Saturday, December 14, 2013

On Being a Chinese-looking, half-South African, and Family Stories That Should Be Told More Often

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela, as well as a few events in my own family have had me thinking of my South African heritage a great deal in recent days.

I always enjoy the reaction I get when I tell people that my mother was born in South Africa.  Reactions range from:

Outright denial - "No way!"

Trying to go with the flow - "Oh... really?  That's interesting..." <smoke seeps from skull>

Immediate bonding - "My family's from Nigeria! We're practically family!" <hugs>

Immediate joking - "Well of course - you totally look South African! /sarcasm"

That last one is particularly fun, because for most of the 20th Century, if you were from South Africa, how you looked mattered a LOT.

The dichotomy between white & black in Apartheid-era South Africa is justifiably the most publicised and is most widely understood aspect of South Africa's former system of government.  But being of Chinese decent, as my mother's family is, presented a bit a conundrum for the South African race sorters of the day.  If you were Chinese, you clearly weren't White, but you weren't really Black either - Apartheid's primary mission was oppression of Black South Africans, so what to do with the smattering of Chinese immigrants who had come to South Africa to get in on the gold and diamond action?

The solution: A special category of one's own

The Apartheid system had a defined category of "Chinese" that was applied to South African citizens of Chinese decent, regardless of where they were born.  The "Chinese" race category was treated somewhere in-between the "White" category and the "Black" and "Coloured" categories.  Interestingly, the "Japanese" race category were afforded the label of "Honorary White" and got all of the "White" rights and privileges, presumably for economic reasons (and also another item to add to the list of things that make other Asians dislike Japanese people <terrible generalization alert>).

These race labels were very formal, and were actually documented on government identification cards that all South Africans had to carry around.  For example, here is one of my mom's old ID cards:
So... are you Chinese... or Japanese...?
In 21st Century North America, it would be inconceivable for anyone to have to carry a race label on their government ID, but until the 1990s, that was the reality for millions of South Africans.

Despite having their own separate category however, treatment of Chinese South Africans (and other Asian categories in general), was incredibly inconsistent.  Most families have stories of substantial restriction and discrimination, and yet sprinkled in are other examples where families received freedoms and privileges that approached those of White South Africans.  There is at least one story of a Chinese man getting a South African court to agree that he was "Functionally White" and should therefore be accorded White rights and privileges.  The more conflicting stories you hear, the more clear it is that the South African Government was basically making a lot of things up as they went along.

My mother's family were fortunate in that they were relatively fair-skinned as far as Asians go.  They also made efforts to avoid catching too much sun to keep themselves that way.  This made it easier for them to occasionally get into Whites-only entertainment venues, and made it easier for them to travel through the Orange Free State, which was the most conservative of the South African provinces at the time.  My grandfather would occasionally try to pass himself off as being Russian if someone tried to call him out on his appearance, and from what I'm told, that actually worked on occasion too.

Apartheid, however, got really annoying really fast, and in the 1960s, my mother's family emigrated to Canada where they enjoyed much more political equality, albeit with much colder weather.

At least that's how I thought the story went until a few years ago...

When I was growing up, I would occasionally pick up hints that there was more to my family's exit from South Africa than they usually let on.  Eventually, I was able to piece together a story that I really wish I could have been told from the get go:

It turns out that my family were a bunch of agitators.

In particular, two of my great-uncles, my Uncle George and my Uncle Ley, were two of the more prominent anti-Apartheid activists in the Chinese South African community.

My Uncle Ley had connections with the Chinese Communist Party, and as the Western governments of the time were closely allied with the Apartheid National Party, if you wanted help organising an anti-apartheid group, the commies were your best bets for finding friends.  He founded a branch of the South African Communist Party (SACP) in my family's home town of Kimberly, and, in some versions of the story, helped both the SACP and the ANC set up their joint operational funding.  I will say that it seems more than a little trite to have the Asian activist playing the role of accountant in an anti-apartheid story, and I can't really find an extant reference to confirm it aside from one website.  Nonetheless, his political activities were concerning enough that, following the Sharpeville Massacre, South African authourities had him arrested and held in custody for six weeks without a trial.  To this day, the South African Historical Archives have my Uncle Ley's old security file available for Freedom-of-Information-Act-style requests.  Looking at the names on those other security files, having someone from my family appear on a list that includes Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and Walter Sisulu is pretty damn cool.

What's the Afrikaans word for Komrade?
My Uncle George joined the anti-Apartheid movement while attending medical school at the University of the Witswatersrand, one of four "Open Universities" that resisted Apartheid education policies.  My Uncle George gave speeches at student rallies, and became enough of an activist presence that the police raided the apartment he shared with some other student activists and strip-searched them on more than one occasion.  Uncle George also published an activist newsletter that my grandfather helped to get printed and distributed back home in Kimberly.

It's worth bearing in mind that the Chinese South African community was not, as a whole, in favour of overt activism.  Their preferred strategy was to lie low, and not draw attention to themselves.  In particular, those with close ties to the Taiwanese government would have been concerned with my family's communist connections, and in some versions of the telling, it was actually other members of the Chinese South African community who put authorities onto the trail of my uncles.

On the day that my Uncle Ley was arrested, word got back to Uncle George and feeling like his number might be up, he got on the first plane to London that he could.  My grandfather burned their entire inventory of newsletters and other activist paraphenalia, and did his best to keep a low profile going forward.  After some time had passed, my grandfather decided that his family would be better off somewhere else, and moved to Canada, settling in Vancouver, where he was later joined by my Uncle George.

For anyone with the good fortune to be born in a highly-developed, first world nation, there are going to be times when one wonders about the depth, and strength of one's character.  A childhood and adolescence spent in affluent suburbs and cosmopolitan cities doesn't offer a whole lot of adversity (aside from the self-inflicted kind).  Knowing that my family had, in the past, found themselves in a position to choose between lying low and stepping up; and knowing that they made a choice that put them on the right side of history is something that would have been very nice to know during my awkward teenage years.  As I found myself filling in this story with details that made me feel prouder and prouder with each new anecdote, I wondered why I couldn't have been told of this sooner.

After thinking about a little further, I do understand why my family doesn't talk about this much.  To be uprooted from one's home can't have been pleasant, and Vancouver was hardly a top-tier global city at the time.  Going from Kimberly, a dry, desert town built around booming mineral wealth, to a damp, cold, mill town like Vancouver must have seemed like quite a downgrade at the time.  The possibility that they may have been turned in by other members of the community they were trying to serve must also have felt like a stinging betrayal.

But just because a story is painful doesn't mean it isn't valuable.  And this weekend, as I travel home to pay my respects to my Aunt Lily, I'll be making just a little extra effort, and paying just a little more attention, to see if there is anything else in our family archive that deserves to be told just a little more often.

Some Interesting References:

Colour, Confusion and Concessions: The History of the Chinese in South Africa

 By Melanie Yap
Hong Kong University Press 1996

A Matter of Honour: Being Chinese in South Africa

 By Yoon Jung Park

1 comment:

  1. This is an excellent and intriguing account, Brian. I hope all of your family reads it. My condolences to you for the passing of your Aunt Lily.