GOOD luck abounds in Chinatown. Two dragon columns, which are said to bring good luck, have been erected in the suburb, demarcating this forgotten part of the CBD with the prospect of good fortune.
“The dragons symbolise power and grandeur, and might and good luck,” says Walter Pon, chairman of the First Chinese Association, based in Chinatown at the western end of Commissioner Street.
The area is over 100 years old, and was created when Chinese prospectors joined the gold rush shortly after gold was discovered in 1886. By 1893 there were some 65 Chinese shopkeepers in the town, according to Melanie Yap and Dianne Leong Man in Colour, Confusion and Concessions – The history of the Chinese in South Africa.
In 1904 close to 64 000 Chinese labourers were imported to work on Joburg’s gold mines, significantly helping to restore the economy of the then Transvaal and therefore South Africa. But by 1910 all the labourers had all been repatriated, leaving just the shopkeepers operating in Chinatown.
It’s a small area, around three blocks, now somewhat run down with only three small grocers and four restaurants, with several vacant and shuttered buildings.
The tall, grey concrete columns stand around three metres high. Pon says the community originally planned a large colourful gateway, stretching across the street. But, he is happy with the columns as they will require less maintenance.
New paving, newly planted trees and concrete benches in ChinatownNew paving, newly planted trees and concrete benches in Chinatown
Each column has a large dragon head on top, with its tail curling around the column, interspersed with flower symbols. They stand on either side of Commissioner Street; signalling the entrance to Chinatown.
The Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) has given the area some necessary TLC. Pavements have been repaved, concrete benches have been built, bollards erected, and much-needed trees planted. Two storey boards are to be erected in time, in English and Mandarin.
The area suffered from the exodus from the CBD in the 1990s. A Chinese area in Cyrildene blossomed at about the same time, with dozens of restaurants and grocers becoming the City’s new Chinatown.
The new dragon column in Chinatown, one of the pair acting as a gateway to the small suburbThe new dragon column in Chinatown, one of the pair acting as a gateway to the small suburbn
Pon says that Chinese people from the northern suburbs are now returning to the old Chinatown on weekends, to eat at the restaurants and buy groceries.
Two of the oldest buildings in Chinatown, the Chinese United Club Mansions and its neighbour, the Chinese United Club, both built in the late 1940s, are fully rented.
Pon is hopeful of getting central improvement district status for the area.
Chinatown also boasts an artwork at the western end of the district. A large rock, threaded with steel wire, stands on top of a plinth. A plaque on the plinth indicates that between 1971 and 1990 seven people died at the notorious John Vorster Square, under apartheid’s detention laws. An eighth man died in hospital after being interrogated in the building. Many detainees were tortured at John Vorster Square.
The artwork, by Kagiso Pat Mautloa, was erected by The Sunday Times, in celebration of its 100-year anniversary. The work is entitled Simakade, which translates to “God” in Zulu.
In 1997 John Vorster Square changed its name to the Johannesburg Central Police Station.