The Chinese who helped make tiny Mauritius an African success story
- There has been a Chinese presence in Mauritius from as early as the late 1600s, starting with convicts brought by the Dutch
- Despite their dwindling numbers now, ethnic Chinese maintain a hugely-prosperous profile in the capital Port Louis
As Mauritius speeds towards becoming the first high-income nation in Africa, its small but influential Chinese community can give itself a pat on the back for making the island what it is today.
“We Sino-Mauritians make up around 2-3 per cent of the population, but our influence is probably around 30 per cent as we punch well above our weight,” said Antoine Kon-Kam King, Vice-President of Mauritius’ Chinese Business Chamber and a former UN diplomat.
Not far from the main bus station, the capital Port Louis’ Chinatown is a brightly coloured and bustling place.
It has two paifangs (archways) and walls painted with murals featuring Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen and Chairman Mao Zedong.
Flags flap in the air welcoming visitors. Pinned to the wire fence of a car park is a photo of a beaming Miss Mauritius standing next to a drawing of Confucius.
There is a Buddhist temple, barbers and well-stocked food shops, as well as other businesses and stores serving not only the Chinese, but also Hindu, Afro-Creole and French locals.
Ranked by the World Bank as the best place to do business in Africa in 2018, Mauritius’ economy is expected to reach developed country status by the early 2020s.
Since independence in 1968, the multicultural former British colony has morphed from a sugar plantation economy, through tourism and textiles to an emerging service economy specialising in finance.
Around 10 per cent of the population live under the poverty line and corruption still exists, but compared with other African countries, it is a model of good governance.
Despite dwindling numbers and only one cabinet member in a government dominated by people of Indian heritage, the local Chinese community still contributes greatly to the island’s economic development.
There has been a Chinese presence in Mauritius since the late 1600s, starting with convicts brought by the Dutch who controlled the island at the time, followed by artisans and traders captured by French pirates.
But it was only after 1810 when the British took over that their numbers increased and the community settled, establishing Chinatown in Port Louis as a centre for commerce, culture and gossip.
The abolition of slavery saw thousands of labourers recruited, mainly from India but also from China.
“They weren’t docile like the Indian coolies, they already suffered British exploitation in Southeast Asia and didn’t want to be whipped again by the French,” said Kee Chong Li Kwong Wing, a former member of the Mauritius parliament, now chairman of the country’s second largest bank, SBM.
The current community of mainly Hakka-speaking Chinese arrived from Meixian in Guangdong Province in the 1840s, many planning to join the gold rush in South Africa, but stayed in Mauritius.
From the top floor of his bank in Port Louis’ financial district, Li tells the tale of how Chinese dug under the MCB, a bank founded by French slave-owners, and emptied its vault to pay for a ship back home.
True or not, what is fact is that the Chinese, rather than labour in sugar cane fields, opened shops in the Mauritian countryside to supply food to the Indian labourers, whose ancestors form most of the population.
The Chinese influence on the local cuisine is unquestionable with dishes like dumplings, fried rice and “Poulet Mee Foon” – chicken soup with rice vermicelli noodles that is eaten by nearly everyone.
Chinese continued to arrive in significant numbers well into the 20th century, so most have roots on the island going back three or four generations.
“Their original goal was to make money and return home but China turned communist, so they couldn’t go back, and they were stuck here,” Li said. “We played a vital intermediary role between the English rulers, the French farming community and the labourers because you needed an island-wide retail network to feed the labour force for continued work,”
said Li, who believes the Sino-Mauritian shopkeepers were among the first in the world to develop a system of microcredit for the poor.
A peculiarity of the local Chinese is their long names. British immigration authorities demanded people add their father’s names as a way to make it easier to distinguish them.
As their businesses prospered, the Chinese began manufacturing essentials like biscuits, soap and shoes and started importing foreign goods from Britain. Indeed, the Chinese can be credited with starting the industrialisation process in Mauritius – first with food manufacturing then textiles.
Companies like Chinese-owned confectionery and cake manufacturer Esko are household names in Mauritius. Managing director Eric Lim also runs a number of charities that help the elderly.
Family-owned biscuit manufacturer Li Wan Po & Co celebrated its 100th anniversary this year.
King’s family history is typical. His father arrived in the 1930s, set up a rum distillery and lemonade factory, bought an old colonial house in downtown Port Louis that the family still own and raised 12 children – many of whom moved on to professional jobs.
Due to the shortage of Chinese women on the island, many Sino-Mauritians married into the local creole and Indian population.
“If we had stayed in China we would have been planting rice,” King said. “I went back to my ancestral village and I looked around and thought … I’m glad my father left. And we admire how they left because they were very poor and there were no cars. They walked and sailed on a junk.”
But just as his ancestors had fled poverty, survived and thrived, today many of the young Chinese are leaving for better career prospects abroad, especially to Australia and Canada.
In an article published last year on Mauritius’ Defimedia website, Roland Tsang Kwai Kew warned that in a few years his community “might become as dead as the dodo”, referring to the flightless bird that roamed Mauritius before humans arrived and which is even today synonymous with extinction.
“The only reason many people see to stay here and have a family is if they have their own business” said mother-of-three Christelle Lim.
Lim and her husband run their own household goods manufacturing and import company.
She said old Chinese traditions, especially in important things like funeral and bereavement rites were being lost, which was a shame. But like most young Chinese locals, she understands things will change.
The hope is that as the Mauritian economy moves to first world status, locals who emigrated will come back and help move the country into the technological age.
“Sino-Mauritians are no longer living at the back of a small shop sharing a bed with three brothers,” said King.
Some are already returning, such as 25-year-old Jade Li, who studied bioengineering at London’s Imperial College.
She is currently setting up a non-governmental organisation called Katapault, which she hopes will attract graduates to work with young Mauritians from all backgrounds and get them interested in robotics.
“Our education system doesn’t encourage critical thinking and our young people struggle with that,” she said. “I want to empower young children … to be problem-solvers and change makers.”
Mauritius now aims to become the Singapore or Switzerland of Africa, with even a bitcoin digital exchange in the pipeline.
The Chinese community that began with its tiny village shops, has fully integrated into Mauritian society and is well placed to drive Mauritius to its next stage of development.
And through the sophisticated and highly educated younger generations, the Chinese dodo could be reincarnated, even becoming airborne as a super-smart drone.