Philip LI CHING HUM
Chinatown, nestled in the heart of the city of Port Louis, is replete with sweet and sour reminiscences. It stands as a relic of the glorious past and of the saga of the resilient and indefatigable Chinese immigrants who, driven in their self-exile and spirit of adventure have left everything behind to seek greener pasture in the wake of ideological and fratricidal warfare plaguing their native land. Their ships had been swept against the tempest-tossed waves to this speck of the Indian ocean. Once settled in this foreign land they began to fend for themselves to build modern Mauritius and their contribution cannot be undermined. The road to distant villages started with Chinatown. It is the gateway of the Chinese diaspora.
Chinatown wakes up with the morning call of the muezzins from Jummah Mosque calling the faithful for prayers. It is still pitch dark. The pattering sound of hooves of horses accompanied by the ostlers on their way to Fort Georges are long gone. The early joggers track to the Citadel. From the top of the hill, a bird’s eye view of the city offers a panoramic view against the backdrop of the range of mountains. It unveils a breath-taking scenery to the viewers and sent them in a rapture. A cloud of mist soon dissipates as the first rays of sunlight pierced the eastern horizon and activities started to unroll and gain momentum and broke into a routine. The bakery and the “lotel dite’, like Providence and Pakistan or even Montaza are ready to welcome the early commuters with steamy bread and mouth-watering Indian cakes and a hot cup of tea. Conversations abound with chitchatting and gossips. Street cornered shops welcome their first customers amid hustle-bustle.
Dilapidated colonial houses have still resisted the onslaughts of cyclones. The settlement was packed tight with numerous families sharing only one bathroom and toilet in a common yard. Discussions and quarrels flared up on the territorial disputes at times bordering on fights. It was survival of the fittest. The rented house was devoid of any essential piece of furniture. In a crowded room were crammed ten members of the family with only basic amenities. It was under these cramp conditions that many in spite of numerous hurdles have carved out a name for themselves in academic field. The days of ostentatious wealth had not yet made their apparition. It was the era of poverty equally shared. Many had to struggle hard to come out of this abysmal miserable life. Education became their only salvation. The Chinese were not born with silver spoons. They had to fend for themselves. Leisure activities were scanty. We spent our time on the streets playing hide-and–seek, Red Indians and rope-jumping before the advent of radio and television. Playing marbles was very popular.
As the day lingered on, the wholesale and retailed shops rolled down their shutters against the backdrop of melodious songs of Kong San Mee Yin and Madam White Snake from a nearby bookshop specializing in Chinese magazines and periodicals. The shopkeepers (the Kaptans) clad in their khaki suits have already reached the town centre to submit their list of merchandises to the whole-sale shops after a tedious journey in “taxi-train”. To satiate their hunger they swallowed their meals in restaurants like Ciel Bleu and Central with bowl of steaming rice and a small platter of niew piang with ham choy soune (typically Hakka cuisine). They hanged around in their respective kwongs
(clannish social clubs) to lay their anchor and exchanged information of separated relatives from Moy Yuen commonly known as Meixian today while waiting for their lorries to load their goods to their distant destinations. The convoy of lorries started their journey to distant villages while the sun was setting on western horizon. It was at the stroke of midnight that they would unload their goods. Kwongs like Loong See Tong, Oy King Sar, Lim Ka Kwong, Chong Ka Kwong, Kwong Ha Dong, have played a vital role for the development of trade and commerce of the country and even in the education of the Chinese youth by providing them accommodation as they lived in far-flung villages at a time when the means of transport were inexistent or scarce.
Many jobs which were popular in those days have almost disappeared. The army of boot polishers, matelassiers, charretiers, tinsmith, porters lined up near the market gave a folkloric touch to Port Louis. Horse-drawn carriages waited for rare clients and later Morris Minor taxied passengers to the suburbs. The barber’s shop became a meeting place for our blooming youth, fashion-conscious of pingo hair-style and later Beatlemania. The barber by the name of Bissoon hailing from Tranquebar seemed to be Mr. Know-it-All and he spiced his anecdotes with his sense of humour and sarcasm. He seemed to have won the hearts of all his customers. His barbershop was the centre of information. There was also a Chinese barber who would clean the nose and ears with special scissors. Then came a certain Chan the tailor, a chain smoker. He laughed to his heart’s delight behind his thick spectacles. He would laugh with an earth quaking roar when he imparted a joke to us. Very often we had to come several times to get possession of our crispy uniforms for the resumption of studies. His services were much appreciated because of its durability and smartness.
Chinatown offers a tale of sight, smell and sound. At nightfall it bubbled with life and it metamorphosed into another form with its revelry of night-life. L’Amicale Casino drew like magnet tourists and local visitors. L’hotel Gros Piti and Lai Min were thronged, and they were reputed for their special Chinese dishes brewed by the cordon bleu. Hôtel Gros Piti was noted for its crab soup supposedly known for its aphrodisiac qualities. A few steps away l’hôtel Mama was playing the latest hits on juke box – those of Adamo, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Petula Clark or Cliff Richard. These songs have marked us for the rest our lives. At the rear of l’hôtel Mama along a badly-lit alley an interminable queue was waiting with febrility to view telebox which was a craze in those days. They were the most demanding: L’école est finie of Sheila, Quand j’entends siffler le train of Richard Antony, Capri c’est fini of Herve Villard or Aline of Christophe. These were the exalting periods of our stay in Chinatown. A slice of our life has gone, gone forever. Cine-going was the most favourite pastime of that period. Cinemas Majestic, Rex, Luna Park and Cinema de Familles were besieged by cine-goers and we had to be in the movie hall one hour before the show amid sweltering heat in a cloud of smoke to watch great biblical or cow boy films. The films of Luis Mariano drew large crowd and cine goers had to scuffle to reach the small ticket-office to obtain tickets. Indian films were popular. They were the films of Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Madhubala or Meena Kumari. The balcony veiled by a curtain around was amazingly reserved for women. The films of Raj Kapoor were immortal and so were the sad nostalgic songs of Mukesh. Those were the days…Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai…
Chinatown housed Young Men’s School, a nursery for the swinging youth of the 60’s. It was the Alma-mater of many illustrious Mauritians. Who can forget the morning assembly conducted by Mr. Sooben, the headmaster, with the singing of God save the Queen? Teachers like Sooriamoorthy, Vyapoory, Mootoosamy have left indelible imprints on the blooming youth. The celebration of Cavadee was a great occurrence for the school. Many later turned to De la Salle school when Young Men school was demolished to make way for a new concrete building.
Century Hall commonly known as Koon Chin was the hall where most of the Chinese weddings were celebrated. Simple and colourful ceremonies were organized. No need to show off our wealth and our social rank in those days. The car procession of bride and bridegroom went round the Champ de Mars and the guests were welcomed in Koon Ching in utmost simplicity and followed all the rituals according to Chinese culture. At night there was a dancing party and many spectators though uninvited gathered in the balcony to watch the guests dancing to the tune of waltz, fox-trot, rumba and rock-and-roll. Photo-taking session was in a studio and it was a ritual in itself.
Chinatown can never be resuscitated in spite of the good will of some. It has today become a ghost town. It has lost its soul. There is a deep sense of insecurity prevailing. The glorious past has receded into oblivion and as “devoir de mémoire” we have to lift the veil of this slice of life to later generations. A chapter of our life has turned inexorably to make way to modernity and consumerism.
(Photos: Courtesy of Maxime Koon)