Chinese Arrival Day

Wednesday being Jan 12, will mark the 169th anniversary of the arrival of Chinese to Guyana as indentured labourers: 262 all-male recruits from Amoy aboard the ship Glentanner after 52 had died on the 177-day journey. Amoy (modern Xiamen) was a British-run treaty port in Fujian province. Another all-male cargo of 85 passengers who had survived the journey, after 69 had perished, landed 5 days later. They were sent to West Demerara sugar plantations, mainly Windsor Forest and Blankenburg. By the time Immigration from China was discontinued, 39 ships had brought 1879, a total of 13,541 Chinese landed in Guyana but with only 17% women and few from agricultural backgrounds.
The Chinese were very diligent workers but because of higher transportation costs, reluctance to reindenture, low birth rates and some returning to China, their numbers in the colony was never very high. Many of those who remained generally intermarried with the local Africans because of the paucity of Chinese women and the remainder gradually opened up groceries or rum-shops on the plantations or in Georgetown.
In one remarkable experiment, a Chinese missionary was facilitated by the government to start a settlement on the Kamuni Creek (near what is now CJIA) with time-expired Chinese immigrants. A number of Christian converts had been recruited in China. They used the timber in the area to produce coal for the fast-growing Georgetown urban dwellers and soon undersold the Portuguese merchants who had dominated the trade and moved into the Charlestown area. The settlement, unfortunately, collapsed after the missionary absconded with the settlement funds and the settlers moved to Georgetown where went into commerce. They soon joined the Portuguese in the nascent middle class as they rose in business, entered the professions and the Civil Service. By intermarrying with the local African Guyanese populace, the Chinese never provoked any sustained hostilities against themselves.
In the modern era, several Chinese were prominent in the PPP and participated in the struggle for independence. The first President of Guyana, of course, was Arthur Chung, who fittingly hailed from Windsor Forest, where the first Chinese had been bound. It was an apt trope for the journey they had travelled in their new country.
So, it is important that we commemorate the arrival of the Chinese in Guyana as a national event, since they played a key role in all aspects of our development, starting with helping to stabilize the production of sugar. As New Zealand has noted, “Commemoration means marking an important historical event on or around a meaningful anniversary. Commemoration brings people together in physical and virtual spaces to reflect on the past and its relevance to the present. There doesn’t have to be a formal remembrance ceremony or a physical monument – commemoration could involve sharing historical information etc.” And it is in this spirit that this column was crafted.
When a public holiday to commemorate the arrival of Indian indentured was lobbied for and finally granted in 2004, I maintained it was unfortunate that the arrival of the Portuguese, Chinese and other immigrants from Africa and the West Indies, was conflated into May 5th – the day the Indians first arrived. The public holiday was dubbed “Arrival Day”. This had to somewhat infra dig for these other groups and it was therefore quite positive when President David Granger declared that Jan 12 and June 3rd, the days the Chinese and Portuguese respectively arrived were duly given public recognition. This tradition must continue and be expanded for the other immigrant groups. Our Indigenous Peoples have “Amerindian Heritage Month” and African Guyanese have Emancipation Day to acknowledge their role in constituting our national mosaic. All groups must be commemorated.
In the modern era, it is noteworthy that Guyana was a pioneer in the English-speaking Caribbean to give official recognition to the Chinese Communist Government in 1972 after US President Nixon had made his surprise visit early in the year. It is a little-known fact that Communist China’s first foreign aid program was to Guyana, when its engineers arrived in the same year to establish a clay-brick factory in Canal, WBD. They would later supply textile and other factories. It should be noted that a Chinese company CNOOC owns 25% of the Stabroek Block 10 billion a barrel of oil. There has since been a steady influx of new Chinese immigrants into Guyana and their impact will definitely be significant going forward.