Celebrating an “important contribution to the understanding of a neglected ethnic community in the Caribbean”

Anne-Marie Lee-Loy’s  Searching For Mr. Chin: Constructions of Nation and the Chinese in West Indian Literature recently won the Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Book Award. This award, which is given by the Caribbean Studies Association, honors the best book about the Caribbean published over the previous three-year period in Spanish, English, French or Dutch. Award committee chair Linden Lewis provided his announcement of the award.

Searching for Mr. Chin is an attempt to understand the construction of  Chinese identity and the place of people of Chinese descent in the Caribbean, namely in Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad, where the importation of Chinese indentured workers was more heavily recruited.

The bulk of Chinese indentured labor to the Caribbean occurred between 1853 and 1866. Despite the focus on the three English-speaking countries, Lee-Loy from time to time expanded her focus to include the Chinese presence in Cuba.  The book is the exploration of a process of belonging and non-belonging in the region. 

Indeed, the author is careful to point to the ambiguous images of belonging of Chinese people in the Caribbean.  Although its focus is on literary representations of Chinese citizens of the region, the book goes to great length to situate the Chinese presence in an historical context.  Lee-Loy takes the reader on a journey in time from the point of Chinese indentured labor, and the way in which these immigrants were compared to both people of African and Indian descent in the region. There is an interesting story here about the control of labor and of sowing divisions among workers along racial lines.  The characterization of Chinese indentured workers was often one that was made up of compliant subjects, who were efficient, and least likely to rebel.

One of the important contributions of this book is to present a more nuanced understanding of the Chinese images in the region that move beyond stereotypes.  There is very little literary work in the region that focuses exclusively on Chinese Caribbean people, so that Lee-Loy’s analysis revolves around minor characters as opposed to book-length treatments of this community. 

Another strength of the book is her analysis of the representation of  Chinese Caribbean persons as having an alien presence in the region.  Some of these representations directly place the Chinese at odds with other Caribbean people.  There are also other images of the Chinese man as a sexual predatory, who by virtue of his financial resources, mainly in terms of shop-ownership, preys on economically vulnerably women.  It is the Chinese shop that also gives us some insight into the perception of the Chinese Caribbean identity that is important to the phenomenon of the nation.  Lee-Loy summaries this issue in the following manner: “The Chinese shop, like West Indian literature in general, must therefore be recognized as a site of performance, that is, a site of contact and exchange between West Indians, where ideas of exclusion and inclusion, suspicion and trust, hostility and camaraderie – namely, ambiguous everyday ideas of belonging – are given tangible meaning through repetitive stylized gestures”. 

The book is clearly written, broadly interdisciplinary, makes an important contribution to the understanding of a neglected ethnic community in the Caribbean, and would add to the storehouse of information on race, ethnicity, gender, class, national identity and community in the Caribbean.  This book is certainly worthy of the Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis award.

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