Chinese festivals bring diverse students together at the Pretoria Chinese School

Pretoria Chinese School students put on drum performances and Chinese dances to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

By Xiaozhang (Shaw) Wan
Medill Reports

The traditional Chinese drum team joins together students of diverse origins and is part of the celebration for Chinese festivals at the Pretoria Chinese School in South Africa.

As drumbeats rang in the Year of the Dog in February, the school came alive with a bang. Singing and dancing, students and staff dressed in colorful clothes to welcome the New Year.

Celebrating the Chinese New Year has been a tradition since the school was founded in 1934, when Chinese weren’t permitted into the regular schools in South Africa.

Students from diverse backgrounds celebrate the Chinese New Year together. (Xiaozhang (Shaw) Wan/MEDILL)

“As you see later on, most of the students taking part are not Chinese,” said John Gelling, principal of the Pretoria Chinese School.

Only 11 percent of the students in the school are Chinese while  51 percent are African and 27 percent are white, according to Gelling.

“Everybody is taking part because it’s been part of their life at the school since they joined,” he added.

The students celebrate other Chinese festivals during the year, including Chinese New Year, the Lantern Festival and the Dragon Boat festival.

Apart from performances, students helped create all the New Year decorations, such as the banner, paintings and paper cuttings.

“In the recent one or two weeks in the cultural classes, we provided students with an idea for the New Year decoration and leave the creative work to them,” said Jennifer Neethling, one of the five Chinese teachers of Pretoria Chinese School.

Various cultural classes and programs are provided for students to immerse themselves in Chinese culture.

The drum group practices every morning and is the place for children interested in Chinese instruments. The school also has a Chinese Culture Club where kids learn Chinese dances.

Lebone Simelane, 17, a 12th grade South African student, has studied Chinese for three years and has been to China for the Chinese Bridge competition. She said she believes her new cultural connections are helping her in “the most amazing ways.”

“I think it should be implemented a lot more in South Africa so that people may experience what I am experience and be able to say “I’ve been on the Great Wall of China,” she said.

“It was the best experience of my life. I will never forget it,” she added.

Mandarin, the official Chinese language, has always been a mandatory course in the school since its establishment, Gelling said.

“It’s one of the standard requirements that the board and the Chinese community set for the school,” said Gelling,

“Parents choose to send their kids here so that they learn Mandarin,” with improving links between South Africa and China, Gelling said. “They can see where the economic future is going and the improvement in those talks between South Africa and China.”

Simelane wants to be the president of South Africa in the future and believes Chinese culture will support her goal.

“I love politics so much and I think Chinese is helping me with this. I think it will help me also reach my dream of being a politician,” she said.

Photo at top: Pretoria Chinese School students showcase drum performances and Chinese dances to celebrate the Chinese New Year. (Xiaozhang (Shaw) Wan/MEDILL)