Chinese in the English-Speaking Caribbean

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Chinese in the English-Speaking Caribbean

ETHNONYMS: Chinee Royal, "Colored" Chinese, Creole Chinese


Identification. Conventional wisdom has it that the overseas Chinese cling to their ancestral traditions and reject the forces of acculturation. Research suggests that Caribbean Chinese may be exceptions to this rule in that they have been creolized. The Creole culture forged in the Caribbean, over a period of five centuries, combines primarily elements from Europe and Africa, the cultures with the longest history in the region. Creolization, then, is the process by which peoples who are neither African nor European become enculturated in Euro-African culture.

Location. Between 1853 and 1879, 14,000 Chinese laborers were imported to the British Caribbean as part of a larger system of contract labor bound for the sugar plantations. The majority of indentured laborersalmost half a millioncame from India. There were also several thousand Portuguese from the Madeira Islands. Most of the laborers were destined for British Guiana (Guyana), taken from the Dutch in the Napoleonic Wars, and Trinidad, captured from Spain in 1797 (these two new colonies were underpopulated and underdeveloped compared to Jamaica) . The sugar planters of British Guiana and Trinidad were attempting to rival Jamaica during the nineteenth century.

Demography. Most of the Chinese laborers initially went to British Guiana; however, importation ended in 1879, and the population declined steadily, mostly from out-migration to Trinidad and Suriname. In the 1960s the Chinese comprised 0.6 percent (i.e., about 4,800) of the Guyanese population of 800,000, 0.65 percent (i.e., about 14,462) of the Jamaican population of 2,225,000, and 1 percent (i.e., about 10,000) of the Trinidadian population of 1,000,000. Although the sex ratio and the proportion of racially mixed to "pure" is unclear, the vast majority were born locally. The issue of "racial purity" is a thorny one because racial mixing is a cultural ideal in Creole society, except among the upper class, and because census figures are based on self-identification. Hence, at least some of those who identify themselves as Chinese are racially mixed. Many racially mixed Chinese also identify themselves as "mixed," a census category that, in Trinidad in 1990, comprised 207,558. The population census of 1990 in Trinidad and Tobago revealed 4,314 Chinese out of a total population of 1,125,128, males numbering 2,317 and females 1,997. The dramatic population decline is mainly the result of tremendous out-migration, mostly to North America.

Linguistic Affiliation. Chinese, as a language, is virtually extinct. Generally speaking, Chinese in the English-speaking Caribbean speak Creole English.

History and Cultural Relations

Chinese migrated to the British Caribbean in two phases. The first was part of a larger population movement from China to all of the Americas. In the mid-nineteenth century, as other Chinese journeyed to North America, one-quarter of a million Chinese (45 percent of Chinese immigrants to the Western Hemisphere) were heading for other parts of the Americas: 125,000 (48 percent) went to Cuba, 100,000 (38 percent) to Peru; but only 18,000 (8 percent) reached the former British West Indies (Jamaica, Trinidad, and British Guiana, now Guyana). The remaining 6 percent moved in small streams to the part of Colombia that became Panama in 1903, to Costa Rica, the Dutch and French West Indies, Brazil, and even to Chile.

The second phase of Chinese migration to the British Caribbean took place within a larger context of general immigration to the region after 1834, the year that the Emancipation of African slaves took effect. Sugar cultivation had been the cornerstone of the British West Indian economy since the middle of the seventeenth century. Together with the Atlantic slave trade, plantation slavery satisfied the labor requirements of this system of agricultural production. Even before 1834, however, the sugar planters clamored to import indentured laborers, arguing that the profitability of the plantation system hinged on the presence of an abundant and cheap labor force; they were outraged at the thought of losing their slaves.

The foundations of Caribbean Creole society were laid down in the days of plantation slavery. Over the course of four centuries it evolved into a three-tiered pyramidal structurea "pigmentocracy," permeated by color bias. Small in numbers, the light-skinned elite, at the top, consisted mostly of planters and government officials. In the middle was the darker-colored middle class, produced by miscegenation between European masters and slave women. Their intermediate status derived from the special privileges given them: education, occupational skills, and the right to own property at a time when the slave majority was still defined by law as property. These racial hybrids not only identified with the ruling class, but also emulated them by attempting to distance themselves from the lower class in ways other than physical, devoting their lives to the pursuit of respectability. For instance, the middle class chose to adopt religious faiths linked to European orthodoxy such as those of the Catholic, Anglican, or Methodist churches, whereas the lower class preferred more exuberant (and African-inspired) forms of worship such as those of the Shango, Spiritual Baptists, Pukkumina, and the like.

It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that other racial and cultural groups, including the Chinese, entered the picture, by which time the basic structure had long been established. The task of the newcomers was to grasp the nature of the Caribbean power structure and find their places within this hierarchical arrangement. In pursuit of upward mobility, the Chinese understood the need to comprehend and master Creole culture.


Imported as a contract labor force from China, Chinese settled in three main locations: Jamaica, Trinidad, and British Guiana, initially working on the sugar plantations. In British Guiana, however, they stayed on the plantations much longer because other occupational outlets such as retail trade and market gardening were monopolized by the Portuguese and were thus closed to Chinese. In Trinidad and Jamaica, they promptly deserted the plantations.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. There are differences in the historical development of economic activities among the Chinese in the three different locations. In British Guiana, the planter class allowed the Portuguese to develop a monopoly on retail trade, which the Chinese were not able to enter until the turn of the twentieth century. The Chinese population dwindled rapidly as migrants sought better opportunities in Trinidad, Suriname, and Jamaica. Those who remained practiced a wide range of occupations; many joined the civil service. There was also a corresponding range in wealth and subtle class divisions. In Trinidad, after abandoning the plantations, most Chinese went into the rurally dispersed retail trade, although some had become major merchants themselves by 1896, expanding into wholesale trade, direct importation, and investment in the then-budding petroleum industry. Most important, the retail trade in Trinidad was shared among the Chinese, the East Indians, and the Portuguese. Thus, although shopkeeping in general was regarded as exploitative, animosity was never directed exclusively at the Chinese.

Trade. The Chinese dominated the retail grocery trade in Jamaica beginning in the 1890s. Indeed, a Chinatown developed in Kingston and radiated into the countryside. In the Jamaican case, the preponderance of Hakka over Cantonese promoted subcultural solidarity, in contrast to the Chinese community in Trinidad, which was segmented according to region of origin and language. In fact, Hakka commercial success in Jamaica was bitterly resented (particularly by historically older groups of Chinese immigrants who were less successful in achieving upward mobility), to the extent that Hakka became the targets of violence in riots in 1918, 1938, and 1965. The 1930s in the English-speaking Caribbean was a time of tremendous political and economic turmoil: general strikes and rioting ensued from the global depression, and the region's trade-union movement was born.

Division of Labor. Observations of the Chinese community in British Guiana in 1956 revealed a cleavage between those born in China and those born in the Caribbean. The former were primarily small merchants and shopkeepers, many of whom corresponded with their families and sent remittances to them in China. Sometimes they were also active in family affairs. They saved money either to return to China themselves or to recruit kin to work in the family business. This included importing brides from China who would then work in the small shops alongside their husbands. Added to the shopkeeping work of these wives were household duties, as well as child-care responsibilities. Some of the men born in China had wives and children there, as well as in British Guiana. The men's cultural identification was definitely oriented toward China.

In contrast, those born locally cared little about China. Having been creolized, they identified with Guyanese culture and considered themselves Guyanese. They were described as having a foreigner's ignorance of China and no appreciation of Chinese history; their knowledge of the past being limited to the accounts of the lives of their personal ancestors. They were neither literate in written Chinese, nor could they speak any Chinese dialect. The women, in particular, rejected marriage opportunities to men born in China, complaining that these men did not have Guyanese friends, did not know how to dance or party, and did not know how to have a good time, furthermore, they spoke English poorly and had great difficulty communicating with locally born women who spoke only Creole English. Men born in China, in turn, complained that locally born women were too Westernized: they were not frugal, industrious, or self-sacrificing and wanted too many comforts. A similar situation prevailed in Trinidad.


The Chinese in Guyana have been described as "scarcely Chinese" in matters of culture. In the realm of kinship, for instance, although a broad range of kin ties was recognized and kin were scattered throughout the colony in separate households, there were no clans, no attempt to trace lineages or to keep genealogies, no ancestral tablets or ancestor worship, and no common burial ground. There was no Chinese newspaper, nor were there Chinese schools to teach Chinese language and culture or to provide other features of a formal Chinese education. There was no Chinatown nor a concentration of Chinese businesses. There were very few voluntary associations and only one or two recreational clubs. Given the absence of descent groups, it follows that there is now no corresponding kin terminology based on principles of descent. Chinese in the English-speaking Caribbean use English terms of reference and terms of address that reflect the kindred principle such as "aunt," "uncle," "cousin," and so forth.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Given the shortage of Chinese women in the Americas during the nineteenth century, Chinese men were willing to marry Black women, especially those who were shopkeepers in the countryside. Although many of these unions were common-law marriages, some were official. The motivation was partly to develop rapport with their Black clientele, but also to engage their trust. In the early twentieth century, some men born in China continued to arrive in the Caribbean for commercial purposes and imported China-born wives. Since the end of World War II, however, with the creolization of second, third, and fourth generations, traditional arranged marriages only take place among the few born in China and, hence, are rare. The marriage norm clearly favors a Chinese spouse (locally born, however), although marriage to Euro-Americans and Europeans is acceptable. Marriage to East Indians and Blacks is explicitly frowned upon, but the existence of many racially mixed Chinese is evidence that such unions are not infrequent. In Jamaica, the racially mixed are called "Chinee Royal."

Domestic Unit. The traditional Chinese patriarchal family is virtually nonexistent. The basic household unit is the nuclear family in which women work, have an equal voice in family affairs, and are often very influential in business matters. It is important to note, however, that nuclear-family households are strongly linked to extended kin with whom they interact frequently and exchange personal services such as child care. Among the less affluent, there is also a pooling of income and other resources.

Socialization. Intimate relationships with Creole women encouraged the creolization of Chinese men, which enhanced their acceptance by the Creole people who surrounded them. Knowing only Creole culture themselves, Creole wives were powerful agents of creolization of their children, which ensured the creolization of subsequent generations. Furthermore, Chinese immigrants were willing to learn Creole languages, which included both Creole English and Creole French, called patois, and adopted English and French surnames. For instance, there are Chinese families in Trinidad with surnames like Scott and McLean. Subsequent generations not only moved away from the Chinese language as the main channel of communication but adopted Western values and styles of dress; however, even the children of mixed-race unions developed dual identities (i.e., Chinese and Euro-African).

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. A study of the Chinese in Jamaica suggested that their economic success was made possible by the replication of Chinese social institutions. The most important of these, of course, was the rotating-credit association, which enabled many to accumulate enough capital to underwrite business ventures. The creation of the Chinese Benevolent Society served to disseminate information about rules and regulations governing commerce, later it became the hub of social life. There were also secret societies, or tongs. In response to the political unrest of the 1930s, when they were denounced for not supporting the then-budding labor movement, the Chinese formed merchant associations to protect their businesses. Other institutions included a Chinese alms house, a Chinese home for the aged, a Chinese sanatorium, a Chinese funeral home, and a Chinese cemetery. In matters of culture, they established a Chinese newspaper (the Chinese Public News); a Chinese library; a literary society promoting Chinese music and drama and featuring lectures on China; and a Chinese public school to teach their children Chinese history and language. By means of these institutions the Chinese in Jamaica cultivated their cultural (Hakka) distinctiveness and perpetuated their social isolation from Creole society.

In contrast, the Chinese in Trinidad were divided along lines of social class, expressed not only in residence patterns but in membership in district associations. The well-to-do lived in high-status, fashionable Creole neighborhoods, separated from other Chinese shopkeepers who lived above their shops in depressed neighborhoods or in the country. This upper class belonged to a literary society, the China Society, where they discussed things such as horse breeding, foreign travel, good marriages, sending their children to good universities in Britain and North America, and fears of Communism.

A handful of district associations in Trinidad were formed on the basis of region of origin in China, and their membership embraced mostly small shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and laundry owners. Often located in dilapidated buildings in run-down, commercial parts of town, these associations, in the early days, were reputed to be gambling houses, then later became centers for sports and recreation. They also housed banquet halls to celebrate festivals such as "double-ten" (i.e., 10 October), the date of the birth of the Republic in China in 1911, and ceremonies like weddings, during which Chinese food would be served, to be followed by Creole-style dancing to Creole-style music played by Creole orchestras.

Political Organization. The Chinese in the English-speaking Caribbean are governed by the national Governments of Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana. It is interesting to note that one of early governors-general of independent Guyana, Sir Arthur Chung, was part Chinese, and the first governor-general of independent Trinidad and Tobago, Sir Solomon Hochoy, was also Chinese. Patterson (1975) has observed that this could not have happened in Jamaica, where Chinese encapsulation fueled an image of them being far-removed from nation building.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Chinese, including those born in China, were quick to convert to Christianity. By 1891, a majority had become Anglican, and many had become Catholic, the two major denominations, whereas a few became Presbyterians, Methodists, and so on. Clearly, the Chinese recognized that upward mobility had to be on Creole terms, requiring not only entrance into the Western colonial education system but also nominal adherence to one of the Western religions, which were sponsors of many of the better schools. Hence, Chinese moved to urban areas to give their children access to better schools. School, then, became the main socializing agent, bringing Chinese children into contact with other races and cultures in Creole society. Indeed, a high illiteracy rate among East Indians in the Caribbean was the price paid for not converting from Hinduism and Islam to Christianity until World War II.

Food, Sports, and Recreation. Chinese food is very popular, and there are many Chinese restaurants in Caribbean cities, which illustrates Chinese success in popularizing their own cuisine in Creole society. At the same time, however, it has been creolized in the sense that it has incorporated many local ingredients, for example, Shaddo Benie, a potent spice resembling cilantro. Another distinctive characteristic of Carribean Chinese cuisine is the use of parboiled rice, which has a slightly different flavor from the rice of mainland China. The Chinese were also successful in popularizing their gambling games: Whe whe (pronounced "way-way") is a numbers game played by many in Trinidad, and in 1994 it became a nationally televised numbers game called "Play Whe" that is almost as popular as the national lottery. With regard to sports, the Chinese avidly adopted Western games such as cricket, soccer, tennis, and badminton. According to Look Lai (1993), a Chinese New Year street parade was held only in nineteenth-century British Guiana.

Arts. There are several prominent artists among the Trinidad Chinese who are well-known for their paintings; for instance, Carlysle Chan and Sibyl Atteck are virtual household names. There are also Chinese designers of Carnival costumes, as well as leaders of masquerade bands in the Trinidad Carnival, such as Stephen Lee Heung and Max Awon. The Carnival celebration is an important national event including music competitons and dancing. Trinidadian calypsonian "Crazy," whose real name is Edwin Ayoung, is Creole Chinese. Ever-popular, he has produced many calypso hits since 1978. In Jamaica, Byron Lee is a Creole Chinese bandleader whose party music has thrilled audiences for decades. He has fans not only in the Caribbean, but also throughout the Caribbean diaspora.

Medicine. Chinese herbal medicines are sold by Chinese shopkeepers in the Caribbean. These medicines, although marketed for a Chineseyet Westernized clienteleto treat common ailments such as colds, arthritis, and stomach upsets, are also used by Creole people.


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