Glimpses of Guyanese History

The unitary colony of British Guiana was brought into existence by Royal Proclamation on 21st July 1831. To celebrate that event, the British Guiana Centenary Year Book, 1831-1931, edited by E. Sievewright Stoby, was published in 1931.  The Year Book contained a series of essays under the title “Our Place in Guiana,” written by four prominent citizens – African, Chinese, Indian and Portuguese. These essays provide glimpses into the ethnic communities through the eyes of certain individuals.
Guyana Review reprints the essay on “The Chinese” exactly as it appeared in the Yearbook seventy-seven years ago. It was written by Honourable Robert Victor Evan Wong, the first Chinese-Guianese to become a member of the Legislative and Executive Councils of British Guiana.

The Chinese

By R. V. Evan Wong, B.Sc.,
Member of the Executive and
Legislative Councils, 1926-1930.

Less than eighty years ago, the Chinese were unknown in this Colony. In 1853, the first immigrant ship from China reached these shores, and it took the succeeding quarter of a century to complete the introduction of the 14,000 souls that that Country contributed to British Guiana by means of organised immigration. It is worthy of passing mention here that, to obtain the last ship-load of these, numbering 515, the Colony found it expedient to adopt a system of free immigration.

The figures of the census recently taken are not yet known, but the present size of the Chinese Community is estimated at around 3,000. This would seem a poor result to have been obtained from the introduction of 14,000 people, reinforced as they were by independent emigration from time to time from China − since 1879. Mr. (now Sir Cecil) Clementi in his book on “The Chinese in British Guiana“ has proved fairly conclusively, however, that the chief explanation is to be found in the extremely low percentage of female to male immigrants into the Colony.

The Chinese, therefore, form but a small part of the population of British Guiana. It will be conceded, however, that their value is not inconsiderable nor will it surprise anyone familiar with the characteristics of the race to find that their influence has been practically confined to the economic side of the life of the Colony. Introduced here purely to provide labour on the sugar plantations, it was not long before they penetrated into the retail trade in which they quickly built up a reputation for straight dealing and, with it, an assured position. This business still provides the means of livelihood for the bulk of our Chinese population.

Honourable Robert Victor Evan Wong
Honourable Robert Victor Evan Wong

The retail trade has been, and still is, the best means that this Colony affords the Chinese to fulfil his deep-rooted desire to be his own master in the quickest possible time.

This done and the wherewithal acquired − or even, it may be said, before that − his instinct for financial adventure urges him further afield. It is probably correct to say that, of the total wealth in the hands of the various races that constitute the population of British Guiana, the percentage kept in the safe form of “securities and cash” is smaller in the case of the Chinese than of any other people. The Chinese have always been on the look-out for something new to do with their surplus cash and it is difficult to think of any new industry or economic venture which this Colony has tried, successfully or otherwise, in which they have not done their share.

Perhaps a short survey of the history of some of these ventures may not be out of place. Let us take Agriculture. One of the first things in which the Chinese thinks of investing is land and, in the Agricultural development of the Colony, they have not lagged behind any other race, even to the disastrous experiment with rubber.

Turning to the Hinterland, we find that in the Gold Industry, one of the best known names was that of a Chinese and even to-day, in the dawn of what we hope may be another gold era, it is no unusual thing to hear an old “ knocker “ wish that” Old Ho-a-shoo” were still alive. To a Chinese also fell the honour of being one of the pioneers of our latter-day development of the Diamond Industry which still continues and in which the race is yet represented.

The first Bauxite Concession, which led to the establishment of the Bauxite Industry, was held by a Chinese; while, if ever there is an Oil Industry here, it will be remembered that a Chinese held some of the first concessions and owned a half share in the first drilling rig that came to the Colony; and may we not prophesy that, when that happy day comes, the Chinese will also be there, or thereabouts !

So much on the economic phase of Chinese activities during the past century of British Guiana’s history. With the award of the Guiana Scholarship last year to Mr. Chan Choong, the Chinese have now won, at one time or another, every scholarship or exhibition available in the Colony. In the professions, they have produced representatives in Medicine, Dentistry, Law, Engineering, Surveying and Agriculture; and it is worthy of note that three of them, in Medicine, are women. It would also, probably, surprise many people to know that the first Chinese Land Surveyor in British Guiana came here as an emigrant, in the person of Wu-Tai-Kam, who founded the ill-fated Hope Town Settlement in 1865.
In the matter of Politics, however, it must not be surprising, to students of the Chinese character, to find the race in this Colony definitely backward, as compared with the others. It is true that there has been a Chinese on the Municipal Council, and one has also served on the Colonial Councils, but those were unusual instances, and it seems certain that it will be a long time before they are repeated.

The Chinese Association, the material embodiment of which is to be found in its imposing headquarters on Brickdam in the City of Georgetown, might well rank, however, in the forefront of Colonial organisations of its kind. This was founded and has been carried on without assistance from any other race, and the success it has achieved, is evidence that in British Guiana, the Chinese have been true to their national reputation for independence, and self-help.

This record would no doubt be incomplete without some reference to sport. Here again the Chinese have nothing to be ashamed of. They have regularly appeared in all the competitions and leagues run in connection with Cricket and Football in the Colony, while in Tennis their team were runners-up, and deserving of a better fate at that, in the first competition for the Wise Cup. In Athletics, we find that several of the records at Queen’s College were held by Chinese youths. One of these, the hundred yards in ten seconds, has been standing for over a decade.

And, now that the tale has been told, however inadequately, of the past, what of the future? We have written above of ‘the characteristic’ instinct for financial adventure which has distinguished the race since its advent to the Colony. British Guiana, in the coming century of its history, will stand, as it has never stood before, in dire need of this great impulse on the part of its people − this great impulse which may often result in broken hopes and men but which inevitably builds a great nation. The Chinese Community will not fail to do its part.

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