Though my parents as well as my two sisters and I were born in Vietnam, we do not speak Vietnamese at home. Also, I haven’t any recollections of my time in Vietnam. The two things about that past that I recall from the adults’ stories when I was a child are: first, when I was born the war between Vietnam and the US had just ended, so there was no functioning government to register my birth. By the time I was registered, which was when my younger sister was born, my parents couldn’t remember the Gregorian calendar date of my birth, so they made it up. The second thing was that I cried a lot, especially when we were on the boat leaving Vietnam. I was apparently very seasick and wanted to return to land while everyone on the boat were running from it — away from the anti-Chinese policies that were being introduced by the new communist government. Of course, my demand to turn around fell on deaf ears: we eventually landed at a refugee camp on Pulau Bidong (Bidong Island) off the coast of Malaysia. We were there for one year before the US government approved our applications for asylum. We arrived in the US under the family reunification program because my older sister had left one year earlier with our paternal grandparents and an aunt and uncle. They were in San Diego, California, so that was where we ended up. (Evidently, those who did not gain refugee status around that time were later denied asylum, being regarded as economic migrants.)
In the US, my parents were expected to participate in an English immersion program at the same time that they tried to find work. My younger sister and I were still too young to start school. Our baby brother was born soon after our resettlement in San Diego, which meant that there were now four children to care and provide for. Before long, we moved to Los Angeles (two hours north of San Diego) because there were larger communities of Asian people and speaking English wasn’t a prerequisite for getting a job. My mother’s older sister was already living there and introduced her to garment work. She became a stay-at-home garment worker, and remained in that work for over 20 years. My father, on the other hand, came to be a construction worker or, more precisely, handyman, whose work ranged from plumping to painting houses to building things for people. Both parents were not formally employed, so we grew up being reminded that we could not tell anyone what they did for a living. By the time I started college, we had moved a number of times. They were mostly linked to my parents’ search for employment and lower-cost housing. Rather than going into detail about piece rate and child labor that I know intimately from the days of working with my mother, let me just say that it’s likely that this background quietly nurtured my interest in studying about Chinese indentured and cheap laborers.
Let me now turn to South Africa because I am often asked “Why South Africa?” I suspect that this question might be prompted by the fact that South Africa is “Africa” or a place only for black people, and I’m neither “African” nor “African American” to be having an interest in such place. However, there were at least three factors that influenced my focus on South Africa, all originating from my studies at UCSB. The first was my double major in Political Science and Black Studies (commonly referred to as African American or Africana Studies elsewhere). The second was the one-year that I spent studying abroad in Beijing through the University of California Education Abroad Program. And, the third factor was the presence of a librarian at UCSB, whose father was the Chinese Consul-General, representing Taiwan in South Africa, in the 1960s.
When I studied in Beijing in the 1990s, I read about diplomatic relations between China and African countries in one of the English newspapers (yes, before China-Africa became a much-discussed topic). This was significant because at that time I was able to take courses in the Political Science Department at Peking University to fulfill my graduation requirements for that major, but needed to come up with something to fulfill my requirements for Black Studies while I was abroad. The English newspaper articles allowed me to begin a dialogue with one of my professors at UCSB, who advised me to choose an Anglophone country for my study. It was also through him that I was introduced to the above mentioned librarian after my return to Santa Barbara. From there, my interest in diplomatic history shifted towards a socio-cultural study of South African-born Chinese people or Chinese South Africans in the Apartheid period.
I should emphasize that I came to focus on Chinese people because of the Black Studies major and South Africa because of the opportunity to study in Beijing. After completing the honors thesis for my BA degree, I realized that I had little interest in pursuing further research on the South African-born Chinese, who are mostly descendants of merchants from South China who had gone to South Africa in the late 19th century and after. In their collective, public historical narrative, they marginalized their ties with the indentured laborers who were mostly imported from North China to work in the country’s gold mining industry in the early 1900s. This gesture suggested an interest in projecting a specific class identity — perhaps, to counterbalance the inferior racial status imposed upon them in Apartheid South Africa. Their marginalization of that history gave me reason to focus on the laborers when I started the PhD program in Sociology at the State University of New York, Binghamton.
Black and White South Africans have not been the focus of my historical or contemporary research projects in South Africa. However, having a deeper understanding of relations between them, by way of living in South Africa while I was working on my PhD thesis, was crucial in shaping the way in which I read the source materials that I came across in various depositories. That is, the pervasiveness of race in that society (even in a post-Apartheid era) couldn’t simply be comprehended from reading the literature or gleaned from pieces of dusty papers, but must also be experienced first-hand (though the National Archives, university and national libraries, and museums were informative in themselves).
The people who accessed places like the National Archives were mostly white South Africans, who had strong opinions about the direction the country was heading towards as well as about Black and Chinese people. At the National Archives, I befriended an older Afrikaaner man because we were often there on the same days. I learned that his company had hired a Chinese South African woman during the Apartheid period, when office jobs were mostly reserved for White people. For this man and other White South Africans like him, the Chinese were not “White,” but more acceptable than Black people. He introduced me to this woman, who’s second or third generation Chinese in the country. The two of them showed me around Pretoria, mainly the places where the Chinese were once allowed to live if they had permission from the White neighbors.
Outside of the archives, libraries, and museums, my friends were mostly Black South Africans, and I frequently visited (before living for one year in) Soweto, one of the largest Apartheid-created Black townships. Though during the years when I was in South Africa, a few White people had started to purchase houses in the “safer” parts of Soweto because prices were still low, I should mention that living in such a township was something rarely undertaken by a Chinese-looking or American person or non-African foreigner. People often asked me if I wasn’t concerned about my safety. My reply would always be yes, but the family I stayed with and the people from that street looked after me (and my 1987 Toyota Corolla that the tsotsis liked to steal). The house that I stayed at was like a community center, where teenagers would come through to watch television or find food in the refrigerator if they didn’t have enough to eat at home and adult women without employment would come to stay for days until they could get back on their feet. Of course, in return, the mother of the house could expect work done for her: boys and girls would wash dishes and run small errands for her and older women would clean her house.
During my stay in Soweto, I didn’t see a White person at her house. It didn’t cross my mind that I was that “White” person in that community until she told me one day that her friends had commented on how they had never seen a White person do laundry, a job normally undertaken by Black women. Though her statement challenged my self-perception as a “person of color” or “Asian American” (basically, someone who’s not “White”), she affirmed my knowledge of Chinese South Africans being regarded as “honorary Whites” at the time when Japanese businessmen were one of the few remaining investors in the country (in the 1980s). Clearly, the notion that Chinese are “White” did not dissipate when Apartheid ended. It remained entrenched in post-Apartheid (post-colonial) society and extended to all Chinese-looking persons regardless of their nationalities. That the category is a relatively recent construction was treated as a historical fact (that the Chinese had always been “White” and shared privileges reserved for that racial group).
Given these moments of direct encounters with race in my personal life, what gradually became clearer was that, in spite the fact that they have been in South Africa for several centuries, Chinese descendants will always simultaneously be “Black” and “White” and neither “Black” nor “White” (the category of “Asiatic” that exists in South Africa historically refers to Indians). Although they are so interwoven into the country’s racial tapestry, the Chinese will also always be “outsiders.” Under such circumstance, the questions that haunted my archival work were (1) is it sufficient to understand this binary racial division by studying only about White or Black people, (2) what possible role could the Chinese indentured laborers have played in the making of the country’s Black-White racial hierarchy, and (3) if the Chinese had a role in shaping race, then why have they been ignored by scholars who have written about the country’s past social formation? The pendular position of Chinese and view of them as perpetual “outsiders” elicited a fourth question, which was why do South Africans not know that Chinese people were once recruited by the British colonial masters, just like many Africans in the region, to work in the deep-level mines as cheap laborers? The questions indeed overlapped, but more importantly, guided my reading of the source materials away from a purely economic one.
While I was working on my PhD thesis, the presence of new migrants from China sparked racial stereotypes of Chinese people in a local newspaper that resonated with those that circulated within and between South Africa, Britain, and the British dominions in the early 1900s. While the editorial written by one of the staff members of that newspaper presented the new Chinese as lying and cheating people, who are also racist to Black people, he indicated no awareness of the origin of his views. Nevertheless, my invitation to respond to that editorial was the beginning of my research on the “new Chinese” in South Africa. The research has since expanded towards focusing on itinerant African woman traders in China.