Paper Sons and Daughters
Growing up Chinese in South Africa
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: Ohio University Press
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Title Page, Copyright
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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...
2. Here be Dragons
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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...
3. A Long Way from Here
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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...
4. A Strange New Home
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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...
5. Another Journey across the Indian Ocean
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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...
6. In the City of Gold
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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....
7. Of Phoenixes and Dragons
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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....
8. Growing up with Mr and Mrs Ho
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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...
9. Johnny Depp, Segregation and Sequins
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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...
10. My Father, the Fahfee Man
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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...
11. Weekend Dad
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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...
12. Another Day, Another Dollar
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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,...
13. Mah Jong and Ponies
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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,...
14. The Outside Toilet
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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...
15. The Hand that History Deals
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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
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...
16. The Dark Night
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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...
17. A New Day
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Almost exactly a year to the date of my dad’s death the new South Africa
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...
18. The Under-catered Party
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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
There are eight courses plus dessert at a wedding. The tables must groan with symbolic luck, fertility and happiness for the couple. The number...
Dear Ah Ba
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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
Some of your worst fears for the country did happen. I could tell you about crumbling infrastructure, about manholes waiting to swallow small...
Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2012