​The trouble with ‘fong kong’

Meaning and context

Fong kong is a pejorative slang term that, as used in South Africa, means fake, imitation, counterfeit, rip-off or replica. It refers especially to cheap poor-quality imported merchandise, often with fake designer labels, such as clothes, shoes, sunglasses and jewellery. Additionally, it may refer to products such as banknotes, pharmaceuticals, DVDs, and appliances – or any other commodity – and is used in extended, figurative senses too. Such items are often sold on pavement markets of urban centres by immigrants to South Africa. The term is probably adapted from “Hong Kong,” the presumed source of these goods (many of them are of Chinese origin). In English it seems to have started life as an adjective – and much of its current use is adjectival – though more recently it has also transformed into a noun (see the quotes at the end of this article).

The phrase appears to be in use across southern Africa, perhaps more so in countries where cheap Chinese goods are plentiful. In Zimbabwe a similar phrase, “zhing zhong,” is likewise employed (Hess & Aidoo 2015: 72), and it is possible that “fong kong” originated in Botswana or Zimbabwe1.

“Fong kong” becomes more problematic than merely pejorative when it is used in a derogatory manner to refer to people – such as the African immigrants who may be hawking fong kong goods from the pavements (or Chinese immigrants who sell cheap Chinese-manufactured plastic items in “China shops” across South Africa)2. The implication is that they too – and other immigrants like them, whether legal or illegal – are “not genuine” (Mda 2002: 284).

History

“Fong kong” was first popularised in South Africa in 1998 in the eponymous kwaito hit song by the Hunger Boyz3:


“Chinese came to South Africa to rip us off, selling their fakes to us”, say the Zulu and English lyrics, sung by the Hunger Boyz Senyaka and Kamazu. The song became so popular that goods sold by Chinese hawkers in Johannesburg soon came to be known in street lingo as Fong Kong, the song’s name. (Source)
4

There is a history of some South African musicians using pop music to disparage foreigners in the country. In 2002, the date of publication of the article from which the above quotation is taken, entertainer Mbongeni Ngema was facing sanction for the lyrics of his song “AmaNdiya” which was said to promote negative attitudes towards South Africans of Indian heritage (the title of Ngema’s song refers to them); in addition, the band Boomshaka released a track “Makwerekwere” (see note 2 below) that “attacked foreigners” (Source).

Given these circumstances, that the next turn in the development of “fong kong” as a popular phrase was antithetical is apposite: in 2000 it was used as the title of a workshopped play presented by the Market Theatre Laboratory. Fong Kong the play dealt with xenophobia, addressing


the plight of African refugees and immigrants, often collectively known by derogatory names like the “Makwerekwere” or the “Girigambas”5, ostracised, victimised and treated with suspicion, condescension and hostility by native South Africans. … By extension “Fong Kong” means anything that is not genuine or original, like the foreigners (specifically Africans) living in South Africa. (Van Heerden 2008: 111)

Lexicographical presence

The earliest lexicographical entry for “fong kong” I have found thus far is in – of all places – a business handbook published in the USA:


Fong Kong
(S. Africa) General Management, a product with a fake designer label, especially sports shoes (slang) (n.a. 2002: 1247)

Its first appearance in South Africa appears to be in Lebo Motshegoa’s Township Talk:


Fong kong
n. adj. anything fake or not legit. (2005: n.p.)

It also occurs in the second edition of the Oxford South African Concise Dictionary (DSAE: 2010); and in Urban Dictionary, where there are two entries, first (2008):


“Fong kong” refers to something that is very obviously fake, plastic, or non-believable. It can also be used to refer to something or someone that tries desperately hard to be cool, but falls flat. …


Desperado: “Hey Jerry, check out the boobs on that chick!”
Jerry: “Ai, that’s fong kong if I ever saw it, boet!”

On the same page there’s also (2007):


For those who think they are fong kong ninja stars on the dance floor, busting fong kong moves with the ladies!


Check shorty’s dancing is fong kong.
6

Notice how in these cases the term has leapt right away from its original points of reference, in both the definitions and the examples, into the realm of the figurative. Moreover, these entries, with their incipient sexism, evidence fong kong’s leanings along the pejorative-derogatory continuum.

On the other hand, there’s not yet an entry for “fong kong” in Oxford Dictionaries: a search for the phrase there automatically results in a redirect to a result for – King Kong! Their bad.

Conclusion

While the earliest presence of the slang phrase “fong kong” in southern Africa is as yet uncertain, by the turn of the century it is being written and published in English in South Africa. The term is usually used pejoratively to refer to fake merchandise, and employed as such may be considered humorous; however, when it is used to refer to people it becomes derogatory and offensive. 

In the course of this decade it has jumped grammatical categories, to occur not as only an adjective but also as a noun (see “Fong Kongs seized in raids” among the citations below); and as it has been further popularised, the kinds of objects it refers to have been extended, so now we find figurative instances such as (in addition to the Urban Dictionary examples) “fong kong sangomas,” and “fong kong freedoms.”


Quotations

As an adjective:


2000
I would like to say to the “Fong Kong King of Kwaito” the way you’ve treated lyaya shows you don’t have respect for women. (Drum: 7)7


2002
: The thing is everything today is about a trick of the eye … from Fong Kong designer labels to the very thoughts we think. (Thamm: 92)8


2006
(cartoon) Don’t forget the Chinese and their fong kong rubbish. (Britten: 23)


2007
 Humorous vigilance around ‘fong-kong’ and the ‘original’ is also emerging to differentiate between various classes of youth in townships. (Motsemme: 392)


2008
I pause at a stall selling plastic belts and cellphone covers and Fong Kong sunglasses. (Beukes: 8)


2008
Increasingly, … young people who are not middle class are buying fong kong: fake products available especially in the inner city which are cheaper. (Nuttal: 168)


2009
(2010) (interview) Can I ask something from a layman’s point of view? Why are generics cheaper than originals? … I thought they (generics) are fong kong. (Patel: 67)


2011
The traders – predominately black, mostly selling Fong-Kong gear – are huddled at the stalls they are selling from. (8 Jul. Source)


2011
(blog) The 20-year-old man bought a loaf of bread at the local shop and paid for it with a R100 note. But the note was fong kong and he was beaten up by angry residents! (7 Apr. Source)


2012
The widely used pejorative “Fong Kong” to describe Chinese goods was increasingly used across Southern African countries, implying they were substandard replicas. (26 Apr. Source)


2013
All manner of relationship experts, fong-kong sangomas or church singles’ conferences have sprung up with the same alluring message: “There is a formula to help you ‘get chose’, come and buy it from us.” (17 Mar. Source)


2013
It’s a little-known fact that prior to being a comedian, Kurt made a living printing fong kong Ts. (28 Jun. Source)


2014
A doctor … called The Times to complain about “poor quality sutures”. “The theatre staff call them ‘fong kong’ products,” he said. He claimed they were not approved by the SA Bureau of Standards. (17 Apr. Source)

As a noun:


2010
While buying a Fong Kong from a street vendors here in SA does … create a job, it also takes one away somewhere else down the line. (27 May. Source)


2010
(headline) Fong Kongs seized in raids on music store (27 Jul. Source)


More examples of figurative use
:


2005
(2008) i crack skulls open / to release brain waves of slaves / in days of fongkong freedoms / chains are more insane (oa Mogogodi in Coplan: 410)


2009
(headline) Fong Kong Furore over DA handbag (6 Dec. Source)


2012
(headline) Sophie’s hubby a fong kong (25 Mar. Source)


 
Notes

1. One of the earliest references to “fong kong” I have come across cites The Botswana Guardian newspaper of 30 March 2001: “Chinese traders flooding markets with ‘di-fong kong‘” (“di-” is a Setswana plural prefix). (Nyamnjoh 2002: 769)
2. In South Africa, a “China shop” is not a shop that sells porcelain goods. It is a shop owned and/or run by Chinese people, usually immigrants, that sells if not fong kong items then cheap plastic and other such imported items. African immigrants in South Africa are sometimes referred to by the derogatory slang word “kwerekwere” (another lexical item with possible Botswana origins) – though these are stories for another post. There may be popular antagonism to both sets of immigrants (though, so far in South Africa, only the latter have met with xenophobic violence).
3. Mojapelo 2008: 45 and Mail & Guardian 2010. Both these sources (and the former may be the basis of the latter) assert that the Hunger Boyz kwaito album was also entitled Fong Kong. However, kwaito.com (n.d.), which links to this Mail & Guardian article, claims that the song featured on the Hunger Boyz 1999 album It’s About Time.
4. No guarantees are made as to the current online status of some of the older quotes presented here.
5. This usually appears as “grigamba” rather than “girigamba”.
6. Here and in the quotations section below minor changes have been made to punctuation.
7. This is an incomplete reference – it was taken from a Google Books result which only showed a snippet view, and it lacks an accurate date; as such would not be acceptable in a “proper” lexicographical work. However, in this case, as it is the earliest South African reference I have found so far, I’m going to let that slide and trust that Google know what they’re doing when they say they have found an instance of “fong kong” on page 7 of one of the issues of Drum magazine in 2000.
8. Considering this is taken from a collection of articles that previously appeared in the magazine Fair Lady, an antedating of the quote is no doubt possible.


 
References

Beukes, L. (2008) Moxyland. Auckland Park: Jacana

Britten, S. (2006) The art of the South African insult. Johannesburg: 30° South

Dictionary Unit for South African English (DSAE) (2010) Oxford South African Concise Dictionary. 2nd ed. Cape Town: Oxford University Press

Hess, S. & Richard Aidoo (2015) Charting the Roots of Anti-Chinese Populism in Africa. Heidelberg, Switzerland: Springer

Mda, Z. (2002) “South African theatre in an era of reconciliation” in Frances Harding (ed.) The Performance Arts in Africa: A Reader. London & New York: Routledge

Mojapelo, M. (2008) Beyond memory: Recording the history, moments and moments of South African music. (from the diary of Max Mojapelo) Edited by Sello Galane). Somerset West: African Minds

Motsemme, N. (2007) “’Loving in a time of hopelessness’: on township women’s subjectivities in a time of HIV/AIDS” in Nomboniso Gasa (ed.) Women in south African history. Cape Town: HSRC Press

Motshegoa, L. (2005) Township Talk: the language, the culture, the people. Cape Town: Double Storey Books

n.a. (2002) Business: the ultimate resource. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing

Nuttal, S. (2008) “Youth cultures of consumption in Johannesburg” in Nadine Dolby & Fazal Rizvi (eds) Youth moves: identities and education in global perspective. New York: Routledge

Nyamnjoh, F. B. (2002) “Local attitudes towards citizenship and foreigners in Botswana: an appraisal of recent press stories’” in Journal of Southern African Studies 28(4)

oa Mogogodi, K. (2005) “Outspoken,” quoted in Coplan, D. B. (2008) In township tonight: South Africa’s Black City Music and Theatre. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Patel, A. et al (2009) “’This body does not want free medicines’: South African consumer perceptions of drug quality” in Health Policy and Planning 25

Thamm, M. (2002) Mental floss: a collection of ‘unfair comment’ from Fairlady. Claremont: Spearhead.

Van Heerden, J. (2008) “Theatre in a new democracy: some major trends in South African theatre from 1994 to 2003”. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Stellenbosch


Image source: pixabay.com


© GQOM

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