Chinese Mauritians …Smiling Buddhas?

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Mauritius was first named Ilha do Cisne, then Mauritius, then Ile de France, then again Mauritius. The Portuguese never settled the island, so you can blame the Dutch (or their rats and dogs) for the fate of the dodo. But the Dutch, after two stints plagued by endless troubles, left of their own accord, and the French and then British swooped in from there. Attractive thanks to her convenient position on the Indies trade route, Mauritius became a rest and refueling stop for ships the world over.

Sugar cane became one of the island’s defining features by the 19th century and explains the ethnic hodgepodge that characterizes the island today. Under the British, almost half a million indentured servants were brought to work on the plantations after the abolition of slavery. They were mostly Indian, but they also came from Mozambique, Madagascar, China, and off captured ships.

Most of the Chinese who sailed to Mauritius were voluntary migrants, to the extent that they were driven from their homeland not by white colonialists but by local economic or political hardship. Few of these first migrants, or those who came during the Japanese invasion of China, intended to stay. But for one reason or another — poverty and famine in their native counties, or later, the rise of Communism in China,  — many ended up on the island for good, little more than refugees and with only the clothes on their back. They quickly set up chains of retail shops, securing all the best spots in the capital of Port Louis by 1843. In 1860, when emigration from China was legalized, the number of Chinese arrivals in Mauritius spiked — at 379 that year — and continued to rise: between 1895 and 1900, over 7,000 Chinese came into the country, mostly men.

By 1860, the Chinese dominated the retail market and became “the most popular personality of the village,” writes Huguette Ly-Tio-Fane-Dineo in her French doctoral thesis, Chinese Diaspora in the Western Indian Ocean, published in 1985. Since the incomes of indentured laborers depended on the harvest and planting cycles, the Chinese shopkeepers introduced a system based on mutual trust that allowed laborers to purchase on credit. Governor Pope Hennessy, who took charge from 1883 to 1889, even stated, “The community that contributes the most to the revenue of the country, proportionally to their numbers, is the Chinese community.”

The Chinese gradually left the exhausting work of retail trade and spread to other professions. In 1901, over 80 percent of the population was traders; by the 1980s, the percentage had dropped below 20. The younger generations of Chinese-Mauritians worked their way up into banking, education, business, and politics, while their parents and grandparents continued to look after a shrinking number of retail shops. These days, Chinatown is growing rundown, and most of its shopkeepers are well beyond retirement age. With new malls and supermarkets offering the same wares, more and more of the shops are closing down or being sold. Even if they weren’t, there are no children around to take over the business — they are all leaving.

Extinction is the end product of a simple population equation: Number dying > Number being born. But when it comes to an adaptable niche population, like the Sino-Mauritians, one must append a second equation: Number leaving > Number staying.

First off, Chinese parents are choosing to have fewer children. While the families of Ping’s parents’ generation generally had eight to 10 offspring, Ping and his coevals have between one and three. Secondly, his children and their generation are nearly all going abroad. The basic reasons are threefold: One: the island’s small size and limited economy offer little to no opportunity for students interested in pursuing study of more advanced academic and professional fields. Two: in a political system and economy dominated by the Indo-Mauritian community, Indo-Mauritians are often favored for coveted positions, limiting the window for career advancement for members of other ethnic groups. Three: the inhabitants of any remote and bite-size principality are prey to island syndrome: The world is elsewhere. Indo-Mauritians, Afro-Mauritians, and Euro-Mauritians alike are drawn to more advantageous opportunities (or simply new scenery) abroad.

 

During a visit in 1836 to Mauritius on the Beagle, Charles Darwin remarked how “the various races of men walking in the streets afford the most interesting spectacle.”

Darwin’s words could be repeated verbatim today. On the streets of Mauritius you can see women in black burqas, Muslim worshipers in thobes, ladies in sparkly pink saris, youngsters in checkered Catholic school uniforms, Chinese tourists in Hello Kitty T-shirts, professionals of all skin tones in sleek business attire, and then folks like me, looking bland in a crewneck and jeans. It has that special feel of New York City — that you’re in a microcosm of the world — but here, most people are brown, not white, and here, many people still wear their culture on their sleeve, rather than beneath their business suits or hipster exteriors.

A few streets beyond the crowded Bazar Central, or central market in Kreol, you’ll spot the white towers and bright turquoise trim of Jummah Mosque. Walk a few meters beyond the mosque and you’ll find yourself under the red and gold arched gateway to CHINA TOWN.  Chinese food stores sell Ginseng Royal Jelly and buckets of bamboo shoots; medicine shops hand out herbal pain relief remedies to locals of all creed and color; restaurants dish out “mine frite” (fried noodles) and dim sum; and trinket shops display sitting Buddhas and those charms you hang on rearview mirrors. Chinese shops in the area, and across Port Louis, also sell hardware, clothing, glassware, snacks, and wholesale items, their signs easy to spot with the Chinese characters above English or French lettering.

If you flip through the Chinese phonebook of Mauritius (or the regular phonebook — the whole country fits in just one), you’ll find over four pages of Li’s, over three pages of Chan’s, 12 Smiths, and zero Holmeses. “Li” and “Chan” are clan names, signifying families that come from the same progenitor, village, or even province. Thanks to this clan-centric system, Chinese arrivals just off the boats (to the surprise of the Brits) were immediately taken in by their fellow clan members, given food and shelter, and guided into the retail business. The clan-based community centers both provided a free roof for the most recent arrivals, and for the traders coming into the city from other parts of the island as they restocked their goods.

These community centers still exist today, but they function now as gathering places for big celebrations, Chinese language classes, and games of ping-pong. Bigger societies like Nam Shoon Foy Koon offer daily activities such as Taichi and line dancing, frequented by the retired folk of the community. If you ask one of the retirees about her relationship with the Chinese culture, she’ll likely tell you about the many Chinese festivals, the worshiping of ancestors, the pagoda and its Chinese deities, and the importance of Chinese customs and values.

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It is largely thanks to Robert Townsend Farquhar, the first British governor of Mauritius, that these customs and values have endured with such strength in the island community. Several decades before Farquhar’s arrival, in 1783, the French brought over 3,000 Chinese to then Isle de France to work as agricultural laborers. The French held them under strict local laws that prevented the practice of their native customs, and the disgruntled Chinese immediately demanded repatriation, a request the French government was forced by law to respect.

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Farquhar in contrast, leading what must be one of the most peaceful colonial transitions in history, encouraged the different races living on the island to preserve the language, habits, and cultures of their mother countries. He prescribed a government treatment “best calculated to secure their attachment” and more specifically, encourage the Chinese “spirit of enterprise,” as he wrote at the time. He emphasized the Chinese migrants’ equal right to purchase land and practice their religion and selected a Chinese “Captain” to further recruit Chinese to Mauritius and to serve as intermediary between them and the British. Farquhar even exempted the Chinese immigrants from local taxes and granted them a piece of land for burial purposes.

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The Chinese-Mauritian community still has a core of people who look after the preservation of their mother culture. Most of the septuagenarians remember their parents’ insistence on adhering to their roots while also adopting local ways. When Chinese-Mauritians visit China, they now often find that their tiny island community has maintained many of the Chinese traditions more closely than their mainland comrades.

Late Sir Moi Lin Jean Ah Chuen, whose father arrived in 1887 from Guangdong, China. In 1931, Ah Chuen set up his own retail shop, the ABC Store, on a main street in Port Louis, which soon grew into an island-wide wholesale business. He spoke fluent Hakka, Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and French, began the Chinese Daily News in Mauritius, founded the Chinese Contingent Home Guard that participated in the defense of the island in WWII, took part in constitutional conferences in London, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980.

Donald Ah Chuen, one of Sir Moi Lin Jean’s 11 children, he has taken over as director of what is now the ABC Group, one of the island’s largest conglomerates, handling business in auto, food, banking, financial services, and shipping and logistics.

In Mauritius, the Chinese — socially, culturally, politically — have rightfully earned their place, Ah Chuen says, and they are well esteemed by the Mauritian community. Two things can happen in the future — an influx of Chinese businesspeople and entrepreneurs, and/or an increase in marriages with Chinese mainlanders. Ah Chuen is optimistic about Mauritius’ potential as a China-Africa platform, allowing Chinese companies to team up with ones in Mauritius to access exclusive African markets. Such enterprises would, ostensibly, bring a new wave of migrants to headquarter businesses on the island. As for marriages, Ah Chuen is referring to the Sino-Mauritians who stay on the island and find Chinese wives abroad to come join them — “because Chinese men seek Chinese wife.”

Ah Chuen forgot possibility number three: Sino-Mauritians go extinct.  He, like the other Sino-Mauritians, is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage and values, which include honesty, discretion, and respect for elders.

“We are all Mauritians first, then Chinese. You have your culture, but you are Mauritian,” he says firmly. “Mauritius belongs to all. There is no indigenous population, except the birds and animals. But even the birds and animals — the horse, the dog, the rat — they were brought in too.” His eyes crinkle in a smile. “Even they are migrants.”

Donald Ah Chuen reminds me that we are all, ultimately, some form of migrant. Except maybe for the dodo.

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And I realize that Sino-Mauritians, after all, are not dodos. While the fat island fowl (RIP) is infamous for its stupidity, flightlessness, and large rump, the Chinese Mauritians, and Chinese across the world, are known for their work ethic, adaptability, and mobility. Like any competent bird, they will migrate elsewhere. They won’t go extinct; they will simply change form.

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