On the 12 October, 1806, the Ship ‘Fortitude’ brought the first Chinese to Trinidad. Thus, they were amongst the first settlers here.
This date of the commencement of Chinese immigration to Trinidad is given by historian Edward Lanza Joseph. He also gives information that the men were Tartars and not accustomed to work in the canefields. He further says that they were 193 in number, with one woman in their midst. Women, because of their small feet, could not work long hours. Foot binding was a common practice in China in those days, meaning that from early childhood the toes were bent towards the heel and tightly wrapped. This torture was supposed to give the girl, as she grew older, a hobbling walk and ‘attractive’ small feet.
Of this early group of immigrants, only 23 stayed on in Trinidad. The others returned to China aboard the ‘Fortitude’. Of those who stayed, several lived on at Cocorite under quite miserable circumstances, selling charcoal, oysters and crabs.
Between 1853 and 1866, about 2,500 Chinese - mostly men - came to Trinidad as indentured workers. They arrived under the same terms as the Indians. Intentureship for the Chinese did not last long, however, and came to an end in 1866.
What followed was voluntary free immigration, mostly to British Guiana in the first instance and then, attracted to a brighter way of life, in Trinidad. Over the next 100 years, Trinidad’s Chinese population was to increase by almost 9,000 immigrants. These people from the furthest east emerged from intentureship and the displacement of immigration to become small traders, shop owners, laundry proprietors and of course restaurant owners and cooks. Dr. Robert Lee commented in a lecture published in ‘Book of Trinidad’:
“Chinese immigrants came to Trinidad in different ways: some came under contract, many were ‘shanghaied’, abducted into virtual slavery by European traders, either to the West Indies or South America. Hakka prisoners were also sought by Punti traders for the infamous ‘pig trade’, whereby these prisoners were described as pigs on bills of lading and were shipped off to the New World.”
The businesses established by the Chinese in these early years served to facilitate new arrivals. They provided temporary accommodation to their countrymen and -women, they imported brides and even shipped back bones of deceased Chinese to bury them in their native villages.
The Chinese also brought with them a game of chance, a numbers game known as ‘Whe Whe’ or ‘Rakka Piu’. Described as an ancient pastime, it was called Chinapoo and played by persons who were influenced by intuition, superstition, dreams and caprice. This game was assimilated into Creole life in Trinidad, with many of its terms of reference changed. The symbol of ‘Whe Whe’ is a drawing of a Chinaman ‘jumbie’. His anatomy is divided into some 36 segments, each marked with a number that denotes the mark itself, its spirit and its partner. Illegal to this day, Whe Whe, the Chinese jumbie, has impacted upon Trinidad’s society, imparting its own magic and contributing in a small way to the turnover of money in many neighbourhoods.
Chinese cooks, particularly from Canton, made an impact on the cuisine of Trinidad. ‘Educating the palate’, so to speak, they introduced ghingee, caraillie, christophene, snow peas, narchoi, patchoi, mustard bush, white radish and white lemon, all of which entered the market gardens of Trinidad.
Charles Kingsley’s impression of the Chinese immigrants
(from his book ‘At Last - a Christmas in the West Indies’, published in 1889)
“Why do the Chinese never smile? Once, and once only, in Port of Spain, we saw a Chinese woman, nursing her baby, burst into an audible laugh: and we looked at each other, as much astonished as if our horses had begun to talk.”