Indentured Chinese labour honoured in exhibit

Between 1903 and 1913, nearly 4000 Chinese were brought to Samoa as indentured labourers to work on European owned plantations.

Their stories are shared in a new exhibition at the Museum of Samoa for at least the next three months, thanks to guest curator and granddaughter of one of those labourers, Ronna Lee.

Photographs, news articles, legislation and contracts will all feature in the exhibition that Ms Lee says she began working on nearly 20 years ago.

Ms Lee said she was first inspired to look into her identity and the history behind it when she was a child in New Zealand.

“I was constantly being asked what am I, and I had never really thought to ask myself what am I,” she said.

So from the early 2000’s, she embarked on a search to learn, and found unpacking the history of her Chinese ancestry was a little more complicated than her Samoan side.

What she did find was that her grandfather, Asamu Sing Chao Lei Sam (Li Jing Sen) had travelled to Samoa from Guangzhou along with at least 300 other labourers to work a backbreaking contract for as little as US$2.40 per month.

He had never told her this himself, of course. But learning about Chinese in Samoa reminded her of his characteristics, Ms Lee said.

“He was a very hard worker, he saved a lot, he fixed everything himself if he could. I remember he worked really hard, he was an only child but he had fifteen children, and there was always food around.”

Indentured labourers were slaves by another name, Ms Lee learned.

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“When slavery was abolished in Africa, the British government were met with a shortage of labour.”

The indentured labourers, referred to by the British as ‘coolies’ were offered three year contracts with stringent conditions they would eventually speak up against.

They worked six days a week for at least nine hours a day, and had their pay docked if they fell ill, or disobeyed their boss, said Ms Lee.

Labourers were forbidden to leave the plantations they worked on, and they were flogged.

Learning about her grandfather’s history was an emotional process for Ms Lee. She said learning about his living conditions and treatment under both German and New Zealand administrations, and even some village councils was saddening.

“I imagine getting into my grandfather’s head and begin to think wow, out of these conditions he was able to build something and make something of himself, and provide for his family,” she said.

“I sit back and look at successful Samoan Chinese families and think this is the legacy they left. They may not have been able to tell their story but their legacy of resilience, the tenacious nature of the Chinese Samoan to be successful and to better themselves, you know?”

Knowing this history is an important part of honouring the impact Chinese migration had on Samoan society, Ms Lee said.

“It’s not just that the decendants of these Chinese have had a profound impact on the economic and social development of Samoa, they have also had a huge influence in the food that we have, like pork buns or keke pua’a, keke saina, there is so much.

“Unfolding their story and talking about it can also put a lot of things into context,” she said.

The Chinese captioning in the exhibition was done by Madam Tong Xin, and the printing was funding by the Embassy of China in Samoa.

*Facts about the Chinese indentured labourers were sourced in part from Ronna Lee, and in part from a presentation by Tuatagaloa Aumua Ming Leung Wai from 2015. 

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