South Africa

South Africa

GroundUp: Hardship with no safety net – the life of a Chinese trader in Khayelitsha

GroundUp: Hardship with no safety net – the life of a Chinese trader in Khayelitsha

Next to a small fruit stand and across the street from a hodgepodge of street vendors, Cuiyi Lin sits in front of her furniture store every day waiting for customers. She is the only non-African in the area. By Joyce Xi for GROUNDUP.

In Lin’s eyes, she puts herself at risk every day when she opens up shop in Khayelitsha, yet she continues to work there to earn money to support her family.

Lin runs one of many Chinese-owned shops across Cape Town. She sells furniture, electronics, and other household goods and appliances.

Chinese have come in large numbers to South Africa to start businesses. They usually buy from cheap Chinese wholesalers and sell a variety of goods at affordable prices. Much of Lin’s extended family now resides in Cape Town, and most own shops that sell imported goods from China. Before this shop, Lin owned and sold two others, one in Fish Hoek and another in Philippi.

Lin’s younger brother was the first in the family to come to Cape Town in search of business opportunities. Things were going well for him, so he asked Lin and other family members to join him. Lin decided to come with her husband and son in 2010.

In China, Lin was unemployed. She tried running a few small shops but her salary was low. For Lin, business is easier in Cape Town and income is higher. She says that many people from her province in China, Fujian, leave the country to seek better opportunities.

Every day of the week, Lin waits outside the shop for business to trickle in. She sits on a bed frame she has placed across the street, or on a couch she has set up outside the entrance. She never waits inside.

“It’s too dangerous to be inside,” Lin says. She is afraid someone will rob her without being seen.

Lin owns the shop on her own. She says many Chinese are working alone so they do not have to split their hard-earned money.

She did hire two assistants, both Khayelitsha residents, after they came in asking for work. She communicates with them in broken English, and they’ve learned to understand each other through basic phrases and gestures. But they usually sit in silence while waiting, and Lin leaves talking to the customers to her assistants since it’s too difficult for her.

Lin didn’t know any English when she came to South Africa. She brought English study books from China and learned some from locals as well. She learned some necessary words in Xhosa through the little English she knew. But day-to-day communication in the township is still a very tough task.

“The most significant difficulties here are language and safety,” she says in Chinese.

On safety, Lin’s outlook is grim. She prefers not to go anywhere other than the shop, the wholesale market, or home, as she fears crime, knowing that she has no safety net or way to communicate.

“People think us Chinese people have money and so keep an eye out for us,” she says. “I try my best not to go out anywhere. I’m afraid of going out because I never know what’s going to happen.”

She says she has had her shop in Khayelitsha for a year and it has been robbed at least six times.

Once, Lin had just sold a couch and table and started putting her money away, when a man who had been waiting outside pushed her inside the shop and stole over R2,000 at gunpoint.

Another time, a man came inside acting as if he were going to buy some furniture. Lin started writing a receipt and asked him to pay, when he grabbed her hand, pulled out a knife and took her bag.

“As soon as the criminals see me go into the store, they rush after me,” Lin says.

“In China, robberies are a very serious crime. I’ve never faced crime in China. When people get caught stealing here, they just say ‘sorry’ and that’s it. It’s different in China – if people steal, they lose face. It’s embarrassing if they get caught.

“Here, it’s risky; one is in danger of one’s life… We get bullied here”

Lin’s store has twice been attacked at night when she was not there. Both times, the perpetrators cut through the wall at the back of the shop. The first time, nothing was stolen, but the second time, in August, Lin’s furniture was set on fire. The neighbours heard a commotion and helped Lin call the police, who arrested the man, but the fire went on through the morning. According to Lin, R150,000 worth of furniture was damaged.

The shop is a two-minute walk from the Harare police station, where Lin goes periodically to report and check on crime. But communication with the police is very difficult for her. “We don’t understand what they say, and they don’t understand what we say.”

GroundUp accompanied Lin to the police station where she wanted to check on the status of the investigation into the August fire.

Lin found her way through the station’s many hallways to an investigator’s office, clearly familiar with the station and knowing with whom she needed to speak. She found the investigator and provided the case number, but was then at a loss for words. She told GroundUp she wanted to ask what happened with the perpetrator but did not know how.

“Set fire, fire,” Lin said, “3am, police came” and then held up her fists as a gesture for handcuffs.

The investigator had no record of any arrest in the case, even though Lin had seen the man being pinned down, handcuffed, and taken into police custody. But she did not understand the word “arrest”. The investigator told Lin to find the Captain, and she did not understand this request either.

Nobody in the Harare Station could find the docket for the case, even though it had been returned to the station. As a result, there was no record on any legal action taken against the man who wreaked havoc on Lin’s shop.

The Captain suggested that Lin file a complaint, but she did not know the word “complaint” and surely did not know how to file one. After an hour at the station, and in spite of GroundUp’s help interpreting for her, Lin left with no information.

“All we can do is worry about personal safety. We can’t worry about what happens to the criminals because we can’t even find out. The police here are not good,” she says.

But in spite of the challenges, her shop is still open every day of the week. “Chinese people feel they can’t afford to rest. We know how to bear hardships. The African shops aren’t open on Sundays but we are. There’s not much for us to do anyway. We would be at home otherwise since we don’t go out.”

Before arriving in South Africa, Lin was nervous about living in a foreign land but hopeful of a better future. After several years working in Cape Town, Lin has a strong desire to return home.

“In China, of course we thought leaving the country was great and exciting, but after coming here I regret it. I regret it and wish I could go home.”

Lin says the only thing keeping her here is her son. “I really want to go home but my son is here. I’m just thinking of my son. The salaries in China are not as good as here, but they are fine for me. There’s also not so much money here anymore.”

“My son is going to school here. If he were in China he would be in college already, but here he is only in 10th grade. But he likes it over here. He hopes to go to university here.”

Lin knows of several Chinese people who are selling their shops and returning home because the money here isn’t enough to justify staying anymore. The previous owner of Lin’s shop sold it to her because he wanted to leave South Africa to go back to China.

“Income is definitely better here, but here’s how we think—if we can’t make much more money, we might as well go back to China. Here, it’s risky; one is in danger of one’s life. There is no safety net. If something happens here, we have no way to deal with it. We get bullied here.” DM

Photo: Lin talks to her assistants while sitting in front of her shop in Khayelitsha. Photo by Joyce Xi.


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