Vhahangwele Nemakonde
Digital Journalist
4 minute read
29 Nov 2018
12:47 pm

Why the Mauritian-Chinese are like no other people on Earth

Vhahangwele Nemakonde

The mix of cultures on the island has created a unique little group with its own distinct quirks and customs.

Picture: Vhahangwele Nemakonde

In the centre of Mauritius is China Town, not a shopping mall, as you would find in South Africa, but a part of town where you find everything Chinese. This is where the Chinese settled when they first came to Mauritius. So this is where you will find the best Chinese food and learn much about their culture and history.

The first Chinese migrated to Mauritius in the 1800s to work as tailors and blacksmiths, among other things. About 36 families migrated to Mauritius during the first wave of migration. They started building China Town.

In the 1850s, the second wave of Chinese moved to Mauritius. Most were farmers and, when they heard there was free trade in Mauritius, they moved there and opened shops.

While Indians only sold in cities, the Chinese bought from Indians and sold all over Mauritius.

The Chinese didn’t plan to stay in Mauritius forever. They wanted to make money and go home. But when World War 2 happened, they couldn’t go home any more, so they decided to send their children to Mauritian public schools to learn English and French.

They then used the money they had saved to send their children to Europe, Australia and Canada for an education.

Only a few of those students went back to Mauritius after finishing their studies, resulting in a decrease in population since the 1940s. Those who came back lost traditions, languages and religion. Traditional Chinese families saw the problem and started looking for wives for their children in China so they could teach their children tradition.

Most of these ‘Chinese wives’ can only speak their mother tongue.

The Chinese have a clan system that helps in finding a wife (supposedly) easily.

Also read: A 10-step beginner’s guide (from a true beginner) on travelling to Mauritius

Usually, Chinese names include ancestor/clan names. The rule is that when you meet someone with the same clan name, you help them. When a person with same clan name migrates to Mauritius, they use the money saved by the clan group to help them settle down and find a job.

Buildings in China Town belong to clans. There is a clan leader who helps make decisions concerning common money and property.

Traditionally in China, people were not allowed to marry outside their clan, but not any more; they now marry across clans. But those who still go to China for wives marry from their clans.

The Chinese make up only 3% of the Mauritian population.

Most Chinese in the 1950s converted to Catholicism but kept their ancestral religion. This created a new Chinese-Mauritian religion of Catholics who go to church and get married in the church but still celebrate Chinese festivals.

When someone dies, the family will have a Christian ceremony and bury the person in the Christian cemetery (cemeteries in Mauritius are arranged according to religions).

However, they also believe that when someone dies, their soul stays on earth for 21 days. They ‘feel’ his presence, talk to him and make his bed. On day 21, they make a wooden tablet with his name engraved on it and take it to the cemetery. They ask for the person’s soul to leave the world and then take the tablet to their ancestral home. They believe the person gets reincarnated from there.

Picture: Vhahangwele Nemakonde

The Chinese have two festivals in a year. Since they believe in reincarnation, they also believe the deceased needs whatever they had when they were still alive. They buy a special paper that is used to make items such as a car, house, phone, etc, then go to an ancestral house and burn them. The smoke will ‘deliver’ the items to their loved ones.

There is a 93-year-old man in China Town whose job as young man was to make these things. People used to believe in this so much, he made a living out of it. Someone was once given a ‘bank’ because they used to work in the bank when still alive. It’s now not done any more, although he trained someone to attempt it when he retired.

You can now get the items ready-made in Chinese shops.

Ancestor worship remains very important.

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