China and the Chinese have been increasingly prevalent in both media reports and dinnertime conversations over the last few years. Nevertheless, despite China’s burgeoning global profile (culminating, perhaps, in the 2008 Olympic Games), and although China will be key in helping the world economy recover from the financial crisis, international perspectives on China have not really become more nuanced than the tongue-in-cheek sentiment expressed in a Monty Python song some decades ago: “There’s more than a billion of them in the world today. You’d better learn to like them, that’s what I say!”
Likewise, in South Africa, perceptions about China and Chinese people tend to hinge around news headlines such as China Buys Into Standard Bank, China Launches Africa Investment Fund or Chinese South Africans Now Qualify For Black Economic Empowerment Benefits. This superficial awareness is a pity, as the history of Chinese involvement in this country – and, moreover, the growth of the Chinese South African community – is a complex topic that ought to be more widely understood.