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The Chinese connection

Mr and Mrs Chong and family, Sidney in centre back, his twin sister on far left

By Sidney Chong 

It took me a long time to understand

When my cousin Daphne was getting married, she and Frank asked me to go with them to St John’s. (You can read their story here). At that time I was living in Goodwood and was about 38 years old, but would spend the weekend in Wynberg with my Father. For quite a long time I went to St John’s – and that’s how it started.

I liked the minister, Revd. Bruce Evans and found him a wonderful person, very warm and welcoming. I also enjoyed the wonderful choirs  - from Western Province Prep School and the ladies choir. I loved seeing the beautiful church so full. I also learnt about God here. I couldn’t fall in with the system at first, and could not really take it in. However, I used to go to Bible Class in the week with Daphne and it was so interesting – Bruce Evans kept our interest. My family were not Christians at all and we had never heard this message about Jesus. My father had no say in me becoming a Christian, but did not oppose me as I was of age. (They were never interested in the church - The religion of my family is similar to the religions of the Han Chinese people, in that they worship their ancestors and follow a combination of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and folk religion.) In my own spiritual journey, it took me a long time to accept the truths of the gospel, but once I accepted, everything fell into place.

I think I need to go back to the beginning to help you understand my story.

Father settled in Wynberg

My father had come to South Africa in around 1922 and first went to Port Elizabeth and worked for a Chinese grocer, then a few of them came down to Cape Town. Chinese generally came to port cities, and opened up grocery stores, as that is all we were allowed to do. Many of us came from the same area in China and our language was Hakka (nearest to Mandarin). In those days, Chinese stuck together, as there were not many of us. (Cantonese and Hakka-speaking people don’t really get on, but eventually we intermarried.)

After some time, my father returned to China to get married and brought my mother back to South Africa. My parents ran a grocery shop in Main Rd, Wynberg called K. Chong and Company and they did quite well. At one time it was the biggest grocery shop in Wynberg until bigger stores took over the market and chewed up our business. My father’s brother (father of Daphne) also came to live in South Africa and their family lived in Elsies River and we were very close.

The family grew rapidly

1949 in Hong Kong, Sidney on the left and his brother on the right with a friend before returning to South Africa

Within 5 years, my parents had 5 children, born in Wynberg - 3 children were born in one year: my eldest sister was born in March of 1933, and then my twin sister and I were born in December of that same year! It was quite unique. When I was about 3, our whole family went back to China and lived in my Father’s home village.  My mother had not been in South Africa long enough to qualify for residence, so we had to leave.

We settled in my father’s home village in the countryside in China, in a village called Taimet in the Province of Canton. It was a beautiful village with mountains all around and a river where we could swim in the evenings. It was a very rural area, with no electricity in those days; for transport you either walked or went by bicycle. My uncle owned a bicycle, so if we got sick and needed someone to take us to hospital in a town, we would borrow that from him. We attended school there, and this was home to me until I was almost 16.

Culture shock of moving back to the Cape

My father had meanwhile returned to SA with my elder sister, leaving the rest of us with my mother. In 1950, we came back to join him in South Africa. It took us 30 days in a small boat from Hong Kong to here; we knew quite a lot of the passengers from the same area in China. Since some of our family had been born and registered in South Africa, we could return if we did it before turning 16, or we would not be allowed to come. One brother was left in China with my grandmother (my mother’s mother) and did not come back with us.

Government policy in South Africa had forced us to leave, and when we returned, we were like total strangers. We were used to a village, and now we were in a city. Even though I was born here, I had been educated in China and it was like a totally new country to me. I had to learn the language. I didn’t like the food in South Africa, and everything was very strange to me – we didn’t like butter, cheese or bread. We had left behind our friends and uncles and aunties and we were very sad and found it difficult - I was very unhappy and we cried a lot, my twin sister especially.

I went straight to work in the shop. My father tried to get us to learn English and sent us to a Chinese School in Rhodes Ave, Mowbray (picture below right). We had to be in the ‘baby class’ for English, but could be in our normal age class for the other subjects that were taught in Chinese. After a year or two, a group of us (about 8 or 10) hired a private teacher and had lessons at the school for a couple of years, once a week. I left and had some knowledge of English, then did all I could to learn on my own by reading books and analysing the language. The first book I did on my own was Alice in Wonderland. I read the whole book, looking up meanings of words as I went along and wrote the Chinese in it, going over and over again to learn the sentence structure well. I read newspapers and anything I could to keep learning English and found it very interesting.

Move to Goodwood

After working in the shop with my Dad for some time, I went to live with my Uncle for a couple of years and worked for him, until in 1955 I opened up a small shop in Goodwood, it was quite busy.  My cousin, Patrick Chong came to help every Saturday. He would come by bus from Elsie’s River. I lived for 25 years in Goodwood, (at the back of the shop) and my uncle was very good to me, treating me as one of his sons. I used to accompany his children (my cousins, much younger than me) by bus from Elsies River to the Chinese Association School in Mowbray every day. It was hard for Chinese children to go to other schools as they didn’t fit any of the classifications in the apartheid system and so the Chinese Association had bought this property in 1944 both to teach Chinese and provide a school for the Chinese community – it closed in 1980. (Daphne adds: “We now have a community centre in Observatory, next to Wild Fig restaurant, near to the new Amazon complex next to Liesbeeck River. UCT gave us this property in exchange for the Mowbray property, plus a monetary amount. The community centre is used by us for teaching Chinese on Saturdays, playing sports like basketball, volleyball and table tennis as well as having functions such as dinners, and so on.”)

Forced removals

When the Government declared Goodwood a white area in 1955, they gave notice to people of other races to move out. It was very sad as most of those people had been born there, and had lived there all their lives. People would come to the shop and cry about the move. I had previously applied for a permit to open up a shop and I had to go and ask all the neighbours if they were happy to have me living there, it was painful. A Muslim neighbour shared how the government had bought her out, paying her almost nothing for her shop and house and she had to move. She wept when she told me the news. I was able to rent a place from the Community Development Department, but even when things got easier, I was not allowed to buy property. Chinese at that time could not own property and could not move around freely. I saw many heart-breaking things during that time. You don’t know how bad it is until you see how it affects people. Government vans would drive around looking for black people, ask them for a permit, pick them up, throw them into the van and move them out. I used to buy fruit and vegetables from Epping market to sell at the shop. Sometimes a van would pull up, and everyone would run as they were afraid. It was very sad – so cruel. My brother liked to go jogging and used to be picked up -they wanted to put him in the van as well.


I did marry, but sadly, it didn’t work out, and we got divorced - I never married again and have no children. Some of my nephews and nieces, however, lived with me for a while and were like children to me.

In 1980 I lost my twin sister, which was a great loss to me. I decided to leave Goodwood and move back to Wynberg and joined my brother in business. I managed the books and the financial affairs of the business for my brother My sister-in-law had three children and was really busy. She used to work in the shop, go home and have to look after their children, so I tried to help. My late brother had another business – a welding business in Wynberg and employed a number of people, did quotations in the evenings, was a very hardworking person. They had all lived in Wynberg above the shop with my other brother Victor after he got married. When Victor’s daughter was 3 they had lived with me in Goodwood.

Sidney and his cousin Daphne at St John's after the early morning service

My late brother had to choose between either the shop or the welding business. I didn’t want to manage the shop (I could do the finances, but not be the manager), so we sold the shop and he went completely into the welding business and he was very busy in that, even had a workshop for others. He died 19 years ago (in 2005) had been working too hard. He had previously had a heart attack, but recovered well and was doing exercise at the gym when he died.

I have been at St John’s for about 50 to 60 years. We went through all sorts of problems, but I will never leave St John’s. I have seen the changes - you can’t do anything about what people do, but I will always stay here. I do miss Bruce Evans - he had showed me what God is like and welcomed us warmly and for that, I will never forget him.


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