Encounter with Ufrieda Ho, author of ‘Paper sons and daughters. Growing up Chinese in South Africa’
In 2011, Ufrieda Ho, an award-winning journalist and writer, published a memoir about growing up as a Chinese in South Africa. In her book, “Paper sons and daughters”, she explores her family’s history and arrival in the country. In the 1950s, her father – Ho Sing Kee – left a devastated China, struck with poverty, devastation and flooding, seeking a new life and hopefully better opportunities elsewhere. During that time, many Chinese from Southern China – mostly Cantonese – were crossing entire oceans as stowaways, hoping to reach the golden mountains. Being only referred to as ‘Kum Saan’ in Cantonese, often they didn’t know where – between Australia, America or South Africa – they would eventually end up. Ufrieda’s father was one of these Chinese who arrived in South Africa as illegal immigrants. In order to avoid detection by the authorities, they bought or borrowed new identities from more established Chinese families and became paper sons and daughters (i.e. the title of the book). In the context of apartheid, her father – as a second-class citizen – didn’t have access to the mainstream professional life reserved for whites nor could he live in these areas. To ensure a better life for his wife and fours children, he became a fahfee man, a gambler in the black townships.
Apart from telling her own story of coming of age in the 1970s and 80s, Ufrieda has given a voice to a generation of Chinese people (among the earlier arrivals) operating at the margins of the South African society. Her memoir joins a list of partly autobiographical novels written by local or long-established Chinese, namely Darryl Accone’s (2004) All under heaven, the story of his grandfather’s arrival in South Africa, as well as Emma Chen’s (2009) Emperor can wait, which details the experience of settling in SA from a Taiwanese perspective. While all these books deal with identity, memory and belonging, Papers sons and daughters takes it even further.
By discussing fahfee this openly in her memoir, Ufrieda Ho has tackled a very sensitive topic. As part of the invisible economy, this illegal occupation has mostly been associated with stigma, shame and the poorest of the poor (“It’s an uneducated work, mostly carried out by men but also by women”). While surrounded by a code of silence, fahfee has nonetheless been a way of survival for many Chinese at that time. Throughout her book, Ufrieda not only seeks to acknowledge this reality but also contextualises this practice in the period of apartheid. In a broader sense, the story of her family reveals the nature of fahfee, the reasons why it took place and the sacrifices these people had to go through.
I got introduced to Ufrieda Ho in August 2012 at a conference in Johannesburg on China-Africa relations, organised by the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China research network. While chatting, I asked her more specific questions about cultural identity and the local Chinese’ current approach towards fahfee. Ufrieda seemed to hesitate, saying that she could only speak from her own perspective and experience, not for all local Chinese. “There are so few of us that are vocal about the Chinese story and the circle, willing or trying to represent the South African Chinese version of it, is very small”.
Not knowing what to expect from her story about fahfee, a reality admittedly known at various degrees amongst local Chinese but not spoken of openly, she was anxious about how her own community would receive it. The reaction was very positive, not only in South Africa where several book launches were organized, but also abroad and even led to a second print in the US. “All of the sudden, people were able to find a voice with something they could really identify with, […] because of fahfee, because of what Chinese did. We hid it so effectively that it looked like a burden of shame. The book unleashed a lot around that topic. All of the sudden, it became more acceptable to talk about fahfee. People got very personal, like having a mirror being held up to their lives”.
Inside the Chinese community, she never felt ashamed of her father’s occupation. As a child, it was difficult for her not being able to talk about it. “At school, you’re asked to fill in a form about your father’s occupation and you lie. That’s quite hard. You’re hiding from the police. It comes with a sense of… not shame, but exclusion. You know you’re not part of the bigger picture of society. I think that was very striking and the reaction [to the book] has shown me that this has clearly been a huge part of what people have been feeling”. Altogether, Ufrieda’s memoir is a story about belonging and finding out who you are in a complex and diverse South African society.
“… we would head back out to most of the banks we had been to earlier in the day. Now, though, everything was in darkness. I remember the dim, gloomy glow of the location lights high above the ramshackle township houses. We waited for runners in this orange haze of the lights, the Apollos, outside someone’s small home, or parked inside the range of some fluorescent lights outside a spaza shop that had electricity. My father switched on the car’s interior lights and we went through the routine once again as the township came to life with people who had returned home from the city. Betters congregated, waiting for my father to arrive – he was their hope for something extra for that night’s dinner table, or when they lost, it meant going without a new pair of shoes for longer than planned. I guess, though, he always represented hope, because gamblers are eternal optimists. On those days with my dad, I did not have to share him, neither with my mom nor my siblings. I saw how money was made in our family and I saw dad in this other role, not as husband and father, but navigating relationships with people who were not friends or colleagues and not even customers really. There was a competition and a game that made the fahfee man and the betters more like opponents. But they could not be too far apart either. They needed each other. Dad needed them to bet; the bigger the pool the greater the odds for him to make a profit. The betters needed dad as an opportunity, even in the form of a gamble, to add meat to that week’s menu. And fahfee needed apartheid, too. Fahfee needed two groups on the edges of society, separate but bound together, to connect momentarily in the collusion of circumventing the ways of the economic mainstream.
The end goal for both groups was to walk away with a few extra rand in their pockets even if it meant they were taking from each other. Theirs was a pact forged from their mutual conspiracy against the apartheid system. The ma-china and the poor black man of the townships were pushed towards the periphery; neither was part of what whirled in the tight inner circle: white wealth. There was infighting, too, as dad and his betters were drawn into the vortex of dispute – it was part of the game. Dad would stand his ground; the betters, with their heads leaned into the car window, would disagree with gesticulations or shaking their heads, also standing their ground. None was ready to back down. And then my father would just drive off, incensed and frustrated and maybe also adding a bit of dramatic effect. He would return for the evening round to fight again or be ready to give in, whichever move he decided to make in the hours he had to cool off and to refocus. Drama and dispute aside, there had to be a shared respect so both sides could take the steps to engage in fahfee’s dance of superstition, suspense and survival. It was what they did day in and day out. And fahfee also showed up the humanness of connection and the ordinariness of transaction, both parties understanding how harsh things were when you existed on the edges of opportunity.
I remember my father occasionally grabbed a few notes from the beer crate and gave them to the runner sitting nearby. ‘Go buy cooldrinks for everyone,’ he said. The runner disappeared with people shouting their orders and instructions after him and he turned his back, telling them to shush. We would be in the car emptying the purses and wallets when the runner arrived back. Dad would wave his hand telling him to keep the change. Then Cokes and Fantas in their cold glass bottles were passed around. Someone would produce an opener and that was also passed around. We all drank in the fizzy, sweet coldness like it was not a day of work after all. Dad was an outsider here, but he was also tied to this world of hardworking men and women. He understood what it took to make a bet, to gamble not for fun but for the hope of changing the day’s fortune. In the townships, I saw for the first time how the dusty streets turned the barefooted children’s feet a chalky grey, how houses were not lit with electric bulbs but with gas stoves and candles and that rough hand-painted numbers distinguished one house from another. There were no snoozing Mexican wall-hangings of the suburbs, no garden gnomes or dogs back from the parlour with ribbons in their hair”.
Accone D. (2002), “Kum Saan”, in (Holland H. et A. Roberts eds.), From Jo’burg to Jozi: Stories about Africa’s infamous city, Penguin Books, Johannesburg, p. 16-20.
_____. (2004), All under heaven. The story of a Chinese family in South Africa, Africa Books Ltd, Claremont, 283 p.
Chen E. (2009), Emperor can wait. Memories and recipes from Taiwan, Picador Africa, Johannesburg, 201 p.
Harris K. L. (2009), “ ‘Confusion, heaven and honour’: Being Chinese in South Africa”, in African Historical Review, Vol. 41, n° 2, Routledge, p. 116-128.
Ho U. (2011), Paper sons and daughters. Growing up Chinese in South Africa, Picador Africa, Johannesburg, 229 p.
Huynh T., Y. J. Park and A. Y. Chen (2010), “Faces of China: New Chinese migrants in South Africa, 1980s to present”, in African and Asian Studies, n° 9, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, p. 286-306.
Huynh T. (2012), “Paper sons and daughters, by Ufriedo Ho, reviewed by Tu Huynh”, MCLC Resource Center Publication, online version (November), 4 p.
Park Y. J. (2008), A matter of honour: Being Chinese in South Africa, Jacana Media, Johannesburg, 288 p.
_____. (2012), “Living in between: The Chinese in South Africa”, in Migration Information Source, online version (January), 8 p.
[*] All pictures: courtesy of Ufrieda Ho.
 “ ‘Yes, and from there to Gold Mountain’, replied Langshi. ‘Ahh… Kum Saan. But say, which Gold Mountain you go to?’ ‘Kum Saan in Namfeechow, in Africa. Not the mountain in San Francisco’. ‘Aha… but you know that sometimes people land in the wrong country, when they take passage and say only ‘Kum Saan’. For there is also a gold mountain in Australia, in the place they call Melbourne. I have heard it from a Hakka miner that he set off for this Namfeechow but was put on shore in Mei-kwok, America – ha, ha. […] So, sir, watch out for the correct way’. The two adults chortled over this story, but to Ah Kwok it was alarming in the extreme: he knew nothing about these other mountains of gold and distinctly preferred the familiarity of the barely known to that of the absolutely unknown” (Accone, 2004 : 33).
 In terms of Chinese migration, South Africa displays a diverse and complex portrait. In addition to hosting the largest number of Chinese people on the continent, the population is divided in three separate groups: the local Chinese often referred to as SABC (South African Born Chinese), the Taiwanese and immigrants from the People’s Republic of China. These three groups of migrants arrived at different periods, leaving each time a different China and entering a specific South African context. See Huynh, Park and Chen (2010) for further details regarding the complexity and diversity of Chinese migration in South Africa.
 During apartheid, the local Chinese aspired for differential treatment on the basis of their general acceptance within white society, combined with their image as a quiet and law-abiding community (Park, 2012). Nowadays, many SABCs use this portrait of decent, respectful citizens and professionals to differentiate themselves from the newer arrivals of migrants from mainland China, often associated – in particular in the local media – with crime, illegal activities and all sorts of trafficking.