Chinese as “Honorary Whites”

While Indians and Chinese were constructed as “non-white” during this period, racial policies were constantly being negotiated and at times economics trumped ideologies. The tiny Japanese business and diplomatic community and the larger (but still small) Chinese communities in South Africa posed challenges to the ruling party, because of their small size, the global position of these countries, and racial difference. It was untenable to create separate areas and institutions for these two groups, such as existed for blacks, whites, coloreds, and Indians. But what to do with them? It was ultimately the growing importance of trade relations with Asian countries that caused shifts, ultimately necessitating special accommodation within racial ideologies. Economic necessity gradually influenced a policy of exemptions, concessions and privileges for the local Chinese, which contradicted the race-based legislation of the country.

The Japanese were the first and only official “honorary whites” in South Africa (Yamamoto 2013). Because of their important status as a principal economic partner, Japanese visitors and short-term residents in South Africa were exempted from “non-white” status and granted specific privileges, while Chinese continued to be legally “non-white.” As early as

1928, this special status of the Japanese was written into the Liquor Act, which exempted them from the definition of “Asiatic,” allowing them to buy liquor in stores and public bars (Yap and Man 1996). The small Chinese community in South Africa, with the aid of the Chinese consul-general, publicly protested this differential treatment but they failed to convince the government to change the laws. However, the inability of most South Africans to differentiate the Chinese from the Japanese worked in the interests of the Chinese South Africans. In their own private acts of defiance, many Chinese simply allowed whites to believe they were Japanese or said as much; when their Chineseness did not serve them, they “became” Japanese (Park 2008).

Starting in the early 1960s, opposition party politicians and the press joined the quiet protests of the Chinese South Africans. They too began to question why only the Japanese were granted special privileges. Granting “ honorary white” status to the Japanese only in terms of one law proved to be problematic for the government on ethical, political, and practical grounds. While they defended a rigid white vs. non-white divide in the face of contradictions and inconsistencies, as a practical matter it was almost impossible for the bureaucrats, hotel managers, restaurateurs and others to distinguish between the two Asian groups. As such, there was a gradual acceptance of the Chinese into white areas. The National Party ultimately paid a high price for these state exemptions and exceptions, revealing the first of many cracks in the edifice of apartheid.

Just as South Africa’s economic ties with Japan affected Chinese South Africans, so did government ties with Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s. The two states increased bilateral trade, exchanged visits of cabinet ministers and, in 1976, raised their diplomatic relations to ambassadorial level. By 1979, Taiwan ranked as South Africa’s fifth largest trading partner (Harris 1998: 280). State efforts to encourage Taiwanese investment in manufacturing precipitated changes in immigration legislation, allowing immigration from Asia to South Africa for the first time since 1951. The Taiwanese were also granted exemptions under the Group Areas Act and permitted to live in white-only designated areas. By the mid-1980s, new legislation repealed “certain laws regulating the admission of Asians into certain parts of the Republic” (ibid.). The upshot was that all ethnic Chinese were permitted to establish residence in the Free State, from which they had been banned (with the Indians) since 1891.

Chinese South Africans, again, had stayed abreast of political developments and their potential impact on their community. As they had earlier, they exploited the changing national climate resulting from improved relations between Taiwan and South Africa, even if it meant jeopardizing their relations with blacks, Indians and “coloreds.”8 Their acceptance of concessions and privileges can also been seen as a firm refusal to acquiesce to their assigned second-class citizenship.

Officially, the apartheid state, still ambivalent about the Chinese, made periodic advances toward the local Chinese community. Some apartheid leaders, aware of China’s history as an advanced civilization, had continued to be conflicted about the inclusion of the Chinese as “non-white”. Prompted by continued jibes from the white liberals, the impracticalities of creating another set of separate institutions for the tiny Chinese community, and their own growing ties with Taiwan, they advanced several national propositions to include the small Chinese South African population on the white voter rolls, add a Chinese representative (together with white, coloured and Indian representatives) to the President’s Council, and install a Chinese person on the tricameral parliament (Park 2008: 49-51), while continuing to deny rights to the majority black population. The catch? All of these proposals would have necessitated that the Chinese officially be reclassified as white.

Interestingly, while the Chinese South Africans were quietly willing to accept and even fight for concessions, they refused to become officially designated as “white.” Their position can be viewed, in part, as their unwillingness to officially give up their Chineseness. It was one thing to “pass” as Japanese or Taiwanese; it was quite another to be officially reclassified as white. Their Chineseness had helped them to retain some semblance of community and identity when they were treated as foreigners in South Africa. Morality and political maneuvering also played a role in their collective decision to wait it out; they would not accept any political carrots from the apartheid government until South Africans of all colors were granted the franchise.

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