The spectacle versus the ordinary: Urban change and narratives of difference along a ‘Chinese’ street in suburban Johannesburg

As part of the Lunchtime Seminar Series hosted jointly with the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS), the African Centre for Migration & Society invites you to a seminar titled The spectacle versus the ordinary: Urban change and narratives of difference along a ‘Chinese’ street in suburban Johannesburg by Romain Dittgen (African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand) and Gerald Chungu (School of Architecture and Planning, University of the Witwatersrand).

Derrick Avenue in Cyrildene, a suburb in the eastern parts of the city, is the closest one can get to a clichéd Chinese (street life) atmosphere in Johannesburg. With its wide array of restaurants, businesses and significant numbers of Chinese residents, customers and shopkeepers, this activity node sparks imaginaries of a spatialised elsewhere while standing in sharp contrast to the surrounding, mostly residential, neighbourhood. Owing to the prevalence of visible Chinese markers and its demographics, this street has mainly been viewed as exceptional and different, contributing to divorcing Derrick Avenue from the rest of the city. Yet, at the same time and irrespective of its Chinese qualities, it also points to a number of urban dynamics that characterise Johannesburg as a whole, whether in terms of challenges or opportunities. If Derrick Avenue conveys the image of a disorderly strip with its over-crowding, informality and lacking urban management, at the same time the clustering of different functions epitomises the sort of compact, dense and mixed-use urban environment that is envisioned by the local administration at a wider metropolitan level.

In this seminar, the presenters seek to understand how these specific characteristics of a lived or constructed differentiation relate to geographies of the ordinary. Due to Chinese layers being added on top of a pre-existing urban fabric, the transformations occurring in this suburb, both in terms of the built environment and ways of living, echo changes happening elsewhere. Consequently, the presenters challenge tropes that tend to qualify this section of Cyrildene merely as an ethnic enclave or ethnoburb, and see existing land-uses and forms of (compact) co-existence as indicative of normal urban shifts in various parts of the city. By focusing on the recent public participation process linked to the Cyrildene Precinct Plan as well as on the built environment along Derrick Avenue, the presenters explore how narratives of difference and othering are articulated.



Romain Dittgen is a Human Geographer holding a PhD from the University of Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne). He is currently a Postdoctoral fellow (‘Life in the City’ Research Grant), jointly hosted by the African Centre for Migration & Society and the South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis & City Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. In his research, often comparative, he has mostly been interested in studying the effects of various forms of capital on societies in Africa, with a particular focus on the spatial dynamics of Chinese actors.

Gerald Chungu is an Architect and Urban Designer based in the school of architecture and planning at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. His work has centred around issues of sustainability, non-formal and hybrid urbanism and most recently on the Chinese influences in shaping the built environment in urban African cities. Gerald combines academic work with architectural and urban design practice and spent 12 years working in Shanghai as an Architect and Urban Designer. He studied Architecture at Copperbelt University, Urban Design at Tongji University, Shanghai and obtained a PhD in Urbanism fromUniversity of Venice – IUAV in Italy.

Date: Tuesday 6 November 2018

Time: 12.30 -13.30

Venue: ACMS Seminar Room 2163, South East Wing, Second Floor, Solomon Mahlangu House, University of the Witwatersrand East Campus