While the city slept, their
silhouettes could be seen in a deserted downtown by moonlight, on the skeletons
of buildings. They were spotted with their wide-brimmed straw hats disappearing
into the white midday heat reminiscent of a distant land (when our people had
long slowed down from listless grass-cutting to sitting in the shade). And
before we could catch ourselves, buildings mushroomed around Port-of-Spain. We
privately agreed that our people can never work like that. Put it down to a
brutal history, but we never developed that work ethic and even now, show few
signs of it. The rumblings during the Manning administration of exploitation of
labour (mingled with a reluctant admiration for the Chinese labourers, and the
companies that brought them in) have escalated to a full-throttle, damning
Last Sunday, the Guardian reported
that Chinese-owned businesses are “mushrooming” with some 310 Chinese
restaurants along the Eastern Main Road from Morvant to Sangre Grande alone.
Many workers in these new establishments, it was reported, “admitted to having
no work permits” with others paying as much as $100,000 to corrupt immigration
officers for their papers. We read, too, that immigration officials have begun
“hunting down illegal Chinese nationals” who have come into T&T to “slave” in
thriving casinos, Chinese supermarkets, restaurants and private members’ clubs,
having slipped into the country through porous parts of south Trinidad with the
help of an underworld trafficking ring believed to be controlled by a branch of
the Chinese Triad—a well-organised criminal gang which exploits poor Chinese
immigrants. We read that some 14 of these illegal Chinese nationals were being
detained in Wallerfield waiting to be sent back to their homeland.
With over 5,000 years of
continuous history, China is one of the world’s oldest civilisations and at 1.3
billion, the world’s most populous country. China has maintained a high growth
rate for over 30 years resulting in higher living standards and a sharp fall in
poverty from 64 to 14 per cent. By July 2010, there were substantiated claims
that China’s economy had overtaken Japan as the world’s second biggest
economy. However, a combination of the introduction of the market system, and
government policies such as restrictions on rural urban migration and the
inability to sell or mortgage rural land has contributed to increasing the
inequalities between the well off and the poor which may have contributed to
The recent activity has been more
surreptitious but now that the cover has been blown, it can damage the image of
the small but vibrant local Chinese community of some 7,800 people who have been
in Trinidad as long as the Indians and Portuguese, perhaps longer, as the first
group arrived in 1806 when the ship, the Fortitude, docked in Port-of-Spain.
Chinese immigrants are known
everywhere, including Trinidad, for their entrepreneurial and community spirit
and have been recognised as hardworking, family-oriented, a big contribution
relative to the size of their population with notable luminaries such as Sir
Solomon Hochoy and now, President George Maxwell Richards. I sat down with the
Beijing and Cambridge educated Chinese Ambassador Yang Youming who has been in
Trinidad since ’09 to hear another version of this story. Here are excerpts of
Q: There has been talk of the
Chinese Triad, a well-organised criminal gang, running this ring of illegal
immigrants, money laundering and human trafficking. How true is this?
A: The Embassy has no knowledge of
a criminal ring. We have not had any reports of trafficking from the police or
the Ministry of National Security. That is a matter for the police and
immigration to uncover.
The main issue as far as we are
concerned is not of illegal immigrants but that of visas expiring while people
wait for their visas to be renewed or work permits to be processed. They come
here and some stay on. The Chinese government is against illegal immigration. In
a globalised scenario it’s a problem countries worldwide, including China, face
and deal with all the time.
Q: What is the current position of
the Chinese detainees? Have you heard from the Ministry of National Security and
A: Our consular officer has
visited the detainees. We are working with the Ministry of National Security and
Foreign Affairs as well as Chinese nationals both to ensure their speedy
release, and where relevant, to process their work permits in a timely fashion.
We encourage Chinese citizens to abide by local laws and if they violate then
they have to go through the local legal process.
Q: China is the second fastest
growing economy in the world. Why are your people emigrating?
A: Yes, it’s booming in China but
with the opening up of the economy, the competition is tough and people are
always looking for more opportunities. The old generation were forced in one way
or another to leave their country as indentured labourers or to escape natural
disasters. The stereotype is that the immigrants are poor and come from remote
areas mentioned in the media reports which is simply not true.
The new generation come here out
of their own free will, and often return. They come to look for opportunities in
a globalised world. They go everywhere—to Europe, Canada, America, Africa, the
Caribbean. With Universal compulsory education of nine years they are literate.
Many come from rich provinces and cities. In China we have a tradition of strong
family bonds. When a family member leaves to open a business abroad, all the
relatives chip in to help, which is unthinkable in other countries. Many arrive
with some money to invest so they are not a burden on the State. Many people
with US and European passports are also returning to China so it works both
ways. It reflects a trend of greater movement of people in a globalised era.
Q: The Small Business Association
has claimed that “the influx of Chinese immigrants setting up shop here has led
to the strangulation of small businesses throughout T&T.” Please comment.
A: I think their concern is
genuine; I don’t want to see their interest impaired. At the same time, some
competition is healthy, as we experienced for the last 30 years when foreign
investment and multinationals poured into China. People in China, when they were
first exposed to the stiff Western competition, also panicked. But we learned
that competition raises the bar. It motivates us to do better. And market forces
eventually decide. We, too, have had a continual trickle of immigrants from
Europe, India, Africa and other islands in Caricom.
Q: Does the Chinese community feel
A: I don’t believe the T&T
government has a policy exclusively targeting the Chinese community. On the
contrary, at the Chinese Spring Festival’s dinner held by the Prime Minister on
February 3 this year, Kamla Persad-Bissessar thanked the Chinese community in
here for their great contribution to this country. Our economic relations are
also excellent. Our trade in garments, textiles, buses, asphalt and the like
currently stands at $400 million annually. One of the world’s largest
telecommunication companies Hua Wei employs some 40 people out of which 30 are
But yes, the Chinese community has
been hurt and angered by media reports which they feel is misleading and
unfair. You are attaching negative images of illegal immigration, money
laundering, drug rings to the Chinese people inferring that the older immigrants
are supporting the newer ones in illegal activities. An entire community is
tarnished. These are individual cases. The majority of people who come here,
come legally through the front door and not the back door as is suggested.
This is also yet another story of
globalization, of the twists and turns of nations, of movement of peoples, an
emblem of our times. And so, yet another strand of arrivals from the old world
stand on the border of our tiny islands where as fate has it, microcosms of
continents have always converged. See how they intermingle with our fledgling,
vibrant collective identity to form part of our brave new world.