Philomena Lee remembers her family’s decision to leave China after World War II for the Caribbean, as a defining moment of her childhood – seared into her consciousness forever. Being in the Caribbean wasn’t totally foreign to her, after all her mother was Trinidadian and her father Chinese. Naturally she had heard the stories and knew of relatives in what seemed like a world away. But living in a place that you grew up hearing about didn’t make it any less foreign. She was used to speaking in her native Cantonese tongue, had formed friendships and was as Chinese as one could get without actually being born there.
"After the World War and things in China started to change, my grandmother’s family encouraged us to move to Trinidad,” Lee said. “It was back in the days when you took a boat from China to San Francisco, and travelled by train to Florida, and from Florida to Trinidad we took a plane.”
That journey formed the basis of a major change in her life and that of many other Chinese immigrants who transplanted themselves to a place thousands of miles from where they once called home.
For those who may think that Chinese coming to reside and work in Barbados is a new phenomenon that started within the last 15 years, think again. Chinese actually began coming to Barbados back in 1967, when the first Chinese immigrants came from China, Guyana, and Trinidad.
Like most immigrants, theirs was a quest for a better life, taking them to distant lands where they had to walk the delicate balancing act of transplanting themselves into foreign countries, while holding on to key elements of their culture which made them uniquely Asian. Some of these immigrants had to adjust to living in warm climates and adjusting to very different social, political and cultural landscapes. For many, that meant surrounding themselves with people from their home, ensuring that their culture and values remained intact. But it also meant not fully integrating into a world that you adopted as home. Did it make adjusting difficult? No-one knows the difficulties associated with that balancing act better than Michael Chow, a Chinese restaurateur who came to Barbados in 1987, along with his family. Many of today’s Chinese transplants who come to work as diplomats, health workers, government officials or others, are childless, with subsequent children being born here.
“I was 13 when I came here and I had no friends for the first year because I couldn’t speak the language,” he said recalling the experience. “When you’re a child you have no say in the decisions your parents make. My father came in 1987 so we had to come, but I remember being very reserved.”
Those reservations were compounded by the obvious language barrier, being unable to speak English fluently, and feeling out of place. Despite what feelings Chow may have harboured, he and his siblings did their best to adapt. Going to school in Barbados was unlike school in China which starts at 7:30 and ends at 4:30.
“I went to school at St. George Secondary and then my family went to Canada where I did my tertiary education,” Chow said.” While most of my family chose to stay in Canada, my brother and I came back to Barbados.” Chow has never regretted making Barbados his permanent home. He has also forged strong ties among other Chinese in Barbados and serves as Vice President of the Chinese Association in Barbados. He has witnessed Chinese here putting down cultural roots and establishing deep bonds within the community. But when it was time for him to get married, he adhered to his Chinese traditions of choosing a wife that had been nurtured and vetted by his extended family, ensuring that Chinese traditions would be maintained.
Chow is now married and is a successful restaurant owner. “My children are Barbadian and they have adapted to the Barbadian culture,” Chow says. “But we maintain our traditional Chinese family values at home so that they know what is expected of them within our culture.”
Chow says he has seen the growth of Chinese organizations in Barbados, the Confucius Institute being one, along with the expansion of various Chinese cultural celebrations throughout the year in Barbados. He has also witnessed growing opportunities for Barbadians to study in China and cultural exchanges helping to educate people from both cultures.
Philomena Lee had an easier time adapting to Barbados than Chow. Lee, who is a mixture of Chinese and Trinidadian heritage, was born in Trinidad, but moved to China when she was just one year old.
“My father came in 1965 from Trinidad and my mother and my brothers a year after,” she said. “My sister and I didn’t come until 1967 because we stayed back with my grandmother.”
After leaving Trinidad to move to Barbados, 15-year-old Philomena and her sister went to Queens College for sixth form. The family settled in St. Matthias, Christ Church and was able to make a comfortable living. “My parents ran a general shop in St. Mathias and so everybody knew us because a lot of people used to come to the shop,” Lee recalled. “Even now when people see me on the streets of the old neighborhood they still call me Ms. Choo. The Chief Justice Sir Marston Gibson and Patrick Husbands, the jockey, all lived in the neighborhood. The shop is still there, but someone else runs it.” Lee, who speaks Cantonese, says most of the Chinese who come to Barbados speak Cantonese because they come from the south of China. In fact, most of the Chinese in Barbados, with the exception of diplomats and construction workers, speak Cantonese.
After 30 years in Barbados, Lee has established her own family roots with her family traditions firmly rooted in her Chinese legacy. Her extended family however, shows the blending of cultures and races which come from living in the mosaic that is the Caribbean.