When you ask Jason Wang whether it might not be appropriate to describe him as the unofficial ‘leader’ of the burgeoning Chinese business community in Guyana, he makes it clear that he would prefer not to be so labelled. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see the 32 year-old Shandong University graduate differently. Currently in his tenth year of doing business in Guyana, he has secured a significant ‘jump’ on the fresh waves of Chinese merchants currently finding their way into Guyana, mostly from Suriname where, Jason says, the numbers have grown to a point of, perhaps, too much competition.
I was more than a trifle surprised when Jason agreed to talk to me. The Chinese traders whom I have sought to engage in recent weeks have evinced a disinclination which, sometimes, has bordered on outright hostility. I told Jason this and he pleads their case, pointing to “the language barrier” plus, as he puts it, “the strangeness of the Guyanese culture.” Contrary to what I had come to believe, Jason insists that the language deficiency of the Chinese traders is not some contrivance designed to deter curious Guyanese. “English is the biggest problem,” he says, pointing to the need for the local Chinese business community to begin to organize themselves so that they can secure access to English classes.
His own English is more than adequate and so, it seems, is his understanding of the Guyanese culture. At the forum where we met on Wednesday he appeared to have many Guyanese business associates. In the fullness of time I found out why. The President of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) eventually introduced him to me as a member of the GCCI and one of the organization’s Councillors. He is, I understand, the only Chinese businessperson to have joined the GCCI and he said to me that he wants more Chinese to join the Chamber. That way, he says, they will get to know more about Guyana and about the people and the culture. Until that happens, Jason believes, they remain detached.
This is Jason’s eleventh year of doing business in Guyana. He started in 1999, operating a photo shop and laboratory before establishing China Trading, the popular Robb Street outlet for Chinese goods. China Trading, he says, was born out of his own discovery that several categories of consumer goods were either scarce or expensive. “Myself and my wife decided to get into the business of trading.”
Jason traces the current wave of Chinese merchants to 2008. He says that the relationship between the merchants and the Guyanese business community was actually born out of the trading relationship between Guyanese vendors visiting Suriname and Chinese traders operating in Suriname. “The Chinese had good prices and the Guyanese who went to Suriname encouraged them to come here,” Jason says.
Jason is acutely aware of the issues surrounding the steady rise in the number of Chinese clothing establishments in Georgetown. We agreed that they currently number in the region of 25 or 30. After I had made a note of the figure he appeared reflective, eventually volunteering “probably more.” He asserts that the Chinese presence is good for Guyana. “It’s good for the Guyana economy. It also means the experience of a new culture. Look at America. Business is about competition. My own business started because things were too expensive and now we have taken prices down.”
If Jason exudes the persona of a consummate businessman the direction of his discourse suggests that he has other interests. My enquiries reveal that he holds a degree in Civil Engineering and that he has also been trained as a teacher. The latter qualification, he concedes, may well cause him to be seen as a business leader in the local Chinese community here.
On the charge that many Chinese imports into Guyana are not of the best quality Jason is surprisingly open. He concedes that in some instances that may well be the case, explaining that the culture of Chinese production makes allowance for various levels of quality. He takes hold of a glass sitting on a nearby table. “If you ask a Chinese factory to produce this glass,” he says, “they will ask you how much you want to pay for it. You will get what you pay for.” He went on to say that in those circumstances it is true that some merchants order goods of a lesser quality. “It is a matter of what they believe people will pay. If you go to America you will get Chinese stuff there, good Chinese stuff.” Still, he acknowledges the need for local Chinese merchants to be mindful of quality and standards, to try to strike a balance between price and quality. “That is how I run China Trading,” he says.
The length of Jason’s stay in Guyana and the breadth of his experience have brought him additional responsibilities. He has worked as an interpreter during visits to Guyana by official Chinese delegations. Additionally, on matters pertaining to the business interests and concerns of the local Chinese community and the work of the Guyana-China Business Council, Jason is sometimes consulted by the Chinese Embassy.
This year, Jason was instrumental in organizing a Chinese contingent at the Mashramani celebrations. For him it was part of what he believes is the essential process of bringing the Guyanese and Chinese communities together. He believes that it will be a lengthy process but that it is not a matter of choice. “If the Chinese understand Guyanese culture better it will make for better relations and better business,” he says.
Jason says he is hopeful that Chinese traders will eventually secure full acceptance in Guyana. We are good for business. We are good for competition. We help the Guyana economy.” And, he adds, “Chinese are honest people, they work very hard, they don’t do anything illegal.”