Trinidad is probably the least known of Hong Kong’s overseas connections. And it’s a connection that goes far beyond those West Indies clichés of calypso bands and rum cocktails.
In the 1940s and ’50s, as Britain sought to combine smaller colonial territories into larger nation states that might survive in the cold-war world, various political federations of adjacent colonial territories were attempted.
Northern and Southern Rhodesia were bundled together with Nyasaland in 1953 to form the Central African Federation, eventually disbanded in 1963. A similar union was mooted (but not realised) for East Africa, with a proposed amalgamation of Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar.
In Southeast Asia, the Federated and Unfederated Malay States and the erstwhile Straits Settlements of Malacca and Penang were combined to form the Federation of Malaya in 1948. Enlarged with the addition of Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo (now Sabah) to make the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, this union contracted when Singapore was expelled in 1965.
A similar project was tried in the Caribbean, with a comparable outcome. Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and the Leeward and Windward islands were amalgamated to form the West Indian Federation – also known as the West Indies.
Port of Spain, the cosmopolitan capital of Trinidad and Tobago, with its large Indian, Chinese, Afro-Caribbean, European and Creole populations, was designated the federal capital from 1958 to 1962. Following full independence for Trinidad and Tobago in 1962 – and the restrictions on permanent migration to the United Kingdom for colonial passport holders introduced that year – many people of Chinese descent from Trinidad, most of whom had Cantonese or Hakka roots, chose to move to Hong Kong.
This was a reversal of an earlier trend. In the early 20th century, men from several villages around Clear Water Bay had migrated to seek their fortunes in various corners of the West Indies, including Trinidad.
In the absence of Chinese women, these men cohabited with local women, and when children came along, the boys were typically sent home to be sinicised, and some remained in Hong Kong permanently.
Despite being partly black, and inevitably teased by other children, these mixed-race Chinese were generally accepted by fellow villagers since they bore their father’s family name, and had been acknowledged as his children.
Many Chinese families in Trinidad had some interracial heritage, and few Trinidadian migrants to Hong Kong were completely Chinese. This created a further sense of difference on arrival, as migrants found they were more “foreign” than they had anticipated.
Throughout the 1960s and early ’70s, as Afro-Caribbean racial politics asserted itself and Trinidad and Tobago grew less stable, Britain’s last significant colony – Hong Kong – experienced a steady influx of Chinese Trinidadians keen to make a new start. Their English-language skills helped, and many arrivals soon found work as teachers or in the legal profession.
Eugene Chen, a Trinidad-born lawyer who became China’s foreign minister in 1923, lived in Hong Kong at various times when he was out of political favour in China. His eldest son, Percy, a founder of the Hong Kong Bar Association in 1948, was a lifelong supporter of the Chinese Communist cause. Something of a “champagne socialist”, in 1956, Percy Chen formed the Marco Polo Club, which hosted monthly invitation-only dinners at a leading Central hotel for local Chinese Communist Party officials and Western businessmen, journalists and diplomats.
The West Indies connections remain, since, in the typical Hong Kong way, families have conveniently retained their Trinidad and Tobago, even if their holders have never visited their ancestral “homeland”.