a preliminary overview to 1910

To date, no comprehensive history of the Chinese community in
South Africa has been written, and even in the more recent
publications the subject has been entirely ignored.1 There are
numerous reasons for this, one of which is obviously the
numerically small
size of the community as well as the scattered nature and paucity
of research material. The South African Chinese community is, and
has almost always been, one of the country's smallest minorities.
Since the first official census in the Cape of Good Hope in 1865,
the Chinese have only ever been listed as a separate 'ethnic group'
once. Their numbers were always considered too small to warrant
attention and they have therefore been consistently categorised
as 'mixed'
or 'other', or together with the larger Indian population, as 'Asian'.2
At present the Chinese community numbers in the region of 20 000
to 25 000, comprising only about 0,04 per cent of the total population.3
Moreover, throughout South African history, the Chinese have generally
preferred to maintain a rather inconspicuous profile within the
racially stratified and complex nature of South African society.4
They occupy
what has been referred to as a 'strange position in a strange society',5
a 'no man's land between White and Black'.

This latter situation has given rise to numerous sociological studies
which are primarily concerned with analysing the position of
the Chinese people in South Africa and how the society is perceived
by the white community.7 Other related disciplines have focused
on this
marginal status in terms of business, immigration and demography,
while more parochial studies have analysed Chinese culture and
religion.8 Relatively little has been published about the community
per se.

The few academic studies in the field of history have focused
almost exclusively on the 63 695 Chinese labourers who were
brought to
South Africa under contract to work on the Witwatersrand gold
mines during
the period 1904 to 1910. These various theses and chapters
in general histories consider issues such as the impact of
unique experiment
m the local and British political scene, its effect on the
Transvaal economy, its influence on the development of race
and labour
relations, and more generally the processes involved in their
employment and repatriation.10 The first and only published
historical monograph
on this subject appeared in 1982: Peter Richardson's Chinese
mine labour in the Transvaal.11 This work is essentially concerned
the workings of the international indentured labour system.
Richardson pays particular attention to the complex crisis
on the Rand which
necessitated the introduction of Chinese labour as well as
... consequences of the interaction of a crisis of accumulation
... and Stats intervention ... as they affected the organisation
of recruiting
... the procedures of embarkation and passage and ... the
employment of these men in the mines.

This book is not only historiographically important because
it is the first monograph to focus specifically on the
Chinese labour
but also as it formed part of the new revisionist school
of writing which
emerged in South Africa during the late 1970s.13 Here,
South Africa's great transformation - the discovery of
and gold - is
focused on, but with capital and labour as the key issues.
It is seen as
a period in which the foundations of the future political
and economic system were laid down, together with all the
of the class
and race structure.

despite this book's pioneering qualities, there are still numerous
aspects of Chinese mine labour which remain
In the
conclusion to his book Richardson states that 'the more
overtly human and individual
elements' of this subject have been minimised, and he
'hopes these omissions will spur future investigations'.15
impact of the
indentured labourers on the 'free' or unindentured Chinese
who were already
resident in the different South African colonies is not
considered, nor are other comparisons drawn in the colonial
The free or unindentured South African Chinese community
has only recently become the subject of historical investigation.
the last decade, the Transvaal Chinese Association inaugurated
a project
to write a history of the South African Chinese community.16
Similar projects have been carried out by many Chinese
communities throughout
the world - particularly South East Asia, the United
States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
In many
instances these form part
of the 'dig where you stand' or 'write your own history'
which emerged during the late seventies, while others
are related to the
recent international increase in scholarship dealing
with the overseas Chinese.17 Other historical work includes
a chapter
on South Africa
in a book on the Chinese diaspora in the western Indian
ocean; a study of the Chinese in the Dutch East India
history of their political and social status in South
African society; an analysis of their economic position
as well
as their
and contribution to the 'passive resistance' movement
at the turn of this century.

In view of the above, and the shift of historical research
in the direction of cultural studies during the 1990s,
this article
attempt to present a brief overview of the history
of a neglected component of the South African past.
It will
focus on the
history of both the indentured and free Chinese in
pre-Union South

Over the centuries millions of Chinese have settled
in foreign lands throughout the world, despite
the fact
that historically
the Chinese Empire was essentially
insular and offered almost no encouragement for Chinese people
to go abroad.19 Furthermore, the family system,
ancestor worship
and the very homogeneity
of Chinese civilisation also served to discourage
any form of mass emigration.20
Up until the mid-sixteenth century a Chinese merchant who went
was considered an outlaw.21 In 1712 the Manchu
Dynasty issued an
edict which requested foreign
governments to repatriate all Chinese citizens 'so that they
may be executed', and by the end of the eighteenth century
was little change to this
policy.22 Thus although the Chinese had been emigrating
since the seventh century, their
numbers overseas were always rather insignificant.

with the expansion of the Western world to the Tar East, a new phase
in the history of Chinese emigration was
in. The
not only
became more actively involved in overseas trade, but also
became a source of labour,
eventually venturing far beyond surrounding South East Asia.24
The various European imperial powers - including Spain, Portugal,
Netherlands and Great Britain
-required labour to develop the natural resources of their
newly found colonies, and they believed that 'no race in
the world
would do them
better service
than the Chinese'.25 Ironically, the Chinese immigrants were
at first as much welcomed
in the various colonies as they were
later objected to.26 Among Chinese emigrants a new type now
appeared, emigrants who, unlike their predecessors who went
to foreign
countries independently
and of their own free will, went out under either treaty
provision or labour contract.27
Thousands of Chinese were shipped overseas without China's
official approval, a situation which ultimately compelled
the Ch'ing government
to change
its traditional attitude and enter into agreements to monitor
and protect its
overseas subjects.28
The opening of the Treaty Ports in the 1840s accelerated
the process of Chinese emigration, and in 1860 the Manchu
the ban
on emigration.29
There were also other varied and intricate factors which
contributed to this development, including population pressure,
and internal strife.30
Chinese citizens were eventually to be found in almost every
country in the
world, with
the possible exception of Iceland, Greenland and a few states
in North and West Africa 31 -giving substance to the Chinese
saying: 'Where the
sun shines,
finds the Chinese.'

all the continents in the world, Africa appears to have been the last
one to which the Chinese emigrated.33 Yet,
as early
as the fifteenth
century, some
sixty-odd years before the Portuguese explorer Vasco da
Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope to discover the sea route
India, one of
the Chinese
grand eunuchs, Cheng Ho (Zheng He), sailed down the east
coast of Africa as far as Ts'eng-pa, or Zanzibar.34 Other
indicate that part
of his fleet
'carried even further by a strong wind, past the Straits
of Mozambique' and even possibly as far
as a place called 'Ha-pu-er which may be identified as Kergulan Island
in the Antarctic Ocean'
brilliant navigator's voyages, which were primarily concerned with
proclaiming the Emperor's authority and inducing
the payment of tribute, 36 were abruptly ended towards
the end of the 1430 by the
Emperor's decree that 'the building of ships to go to barbarian
countries shall everywhere be stopped'. Within a few years documents
relating to the voyages were destroyed, from anxiety that such 'mistaken
policies should not be pursued again' and it became an 'offence to
own or build craft with two or more masts'.37 This anti-expansionist
attitude put paid to the possibility of China becoming a significant
naval and colonial power,38 and of course to a chance encounter with
southern Africa.

It was only once the Dutch East India Company (VOC) established
a refreshment station at the Cape in 1652 that the first Chinese
in South Africa. Within a year of founding the VOC settlement,
the commander, Jan van Riebeeck, made his first of many requests
free Chinese labour.39 He expressed a wish for some of the 'industrious
people who had done so much to develop Java' and noted in his journal
that 'an immigration of a multitude of Chinese ... would be of
service' .40 Later he pointed out that there were many industrious
and capable
Chinese in prison in Batavia in consequence of debts they owed
the VOC, who would make good workmen.41 Van Riebeeck's successor,
Wagenaar, also proposed the importation of Chinese as a solution
to the labour shortage and ineptitude of the local Dutch farmers.42
In 1662 he asked for '25 or 30 armeledigde Chineesen [impoverished
Chinese] who understood agriculture and who would be equal to 50
of ons unwillig luije boere kinkels [our obstinate lazy farmer
louts]'.43 In 1664 Wagenaar reiterated his plea for 'voluntary
or imprisoned
Chinese' who were skilled in the various trades so desperately
needed at the Cape. This sentiment was still apparent during
the rule of
Governor Simon van der Stel towards the end of the seventeenth
century.44 However, the Council of India in Batavia to whom
most of these pleas
were addressed, did not oblige. Instead, free
burghers and slaves arrived and so a different course of development
for labour and race relations in the Cape, and the
future South Africa,
was taken.

no Chinese were imported officially and emigration never took place
on any large scale during the VOC period, according
to rather fragmentary evidence there appears to have been a
number of
Chinese present at the Cape. Most of them were either convicts
or ex-convicts who had been banished to the Cape from Batavia,
others might have come ashore from passing ships or even migrated
intentionally.45 The convicts were generally treated as slaves,
and on the expiry of their sentences, some of them became part
of the
'free black community'.46 The term 'free blacks' was used during
this period to denote all free persons wholly or partially
of African or Asian descent.47 Throughout the VOC period the
of Chinese remained comparatively minuscule: there were 17
Chinese names
on a convict list of February 172748 and according to the 'opgaafrolle'49
of 1750, the Chinese numbered at least 22.50 This figure was
said to have declined as a result of their high rate of return
to Asia,
a trend which was in marked contrast to other free blacks.
The Chinese who did remain or who had come independently to
the Cape,
lived apart
from the other free blacks, and there is evidence to indicate
that they even had their own separate cemetery or cemeteries
in Cape
Town.51 Moreover, in 1722 the Chinese who were living in Table
Valley were,
together with the free blacks, formed into a company by the
Cape authorities to be used in the event of 'public catastrophes
as fire or ships stranding in Table Bay'. Cape
paintings of the period and travellers' journals - such as those of
Otto Mentzel and Carl Thunberg - depict the Chinese
a variety
of small-scale trades and crafts. Many dealt in commodities
such as tea, chinaware and eastern fabrics, while others sold
or vegetables cultivated on their own private plots of land.
Another profitable trade

which the Chinese were involved in was chandlering - they
used waste animal fat to make shapely candles which were
in great
demand.53 That some of the Chinese were reasonably wealthy
is evident from
the records that list them as slave owners.54 Mentzel reports
favourably on the extensive restaurant facilities run by
Chinese. He describes
them as:

... good cooks. Fried and pickled fish with boiled rice is
well favoured by soldiers, sailors and slaves. When ...
crayfish, crabs, seaspiders
and 'granelen' [small crabs] are cast ashore. They are
jealously collected by these Orientals, cooked and sold. These
likewise keep small eating houses where tea and coffee
is always to be had.

The Chinese obviously flourished, so much so that despite
the small size of their population, there were instances
free burghers
(European independent farmers) would protest to the authorities
about the Chinese traders' competition. The memorialists
repeatedly complained
that the Chinese trade was causing them 'much injury'
and requested that it should be forbidden. This opposition
resulted in the
introduction of an Act prohibiting certain forms of trade
and restricting the
granting of licences to Chinese.

The scattered nature of the references to Chinese individuals
throughout VOC archival records, and the lack of a
firm grasp of Chinese names
by the Dutch makes it difficult to research this subject.
James Armstrong, eminent historian and specialist in
the field of
slavery in the VOC
period, claims that by a 'mosaic-building process of
accumulating facts about individuals, and where possible
from the broken patterns that emerge' it is possible
to obtain some
of the lives of these early inhabitants.

References to the Chinese during the first and second
British occupation (1795-1803; 1806-) are similarly
scant, if not
more so, and virtually
no research has been done on this period. There is
evidence to indicate, however, that there was a small
influx of
Chinese as
a result of
of skilled labour for building.58 In 1815, 24 Chinese masons and carpenters signed
an agreement
work at the
Cape for three
years, and by 1822 ten of them were still in fixed
employment.59 In 1845 a group of Chinese carpenters
were engaged by
British agents to help build the Protestant church
in the naval
yard at Simonstown.
And in 1849 a British colonist, M J O Smith, recruited
a few Chinese to work as gardeners, cooks and carpenters.60
The British
also made an official request for Chinese to solve
the labour
shortage at the Cape.61 In 1874 and 1876 the Cape
Legislative Assembly passed
resolutions for the importation of Chinese labourers,
and had already contracted 400 when the British
government vetoed the
Sporadic immigration continued with artisans and
particularly merchants arriving from Canton and
Moi Yean, sometimes
coming via Madagascar
and Mauritius.

Chinese emigration on the largest scale began in the second half of
the nineteenth
involving more than
two million people.64 Although
South Africa was not one of the more popular destinations,
there was a simultaneous upsurge in Chinese arrivals.65
referred to this as
the date when the first Chinese arrived in South Africa.66)
The reason
for the increase in emigration to South Africa
during this period was mainly
the mineral revolution with the discovery of
diamonds in the 1860s and gold in
the 1870s. The diamond discoveries were located in and
around Kimberley, and the Chinese arrived there not to
mine but rather
to establish various trade
and service businesses.67 With the discovery of gold on
the Witwatersrand, many Chinese moved or extended their
while new immigrants continued to arrive, and by the turn
of the century there were at least 1 000 Chinese living
in the
Transvaal Colony, virtually
all of
them in Johannesburg.68 Most of these settlers were from
southern China - primarily Kuangtung, Fukhien and Hainan
Island, while
migrants from Chinese
communities in Malaysia, particularly the Straits Settlement
and Mauritius.

With the outbreak of the South African War (1899-1902),
most of the Chinese moved away from Kimberley and the
Witwatersrand to
towns such
as Port Elizabeth and East London. Here many remained,
the highest concentration
of 'free' Chinese was still on the Rand. Shortly after
the war a whole new chapter in the history of the
Chinese in South Africa began. Not only did 63 659 compatriots
arrive, but the relatively undisturbed lifestyle of the
existing or settled
communities was considerably disrupted.

Already in 1898, just prior to the outbreak of the South
African War proposals were made to the Chamber of Mines,
the official
mouthpiece of the Rand
mining industry, for the large-scale introduction of
Chinese labour.70 The general
opinion was that these plans were inadvisable ... at
the time'71 and
further consideration of the scheme was delayed by
the war. In the immediate post-war
period the suggestion to introduce Chinese labour was
revived. The war had devastated the mining industry
as a result
of the temporary suspension
operations, the timidity of foreign investors and a
desperate shortage of African unskilled
labour. 2 African labour was the indispensable base
of the mining industrial pyramid, and hence its scarcity
was crippling
to the
factors were responsible for this drastic decline in
the African labour supply74
but the important consequence was that the Chamber
now launched a determined campaign
to obtain the necessary approval for the Chinese labour
scheme. This caused extensive repercussions and hostilities
in a
period of economic
and political transition.

Rand white skilled miners, prominent Boer leaders,
overseas and local colonial governments and international
against the experiment for a diverse range of reasons.76
Even once the mining magnates
received official sanction from the Conservative-led
British government, the opposition to the
'Chinese experiment' continued. In fact, in 1906,
the Liberal Party in England used the 'anti-Chinese
as one of
its main electioneering
slogans, as
did the local Het Volk party in the Transvaal - albeit
for different reasons -
but in both instances they were politically victorious.

Much of the local resistance to Chinese mine labour
was related to the Indian indentured labour scheme
had been introduced
the Natal
sugar plantations
in the 1860s. A large sector of the public made
it apparent that they were determined 'not to allow
the Chinese to
enter the Transvaal
the same
terms as the Indians had entered Natal'.78 As a
result, in order to acquire the
necessary approval for the Chinese indentured labour
scheme, importation and contract
regulations were very restrictive, but also had
to be reasonable to comply with the demands of the Chinese
government, certain
political parties
and several humanitarian organizations.

10 February 1904 Ordinance no 17 was passed by the Transvaal Legislative
Council to regulate
of the
Chinese mine labourers.80
Of the thirty-five sections of the Labour Importation
Ordinance, seventeen were
purely restrictive and were aimed primarily at
confining their employment, preventing
escape, prohibiting permanent settlement in Africa
and avoiding competition with the white working
class.81 Details of some
of the stipulations
stated that the Chinese were to live in compounds
on the mines where they were
employed; they had to carry passes; they were
not allowed to trade or be
employed in
an enumerated list of capacities; they could
not own property and were compelled to repatriation
on expiry
of a three-year
could only be renewed
for a further two-year period.82 A Foreign Labour
Department was established to regulate the
administration of the ordinance as well as the
appointment of various officers to monitor the
treatment and
implementation of conditions
on the mines
and in the compounds.83 A Chinese consul-general
was also appointed to oversee
the welfare of the emigrants. He later acquired
jurisdiction over the so-called free and independent

The ordinance also prescribed specific conditions
for the employment of the Chinese. These included
the system
recruitment, the
passage to South
specific compound and ablution facilities,
medical attention as well as a particular diet.

Opposers of the scheme contested that the money
expended facilitating this new labour force
did not justify
its employment. It
was also claimed that the disorders in the
mines and social crimes committed on outlying
by the Chinese
'far outweighed'
any potential
industrial merit, it being alleged that 'the
prisons of China had been cleared of ruffians
in the search for labour'.87 Opposition on
the other extreme complained that this was
a 'system
of slavery'
and that
the Chinese were illtreated
by management,
white miners, African labourers and Chinese

As a result of the aforementioned agitation
the cry to repatriate the Chinese did not
abate and
the increase
in gold production
were taken both locally and abroad to bring
the system to an end. In 1906 the Liberal
government in England
and in
the Het Volk
the Transvaal
passed legislation prohibiting recruitment
preventing the right to contract renewal.89
The fate of the
Chinese experiment
was sealed
repatriation began in
mid-1907. By the end of the decade all of the Chinese indentured
mine labourers had for all intents and purposes been returned to
China.90It is interesting to note that throughout all this furore
the established Chinese community in the Transvaal had made it
clear that they were 'neither interested nor concerned with the
introduction or otherwise of Chinese labour for the mines', 91 Rather,
they were preoccupied with their own increasingly uncertain political

The anti-Chinese feeling prevalent throughout the first decade
of the twentieth century had an undoubtedly negative impact
on the free
Chinese community. Coupled with the already existing hostility
amongst the whites towards the Indians and the introduction
of legislation
that referred to the 'native races of Asia' or 'Asiatics' which
thereby often inadvertently also involved the Chinese, the
future position
of the free Chinese appeared to be under threat. Discriminatory
legislation had been intermittently introduced in the four
colonies since before
the South African War, but in 1906 the Transvaal government introduced
the most extreme law, the Asiatic Registration Act, otherwise known
as the 'Black Act' .92 It required amongst other things the compulsory
reregistration of all Asians over the age of eight with finger
and thumb prints as a means of identity. The humiliation caused
by this
Act was evident in the various petitions and representations made
to the government authorities by the local Chinese.93 The implications
of this legislation were far reaching, and led to a marked increase
in reaction from the Chinese community.

While the Indian lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi, led a well publicised
defiance campaign against the 'Black Act', the Chinese community
by Leung Quinn, acting chairman of the local Cantonese Association,
supported his action.94 Throughout the passive resistance campaign
the steadfastness of the Chinese community in resisting this
injustice was evident.

Gandhi often praised the Chinese for their solidarity and steadfast
determination during the resistance struggle, and commend their
exemplary role to the Indians.95 It was estimated that there
were at certain
times during the campaign more Chinese in goal than Indians,
and a number of them were deported. One of the deportees was
Quinn the
leader of the Chinese, who after several trials was forced to leave
the country in 1910.96 The most poignant testimony
to the Chinese
objection to the legislation was the suicide in November 1907
of Chow Kwai For, aged 24 years. He claimed he had been ordered
his employer to reregister, and only afterwards became aware
of his mistake
in having done so. Angered and ashamed by the unjust law he
took his own life for 'conscience sake' leaving a note to explain
his reasons.

This was by no means the last of the discriminating legislation
which would have an impact on the South African Chinese community.
In tin
decades ahead, as the apartheid policies evolved, this small
ethnic minority was caught up in a web of 'white' and 'non-white
They had perforce to come to terms with the complexities
of a spectrum of ambiguous discriminatory laws: immigration
conditional, franchise denied, classification vague and social
rights enigmatic.98 The history of the Chinese in South African
is thus
one of marginality, yet it provides an interesting case study
o,' race relations and more specifically, how the various
leadership structures had tried to control people on the basis
of race.

Last updated : 03-Apr-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 03-Apr-2011