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February 11, 2013

Johannesburg Celebrates Chinese New Year

by Peter Cox

In downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, the Chinese New Year came in, as it usually does, with a smattering of fireworks, visits from the dragon and the lion, and traditional music and food.

Johannesburg's old Chinatown was alive once more, as its century-old Chinese population kicked off the New Year.

As the Chinese calendar enters the year of the Snake, it means a year of relative calm after a year of great change.

Erwin Pon is the chair of the Chinese Association, which puts on the New Year Festival in Old Chinatown.  "The Year of the Snake now, they believe, it's a bit more calmer than the Dragon," he said. "It's a time for consolidation, but they say it won't be so much tumultuous as the previous year."

​​On the streets, people were grabbing food from stands, and watching the performances on stage and the exploding fireworks above.

Martin Sam and his sister Elaine, third generation South Africans, watched the festivities from a calm spot up the street. "It's a lovely cultural event for South Africa.  The local community is really small.  We all come out just this once a year and congregate and just see in the New Year.  It's always nice for us to come out, at least on occasions like this, and sort of like immerse ourselves back in the culture, so to speak," he noted.

Up the road, Andrea Tong, a member of the Chung Wah Dance Troupe, prepared to head back through the streets carrying part of a lion's tail. "It's a Chinese lion dance.  We did the dragon dance earlier, so now we are doing the Chinese lion dance," he said. "It's basically to bring good luck to the businesses around here so they can get good business, good fortune."

A third generation South African, Tong says there have been obvious changes - while the Old Chinatown New Year has grown, many others have sprouted up. "We've got so many other Chinese communities around Johannesburg.  Cyrildene is an entirely different one," he stated.

Cyrildene is the center of the newest Chinese immigrants in Johannesburg.  While there are no solid statistics tracking the Chinese population in South Africa, it is clear that it has grown dramatically in the last decade. An estimated 20,000 ethnic Chinese lived here in the early 1990s.  Today, that number is estimated at 350,000.

Erwin Pon's family has been in Johannesburg for more than a century.  While these early immigrants and their descendants assimilated to South African culture, the new wave of Chinese immigrants is bringing its own culture and lifestyles, which Pon says is both good and bad.

"In some instances, I'll be honest, it has been a bit detrimental, negative, because some of the guys that come through don't always adhere to the normal laws which we've been brought up to, and taught to adhere to.  So you will find a lot of new guys coming through here, smuggling abalone, drugs, counterfeit goods, whatever it is," Pon explained. "And some of the locals I know personally, they feel offended that suddenly now the Chinese brush has been painted across everyone and just saying, 'You Chinese are smuggling rhino horn, or abalone, or whatever it is.'  Whereas, a lot of the local Chinese have worked hard and they've been here for many generations. They've worked hard to build up a name, obey the law.   A lot of them are successful people - lawyers and accountants."