Many Joburgers swear that you can eat better here than any other place in town. Ilse Salzwedel took to the streets of New Chinatown to explore a world of flavours and culture.
About 13 years ago this street in Johannesburg’s Cyrildene was a Jewish area.
Today, it’s still a colourful hub of culture, just Chinese. Ginseng sweets, green tea and ‘no smoking’ signs in Mandarin set the tone.
In contrast to the Chinese shops scattered around Langlaagte and Fordsburg, New Chinatown’s shops can be found between butcheries, hair salons, the head office of a Chinese charity organisation and even a Chinese library.
Derrick Avenue, a stone’s throw from Bruma Lake and Eastgate, is actually more of a Chinese community than just a shopping street. Most of the street signs are in Mandarin – English is optional around here.
Chatting to shop owners rarely bears fruit.
There are two reactions: friendly incomprehension or a less-friendly glare. Sometimes, South African shop assistants may be able to explain what’s in a tin or tube.
An overwhelming fragrance, emanating from plastic containers, wafts through a shop selling medicinal herbs. Next to the herbs, strange black things seem to squirm in their jars.
They are not alive, even though it looks like they might be.
My friend decides they’re dried snakes, but the shop assistant assures us it’s nothing more than dried seaweed.
Things are done the traditional way around here, and this seems to include many whole fowl – cooked and hanging by their necks in butchery windows.
And by whole I mean complete with beak and webbed feet. (Have you ever seen the grimace on a dead duck?)
I brave entering a butchery.
Not a chop or piece of boerewors in sight.
The man at the counter gestures ‘you no eat?’ when I asked about the round, dark red packages.
‘Duck blood – good for bad stomach’.
There is a world of seafood displayed fresh on ice – slap bang in the middle of the pavement.
I see frozen mini octopuses, but I don’t ask about the rest. I don’t really want to know and I don’t recognise anything.
We spot a notice board advertising ‘fried ice cream’ – something we could definitely enjoy.
We enter, only to find the owner plucking away at a dead bird.
Not even the bow-tie pastries at the corridor-sized bakery next door can whet my vanished appetite.
Shades of green fill the fruit and veg area, and the whole space smells fresh and earthy.
I could spend the entire morning between the Chinese cabbages, white radishes and herbs.
There are some interesting plants I know nothing about; one looks like a cross between spinach and a flower.
Nobody seems to know their Western names.
At one stall, an eager lady tries to explain which of these plants would make my mouth burn and which not (alas, it’s still a mystery to me).
A Chinese arch structure is being built above the entrance to the market.
A couple of men evidently involved in its construction rush towards me.
I ask about the symbolism of the tigers, dragons and other Chinese decorations.
Their faces close off and Martin Ho is chosen to speak to me.
He’s lived here for ‘many years’ and speaks near-perfect English.
He tells me the concrete figures are used on arches at the entrance of every Chinatown in the world.
If I could speak Mandarin I might have stopped by the feng shui expert.
As it is, the visit delivers some hilarious ‘lost in translation’ moments.
On a lift, a warning sign exclaims that ‘Public the elevator please take care of, be careful to use if damage compensation ad volorem.’
Squashed between a rice dealer and a shop that sells ‘Luck Bamboo’ (and nothing else), I am drawn by the porcelain in a window display. I go inside.
Old paintings creak between Chinese appliances and illegal diet pills.
In one corner is an impressive wine collection, including a magnum of Simonsvlei Cellar Master’s Choice, signed by said cellar master and on sale for R10 000.
The shopkeeper also collects framed pictures. There is one of President Jacob Zuma with Chinese dignitaries, and another of President Zuma alone on a podium in front of an ANC flag.
There is a picture of Nathi Mthethwa, Minister of Police, surrounded by laughing Chinese businessmen, and on the opposite wall hang two large portraits of Chairman Mao.
Chinatown…if you’re on the lookout for the unexpected, you’ll find it here!
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