#MyJoburg with Ufrieda Ho, author and journalist

19 Feb 2024
In our #MyJoburg series, we speak to people who add something unique to Joburg's creative mix and get the lowdown on what enthrals them about this city. 

Ufrieda Ho is a born and bred Joburger, journalist, and writer who has chronicled impactful moments and events as they’ve played out in the city over the years. Her memoir, Paper Sons and Daughters: Growing up Chinese in South Africa, details her family's history, their arrival in South Africa, and her experience growing up Chinese in apartheid South Africa. She describes herself as an origami folder (we have been gifted with proof), a padel player who hits more fresh air than balls, and a champion afternoon napper when given the chance. With the Chinese New Year in full swing, she has made it her mission to work on freeing herself from her addiction to cat videos and cooking reels on socials.

"Joburg gets under your skin. Somehow you morph with its collisions and contradictions."

What brought you to Joburg or makes you stay here?
I am a Park Lane Maternity Hospital baby, so a Joburger from my first breaths. Joburg gets under your skin. Somehow, you morph with its collisions and contradictions. You know the tension points and the rage, but also the exceptional energy and spiritedness. Then you realise that you are part of that pulse too, and that’s good enough reason to stay one more day.
Tea & Antique in Bedfordview. Photo: Johannesburg in Your Pocket
A favoured spot, Tea & Antique in Bedfordview. Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket. 

In your book Paper Sons and Daughters, you speak about growing up in South Africa during apartheid. How did this experience shape the person you became?
It's a big question, so I'll reframe a little through some reflections on my book in the decade since it was published. Life's textures, traumas, and beauties, along with our histories and stories, all need someplace to go. For me, it's into words, into my writing, and into my book. Creating records and repositories through writing means we are offered a chance to make space for nuance, for layers of the story of the Chinese in South Africa, and [it] maybe offers a richer understanding of ourselves, of each other, and the changing world we live in.

The Chinese community has a long history in Joburg. What defines the experience of being part of this community for you today? 
The Chinese community in Joburg is, as you'd expect, not a homogenous group. We are communities within communities with contiguous edges in place but massive distances and breaks in others. It’s a tiny minority that navigates many versions of belonging and not belonging. I am the daughter of migrants, and my heart is full of respect for the generations of people who arrived at this southern tip of Africa with little more than hope and determination to make a better life for the people who would follow. My roots, my culture, and my identity are woven into all these elements.
Ufrieda Ho's Paper Sons and Daughters. Photo: Supplied.

How did you celebrate Chinese New Year this year?
This year, New Year fell on a Saturday. Had it been a day in mid-week, it would've probably passed with very little fanfare. But this year, my dear Yee Sou (aunty) invited me to her family's table. So it was feasting as connection, celebration, and reunion. Her beautiful dishes were served for their symbolic resonance with good fortune, happiness, and abundance.

Let's talk Chinese Joburg. What is your favourite Chinese restaurant?
PRON in Linden takes the top spot because it's a sensory experience to eat there. The food is the showpiece, but then it's the ambience, the décor, the art, and the sense of play and curiosity that pull you in. Winter meals call for Chong Qing Hot Pot in Cyrildene. It's understated and communal eating, which has all the slurpy comfort of Chinese food. And there has to be a shout-out for Simplicity because a flat foyer reimagined as the tiniest bubble tea spot is the perfect Joburg reinvention and [an example] of our "why the hell not" spirit.
Emma Chen's PRON in Linden is Ho's top pick of Chinese restaurants. Photo: PRON via Instagram.

And supermarket?
CJ's in Cyrildene Chinatown.

If someone wants to explore Chinese history in Joburg what would you recommend they not miss?
We have the distinction of having two Chinatowns in Joburg. Visiting both is a great way to start conversations and to be guided by your senses, maybe even your tummy, to find out more.

Your hidden Joburg – what are the places you have uncovered through your writing.
I love the hikes on farms on the edge of Gauteng. It's the gift of quiet and horizons for long kilometres. I'm loving bits of the burgeoning Ethiopian quarter wedged into Kensington, and the beautiful gardens under the canopy of hundred-year-old trees at North Lodge, Parktown, [which helps me] feel small in the best way possible.

"I am the daughter of migrants, and my heart is full of respect for the generations of people who arrived at this southern tip of Africa with little more than hope and determination to make a better life for the people who would follow."

Is Joburg an easy place to work as a journalist?
Joburg is rich with people and stories, so that's the easy part; the state of journalism right now – [that’s] tougher. But I love it still.

What have you learnt from Joburg through writing about it, its places, and its people?
Our young city is constantly remaking itself. People are restless, looking for the next gap or the next hustle. Our histories also seem so recent, troubled, and contested. And this lingers and directs the way we connect with space and place, even the sense of time, and, of course, with each other.

What is a surprising thing people might learn about Joburg by having a conversation with you?
I hope it's that beneath the brittle and desiccated bits, there's heart too.

Home is...
Where my dust bunnies have unionised.
Kensington's streets become a purple wonderland during jacaranda season. Photo: Supplied.

Your favourite Joburg suburb, and why you choose it?
I'm choosing Kensington in its “right now” moment. Right now, everyday folk are trying to organise community-driven initiatives for safer streets and a neighbourhood in which people try to look out for each other instead of slipping into more cynicism and negativity. On the cards are full moon walks to claim back the night, clean-ups of the Scottish Memorial, and kerbside plant and book swaps. Of course, Kensington is one of the jacaranda wonderlands in the city, and it's a suburb with old histories, diversity, and enough hills for great views if you're prepared for a bit of climbing.

"My number-one tip for a first-time visitor to Joburg? Keep your cell phone out of sight and your mind open."

What three things should a visitor not leave Joburg without seeing or experiencing?
One, visit Constitution Hill and try to be there when the court is in session. When you feel disillusioned about things going wrong, listening to the justices set out how they have come to their rulings tested against our Constitution is the stuff of deep exhales. Two, visit David Webster's old house in Troyeville. The mosaics that rise up on the house walls where the assassinated anti-apartheid activist lived are, for me, an honour to life, purpose, and passions — maybe the better things to memorialise. Three, get to a public gathering – maybe it's a live music festival, maybe it's a day at the Wanderers, a market day, or a Johannesburg Heritage Foundation tour – meet and mingle with Joburg's people.
Ho's advice is to visit Constitution Hill on a day the court is in session. Photo: Johannesburg in Your Pocket.

The most memorable meal you have eaten in Joburg?
I've been loving the espresso and coconut water at Tea & Antique at the moment. But the really memorable meals are the ones that are cooked by the beautiful humans in my life. Meals made to share and kitchen experiments you can laugh about are life's deliciousness.

If you could buy one Joburg building, which would it be?
It is too hard to choose one. I love Circa for a building that's elliptical and devoid of corners. Of course, there's the rooftop deck and the toilets I call the "must-wee" loos. Emoyeni, because imagine if your "stoep" looked like what this 1905 Leck and Emley gem offers [Leck and Emley were the architects of this historic property in Parktown).

If you were the Joburg mayor for one day (average tenure) what would you change?
I would scrap “task teams will investigate” as an answer to supposedly fixing things. All the buzzwords like “fit for purpose” and “consequence management” would have to mean something, or heads would roll.
The Everard Read Circa Gallery on Jan Smuts Avenue in Rosebank. Photo: Supplied.

Favourite Joburg label, and why?
Love Jozi – it's sharp, creative, and full of story and wicked humour. All those years ago, it helped us imagine Joburg as a brand. A win.

What makes someone a Joburger?
Someone who doesn't have a lukewarm reaction to this place.

What do you love most about Joburg?
On the very good days, it loves you back.

What do you least like about Joburg?
It's the usual list about the shambolic state of city maintenance and city governance and the BS that is dished up by the authorities as their “solutions”.

Your number-one tip for a first-time visitor to Joburg?
Keep your cell phone out of sight and your mind open.
T-shirt by Love Jozi
A classic tee by Love Jozi, a brand that has this city summed up. Photo: Love Jozi. 

One Joburg personality whom you would honour with the freedom of the city if you could, and why? 
Cora Bailey. She heads up CLAW (Community Led Animal Welfare) in Durban Deep. There are few people in Joburg as fearless but big-hearted and deliberate about helping the most vulnerable (and their animals too).

The perfect weekend in Joburg includes...
Give me a Friday afternoon that ends with a sound bath, then let me sleep in late on Saturday, only stir for good coffee and long hours to read. Throw in a midday walkabout at an art gallery maybe and a braai with friends – the ones who howl at the moon, sing badly as the night grows long, and bring hugs, love, and laughter.

Three words that describe this city?
Don't blink baby.

Check out some of our previous #MyJoburg interviews for more insights into the city:

#MyJoburg with Sarah Barret of Joburg 360 Tours
#MyJoburg with Melusi Mhlungu, creative powerhouse behind JoziMyJozi.
#MyJoburg interview with Banele Khoza, artist and founder of BKhz Gallery.

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