In-Depth Project: Chinese in Joburg


“In-depth is deep”, was how my colleague Prelene Singh summarised day 2 of our explorations into the world and lives of the Chinese community on Johannesburg.

It’s best to clarify, set the scene first, before I explain the inflection and full meaning of the sigh that followed Prelene’s lament.

At the end of two weeks we are expected to produce our findings. The two weeks after that will be spent rolling this huge boulder up a steep mountain: we will produce a thoroughly researched, well-considered feature article on a sub-theme of our choice. The theme I decided on is one that has fascinated me for a long time, though not in the context of Chinese community.

My working title is “Burial Practices and Spiritual Traditions of Joburg Chinese”.

A few years back I spent days trawling newspapers and magazines for articles, hoping to find descriptions of South Africans’ relationship with funerals. A common enough fascination. South African funerals, the ones that I’ve attended and heard stories about from friends are hardly ever less than curious and spectacular.

Read this

The amounts of money spent on these funerals and lengths people go to to give their deceased a “proper send-off” are common banter in taxi rides and on kitchen verandas providing a view of passing processions on Saturday mornings.

But the converse applies as well. The funerals can be complex, extremely personal moments that involve rituals that are revealing of people’s  deepest beliefs and sense of self.

Read this.

Later on I became interested in African migration in Johannesburg and how those who die here are laid to rest by those they leave behind in an adopted land.

Read this.

Beginning my research today lead me first to Doves on the corner of Jorissen street and Enoch Sontonga avenue.  The nation-wide chain of undertakers turns out to have had a close relationship with the Chinese community, to the point that a 10% discount was standard for all its Chinese customers.

When this special ended with a management change at the funeral parlour, suggestively wedged between Braamfontein Cemetry and a commercial sports betting outlet, the number of Chinese entrusting the last rites of their deceased to doves dipped.

An employee at Doves who shared this history with explained:

“For years this doves here in Braamfontein had a relationship with teh Chinese community. Nearly every Chinese funeral in Johannesburg was handled by us. but when we stopped giving them the discount some stopped coming. They even phoned us to complain.”

my pen prematurely lifted off the page in my notepad where i had diligently recording her account, and an involuntary sigh escaped from under breath.

This seemed to prompt the kind lady in the pink Doves shirt and shiny blonde fringe to say more.

“Its not only that, a lot of the Chinese people are not very religious, especailly the Christian ones. They are very nice but they are very specific. Many of them are not [strict] Buddhists anymore, but they are very specific.”

Her repetition of “specific” gave the insight into my subject i had been missing and desperate for. It was the first ray insight that spoke of personality, even if it was from a second hand source. “Specificity” around burial rites? Its a start, like finding a broken compass in a forest.

It was a sigh that led me to a useful piece to information. And going back to Prelene’s sigh, when she uttered my quote of the day, the retrospective irony makes me tingle with hope.

Non-verbal communication won the day for me today. And that watershed sigh, on reflection, was not one of exasperation. not completely. It also had a sliver of wide-eyed wonder and expectation if you listened to it in the right way.

And it seems that this is what is in store for us as we explore the Chinese community, as well what will be required to get the story.

Zài jiàn (Goodbye)

Interesting Reads:

Chinese Undertakers

Mock Funerals


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