One hundred and fifty years ago in March 1865, 337 laborers of Chinese origin arrived in Tahiti. This event marked the birth of a Chinese community in our islands. As you’ll discover here in the first of a series of two articles dedicated to the Chinese population in Tahiti, this community, inextricable from our country’s recent history, has vacillated between tradition, modernity, assimilation and a return to the home country. This first article explores the first century of Chinese-Tahitian history, from the arrival of the first “coolies,” up until the law of January 1973 that granted them French citizenship.
A cohesive community
Living conditions were extremely harsh on Atimaono. Men lived in confinement on the plantation, slaving away for 12-15 hours a day to grow cotton, coffee and sugar cane. Many lost their lives. Others escaped to the Leeward Islands, which were still not under the rule of the colonial administration. Add to that the tensions between Hakka and Punti tribes, which often ended in brawls. In 1869, a man was killed during one of these fights. Several Chinese were immediately arrested and four were sentenced to death. Three of them were pardoned, but the fourth was guillotined. His name was Chim Soo Kung. Was he really guilty? According to the stories, he sacrificed himself to save his comrades from group punishment. To this day, the Chinese community considers Chim Soo Kung a martyr, and gathers in front of his mausoleum once a year in the Chinese cemetery in the district of Arue. Conflicts aside, this man is the symbol of a solid, united community.
Hong King Harbor, 1865: three hundred and thirty-seven Chinese were crammed into the Ferdinand Brumm, a Prussian three-masted ship. The natives of Guangdong, a province in southeastern China, belonged to the Hakka and Punti (a Cantonese group). Most of them were poor peasants ready for any adventure in order to make a fortune, and especially to better lives for the families they left behind in a country ravaged by war, natural disasters, famine and uncertainty. The ship took them to Tahiti, a French protectorate where a work-contract was waiting for them. Tahiti Cotton and Coffee Plantation Cy Ltd had hired them to exploit the land of Atimaono, one of Tahiti’s rare vast plains (located on what is known as the current district of Papara on the western side of the island). Since the abolition of slavery in France in 1848, big landowners needed to find cheap, solid, fearless laborers. Chinese immigration in 1865 totally fit the bill. On March 25, 1865 after 83 brutal days at sea in extenuatingly difficult conditions, the “coolies”—a term used for laborers of Oriental origin—arrived at the plantation. Two other convoys of immigrants were expected within the following months. In all, more than 1,000 Chinese were registered in 1866. This first wave of immigration authorized by the French administration marked the true installation of a Chinese community in French Polynesia, even if some Chinese were marginally present on the territory prior to 1865.
This solidarity became evident in 1873, when the plantation company went bankrupt and abandoned its laborers. Left to themselves, they found help from some Chinese people who had set themselves up in town. This mutual assistance, known as Tungka kanh, becomes increasingly expressed during two periods of mass immigration of Chinese from 1907 to 1914 (2,512 immigrants) and from 1921 to 1928 (2,152 immigrants). This practice originated with
the development of small businesses within the Chinese community throughout the islands and districts (the term for communes throughout Tahiti outside of Papeete).
Tungka kanh involved a wholesaler or a big retailer in Papeete who helped a small retailer through providing him with merchandise on credit based on a handshake without a written contract. Furthermore, there were self-help organizations for businesspeople, such as the Société de Secours Mutuels (Society of Mutual Help), which in 1911 became the SCI Si Ni Tong still in existence today.
Temporary status to a more long-term presence
With the disappearance of the large plantation, many Chinese (mostly Punti) left Tahiti to return to China or to pursue more adventures in other countries. An 1892 census accounted for fewer than 350 Chinese in what was then known as the French Establishments in Oceania, which more or less corresponded to what is now French Polynesia. They were all identified by a numbering system established by the French administration in order to reconcile issues of language, the complexity of their names, and to better control them. The former “coolies” had a residence permit and they leased land, became merchants, grocery store owners and farmers. They quickly opened small boutiques in the districts or the outer islands where Polynesians really depended upon them. Although they were bachelors when they arrived in Tahiti, the first Chinese assimilated into local life through often intermarrying with Polynesians. The children from these marriages tended to not receive any Chinese education. This is why to this day, descendents of this first group of Chinese immigrants are still integrated into the Chinese community. However, starting in the 1880s, this ended with the successive arrivals of Chinese women. Better living and working conditions prompted them to come to Tahiti to find a husband or a “fiancé” within the framework of an arranged marriage between two families. These women became the keepers of tradition.
Victims of discriminatory taxes
Whereas up to that point, the Chinese had been considered meek farm laborers registered within the limits of temporary and controlled immigration, the advancement of their situation and the arrival of new immigrants did not sit well with aggressive settlers and European business owners. They insistently denigrated and vilified the Chinese community, accusing them of debauchery due to their penchant for gambling and opium. In reality, as Gérald Coppenrath highlights in his book, Les Chinois de Tahiti, the retail profits of large European businesses were suffering due to competition with the Chinese shops. Under pressure, the General Council decided to establish a registration tax of 2,500 Pacific Francs for all immigrants arriving in Papeete.
This amount, quite substantial at the time, was eventually reduced; however, it also pertained to registered nationals. The Chinese deemed the practice as discriminatory. Consequently, fifty Chinese business owners hired a lawyer, Mr. Goupil, to take their case. It took two years for the State Council to make its decision. In 1899, it was declared that authorized Chinese residents would not have to pay a registration tax and that they would be treated as equals with the other business owners. However, the Chinese still had to pay other taxes, such as a residency tax…
The settlers were furious at the State Council’s decision. One of the disgruntled settlers was the famous French painter Paul Gauguin, who was living in French Polynesia at the time. He was particularly offensive and brutal towards the Chinese community: “…this yellow stain that defiles our national flag makes my face redden with shame…Foreigners, like us, live with a certain degree of luxury, and if they become rich, they spend more, maintaining an economic system while contributing to public assets; with the Chinese, there is none of this. Their money goes into the till then gets sent back to China…We can see with which ease and speed the Chinese absorb all we have to offer, then they leave us behind in the dust…those of us to whom Tahiti is home, this French land…they leave us with nothing to chew on.”
The constant idea of a return to China
Despite discrimination and these attacks, the Chinese-Tahitians never revolted.
Except for mobilizing other registered aliens to protest the taxes, they maintained a low profile. They sent their children to Chinese schools. French schools had long been inaccessible to them due to the language barrier, but there was also hostility toward them because simply put, it was not cheap and they did not want to pay the school fees. They had their own organizations everywhere, and even celebrated their marriages within their own community rather than have them conducted by an official of the French State. This explains to some extent the Chinese attachment to tradition, their ancestors, and their very strong ideas about returning to the home country. Outside of the large immigration waves between 1921 and 1928, there were always expat return movements. At the end of the Second World War when China became liberated from the Japanese, the idea of going back to the home country became more urgent for some members of the community.
In 1947, 757 Chinese boarded two Messageries Maritimes ships that had taken a special detour to Papeete. Most of the passengers were elderly who wanted to spend their final days in China, but there were also young people whose parents wanted them to be educated in China. This return to the home country proved to be a bad move for many Chinese in Tahiti who found a very different China in 1949. It was a China under the Communist regime of Mao Zedong. Many of them wanted to return to Tahiti but couldn’t get back. Guy Yeung, President of the Wen Fa Association writes at the beginning of the book, Histoire et portrait de la communauté chinoise de Tahiti: “This unfortunate experience in 1949 made us aware that the future of the Chinese population in Tahiti was to remain in French Polynesia. From this point, we made a definite decision to put an end to any idea of returning to China.”
Towards naturalization and assimilation
This event and new approach shaped attitudes. Education, which up until that point had taken place in Chinese schools, quickly shifted into a French curriculum. The arrival of Christian missionaries in Tahiti deported from China helped promote the conversion of the Chinese community to Christianity and the importance of educating their children in private Catholic schools. In 1964, the Chinese school shut down. At the same time, and at a diplomatic level, France recognized the existence of the People’s Republic of China. This immediately created a lot of anxiety within the local Chinese community for it did not support Mao Zedong’s ideologies. Suddenly, the question of French naturalization became the focus of discussion and interrogation. Up until that point, it had not been a pertinent issue for the Chinese (except in regards to the right to buy land reserved for French citizens). L’Union, the association for the future of French Polynesia, became particularly active in an assimilation movement that had started a few years prior. However, progress had been slow and disorganized. Then the geopolitical events sped things up and l’Union became very engaged.
In October 1964, China detonated its first atomic bomb. The international race for weapons took off full throttle. France, led by General De Gaulle, was thrust into a vast nuclear military program. The first launch took place in the Sahara in 1960. In order to engage in experimental weapons testing, a site was built in 1964. It was located 1,200 km (745 mi) southeast of Tahiti on the Fangataufa and Moruroa atolls in French Polynesia. Known as the Centre d’expérimentation du Pacifique (CEP), it launched its first missile in July 1966. Consequently, French Polynesia became a highly restricted strategic area for the State. There was no doubt that government authorities wanted to quickly assimilate Chinese immigrants. Genealogist Louis Shan Sei Fan remembers that, “they needed citizens who would vote, since there was already an Independentist movement in place.”
In 1965, 378 naturalizations were granted. In 1966, there were 414. It was a start. Almost 100 years after their arrival, the law of January 9, 1973 finally granted French citizenship to almost all the 10,000 Chinese in French Polynesia. A new page in the history of Chinese in Tahiti was now on record, along with a slew of upheavals in French Polynesia. These include the economic boom generated by the activities of the CEP and the building of the international airport that opened up our islands to the world.
The world in the middle of the 19th century
During the 19th century, the Qing Empire experienced immense social unrest, an explosive demographic growth and increased intrusion by Western powers. The British decision to open up trade, more notably for its opium exports deemed illegal by imperial rule, resulted in the First Opium War in 1840 and the Chinese defeat (Treaty of Nanjing, August 29 1842). The British not only gained free trade of opium, but importantly, the concession of Hong Kong, which would facilitate migrations.
Starting in 1850, Chinese, lured by gold rush fever, migrated to California where they primarily worked in construction of the railroads. The American Civil War, which insisted upon an economic separation between the north and south, weakened the entire country. Cotton and slavery were at the heart of this conflict.
From 1851 to1870, France was under Napoleon III’s Second Empire. Slavery had been recently abolished in 1848 and the industrial revolution was in motion. The French textile industry was in full development and needed a lot of cotton. Overseas, Napoleon III’s marines lay the foundation for a new colonial empire to fulfill the third Republic’s vision of expansion.
The remainder of Europe
Industrialization, population explosions, democratization and nationalism became key words of the 19th century. Aspirations of nationalism, which were becoming particularly obvious in Europe, gradually changed the continent’s political map. These changes also marked the fall of a certain “European order” that led to the outbreak of the First World War.