The Cathay Pacific aircraft that nine-year-old Nicholas Zhang has built is not his first. But it is the biggest, and it has taken him the longest time. It fills the top floor of his family’s takeaway restaurant and shop on Alexander Street in Johannesburg’s Chinatown, the place where the first Chinese South Africans came in search of gam saan – ‘the Gold Mountain’.
When Nick started building it in his parents’ shop, he didn’t think about the size, or about getting it out of the shop. All he thought about was getting it finished for this year’s Chinese New Year celebrations. During the holiday, the streets of Johannesburg’s Chinatown were decorated with red lanterns, and people crowded Commissioner Street – the main road of South Africa’s oldest Chinatown – to eat street food and watch the traditional lion dance.
Nick has always loved planes. So it feels natural to ask this confident young boy – born in Johannesburg to parents from Foshan – if he has ever flown. ‘Many times! To China,’ he says. ’My mum, my dad and I go there every year.’ They fly Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong.
The model aircraft is bigger than Nick. If he lay down underneath it and stretched his arms out, they wouldn’t reach the tips of the wings of this Boeing 777.
It’s beautiful: bold green stripes decorate the sides and tailfin; its white wings spread towards either side of the room. The brushwing on the tail confirms that this is an aircraft of Hong Kong’s flag carrier.
To make the aircraft, he trialled a variety of different materials. He tried cardboard boxes – too soft – then mesh wiring. The third idea, which worked, was to use mesh, wood, putty, waterproof fabric and small poles he found on the street.
Did he finish in time to participate in Johannesburg’s Chinese New Year celebrations? Of course he did. A punctual take-off goes without saying.
Tanya Zack is an urban planner and the author of Wake up, This Is Joburg