Chinese in the English-Speaking Caribbean - Economy

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.

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