Charlotte Street to Chinatown

A woman photographs one of the Chinatown arches on Charlotte Street where Chinese businesses located nearby.  Naming the area Chinatown is part of the city’s plans to establish commercial ties with the Chinese city of Shanghai. - JEFF K MAYERS
A woman photographs one of the Chinatown arches on Charlotte Street where Chinese businesses located nearby. Naming the area Chinatown is part of the city’s plans to establish commercial ties with the Chinese city of Shanghai. - JEFF K MAYERS


IT may not have a royal appearance, but Charlotte Street in Port of Spain was named after Britain’s Queen Charlotte, an 18th century ancestor of the present Queen Elizabeth II. Queen Charlotte, some historians say, was Britain’s first black queen. In today’s politically correct language, she would be described as Britain’s first biracial queen.

She became Queen of England and Ireland when she married George III of England in 1761, at the age of 17. Some historical accounts say that Charlotte, who lived from 1744-1818, was the eighth child –also the youngest daughter – of Prince of Mirow, Germany, Duke Charles Louis Frederick and his wife Duchess Elizabeth Albertine of Saxe-Hildburghausen. African diaspora historian Mario De Valdes y Cocom argues that Charlotte was directly descended from a black branch of the Portuguese royal family: Alfonso III and his concubine, Ouruana, a black Moor.

According to African American Registry, “Queen Charlotte was the great great-great-grandmother of the present Queen Elizabeth II...

“Her African bloodline in the British royal family is not common knowledge. Portraits of the Queen had been reduced to fiction of the Black Magi, until two art historians suggested that the definite African features of the paintings derived from actual subjects, not the minds of painters.”

In 2009, the UK Guardian quoted historian Kate Williams as saying: “If she was black, this raises a lot of important suggestions about not only our royal family but those of most of Europe, considering that Queen Victoria’s descendants are spread across most of the royal families of Europe and beyond.

“If we class Charlotte as black, then ergo Queen Victoria and our entire royal family, (down) to Prince Harry, are also black...a very interesting concept.”

Even PBS reported:

“The riddle of Queen Charlotte’s African ancestry was solved as a result of an earlier investigation into the black magi featured in 15th-century Flemish paintings. Two art historians had suggested that the black magi must have been portraits of actual contemporary people (since the artist, without seeing them, would not have been aware of the subtleties in colouring and facial bone structure of quadroons or octoroons which these figures invariably represented).”

That said, as Stuart Jeffries wrote in the UK Guardian in March 2009, “Many historians are very sceptical about Valdes’s theory. They argue the generational distance between Charlotte and her presumed African forebear is so great as to make the suggestion ridiculous. Furthermore, they say even the evidence that Madragana was black is thin.”

Chinese workers install a pillar for one of the Chinatown arches on Charlotte Street. - JEFF K MAYERS

According to Jeffries, the suggestion that Queen Charlotte was black implies that her granddaughter (Queen Victoria) and her great-great-great-great-granddaughter (Queen Elizabeth II) had African forebears. However, Charlotte may not have been Britain’s first black queen after all: there is another theory that suggests that Philippa of Hainault (1314-69), consort of Edward III and a woman who may have had African ancestry, holds that title.

Still, two centuries after Queen Charlotte passed away, she is still celebrated in her namesake American city and a north-south street in Trinidad’s capital city. Port of Spain’s Charlotte Street, originally called Rue Sainte Anne, was named after the British queen in the late 1700s during British rule.

The capital had been founded by the earlier Spanish colonisers in 1757 after the old capital, San José de Oruña (now St Joseph), had fallen into disrepair. Governor Don Pedro de la Moneda transferred his seat to the waterfront village of Puerto d’España (now Port of Spain), which consisted of two streets, Calle de Infante (now Duncan Street) and Calle Principe (now Nelson Street), some small, wooden houses and mud huts, three shops, and about 400 mostly Spanish-Amerindian people.

After Grenada-born Philipe Rose-Roume de St Laurent obtained the Cedula of Population from Spain in 1783 – which would eventually see the population of Trinidad increase from about 3,000 to over 16,000 – Trinidad’s last Spanish Governor, Don José Maria Chacón, devoted much of his time to developing the new capital. From a small cluster of buildings at the foot of the Laventille Hills, 11 streets were laid out west to the area bounded by the St Ann’s River, establishing a grid pattern which has survived downtown to the present day. When the British took over in 1797, Puerto de España was renamed Port of Spain and its streets were dedicated in honour of the monarchy and war heroes: King Street (now Independence Square North), Calle San Luis became Queen Street (now Queen Janelle Commissiong Street) and Calle de Astuvias became Duke Street.

Other name changes included:

• George Street – after King George III;

• Charlotte Street (Rue Sainte Anne) – for his wife;

• Frederick Street – for his father;

• Duncan Street (Calle de Infante) - after Admiral Duncan;

• Nelson Street (Calle Principe) – after Admiral Nelson;

• and Chacon Street – in honour of the former governor.

Over time, Charlotte Street was taken over by Chinese shopkeepers. Chinese immigration to Trinidad came in four waves that began nearly a decade into British rule, on October 12, 1806, 39 years before the arrival of East Indian indentured labourers. This first attempt was an experiment to set up a settlement of peasant farmers and labourers, a new labour source intended to replace enslaved Africans, who would no longer be available once slavery and the slave trade were abolished.

On arrival, the majority of the immigrants were sent to sugar plantations. The rest were sent to Cocorite, where they lived as a community of artisans and peasant farmers. The experiment failed as, only 23 of the 192 immigrants opted to stay. They became shopkeepers, carpenters, butchers, and market gardeners.

Street vendors enjoy bustling sales on Charlotte Street, Port of Spain which has been named Chinatown as part of the city’s plans to establish commercial ties with the Chinese city of Shanghai. - Ayanna Kinsale

The second wave of Chinese immigration took place after the abolition of slavery. The immigrants arrived as indentured labourers between 1853 and 1866. The third wave, after 1911, was a direct result of the Chinese revolution. These new immigrants, comprising families and friends of earlier migrants, came as merchants, traders, and shopkeepers. The fourth wave of Chinese immigration occurred during the late 1970s when China started opening up to the outside world. Many Chinese immigrants set up shop along the strip named Charlotte Street.

The first is believed to be John Lee Lum, who came to Trinidad from the United States in 1885 and opened a shop along the street, trading provisions for dried cocoa beans which were then exported. By 1900, he had 60 shops in villages across Trinidad, and by 1920 had one of the largest family-owned businesses on the island, and was importing Chinese goods and wares.

Charlotte Street now accommodates one of the largest proliferation of Chinese supermarkets and shops in Trinidad. Over the years, commerce along the 1.86-kilometre strip broadened to include dry goods and haberdashery stores, restaurants and eateries, gambling dens and casinos.

The Chinese businesses attracted local informal merchants, non-Chinese sidewalk vendors in front of their enterprises, plying a trade in fruits and vegetables, ground provisions and garden produce, clothing, toys, and a host of cheap merchandise. The area remains a popular venue for low-cost merchandise and a wide cross-section of bargain-hunters, as well as itinerant vendors from Grenada and St Vincent wishing to exploit the Trinidadian appetite for consumerism.

In recent years, however, the busy east Port of Spain district has also become a haven for pick-pockets and other unsavoury characters hidden among the myriad of shoppers.

With the proliferation of business activity, the Port of Spain City Corporation is moving the take advantage of a growth opportunity. It has started the process of rebranding the commercial strip as a Chinatown district. The first of two arches, bearing signage as “China Town”, was erected at the Park Street junction on October 24. (The second arch was installed this past week and the name is to be corrected to one word.) The Chinatown initiative is part of the city mayor’s plan to twin Port of Spain with Shanghai, China’s biggest city and a global financial hub, in a bid to boost business and marketing opportunities.

Mayor Joel Martinez believes there is a range of business and tourism possibilities with TT deepening its bilateral relations with China through this initiative. He envisions Port of Spain becoming a hub for South America and the Caribbean, a distribution point for authentic Chinese products and foods, and a window of trade for local products. He has also spoken of the possibility of pan music being played in front of millions of people at the Shanghai International Economic and Trade Forum or the participation of local footballers in the Chinese Super League for Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Greenland Shenhua.

Martinez also noted that China could be a core sponsor of development within his city at no cost to TT due to the relationship with Shanghai. The creation of Chinatown has met some scepticism on social media, despite a stake­hold­er meet­ing held in September. Perhaps it was because the consultation session was poorly attended.

Undaunted, Martinez is confidently pressing ahead with the idea, which was first raised two years ago. He said, “The Chi­nese have a rich cul­ture which is sup­port­ed by many per­sons in Trinidad and To­ba­go and they have worked hard to­wards the de­vel­op­ment of not just the Char­lotte Street area but all of our coun­try. Fur­ther­more, they have a deep her­itage in the east Port-of-Spain area in­clud­ing George Street, Char­lotte Street and Nel­son Street with es­tab­lish­ments in the 1960s like Yet Ming, Ng Chow, Chooquan Su­per­mar­ket, Chee­wah, Tam Pack, Ale­ong’s and Chin’s Gro­cery.”

TT and China established formal diplomatic relations in 1974. There are four Chi­nese cultural as­so­ci­a­tions with­in the bound­aries of the des­ig­nat­ed Chinatown area: the Chi­nese Civic As­so­ci­a­tion, the Toy Shan As­so­ci­a­tion, the Fui Toong On As­so­ci­a­tion, and the Chi­na So­ci­ety. In close proximity are Chung Shan As­so­ci­a­tion, near Oxford Street, and Sun Wai As­so­ci­a­tion, on Queen Janelle Com­mis­siong Street.

Descendants of the Chinese immigrants have succeeded in various fields of business, academia, science, politics, and the arts.

• Artist Carlisle Chang was on the committee that selected TT’s national symbols on the country’s attainment of independence from Britain in 1962.

• Jamaica-born Sir Solomon Hochoy, who came to Trinidad at age two, rose to become the British colony’s last governor and the independent nation’s first governor-general.

• Businessman John Lee Lum helped finance Trinidad’s first commercial success in oil in 1902.

• Bacteriologist Dr Joseph Lennox Pawan gained internationally acclaim in 1932 for the discovery of the rabies virus transmitted by vampire bats.

• Lawyer Eugene Chen, born to Chinese immigrants in 1878, went on to become a revolutionary diplomat who was an outstanding figure of the Chinese revolution.

• Couva-born ballerina Dai Ailian (Eileen Isaac) became known in the 1930s as the “Mother of Modern Chinese Dance.”

• Aerospace engineer Conrad “Connie” Lau played a critical role in helping America land the first man on the moon 50 years ago.

• Present-businesses owned by Trinis of Chinese origin include Excellent Stores, Kapok Hotel, William H Scott Ltd, and many others.


"Charlotte Street to Chinatown"

More in this section