Chinese New Year’s Greetings!

In honor of my Chinese ancestors, Gong Xi Fai Cai!, from my family to yours. Wishing you a prosperous Year of the Water Snake!

My Chinese ancestors come from Trinidad and Guyana. Many people ask me: “How did the Chinese land in the West Indies?” The short answer is: Slavery. But the full answer is more complicated than that. The Chinese in the Caribbean had to do with indentured workers, migration and immigration. Then their story gets more complicated!

Here is an excerpt from Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar-Chinese and Indian Migrants to the British West Indies, 1838-1918, by Walton Look Lai, page 87-88.

“Life and Labor on the Plantations: The Chinese”: When the Cantonese region began to show increased emigration activity in the years following the first so-called Opium Wars (1839-42), Western importers began to pay active attention to the prospect of recruiting cheap labor from this source. A British parliamentary committee had tried to revive the issue of Chinese immigration to the West Indies as early as 1811, but there was no follow-up. In 1843, licenses for the importation of 2,850 Chinese were actually granted (six for British Guiana and 2,150 immigrants, one for Trinidad for 300, and one for Jamaica for 400). But the projects were never undertaken because at this point the importers were expected to bear the financial risks themselves, and their agents in the East could not get many Chinese to migrate to the West Indies voluntary.”

But eventually, many Chinese indentured workers did arrive in the Caribbean islands to replace the formerly enslaved Africans and native Caribbeans. According to many oral history documents recently translated, many of those early Chinese migrant workers were given false papers, some were forced onto ships and treated as bad or worst than the African slaves. My family stories are still being discovered through genealogy and research. The search continues. Stay tuned!

Sylvia Wong Smith Lewis in canal village in Shanghai, China.



Paulina Joy (maternal great grandmother); Emily Looney, maternal grand aunt (grandmother Violet’s sister); Pauline Chan Keong (my mother’s baby sister). Photo taken in China on way back to Los Angeles.


My mother Carmen, grandmother Violet, Uncle Owen, grand Aunt Emily, Sakaye, Japanese ‘cousin’ who was adopted by my family while her family was sent to internment camp. Photo taken in Los Angeles, CA.