park and A. Y. Chen, "Intersections of race, class and power: Chinese in post-apartheid Free State", unpublished paper presented at the South African Sociological Association Congress, Stellenbosch, July 2008.
  18. ^ "Cape Argus". Cape Argus. 11 April 2009. Retrieved 2010-07-29. 
  19. ^ "Triad Societies and Chinese Organised Crime in South Africa". SAIIA. 2001. Retrieved 2011-02-26. 

Further reading

  • Yap, Melanie; Man, Dianne (1996). Colour, Confusion & Concessions: The History of the Chinese in South Africa. Hong Kong University Press.  
  • Park, Yoon Jung (2008). A Matter of Honour: Being Chinese in South Africa (Paperback ed.). Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.  
  • Bright, Rachel (2013). Chinese Labour in South Africa, 1902-10: Race, Violence, and Global Spectacle. Palgrave Macmillan.  

External links

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