Derby Road connects Bez Valley to Judith’s Paarl, Judith’s Paarl to Lorentzville, Lorentzville to Bertrams and Bertrams to Ellis Park. Linda Cerbone, the well-known local hairdresser and owner of ‘Hair off Broadway’ told me that Bez Valley begins at 116 Derby Road, so I went looking for 116. Driving down the road I reflected that all these suburbs were once part of the Bezuidenhout family’s farm, ‘Doornfontein.’
I couldn’t find 116 easily so I continued on to 20 Derby Road, just a block away from the Ellis Park Stadium, because of the story of Chow Kwai For, which has been very much on my mind since reading about him in a marvelous book on the history of the Chinese community in South Africa, ‘Colour, Confusion and Concessions’ by Melanie Yap and Dianne Leong Man.
I was surprised to find that number 20 Derby Road is now the offices of the Curriculum Development Project for Arts and Culture, Education and Training. I worked there once.
Chow Kwai For was brought to South Africa by his employer, a British doctor named Dr. F.C. Sutherland. He worked for Sutherland from 1904 to 1907 at his employer’s residence at 20 Derby Road, Bertrams. Apparently Chow, who came from an island south of the Chinese mainland, spoke a different dialect to the mainly Cantonese Chinese in Johannesburg, so communication was difficult for him.
Legislation introduced to control Asiatic immigration after the Anglo-Boer War, required every Asiatic over the age of eight to re-register. Under pressure to comply despite his reservations, Chow signed and then, realising what he had done, hanged himself at the Derby Road House. He left behind a letter addressed to the Chinese Association explaining why he had done this. The full text of the letter is reproduced in Chinese on his gravestone in the Braamfontein Cemetery, which was bought by the Chinese community at a cost of £200 in Chow’s honour. The suicide letter read as follows:
‘I am going to leave the world, but I must give a public explanation why I intend to commit suicide. Therefore, I address this letter to my countrymen. Since I came to South Africa, I have only been in domestic service. My dialect is quite different from that of my countrymen, with whom I have very seldom associated. I am always in the house of my employer, who had advised me to re-register. At first I refused to do so, but I was informed that I would be dismissed from my employment. I thought that I would have to lose my situation. Therefore, I was obliged to register, but I did not know the degradation that would follow until my friend talked to me about the registration matter and showed me the translation of the Law. I found that I would be treated as a slave, which would be a disgrace to myself and my nation. I was not aware of all this before. Now it is too late for me to repent. I cannot look my countrymen in the face. I hope all my countrymen will take warning by my error.”
At Chow's memorial service, organised by the Transvaal Chinese Association, Chinese inscriptions were hung on the walls and a portrait of Chow, painted on silk, was placed over an altar of flowers and incense. Gandhi, who attended the funeral, later wrote that the "unity, neatness and courage" of the Chinese should be emulated.
Chow's suicide was interpreted as an oriental way of saving face in the 'Transvaal Weekly Illustrated' in November 1907:
To those who understand the tortuous workings of the Oriental mind there is nothing peculiar in this rehabilitation by suicide, and, in fact, an authority on Chinese and their ways predicted some time ago that if there were any registrations among them they would very likely be followed by suicide as soon as they ascertained that they had ‘lost face’. The Chinese ethics of suicide are certainly incomprehensible to the European.
Leung Quinn, a prominent spokesperson for Chinese rights in South Africa, and President of the Chinese Association, rejected these comments, saying that suicide was not common in China and that a man only ended his life ‘when driven to desperation by much the same causes as induce suicides among Europeans.’
Although a stranger in South Africa, and even a stranger within his own Chinese community, Chow’s story is a quintessentially South African story.