Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Chinese of French Caribbean territories

I have earlier mentioned that I have come across many Chinese in Cayenne, French Guiana, where they seem to run most of the shops and restaurants.  I had tried to find out more about how and why they got there but they seemed reluctant to reveal more.  They were probably wondering if I was a spy of either the French or the Chinese Governments, or of the press which might end up writing something nasty about them.
Over the last few days, I have gone to two other French overseas departments, Martinique and Guadeloupe.  In contrast to Guiana, there are few Chinese here, whether in retail or the restaurant scene.  I wondered if this was due to deliberate national or regional government policy, or developmental requirements of individual regions ¨C for instance, French Guiana has a small population and hence desirable to have more foreign immigration.
In Guadeloupe, I spoke to a Chinese shopkeeper and a Chinese restaurant owner.  Both were originally from Zhejiang Province, eastern China, which is renowned as one of the most entrepreneurial of the Chinese provinces and whose people are known to travel afar to seek for business opportunities.  Both have spent some years in French Guiana before coming to Guadeloupe, and they said that most of the few hundred Chinese in Guadeloupe had also come via Guiana.  Basically, Chinese citizens do not need visas to visit Suriname.  Many Chinese went to Suriname and then slipped illegally across Moroni River that forms the lightly patrolled Suriname-French Guiana border.  (See my earlier story about the chaotic border scene and how I took trouble to cross that border legally). They ended up in Cayenne, Kourou and other Guiana towns, where they start and run businesses.  My guess is that, since the French probably wanted more people to populate sparsely populated Guiana and so kept a blind eye to the growing number of an entrepreneurial race there,
But business has become so competitive in Guiana.  After some of these originally illegal Chinese in Guiana eventually obtained French citizenship, they moved to Martinique and Guadeloupe ¨C where there are more tourists and stronger local spending power.
Are Chinese popular locally?  I was told that the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique are less welcoming to the Chinese than the people of Guiana.  The few Chinese in these two islands are often robbed and spied on. In December 2007, as I was told, a few local youth broke into a newly set up Chinese shop. Failing to find valuables, the angry youth set fire to the Euro 600,000 shop.  Not only was the shop burned down, the shop¡¯s owner and his family of seven were killed in the fire.  Hence, local Chinese are always on guard.  This is the life of these Chinese at a faraway, remote corner of the world.
Now in the Commonwealth of Dominica. Flying to St Lucia tomorrow morning.

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