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Paper Sons and Daughters

Growing up Chinese in South Africa

Ufrieda Ho

Publication Year: 2012

Ufrieda Ho’s compelling memoir describes with intimate detail what it was like to come of age in the marginalized Chinese community of Johannesburg during the apartheid era of the 1970s and 1980s. The Chinese were mostly ignored, as

Ho describes it, relegated to certain neighborhoods and certain jobs, living in a kind of gray zone between the blacks and the whites. As long as they adhered to these rules, they were left alone. Ho describes the separate journeys her parents took before they knew one another, each leaving China and Hong Kong around the early1960s, arriving in South Africa as illegal immigrants. Her father eventually became a so-called “fahfee man,” running a small-time numbers game in the black townships, one of the few opportunities available to him at that time. In loving detail, Ho describes her father’s work habits: the often mysterious selection of numbers at the kitchen table, the carefully-kept account ledgers, and especially the daily drives into the townships, where he conducted business on street corners from the seat of his car. Sometimes Ufrieda accompanied him on these township visits, offering her an illuminating perspective into a stratified society. Poignantly, it was on such a visit that her father—who is very much a central figure in Ho’s memoir—met with a tragic end.

In many ways, life for the Chinese in South Africa was self-contained. Working hard, minding the rules, and avoiding confrontations, they were able to follow traditional Chinese ways. But for Ufrieda, who was born in South Africa, influences from the surrounding culture crept into her life, as did a political awakening. Paper Sons and Daughters is a wonderfully told family history that will resonate with anyone having an interest in the experiences of Chinese immigrants, or perhaps any immigrants, the world over.

Published by: Ohio University Press


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pp. c-c

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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1. Pinky

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pp. 1-2

I lie on the lap of a giant pink teddy bear and stare up at a galaxy of full stops in the perforated canopy of my dad’s old Cortina.
My nine-year-old self starts to count the dots but my stop-start conversation with my dad in the driver’s seat keeps bringing me back to number one. We lurch towards another traffic light and my counting is...

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2. Here be Dragons

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pp. 3-20

I grew up in Bertrams, in the east of Johannesburg, in the 1970s and 80s. I am the third of four children. We lived in a semi-detached house along a wide road that pulled apart the suburb for the cars advancing towards the shopping centre and highway exchange that over the next three decades...

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3. A Long Way from Here

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pp. 21-37

Long before Marmite and pap and wors collided with my mom and dad’s world, their lives were very different. Home in China was a place of steamed rice, pungent fermented doufu and dried salted fish in viscous puddles of rich oil. Their countrymen and women looked exactly like they did, their...

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4. A Strange New Home

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pp. 38-45

Ah Goung meanwhile had arrived in South Africa. Like most of the Chinese who entered the country, it was by illegal means. The National Party was in power by 1948, probably coinciding with the years of my grandfather’s arrival. There was a strictly enforced quota system for ‘free’ Chinese, determining who was allowed to enter the country legally. The...

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5. Another Journey across the Indian Ocean

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pp. 46-62

When my grandmother received the letter signalling that it was time for her to head for Africa, she must have realised that it was the final chapter of life in China and Hong Kong for her.
More than ten years of living in the bustling port city of Hong Kong had come to an end. From this place where she was making her own...

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6. In the City of Gold

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pp. 63-80

My father, Ah Kee, had already clocked up a few years in another part of the province by the time my gran and mom made their trip south to this mountain of gold, this Gum Saan. For my father there would be no gold, no promise of grand opportunity and also no turning back....

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7. Of Phoenixes and Dragons

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pp. 81-90

Marriage is considered the most auspicious of events for Chinese families. It is rivalled only by the birth of a fi rst-born boy child or maybe the 80th birthday of a man who has accumulated wealth, success and a brood of children and grandchildren he can be proud of....

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8. Growing up with Mr and Mrs Ho

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pp. 91-106

The newlyweds moved into a semi-detached Bertrams house before the dawn of the decade of the 1970s. They rented a room from an old Chinese widow, who also lived in the house. Mom pussyfooted around the old lady. She was not her mother-in-law, but some old aunties always watch for...

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9. Johnny Depp, Segregation and Sequins

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pp. 107-124

School was our job as children. My father went to work, my mother looked after the home and we had to go to school. That was all. I never knew the concept of being rewarded for doing well at school. I still cannot understand the negotiations of parents with their children about good...

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10. My Father, the Fahfee Man

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pp. 125-136

Townships and locations, those kasis where black people were forced to live in divided South Africa, and all the shadow places in the oblivious white suburbs, were my father’s office. He clocked in every day for a boss who controlled numerous fahfee banks around Johannesburg. As midday...

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11. Weekend Dad

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pp. 137-147

All too soon, the school holidays came to an end. Cheery and upbeat adverts on TV signalled the coming dread: ‘Back to School is Cool’. We groaned each time the adverts started. Who needed reminding that soon the 6.30 a.m. alarm would be piercing through our dreams and our days...

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12. Another Day, Another Dollar

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pp. 148-157

Dad’s boss, Gou Sok, was a newer migrant to South Africa, arriving in the 1980s. His son had been in the country for some years already and spoke English fluently, used an English name and had married a woman who was also South African born. When Gou Sok came to South Africa,...

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13. Mah Jong and Ponies

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pp. 158-166

Other dads may have had hobbies, from tinkering with car engines to getting stuck into DIY projects or playing and watching sports. These were not pastimes for my father. He was a gambling man and betting for the fun of it was his favourite relaxation. He enjoyed betting on the horses,...

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14. The Outside Toilet

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pp. 167-174

The first dog I can remember having, I had for only one night. I was about five years old and I simply picked up the furry bundle of caramel from the street corner and carried her home. I was convinced she was a girl dog and I was also convinced we could keep her. She loved me instantly with...

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15. The Hand that History Deals

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pp. 175-194

As gambles go, it was a big risk for my parents and grandparents to have hedged a bet on a good life in Naam Fey, this country in the south of the world.
They could not have guessed, or maybe they did not want to know, about something like the Group Areas Act of 1950 that was already in...

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16. The Dark Night

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pp. 195-207

I was still a student in the capital city as the seat of power in the Union Buildings was about to get shaken up. On the streets there were whites-only buses and it was still unusual to see a black person in a restaurant, unless he was a waiter. Change felt like a distant rumour but the portents started...

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17. A New Day

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pp. 208-213

Almost exactly a year to the date of my dad’s death the new South Africa was born.
Getting to that day was a year of parallel hells. I watched the country tear itself apart with violence and death. On TV and in newspapers, people bled to death from gunshots, they screamed and dropped to the ground...

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18. The Under-catered Party

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pp. 214-225

One of the biggest social sins you can commit is to under-cater at a Chinese function. Chinese are not shy about eating and enjoying their food, lots of it.
There are eight courses plus dessert at a wedding. The tables must groan with symbolic luck, fertility and happiness for the couple. The number...

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Dear Ah Ba

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pp. 226-232

The world has changed so much since you left. I want to tell you everything and share so much that is in my heart. But let me tell you what matters here.
Some of your worst fears for the country did happen. I could tell you about crumbling infrastructure, about manholes waiting to swallow small...

E-ISBN-13: 9780821444443
E-ISBN-10: 0821444441
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821420201
Print-ISBN-10: 0821420208

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 808349052
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Paper Sons and Daughters

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Subject Headings

  • Ho, Ufrieda.
  • Ho, Ufrieda -- Family.
  • Chinese -- South Africa -- Biography.
  • Chinese -- South Africa -- Ethnic identity.
  • Chinese -- South Africa -- History.
  • South Africa -- Race relations.
  • South Africa -- Biography.
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