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The Chinese in the Caribbean during the colonial era

  • Fiona Rajkumar History Department University of the Southern Caribbean

Travailleurs chinois de Guadeloupe

The study of ethnic minority groups in the Caribbean region is an area that is ripe for exploration. This paper will outline the rationale behind Chinese immigration, the indentureship scheme itself and then attempt to succinctly explore select areas of the daily lives of the Chinese in the Caribbean.

There were two main waves of Chinese migration to the Caribbean region. The first wave of Chinese consisted of indentured labourers who were brought to the Caribbean predominantly Trinidad, British Guiana and Cuba, to work on sugar plantations during the post-Emancipation period. The second wave was comprised of free voluntary migrants, consisting of either small groups (usually relatives) to British Guiana, Jamaica and Trinidad from the 1890’s to the 1940’s. In fact the most modern Caribbean Chinese are descended from this second group. (Look Lai, Origins of the Caribbean Chinese 26)

From as early as 1802 Captain William Layman had suggested that the colony of Trinidad would benefit greatly from free Chinese labour. It was felt that free Chinese labour would be a suitable substitute for African slave labour and that these “free civilized men” would set the African slaves an example in agricultural industry that would ultimately help to avert rebellion and forestall the establishment of a “black empire” as in Haiti. (Higman 22, and Look Lai, The Chinese 22). The first experiment with Chinese labour in the Caribbean was therefore in 1806 with approximately 192 Chinese immigrants arriving in Trinidad on the Fortitude. (Look Lai, The Chinese, 22) Needless to say this experiment was not successful as mortality rates and abandonment of the plantation was high. Organized Chinese immigration as a possible solution to the post-Emancipation West Indian plantation problems lasted from the 1850’s to the 1866. Approximately 18,000 Chinese entered the Caribbean during this period. The Chinese indentured immigrants were given contracts for three and then five year periods with no repatriation to China. Needless to say Chinese indentured immigration did not “save” the sugar industry in the colonies to which they immigrated. In fact many Chinese contract labourers quickly abandoned the plantation, many even before their contract ended by redeeming or purchasing the remaining years. This was particularly evident in Trinidad. 

The occupational trajectory of the Chinese in the Caribbean after their identureship period was largely determined by what was available to them in the respective colonies. In Trinidad they became handicraftsmen, barbers, tailors, bakers, carpenters, goldsmiths and woodcutters. Small peasant farming and market gardening were also very popular and they cultivated crops which they supplied to the local markets. (Chinapoo12). From the 1870’s onwards the Chinese in Trinidad increasingly moved into the setting up of shops and small businesses in both rural and urban areas. In the Jamaican context the route of the Chinese to economic autonomy was very similar to their Trinidadian counterparts. Many jostled with and overtook their African competitors for control of the emerging retail trade. Thus by the end of the 19th century in these two colonies the Chinese had carved a niche for themselves as a “middlemen minority” group in the area of shopkeeping and small businesses. (Look Lai, The Chinese 15) 

In British Guiana the economic situation of the Chinese was different from the Trinidad and Jamaican context. The Portuguese indentured immigrants who had gone to British Guiana in large numbers came to dominate the shopkeeping trade, which made it difficult for the Chinese to establish a monopoly in a similar fashion to their counterparts in Trinidad and Jamaica. In British Guiana many Chinese remained tied to the large plantations for their livelihood even after their contracts were up, while reindenture was a common practice. (Look Lai, The Chinese, 15) Chinese from British Guiana also either returned to China or migrated to colonies such as Trinidad, while others sought work in the timber industry or aspired to be civil servants in British Guiana. (Shaw 161)

Another interesting facet of the lives of the Chinese indentured immigrants to the Caribbean was the high incidents of intermarriage with other ethnic groups. These indentured immigrants were predominantly male and the primary documents which illuminate the cohabitation practises of the Chinese often revealed that in light of the paucity of Chinese females many chose to marry and co-habit predominantly with local black and coloured women. These inter-racial unions also included Portuguese, Indian and in the case of Trinidad, Venezuelan Mestizo immigrants, which led to the emergence of a mixed Chinese group that was more “creole” or West Indian in culture than Chinese. (Look Lai, The Chinese 16) 

1910 to the 1940’s, constituted the main phase in the second wave of Chinese immigrants to come to the Caribbean. These Chinese immigrants were predominantly males who were searching for a better life for themselves and established small businesses in both urban and rural areas chiefly in the colonies of Trinidad and Jamaica. The research of Jacqueline Levy on the Chinese in Jamaica analyses the monopoly established by the Chinese in the grocery retail trade during the first decades of the 20th century. (Levy 35) In Trinidad and Jamaica these emerging Chinese entrepreneurs constituted the first link in what can be considered “chain migrations.” They would then encourage their relatives and friends from China to migrate to the Caribbean where they provided labour for the establishments of their countrymen. 

The 20th century Chinese immigrants did not intermarry with other ethnic groups to the extent of the indentured immigrants. A number of interviews with older Chinese revealed that it was much more common that when a young man came of age a “mail order” bride was chosen for him from China and brought to the Caribbean. In this way the Chinese sought to reconstruct the Chinese family in the Caribbean context predicated on the ideologies of filial piety that were so central to Chinese culture. It is important to note however that many of these single Chinese males in the Caribbean during the first half of the 20th century had children with African women before they married their Chinese wives. Again personal interviews conducted in 2011among eighteen Chinese families revealed that having dual families, one Chinese and one “creole”, was very common in the Jamaican context. 

One final point of interest was the establishment of Chinese associations especially in the context of Trinidad and Jamaica. At the beginning of the 20th century sources revealed that in both colonies Chinese associations were established predominantly to assist with the economic established of the Chinese immigrants. Immigrants were often housed, given small sums of money or introduced to established Chinese businessmen via the associations. In Trinidad these associations were numerous and reflected the many districts from which the Chinese migrated while in the case of the Jamaican Chinese who were predominantly Hakka, the Chinese Benevolent Society (now the Chinese Benevolent Association) was the main association.

On the eve of independence in the British West Indies many changes had taken place within the Chinese community. Second and third generation children had often moved away from the small shops of their parents and armed with secondary and tertiary education either became the owners of larger establishments or entered the professions. Many of the Chinese associations declined in importance as they were no longer relevant to Caribbean born Chinese. Finally, traditional Chinese language and to a large extent culture, were being challenged as the younger generation of Chinese became upwardly mobile and shed these aspects of their ethnic identity as they entered the ranks of the upper middle class and the business elite across the Caribbean.

Catégorie : Daily lives of caribbean people under colonialism

Pour citer l'article : Rajkumar, F. (2013). "The Chinese in the Caribbean during the colonial era" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/waves-of-colonization-and-control-in-the-caribbean/daily-lives-of-caribbean-people-under-colonialism/the-chinese-in-the-caribbean-during-the-colonial-era.html.


Chinapoo, Carlton. (1988) Chinese Immigration into Trinidad 1900-1950. M.A. Thesis, University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. Higman, B. W. (1972). The Chinese in Trinidad. Caribbean Studies, 2:3, 21-44.

Levy, Jacqueline. (1986) The Economic Role of the Chinese in Jamaica, The Grocery Retail Trade. Jamaican Historical Review, 5: 31-49.

Look Lai, Walton. (1998). The Chinese in the West Indies 1806-1995. A Documentary History. Kingston: The Press University of the West Indies.

Look Lai, Walton. (2000). Origins of the Caribbean Chinese Community. Journal of Caribbean Studies, 14.1, 25-38.