Chinese as “honorary Whites” in Apartheid South Africa

“For use by white persons” – sign from the apa...

“For use by white persons” – sign from the apartheid era Español: “Sólo para blancos” – letrero de la era del apartheid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Krishna Vanstraelen

If assimilation theory seems to oppose the general trend for first generation Chinese migrant in recent years, it however sheds light and corroborates segmented assimilation theories for the second and third generations. The first wave of Chinese migrants in South Africa in the early 1900s has followed a so-called typical way of integrating a culturally foreign society. Though what drove Chinese migrants in South Africa to follow classic segmented assimilation theories is the succession of two distinct historical events, their entrepreneurship and desire to access the higher sphere of South African society, which is striking and somewhat unusual, given the political and social nature of the host country.

Much like current Chinese migrants to South Africa, first generation migrants tended to send their offspring to China, both to learn and preserve Chinese tradition and culture and to receive what parents viewed as a “proper” education. However, in the early 1950s, the Immigrants Regulation Amendment Act enacted by the newly established Communist Party, along with the strengthening of institutionalised apartheid in South Africa, made it increasingly difficult for Chinese to travel in and out of China, hindering thus education in the home country.

When examining the case of first, second, and third generations, Yoon Jung Park, the most cited scholar in this specific field, refers to them respectively as shopkeepers, fence-sitters, and bananas. Shopkeepers because these children born in the 1920s and 1930s usually received Chinese education, had little to no English proficiency, and typically ended up helping their parents as shopkeepers or working in unskilled or semi-skilled positions in factories, retail shops, or offices. Though second generation children as well, fence-sitters were born from the 1940s through the early 1960s, and were labelled as such due to an ambiguous identity.

Although growing in a climate separating whites and non-whites, Chinese migrants and their children were given concessions and privileges as their social status shifted progressively towards “honorary whites”. Hence, most Chinese children born during this time period attended private white church schools by means of a progressive loosening of discriminatory rules and heavy financial sacrifices made by their parents. Ineluctably, as children were gradually losing their Chinese language ability and increasingly conform to western culture, their identity and place in the South African society became equivocal.

Lastly, the bananas refer to the physicality of the fruit; yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Born in the late 1960s through the 1970s, these children had little to no experience of Apartheid-era discrimination, as Apartheid and its institutionalized rules were gradually fading away—at least for Chinese residents/citizens, who enjoyed a full primary and secondary education alongside white children in government and private white schools. As a result, most children of this generation developed a strong affiliation to western culture, low relations to China and its language, and an ever-growing number completing tertiary education allowing them to climb the social ladder (Park, 2009).

The crux of Chinese assimilation that trails segmented theories is found in the early 1950s, when regulatory rules hamper Chinese migrants to follow customary patterns in regards of their low integration and their offspring. When returning to their home country became less of an option, Chinese migrants generally estimated that providing their children with better/white education will facilitate and increase their social mobility. Through massive financial sacrifices and the withstanding of discriminatory rules and societal norms, parents of children born from the 1940s through the early 1960s (and onwards) were able to send them to white schools, allowing these children to access tertiary education and gain a foothold and recognition in the South African society.

Reference

Park, Y. J. (2009). A matter of honour: Being Chinese in South Africa. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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