Monday, September 9, 2013

Jo'burg: Chinese shops move out to the suburbs

All photos: Yoon Jung Park
China in Africa: The Real Story is pleased to welcome this guest post from Dr. Yoon Jung Park, sociologist and author of the acclaimed A Matter of Honour: Being Chinese in South Africa and a number of other studies on Chinese immigrants in Africa. She writes:

I was recently in Johannesburg and managed to spend part of my last day there at the China Discount Shopping Mall. While there are dozens of wholesale/distribution centers around Johannesburg, most are south of the city center, off the main highway towards Soweto … in an area that was reclaimed from the mine dumps that had been there for at least two or three decades. This one, however, is different in at least two ways: (1) it is located in the northern suburbs – typically whiter and wealthier, and (2) it is a retail shopping center… or at least a “wholesale prices to the public” kind of place.

It is also, in my view, an indication of some shifts … a sign of greater economic integration of the Chinese migrant community, certainly a sign of Chinese migrant “filling in the gaps” opportunism and risk-taking business behaviour, as well as a sign that the Chinese are looking to broaden their customer base and bringing the products closer to the people in the ‘burbs.
The consumer's choices...
The China Discount Shopping Mall has basically replaced the owners and installed new management and new shops in an existing mall, which likely suffered from the recent economic challenges. While I didn’t have enough time to do any real research, I did manage to chat with several of the new shop managers – amongst them mainland Chinese (recently arrived) and Taiwanese (20 years resident in South Africa), Pakistanis, and an Ethiopian. There were many clothing shops selling popular fashions, but also shops selling party supplies, beads, housewares, and curtaining. They even had a dragon-shaped kiddies’ jumping castle! They also have a website (, but it seems to be a work in progress. 

As I was doing some research for my book project, I also learned that this sort of management takeover and auction purchasing of major shopping malls has occurred elsewhere in South Africa. “Rivonia Square” including the formerly exclusive “The Cloisters”, in a different part of the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, has recently been purchased by a Chinese migrant and is now called “Rivonia-Oriental City” ; they’re in the midst of trying to convince some of the food outlets and chain stores to stay in place as they attempt to attract higher-end Chinese retailers. Perhaps of greater significance, both the former “Highgate Shopping Mall” just outside Soweto and the former “Wheel Shopping Mall” in Durban are now part of the China Mall group owned and operated by Sino-African Property (Pty). Both are located in more economically marginal areas of the two cities and had recently suffered a serious downturn in foot traffic. 

The acquisition of these two shopping centres add hundreds of shops to the existing China Mall-JHB, which already had over 450 shops, a 1000 square meter food court and over 1000 parking bays! According to their website ( this makes them the “biggest Chinese products market” in South Africa and perhaps on the continent.

Several restaurants from Cyrildene’s Chinatown (also in Johannesburg) have also expanded over the past couple years, opening up second “branches” in Rivonia. My friend and former research collaborator, Anna Chen, surmised that the rationale was two-fold: (1) restaurant owners wanted to capture the wealthier white South African suburban diner population and (2) they wanted more space to be able to open up private dining rooms for larger parties of their Chinese regulars. 

Because of growing crime in Cyrildene (increasing numbers of luxury cars were followed home from Cyrildene and people were carjacked and/or robbed as they pulled into their driveways and homes), these moves have proved to be a boon for restaurant owners, as increasing numbers of Chinese patrons now dine only at the Rivonia restaurants. On the evening that I was at the Rivonia branch of Northern Foods (a favorite), the restaurant was fairly quiet, but it was also quite early… by the time we were leaving, the place was packed.
I can’t say the same about the Chinese shopping experience … there were no huge crowds at the China Discount Shopping Mall on the Sunday that I was there… and the survival of this mall (and the others) will depend in large part on the health of the South African economy, which continues to be in the doldrums.

So… Chinese traders, having started out peddling wares in the streets of downtown Johannesburg and fighting with the black South African street hawkers, moved into wholesale supplying thousands of retailers from across the country and the southern Africa region, appear to be moving into retail again, albeit at a very different level. This is a phenomenon worth watching.

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