Sino-Mauritian Relationships : the makers of “Mauritius, a little China”

Mauritius should be proud of its relationship with China and not take it for granted. It is not a relationship of former colonial master and servant. It is rather a relationship  based on real friendship that has  got something very spicy, sweet and sour at times, and most of all very special which many African countries  do not and cannot have , although they were as many as 20  to  have established     diplomatic relations  with China long before Mauritius. No wonder then that our African brothers envy us so much! The People’s Republic of China was proclaimed on 1st October 1949 and Mauritius obtained its independence on 12th March 1968 .
It was only 4 years after, on 15th April 1972, that Mauritius decided to establish diplomatic relations with China. The reasons are now known. Egypt was the first African country to do so  on  30th May 1956 and  Rwanda, the 20th  country on 12th November 1971, Mauritius after some hesitation followed suit,  only after the American president Richard Nixon had visited China from 21-28 February 1972 following the diplomatic ping pong game of Henry Kissinger  and  the United Kingdom recognition on 13  March 1972. France was first to recognize China in Jan 27th 1964  and  the USA  finally did so  on 1st Jan 1979. It was only in 1995 that Mauritius set up its Embassy in Beijing with Mr. Jahangeer as its first resident ambassador. What about the Chinese Diaspora’s contribution? Enormous, as they have certainly made “Mauritius a little China “. Our Tourist Office can capitalize on this icon in their promotional efforts to make  Mauritius  known in China.
Sino – Mauritian relationship is a historic and honoured love story which the Chinese immigrants themselves have constructed and woven,  year in , year out, starting from the mid-18th century when they first  set foot on the island. It is true that they had come to make a living with daily receipts from shop counter sales of coins of 1, 2 and 5 cents of years ago but they had at the same time contributed immensely and more than their proportionate share to the nation building of Mauritius by their hard work, tears, blood and sacrifice. They and other Chinese immigrants, who came afterwards, and their descendants are the real architects of the affinity which bonds Mauritius and China so much. Diplomatic relations have of course helped to cement, officialise and consolidate these ties, but the people’s familial, cultural and commercial interactions, in and out of China without interruption for almost 200 years have been the most significant and should be equally recognized and spelt out. This is the most important ingredient that is missing from many African countries relationships’ with China.
There were 3 waves of Chinese immigration to Mauritius and each wave from Xiamen(Fukien) as early as  in 1800s, from Sunde  and Nanhai (Guangdong) in the mid 1800s and from Meixian (Guangdon) in the late 1800s did bring in its cultural and commercial ties. Mauritius hosts the oldest China Town in Africa. We also have the two oldest Chinese temples, one in Le Caudan in honour of Guan Di, built  in 1842 by Fukiennese  Captan Log Choisanne (1796-1874) and the other one at the Champ de Mars, also in honour of Guan Di built by another Captan Affane Tank Wen, a Cantonese  in 1895. British Governor  Robert  Farquar  as early as in  1822 did ask Log Choisanne to recruit more Chinese labour  during that time  as they were found to be very  efficient. Governor John Pope Hennessy, on the other hand, resisted lobbies to ban Chinese immigrants from coming to Mauritius  having  recognized the role that Sino Mauritians had played in providing cheap goods to less well-off members of society. Even in those colonial days, China bashing was very common.

Chinese Middle School
The 3rd group, the Hakka , played a very significant part as  they were more numerous to  settle in Mauritius and their Clan system was very effective  to  help  immigrants settle  very quickly. The most outstanding one was Jean Ng Cheng Hin (1858-1943) who saw the need of Chinese children growing up in Mauritius to learn Chinese and Chinese culture, especially the Confucian values. He elicited the help of 2 other prominent Hakka businessmen, Mr. Lai Fat Fur and Mr. Koo Venpin, and the 3 of them became  co-founders of the Chinese Middle School, which opened in 1912. My grandfather even donated some land at his house at Remy Ollier Street to the CMS and what  is marvellous was that there were no student  fees  at that time.  Whether we  appreciate  it or not,  this is where  the first  free education started in Mauritius. When the School expanded to cater for more students up to the secondary level (there were as many as 1019 students in 1947) Mr. Tang Kwan Hoi, the father of Tang Yun Sung, OBE OSK, CSK, GOSK was recruited from Meixian to be the Headmaster of the School. There was also a temple built in the school premises. My grandfather was not only a benefactor but a very successful tradesman. Mr Allister Macmillan, in his 1914 issue of Mauritius Illustrated, spoke highly of him. During the political upheaval in China leading to the foundation of the Republic in 1910, Ng Cheng Hin started a printing press in his store. As news gathered from new arrivals, it was printed and distributed to the local Chinese community. For many Chinese, that was the only source of information about what was happening in China. Ng Cheng Hin played an important part in the history of Chinese immigration, especially the Hakka, to Mauritius. He was the official agent of the shipping line Adam & Co and handled all the traffic between China and Mauritius. With Adrien Konfortion working in his shop and the latter having a good knowledge of French and English, they helped in the development of making Mauritius the favourite destination  in Southern  Africa for the Chinese of mainland China.  A street in the capital of Port Louis was  later named  Ng Cheng Hin in his honour in recognition of his numerous contributions and representatives of the Chinese Embassy were present during the unveiling ceremony.
We even had a Chinese Consulate situated at the pre-primary school, opposite the De la Salle School near the Champs de Mars. The land was purchased by the Chinese Government but when China became the People’s Republic of China, the consulate was closed because the consul himself supported the Nationalist China of  Chang Kai Shek who  exiled  himself in Taiwan. The divide of China impacted heavily in Mauritius and was severely felt as supporters of General Chang were obviously more numerous, more powerful financially than those who followed Beijing. It was the darkest period in the history of Chinese relationship with China as we had a dual relationship with both Chinas but its historical importance should not be ignored. Followers of Mao Zedong were branded as Marxists, troublemakers, and looked down upon. Even the Heen Foh Society (FHS), the oldest Chinese Society in Mauritius, was envied and attempts  by the Nationalist to take control fortunately  failed.
History has it that the HFS were strong supporters of the Mauritius Labour Party and the MLP equally participated in many Chinese functions at the CMS thanks to Messrs Ramlallah, Badry, Rozemont, Seeneevassen and  Ringadoo. They had 2 Labour  candidates for the independence elections of 1967, namely Nien Siong Ng Cheng Hin , the then secretary of HFS  and Ng Wong Hing, but it was  Messr. Fok Seung and Jean Ah Cheun of the PMSD (anti-independence party) who were elected. After independence, the HFS who has contacts with China, gradually lost its prime influence for obvious reasons.
China has made it clear that there is only one China and will not tolerate any country having dual relationship with China and Taiwan. When Mauritius obtained its independence the question of which China Mauritius should recognized was raised. SSR was a cunning politician, formed in London with strong Fabian attachments. He knew how to wield with Ying and Yang and he did not want to disappoint his American and British friends who had helped him with his independence dreams come true. He had already recognized  the USSR  but had not followed India (April 1950) as regards China. With Duval and Ah Chuen in his coalition government blessed by no other person  than France’s Michel Debré and his conservative  allies of the private sector  SSR even accepted an invitation to visit Taiwan.
 SSR liked to stop at 19, Royal Street for his Parker pen (Ng Cheng Hin) and at Corner House (Ng Kwet Shing) for his reading materials. The Ng Clan, including Galerie Royale’s Ng Thow Hing, affluent members of the then HFS did advise him to recognize China as the latter was very keen to see Mauritius decide, once for all, its allegiance and not maintain a double standard. The click came from Prof. Georges Wu (Ng Fang Hing), a well-known Mauritian and famous cardiologist in Beijing. He was the brother of Guillaume Ng Thow Hing and was attached to the services of the Chinese President as the latter’s personal physician. He was the go-between both China and Mauritius needed and he helped to break the ice for a new start in the Sino-Mauritian relationship. Thanks to all the efforts of those men working behind the scene, SSR finally changed his mind after the Kissinger episode and opted for China. This is the untold history of the most crucial period of Sino-Mauritian relationship. When diplomatic relations were finally established, our bond with China became very special. It has kept on becoming stronger ever since.