The in-depth topic for this year was Chinese Johannesburg.
After the announcement of the essay topic I felt eager to explore this community where few human interest feature stories emerging from it had been told by the mainstream South African media. My group was given the topic Culture and community and this excited me further as I thought this would be the theme that could really make room for writing and telling a multimedia story with a lot of colour in it.
In this essay I will reflect my insights from the past four weeks. The paper will be divided into two main sections of my in-depth project: multimedia and written feature. In each section I will discuss the challenges, strategies and some triumphs. My conclusion will summarise my personal reflections from the two main focus areas in my essay.
On the first day the guest speakers gave us a good sense of some of the history of the Chinese community in Johannesburg. The content of the presentations by the speakers helped to frame some possible stories and angles that could be told by the class.
After the presentations, I went home to think of some possible ideas for a compelling story. I had to focus on a story that could be told in the given time frame realistically. This is a list of my original feature ideas: the adaptation of Chinese culture as a survival strategy for easier assimilation, Chinese school, immigrant youth and sub-cultures exclusive to South African immigrants.
The class trip to new Chinatown in Cyrildene was the event that narrowed my feature ideas to one story. Before lunch at the Northern food restaurant, we walked along Derrick Avenue in groups. The group that I had walked with first headed towards the North of Derrick avenue to see the arch and to take some pictures. On our way back, I bought some fruit at the fruit and vegetable shop that was close to the arch.
I met Peter there whose mother owns this fruit and vegetable shop in Cyrildene. I asked him about the Chinese school and whether he attended it. He said that the Chinese school no longer existed and that he attended another school in Lyndhurst. Before I met him, I had Googled the Chinese school and an address in Bramley Park appeared. I had planned to go to the school on Friday after pitching our ideas to our mentor that morning.
I was a bit confused after Peter told me the school no longer existed as the address on Google made me assume that the Chinese school still existed. I asked him how old he was and he said 19. He told me he was in grade eleven and struggled at school because of language. I could tell from our conversation that he was not the most comfortable with English. Because we did not have too much time and I wanted to talk to him properly, I took his number to meet with him again. He agreed.
When I pitched my story on the Friday, I had pitched doing a story on the Chinese school. My plan was to arrange an interview with someone at the school and hoped to find an interesting angle from this interview.
After I had shared my story idea with my group, I planned my events for the day and weekend. After the pitch Ray and I went to the school. It was school holidays and none of the staff were back that day. I found that Peter was correct in that there was no longer a Chinese school, only a Sandtonview school. I called Maureen Lok Fat from the Chinese association whose portfolio is Community and school. She confirmed that there was no longer a Chinese school but a new school. This prompted me to uncover what happened to the school and how its disappearance affected the children of new immigrants like Peter for example.
During the first week I had been contacting the GDE, Lok Fat and Erwin Pon the head of the Chinese association to understand the story behind what happened to the school.
One of the aspects of the project I had battled with initially was whether I was expected to write a story that was more of a slice of life, whether I was expected to stick to a news feature rather than a profile, or whether I should do more of an investigative piece where I tried to find a story that uncovered an issue.
When I expressed this issue to some of the mentors I was told that I could do either. What I did know was that I was interested in focusing on a human interest story that had never been told before.
An ongoing challenge throughout the project was language. In the first week when I was looking for more immigrants to share their stories of where their children were to school, language was a big obstacle.
Another hurdle was trust. Most of the guest speakers shared that the Chinese community, particularly the newer immigrants would be the most reluctant to talk about their personal stories. Particularly with my human interest angle, in order for me to adequately tell a rich story, I would need my sources to trust me and feel comfortable with sharing personal details with me. This was incredibly challenging.
Another main challenge throughout my project involved the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE). The GDE first interpreted my inquiry as me asking them for permission to conduct research design at their school which wasted a few days on their side. The bureaucratic nature of the GDE contributed to everything take longer than needed. At the end of my project they responded on the second last day with only a few sentences as comment.
Strategies and triumphs
A strategy that I used to gain initial access with sources was to learn a few key phrases in Mandarin. The community responded better when spoken to in Mandarin first than English. Toward the end of the first week, Ray discovered Google translate as a tool to assist us with communication. This worked with resounding success.
For access into the immigrant population I would start by contacting bodies that were likely to talk to me such as the Chinese Association who assisted in giving me more information and tips on how and where to find more sources.
For multimedia my initial idea was to report on the underground Sudoku pub scene in Johannesburg. I thought it would be great for video as there would be great visual opportunity to film with this topic.
As my story concerning education began to emerge in my first week, I thought of focusing on language and education in my multimedia too. One of our first speakers Dr Moyo told us about the South African Police Service (SAPS) learning Mandarin. When I went to the CPF in the first week as a strategy to find more immigrants, they invited me to film the police in their lesson.
Getting sources who were willing to go on the record either on sound, photo or video was difficult. Most of the Chinese community were reluctant to be on camera. Getting permission to film at some locations was also a hurdle that stagnated the production process. What further crippled production in terms of permission was if no permission was granted, I had less time to come up with a solution.
Strategies and triumphs
The police story was great for my video and everyone was incredibly co-operative. This story also eventually revealed the issue of the SAPS targeting the Chinese community which allowed me to dig deeper and change my angle for the better.
Convincing sources to tell their stories for the purpose of South Africans to know their plight helped immensely. This managed to help sources want to tell their story. The Wits language students responded the best with this strategy.
Going into the project I underestimated the extent to which language would be such a barrier. It forced me to realise the difficulties I will face when I work as a journalist in the future when English or isiZulu are not spoken by sources. The project forced me to reflect on my own and the national psyche concerning the Chinese community. Throughout the project when I interviewed South Africans who were not of Chinese descent, it became more apparent that there was still a lot of discrimination and prejudice towards the Chinese community. At the end of it I have learnt a lot about not fixating on getting a story I want but letting a story unveil itself. I have also learnt to adapt to situations and not dwell on changes and not see them as failures but rather as opportunities to enhance the story. I hope that my story will encourage readers to empathise and reflect on their own potentially problematic opinions with this forgotten demographic.