After Chinese immigration ceased in 1866 a large number of those who had originally gone to British Guiana travelled to Trinidad in the late 1880’s in order to set themselves up in business. They left British Guiana because “the presence of both the East Indian shopkeeper and the Portuguese merchant made business quite competitive for the Chinese in Guiana.” In addition, Trinidad’s 1891 census informs us that two or three wealthy Chinese from California and elsewhere have established mercantile houses in Port of Spain. In spite of this influx, the Chinese population did not increase in size to extent that they were able to transcend their minority status. For those who originally came to Trinidad as close as thirty nine percent moved to city areas especially Port of Spain in which the Chinese community had increased from 181 to 581. Many had their business headquarters in Port of Spain and branches in rural areas. They were able to wield considerable influence in the commercial life of the country. Many have attempted to explain the basis of their remarkable rise in the business of Trinidad but invariably those who make such attempts advance a commonplace which focuses on assumed congenital traits which unavoidably lead the Chinese like a needle of a compass to their destination of success.
Such men and women who had come as indentures labourers to work in agriculture, by 1891, according to the census, had almost all left the estates. Of the 1,006 Chinese in Trinidad the majority 66 percent were involved in retail trading. They were occupied as follows: 259 salesman (14 female); 341 shopkeepers (37 female); 43 hucksters and peddlers (nine female); 23 merchants (that is, a total of 666 involved in retailed trading). Other occupations were 101 domestic workers (9 female); 28 porters (2 female); 38 household duties (all female); six gardeners; 12 cocoa or coconut estate proprietors; one bailiff, one interpreter; five industrial workers; three bookkeepers; 19 “not described” (11 female) and 41 agricultural workers only six worked on sugar estates (three labourers, two over lookers and a gardener). The rest worked on their own plots of land.
Most had gone into shop keeping, but many moved beyond their shop into a wide range of businesses, such as general merchandising, import/exporting, agriculture and a wide range of other business activities. The most remarkable of such businessmen was John Lee Lum who by 1885 had accumulated enough experience and capital to open a general store on 31 Charlotte Street. Lee Lum’s business prospered and by 1889 it was mentioned in the Trinidad Yearbook. The Charlotte Street store established branches in several towns eventually totaling 20. They sold foodstuffs, agricultural equipment, dry goods, even medicine. Lee Lum imported good directly from China and other places. One special feature of Chinese shops was the credit they offered to poorer customers who lack cash, and Lee Lum took this principle to its logical conclusion; he applied for and received official permission to distribute his own coins, which he circulated between 1890 and 1906. The practice of extending credit did not apply only to poor people, however. Lee Lum, like many other wealthy Chinese merchants also offered credit to cash-strapped owners of large plantations and when they couldn’t repay, he often ended up owning the estates (notable it was never in sugar which required more capital).
Such men were driven; they were astute and worked tirelessly but there also socially factor which assisted their ambitions, the first being the Chinese community, which accumulated and passed on business intelligence to its members. First informally and through ‘apprenticeships’ in shops and general stores, and the later more formally through many Chinese organizations, starting in the Yee Lee Club, which was formed in 1919. Many later went into baking, provision, wholesaling, hardware, matchstick-making, real estate development, household furniture and furnishing manufacture, pharmaceuticals and laundry. Through their networks of commerce, kinship and the formal associations the Chinese businesses took root, spread throughout the country and expanded. Contrary to popular opinion Chinese ascendancy in retail trade was not due to any innate ‘business sense’ or cultural background in shopkeeping. Few immigrants were shopkeepers before they left China. And in the Caribbean Chinese businesses sometimes failed in depressed times just like other ethnic groups.
Sources: [Johnson, Kim “Descendants of the Dragon” Ian Randle Publishing, 2006.]
[Millette, Trevor “The Chinese in Trinidad” Imprint Caribbean, 1993]