I spent a significant part of this weekend photographing the Chinese New Year celebrations in Johannesburg and the greater Gauteng area. It is not a date I have paid much attention to in the past, particularly since most of the Chinese people I ever have contact with are the various shop keepers and restaurant owners around the city. But this year I wanted to practice my photography, so with a bag full of lenses I went first to the Old Chinatown at the bottom of Commissioner Street in the CBD on Saturday night, and the Nan Hua Buddhist Temple in Bronkhorspruit on Sunday morning.
Both were lots of fun, although very challenging to photograph and I learned a lot about my own limitations and sadly that of my current camera. While running around and constantly changing lenses I also learned quite a bit about various Chinese traditions and the Year of the Dragon.
What I really liked is that this is the time that Chinese people dedicate to spending with family, and for many it is the only time during the year that they will see them. A few months ago someone told me I should watch a documentary called Last Train Home – it follows the lives of one Chinese family where the parents work in the city while their children live in the countryside with their grandparents. Once a year, ahead of Chinese New Year, the parents, together with hundreds of thousands of others queue for days at the train station for tickets, spend a few days at home, and then have to queue again to secure tickets to return to the city where they earn a living. It is a heartbreaking story and particularly relevant for South Africans, where many families still rely on migrant labour for income.
I have been to the temple several times before, although there have never been more than 10 other visitors there at the time so it was completely overwhelming to see hundreds (if not thousands) of people at the temple complex yesterday, which is about an hours drive from Johannesburg. I strongly recommend it to anyone living in or visiting Johannesburg both at New Year time and on a quiet Sunday morning. It is a very warm and welcoming place and they put a lot of emphasis on learning about various cultures. It was very interesting to note that both in the CBD and at the temple the majority of people were not Chinese but South Africans from all walks of life.
During the opening ceremony at the temple we were encouraged to take away three teachings or commandments – think good thoughts, speak good words, and do good things. I will be trying to do just that this year.