Paper Sons and Daughters:
Growing Up Chinese in South Africa

By Ufrieda Ho

Reviewed by Tu Huynh
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November 2012)

Book cover of Paper Sons and Daughters

Ufrieda Ho.
Paper Sons and Daughters:
Growing up Chinese in South Africa.
Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012. Johannesburg: Picador Africa, 2011. 238 pp.
ISBN-13 (Ohio University Press/World): 978-8214-2020-1;
ISBN-13 (Picador Africa/South Africa): 978-1770-1016-85.

Ufrieda Ho’s memoir, Paper Sons and Daughters, is a personal narrative that details the life of a Chinese family in South Africa. At the same time, it is about being South African during the apartheid and democratic transition periods from the 1950s to the present. For the Ho family and the other Chinese migrants who are the focus of the book, being South African from the 1950s to the early 1990s meant being legally discriminated against, second class, and outside of the nation-state–simply because they were not “white” (or accepted as such). The kind of existence they experienced parallels that of other “non-whites” (i.e., Blacks, Coloreds, and Indians) under apartheid or the “separate development” of polity, economy, and culture among the races (Posel 1987: 125).

In recent years, the changing political climate has opened a space for an increasing number of once-marginal voices to document in words their experiences with racial oppression, dispossession, and exclusion from South African society. As with Devarakshanam Govinden’s (2008: 2) observations on South African Indian women writers, Ho’s book also forms “part of [a] large company of South African writers engaging in a ‘refusal of amnesia’ by dealing with the apartheid past in a ‘personal way.'” More specifically, she writes, “They have been among those undertaking the process of ‘self-narration’ that foregrounds some of those ‘blanked-out areas’ of South Africa’s identity as a nation” (ibid). Indeed, Paper Sons and Daughters is not merely a personal project of remembering; it also continues to fill a lacuna in the South African historiography, as Darryl Accone’s (2004) story in All Under Heaven had started to do.

The roots of the Ho family can be traced to Guangdong, China. Born in the counties of Shun Tak and Li Geou, the lives of Ho Sing Kee and Fok Jouw Yee, would intersect in South Africa. Fok Jouw Yee, the author’s mother, came to South Africa with her mother (Low Wan Yuk) eighteen years after her father (Fok Yat Gou) had arrived in the country in the late 1940s as a stowaway on board a ship. South Africa was a destination country for Fok Yat Gou because his wife’s older sister and her husband were already settled there. Once in South Africa, papers were forged, so that Fok Yat Gou (turned Leon Hing Low) would possess the necessary (illegal) documents and new identity to remain in the country. This entailed giving up his birth name to take on a new name–that of a family to which he had no prior ties–and changing his age (presumably to fit into the new family structure). When Fok Yat Gou finally earned enough money to reunite his family in South Africa, Fok Jouw Yee (later changed to Low Yee Wan) and her mother were also smuggled across the Indian Ocean from Hong Kong and provided with “fake papers and new identities” in the mid-1960s (54). Furthermore, when he made the journey out of his impoverished life in Shun Tak to join a brother in South Africa in the 1950s, Ho Sing Kee, the author’s father, went through a similar process of hiding on a ship that would bring him to South Africa, where he too would take on a new identity (63).

Throughout the “hidden journey,” men and women alike were at “the mercy of the seas and the mercy of some ship hand motivated by his fee rather than by kindness” (50; also see, MacDonald 2012: 92 – 93). And, becoming a “paper son” or, even, “paper daughter” at the end of the weeks-long journey was not the experience of one person alone. The phenomenon was common to that generation of Chinese migrants; thus, the title of the book, Paper Sons and Daughters.) The book points to the earlier experience of the United States, particularly in San Francisco where a fire destroyed the records building in 1906, to explain the existence of its titular terms (40), but it further contextualizes the phenomenon in South Africa by linking it to the National Party-led government’s strict enforcement of migration control (38), which has a long history in the country (Klaaren 2004; MacDonald 2011). “Asiatics” were indeed the first targets of immigration restriction legislations, against Indians in Natal in the late 1890s and against Chinese in the Transvaal and Cape in the early years of the 1900s. Though the phenomenon has been obscured in most of the South African migration literature, Paper Sons and Daughters reflects, on the one hand, the “profoundly ambiguous international border-control system” that allowed migrants, especially those who were poor and non-white, to take full advantage of it and, on the other hand, the presence of “[s]ophisticated, resilient migrant networks” that disrupted the “anti-alienist hope for an impermeable border” (MacDonald 2012: viii).

The book situates several generations of Chinese migrants within the South African nation-building projects: Ho pays tribute to the older wave of Chinese migrants who came to South Africa in the colonial era, including those indentured to work in the gold mining industry from 1904 to 1910; comments on the diplomatic ties between Taiwan and the South African government that resulted in the migration of Taiwanese people to the country in the 1970s and 1980s; and acknowledges the presence of a new wave of Chinese migrants who started to arrive in the country after 1994 when the recently-elected African National Congress government transferred diplomatic ties to China. The core of the book focuses on her parents’ generation who arrived during the period when there were no diplomatic relations between South Africa and Asia and when racial discrimination or white dominance took the form of apartheid, instituted by the National Party-led government. The Population Registration Act of 1950 and Pass Laws Act of 1952, which recorded and classified the races of all citizens/denizens and required black people over the age of sixteen to carry reference or identity books, along with the Group Areas Acts of the 1950s, which created and imposed separate residential areas for the different races, were fundamental pieces of legislation, among others, that shaped apartheid and impacted the lives of all non-white persons. Chinese people were no exception until some concessions were granted to them after the arrival of other East Asian investors in the 1980s (115; 183; 187).

As the book implicitly and explicitly conveys, the experiences of the Ho family, as well as those who made up their community, were framed by such laws requiring them to carry identity cards that classified them as “vreemdeling” or “alien” (43) and papers that testified that they were “upstanding persons” (71). Moreover, they were restricted as to where they could live (e.g., townships or “grey areas” with Indians and Coloreds), the places they could enter, and the kinds of occupations they could take up. Apartheid’s regulation of all aspects of society necessitated a survival strategy for those who existed “in between” like Ho Sing Kee; this can be seen in their creation of “hidden spaces” where betweens could traverse on a daily basis and transact with the “poorest of the poor” (4) in the townships and locations or outside factory gates, as well as in “the shadow places in the oblivious white suburbs” (125; also see 178). Ho Sing Kee was a “fahfee man,” a gambler (82) or, more specifically, a ju fah goung, whose job entailed risks of being harassed and arrested by the police because the game itself was illegal. He held none of the primary occupations available to the Chinese migrants under apartheid, being neither a worker in Chinese-owned shop (e.g., serving customers behind a counter) nor a restaurant or shop owner (of a butchery, store, etc.) (177). Their customers, including the fahfee’s betters, were for the most part Black people. The book makes it abundantly clear that racial segregation’s impoverishment and restriction of economic opportunities for both Black and Chinese was a crucial factor enabling the existence of the fahfee. Their interrelationship is succinctly expressed in the following statement: “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” (133). While apartheid divided and constrained the livelihood of non-white people on the periphery and, at the same time, protected white wealth and livelihood in the core, the presence of the fahfee man shows that the same marginalized people were able to circumvent the system, creating new spaces and opportunities on the fringes.

It was on these fringes of the apartheid social system that the four Ho siblings grew up. The book details their childhood, peppered with both Chinese and “Western” or white cultural practices and holidays, food, stories and games, and schooling and school dances. Though there was no formally designated Chinese residential area in Johannesburg, the Ho family mainly associated with other Chinese and studied with other Chinese children up until high school; they were Chinese living in South Africa. In a way, with its legalized racial divisions, apartheid made it relatively easy for the family to retain their self-identity as Chinese. However, apartheid also directly permeated the somewhat insulated home of the Ho family through the father’s occupation as a fahfee man and the presence of their domestic worker or maid, Sophie. In the way that there was a code of silence around fahfee (165), there was a seemingly impenetrable racial hierarchy that both Chinese and Black conformed to in spite the fact that both lived on the periphery; each knew their “place.” The book’s description of Sophie is an honest reflection and critique of the Ho family’s and other Chinese migrants’ complicity in perpetuating the racial divisions at that time. Reflecting on her childhood, the author writes: “Sophie was a third parent to us in many ways, but in so many other ways she was simply a servant–never eating from our plates, living in a room separate from the house, where the pets were, where the outside toilet was. She was someone whose birth name or family name I did not even know” (170). Such a social dynamic–one among many to which she was exposed when accompanying her father on his fahfee runs–would only make sense as Ho’s exposure to South Africa began to broaden during her student years, when she studied journalism at a technikon in Pretoria, and, subsequently, as a reporter at the Edenvale community paper. One could say that these were turning points in the author’s consciousness of difference and questioning of the meaning of being South African.

Ho’s memoir is less about interrogating her Chineseness or asking what it means to call oneself “Chinese.” That is, being Chinese is a fact that the author grew up with or, as she puts it, “is almost like an essence you carry in your blood, even when you can only just muster a greeting in the vernacular” (117). The book is more about exploring what it means to be South African under apartheid and during the democratic transition period. For the Ho family and Chinese community, from the 1950s to the early 1990s, it meant being “second-class citizens” at best and, worse, outsiders to a country where only white people were treated as citizens and white dominance was guarded jealously.

However, when her narrative addresses the post-apartheid period, Ho indicates that South African-ness becomes a far more confusing issue: what was to be the basis of a new national identity? One migration scholar observes: “South Africa’s history [and, therefore, identity] is being reconstructed as a shared experience, expressing apartheid as degrading and oppressive for both black and white” (Polzer 2005: 88). The book challenges the legitimacy of such bases for determining one’s belonging, and questions binary conceptions of South African society. Indeed, very few Chinese were part of the political struggles that spanned the 1960s to the 1980s. However, every Chinese of the generation that the book writes about struggled under apartheid, whether in their efforts to maintain “the fog of invisibility” (186) or to create new spaces and survival strategies beyond what was officially permitted. Moreover, for the Ho family, the claim to South Africa is personal. As many South African families were victims of violence during the transition period (208-9), the family experienced their own loss with the death of Ho Sing Kee, the patriarch of the family. Trying to rationalize the violent way in which he was killed, the author writes: “He may have been a soft crime target for the car or the cash they associated with the fahfee men. My dad’s shooting may have been a revenge killing of some aggrieved gambler or maybe it was part of how violence was starting to become a way to settle things . . .” (204). Just like many South African families’ experiences prior to the first democratic election in 1994, the Ho family will never get a clear answer or justice. In this, the book further represents an effort to remember and “preserve a connection with the absent” (Booth 2006: xi) as well as to give voice to the author’s conflicted experiences and sense of betrayal, anger, and hurt.

Tu Huynh
Mellow Postdoctoral Fellow, Rhodes University


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Govinden, D. 2008. ‘Sister Outsiders’: The Representation of Identity and Difference in Selected Writings by South African Indian Women (Pretoria: University of South Africa Press; Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV).

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Polzer, T. 2005. “Discourses on Immigration in South Africa: Managing Diversity in a New Nation” In Avery Plaw, ed., Frontiers of Diversity: Explorations in Contemporary Pluralism (New York: Rodopi): 83-99.

Posel, D. 1987. “The Meaning of Apartheid before 1948: Conflicting Interests and Forces within the Afrikaner Nationalist Alliance.” Journal of Southern African Studies 14, no. 1: 123-139.