Africa Asia culture People South Africa

Overseas Chinese Are Integrating Into South Africa

Authors: Rui Cui 崔睿; Chuyun Lee 李竹纭; Haixin Tan 谭海昕; Yating Zhang 张雅婷

Tracing the sparkling light from the country of the rainbow in the southern hemisphere, the Chinese step into this land. South Africa, with its abundant natural resources, multi-ethnic culture, and pleasant natural scenery, attracts Chinese to do business, study, or settle down there. According to a news website based in South Africa, the total number of Chinese in South Africa is more than 300,000, and overseas Chinese mainly live in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and other cities. Through the whole history of Chinese immigration, there are three types of overseas Chinese in South Africa: descendants of early Chinese immigrants to South Africa, also known as South African-born Chinese (SABCs); Hong Kong and Taiwan immigrants from the 1950s to the 1990s; new immigrants from mainland China from the mid-1990s to the present.

South Africa is the largest economy and one of the most influential countries in Africa. Meanwhile, China is its largest trading partner. Under the influence of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which was proposed by China in 2013, the exchanges and cooperation between them are getting closer. Therefore, there are increasingly more Chinese who are going to South Africa to seek new opportunities at this timing. Both old and new overseas Chinese need to perceive the situation of integration in South Africa to live better.

To understand the situation of overseas Chinese there, we interviewed 25 Chinese in South Africa via WeChat, QQ, and Weibo. Through our interviews, we learned about their conventional impressions on South Africa and its people, as well as their own unique stories. The purpose of this article is to unveil the current situation of overseas Chinese integration into South Africa by presenting their understanding of local culture and their interaction with the locals.

Embracing the culture of this “Rainbow Kingdom”
As a migration group, new Chinese immigrants in South Africa face a unique cultural atmosphere that is entirely different from Chinese culture. This is a process of overseas Chinese acculturation in South Africa. Previous research showed that the Chinese community in South Africa is an isolated group with limited interaction with the local community. However, the overseas Chinese we interviewed are gradually entering the culturally vibrant “big family” from the four aspects as follows: stereotype shift, food culture, recreational activities, and festivals.

When it comes to South Africa, how do people think of it? Some will argue that South Africa has “bad security and high crime rates.” Some hold the view that South Africa has the most HIV/AIDS patients in the world. Despite various stereotypes towards South Africa, overseas Chinese find it surprising that South African society is not as bad as they expected when they arrive. Abundant natural resources, flourished business opportunities, the slow pace of life, and the pleasant natural scenery, all of these unique features of South Africa significantly changed their minds. “South Africa is not that terrible in people’s imagination.” written by Fang Xiaoyi, a netizen, in his article called South Africa doesn’t seem as bad as the Chinese people imagine, on a South African Chinese website. Avicii, a 30-year-old man from Xuzhou (a city in Jiangsu province in China), who spent a year in South Africa, holds a similar opinion: “From the very beginning, I was cautious because I read many reports about the insecurity in South Africa at home. Nevertheless, I gradually realized that as long as I do not go to the slums, I am safe. To be honest, life in South Africa is quite comfortable.”

In South Africa, people could enjoy a diverse food culture like Indian food, western food, Chinese food, and local dishes such as chacaraka, a spicy vegetable relish served with bread or curry. What South Africans love most is barbecuing with all kinds of meat, as opposed to the traditional Chinese food culture. According to a BBC documentary “The Chinese are coming”, overseas Chinese who used to be in South Africa several years ago or just arrived there would gather at China Town and only eat Chinese food. Tony, a 39-year-old banker, who comes from Shanghai and now lives in Johannesburg (the largest city in South Africa), said to us, ” It is okay to eat Western food from time to time, but it is uncomfortable to eat too often since it’s hard to digest.” However, more and more overseas Chinese begin to embrace the local food culture over time. Many interviewees told us that they will gather together with friends to have a drink and barbecue on weekends from time to time, just like the locals.

Regarding recreational activities, overseas Chinese are also trying to immersing into the local’s daily activities. Usually, watching DVDs at home or playing cards with a few Chinese friends is the most common way for overseas Chinese to relax in South Africa. There are a bunch of options for overseas Chinese to join the local recreational activities. Zhai Jianlan, a reporter of Xinhua World Newsagency, said that South African entertainment activities on weekends range from markets selling antiques, artworks, and home-cooked food to organized running, cycling, and golf. Moreover, picnics, barbecues, and wine tastings with family are among the most popular weekend activities for South African families. Impressed by the local people who love nature and sports, Annie, a 37-year-old married Chinese woman, who lives in Pretoria (one of the three capitals of the country located at Northern South Africa) and works in trade industry, told us that she is also drawn to the South African culture of enjoying the beauty of nature, ” Camping, fishing, and taking the kids out on weekends attract me.” For South Africans, one of the most common sports is rugby. It is not only a way to entertain but also a way to connect people from different cultural backgrounds. One of our interviewees told us that the South African national rugby can unite people from different races and beliefs. Overseas Chinese are also drawn to this sport. They will gather at home, bars, or restaurants to watch live show television.

Lastly, the festivals in South Africa represent the country’s historical traditions and social culture. Christmas and Easter are the most common festivals. In addition to these Western festivals, Heritage Day and Mandela Day are also gradually entering the lives of the overseas Chinese. Heritage Day happens on September 24 every year in South Africa, in which different ethnic groups would wear their national costumes. One of our interviewees mentioned, “I will prepare some Chinese national costumes, such as Qipao, Hanfu, to wear on the street to present traditional Chinese culture to others.” Besides, Mandela Day was established by the United Nations to honour former South African President Nelson Mandela’s quest for peace and freedom. To fully extend the spirit of President Mandela, Mandela Day becomes a day of charity. The festival evokes the social responsibility and strengthens the bonding between Chinese and South Africans. One of our interviewees told us, “We will donate no less than ten times under the call of schools and communities monthly.” These donations are for an underrepresented population like orphans, as well as areas that suffered from environmental damage.

As every coin has two sides, cultural exchanges are mutual. When traditional Chinese festivals come, Chinatown, Nanhua, (the largest Buddhist temple in Africa located on the outskirts of Blomhes, Howden, South Africa), and many other places will hold celebrations. “South Africans don’t celebrate Chinese festivals,” says Bo, a housewife who went to South Africa with her husband 13 years ago and now lives in Cape Town. Most of our interviewees believe that many South Africans would love to come to Chinese festival celebrations. Kevin, a Chinese student studies in Cape Town, told us, “During Spring Festival, Chinatown is full of South Africans celebrating the festival.” Many South Africans would go to see lion dancing in Chinatown, or visit temples to pray for blessings on lunar New Year’s eve.

The two groups, Chinese and South Africans, interact and make progress together in understanding each other via daily communications. Based on our interviews, we are optimistic that overseas Chinese are becoming more confident in integrating into South African society, and the Chinese are in the process of stepping into this “Rainbow Kingdom.”

Different situations of integration of overseas Chinese
According to our research, 68% of interviewees have frequent contact with South Africans at school, work, and other places. Still, based on different societal interaction situations and personal experiences, overseas Chinese may have different attitudes towards the integration of local communities.

“What do you think of South Africans before you arrived here?” When we asked this question to our interviewees, more than 85% of them have no positive impression of South Africa. They generally consider that South Africans are very poor and lazy. After coming into contact with South Africans, 4 of interviewees still kept their negative impression while most of them changed their opinions and began to realize that South Africans are just like any other ethnic group in the world. Specifically, our interviewees expressed that it’s important to determine on a case by case situation for the integration.

In this way, cultural differences can sometimes lead to confusion and misunderstanding. For example, the Chinese in South Africa constantly blame local people for being unpunctual. Dede, a Chinese lived in Johannesburg, shared his experience with us: “When I first came to South Africa, I worked for Huawei. I called the black driver of our company and asked him to pick me up. He told me to wait for five minutes, but I waited for half an hour. At first, I thought it just that the exact man I met was unreliable, but then it turns out that it not a special case. For South Africans, five minutes is not actual five minutes in our sense.”

Regarding punctuality, the Chinese have their ways to adapt to this cultural difference. Annie has been in Pretoria for nearly ten years, and she told us that she has been used to it. “I will be late for appointments with black people if it is not important. And I do not usually arrive late for important things, but I know for sure that they will arrive late.”

The unsecured social environment also makes overseas Chinese feel worried and panic. Kelly, a Chinese jeweller, who has been in Johannesburg for nearly 9 years, barely interact with the local people. She once injured her little finger due to a robbery, which made her extremely reluctant to integrate into the local society. After the accident, she believes that South Africa is dangerous and anti-Chinese. On the other hand, Yui, a Chinese model who has been in Cape Town for only 5 to 6 months, shared a similar story with a different result. “After experiencing the robbery, my friends and the former landlord in Cape Town took good care of me and actively offered to pick me up and take me home when they ask me out. The landlady would invite me to go out with her whenever she finds me at home alone. I know she is worried that I will be afraid of being alone. Sometimes, she will leave her two dogs at home to keep my company.” Sharing similar personal experiences, Kelly and Yui hold different attitudes, and their choices also end in varying degrees of integration.

The change of the overseas Chinese stereotypes on South Africa and the local people, the adaptation of local lifestyle, cultural exchanges, and the increasing deep interactions between them, show that overseas Chinese are working on to integrate into South Africa. Under the influence of BRI, there is a growing trend of coming to South Africa for Chinese. It is of considerable significance for exploring how overseas Chinese can integrate into the local society more efficiently and effectively in the future.

2 comments on “Overseas Chinese Are Integrating Into South Africa

  1. I’ve traveled around some countries, but never stayed in a foreign country for more than 2 months. I can perceive the hardship of adapting to a new environment, but I haven’t felt it. I am confused by the rationale behind the migration phenomenon.
    Instead of thinking about why it is so hard for immigrants to fit into a new environment, we should figure out why we have to do so? Is it possible to overcome the conflicts between different cultural conflicts, respect each civilization and live in harmony?
    Maybe it is a little irrelevant to this article, but it does bewilder me for a long time.


  2. I’ve traveled around some countries, but never stayed in a foreign country for more than 2 months. I can perceive the hardship of adapting to a new environment, but I haven’t felt it. I am confused by the rationale behind the migration phenomenon.
    Instead of thinking about why it is so hard for immigrants to fit into a new environment, we should figure out why we have to do so? Is it possible to overcome the conflicts between different cultural conflicts, respect each civilization and live in harmony?
    Maybe it is a little irrelevant to this article, but it does bewilder me for a long time.


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