Across much of Africa, there have been teething troubles as Chinese migrants have settled down. But many of the same issues arising now were being dealt with centuries ago in Mauritius, where a small but prosperous Chinese community has today become an integral part of the island’s makeup. However, not all is well for the minority population, as James Wan reports from Port Louis.
In the pitch black of midnight in the heart of Mauritius, a few hundred Chinese faces suddenly light up as fireworks explode in the sky above them. They watch entranced at the show put on at the Hualien Chinese cultural club before they embrace and wish each other a “bonne année”. But the hugs and kisses don’t last long. Soon, the party splits into two groups, one returning to a huge hall to line-dance the night away under red Chinese lanterns, while the other half cha-cha-cha to Latin rhythms in the adjacent ballroom.
To mark the most important date in the Chinese calendar, Chinese New Year, similar events are being held across this tiny island in the Indian Ocean. And over the next few days, as the whole country enjoys a bank holiday, Chinese families will gather together, visit pagodas or celebrate the occasion at one of the island’s swish beach hotels.
Over the past couple of decades, hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants have arrived in countries across Africa, provoking both curiosity and concern over their ability and willingness to integrate. But in Mauritius, a small but significant minority Chinese population has long been a leading light in the nation’s rainbow of cultures.
Though making up just 2-3% of the 1.3 million population, Sino-Mauritians are heavily active in various spheres, from textiles to real estate to retail; their cultural footprint can be seen around the island in the form of traditional pagodas, active cultural associations, and the vibrant Chinatown in the capital Port Louis; and the community freely intermingles, and increasingly intermarries, with the country’s Indian, Creole and other ethnic groups.
“The Sino-Mauritian community is a success story,” says Peter Yoo Foo, president of the Hualien Club. “They are very established, very integrated, and very respected.”
Indeed, on many fronts, the story of the Chinese in Mauritius is the exemplary tale of a migrant community settling down whilst keeping a hold of its identity. But that does not mean everything is perfect. In the capital, Chinatown is starting to crumble, many people complain of being marginalised by the government, and the already small population is getting ever smaller.
“We are not living in paradise,” says Yoo Foo. “Politically, we are weak. Our businesses are being bought out. And our numbers are dwindling year by year.”
Setting up shop
According to some historians, the very first humans to set foot on Mauritius might have been Chinese explorers in the 14th or 15th century. But it was only with the island’s colonisation hundreds of years later that Chinese migrants came to settle in the country.
First, the Dutch in the 17th century shipped over small numbers of Chinese slaves to work alongside counterparts from Madagascar. This initiative was largely a failure, but under French occupation in the 18th century, and even more so under British rule in the 19th and 20th, several thousand Chinese chose to migrate to Mauritius themselves. Unlike those from India and Africa, who together make up the vast majority of the country’s population today and most of whom were brought over by colonialists as indentured labourers, the Chinese mostly arrived as voluntary migrants, engaging in petty trade or working as joiners, carpenters and shoemakers.
As with many Chinese migrants across Africa more recently, this wave of arrivals from the East were noted for their inexhaustible work ethic, and in the 19th century, small Chinese stores soon peppered the island. As a colonial officer named Jerringham noted in 1892, “it matters not whether you are in the most isolated part of the island and far from the busy haunts of men, there you will find you have been preceded, and a boutique chinois will meet you at the most unexpected place.”
These stores were well-liked for their convenience, ubiquity and willingness to sell in the small quantities their clients could afford. But the Chinese community also developed a reputation for extracting every last penny of profit from customers possible − even if it meant painstakingly removing a single match from twenty separate matchboxes to make a twenty-first.
This reputation for stinginess never really went away, and this niggardly attitude perhaps even helped in the coming decades as the community diversified into a wide variety of enterprises. These included distilleries, tobacco production and shoe manufacturing in the early 20th century, and more recently has included all manner of things from construction to restaurants to manufacturing. Today, the Sino-Mauritian community is the richest in the country after the even smaller Franco-Mauritian population, and prosperous Chinese families such as Ah Chuen, Lam Po Tang and Li Wan Po are household names.
“Despite accounting for just 2 or 3% of the overall population, the Chinese have soared economically,” says Jocelyn Chan Low, a historian at the University of Mauritius. “Twenty-five of the top 100 companies in Mauritius are now owned by Sino-Mauritians, and if things continue on this trend, in ten years, it will be 35.”
Keeping a low profile
In many places, one might expect a degree of resentment towards a minority that holds such economic sway, and historically this has been the case. For example in 1909, a prominent political figure expressed a sentiment that wouldn’t be out of place in many countries in Africa today, complaining that Chinese migrants “take the bread out of the mouths of Mauritians and after a while go back to China with all the money which they have amassed”.
However, over the decades, this attitude has significantly faded. “Today, people don’t really feel threatened by the Chinese,” says Chan Low.
On the one hand, this might be because over the last half-century in particular, the Sino-Mauritian community has culturally integrated extremely well. The population is now several generations olds, the community largely speaks Kreol as its day-to-day language, and intermarriage with other groups is increasingly common. Furthermore, as the Chinese population has become more and more Mauritian, Mauritian culture has also become more and more Chinese. Pagodas and Chinese restaurants can be found around the island, and as Chan Low explains: “Chinese cultural events now see the participation of all kinds of Mauritians. If you go to Chinese shops, you find people of all communities buying Chinese food and goods, and even traditional practices like the dragon dance are performed by non-Chinese Mauritians alongside Sino-Mauritians”.
However, another reason that the Chinese may not be seen as a threat could be less win-win for the community.
“The Sino-Mauritians are very obliging, but we are maybe too obliging,” says Yoo Foo. “We don’t want to stick out in a crowd; we like to play it safe and not cause any problems. But the result is that politically, our voice is very weak.”
Like many Chinese communities across Africa today, the Sino-Mauritian community has long tried to keep a low profile. Under Mauritius’ constitution, there is the requirement for one Chinese MP, and more often than not, this MP has also been made a minister. But regardless of this, many in the Sino-Mauritian community feel that they are being ignored politically. In a recent interview with a Mauritian newspaper, for example, the commentator Philip Li Ching Hum decried the community’s treatment, asking: “Is it because we are a negligible number that we should be treated like this?… Do we have to take to the streets?”
Li Ching Hum also poured scorn on the many Chinese associations in the country for failing to amplify the community’s voice, suggesting “they know only how to organise dinner and line dancing”.
While opposing this claim, Yoo Foo nevertheless concedes that Chinese organisations have struggled to be effective politically. “When there’s a crisis, the Chinese community will band together, but action isn’t always taken,” he says. “They meet, they discuss, they say ‘we should do this and that’, but then the next day nothing’s been done. A lot of people, especially the older generation, just want to seek glory and step into the limelight.”
These feelings of political marginalisation seem to have intensified around the recent elections in December 2014, but looking ahead, the community may have a much bigger threat on the horizon. As many are quick to point out, Sino-Mauritians have thrived economically, but many are now concerned that the community may have become a victim of its own success.
“The rise of Chinatown in Port Louis was once a symbol of the community’s advancement, but now it is the decline of Chinatown that is a symbol of this trend,” says Chan Low. “People are moving into richer areas, but also more and more families are sending their children to study abroad in the likes of Canada, Australia, the UK and Hong Kong. But the problem is that these younger generations are not coming back.”
Indeed, when Mauritius gained independence in 1968, the Sino-Mauritian population stood at around 25,000, but since then, numbers have diminished to around 18,000 due to outmigration and smaller family sizes. Younger generations are increasingly following opportunities overseas where they are becoming accountants, lawyers and bankers, and there is no-one to take over the family businesses back home which have long been at the heart of the Sino-Mauritian community.
“A lot of older generations are worrying because they don’t know what they’re going to do with their businesses,” says Yoo Foo. “They are getting older but there aren’t any replacements for them.”
Like the famous dodo then, the indigenous bird that flourished on this island before rapidly becoming extinct, some fear that the Sino-Mauritian community could be next to go. However, a more accurate analogy might be that of a migrating bird − one that has stopped over in Mauritius on its way to even warmer shores. “The younger generations know that compared to what they can earn abroad, the wages here are peanuts,” says Yoo Foo.
In truth though, the rate at which the Sino-Mauritian population is dwindling is slow, and even if the population did one day disappear in its current form due to outmigration and intermarriage, the impact of the community can never be undone. Much of Mauritius’ economy has been built on the success of Chinese businesspeople and their links to firms in Hong Kong and China; Chinese food has become part of the national cuisine; and Chinese culture has seeped into Mauritians’ way of life.
The small Chinese community as it exists today may eventually fade away, but economically, culturally and spiritually, it seems that Mauritius will always be a little bit Chinese.