Bleak New Year looms for Joburg’s Chinese community

The combined effects of lockdown and lingering prejudice and suspicion around the origins of the virus first detected in China mean it's been a tough year for this community.

The entrance to Chinatown in Cyrildene, Johannesburg, in February 2021. Picture Abigail Javier/Eyewitness News

CYRILDENE - Businesses in Chinatown in Johannesburg say their financial troubles are piling up with the combined effect of lockdowns and lingering prejudice putting their livelihoods in jeopardy.

Today, exactly a year ago, Eyewitness News visited the community of Cyrildene when they were facing discrimination weeks after the coronavirus broke out in Wuhan in China in December 2019.

READ: Prejudice and stereotypes: The coronavirus' impact on Chinese community in SA

Twelve months ago Cyrildene was full of decorations hanging from the street poles in anticipation of the 2020 Chinese new year celebrations ushering in the Year of the Rat.

New Year's decorations in Chinatown in Cyrildene in Johannesburg in February 2020. Picture: Abigail Javier/Eyewitness News

New Year's decorations in Chinatown in Cyrildene in February 2020. Picture: Abigail Javier/Eyewitness News

The rat is the first year in the 12-year Chinese astrological cycle and as such it's meant to be about progression and starting new projects with great energy.

But the global pandemic put paid to that romance.

A year on as the Year of the Ox looms, Eyewitness News revisited Cyrildene. Used gloves and facial masks were strewn over the pavement and the businesses limping along more than plodding as restaurant owner Fang Tianyuan explained.

“My restaurant still owes the landlord. This corona is trouble. I’m just waiting, maybe after the injection, things will get better.”

Many people Eyewitness News spoke to didn’t want to go on the record - but echoed that their bills were piling up.

A South African who works in the area was hoping things would change soon.

“We are not used to it. We want this situation to change. I’m not happy wearing a mask.”

The Year of the Ox is supposed to bring advancement and new opportunities and many here are holding onto that hope, as well as the hope that the arrival of more vaccines in the coming months will slow down the spread enough to avoid the crushing effect of infections, spikes and disruptive lockdowns.

CONTINUED DISCRIMINATION

In addition to the financial difficulties faced as a result of the pandemic, the Chinese community in Johannesburg said they were still facing discrimination almost a full year after the coronavirus was first identified on South African soil.

The combined effects of lockdown and lingering prejudice and suspicion around the origins of the virus first detected in China mean that it's been a tough year for this community.

Erwin Pon from the Gauteng Chinese Association said he was worried about the ongoing discrimination against their community.

“A month ago my kids and I were in the park walking our dogs and these gentlemen drove past and stopped their car and called ‘Hey COVID’ to my 5-year-old and 8-year-old kids and then drove away.”

Businesses here are struggling to survive as their landlords grow impatient as they battle to pay the bills.

But they're still trading, trying to adapt to what everyone calls ‘the new normal’.

Chinatown in Cyrildene, Johannesburg, in February 2021. Picture: Abigail Javier/Eyewitness News

Chinatown in Cyrildene, Johannesburg, in February 2021. Picture: Abigail Javier/Eyewitness News

One example is a shop selling traditional herbs where the woman behind the counter offered up a bag of herbs for R300 that she claimed would help people face the coronavirus and boost their immune system.

“The Chinese virus.” It was statements such as this from former US President Donald Trump that fuelled the prejudice and discrimination against Chinese people in the wake of the emergence of COVID in Wuhan.

And a year ago, before the virus had even been officially detected in South Africa, the Chinese community in Cyrildene was already feeling the heat.

ALSO READ: South Africans in China love its efficient COVID-19 response, but racism remains

Now all South Africans are regarded with suspicion by the rest of the world as potential carriers of a new quicker spreading variant of the virus.

WATCH: 1 year later: COVID-19 discrimination towards SA Chinese community

Download the Eyewitness News app to your iOS or Android device.