Port Elizabeth of Yore: Chinese Settlers Arrive

Providing part of the cosmopolitan mix at South End was the Chinese community. Their status in South Africa of yore was ambivalent; not black enough yet not white. This is their story in Port Elizabeth. 

Main picture: Chinese School in North End

What if

I may be considered presumptuous but if the Chinese had not been so parochial in their outlook, South Africa’s first colonists might well have exhibited a different hue. What is known is that between the years 1405 and 1433, the Chinese admiral Cheng-Ho led seven expeditions to South East Asia and across the Indian Ocean. He had 62 ships manned by 28 000 men. He may even have sailed around the tip of Southern Africa, which is evidenced by two facts. The first is that ancient Chinese pottery has supposedly been found at sites on the south coast and around the Mossel Bay area and the second is that there is a 15th century Chinese map showing Southern Africa. This is further backed up with findings of Chinese art works at Mapungubwe in the Limpopo Province. Obviously the Chinese were trading with Africa long before the Europeans ventured forth.

Ancient Chinese Ships called Junks

Ancient Chinese ships called junks

Chinese settlers

In January 1849, the first Chinese residents of Port Elizabeth arrived on the Norfolk in the service of Port Elizabeth’s greatest entrepreneur, John Owen Smith. Additional settlers from China are known to have reached Algoa Bay in November 1881 and December 1883, in the former case on a ship bringing tea and the latter case being artisans from Hong Kong. A number of Chinese refugees, escaping the war in the Transvaal, arrived in Port Elizabeth in October and November 1899. The 1905 voters’ roll contains the names of eleven men, all but one general dealers and shop assistants. At the turn of the century, there were several market gardens here known as Chinaman’s Garden, the best known being a large site in Princes Street, between Elizabeth Street and Myrtle Avenue.

Even though Mandarin is generally classified as the national language of China, Mandarin speakers in the Port Elizabeth Chinese community are in the minority, as it largely comprised speakers of two Chinese dialects, or languages, Cantonese and Moi Yeanese.

Sailing ship Norfolk

Sailing ship Norfolk


From around 1940, private township developers started to include racially-restrictive clauses in their title deeds to prevent ownership of plots by people other than those regarded as the desired race group. In most cases ownership and occupation were confined to whites. One example of this was when properties in Newton Park were sold by the Fairview Suburban Estate Company. Included was a clause which prohibited ownership or occupation by any ‘Coolie, Chinaman, Arab, African, Native or any such Coloured persons.’ Other developers indicated that only ‘fully blooded Europeans‘ would be allowed to occupy or purchase property.

Open areas which did not have any racial restrictions attracted coloured and Asian residents, as this was the only option available to them. South End, which fell under the Walmer Municipality which had a more rural and less industrial character, adjacent to the Port Elizabeth Municipality, was one such suburb.

South End

South End

However this was all set to change when the National Party was elected into power in 1948.  This was the start of the implementation of a formal set of laws that led to what we know as Apartheid.  One of these laws was the Group Areas Act, which required that all non-whites be removed from what was identified as “white only” suburbs.  In terms of these regulations, the Chinese people were relocated to Kabega Park. The resultant dislocation meant that people had to travel long distances to get to work, school and even church and hospitals.

Community issues

On 16th August 1942, Mayor Schauder opened the Eastern Province Chinese Primary School situated at the seventh milestone on the Cape Road. It offered hostel facilities for children from outside the city and later became the high school for the community.

In November 1944, the School Board was authorised to establish a primary school for Chinese children. The Moi Yean Association’s building in Queen Street, already in use. continued as the venue. (Originally a large house, this was for many years a boarding house. It was considerably altered in 1940. Today it is busi­ness premises). St Mark’s Mission had a class for Chinese children from 1918, later moving into the Moi Yean Association’s building. In 1933 the Association took over the school.

Among the picturesque corners of Port Elizabeth early this century, was the Chinese market garden. Chinese growers took their vegetables from door to door in pannier baskets. Even in those days, some people enjoyed authentic Chinese dishes, meat and fish cooked with sesame or peanut oil and mild spices; mushrooms and bamboo shoots, shrimps and almonds, and soya sauce; cakes flavoured with powdered ginger.


In South End, by far the majority of the grocery stores were owned by Chinese and the shop names, Date Chong, On Hing, Forlee, Jackie, Lee Ching, Horman, Low Ah Kee, Ah Why, Leeson and Loyson were household names.

A favourite past time was also to play Fah Fee and daily discussions were held analyzing dreams to play numbers to catch the “Chinaman” who ran the Fah Fee games.

Old Chinese School – front entrance Govan Mbeki, back entrance St Patricks Road, Richmond Hill

Schooling and Group Areas

The following paragraphs were copied from the website http://www.oocities.org/wapenskild/Chinese.html. Only minor changes have been made.

The Chinese High School’s history goes back to 1918, when 16 Chinese children began attending classes in a room attached to St Mark’s Anglican mission in North End, Port Elizabeth. Later that year the school moved to rooms in the Moi Yean Association building in Queen Street (later called Main Street and now Govan Mbeki Avenue), but pupils continued to be taught by the nuns of the mission, members of the Community of the Resurrection. By 1921, enrolment in the school, now called the Chinese Mission School, had risen to 33. Pupils’ ages ranged from 4 to 14, but also included two young wives whose husbands had sent them to learn English.

Chinese owned shop in South End

Chinese owned shop in South End

It was customary for the more fortunate Chinese boys to be sent to China to complete their education, but this happened less often after a teacher of Mandarin was installed at the school. The adoption of Mandarin was a compromise, as the Port Elizabeth Chinese community largely comprised speakers of two Chinese dialects, or languages, Cantonese and Moi Yeanese.

The Moi Yean people have lived in the Meixian (Moi Yean) district of the north of Kwangtung (or Canton) province for centuries, but originate from the northern provinces of China and form a distinct linguistic community from the Cantonese. The Moi Yeanese are also called Hakka, but this is now generally regarded as a derogatory term.

Ancient Chinese beauty

Ancient Chinese beauty

Port Elizabeth’s Chinese population is now smaller than that of Johannesburg, but it is still proportionally the largest in any population centre in South Africa. Chinese people settled more easily in the Cape Colony and Natal during the 19th century because of restrictions on them in the Boer republics, but even in these British colonies there were restrictions on them which became more severe in the Union of South Africa.

Because of tensions over religion in the Chinese community, the nuns of St Mark’s ceased to staff the school in 1933, and it now became the Chinese Primary School, under complete control of the Moi Yean Association. However, further tensions in the community led to a rival school’s being started in 1939 by the Eastern Province Chinese Association, at the EPCA building in Evatt Street. (The EPCA was an umbrella body for both Chinese communities in Port Elizabeth, but its premises were also used as a social club by the Cantonese section.)

Chinese cuisine

Chinese cuisine

Property was purchased alongside Cape Road (then the national road to Cape Town) on the farm Nooitgedacht in the area that later became known as Kabega Park, and the school moved there in 1942. Nearly half the school’s pupils were boarders, mostly from the Eastern Cape, but some from as far away as the Transvaal. However, this school operated only until 1948.

South Africa’s Chinese community came under fresh pressure, beginning in 1948 when Dr D F Malan’s National Party came to power, and especially from 1950 when the Group Areas Act was passed, providing for racially separate residential areas. Hand in hand with this Act was the Community Development Act.

Four group areas were proclaimed for Chinese – the others were in Uitenhage, Kimberley and Pretoria – but only the one in Port Elizabeth, in the vicinity of the school in Cape Road, was developed following its proclamation in May 1961.


It was unusual in that it was entirely a residential group area: residents were not required to move their businesses there, as was required by the National Party government for people of other racial groups in their respective group areas. The group area was eventually deproclaimed on 5 July 1984.

In 1949 Roman Catholic members of the Chinese community requested a school of their own after three girls had been withdrawn from St Dominic’s Priory school in the municipality of Walmer because of complaints from white parents.

The Chinese Educational Institute (later called Assumption Chinese College) was opened in Schauderville in 1950 with eight pupils. It reached a peak of 120 pupils in 1956. Eventually, following the departure of many Chinese residents from Schauderville and areas nearby because of Group Areas Act pressure, the college closed in 1970.

Ancient Chinese scientists already possessed knowledge of alchemy

Ancient Chinese scientists already possessed knowledge of alchemy

Also in 1950 the Moi Yean Association handed the (former Queen Street) Chinese Primary School over to the EPCA, which turned back to the Anglican Church for support. (During the 1950s Queen Street became part of Main Street, which in turn in 1995 was renamed [together with further extensions] Govan Mbeki Avenue.) The following year, when the enrolment was 200, the Cape Education Department recognised it as an Anglican mission school and took responsibility for the teachers’ salaries.

Also in 1951 the EPCA started a high school in Kabega Park, on the premises of the earlier breakaway primary school. In ’57 its enrolment was about 90 pupils. Talks over a possible amalgamation of the Chinese High School with Assumption College came to nothing, partly because of disagreements over staffing and religious affiliation.

In 1958 Chinese High School was taken over by the Cape provincial department. However, on taking control the Provincial Administration also removed the Chinese principal and appointed a white man in his place. Special permission was, however, given for two teachers to be sent from the Republic of China (on Taiwan) to teach Mandarin.

In 1973 the high and primary schools were merged (with the name Chinese High School being retained) and moved to new premises on a site in a part of the Chinese group area that actually falls into the township of Morningside, which had been laid out on the Parson’s Vlei glebe.

The majority of Port Elizabeth’s Chinese community moved to the group area. By 1976, only 71 families out of the 1 400 Chinese residents in the city had not moved.

However, because of difficulties encountered in selling properties in the group area, the Chinese community began requesting the Government to deproclaim it as a group area. Even before the deproclamation in 1984, non-Chinese residents had begun moving into the area.

Ancient China#02

The introduction of Model C schools in 1991 resulted in the school governing body’s deciding to open admission to pupils of other races. By 1997 the Chinese pupils at the school no longer formed a majority, and the governing body applied to the Eastern Cape Education Department for permission to change the school’s name in recognition of this fact. Permission was granted on 7 January 1998 and the school became Morningside High School.

Retrospective look

Fortunately the whole question of racial classification and its deleterious effects are now firmly part of South Africa’s troubled past. Even though all non-whites in South Africa were subjected to the same discriminatory laws, the treatment of the Chinese irks me most, largely because they were no threat to anybody so why did they have to endure such abominable treatment. In no way does this condone the ill-treatment of the other racial groups in South Africa.

The end result of force removals: Destruction of the community at South End

The end result of force removals: Destruction of the community at South End


South End – As We Knew it by Yusaf Agherdien, Ambrose C. George and Shaheed Hendriks (1997, Kohler Carton and Print, Port Elizabeth)

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)



  1. The flower on the Republic of China flag is the Plum Blossom, not the Poppy flower which implies most negative connotation associated with the Opium Trade and imperialism of the C18 ~ C19 centuries

  2. An interesting historical picture of Chinese in PE, but how does this all relate to your opening statement: “ I may be considered presumptuous but if the Chinese had not been so parochial in their outlook, South Africa’s first colonists might well have exhibited a different hue. “
    Why would you describe the Chinese as being “parochial”?

    • Hi Tamching

      Before I wrote that blog, I read an article about how the Chinese in 1450, if I remember correctly,started building ships & exploring the world. The next Chinese emperor decided that they no longer need to discover the the world outside China. Ina fit of rage,he ordered that all ships be burnt & forbad the inhabitants of China from exploring. I have often wondered what the world would be like if that emperor had not been so parochial & sailed around South Africa. Instead of my forebearers settling in PE like my great great grandfather did as part of the 1820 Settlers, imagine instead if it could have been the Chinese Settlers of 1450. How different the world would have been?


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