A Chinese Necropolis: Day two

e1e8c607c7fde9919bd35d668e62bf06George Leong began writing tombstone messages for the Chinese community in Johannesburg in the early 1960s.

“It’s not my line of business you see, I’m only doing it as a service to the community.” He points to a “K” carved in blank ink on the cover of the Flip File folder where his hand has been alternating between gently palming the folder’s cover and adjusting the solitary crutch at his side.

“I created these files in 1968, I’m up to “K”.”

Inside the bulging folder George Leong shows me the tombstone messages he has written in Chinese characters. Bold, black typeface each consisting of three columns.

“I sit at home for hours on my computer doing these. In the olden days we had traditional Chinese guys who used to write these [tombstone messages] with a paintbrush. But they all went, one by one. Now I am the only one left.”

Leong slips one of the pages out from its plastic pocket, to give me a clearer look at it. I have not decided whether he intends for me to take it in my hands for inspection, but before I can execute a decision the page has disappeared, and when I look up from my notebook George Leong has pulled out his Blackberry.

He is scrolling for pictures of the tombstones he has worked on to show me.

“First we write the village he comes from on the right hand side. In the centre it’s the name of the deceased. And on the left we write ‘erected by…”. If he has no family, if he belonged to a club or a society, or he worked somewhere where there was money to bury him, we put in that name.”

Leong takes longer than anticipated pauses between points, peering through wide-rimmed spectacles with a half-grin for an accomplice.

In the beginning of our conversation, these 4 second long gulfs non-plussed my eager curiosity. Interpreted as question marks, these pauses were an invitation I took to speculate on what Leong’s role as mediator between the Chinese community and Joburg’s undertakers meant in that nebulous thing we call the ‘grand scheme’.

I struck lucky once, on the first try, with this vague line of inquiry.

Leong responded with a quip, whose humour only lifted to reveal a  more serious  point, more than hour later during our conversion. It come into focus again as I write this.

“These days it doesn’t pay to live and it doesn’t pay to die either,” was Leong’s chuckled response.

He went on to say it was mainly the combination of rising charges of burials in Joburg, and and the bewilderment of having to bury a loved one in a strange place, that led people to find him. The last point was at my clumsy prompting after Leong had fired another wordless stretch.

“I know who is more decent and who is easy to talk to… some of these people have to do a burial on borrowed money”, he said describing his role as middle man.

This descripition was in-tune with what I’d been told by the consultants at Doves Funerals in Braamfontein who said they’d dealt with Leong on many occasions.

His reputation as omniscient knower of all things Chinese, and his fluent English, led the Doves consultants to conclude that no Chinese funeral in Johannesburg happened without Leong’s involvement.

Seventy eight year-old Chinese South African George Leong, after nearly three hours of conservation that veered between death and politics, turned out to be a kind of Invisible Cities guide to the necropolis that is Joburg. The Marco Polo to Joburg’s legion of Chinese Kublai Khans.

Illustration of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities by Patricia Lopes

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