China in our town

Culture Matters

“Our cultural creations from the Chinese Dragon to Ramleela, Hyarima or Anansi hold many of the keys to our self-determination.

“Some of my ancestors came here in the 1880s fleeing social unrest. It is believed that they came over on boats, eventually settling in places like Santa Cruz, Rio Claro, Arima, San Fernando and Tobago. ‘Cocoa panyol,’ from the word espanol, or ‘peon,’ Spanish for labourer, is what they were called.”

“TRINIDAD IS confusing,” someone from another Caribbean island said. As far as I recall, we were talking about their research into indigenous languages and I was sharing the experiences of my own family as mentioned in the opening quote.

Over the centuries our small nation has been fundamentally impacted by external forces. We continue to grapple with questions of how to define a citizen of TT? What are the qualities that we wish to foster? How do we honour those on whose backs we walk?

Throughout history, our citizens have often been left with the choice of renegotiating their space. The perceived sudden putting up of two arches on Charlotte Street for the creation of a China Town in Port of Spain is one example. In no uncertain terms, the arches declare permanence, importance, value.

Media reports indicate that consultation on the arches was limited. Questions are being asked about the timing and the choice. Will we soon see monuments celebrating our indigenous heritage?

Enslaved Africans who settled all over the city and helped build this nation are virtually invisible. East Indians who have contributed richly to our combined cultures are not physically present. How is one chosen over the other for recognition?

In 1783, 1838, 1845, 1866...centuries ago, such matters were not raised at all. The ebb and flow of nationalities was accepted and people renegotiated power relations as best as possible.

History tells of ordinary Venezuelans who came to work in our cocoa, coffee and sugar cane fields. Wealthy Venezuelans were known for sending their children to “Catholic colleges in Trinidad, conducting business in Trinidad, shopping, and even coming to take drinking water back to the mainland.”

After 1783, it was accepted that a predominant Spanish culture was replaced by one characterised by African and French cultural forms. Many ordinary citizens began to speak patois, a nation language that evolved from African, French and indigenous dialects. East Indian indenture resulted in more significant changes across the cultural spectrum. Even our Carnival became symbolic of the separation of cultures, ethnicities and power struggles.

The point is that culture and heritage are not static. They are impacted by politics and economics as other spheres of life. My own experience is that socio-cultural solutions must drive political decisions and not the other way around.

This week, I witnessed again the problems that are caused when societies are not properly prepared for change. In trying to purchase a simple item in Port of Spain, I was served by a Spanish speaking attendant. While her command of English was good, mistakes were made and someone from TT had to step in. Much rolling of the eyes, heaving breathing and tense exchanges between the two women took place. They tried to manage the conflict in front of the customers but the clash of cultures was obvious.

Today, a number of citizens claim their Chinese heritage, from calypsonian Crazy to Queen Nona Lopez Aquan, the recently installed queen of the Santa Rosa indigenous peoples.

From Chinese food to the impact on our Carnival and the growing influence of their business community, no one questions the worth of Chinese culture to our society. However, in a complex nation, matters of culture and heritage are critical to individual and collective identity and must be treated with the respect they deserve.

So honestly, this article is only partially about the China Town arches in Port of Spain. For me, they raise concerns about how change is achieved. The confusion (and I suspect hurt) of citizens, reinforces the view that our politicians have still not charted a clear path for us when it comes to managing our complex cultural environment.

In 2019, we are once again watching our country alter before our eyes. People who speak, dress, cook, raise children, and worship differently are here. And more are coming. Two hundred years from now, what will history document? Will cultures continue to clash? The Chinese have been here, but now through the arches we see them. How long will it take before the rest of us are revealed?

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN


"China in our town"

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