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The Chinese On The Rand


Background History:

As the Boer War loomed in 1899, there was a mass exodus of labour from the mines in South Africa, both white and black. As a result all of the mines on the Rand were shut done for the duration of the hostilities. At the end of the war in 1902, both the mine owners and the new British administration in the Transvaal were desperate to get the mines back in production as quickly as possible so as they could re-start producing desperately needed revenues.

Unfortunately with a general boom in work throughout South Africa after the Boer War there were no incentives for the African workforce to return to their old jobs on the Rand. Higher paid work was plentiful in other regions and industrial sectors. The Transvaal government and the mine owners were forced to take drastic measures to solve the issue. In so doing they looked to China where there was a large source of surplus cheap labour in order to recruit a new workforce of indentured labourers for the mines. In May 1904, the first 10,000 Chinese labourers arrived to work on-the Witwatersrand gold mines. They continued to come for the next four years and by 1908 their number totaled nearly 100,000. Most of the Chinese workers were recruited to serve three to four-year contracts. They also had to agree to work at special, low rates of pay for at least six months to pay back the costs of recruiting and their passage from China.

Once in South Africa the Chinese were treated almost as slaves. Many of them did not like their new work but were unable to return home. They had no means of getting out of their contracts, their work was hard, their living conditions basic and their mine supplied food often sub-standard. Like the African miners, once their shift was finished their free time was normally restricted to their own specially built living compounds adjacent to the mines. The compounds were run in a similar way to those built for the African miners'. Trusted workers were set-up as "house captains" or compound officials/policemen.

The mine and Transvaal authorities adopted special measures to ensure the Chinese were kept under full control. Despite this they did have limited success on odd occasions in their fight for better pay. One such example was demonstrated in an organised "go slow" in protest of terms and conditions for "hammer men" at the North Randfontein Mine in 1905. 

While the Chinese workers did help in the efforts to get the Rand back into production again after the Boer War they became a political disaster and nightmare for the new administration. Many white workers became concerned about the increasing presence of the Chinese on the Rand. Many were worried that this new source of low-paid labour would threaten their job security and wage levels. The Transvaal government helped to ease these fears by listing 44 jobs, which were reserved for whites only. The Chinese were not allowed to do any skilled labour, buy land, trade, or pay rent for land. However, an increasing number of white workers and towns people reacted angrily to the continued presence of the Chinese. At this time anti-Asian racism and hysteria was at a peak in Anglo-Saxon countries, and the Chinese workers were accused of introducing vices to corrupt the local population, being disease ridden and rapists etc. The situation was not helped when growing numbers of Chinese mine workers started to desert from the mines to live life on the run. Several grouped into outlaw gangs which threatened the local farming communities. This spread yet more alarm and threat to the Transvaal communities and government.

In Britain the question of the Chinese workers in South Africa became a major political issue. Trade unionists and many Labour Party politicians supported the white miners and condemned the use of Chinese labourers. In fact, the issue was exploited very broadly by both the Labour and Liberal Parties and it added to the growing unpopularity of the Conservative-Unionist government. 

Eventually, the various campaigns in both South Africa and Britain which were apposed to the use of  Chinese labour on the mines were so successful that the Transvaal Administration was ordered to stop all further contracts. All the Chinese workers in South Africa were to complete their contracts and were then to be repatriated to China. The last batch of Chinese workers left South Africa in 1910.

The Postcards

Although the Chinese spent only a comparatively short period on the Rand their stay represented an important period in the Goldfield's history. This is reflected in the number of postcard issues that relate to them. These cards cover all aspects of the life of the Chinese from their arrival on the Rand; their working lives; living conditions and recreation time through to their departure from South Africa. Like the native African miners, the Chinese workers were forced to live segregated lives while on the Rand. Their lives outside of work were restricted to closed living compounds. Each mine having separate compounds, one for its African the other for its Chinese workers. Many of the postcards from this series represent the different aspects of life in these Compounds. 

"Thumbnail" Images   (Note 1) Card Title or Description Card  Ref. No.
PC51.JPG (129020 bytes) On the Rand - Arrival of Chinese Coolies PC51
pc52.JPG (107713 bytes) The First Batch of Chinese on the Rand  PC52
pc53.JPG (123629 bytes) Chinese coolies tramming underground. PC53
pc54.JPG (107542 bytes) Chinese Coolies at work in the Boiler House. PC54
pc90.JPG (101872 bytes) Chinese Mining Boys PC90
pc91.JPG (107247 bytes) On the Rand - Chinese Coolies in front of their quarters PC91
pc92.JPG (103515 bytes) On the Rand - Chinese Policemen PC92
pc93.JPG (112874 bytes) White, Black and Yellow. PC93
pc94.JPG (128050 bytes) Sunday in Chinese Compound, The Rand. PC94
pc95.JPG (114558 bytes) On the Rand - Stars of the Chinese Dramatic Opera Co. PC95
pc96.JPG (140463 bytes) Chinese Preparing For A Festival On The Rand. PC96
pc97.JPG (108863 bytes) On the Rand - Chinese Barbershop. PC97
pc98.JPG (137829 bytes) A Hearty Greeting From The Rand Slaves - A Chinese Monte Carlo. PC98
pc117.JPG (121362 bytes) Chinese Mining Boys PC117
pc118.JPG (83794 bytes) John Chinaman PC118
pc154.JPG (138918 bytes) Chinese Coolies at work underground PC154
pc177.JPG (132070 bytes) On the Rand - Chinese Cookhouse. PC177
pc190.JPG (109857 bytes) On the Rand - Chinese Bath House. PC190
On the Rand - Chinese Cookhouse. PC195
Greetings CHOWberg - A Chinese Monte Carlo PC196
On the Rand - An interesting game PC197
On the Rand - Chinese Coolies and their Overseers PC198


1) For further information and enlarged views of each postcard click on any one of the above images.

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