All my young life, I was fascinated by Chinese people. I first saw them in our small town’s Catholic Church. Sitting quietly in mass, I remember wondering where did they live and why were they here. Being a curious immigrant myself, I was always fascinated by the tales of ‘how did we get here?’
I was painfully shy though and would never dare venture over and create a dialogue or possible friendship. This curiosity stayed quietly unexplained until recently. I had the chance to go exploring ‘Chinatown ‘ in Johannsburg with a guide and a local Chinese resident.
Our Chinatown isn’t like the classic town of other large cities with lots of bustle, restaurants and markets. It may have been like that in yesteryear. But today, it is a small area with one main towering, almost tatty, majestically Wilhelm Pabst-designed building. It is surrounded by empty parking lots, once sites of schools and houses but now only hold echoes of the community long gone.
Instead in my Chinatown, I encountered the gentlest elder, in Mr Walter Pon who graced us with stories about his family, his ancestors and his history. He gave me a glimpse of a life lived under restrictions and constraints yet he seemed to bear no malice towards anyone. I marvelled at his graciousness.
We ate a traditional meal served with gentle tea and then followed Uncle Walter as he showed us three buildings in an attempt to describe his almost 80 years on the planet. He spoke passionately about the club which held together the community and his passion for his culture yet talked with sadness of the brain drain, which includes his children and siblings yet he steadfastly remains a proud South African Chinese citizen.
I can’t possibly hope to fully understand a community based on a very short visit but I do know that Uncle Walter is an example of how to survive a life of immigration, hardship and exclusion with grace, dignity, pride and class that I can strive for. If I manage a tiny bit then I will have lived a life well lived.
Can’t wait for my next adventure!