The Emergence and Evolution of Chinese Associations in Trinidad

By Rajkumar, Fiona Ann | The Journal of Caribbean History, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Emergence and Evolution of Chinese Associations in Trinidad


Rajkumar, Fiona Ann, The Journal of Caribbean History


Introduction

The Chinese who migrated to Trinidad during the early twentieth century originated from specific districts in China, which in turn influenced the names, membership and linguistic orientation of the institutions that were formed in the British colony. The Toy Shan Association for instance comprised people from the Toy Shan (Toi Shan) district, while the Chung Shan Association brought together people from the Chung Shan district.1 The Fui Toong On Association was an acronym made up of three Hakka provinces in China, Fui Young, Toong Kon and Pow On.2 Two groups of Chinese came to Trinidad, the Cantonese (also known as Punti) and the Hakka Chinese.3 Thus the associations were numerous and distinct, catering to the needs of the different strata of Chinese as they adapted to life in Trinidad and Tobago.

In his study, "The Impact of the Various Chinese Associations in Trinidad", Gregory Quan Kep began a very general exploration of the complex network of Chinese associations in Trinidad and how they worked to promote the social and economic well-being of the Chinese community.4 The overwhelming majority of the Chinese in Trinidad were Cantonese and eventually many Chinese came to identify themselves as Cantonese even if they were not. This was unlike in Jamaica where the majority of Chinese immigrants were Hakka Chinese.

Aaron Chang Bohr's pioneer article on Chinese associations in Jamaica, in the 2004 edition of Caribbean Quarterly, provided insight into the crucial role played by these institutions in the socioeconomic establishment of the ethnic group. He stated that "Overseas Chinese associations produce and maintain ethnic solidarity. Because much of the leadership is interlocking, they also contribute to Chinese networks, both domestic and international."5 The motivation behind the affinity of the Chinese diasporic community to form associations can be traced back to mainland China. In China, the establishment of associations allowed for a great deal of cultural continuity as they often worked alongside trade associations or tongye gonghui. There were also secret societies, some of which were political in orientation, whether they were sympathetic with the Nationalists or the Chinese Communist Party. There were also umbrella organizations such as the Znongh.ua Huigam or the Chinese Benevolent Association.6

In order to appreciate the true nature of the associations, Chinese ethnicity should be examined in terms of two interrelated processes, which are evoked by their existence in a different land. The first concerns the culture that the immigrants brings with them as the cultural baggage or what is referred to as "a lived Chineseness". The other is that of ethnic identification or a conscious cultural definition of the self as Chinese, which includes distinction of one's self from other groups in the new environment. This dynamic gives rise to "a process of constant definition and redefinition of self and the group in contrast to the wider non-Chinese community. There is therefore the need for an 'expressed or asserted Chineseness', since for migrant Chinese, ethnicity is constantly in flux."7

In his work on the Chinese in Jamaica, Patrick Bryan argued that the existence of Chinese associations in Jamaica, although indicating a level of creolization, alluded to the failure of the Chinese community to be assimilated.8 Look Lai, taking a different approach however, asserted that the process of creolization and acculturation should not necessarily be conceptualized in terms of the wholesale absorption of West Indian culture and the rejection of the culture of the land of the origin. Instead it should be seen as involving a more subtle blending of the old and new worlds.9 This viewpoint was substantiated by the approach of Buisseret and his colleagues who endorsed the notion of cultural syncretism, whether described as acculturation or creolization, as a framework for the analysis of exchange between groups of people. …

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