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 structure—a "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.