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Chinese (Hakkas) in Tahiti
Obtained from The Sunday Times, OCT 15, 2000
Identity crisis in paradise
What's it like to be Chinese in Tahiti? LEONG WENG KAM
finds out from Mr Robert Wan, a businessman who was in
Singapore last month for the launch of the French
edition of a book about the Chinese overseas
MISS HINANO TEANOTOGA, 26, is a 1.71-m tall beauty
from Papeete, the capital of idyllic Tahiti. She was
chosen to represent France in the Miss World contest
of 1998, but the pageant's organisers said no, she was
""not French''. Someone else took her place.
Such is the plight of those of mixed ethnic parentage
in French Polynesia: They are French, but not French.
Miss Teanotoga, who was crowned Miss Tahiti in 1997,
is of Swedish, Tahitian and Chinese descent.
The Chinese in French Polynesia have another problem:
They are Chinese, yet not Chinese.
Successful integration with indigenous Polynesians and
other nationals living in Tahiti -- the main island of
French Polynesia in the South Pacific -- through
inter-marriage has resulted in the estimated 10,000
Chinese there losing their ethnic identity.
About 25 years ago, ethnic Chinese made up 10 per cent
of the 230,000 people living in Tahiti then.
""But now, with more mixed marriages, we don't have
the statistics anymore, or know how many pure Chinese
are left,'' says Mr Robert Wan, 66, a wealthy Chinese
Tahitian who is better known as the ""King of Black
Pearls'' (see other story).
People with some Chinese ancestry number more than
20,000, but most do not consider themselves Chinese.
Ethnic Chinese with the surname Xiao in Tahiti are
better known by the French version of the name,
Sichoix, while the Lius prefer to be known as the
A 1988 census, quoted in The Encyclopaedia Of The
Chinese Overseas, revealed that 14 per cent of the
Chinese had mixed parentage, almost all of them with
Polynesian mothers. iblcom,18 3 IDENTITY AND
INTEGRATION 0 3 TAHITI-BORN Mr Wan, whose parents
migrated from Guangdong province in China to the
French territory early last century, said some ethnic
Chinese in Tahiti are feeling the loss of their
""Even my younger brother, who changed his surname
from Wan to Wane in order to sound more French,
regretted doing so and wanted to change it back but he
couldn't now,'' he tells Sunday Review.
Although the Chinese in Tahiti still celebrate
traditional festivals such as the Chinese New Year
with lion dances and firecrackers, Qing Ming with
visits to the cemeteries, and the Mid-Autumn Festival
with mooncakes, Mr Wan notes that there are no
Chinese-language schools or newspapers on the island.
The French government, he says, closed all four
Chinese-language schools in the territory in 1964 in
an attempt to encourage the assimilation of the
Chinese into the community.
Chinese is now studied only as a language in French
schools. Few young people speak any Mandarin, or even
Hakka, the dialect spoken by the dominant Chinese
group there. French and local Polynesian languages are
more widely spoken.
Two evening schools were set up recently in Tahiti to
teach Chinese to children, but more should be done, Mr
""If someone wants to start a Chinese-language school,
I will certainly give support,'' he notes.
""We want to integrate, but keep our identity. We show
the natives that we are with them. At the same time,
we tell them that we are also Chinese, we want to keep
our own culture. We don't want to lose everything, we
want to stay Chinese.''
The resurgence of China is, to him, another reason for
learning Chinese. He notes: ""Everybody knows this
century will be China's century and it is good to know
He warns, however, that while cultural identity is
important to the Chinese, promoters of language and
culture should avoid stressing the distinctiveness of
the Chinese, which could lead to their marginalisation
That was probably why, as noted in The Encyclopaedia
Of The Chinese Overseas, when the Chinese cultural
group, Wen Fa Association, considered presenting an
annual prize for the best student of Chinese in
Tahiti, it decided to enlarge the contest to include
three other languages, French, English and Tahitian,
FAIR TREATMENT IS TWO-WAY
CULTURAL identity aside, Mr Wan says that Chinese
Tahitians, most of them in business, are doing well
and are treated fairly, both by the indigenous people
and the French government.
Chinese businesses in Tahiti treat native Tahitians
He cites his own business empire, which includes black
pearl farms, responsible for more than half of French
Polynesia's $200-million pearl industry, and a
Noting that 90 per cent of his 1,200 employees are
native Tahitians, he says: ""I am employing so many
native Tahitians not because the law says so, but to
show them we are helping them.''
Ethnic Chinese do very well in the political arena
too: French Polynesia's Economics Minister Georges
Puchon is Chinese, while both the vice-president of
the territory's Parliament, Robert Transeau, and
Papeete's mayor, Michel Buillard, are half-Chinese.
Mr Wan says that most of the Chinese in Tahiti were
supporters of the Kuomintang, especially during the
civil war in China in the 1940s.
Two Kuomintang party branches, Kuomintang 1 and
Kuomintang 2 which were formed early last century,
still exist in Tahiti.
A rival group, called the Zhong Hua Hui Guan or the
Chinese Benevolent Society, was founded in 1921 by a
prominent Chinese banker, Chen Shichong, and friends
who disagreed with Dr Sun Yat-sen's supporters in
""I was once a Kuomintang member too, but I support
mainland China more now,'' Mr Wan states.
In the early 1970s, French citizenship was granted to
all Tahitians regardless of ethnic origins, and since
then, loyalty to either the Kuomintang in Taiwan or
the Communists on the mainland has weakened greatly.
TRADERS, MINERS AND COTTON WORKERS
OFFICIAL records show that the first Chinese traders
settled in Tahiti in 1851. They were joined by others
a few years later.
This included a group of miners from Victoria,
Australia, who were on their way to the California
They liked what they saw and decided to stay in Tahiti
But, according to Mr Wan, the real Chinese migration
to Tahiti started during the American Civil War
That was when an enterprising Mr Steward decided to
start a cotton plantation in French Polynesia while
his countrymen were busy at war with one another back
He hired coolies, mainly the Hakkas from Hongkong, and
by 1865, 1,000 of them had gone to work in his cotton
fields in Tahiti.
The plantation went bankrupt in 1873, and most of the
Chinese returned to China.
According to The Encyclopaedia Of The Chinese
Overseas, there were only 320 Chinese left in French
Polynesia in 1892. Only one was a woman.
The years between 1907 and 1914 saw another wave of
migration to Tahiti, as hundreds of thousands fled
China in the disorder before and after the overthrow
of the Qing Dynasty.
The migration continued in the 1920s, the 1930s and up
to the Pacific wars in the 1940s.
A census in 1956 recorded 7,465 Chinese in Tahiti. By
then, a third of them, including Mr Wan himself, were
born in the French territory.
Mr Wan confides that he has started recruiting
technicians for his black pearl farms from his native
hometown in Guangdong province in China, ""to balance
the large number of Japanese'' he employs.
He says: ""I started by recruiting 20 a few years ago,
and recently, another 20 arrived.
The number will go up to 60 soon. They are now as good
if not better than the Japanese.''
Is he trying to boost the number of ethnic Chinese in
Tahiti by doing so? He laughs heartily. ""Am I?""
OF CHINESE BACKGROUND: How they came to be in Tahiti
THE first Chinese traders settled there in 1851.
More settlers arrived a few years later, including
miners from Victoria, Australia, who had planned to go
to the California gold mines.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), a Mr
Steward started a cotton plantation in Tahiti. Most of
the 1,000 coolies he hired returned to China after the
plantation went bankrupt in 1873.
Only 320 Chinese were left in French Polynesia in
1892; only one was a woman.
The next wave of migration started when, between 1907
and 1914, thousands fled China in the disorder
surrounding the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Migration
continued up to the 1940s.
About 25 years ago, ethnic Chinese made up 10 per cent
of Tahiti's 230,000 people. Today, people with Chinese
ancestry number more than 20,000, but most do not
consider themselves Chinese.
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