Suicide for conscience sake – the story of Chow Kwai For

After learning about Chow Kwai For, I went looking for the location where his story played itself out in the early 1900s.

I was surprised to find that number 20 Derby Road now belongs to the Curriculum Development Project for Arts and Culture, Education and Training, a couple of blocks away from Ellis Park. I worked there once.

Chinese community in South Africa – thanks to SAHO

Chow Kwai For was brought to South Africa by his employer, a British doctor named Dr. F.C. Sutherland.  He worked for Sutherland from 1904 to 1907 at his employer’s residence at 20 Derby Road, Bertrams.  

Apparently Chow, who came from an island south of the Chinese mainland, spoke a different dialect to the mainly Cantonese Chinese in Johannesburg, so communication was difficult for him

Legislation introduced to control Asiatic immigration after the Anglo-Boer War, required every Asiatic over the age of eight to re-register.  Under pressure to comply despite his reservations, Chow signed and then, realising what he had done, hanged himself at the Derby Road House. He left behind a letter addressed to the Chinese Association explaining why he had done this. The full text of the letter is reproduced in Chinese on his gravestone in the Braamfontein Cemetery, which was bought by the Chinese community at a cost of £200 in Chow’s honour. The suicide letter read as follows:

“I am going to leave the world, but I must give a public explanation why I intend to commit suicide. Therefore, I address this letter to my countrymen. Since I came to South Africa, I have only been in domestic service. My dialect is quite different from that of my countrymen, with whom I have very seldom associated. I am always in the house of my employer, who had advised me to re-register. At first I refused to do so, but I was informed that I would be dismissed from my employment.  I thought that I would have to lose my situation. Therefore, I was obliged to register, but I did not know the degradation that would follow until my friend talked to me about the registration matter and showed me the translation of the Law.  I found that I would be treated as a slave, which would be a disgrace to myself and my nation. I was not aware of all this before. Now it is too late for me to repent. I cannot look my countrymen in the face. I hope all my countrymen will take warning by my error.”

Mohandas Gandhi (center) sits with co-workers at his Johannesburg law office in 1902.

At Chow’s memorial service, organised by the Transvaal Chinese Association, Chinese inscriptions were hung on the walls and a portrait of Chow, painted on silk, was placed over an altar of flowers and incense. Gandhi, who attended the funeral, later wrote that the “unity, neatness and courage” of the Chinese should be emulated.

 Chow’s suicide was interpreted as an oriental way of saving face in the ‘Transvaal Weekly Illustrated’ in November 1907:

To those who understand the tortuous workings of the Oriental mind there is nothing peculiar in this rehabilitation by suicide, and, in fact, an authority on Chinese and their ways predicted some time ago that if there were any registrations among them they would very likely be followed by suicide as soon as they ascertained that they had ‘lost face’. The Chinese ethics of suicide are certainly incomprehensible to the European.”

Leung Quinn, a prominent spokesperson for Chinese rights in South Africa, and President of the Chinese Association, rejected these comments, saying that suicide was not common in China and that  a man only ended his life ‘when driven to desperation by much the same causes as induce suicides among Europeans.’

Although a stranger in South Africa, and even a stranger within his own Chinese community, Chow’s story is a quintessentially South African story.

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