Sichuan pepper peanuts with a stranger on a train

Wednesday, 6 November, 2019 | Dining carriage of a D train from Beijing to Shanghai

I’m on my fourth Xili (Heineken) – the beer a stranger at the dining car bar recommended when I asked, by way of striking up a conversation. Often, all it takes in a train or a bus or a café in a foreign country is a friendly remark, a curious question or a smile, before you’re invited into the world of someone you may have only swished past on a nameless train platform. 

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Writing a PhD thesis in the time of Covid

I came out of the Covid-19 madness alright. In fact, I was more than alright. The lockdowns and travel restrictions in South Africa gave me the solitude to sink, think and sync. After two years of ethnographic research and another two years of reading and writing – mostly done during Covid – I  finally submitted my PhD thesis, passed the examination, and became a Doctor who could not help much with patients and viruses.

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One sunny winter’s day, I travelled to Stellenbosch to give a guest lecture on China-Africa political relations to a class attending the university’s Winter School. Rather than listing a series of historical events that have influenced China-Africa relations, I planned to take an anthropological approach: to start the lecture with my own on-the-ground experiences and observations as a Chinese living in South Africa. Continue reading “CHINESE PEOPLE’S HURT FEELINGS”

south african rands cash bribery


Wang’s mother was able to marry her way to permanent residence, but she and her son had to jump through a few hoops to gain him the right to live in South Africa.

It all started with an adjustment to Wang’s high school grades to meet the requirements for admission into a foreign university, but that part was easy. “You just tell your Chinese high school you are going to a foreign university and they will let you adjust your marks. There’s no cost, they’re advertising you,” explains Wang. Every Chinese high school has an “honorary list” of alumni who get into foreign universities. It’s symbolic capital for the school.


Window onto a Chinese adolescent's life in South Africa

Hurdles to a new home: a Chinese adolescent arrives in South Africa

“I didn’t get admission into a very good university in China, so my mom suggested I study here in South Africa instead,” Wang tells me over a cup of green tea. “In China, even if you go to a good university, after graduating you still just get a job where you only earn 3000 yuan [approximately US$ 470] a month.”

Whether you’re moving to another country for work, studies, or to be closer to family, bureaucratic hurdles are inevitable. Wang wasn’t even sure he wanted the new life in South Africa that his parents had planned for him, but that didn’t make the accompanying bureaucratic hurdles any easier to avoid.

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Eating Chinese hotpot

Wandering in Shenzhen: Danlei’s Post-Cape Town Chapter

“You guys must come from Taiwan…” said the foot masseuse as she submerged my feet in a bucket of hot water. She gave me a suspicious look. “You guys are very polite compared to locals. Too polite.”

My friend Danlei and I were in a typical Shenzhen foot massage parlour, with diagrams of the foot’s reflexology points on the walls and full-to-the-brim ashtrays on all of the reclining sofa’s armrests. The massage parlour was packed with people. At 9pm, most Chinese cities were going to bed, but Shenzhen’s night was just starting.

Danlei explained that we had recently returned from South Africa, not Taiwan. While we aren’t originally from South Africa, we had both just spent over a year in Cape Town, we explained. We had developed a strong emotional tie to the city, and considered it our African home. Continue reading “Wandering in Shenzhen: Danlei’s Post-Cape Town Chapter”

African students lining up to learn Chinese at Mlimani Primary School in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

Meet the African students lining up to learn Chinese

Zimbabwean Daniel Mugandiri had no Chinese contacts nor any knowledge of China when one day he sat down to write a letter to the outgoing Chinese ambassador in Harare. He had recently been named Entrepreneur of the Year in Zimbabwe’s equivalent of “Dragon’s Den”, and was faced with the challenge of turning his business idea into reality. The 26-year-old wanted to manufacture solar panels to help address the nation’s electricity shortage. He wasn’t certain how to go about it, but he knew where to start.

“China is the hub of manufacturing, so I knew I had to learn from them,” he says. “If you buy something in the US or in the UK, it’s made in China. Every country in the world looks East.”

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A Date with 2035 by TF Boys

A date with 2035: What does modernization mean for China and Africa?

On Chinese New Year’s Eve, a group of Chinese friends and I were feasting on dumplings in Cape Town while watching the CCTV Chinese New Year Gala broadcasted live from Beijing. A song called ‘I have a date with 2035’ was on air. TF Boys, one of the most popular adolescent bands in China, were happily singing “We will achieve modernization in 2035…”, while a group of artists dressed in spacesuits danced on a dazzling stage. Continue reading “A date with 2035: What does modernization mean for China and Africa?”

George Shum, owner of the Chinese Pagoda Restaurant in Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania

Portrait of George Shum: A Chinese-Zanzibari Entrepreneur

I first met George Shum, owner of Pagoda Restaurant, surrounded by ubiquitous Chinese restaurant paraphernalia: red-tasseled symbols of good fortune, golden good luck cats and a fish tank, in which lobsters and other sea creatures awaited their fate. It is the only Chinese restaurant in Stone Town, the old quarter of Zanzibar City.

At first glance, I assumed that the 44-year-old entrepreneur belonged to the substantial community of Chinese citizens that had begun to forge a life for themselves in recent years in East Africa. But when I asked where he was from, he replied in a thick Cantonese accent: “Wo shi sang ji ba er ren” — “I’m Zanzibari.”

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