From China to Joburg

Spatially, this dualism is reflected in the fact that there are two Chinatowns in Johannesburg. The first, located at the Western end of Commissioner Street near the city centre, testifies to the long presence of the Chinese community in South Africa. Also known as South African-Born Chinese or SABCs, these South Africans are the descendants of the first wave of free migrants who came to settle in the country during the 1920s and 1930s.

This old area of Johannesburg, which consists of a few restaurants and shops, remains very limited in size and never benefited from the expansion experienced in the rest of the world. Faced with the decline of the first Chinatown, another Chinese suburb subsequently developed in Johannesburg East. During the 1990s, Chinese shopkeepers – most of whom came from Fujian – (while the majority of migrants come from Fujian, the provinces of origin of the Chinese living in South Africa are still very diverse. In addition, many migrants also come from Taiwan and Hong Kong) began to settle in Cyrildene and opened restaurants and shops along Derrick Avenue. The evolution of these two separate suburbs reflects the segregation between the various Chinese communities in Johannesburg.

Wholesale Trade is at the Centre of Chinese Dynamic

South Africa has recently become a preferred destination for Chinese investment, while South African exports towards the Middle Country are on the increase. In parallel, the presence of Chinese companies in the energy, mining and telecommunication fields have intensified, followed by the mass arrival of Chinese traders.

In recent years, Johannesburg has experienced an increase in the number of distribution and wholesale centres managed by Chinese people. The first of these centres, China City, situated close to the city centre across from Ellis Park, was opened in 1995. After slow beginnings, the centre slowly started experiencing an increase in both customers and profits.

The advantage of this type of centre is that hundreds of shops are gathered in a secured perimeter. As a result, traders can make the most of economies of scale and organise themselves more effectively within what is perceived as a dangerous environment. With the success of the first centre, other initiatives followed. The latest wholesale centres are located on the Southern outskirts of the city centre in Crown Mines, in a vast area which was once a mine dump, and which today is dedicated to wholesale trading. The area is well serviced by the road and highway network.

Altogether, Johannesburg has around 15 such centres (China Mart, China Mall and Dragon City being among the most dynamic), which are now part of the urban landscape. Although most of the shops sell mainly clothing, over time the range of goods has been expanding, and wholesalers and retailers are now selling electronic equipment (TVs, hi-fi systems, etc), furniture and more.

Generally, depending on the centres and the day of the week, customers vary considerably. China City attracts mostly black customers (nationals and non-nationals alike) with limited means, which is probably linked to the fact that the centre is central and near various means of public transport. The fact that the newer centres opened on the outskirts of town often makes the use of a car necessary (all the more so since taxis seldom frequent these areas), thereby influencing the type of customers.

Weekends are an occasion for Afrikaners and Indians to shop predominantly for pleasure, particularly at the China Mart and the China Mall, respectively. By supplying hawkers, other local wholesalers (Ethiopians in particular), Chinese tradesmen operating in small and medium South African towns, as well as traders from neighbouring countries, Chinese wholesalers are at the top of a complex and multiform trading system, facilitated by a dualistic post-apartheid economic reality.

South Africa was and still is marked by the low buying-power of the majority of its population.

The large-scale sale of Chinese products at affordable prices has helped to reduce the gap between an inadequate supply and demand. While the success of Chinese wholesale trading in South Africa is founded in this opening, not all Chinese traders are happy to see their profit margins reduced. Since the late 1990s, competition has been intensifying through the emergence and densification of different types of trading.

With an increase in more creditworthy as well as demanding customers, consumer franchises such as Edgars and Ackermans often supplant Chinese businesses associated with the informal sector. Nonetheless, to date, the development of new Chinese trade centres or extensions is still high.

Diversified Spatial Dynamics in the Face of Local Realities

Not only is Johannesburg suitable for the purpose of analysing the impact of Chinese trading on the local economy, it is also suitable for studying Chinese settlement and integration principles. In this regard, forms of mobility and spatial usage are influenced by several factors. On the one hand, crime, whether perceived or real, plays a role in the way the Chinese organise themselves, work, live and move around.
Moreover, Johannesburg, being decentralised and fragmented, reinforces the use of vehicles and changes in relation to space. Contrary to other examples of Chinese communities, the residential and professional functions in Johannesburg are not automatically grouped together in the same area. Even though Johannesburg has two Chinatowns, the number of Chinese living there, in comparison with the total volume, is still limited.

The suburb of Cyrildene seems to act as an enclave, facilitating the absorption of Chinese newcomers. Newly arrived Chinese workers take up lodgings in the suburb, which acts as a first step and springboard for those without connections in South Africa. Although the suburbs of Bedfordview and Kensington are preferred residential areas among the Chinese, they are still found taking up residence throughout the city.
Finally, economic status rather than the year of settlement plays an important role in the evolution of dynamics and spatial practices. The progressive familiarisation of Chinese migrants with their host environment results in the adaptation and increasing complexity of Chinese commercial and residential principles in Johannesburg.

This article was commissioned by extra! #7, a magazine published by the French Institute of South Africa. The story and photographs were produced by Romain Dittgen, a doctoral student and junior lecturer in Geography at the University of Paris. He has been working since 2007 on the integration strategies of public and private Chinese actors in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Opting for a comparative study, Romain made many research trips to both Africa and China. He concluded two research trips of three months each in Johannesburg, with the support of IFAS, focusing on the settlement and organisation of Chinese wholesalers in and around the city.