On 11 April 2015, I took the speed train from Guangzhou to Jinan in Shandong Province. I wrote on one of the social media platforms that’s accessible in China: “I first knew you in the US before I traveled to South Africa to look for you. There I developed a deeper understanding of you. And, one of the reasons for coming to China was to visit your hometown, which I finally get to do this week.” The “you” in this passage refers to a group of Chinese indentured laborers. Indeed, I had followed them across three continents. It was a long “love” affair.
The first time I came to know about the presence of Chinese indentured laborers in South Africa was after perusing a coffee table history book produced by two Chinese South Africans. Published by Hong Kong University press, it’s title was Colour, Confusion, and Concession. It was printed in 1996, the year when I returned to California after studying abroad for one year in Beijing. That book provided information, including black and white photographs, about the Chinese who are second or third generation in South Africa. The book’s introduction only provided a glimpse of the laborers; they were quickly rushed off the pages of the book. All I remember from it was that the laborers were not from South China or, more specifically, Guangdong Province, where the Chinese settlers were originally from. The book further pointed out that having been mostly repatriated by 1910, the laborers were definitely not the ancestors of those who settled. In 1996, my undergraduate honors thesis focused on the Chinese settlers, particularly the South African-born Chinese during the Apartheid period. Needless to say, the indentured laborers were temporarily disregarded.
It was in graduate school that the Chinese indentured laborers, who were recruited to work in South Africa’s gold mining industry, were resurrected and became the focus of my study. Peter Richardson’s book about their economic contribution towards revitalizing South Africa’s economy at a particular time (the early decade of the 1900s) provided a lot of information. His book informed me that these laborers were recruited from North China, especially Shandong Province (an area that’s culturally and linguistically different from the South). They numbered between 60 and 63,00o. Furthermore, these Chinese laborers were brought to South Africa at the end of a three-year war(the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902) between the English and Boers. They worked deep underground, Richardson’s book explained.
While I came to appreciate these Chinese indentured laborers, I didn’t know which angle to home in on that would sustain my interest while I wrote the PhD thesis. It also took me awhile to complete my two area papers (one focused on the political-economy of Mauritius in the 19th century and the other on the concept of unfree labor that included indentured servitude or cheap, contract labor). I was feeling loss when a friend/mentor from Santa Barbara suggested that I go to South Africa to see what I find there. She and her husband, who was one of my professors and honors thesis advisor at UC Santa Barbara, had an Ethiopian friend who was working in Pretoria/Tshwane at that time. They put me in touch with him via email, and we arranged for my first visit. As the director of one of the university presses, he wrote me a letter of invitation for the visa application and offered his place for me to stay.
With the help of a few South Africans, I tracked these Chinese laborers down at the National Archives in Tshwane, Museum Africa in Johannesburg, and Killie Campbell Library in Durban. The first was Karen Harris, especially her PhD thesis. Trained as a historian, Karen’s thesis was filled with archival sources. I followed the threads in her bibliography: the Foreign Labor Department’s files were rich with a variety of documents. There were mostly correspondences among colonial authorities in South Africa as well as between them and members of parliament in Britain. There were records of arrival and desertion as well as a few photographs and petitions written in Chinese.
Keo, who was my partner a few months after my arrival in South Africa, suggested a visit to the Museum Africa in Newtown, Johannesburg. She was working at the Market Photo Workshop, so knew about the museum’s archives and had seen photo exhibitions that included Chinese people. This museum, it turned out, owned a number of postcards of the Chinese indentured laborers that I had heard about and started to look for (see Gallery).
Andrew MacDonald, who had returned to the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal to do a MA in history, informed me about the Killie Campbell Library. He had found some useful material for his thesis and thought I’d also benefit from that library’s collection. Indeed, I came across a slew of political pamphlets that debated the “Chinese Question.” These pamphlets, printed in and circulated between South Africa and Britain, revealed the transnational nature of this particular labor recruitment.
From my first encounter with these laborers in the US to three cities in South Africa, I finally had the opportunity to visit their hometown in Shandong, Province in 2015. When I was in Tshwane, I had heard that a group of archivists from this area had visited the South Africa National Archives to collect data for their own archives. Obviously, I was curious what they had brought back to China. To my dismay, one of the archivists I eventually got hold of informed me that they had not collected anything; they didn’t find any useful material. Nonetheless, in Shandong, I visited the provincial archives in Jinan. While they had no documents on the Chinese indentured laborers, the provincial library had two books on the railway (built by Germans) that transported them from the interior to the port-of-calls in Weihai and Qingdao (occupied by the British). Although the landscape has transformed and newer trains are now in use, I still followed the railway from Jinan to Qingdao to get a rough sense of the route that took them to South Africa.