Like many other big cities, Johannesburg has a China Town. Commissioner Street in the CBD was the original Chinese hub, but when the inner city deteriorated in the 1990’s China Town relocated to a quiet suburb called Cyrildene in eastern Johannesburg.
There are plenty of other places to buy asian foods and spices at shops dotted about Johannesburg, but Johannesburg’s China Town has to be the best place to go for the widest variety and best prices.
Many of the locals don’t speak English, they speak Chinese. As my mandarin stretches as far as the words for ‘jumper’, ‘watch’, ‘roll call’ and a rude and unmentionable phrase – all taught to me by two Hong Kong school mates at boarding school many years ago, I followed the following advice: 1. Go with the point and smile sign language technique (you’ve got to love those picture menus in some of the restaurants). 2. Ask one of african shop assistants who will probably speak 4 or 5 different languages and be more or less able to guide you in the right direction.
Derrick Street boasts a selection of shops, restaurants, massage parlours and hairdressers. The overall feel is Chinese, but there are products available that come from all over Asia, for example, you will find a decent selection of Thai, Indonesian and Japanese goods for sale. As an interesting aside, apparently many of the Japanese products are actually manufactured in Taiwan because it’s more cost effective and yet, the Taiwanese-made-Japanese-sold products are more expensive in Japan than in Johannesburg.
Get a fix of dim sum or go to the restaurant that has a giant cauldron with a fire at the bottom and small pots of various casseroles stacked inside. I can’t remember what it was called, but I’m a big fan of casseroles and they smelled delicious.
The only advice given when choosing a lunch venue and menu was to avoid any dishes including internal organs.
We popped into a specialist tea shop. It’s apparently THE place to go if you are doing business with overseas asians (i.e. Asians in Asia, rather than Asians in Africa) and want to gift a good tea to smooth business relations along. Alongside the attractively packaged gift teas are regular drink-at-home teas and medicinal ones, including ‘dealcoholism tea’ (I’m assuming it’s for a hangover rather than to actually cure alcoholism or more people would know about it?) and rather titillatingly, ‘sex tea’.
There was a glass jar full of surprise tea – the same idea as surprise soup, but you end up with tea rather than soup. I was thinking about buying some, but was slightly concerned that I might get more than I bargained for – if you look carefully there are a number of other surprise items stocked in the glass cabinet, under the glass jar.
You can buy exotic vegetables in China Town, from clusters of oyster mushrooms to flower like dragon fruit. I’ve lived in and visited various parts of Asia and thought there would be nothing too surprising, but I’d never come across ugly, bumpy bitter gourds before.
Other items you can stock up on in China Town include industrial sized bags of rice, which surprising often come from Australia, you can buy ‘Hell money’ to burn at funerals, face masks (not the pore-cleansing beautification type, the protect-yourself-from-inhaling-polluted-city-air type), dried noodles, dried fish with wizened faces and racks and racks of entirely unidentifiable goods (unidentifiable to me, to the trained eye it’s probably no more complicated than buying a pint of milk or a loaf of bread). I also found plenty of things I did recognise like soy sauce, prawn crackers and rice wine.
Jozi’s China Town is a thriving community rather than a tourist attraction, but if you’re based in Johannesburg, it’s worth a visit nonetheless to get a small taste of Asia in Africa. Enjoy an inexpensive authentic exotic meal and stock up on some tasty culinary goodies. I also hear on the grapevine that Chinese New Year is celebrated enthusiastically in China Town, perhaps that would be a good time to pencil in a return visit?