In Belize, the Chinese are on Strike

Apr 06, 2011

The mood is ugly as Chinese merchants marched through the streets, carrying pictures of their murdered women and empty coffins, demanding justice.

But such voices were in the distinct minority. By and large, those commenting on the issue expressed sympathy with the Chinese cause, and were especially vocal about the toll that a rising crime rate was taking on Belizeans of all races, colours and creeds. Reading such comments, I was reminded again that despite growing economic disparity (something hardly unique to any nation), Belize remains a nation with deeply rooted egalitarian sentiment.


Hearing from the Chinese workers

Hours later I passed by one of the shops in Placencia I frequent. The workers there speak Mandarin well (a rarity; most shops in Belize are run by Cantonese immigrants). One of the workers also speaks decent Spanish, and his English is laced with distinctly Belizean slang and patois.

This particular shop has established a good rapport with other members of the community. Its wide front stoop is a popular hang-out spot for local men to come and have a beer and a cigarette in the afternoon and evening. Far from expressing disdain for these men (a sentiment I’ve heard enough from Chinese working in Belize), the workers in this shop sometimes join them for a smoke, exchanging jokes in a mixture of English, Spanish & Creole.

This night, of course, the shop was closed. But the workers were outside, unloading goods from their pickup truck. They’d just returned from Belize City – a grueling three-hour drive each way – and were exhausted. Normally loquacious with me, their newly made odd white friend who speaks with them in Mandarin about old familiar places back home in the Pearl River Delta, tonight they were quiet. I asked how things had gone in Belize City, and Xiaomeng (the newest arrival, who has been in Belize less than six months) sighed.

“I don’t know,” She said. “I’m just tired. I’m so tired. I didn’t eat today. I just want to go to sleep.”

I got the feeling that she’d spent much of the drive reconsidering her decision to move to Belize.

I asked Jiaming, the polyglot and most senior of the workers, if there would be another strike tomorrow.

“Let’s talk tomorrow,” he said. “I’m just really tired now.”

For over a month I’ve interacted with this group of people, watching them as they work 14 hour days, seven days a week, keeping their store open 10, 20 minutes after closing time because there are still customers dithering over a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter. I have never once heard them complain, even knowing that, were they to share such a complaint with in Chinese nobody would understand. But tonight was different. Tonight they were genuinely tired. More than this, they seemed worried.

As I rode home in the darkness, it occurred to me just how significant their actions were. Belize’s Chinese community aren’t merely a minority, they are a tiny, easily identified minority. Furthermore, the Chinese are not, as an ethnic group, generally prone to staging demonstrations that might draw attention to themselves. Growing up as a Jew in New York, we held yearly marches on behalf of our brethren in then-Soviet Russia. I can recall many other instances of similar gathering of ethnicities in America – American Irish supporting their cause in Northern Ireland, African Americans protesting any number of cases of police brutality over the decades.

For the Chinese in Belize to gather in a show of force indicates that something is very troubling indeed.

But for the Chinese in Belize to gather in a show of force – and what’s more, one of which they are bearing the full economic cost – indicates that something is very troubling indeed.

On Tuesday the strike entered its second day, and shops in the village (and presumably the rest of the country) were again shuttered. I met my friends in front of their closed shop, and together with their Belizean workers, we went swimming for several hours. Xiaomeng told me it was the first time since arriving in Belize that she’d found the time to swim in the ocean. Jiaming didn’t know whether or not the strike would continue a third day. “I am waiting for a call from the other members of the committee. When they decide, we will re-open our shop.”

Just before sundown, a few of the Chinese owned businesses in the village had re-opened.


Some resources pertaining to this story:

News 7 Belize report on the initial murders and ensuing protest in Belize City, as well as an interview with Edmund Quan, president of the Belize Chinese Association.

Article from Amandala Newspaper dealing with both the protest and government response.

You Tube video of Monday’s protest in Belize City


This post was originally published on Snarky Tofu in April 2011.