The Caribbean is no stranger to Chinese people. There are vast amounts of Chinese people all over the region. Caribbean countries, such as, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, Guyana and Suriname all have significant numbers Chinese residents with smaller Chinese communities in countries such as Barbados, Belize, Curacao and Aruba.
The Chinese were first brought to the Caribbean in in the mid-19th century. Slavery was abolished in the British Caribbean on 1st August 1834. This ushered in first wave of Chinese immigrants as indentured labourers to replace pre-enslaved African labourers on sugar plantations. Most of the immigrants were from China’s southern provinces, Fujian and Guangdong. Like Indians that came to the Caribbean from Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar provinces, the Chinese were from poor families on the verge of starvation.
The first wave of Chinese immigration brought Chinese labourers predominantly to Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Cuba. Approximately 18,000 Chinese entered the Caribbean during this period. Chinese indentured immigrants were given contracts for three, and later five-year periods, with no repatriation to China . By contrast, Indian indentured labourers had a choice of passage back to India after their 10-year indentureship or 5 acres (2.5 hectares of land). Naturally, most decided to stay, including my great grandparents.
Although the Chinese were brought to the Caribbean in an effort to save the sugar plantations, this did not go as planned. After their indentureship, the Chinese took whatever jobs were available to them. 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 .
Many Chinese indentured labourers also moved to other colonies such as Guyana, Suriname, after serving their time and many others to their prized destination, mainly Canada.
When the Chinese arrived in the mid-19th century, both the Indians and the Africans were already present in the Caribbean. The Chinese were clearly outnumbered. According to my history professor Dr. Brinsley Samaroo, between 1838 to 1917 half a million Indians came and settled across the Caribbean: 259,000 to Guyana, 147,000 to Trinidad, 38,000 to Jamaica and smaller amounts distributed across the rest of the Caribbean.
Although thousands of Chinese came, their numbers were minute compared to the numbers of Indians and Africans. Chinese culture, language, and food, were vastly different from the prevailing cultures of existing Caribbean settlers.
However, over time, and because of their hard work and commitment to their culture, the Chinese began to exert influence in the Caribbean.
As the number of Chinese increased over the years, Chinese cuisine became popular in the Caribbean. The Chinese established restaurants and fast-food outlets, selling Chinese dishes to the people of the Caribbean. Dishes like Chow Mein, Fried Rice and Chinese Style Fried Chicken became popular buys for islanders. Now, Chinese cuisine in the Caribbean has added a Caribbean flair and flavour that cannot be found elsewhere.
Today, in the Caribbean, Chinese restaurants and groceries are available everywhere.
Their business acumen combined with their ability to successfully climb the societal ranks after indentureship, paved the way for them to flourish. Chinese immigrants soon began opening factories, restaurants, parlours, dry cleaners, tailor shops, groceries, own land and much more.
The Chinese in Trinidad and Jamaica increasingly moved up the ranks and were able to set up their own shops and small businesses. 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 .
With the success of the Chinese in the colonies, at the beginning of the 20th century, the second wave of Chinese immigrants arrived. The second wave of Chinese immigrants were mostly Chinese men, like my grandfather, in search of a better life.
The Chinese came and set up shops, groceries, ice cream parlours, and bakeries. It was easy to say that the Chinese were thriving in the British West Indies at this time. By the 1930s, in both Jamaica and Trinidad, the Chinese were owners of large factories and restaurants.
The Chinese continued to succeed and make lasting impressions on the Caribbean society. There are many Chinese-owned businesses and restaurants in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Guyana. There is even a China Town in Port-of-Spain Trinidad.
The Chinese presence in Trinidad has also influenced the country’s gambling culture. The National Lotteries Control Board (NLCB) game known as Play Whe, was introduced in Trinidad and Tobago by Chinese immigrants in the mid-nineteenth (19th) century . The Chinese called the game “Chinapoo.” It was a numbers game played by people who were influenced by intuition, superstition, dreams and caprice. The “Chinapoo” or “China-man jumbie” or “Whe Whe” was the basis of the original Play Whe marks.
Play Whe was developed from the Chinese ancient belief system that uses numerology, astrology, and the associations of ideas with numbers, events or even folklore to interpret and to anticipate the “grand plan”. It has been adapted to the culture of Trinidad and Tobago, as it features words from local dialect ‘corbeau’, ‘morocoy’ and ‘jammet’.
Unlike the Africans and Indians that were brought to the Caribbean, when the Chinese came, predominantly Chinese men made the journey. Chinese labourers mostly came to the Caribbean without women. Chinese women were a great minority in contrast to the thousands of Chinese men that came to the Caribbean. This led to the creolization of the Chinese, as many Chinese men started families with African and Indian women in the Caribbean. Many Chinese men also had two families, a Chinese wife and children that they left back in China and a new “creole family”.
My own grandfather, Matthew Poon, came from the Guangdong province in China at a mature age of 40. He already had a family in China. He came to Trinidad and Tobago and had many children with my Grandmother, Lucy De Souza, a young, beautiful African/European ‘creole’ girl from St. Lucia.
Five Generations of Chinese in the Caribbean
It is interesting to note that all of these female descendants of Matthew Poon are NOT pure Chinese, neither are they MALE. If born in China, we may have been killed as fetuses under the country’s one-child policy, where males (Little Emperors) are preferred. In addition, we do not look that much different from the Uyghurs in China, so we may have been put into ‘concentration’ camps.
Life is so much better in the Caribbean! And it is possible, despite our tumultuous past, to celebrate amazing and dedicated family life.
The Chinese, like most other pure races in the world, be they Indian, Aryan or Jew, mostly believe that they are ‘god’s gift to humanity’. Purity comes with superiority. In this regard, the Chinese are not different. So, any deviation from the pure breed is a reason to feel inferior or superior as the case may be. The mixed breeds have always been looked down upon, as they/we are everywhere.
A Chinese Man in the Caribbean who was dis-owned by his family because of his African wife (pictured with child).
It is important for the Chinese as well as the Indians, Africans and Europeans in the Caribbean to understand how lucky we have been, and to approach our differences and our diversity as gifts to be treasured; to accept this diversity with grace and dignity, rather than with arrogance and superiority.
But, today, for a person like myself to embody diversity (to be a product of most of the main races – African, Indian, Chinese and European) is indeed a gift. And it is a hard-won gift that needs to be treasured. It is a gift that comes at great costs – the inhumane system of slavery, indentureship, murder, rape, suicide, personal, physical and psychological abuse and more. Let us not take these hard-won values like freedom, democracy and diversity for granted. They have been hard-won and still worth fighting for.
The Chinese presence is still seen throughout the Caribbean and many Caribbean people are descendants of the Chinese.
Here is a list of influential people of Chinese descent from all across the region.
• Sir Solomon Hochoy – First Governor General of T&T
• George Maxwell Richards – President of T&T 2003-2013
• Arthur Chung – First President of Guyana 1970-1980
• Lee Mark Chang – President of Senate Belize
• Raymond Choo Kong – T&T theatre actor and director
• Vincent Randy Chin – Founder of VP records (Jamaican)
• Michael Lee-Chin – Jamaican philanthropist
• Hendrick Rudolf “Henk” Chin A Sen – President of Suriname 1980-1982
• Tessanne Chin – Winner of The Voice, USA, 2013 (Jamaican)
• Anya Ayoung Chee – Winner of Project Runway, USA, 2011 (Trinidadian)
Let’s face it. China is fast advancing as an important world superpower today. Their growth and influence on trade and global economic development is phenomenal. China has been deepening its relationship with the Caribbean as with many other countries and regions long-forgotten by Western states. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is almost a reincarnation of its Silk Trade Route. These developments are part of a long-term geopolitical strategy that is accompanying its rise to world superpower status. China is definitely the new colonial power on the block. China is very likely to lead the Sixth Wave.
With so many Chinese-funded projects in the Caribbean region, one wonders whether this is not yet another wave of Chinese influence in the Caribbean. This time, not only people are coming (construction workers come to work and the stay to do well, disappearing in the islands, only to open food shops at every corner and some are even opting for Caribbean passports), but capital and other geo-political influences are prevalent as well.
It will do well for the Caribbean to capitalise on its historical Chinese presence, to learn the history, culture, and language of the Chinese. This will allow the Caribbean to engage and trade on better terms with China.
 (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.
 Look Lai, Walton. (1998). The Chinese in the West Indies 1806-1995. A Documentary History. Kingston: The Press University of the West Indies.
 The History of the NLCB Play Whe.
Dr. Auliana Poon
Dr. Auliana Poon is the founder and Managing Director of Leve Global and Exceptional Caribbean.
Auliana loves the Caribbean and believes in its people. Her personal mission is to change the world; to transform our societies. And this is precisely why she has spearheaded Exceptional Caribbean – a continuing mission to elevate tourism, trade and lives.