Franco-Chinese in Tahiti: Assimilation and quest for identity – from 1973 to present

Kanti Temple in Papeete, an important place for the Chinese community. - © J. GirardotA meeting place for the community: the Sinitong building in Papeete. - © J. GirardotLion dance in businesses during Chinese New Year. - © J. GirardotDecorations for Chinese New Year at the Papeete Market. - © J. GirardotDecorations for Chinese New Year at the Papeete Market. - © J. GirardotChinese Philanthropic Association building in Papeete. - © J. GirardotChinese Philanthropic Association building in Papeete. - © J. GirardotJean Chahaut, President of the Tiger Dragon Association. - © J. Girardot
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From the first Chinese to arrive on Tahitian shores in 1865 as “coolies,” to the newer generations of Polynesians of Chinese origin 150 years later, what has changed as far as the evolution and aspiration of this population inextricably entwined into contemporary Polynesian history? Here is where stories and exposés intersect.


Decorations for Chinese New Year at the Papeete Market. - © J. Girardot
Decorations for Chinese New Year at the Papeete Market. - © J. Girardot
Lion dance in businesses during Chinese New Year. - © J. Girardot
Jean Kape, passionate defender of Tuamotuan culture. - © J. Girardot

French Polynesia is a multicultural society, made up of several different components. One of them is the Chinese community, which for a longtime remained separatist through associations and Chinese schools all while keeping strong ties with continental China. However, the political, geostrategic and economic events of the 1960s profoundly transformed this community, leading to French citizenship in 1973 for the 10,000 Chinese living in French Polynesia.

Forty-two years later, what has become of this Chinese community in contemporary Tahiti? Can we still speak of a separatist community in light of so much diversity? Cultural blending and different ways of life between Chinese people who settled in the urban area of Tahiti and those who settled in rural districts or on other islands often have differing explanations of their origins.

Jean Kape, also known as Fasan Chong, is a stout defender of Paumotu language and culture of the Tuamotu Archipelago. Born in Napuka, in the Tuamotu Islands, his father was the only Chinese person on this isolated atoll. “My Father was born in Canton. He came here without a Chinese wife and took my Paumotu mother as his common law spouse. As children, we didn’t communicate much with our father because he was deaf. My culture and my language are entirely Paumotu. I have never felt Chinese. I don’t speak the language and I don’t understand it,” explains Jean Kape. To justify his lack of interest in Chinese culture, he came up with a theory, “Chinese culture doesn’t need saving. It isn’t in danger; however Paumotu culture is. I am much more useful defending Paumotu heritage through involving myself in the conservation of the natural and cultural resources of the Tuamotus.” Is this why he uses a name far removed from his Chinese roots? “It is others who changed my name, who in a sense removed my Chinese identity. Kape is my Paumotu first name. My mother always called me Kape. Jean is my baptized name.”

“A Polynesian upbringing, a Polynesian way of life…”

Another family name and another story belong to Hiro Ou Wen, who is a well-renowned Polynesian jewelry designer born in 1944. His father was one of the first Chinese immigrants. Hiro Ou Wen recounts that his father, “started raising pigs in Vairao (on Tahiti’s peninsula) and was the first to make salted meat. At the time, there was a huge demand for salted meat on behalf of the whalers who arrived in Tahiti. Then he leased lands in Punaauia for raising livestock. This is where he met my Tahitian mother. She was 15 years old and he was in his 60s.” His father claimed his son at birth and registered him at the City Hall in Punaauia. Like many Chinese people at the time, his father wished to finish out his days in China. He wanted to take his son with him, much to the chagrin of his Polynesian family. “They were totally against it. They were advised to reclaim me a second time in Papeete a few weeks after my birth. At the time, the administration was not very efficient and services between the districts didn’t communicate. This is when I was named Mataoa, from my mother’s side of the family. My father left for China when I was two years old. I never knew him.” Hiro grew up with his grandparents with the name Mataoa. “I was brought up Polynesian with a Polynesian way of life. I went fishing with my grandfather, farmed the land and traded products when we needed something in particular. It was a very simple life. I spoke Tahitian and I learned French in school.” After studying in France, Hiro joined the Commission for Atomic Energy as a draughtsman. “I came back to Tahiti for work. This is how I met my wife, who is half-Chinese, half-Paumotu. We decided to get married in Punaauia. I was 26 years old. Just before the wedding, I was informed that the birth certificate that I presented in the name of Mataoa was not valid and that the one my father did was the correct one. Up until the age of 26, I had no idea that my father had claimed me, and it was then that I had to change my name to Hiro Ou Wen.” If anyone asks Hiro Ou Wen if he claims any Chinese heritage, he laughs and states that his children sometimes find him very Chinese due to his character.

Chinese Philanthropic Association building in Papeete. - © J. Girardot
Hiro Ou Wen, renowned jewelry designer. - © J. Girardot
Eliane Lauzun, President of the Chinese Philanthropic Association. - © J. Girardot
Ernest Sin Chan, writer and ethnopsychiatrist. - © J. Girardot
Gérard Siu, entrepreneur passionate about traditional outrigger canoes. - © J. Girardot
Chinese Philanthropic Association building in Papeete. - © J. Girardot
A meeting place for the community: the Sinitong building in Papeete. - © J. Girardot

Different stories and journeys

Jean’s and Hiro Ou Wen’s accounts show that as soon as a first generation grows up without the presence of a Chinese woman in the family as keeper of the traditions, intermixing erases any trace of Chinese culture, and other than a name and sometimes physical traits, nothing remains of the ethnic origins. However, the majority of Chinese who started families within the heart of the Chinese community tell a different story. 

We met with a gentleman who belongs to the Chinese Philanthropic Association in Papeete. An indissoluble connection to China is obvious in this place charged with history through well-displayed photos of the association’s founding ancestors. He agreed to tell us his family history, but through humility, he wished to remain anonymous: “My grandfather arrived first, then he brought his 14 year old fiancée. My grandfather was an artisan baker in the outer islands before settling in the district of Mataiea in Tahiti. He had a small business, a coconut plantation. He did some distillery and had a small shop where people mainly bartered at the time. My grandparents had eleven children. I grew up in this family and we rarely stepped out of the community. We spoke only our language at the house. Up until my generation, there was no inter-marriage. We all married within the Chinese community. My grandmother selected the husbands for all her daughters. In 1948, when I was 6 years old, there was a huge movement to return to continental China. My grandparents, three aunts, an uncle, my little sister and I were among the first to leave. My parents were to have joined up with us. In China, my grandfather went back into business and my grandmother was a tailor. My aunts joined the Young Communist League and my uncle went into government. Very quickly, my grandfather realized that life was much more difficult in China than in Tahiti. He warned the family in Tahiti not to join us and for two years, we tried to get back to French Polynesia. It was very difficult because the Chinese borders were closed. The only way across was to be smuggled. One of my aunts in Tahiti knew the governor. She managed to get us passes. We remained stuck in Hong Kong for six months, then in Australia, then New Caledonia. I was 9 years old by the time I got back to Tahiti. I didn’t speak one word of French.


Permanent abandon of any notion of a return

The closing of Chinese borders and permanently abandoning any notion of returning to China profoundly affected the local Chinese community, which then decided to immerse itself fully through adopting Polynesian and French values. First, they Frenchified their names, and in the 1960s, engaged in a mass conversion to Christianity. Doing away with Chinese schools facilitated assimilation into Western culture through education. “I was converted to Catholicism in the school run by the Brothers,” says the gentleman. “Since I was considered to be a Chinese national until the end of the 1960s, the Brothers awarded me a private grant so I could study in France then come back to teach math in Tahiti, which I did in 1971.” This man spent an entire career teaching in private schools, and eventually became a headmaster. This assimilation into Western culture did not take him away from his own culture. “My ties to the Chinese community remain very strong. I grew up in the neighborhood of the philanthropic school. Some of my family members taught Chinese there. My grandfathers were some of the school’s founders. This place is very important to me. These are my roots and this place keeps me connected to my culture. I was completely immersed in the culture. I married a Chinese woman since mixed marriages did not take place at the time. Between us, we spoke only Chinese. By the age of 30, I started studying Chinese again. Along with some other former students, we created the Wen Fa association in order to transmit our culture,” confides this former headmaster. He is conscious of being at the place where two cultures intersect: “Our children grew up in a different world; one that was more French. Then after the 1970s, there was more intermarriage. Even so, it wasn’t too worrisome. Even if someone loses one’s culture and language, there is always a point at which one goes back to one’s roots.”

Ernest Sin Chan, a psychotherapist specializing in ethnopsychiatry, has written several books over Hakka identity. He himself is third generation Hakka born in French Polynesia and would probably agree with this gentleman’s statement. He informed us that at one time he reconnected with his Chinese history: “I studied in France and was immersed in western culture. Then later, I felt the need to do some soul-searching. I felt lost. I found myself and today I am very Chinese while at the same time, very westernized.”


Kanti Temple in Papeete, an important place for the Chinese community. - © J. Girardot

“Ways of thinking that remain very Chinese”

In concrete terms, what really remains of this Chinese culture, this Hakka culture? “Life and death rituals, objects and ways of thinking remain very Chinese,” says Ernest Sin Chan. “Even today, if Chinese convert to Christianity, many of them still maintain ties to the Chinese temple. Many Polynesians of Chinese descent practice “Ka san” twice a year to honor the ancestors. Families question themselves at the birth of a child or the death of a loved one. It is during these important life moments that it becomes obvious whether Chinese roots are strong or not.”

Erwina Chanson, a young woman in her thirties, was the 2006 Miss Dragon (each year the Chinese community in Tahiti selects an ambassador). As manager of a business and mother of two, she is far from the image of the traditional submissive Chinese woman in an arranged marriage. She is third generation of her family to be born in Tahiti. She remembers often being told she was a “failed Chinese.” Erwina did not grow up in the Chinese culture, and she says, “My parents are both Polynesians of Chinese descent. Up until elementary school, I spoke only Chinese. After that, I wanted to express myself only in French.” She adds, “My parents are very Catholic, so we don’t go to Chinese temple and we don’t practice Hakka rituals. We do engage in “Ka San,” which is important for all Chinese people. Every six months, we go to the cemetery and pray, but since we are Catholic, we don’t burn incense or take food offerings to the dead.”


“Carrying Chinese cultural values inside me.”

It was the decision to enter the election for Miss Dragon that finally plunged her into her community. She says, “In the beginning, it wasn’t about trying to reconnect with my roots. It was more about opportunity. Afterwards, it became a quest for me to find my culture. This election allowed me to meet the Chinese community, because previously, I had little contact with it, except for at church.” This election also corresponded with an important moment for her family, a return to her roots that her father, Daniel Chanson, current president of the Kuo Min Tang 2 Association, wanted. Erwina adds, “My father wanted to find his roots by the time he retired. He went to China for university studies. He traced the path of his ancestors and met his cousins. He is the driving force.” Will Erwina one day take this same route to find her culture? “I don’t think I will one day decide to learn Hakka. I don’t need to do that in order to be able to communicate with my loved ones. Language aside, I do feel like I carry Chinese cultural values within me, such as the work ethic that my parents passed onto me. And when I come across people of Chinese origin, even if I don’t know them, we have a sense of sharing the same history.”

For this young woman, identity consciousness came into fruition once she left Tahiti to go abroad for her studies. “In Australia, when people asked me where I was from, it was often complicated to explain. First, I am Polynesian. I am French because it is my language; yet I am ethnically Chinese, because inevitably, my genetic legacy doesn’t fool anyone. My physical traits reveal that I am Chinese. It is difficult to explain all of this blending of cultures, upbringing and physical features wrapped into one person. All this compounded my quest for identity, because I was asked questions that I never considered when I was living in Tahiti.” Ernest Sin Chan also notes that the newer generations are interested in their origins without necessarily having the benefit of cultural transmission.


Erwina Chanson, Entrepreneur - © J. Girardot
Jean Chahaut, President of the Tiger Dragon Association. - © J. Girardot
Learning Chinese calligraphy. - © J. Girardot

Today, the members of the Chinese community are present in all sectors of social activity and hold all types of jobs. Between 2006 and 2011, Gaston Tong Sang, the mayor of Bora Bora, was President of French Polynesia three times. The Chinese community distinguishes itself by the economic successes of many of its members through business and creating legitimate organizations.

Despite losing several cultural references, Polynesians of Chinese origin have been able to play the assimilation card without totally giving up their cultural identities. They are vibrant participants in the Polynesian Melting Pot to which they have greatly contributed and continue to enrich.

Alexandra Sigaudo-Fourny

Lucie Guilloux, great granddaughter of a coolie - © J. Girardot

Lucie Guilloux, great granddaughter of a coolie

Lucie, born Schmouker, is the great granddaughter of one of the first coolies who came to Tahiti to farm the Atimaono plantation. Born in 1842 and originally from Sichuan, this Hakka settled with his wife and children in Hong Kong before leaving alone for Tahiti in 1865. His registration number was 102 and he was known by the name Chee Ayée or Apao. A charismatic individual, he quickly became a leader in the Chinese community. Chee Ayée settled in Papara after the closing of the plantation and never brought his family from China. Instead, he moved in with a Tahitian woman, Terautahi Mihinoa a Tati, a daughter of Tati, a big chief in the district of Papara. “It is thanks to my great-grandfather and his alliance that the Chinese were able to obtain land in Mamao and construct a temple, a dispensary and a sanctuary for elderly people,” Lucie reveals. Chee Ayée had two sons. One never had any children and lived his entire life close to the temple. The other, Lucie’s grandfather, had 15 children with a Tahitian woman from Papara. Lucie’s mother, just like her brothers and sisters, grew up in a Polynesian environment and didn’t speak Chinese, even though according to the French administration, she was a considered a Chinese national until she married Lucie’s father, a Frenchman from Lorraine.

A simple phrase when she was born determined her “Chinese” destiny”: “I had chubby cheeks with slanted eyes, which surprised my paternal grandmother, who exclaimed, ‘What a pretty Tonkinese!” When my father heard that, he decided that I would be the Chinese one in the family. My father had the greatest admiration for Chinese culture,” Lucie recalled. Upon her father’s wishes, she was the only one in the family to attend the Chinese school as soon as she turned three to learn Hakka and a little Mandarin. Despite the closing of the Chinese schools in the 1960s, she managed to go to school there until she was 15. “I studied in Taiwan in a high school for Chinese who live overseas. It was such a shock. I knew only a few words of Mandarin and I had to catch up. The food and austere living conditions were very hard for me. However, over there, I made Chinese friends from all over the world.” Still today, Lucie has maintained strong ties with Taiwan where a Taiwanese family adopted her.

Not long after she received her high school diploma in Taiwan, her father passed away, leaving the young girl to make her own choices. “My father had always decided my future and for the first time, I didn’t have a clue what to do.” Lucie decided to leave for France. She received a scholarship and studied at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO) all the while taking courses in French to strengthen her writing. She received a teaching license and an interpreting degree. In Paris, she met her husband, a Polynesian of Chinese origin and wanted to return to Tahiti. “When I received my degree in 1979, I asked for an interview with the Paul Cousseran, the High Commissioner, to request that Chinese language be taught in schools in French Polynesia. In 1980, I was the first teacher of Mandarin in a public institution in Tahiti.” Lucie, the one her father chose to be Chinese, today speaks Hakka with her husband, in-laws and Chinese friends in Tahiti. She also maintains the traditions. Her two daughters do not speak Hakka, but they learned Mandarin. Lucie states, “I have not always felt good in my skin. I had a hard time finding my place between two worlds and two cultures. It is in Paris where I finally found myself. My children think I am the one who is the most Chinese in the family!”


Franco-Chinese in Tahiti:  Assimilation and quest for identity – from 1973 to present
Franco-Chinese in Tahiti: Assimilation and quest for identity – from 1973 to present
From the first Chinese to arrive on Tahitian shores in 1865 as “coolies,” to the newer generations of Polynesians of Chinese origin 150 years later, what has changed as far as the evolution and aspiration of this population inextricably entwined into contemporary Polynesian history? Here is where stories and exposés intersect.
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