For more than half a century, the Hong family ran a corner shop at 166 Caroline Street in Brixton, one of Joburg’s oldest residential suburbs. Immigrant-owned corner shops, much like spaza shops, are an iconic part of South African history and culture.

166 Caroline Street as it looks today.

Mrs. Hong retired from running the shop — which was a cross between a convenience store and a general dealer — in 2018, and 166 Caroline Street is now a multi-purpose project space called Shade. For the rest of November, Shade is hosting an exhibition called “Behind that Window”: A collection of photos and artifacts from the Hong family’s 56 years in the shop.

Beautiful original shelving in what used to be the Caroline Supply Shop.

I like this exhibition for several reasons. First it’s in Brixton. Brixton is next to Melville and has always been one of my favorite parts of town — it’s an unofficial border between the city and suburbs and straddles several interesting sectors of Joburg society.

166 Caroline Street, Brixton

I like the simplicity of the exhibition; it’s a collection of objects that tell the family’s story without a lot of verbal narrative. (This means you spend more time looking and less time reading, which I like.) The fact that the exhibition inhabits the actual space where these items were used makes it feel particularly poignant.

First cash register for 166 Caroline Street
This box was the corner shop’s first cash register.
Chinese music
Chinese music that plays in a little alcove at the back of the shop space.
Second room in 166 Caroline Street, Brixton
This adjacent room, due to super weird apartheid laws, served as an alternate shop space when the other side had to close at 5:00 p.m. It’s my favorite part of the exhibition. There’s something about the windows, the ceiling, and the peeling paint…It’s haunting.
Dress in 166 Caroline Street
The dress that Mrs. Hong wore at her engagement, shown in the photo to the left.

The exhibition is also a great illustration of the often-overlooked role that Chinese immigrants played in the evolution of Johannesburg. I wrote a story about this topic a few months ago for The Culture Trip, which I’m pretty proud of and happy to have an excuse to share here.

Lastly, the Caroline Street exhibition is a really fun thing to do on a summer weekend in Joburg. Art-exhibition-visiting has become one of my favorite socially distanced leisure activities — I missed it so much during the lockdown.

Corner shop room in Brixton

“Behind that Window” is open until 29 November, Wednesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. There are also a few pieces on display at Breezeblock, which is one block up from 166 Caroline Street.

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