Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, January 24, 2014

Chinese in the Caribbean

Traditionally, the Chinese didn't wander far from their homeland. However by the end of the nineteenth century, waves of Chinese were leaving to find better lives in America, south-east Asia, Australia, until those lands closed their borders to stem the rising tide of immigration.  In the 1930s, the Empire of Japan seized the opportunity presented by China's civil war - between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists - to invade China; an invasion in which they were supported by Germany. Fortunate were those Chinese who had begun travelling away - as far as the Caribbean - relocating their families before the great conflict - 1937 to 1945 and the Japanese capture of Nanking -  after which China closed its own borders.

My father's father brought his sons to Trinidad in or around 1936 (the culmination of the civil war). He returned to China with the youngest of the three sons, my father, Wong Qui-on, to bring his wife and the younger children. Although it must have been an arduous and long journey - by sea from Guanzhou to Canada, overland to the east coast, and by boat to the south Caribbean - my grandfather seemed to have made regular trips back to China, and would remain a Chinaman all his life, speaking Chinese to the other resettlers of his generation but enough broken English to build his business, a number of shops in Laventille, Belmont, Woodbrook and Carenage - businesses which he left to different sons to run.
Photo of one of the Wong Chong boys, 11 years when he first travelled to Trinidad: We believe this was the eldest boy, See'On (Neville).
Some of the Wong Chong girls: Leemoy, Sy and Yolande (not sure)

Henry Wong Chong successfully transplanted his family to Trinidad, having started a second family here. His Trinidad wife raised seven children further along Belmont Valley Road from his Chinese family - also with seven children. Of the three eldest sons who were born in China, one married an Afro-Amerindian woman, producing handsome strapping sons; another elder son fathered beautiful daughters.

Chinese couple of the era when there was regular migration to the Caribbean.
It was the third son Wong Qui-on - who was Christened Cecil Lionel Wong Chong - who caught the entrepreneurial spirit of the new land, and went from being the shopkeeper in his father's shops, to making and building his own business. He built a small incubator in the back room of his Woodbrook shop. He bought property and went in to farming, rearing chickens, ducks, pigs and goats.  Later, he bought real estate and constructed apartments to rent. The code he lived by was to be independent and self-sustaining.  The story of the Wong Chong family - Wong was the family name in Guanzhou, Chong my grandfather's personal name - in Trinidad has echoes throughout the Caribbean - in Jamaica, in Guyana - wherever free Chinese migrants settled.

Chinese in Trinidad observed China's National Day, October 1

The first migrants would set up support systems for their families and friends who would come later. In some cities, these gave rise to Chinatowns. In Trinidad, Charlotte Street featured "friendly societies" which were specifically rooming houses where the new immigrants could live.

Kerry Young's first novel, Pao, (published Bloomsbury, 2011) tells the story of Yang Pao (his name was anglicised to Philip Young) who came to Jamaica from China in 1938, with his mother and his brother. They arrived on the island under the patronage of Zhang, friend of their dead father. Pao, 14 years when he arrived, quickly settled in to the life of the island's Chinatown. His brother did not adjust so well, and he travelled on to the USA.

Chinese groups were among mas-players in the late 40s and early 50s

Cecil's daughters: Gail, Helen and Margaret (in mother's arms)
Descendants of the Chinese who came to settle in Trinidad around the same time, will find many similarities with Young's Pao who took on the role of a benevolent "godfather" not only to the Chinese, but to those he befriended in his Jamaican homeland. Pao is written with humour and insight into the characters of these entrepreneurs who were unfettered by the constraints of religion, race or Western traditions. The code that he lived by came from Sun Tzu's "Art of War" which he interpreted to suit particular situations.

Read Pao and you'll discover many similarities across the Chinese immigrants of that generation who fled China at the time of her civil war and invasion by Japan.

Cecil Wong Chong as a businessman

And in America, Amy Tan reflects on her life as a Chinese girl raised in the west. She has reconnected with her sisters in Shanghai:

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