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Descendants of the Dragon flourish on Charlotte Street

Published: 
Sunday, July 23, 2017
Two Chinese workers at Hong Kong Supermarket, Broadway, Port-of-Spain.

There is a proliferation of Chinese businesses in communities across the country, including a strong presence in the country’s capital, Port-of-Spain.

The Chinese came to T&T more than 200 years ago and while mostly keeping to themselves, made an indelible mark in the business landscape, the culture and the food we eat.

Members of the local Chinese community spoke to the Sunday Guardian under strict anonymity about their history in T&T, their success at business ventures and an insidious gang culture that has started leaking on to the country’s streets.

In part one of this two-part series, the SG focuses on how the local Chinese community—from the first generation to now—has built business in T&T.

Charlotte Street is a microcosm of the phenomenon of Chinese owned or operated businesses mushrooming throughout the country. There are 35 business establishments on Charlotte Street, Port-of-Spain, run by a diverse mix of members of the Chinese business community.

After acquiring properties in urban, suburban and rural communities, new Chinese immigrants are establishing supermarkets, stores and restaurants wherever they settle.

The majority of the establishments are family owned, mainly consisting of variety stores, supermarkets and restaurants with one meat shop and a landmark Chinese merchandise and food store.

Approximately 71 per cent of the businesses are owned by Chinese immigrants who have been living in Trinidad for a number of years and their descendants, Trinidad-born Chinese.

The remaining 29 per cent of the businesses are run by recent Chinese immigrants, the “New Arrivals” or “Newcomers”.

The Chinese refer to the Chinese born in China, whether the person is old or a newborn baby, as the first generation, while their first-born children in Trinidad are referred to as the second generation. This is different from the Western perspective where the first-born Trinidad Chinese are called first generation Chinese.

Chinese immigrants to Trinidad came in five waves. The first shipment of 192 Chinese immigrants arrived in Trinidad on the ship Fortitude on October 12, 1806.

The second wave arrived from the southern Guangdong province, an area comprising Macao, Hong Kong and Canton to work as indentured labourers between 1853 and 1866. The third wave landed between the 1920s and 1940s.

During this period, earlier migrants who had become successful merchants, peddlers, traders and shopkeepers brought in family and friends from China.

By the 1970s, when China started opening up to the outside world, migration resumed once more, resulting in the fourth wave of Chinese immigration. The fifth ensuing wave began in the 1980s, and among the Chinese that traditionally came from the Guangdong province, who spoke Cantonese and Hakka Chinese dialects, were the “Newcomers” who spoke Mandarin and Fujianese.

Chinese raise capital quickly through pooled resources

A third-generation Chinese-Trinidadian businessman said the Chinese had many years to develop and hone their entrepreneurial skills in Trinidad, starting when they first challenged the monopoly the Portuguese had on the dry-goods businesses.

He revealed how the Chinese could raise substantial funds in a short space of time to buy a property or goods and how they arrived.

The businessman said “Chinese business people can raise capital legitimately by employing a version of the local Trinidadian sou sou.

“They pool their resources to go after an investment such as a property, a business venture or to buy goods and supplies in bulk to receive a big discount.

“Several Chinese organisations also employ a system similar to what the Japanese call ‘keiretsu,’ where a group of Chinese companies with interlocking business relationships join together to compete against a rival group of companies.

“In the old days, the patriarch of the family, usually the grandfather came to Trinidad first, where he would work for several years at a Chinese establishment, save his money, send some back home to his family in China and when he had saved enough, he would either send for his son and/or his wife to follow him to Trinidad.”

In 1970 the Trinidad dollar was pegged to US $2 and US $2.40 in 1980. The Chinese yuan was pegged to US $1.50 in 1980. Today, the Chinese yuan is equivalent to $1.20 TT.

He said in time, the grandfather together with his family in Trinidad, would send for more relatives who would help them in establishing their shops from humble beginnings.

Some rich young Chinese sent to Trinidad for “seasoning”

The businessman said while many Chinese nationals come to Trinidad for economic reasons, some are sent here for different purposes.

He revealed that some of the young Chinese are sent to Trinidad for what the Chinese called “seasoning”.

The businessman explained that some of the Chinese come from well-off families in China and the father thinks that his children were becoming too soft and spoilt, like “little emperors”.

He said the father might want his children to “learn humility, toughen them up, to experience some of the struggles he went through in becoming a wealthy, self-made man and wants them to strike out on their own and make their own fortune, so he sends them to family members who have businesses in Trinidad to do menial work they would not do in China”.

The businessman said some other Chinese youths may be borderline juvenile delinquents getting in trouble with the law, drinking, gambling, running down women, fighting or doing drugs in China and their parents ship them out to relatives in Trinidad to straighten them out working in their businesses.

Chinese businessmen very resilient

A second-generation Chinese businessman said many of the Chinese businessmen were very resilient, some migrated when they were threatened with violence and death, burning and looting during the 1970 Black Power era, but many stayed as they had put down roots in Trinidad and called the country home.

He noted the July 27, 1990, attempted coup led by Jamaat al Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr where several Chinese businessmen as well as other merchants in Port-of-Spain lost everything to fire and looting and in some cases that took generations of sacrifice to build.

The businessman said threats were made against them, he would never forget hearing from some people while walking the street, “Chinee! We coming to bun and loot allyuh out again!”

He also revealed that in the aftermath some Chinese businessmen were taken advantage of by several banks.

The businessman said there were two banks operating on Charlotte Street during that time, some of the Chinese businessmen were so economically independent before the attempted coup that they never needed to borrow from the banks and had little experience in this area.

He said they felt betrayed by some bankers who duped them, as they were of Chinese extraction also.

The businessman said one mixed Chinese bank manager in Port-of-Spain told them that all their financial records were destroyed, which was a fabrication to prevent them from going to another bank thereby locking them into taking a smaller loan.

He said at another bank, Chinese businessmen had their “soft” loans which were facilitated by the National Insurance Property Development Company Ltd (Nipdec) to rebuild their destroyed businesses turned into harsh demand loans by a female Chinese bank manager because they naively trusted her.

The businessman said despite these adversities, the Chinese businessmen learned from their mistakes and experience and continue to prosper and thrive in Trinidad. He emphasised that many of the Chinese, whether they were naturalised, living here for several generations, local born or recently arrived were law-abiding, hard working people and had a good work ethic. The businessman said they were a quiet people, did not bother anyone or go looking for trouble. He said the whole Chinese community should not be painted with the same brush with the “negative things” that affected several Chinese nationals that were reported in the media.