Chinese Mauritians: Paradise Island’s Next Dodo?

Chamarel waterfall plunges deep within the island's prehistoric landscape. (Holmes/TYG)

October 31, 2013 • Uncategorized • Views: 2026

By Tao Tao Holmes

Laval Chan She Ping is a square-spectacled 50-or-so man with a round, flat face, a light blue polo with Burberry trim, and the long, leery pinkie nail characteristic of many Chinese men. I glance at the 17 questions he has drafted for me.

Number 11: “It is a fact that the Chinese community, here in Mauritius, is regressing at a high pace. Over the past decade, its population has decreased from over 35,000 to about 15,000. How, as a foreigner, do you feel about it?”

Hm. I don’t know. I glance at the other questions as Laval tells me how all of the next generation of Chinese Mauritians is abroad, where they think the grass is greener — but how they’re really deceiving themselves. We’re sitting in the conference room of the Nam Shun Fooy Koon Chinese Heritage Society, and there’s a photographer with his lens fixed on my face.

“Next time you will hear about the dodo and the Chinese community in Mauritius —because we too are going to fade away,” says Ping. “They will have to prepare a place in the museum next to the dodo, for us.” He laughs and says he’s joking.

I’m not too sure he is.

***

Nearly every child in America has heard of the dodo bird. It’s hard to forget an animal described at the time as “a mistake made by God.”

But how many Americans can tell you where the dodo lived, or, more famously, died?

The answer: Mauritius, 1,200 miles off the southwestern coast of Africa — a dot in the ocean that is 30 miles long, 29 miles wide and holds a population of about 1.3 million, roughly that of Manhattan. Mauritius gained its independence from Britain in 1968, and is now trumpeted as an African democratic, economic, and multicultural success story.

The island is named after a Dutchman, the people all speak French and a French Creole, and the school and government systems are British. As for the population itself, Indians (Indo-Mauritians) are the overwhelming majority at 68 percent, blacks (Afro-Mauritians, locally known as Creoles) follow at 27 percent, and the Chinese and white communities clock in at around two and one percent, respectively. Even as the Sino-Mauritians join the Pink Pigeon and Bouton Skink on the island’s list of endangered species, their influence on the Mauritian economy and culture can be felt everywhere. Chinese food is part of the national diet and Chinese companies and stores pepper the island. Sino-Mauritians hold positions in the Supreme Court, in various government ministries, in banks, and on executive boards. The capital’s Chinatown is home to over 10 cultural and clan-based societies (such as the Nam Shun Fooy Koon), three Chinese newspapers, three pagodas, and a Saturday Mandarin school.

The Chinese population in Mauritius is strikingly different from those of other Chinese in Africa: its size is shrinking as more and more leave, while on the rest of the African continent, the Chinese are arriving in droves. Sino-Mauritians are well integrated into the cultural fabric of the island, one that prides itself on “unity in diversity” in a “rainbow nation.” Meanwhile, Chinese elsewhere in Africa are said to keep to themselves.

I left for Mauritius to learn the story behind a different sort of “China in Africa” — and to capture the voices of a few specimens before they, like the beloved “feathered tortoise,” go extinct.

Small stores and street-side vendors in Mauritius' Chinatown cater to islanders of all color and creed — though customers tend to be on the older end of the spectrum. (Holmes/TYG)

Small stores and street-side vendors in Mauritius’ Chinatown cater to islanders of all color and creed — though customers tend to be on the older end of the spectrum. (Holmes/TYG)

***

Mauritius has a breathtaking, prehistoric beauty; Mark Twain once wrote, “Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius.”

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.

Boats unwind off the shore of Baie de Tombeau, on the western coast of the island. (Holmes/TYG)

Boats unwind off the shore of Baie de Tombeau, on the western coast of the island. (Holmes/TYG)

***

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.

The fact that the population has collapsed in half over the last decade, as Ping and many others stressed to me, is due to both decreased population growth and increased emigration, plus almost no new immigration from China.

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.

Melanie Lai Wai is just one of many in this younger generation of Sino-Mauritians to go abroad. She says that when you get a scholarship to go abroad, it’s published in the national papers and you become a kind of temporary celebrity. Back home for the summer after her first year at Vassar College, where she intends to study math, Wai takes me to her favorite bubble tea shop. When I ask her whether she’ll return to Mauritius after she graduates, she slowly shakes her head.

***

With binoculars and magnifying glass in hand, I head into Port Louis, a small yet bustling harbor city named after France’s Louis XV, to observe the local endangered habitat. 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.

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.

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.

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.

Downtown Port Louis is an ethnic hodgepodge filled with Indo-Mauritians, Creoles, Sino-Mauritians, and a few white islanders, passing in and out of Chinese shops, big banks, and Burger King. (Holmes/TYG)

Downtown Port Louis is an ethnic hodgepodge filled with Indo-Mauritians, Creoles, Sino-Mauritians, and a few white islanders, passing in and out of Chinese shops, big banks, and Burger King. (Holmes/TYG)

***

There’s one more thing I want to do before I leave the island: track down a member of the most well known family in the history of the Sino-Mauritian community. There’s little doubt every single Mauritian knows of them, because one of their faces is on the country’s most widely used bill: the 25-Rupee note.

This face belongs to the 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.

After hunting through every corner of Port Louis, I finally find Donald Ah Chuen, one of Sir Moi Lin Jean’s 11 children, at the Tertiary Education Commission, where he serves as president. He has also 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. Like the rest of the older Chinese community here, Donald is small, slender, bespectacled, and four or five inches shorter than I am.

In Mauritius, the Chinese — socially, culturally, politically — have rightfully earned their place, Ah Chuen says, and they are well esteemed by the Mauritian community. He told me that his company would prefer to hire Chinese workers. But there are not enough around.

I ask him what he thinks is going to happen to the Chinese population.

He says that in the future, two things can happen — 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. But I decide it’s better not to share that out loud. He, like the other Sino-Mauritians I meet, is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage and values, which include honesty, discretion, and respect for elders. I ask him whether he feels more Mauritian, or more Chinese.

“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.”

Chamarel waterfall plunges deep within the island's prehistoric landscape. (Holmes/TYG)

Chamarel waterfall plunges deep within the island’s prehistoric landscape. (Holmes/TYG)

***

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

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. They will become Chinese-Mauritian-Canadians and Chinese-Mauritian-Australians.

And what remnants of their past presence will they leave behind in Mauritius?

The archways of Chinatown and some great dim sum, if nothing else.

Tao Tao Holmes ’14 is a Global Affairs major in Branford College. Contact her at taotao.holmes@yale.edu.

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