The story of Johannesburg’s Chinatown begins with gold and involves both urban decay and urban renewal. In many ways, it is much like many other stories the city has to offer. Today, the majority of Johannesburg’s Chinese population can be found in Cyrildene, in the east of the city.
Did you know?
During Chinese New Year, red decorations are everywhere, because the colour red is considered to be one of the luckiest colours of all.
Though South Africa’s Chinese community dates back to the 1660s, it wasn’t until the 1870s that Chinese immigrants began to arrive in their numbers, seeking their fortunes first on the diamond fields in Kimberley and later, on the gold fields in Johannesburg.
The Chinese community in Johannesburg grew in the early 20th century, with most of the population originally settling in and around Commissioner Street in downtown Johannesburg. In the 1980s and 1990s, this growing population, together with the area’s decline, led to the population spreading to other areas. Today, a few remaining Chinese shops and restaurants can still be found on Commissioner Street between buildings 5 and 17 on the street’s western end, but, since the early 2000s, the majority of Johannesburg’s Chinese population can now be found in Cyrildene.
Originally a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood (there is still a functioning synagogue in the area), Cyrildene, located near Observatory in the east of the city, is now formally regarded as Johannesburg’s New Chinatown.
While the area initially held only a few noodle shops and basic stores, today it boasts a number of aunthentic and highly regarded Chinese restaurants and supermarkets, where a wide variety of culinary products can be purchased, as well as electronics stores, massage parlours, tea shops and hair salons.
The area’s backbone is Derrick Avenue, and an impressive Chinese archway on Friedland Avenue introduces the suburb. The area has remained largely undeveloped since the 1950s in terms of both atmosphere and architecture, and feels decidedly historic and authentic as a result. The fact that most signs are in Mandarin and that restaurant and shop-owners still predominantly speak their mother tongue, adds to this.
South Africa’s Chinese population, which is estimated to be in the region of 350 000 people, predominantly speak Cantonese, English and Hakka, and can trace their roots to the southern Guangdong province. With many traditions still strongly observed, Cyrildene boasts some of the best Chinese cuisine in the city, though atmosphere is often lacking and the facilities basic. The restaurants Chinese Northern Foods and Shun De come recommended. Wherever you eat, it’s a good idea to bring your own wine. You’re also sure to find excellent Thai, Taiwanese and Korean fare.
Every late January or early February, Chinese New Year is celebrated in Cyrildene. Celebrations usually begin on the first day of the Chinese new year, with a festival taking place on the 15th day. Derrick Road is closed to traffic and people from all walks of life from across the city turn out in their numbers to experience the festivities first-hand. Set menus are served, long puppet dragons wind through tables, and fireworks sound continuously.
Travel tips & Planning info
How to get here
From Gillooly’s Interchange, take the R24 towards Johannesburg. Turn right at the traffic light on to Marcia Street. Derrick Avenue is to the right, about 1.5km along Marcia.
Best time to visit
If bright dragon puppets, an abundance of Chinese food and fireworks sounds like a good time, be sure to join the crowds in Chinatown for Chinese New Year, held in January or February each year.
Chinatown is close to the Bruma Lake flea market and Eastgate Mall. The restaurants and shops in Chinatown are all within walking distance of one another.
What to eat
The tiny tea shop, Simplicity Coffee & Tea, is the perfect place to begin your culinary journey in Chinatown. After that, head to Chinese Northern Foods restaurant for dumplings, hot pots and unusual dishes, or the award-winning Sai Thai serves up an extensive menu of Thai cuisine.