What if I told you there was once a Chinatown in Guyana? Yes there was , and it was located in the present day Charlestown, Georgetown. At one time in Guyana there were approximately fourteen thousand (14,000) Chinese immigrants, and they worked on the plantations in Berbice, West Demerara and some parts of Essequibo. Chinese immigration into Guyana began in 1853 and the last ship came in 1879. The last ship was named “The Admiral,” however, some references seems to label it as the “Dartmouth.” The Admiral landed at the present day Stabroek, Georgetown, where nine hundred and fifteen(915) people disembarked, including a Christian group/family named the “Chungs.” The Chungs were builders in Hong Kong, and their purpose was two fold. First, they would be involved in construction in the colony of Guiana, and secondly, they will preach Christianity to the rest of the Chinese population, who were referred to a “Hakka.
The Last Ship by Jan Lowe Shinebourne
Jan Lowe Shinebourne, one of the descendants of the Chinese in Guyana, wrote a history of the Chungs in her book “The Last Ship.”
The Last Ship largely chronicles the story of Clarice Chung, who later lived and died at Canefield, Berbice. However, Clarice Chung had spent much time in Georgetown, and other surrounding areas. She lived with her husband in Charlestown, the then Chinatown, and was an ever striving entrepreneur. She operated a bakery, and was the person who was credited with inventing the Chinese Cake which is still sold as a favorite pastry in all sections of Guyana today. However, in 1913 a massive fire broke out in Charlestown, and Chinatown was completely destroyed. It was then that Clarice Chung and her family moved to Canefield, Berbice, where she opened a shop. In Canefield, Clarice is known as “the Old Lady.”
Joan Wong and Her Historical Roots
Clarice’s granddaughter, Joan Wong, came back to Guyana (approx 1990s-2000s) to research her family’s history. Some people were reluctant to talk about “the old lady.’ They simply had nothing good to say about her.
Immigration to another country always come with homesickness from those who had to leave their country of birth. Clarice, out of frustration would sometime vent. “I going dead, yes, I want dead, because I don’ want live in dis kiss-meass country no more.” Sometimes the present generation does not appreciate or understand the struggles of those who came to Guiana with nothing and had to start life with nothing.
The initial immigration of Chinese into Guiana were all men. Its was only later that Chinese women began immigrating as well. Its not unusual therefore that there were interracial marriages and relationships. Joan Wong for example found out that her grandfather was James Abdul from Kashmir. Joan’s Aunt, Susan would wholeheartedly integrate into the Indian culture, much to the horror of Clarice who proudly proclaims her pure Chinese heritage.
Chinese Immigration Away From Guyana
Much of Guyana’s Chinese population immigrated away from Guyana over time. The largest immigration took place after independence in 1966. The population was split between capitalism and socialism and that turned into a race war between the two largest ethic groups in the country. That race war/conflict begin to destroy the country, and the professionals, Chinese and Portuguese began selling out and leaving the country. They largely immigrated to the UK and Canada.
The real surprise of the book are the findings of Joan Wong as she traveled to Hong Kong later in life to trace her roots and to document the history of her family.
The Last Ship by Jan Lowe Shinebourne, is available on Amazon and is sold in bookstores in Guyana.
A special thanks to Sandra Khan for giving me this book as a gift.