The Chinese of Mauritius – Our Friends – 毛里求斯的中國人 – 我們的朋友

Abdul Ghany Jahangeer Khan, UK

This year, the Chinese New Year festival was celebrated on Friday, 12th February, 2021. Among the tweets I chanced upon that day were some posted by the Lajna Imaillah (Ahmadiyya Muslim ladies’ organisation) of Singapore; they were about Ahmadi Muslim women and children offering sweets and the traditional mandarin oranges to their Chinese neighbours and acquaintances. It was heart-warming to see this shining example of pluralism and peaceful coexistence between two communities who, despite differences of culture, religion, and ethnicity, had made the conscious decision to celebrate what they had in common: their humanity.

The images of these two communities immediately reminded me of our own Chinese community in Mauritius, an island which in some ways is like Singapore, but very different in others due to its distinctive colonial history, geographic location, and ethnic composition.

The Chinese were one of the last among the larger recognised ethnic groups to migrate to Mauritius. They were preceded by:

  1. The Dutch who were unsuccessful in their attempt to settle on the island during the first half of the 17th century, but at least gave Mauritius its name – in honour of Prince Maurits van Nassau.
  2. The French and their numerous African (and handful of Indian) slaves, who began to live permanently on the island in the early 18th century.
  3. The British, who defeated the French and took possession of the island in 1810.

Several studies have focussed on Chinese immigration to Mauritius (such as Carter & Ng Foong Kwong: 2009). However, before real migration started to take place, in the 1780s – under French rule – thousands of voluntary workers arrived from Guangdong. They found employment as craftsmen and quickly formed a sort of Chinatown called the Camp des Chinois in Port Louis. [1]

The entrance to China Town in Port Louis – Faeq Azima

Briefly, there have been five migratory waves from China to Mauritius, all of which occurred during the British era, concomitant to the arrival of Hindus and Muslims from the Indian subcontinent.

The first was from the coastal province of Fujian in South-West China and occurred during the early 1800s. These migrants are known as the Fokien, more commonly known as the Hokkien, an appellation that also designates their language. These were essentially merchants and by law they were not allowed to bring their families with them; nor were they permitted to buy land, for to do so would require relinquishing their Chinese citizenship. Many of them intermarried with women of either African or Indian origin in order to have a family. These marriages came with the added advantage of being able to buy land in their wives’ name. [2] The descendants of these mixed marriages call themselves Créoles Chinois (Chinese Creoles) and due to their strong feelings towards their Chinese heritage, many of them socialise freely with the wider Chinese community.

The second wave was from the Guangdong province in Southern China. These were Cantonese speakers, most notably from the Shunde district of Guangzhou city (also known as Canton). Some were manual labourers (coolies) while others were merchants or craftsmen.

Between 1833 and 1846, the combined number of migrants from Fujian and Guangdong is estimated at 400 [3], quite a small number. Today, the Cantonese, known as Nam Shun in Mauritius, are a minority among Sino-Mauritians. However, protective of their culture and language, they have their own separate associations and events. [4]

The Nam Shun (Cantonese) Society – Faeq Azima

Chinese migration to Mauritius rose markedly from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. This time, it was predominantly from among the Hakka people of the Meixian (called Moyen in Hakka) region of the Guangdong province. By the end of the 19th century, the Hakka were already more numerous than the combined population of Fokien and Cantonese. [5] One of the reasons for the Hakka migration was the compulsion to flee the repression of the Taiping rebellion between 1841 and 1865. [6] During this period, women were allowed to accompany the men to Mauritius, so the Hakka were able to marry among themselves. Some even organised marriages with women in their homeland. Even so, the 1921 census showed that Indian women in Mauritius had a total of 148 children whose fathers were Chinese, mostly traders [7], indicating that the number of Chinese women in Mauritius must have been low.

Tensions arose between the Hakka and Cantonese and many of the Cantonese relocated to neighbouring Réunion and Madagascar. This animosity was in part due to historical conflicts between the two communities in mainland China. [8]

The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 severely reduced contact between the inhabitants of Mauritius and China. Immigration from China almost stopped completely. Instead, the Hakka in Mauritius started to bring women from Nationalist Taiwan, which had a sizeable Hakka population.

However, after the ‘opening up’ of China, following their economic reforms starting around 1980, immigration to Mauritius began once again, resurrecting the old Hakka marriage immigration network.

At the same time, a considerable number of Mandarin-speaking women from all over mainland China went to Mauritius to work in textile factories. Some of them married Sino-Mauritians.

The complexity of Chinese immigration to Mauritius, the diversity of their mutually unintelligible languages and the linguistic melting pot they settled into meant that within a generation or two, Sino-Mauritians were beginning to show a marked preference for the more economically useful French, English and Mauritian Creole. Today, Chinese languages can be considered threatened in Mauritius. While they are falling into disuse within homes, they have however preserved their relevance to some degree in cultural and religious events.

I had my first personal contact with Sino-Mauritians as soon as I arrived in the town of Quatre-Bornes in 1974, when we moved to Mauritius from London. Our next-door neighbours were a middle-aged Hakka-speaking couple from Moyen who ran a small corner shop: Mr Chim Nien Tin Yung Yuen (who had adopted the Christian name of France and was therefore called ‘Monsieur France’) and his wife, Mrs Chee Lien Ying ‘Chim Mei’ Tin Yung Yuen, who was called ‘Madame France.’ They had a son, Neun Fong Tin Yung Yuen, who also had a Christian name, Michael. His parents had given him the pet name of Ah-Moy – and that is what we always called him.

Mr Chim Nien ‘France’ Tin Yung Yuen and his wife, Mrs Chee Lien Ying ‘Chim Mei’ Tin Yung Yuen (photo credit: Neun Fong Tin Yung Yuen)

The very day we arrived in Mauritius, my brother and I (aged 5 and 7 respectively) were presented to the Tin Yung Yuens, who received us very warmly. Immediately, Mrs Tin Yung Yuen pointed to me, said something in Creole and laughed. At the time, as we spoke only English at home, I couldn’t understand a word of Creole – but I was told: She wants to buy you!

That, of course, deserved some explanation. I was told that there was a background to it all. When the Tin Yung Yuens had left China, they had not been allowed to take their young children with them, so they had been forced to leave them in the care of relatives. Conditions in China were difficult, and the plan was to make money in Mauritius and support their children from afar. Upon their arrival in Mauritius, they discovered that conditions were actually not as easy as they had hoped. Over the next few years, Mrs Tin Yung Yuen suffered a series of miscarriages. Then one day, someone told them about a cultural practice in Mauritius which was to get a wealthy family to symbolically buy their next child, in the superstitious belief that such sponsorship would guarantee the child’s survival.

When Mrs Tin Yung Yuen found out that she was expecting once again, she approached her neighbours, my grandparents, who were relatively well off, and asked if they were willing to ‘buy’ her child. My grandmother told me that although we Ahmadis do not have such practices, she felt sorry for her neighbour and accepted to buy the child – for the grand sum of 2 cents!

It so happened that this time, the pregnancy was successful – and Ah-Moy was born. Once he could walk, he would go to my grandparents’ home for breakfast and lunch or dinner almost every day. He was considered a child of their household.

By the time we had relocated to Mauritius, Ah-Moy was a grown man. Mrs Tin Yung Yuen said: Now it’s my turn. I will buy this one.

And that is how I was afforded the exceptionally rare opportunity to have a window into life in a Chinese home. Every day after school, I would sit in the corner shop behind the counter with Mrs Tin Yung Yuen. Customers would sometimes ask her who I was. She invariably answered: ‘My son.’ Naturally, that reply left them perplexed. They must have been thinking I was quite a strange-looking Chinese boy. I was allowed to move around freely inside their home. I enjoyed feeding their chickens and playing with their dog. He had a Chinese name: Ah Fat.

Many years later, during my final years of secondary school, news got out among my Chinese classmates that I had been adopted by a Sino-Mauritian family. As soon as they found out, they told me I was henceforth going to be invited to all their parties…because I was Chinese.

I did indeed receive many invitations, which I had to politely decline due to the fact that they involved some measure of drinking and free mixing of the sexes – social habits that were at odds with my Muslim upbringing. Nevertheless, I felt very privileged to be the only non-Chinese person invited. This highlighted one of the shining qualities of Sino-Mauritians: their generous inclusivity and adoption of those they had learned to trust. I encountered this virtue among my Chinese acquaintances repeatedly during my 13-year stay in Mauritius.

As in other countries, the Chinese have had to face problems of acceptance by the local population, but they have become thoroughly integrated in Mauritius. One way that they won the trust and acceptance of the locals was to set up small corner shops all over the island, and to allow islanders to buy on credit. Customers had a compte (an account) managed by the shopkeeper so they could continue to purchase items and pay at the end of the month.

Chinese shops in Port Louis – Faeq Azima

The business sense of Chinese traders enabled them to recognise opportunities. Jerringham, a colonial officer, noted in 1892: ‘It matters not whether you are in the most isolated part of the island and far from the busy haunts of men, there you will find you have been preceded, and a boutique Chinois will meet you at the most unexpected place.’ Coupled with their ability to make huge personal sacrifices – working long hours, reducing their expenditure in order to save, and accepting to live in remote areas – this flair for business has made them into one of the most successful and richest communities in Mauritius, in spite of constituting roughly only 2-3% of the total population of 1.3 million. A Business Magazine survey in 2001 found that 10 of the 50 largest companies in Mauritius were Chinese owned. By 2015, this had increased further. ‘Despite accounting for just 2 or 3% of the overall population, the Chinese have soared economically,’ says Jocelyn Chan Low, a historian at the University of Mauritius. ‘Twenty-five of the top 100 companies in Mauritius are now owned by Sino-Mauritians, and if things continue on this trend, in ten years, it will be 35.’ [9]

A gentleman reading his daily newspaper – Noorulla Khan Rassool

However, this consolidated economic situation of the Chinese community in Mauritius is threatened by the fact that thousands of Sino-Mauritians have been moving abroad. Many Chinese Mauritians have emigrated to Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada, considerably reducing the size of the Chinese community in Mauritius. [10] Few among the younger generation, educated in Western countries, are willing to keep their parents’ and grandparents’ businesses running, preferring to live abroad.

A Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, Port Louis – Faeq Azima

This, along with an increasingly ageing readership, has also had a cultural impact on Sino-Mauritians. One newspaper, the Chinese Commercial Gazette, stopped publishing and merged with the China Times, while another, The Mirror, stopped its publication in 2010. Today, the main Chinese-language newspapers are the Chinese Daily News (中华日报), the China Times (华侨时报) and the Hua Sheng Bao (华声报), also referred to as Sinonews.

The China Times (photo credit: Noorrulla Khan Rassool)

Settling in Mauritius has also had an impact on Chinese religions. Today, although they say they are Buddhists, many Sino-Mauritians follow a syncretism of elements from Buddhism, Taoism and the more traditional ancestor worship. The majority have chosen to be additionally affiliated with Catholicism and other Christian denominations. Most therefore have a Christian name alongside their Chinese one. While there are certainly some Sino-Mauritians who are wholeheartedly devoted to Christianity, for many, the reality is that they are only nominally Christian. When they get married, they often hold two religious ceremonies: one in the church and another according to the rites of the Chinese religions. I had once asked Mrs Tin Yung Yuen if apart from being a Buddhist, she was also a member of any church. She replied: ‘Yes, we’re with the (Seventh-Day) Adventists. And that’s because they’re better than the others: when you die, they bury you for free!’ Clearly, a business sense can sometimes dictate the choice of religion. Of course, whether free burial was actually offered by the Adventists is a matter of speculation; but this certainly was her perception at the time.

The Kwan Tee Pagoda – Faeq Azima

There have been some conversions from among the Chinese to Islam, in particular into the very welcoming and pluralistic Ahmadiyya community. One early convert was Mr. Bashir Young Shew. He was an expert typist who put his skills to good use in order to assist the early missionaries of the Ahmadiyya community in their preaching activities. Another was Mr. Mahmood Ah Hong who was also very dedicated and always busy preaching and sharing his faith with others. He would often be seen at the Dar us Salaam mosque in Rose-Hill, sitting outside, reading his Chinese newspaper. Among the ladies, there is Shirley Linda Tse, well known to the Lajna Imaillah, or Ahmadiyya Muslim ladies’ organisation, in Mauritius. Shirley happened to be my classmate during several years at primary school. Along with many other Mauritians of different ethnic backgrounds, these converts found peace, harmony, and real blessings in the message of love of the Promised Messiah, peace be upon him. This message is reflected in our slogan: Love for All, Hatred for None.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim motto – Lajna Ima’illah Singapore

The Chinese in Mauritius have been sharing their culture with other Mauritians for over a century. For each one of their festivals, we could expect to receive cakes, sweets, tasty snacks, and gifts from our Chinese friends. As children, we would be hoping for Nian Gao, more commonly called gateau la cire (‘wax cake’ – actually made with rice flour, sugar, orange peel and honey), and sweet potato fritters. We of course reciprocated in turn.

Nian Gao, a rice cake prepared for the Chinese New Year – Adobe

Chinese dishes have become part and parcel of Mauritian cuisine. Mauritians of all backgrounds prepare and consume Chinese food at home. It is quite common nowadays to see non-Chinese participants in the traditional lion dance and other cultural activities that take place during festivities. All this goes to show that Sino-Mauritians are well integrated into Mauritian society.

We take the opportunity to invite all Sino-Mauritians to learn more about the Ahmadiyya community. Our teachings and philosophy comprise profoundly wise but practical answers to the problems of modern life. The Ahmadiyya message has enriched the lives of a number of Chinese Mauritians in the recent past, and has brought them into direct communion with God. We would love to share it with our Chinese friends of today. Welcome to all! 歡迎大家

At the beginning of this New Year, the Year of the Ox, we wish them 恭喜发财 Congratulations and be prosperous!


  1. Lynn Pan; Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora, 1994
  2. Dr. Julie Lefort; Chinese Languages Spoken in Mauritius: An Overview, 2018
  3. Marina Carter & James Ng Foong Kwong; Abacus and Mah Jong: Sino-Mauritian Settlement and Economic consolidation, 2009
  4. Dr. Julie Lefort; Chinese Languages Spoken in Mauritius: An Overview, 2018
  5. Huguette Ly-Tio-Fane Pineo & Edouard Lim Fat; From Alien to Citizen: The Integration of the Chinese in Mauritius, 2008
  6. Marina Carter & James Ng Foong Kwong; Abacus and Mah Jong: Sino-Mauritian Settlement and Economic consolidation, 2009
  7. Ibid
  8. Sow-Theng Leong;  Migration and ethnicity in Chinese history: Hakkas, Pengmin, and their neighbors, 1997
  9. James Wan; Meet Africa’s most integrated Chinese community, New African, 15.6.2015
  10. Dr. Julie Lefort; Chinese Languages Spoken in Mauritius: An Overview, 2018

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