Cantonese in Trinidad and Tobago

Cantonese in Trinidad and Tobago


Stefan Poon Ying

Cantonese is a language that originated in the old city of Canton which is now modern day Guangzho. Guangzho is the largest city and the capital of the Guangdong province of China (formerly known as Kwangtung) in South East China.


 Map showing the location of the Guangdong province in South East China

The Cantonese language is the lingua franca of this province and it is most commonly called Yue in Chinese. It is also known by other names such as Guang Dong Wa, Guangtung Wa and Yuet Yue. According to Ethnologue, it belongs to the Chinese macrolanguage Zho.

This language is not only spoken in China but also by immigrants and descendants of immigrants in other countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Panama and Brunei. Cantonese is also the most common Chinese heritage language in the Americas, particularly the Caribbean and North America.

Origins of Chinese Languages in Trinidad and Tobago

So, how did this language become one of those spoken in Trinidad and Tobago? It began with the planters’ economic hardship created by the abolition of the slave trade, and continued with the emancipation of the formerly enslaved Africans in the 1830s.

The owners of many West Indian plantations looked for a labour force from Asia, and through this many Chinese labourers were brought into the Caribbean.

Equally, it was economic hardship that drove many Chinese to look to the Caribbean (including Cuba, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad) as an escape from the poverty that they were experiencing in their homeland, especially when they were attracted by tales of great prosperity (“the golden mountain”) to be had in the Americas.

Trevor M. Millett, in “The Chinese Community in Trinidad and Tobago: A Case Study of a Commercial Ethnic Minority” (in Ryan and Stewart 1994)notes that the majority of China’s arable land was under cultivation long before the 18th century. It was even recorded in the late 1700s that the remaining inferior farming lands were given to another group of people, the Hakka people, by the emperor. This left many farmers, without land, and no opportunity for work, especially in the province of Guangdong (then Kwangtung). It was from here that most of the Caribbean-bound Chinese came, seeking available land as a source of their income and livelihood.

Early 19th Century

Millett further states that in the year 1802, the British government suggested that Trinidad* recruit labour from China, and in that same year 23 Chinese were brought on a trial basis. There is no record of these individuals settling on the island, and neither is there any record of their productivity on the island or of their adaptation to it.

Although there are arguments regarding the number of labourers that arrived, the results of this trial run appeared to be relatively favourable, because later in 1806, nearly 147 Chinese arrived on the vessel Fortitude from Macau. Although Macau was a Portuguese colony at the time, it was near Guangdong and so probably heavily utilized as a main port.


A replica of the ship Fortitude on the NALIS website made for the Chinese Bicentenary in 2006


 Map showing the location of Macau in relation to Guangzhou (Canton)

Historian E. L. Joseph records that the majority of the Chinese who arrived were male, because in those days Chinese women were expected to stay in their homeland and mind their families. The establishment of Chinese families and communities was discouraged in the Caribbean; they were to remain separate from the Africans and be attached to the European proprietors.

Unfortunately, too many obstacles were against these early Chinese newcomers in Trinidad.

Firstly, they discovered after spending some time in their new home that there was no great wealth to be gained on the plantations, as rumoured, and many left them to begin their own businesses, using their savings as capital, when their indentureship contracts were over.

Secondly, in a pluralistic society of Hispanophones, Francophones, Franco-Créolophones, Anglophones and speakers of other languages, they experienced great difficulty in settling and functioning comfortably in the wider society. The combination of alienation and the difficulty in adapting, physically, financially, and socially, brought an end to the first wave of Chinese immigration. By the year 1814, many had returned to the homeland; only 30 or so remained and they became fishermen and butchers.

Look Lai notes in The Chinese in the West Indies 1806-1995 that in 1838 Trinidad turned to Portuguese contract labour and Indian indentured labour. Yet, with the passing of the Sugar Duties Act in 1846, increased competition came from other territories like Brazil and Cuba, again exposing the plantations of Trinidad to difficulty.

Mid-19th Century

Simultaneously, China experienced a civil upheaval from the Taiping Rebellion and the Opium Wars with Britain between 1839 and 1860, causing widespread carnage, poverty and overall national distress. These events encouraged the Chinese government to approve the emigration of its people to foreign lands and Trinidad to look again to Chinese labour.

Between 1852 and 1866, over 1,800 Chinese immigrants arrived on a number of voyages. During these years female immigrants also began arriving. This was the beginning of what Millett calls the ‘family immigration’ of the Chinese.  Although government-sponsored immigration by the Chinese had ceased by the year 1866, due to the repeated dissatisfaction, on the part of the proprietors, with the Chinese labourers’ productivity in the plantations, many Chinese continued to come through the invitation of friends and family. These immigrants were different from the former ones of the early 1800s.

Our National Archives notes that although they received contracts regarding housing, food, etc they were not given a promise of being able to return to their homeland. (See photos from the National Archives.) Therefore, many decided to settle and began families in Trinidad. The majority of these immigrants became shopkeepers and merchants, while others became their apprentices and oyster vendors (more about oysters here).


An advertisement for John Lee Lum‘s Canton Trading Company Ltd. in 1931

Chinese immigration has continued, as a voluntary choice of the Chinese, well into the 21st century. Most will recognise them as labourers, cooks and proprietors.

Languages of the Chinese in Trinidad

The Chinese immigrants brought more than one language to Trinidad & Tobago. Look Lai records that during the 1800s the majority of the immigrants were speakers of Cantonese, while others were Hakka speakers (read more from a Cantonese descendant here, and from a Hakka descendant here and here).

Only later in the 1900s did other languages like Mandarin and Fujianese come into Trinidad, as people from outside Guangdong province took an interest in commerce and industry in Trinidad and Tobago.

The associations that were established by the Chinese in those early years still exist today. According to a shopkeeper on Charlotte Street, they are used for recreation and other activities mainly on Sundays. These are:

  • the Kuo Mingtang of China
  • the Fui Toong On Association (Hakka),
  • the Toy Shan Association,
  • the Sun Wai Association,
  • the China Society, and
  • the Chung Shan Association.

They are all located on Charlotte Street, Port-of-Spain. Here the Chinese have been able to relax and socialise, talking to each other in varying dialects of the Cantonese and Hakka languages, the two languages that were spoken by the immigrants that established these associations. And of course, there is the well-known Chinese Association of Trinidad and Tobago in St Ann’s, where English is now mostly spoken.

Many of the recent immigrants into Trinidad and Tobago, many not transient or sojourning in the country, continue to use Cantonese, Hakka and other languages in the associations. It is not clear if all the associations are open to Chinese immigrants, or if each association is open to immigrants of specific regions, or speakers of certain languages.

Today, in modern China, the majority of the population are multilingual, speakers of more than two languages, i.e., the official Mandarin as well as a regional language/languages.

Bilingual and even trilingual religious services are conducted in Cantonese, Mandarin and English at Grace Chapel (En Dian Tang/The Chinese Christian Fellowship), Long Circular Road, St. James. There is also a Chinese Baptist Church on the Eastern Main Road close to St Joseph.


Grace Chapel (Chinese Christian Fellowship)

One can still see evidence of Cantonese in the signs posted above the many Chinese restaurants and groceries throughout Trinidad and Tobago, Chinese laundries, and in cemeteries. There was also Chinese writing in the Port of Spain Gazette, and occasionally in today’s daily newspapers.

People of all backgrounds enjoy Chinese cuisine and some of the Chinese names of these dishes have been retained and kept in Trinidadian English and Trinidadian English Creole. Here are some examples.

  • Char siu ‘roasted pork’;
  • Chow fan ‘Cantonese fried rice’;
  • Chow mein ‘Stir-fried noodles’ (name derived from Taishanese);
  • Dim sum ‘Chinese brunch with tea’;
  • Lo mein Cantonese for ‘stirred noodles’;
  • Lychee, a tropical/sub-tropical fruit native to China;
  • Pakchoi ‘Chinese cabbage’ (commonly known as ‘bok choy’ in North America);
  • Wonton ‘pork wrapped in flour skin’.


 A Jamaican Chinese cookbook with many typical Caribbean Chinese recipes

The Confucius Institute at the Centre for Language Learning (CLL), The University of the West Indies, St Augustine offers classes in Mandarin, taught by a native speaker through the assistance of the Chinese Embassy. Also, one can also look around and find evidence of the continuing presence of the Mandarin language posted on signs of construction sites where there are Chinese labourers.

Trinidad and Tobago celebrated the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Chinese on 12 October 2006, appreciating their contribution to the twin island republic, with a holiday, a commemorative stamp issue, the formation of the Trinidad and Tobago Chinese Steel Ensemble (TTCSE), situated on 34 McDonald Street, Woodbrook, and celebrations that were enjoyed by many of our citizens.

2006-10-12-5-2A  0840-b

 Handover of the Commemorative 200th anniversary stamp issue

The Steel Ensemble performed alongside the Tianjin song and dance troupe in January 2009 before the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Trinidad and Tobago.


TTCSE with Tianjin musicians together again in 2011

Heritage languages must be preserved and promoted in Trinidad & Tobago.

Cantonese in Trinidad and Tobago

ISO language code: [yue]

(Approximate) date of arrival: 1802

Main locations: Nationwide

Approximate number of users: Unknown

Current status (linguistic vitality/health): Spoken among communities of native speakers. Rarely spoken among outsiders.

Important works:

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  1. Kim Johnson: Descendants of the Dragon: The Chinese in Trinidad 1806-2006 (Kingston: Ian Randle, 2006);
  2. Walton Look Lai: The Chinese in the West Indies 1806-1995: A Documentary History (Kingston: UWI Press, 1998); Indentured Labor, Caribbean sugar: Chinese and Indian migrants to the British West Indies, 1838-1918 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); Essays on the Chinese Diaspora in the Caribbean (2006); and several other publications
  3. Trevor Millett: The Chinese in Trinidad (Port-of-Spain: Inprint Caribbean, 1993);
  4. Helen and Philip Atteck: Stress of Weather: A collection of original source documents relating to a voyage from China to Trinidad, West Indies, in 1862, in conjunction with a family chronicle (St Catharines, Ontario: Wanata Enterprises, 2000);
  5. Donna Boodoo on Grace Chapel (UWI Caribbean Studies Project), and other UWI Caribbean Studies Projects on Chinese family life, art, sociological and socio-economic studies, literature and Chinese associations;
  6. Richard Glasstone: The Story of Dai Ailian: Icon of Chinese Folk Dance and Pioneer of Chinese Ballet (Alton: Hampshire, Dance Books, 2007) – read a Trinidad and Tobago Guardian review here;
  7. Winston Gregory O’Young, also with a few articles in T&T Newsday (2009-2010) and other newspapers;
  8. Fiona Rajkumar‘s PhD thesis “Ethnicity and Economy: The Portuguese, Chinese and Syrian/Lebanese in Trinidad 1945-1981” (2011);
  9. Anne Hilton (with a 10-part series in T&T Newsday in 2006), and others.

See also works on Jamaica and Guyana and general works on the Caribbean such as Winston Hayden Chang, Jr’s The Legacy of the Hakka Shopkeepers of the West Indies (St Catharine’s, Ontario: Wanata Enterprises, 2004).

Work in progress:  Stefan Poon Ying (Cantonese and Hakka in Trinidad and Tobago)

Other media and sources:  NALIS Subject Guide

Selected vocabulary contributions to T&T language:

Food: chow mein, pakchoi, pow, quar chee (‘dried watermelon seeds’), see yow (‘soy sauce’) (Cantonese)

Games: fantong or sanchee (fi chee, fun chee), whe-whe (cow coon ‘cobo’, and yack sam ‘fowl’) (probably Hakka);

Miscellaneous: hakwai – Trinidadian English/Creole word for someone born in Trinidad who is mixed with Chinese (Mandarin and others)


 Did you know?

  • About one-fifth of the world speaks a Chinese language natively;
  • All Chinese languages share one writing system;
  • They are all tonal languages;
  • Besides Mandarin, Cantonese also has a written standard;
  • Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually unintelligible; that is to say, a speaker of one language will find it difficult to understand the other.
  • Double Ten, a celebration on the 10th of October marking the Wuchang uprising, is celebrated in T&T with special discounts and sales by most stores. The Wuchang uprising led to the declaration of independence in China in 1911.

Of interest:


Chinese National Party of Trinidad

*Trinidad was annexed to Tobago only in 1889.

7 thoughts on “Cantonese in Trinidad and Tobago

  1. Well written and clearly thought out article. Thanks for all the details and references to your facts man.

  2. Could not pronounce all the cantonese words but it really was interesting reading. Case in point the Grace Chapel…I did not know about the Christian background.

  3. 1. CLL of UWI St Augustine starts its Mandarin Chinese programme with the help of Chinese Embassay in 2011 and now it is still oferring three levels of Mandarin each semester.
    2. The sign of the church is written in traditional Mandarin Chinese.

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