By Kurt Campbell
In a plea for genuine recognition to all six races, the “invisible minority” of Guyanese of Chinese descent, as they call themselves, believe their contributions to national development are being overlooked.
In a candid interview, two women of Chinese descent, both citizens of Guyana, discussed the co-existence of just under 1,500 resident Chinese and called on the government to do more to address the crime situation.
Melanie McTurk, the daughter of Marjorie Kirkpatrick, MS, who was widely known for the work she did in chronicling the history of Chinese in Guyana, believes that Chinese have become too intertwined into the fabric of Guyanese culture to still be seen as outsiders.
A descendant from the original batch of Chinese who came to Guyana, McTurk was born and raised in Guyana and identifies as a Guyanese of Chinese descent.
May Chung, the Secretary at the Chinese Association, was born in China and then came to Guyana 17 years. Now a Guyanese citizen, she runs a thriving manufacturing business where she produces coconut oil and coconut flour.
Chung said there are about 1,300 Chinese who are resident in Guyana, 300 of which are below the age of 18, based on a recent survey done by the Chinese Association in collaboration with the Chinese Embassy in Georgetown.
She clarified that while these numbers consist of mostly first and second-generation Chinese, there is a larger group of migrant Chinese who travel to Guyana to work.
“The population is incredibly small,” McTurk said while recalling the mass exit of Chinese post-independence.
“Those who remained have become interwoven into the fabric of Guyana and are no longer recognised as a separate identity. In fact, there is sometimes a denial from the general population that this group of people exists here,” she said.
But that aside, the Chinese are here and their major concern is crime.
Chung joined McTurk to ventilate this point, explaining that Guyanese Chinese have too often found themselves to be among the most vulnerable to criminal elements.
Chung said many Chinese who own businesses sometimes feel targeted. She said while there are no specific statistics to prove this, the experience on the ground tells a story and bears looking into it.
In her conviction that Guyanese of Chinese descent are continuously overlooked, McTurk said this minority has contributed in a myriad of ways to Guyana’s development; a contribution that is rarely recognised.
“I understand that it’s hard to track because of how interwoven we have become but we see so much emphasis on the two main races. Even in those discussions about minorities, we overlook the true minorities such as the Chinese.
“Luckily the indigenous people are getting a little attention now… it comes back to politics, we have played the politics and played to the numbers and we are only recognised when it comes to a festival or holiday. I would like to see it recognised as a genuine part of our culture and heritage,” she added.
NOT JUST CHICKEN FRIED RICE
Chung and McTurk said Chinese Guyanese are often recognised, even in the school system, for their food only, as if that is their only contribution to Guyana.
Chung, in particular, wants people to know that the contribution of Chinese to Guyana goes beyond the popular chicken fried rice and more recently the scores of Chinese supermarkets across the country.
She said Guyanese must begin to realise that the contribution of this section of the population, although small, runs across politics, sports, medicine, education, and history.
“It’s there but hardly acknowledged or highlighted,” McTurk chimed in.
As Chung points out, the Chinese are involved “in a lot of new things”. She pointed to the new Chinese-owned and operated manganese company here in Guyana, a Chinese-owned seafood company and the completion of several infrastructural projects.
Moreover, Chung says Chinese are ready to transform Guyana’s future through technology and transformation that also stands in defiance of crime.
“In China you don’t need to go out with cash, all you need is a phone. Everything you just swipe your phone. So in the future we can help with this system and I don’t think the criminals will get any chance.
While the duo does not think the pandemic has singled out any particular group of people, and it has been devastating to businesses across the board, Chung and McTurk believe the impact on Chinese businesses must be stated.
“Guyana of course is lucky. We have the advent of oil to help buffer that impact or it could have been much, much worse, but I think it is important for us to recognize that with the pandemic came more widespread poverty and an escalation in violent crime,” McTurk said.
Speaking on the movement of people, Chung said while many of the Chinese migrant workers have returned home there has been little movement among the resident Chinese population in Guyana.
ANTI-CHINESE SENTIMENTS AND DISCRIMINATION
Another major issue for the small group of people is “anti-Chinese sentiments” through discriminatory remarks.
McTurk believes the COVID-19 pandemic has also given rise to this locally, finding fuel from “inflammatory” statements made in international spaces.
“There is a certain suspicion… a suspicion that has caused Chinese business to deal with things that, say a business from the UK and US, would not have to deal with.
“This is a moment to look for best partners for development and we should not be allowing our decisions to be coloured,” McTurk added.
But these anti-Chinese encounters are not limited to the pandemic only and in referencing her own experiences, she said racism against Chinese in Guyana occurs almost daily.
“There is a special systemic racism that applies to Chinese and it comes with the assumption of who Chinese are and what they do.
“We have features that differ from the standard of Afro and Indo Guyanese and I have personally come in for teasing and ridicule… I know many other Chinese who face that harassment and while it is not unique to Chinese, society as a whole needs to start getting past it,” she said.
The two women have also expressed concern for those children of Chinese descent who attend schools in Guyana.
A major concern is the language barrier with calls being made for the government to do more to ensure that the education system is not just accommodating to Chinese but to all immigrants who may want to resettle in Guyana.
“Now with oil and gas and more immigrant population looking to Guyana, this is an opportunity to improve and make Guyana welcoming to various immigrant population
“There is a level of xenophobia, not overtly but it is under the main current and we must be aware and start addressing it before it gets to where it is a major problem,” McTurk challenged.
“Chinese are hardworking and we get a lot of misunderstanding because of the language,” Chung added.
A CHINA TOWN IN GUYANA?
Guyana is unique in that it does not have a China Town but neither does McTurk want one, at least not “an artificially created pantomime”, no!
Her opposition? Chinese here have a stronger sense of Guyanese identity, she says.
“I would be absolutely against a China Town, it’s like an artificial concentration capital to keep the Chinese in a zone.”
She recalled that at the turn of the century, it could have been possible where a large number of the Chinese here had settled in one part of Georgetown but later had to flee after a fire destroyed several buildings in the area.
“Because of that, and again, this is why it is so important to know our history and why in a sense the Chinese have become an invisible minority because of that fire, those original families were forced out of the area. They had to take refuge wherever they could. They went into villages,” she added.
NOT SENDING ALL MONIES BACK TO CHINA
The duo also used the discussion to dispel myths, including that Chinese do not reinvest capital into Guyana’s economy but send their money back home to China.
“I don’t think it is true,” a chuckling Chung said.
“Yes money goes to China but it’s because those who operate business send to buy things and have it imported,” Chung added.
She said many Chinese have bought properties and are here for the long haul.
Monies are sent and many times they are also remittances, they claimed.
Altogether, they simply want the authorities to not ignore the Chinese and create hostile environments that send them running back to China.
They want a place that is welcoming.