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Paper Sons and Daughters: Growing Up Chinese in South Africa (Modern African Writing)by Ufrieda Ho
Synopses & Reviews
Ufrieda Ho’s compelling memoir describes with intimate detail what it was like to come of age in the marginalized Chinese community of Johannesburg during the apartheid era of the 1970s and 1980s. The Chinese were mostly ignored, as Ho describes it, relegated to certain neighborhoods and certain jobs, living in a kind of gray zone between the blacks and the whites. As long as they adhered to these rules, they were left alone.
Ho describes the separate journeys her parents took before they knew one another, each leaving China and Hong Kong around the early1960s, arriving in South Africa as illegal immigrants. Her father eventually became a so-called “fahfee man,” running a small-time numbers game in the black townships, one of the few opportunities available to him at that time. In loving detail, Ho describes her father’s work habits: the often mysterious selection of numbers at the kitchen table, the carefully-kept account ledgers, and especially the daily drives into the townships, where he conducted business on street corners from the seat of his car. Sometimes Ufrieda accompanied him on these township visits, offering her an illuminating perspective into a stratified society. Poignantly, it was on such a visit that her father—who is very much a central figure in Ho’s memoir—met with a tragic end.
In many ways, life for the Chinese in South Africa was self-contained. Working hard, minding the rules, and avoiding confrontations, they were able to follow traditional Chinese ways. But for Ufrieda, who was born in South Africa, influences from the surrounding culture crept into her life, as did a political awakening. Paper Sons and Daughters is a wonderfully told family history that will resonate with anyone having an interest in the experiences of Chinese immigrants, or perhaps any immigrants, the world over.
This memoir attracted considerable attention when it was first
published in South Africa in 2011, and it will resonate with anyone interested in the worldwide Chinese diaspora. It tells the story of a stowaway, Ho Sing Kee, who hid for long weeks aboard a ship crossing the Indian Ocean. Leaving behind his village and his ancestors, he looked to the “mountain of gold” in Johannesburg as an escape from his bleak life in devastated 1950s China. In South Africa he became a “paper son,” a literal translation of the phrase
used to refer to the illegal immigrants who bought or borrowed new identities from more established Chinese families to avoid detection by the authorities.
He was full of quiet hope for what lay ahead as he set foot on the
Durban docks, but Ho Sing Kee would never lose the status of a
second-class citizen. He was the geel gevaar, “the yellow peril” in
apartheid South Africa, and he soon learned that the streets were not lined with gold. He could not live where he chose and would not get the jobs reserved for whites. He became a “fahfee man” in South Africa’s black townships, running the small-time illegal gambling operations that became his economic lifeline. Fahfee is a betting
game based on numbers drawn from dreams, mysterious symbols, and life’s unexpected coincidences. Perfectly suited to survive in the dark shadows of South Africa’s policies of racial segregation, Ho Sing Kee always dodged the police, always looked to maximize his winnings, and always tried to ensure a better life for his wife and four South African–born children—until one night in April 1993 when tragedy struck.
About the Author
Ufrieda Ho is an award-winning journalist and one of the daughters of Ho Sing Kee. In this wonderfully textured memoir she explores her family’s history and arrival in South Africa. Ufrieda describes growing up with her siblings in a world in which she is too white for some and too black for others, and the question of “who belongs” haunts this evocative account.
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