When Joe was a little boy growing up in Johannesburg, his favorite place to eat was a restaurant downtown on Commissioner Street, called the Golden Dragon. At least he thinks that’s what it was called. There’s no way to confirm it now because that restaurant, like much of Joburg’s “Old Chinatown,” is long gone.

Run-down buildings on the outskirts of Old Chinatown, which is adjacent to the trendy inner city neighborhood of Newtown.

In the 1990s, when new waves of Asian immigrants arrived and Joburg’s inner city became engulfed by poverty and crime, most of Old Chinatown packed up and moved to the suburbs. The “New Chinatown” is in Cyrildene, a formerly Jewish neighborhood on the southeastern side of town. But a dozen or so Chinese restaurants and shops have stuck it out in Old Chinatown, and the area is showing new signs of life.

Yesterday Joe and I visited Old Chinatown with the Joburg Photowalkers. I’m always up for good ethnic food and I was eager to compare Joburg’s Chinatown to the Chinatown in my home city of Washington, D.C.

One of two concrete statues on Commissioner Street, erected last year to welcome visitors to Old Chinatown.

An Old Chinatown shop topped by an art deco apartment block. 

The inspiration  behind this photowalk was Ufrieda Ho, a South African author of Chinese descent who recently published a book, Paper Sons and Daughters, about growing up Chinese in South Africa. In addition to showing us around the neighborhood, Ufrieda organized lunch for us at the Swallows Inn, Old Chinatown’s oldest restaurant.

The Swallows Inn.

Preparing for lunch with the Photowalkers in the basement of the Swallows Inn. That’s Ufrieda on the right.

We feasted on heaping platters of crispy beef, mountains of chow mein noodles, and mouth-watering sauteed veggies with tofu, among other things. Unfortunately I didn’t get a single decent shot of the actual food. My camera didn’t like the artificial light.

Stuffed full, we staggered into the afternoon light and wandered the three-block stretch of Old Chinatown.

Photowalker Karen, who is of Chinese descent herself, casts an expert eye over the bok choy in this shop. (By the way, Karen has a fun blog called the Story of Bing.)

Local wildlife.

A cute kid eyes us suspiciously from his parents’ shop on the edge of Old Chinatown. (Photo courtesy of Joe.)

Old Chinatown dead-ends at the Johannesburg Central Police Station, formerly known as John Vorster Square. This building (the ugly blue one in the photo above) has a notorious history — thousands of political prisoners were interrogated, tortured, and even killed there during the apartheid era. Online information about John Vorster Square is scant, but scroll halfway down this page to learn more.

Our final Chinatown stop was at Pigeon Square.

A block from Old Chinatown, at the intersection of Main Road, Main Reef Road, and Miriam Makeba Street, is a piece of pavement known as Pigeon Square. The square, which is actually a triangle, serves as a resting and feeding place for city pigeons. Three sculptures, inspired by pieces of origami, were recently placed there, each one covered with perches for roosting pigeons. Joe ran through the flock of pigeons to create a photo-op; it looks like he was fleeing gunfire.

Joburg’s Old Chinatown doesn’t have the glitz of the Washington D.C. Chinatown, and it’s certainly no San Francisco. But if you’re planning to spend a day in the Joburg CBD, especially in nearby Newtown, Old Chinatown is a nice place to stop for lunch and an hour of exploring. Come hungry, and bring a rain hat for the walk through Pigeon Square.

Another view of the gateway to Old Chinatown.

I hope to get to Joburg’s New Chinatown soon so I can make a proper comparison.

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