Chinatown with a Mauritian twist
In the 1940s, large numbers of Chinese immigrants arrived in Mauritius to open trade businesses. They settled along and around Royal Road in the heart of Port Louis, and the Mauritian Chinatown was born. The area is home to its own local celebrities – including Mrs Kwok, the country’s most revered fortune teller – and a host of Chinese ‘pharmacy’ owners who closely guard their precious cargo of traditional medicine: herbal teas, spices, preserved insects and many more amazing supplies.
What’s in store
Chinatown is fascinating: it tantalises the taste buds and arouses curiosity. Everybody knows you can find just about anything here. Take the Win Tai Chong store in the run up to Chinese New Year – pyrotechnic lovers arrive to pick up their favourite fun items for the celebrations, the shop’s spice aisles are brimming with dried and pickled vegetables, sauces and decorative items, and the store is bursting with shoppers who spill onto the pavement outside.
Further up the street, Atlantic Store makes a prominent stand, its windows stacked high with crockery, toys, firecrackers, hand-held fans, musical instruments and other unexpected objects. Eager customers line up on the pavement for ‘boulettes’ (local Dim Sum) and next to the vendor an imperturbable old man oversees the unloading of supplies which disappear into the back of the store through a tall wooden red door.
How Chinatown evolved
The elderly will recount the times when school textbooks were shared between neighbours, and solidarity and street smartness were a must. With Creole as the common tongue – even though Hakka was the preferred language among the Sino-Mauritian community – the children played together from a very young age, growing up and teaching younger community members while sharing clothes and other basic necessities.
Despite economic progress and the movement of families to other areas, traces of the past still remain. Streets are dotted with well-kept pagodas and Mandarin is still actively taught at the century old Chinese Middle School. The few remaining old inhabitants of Chinatown are also the last few readers of the daily paper written in Hán Yù (a simplified Chinese dialect used in literature). The cultural heritage left by the first Sino-Mauritians – including traditional dances and cuisine – is the pride of many members of the community, who strive to keep it alive.
Annual Chinatown food and cultural festival
Chinatown is constantly evolving, yet somehow manages to maintain its authenticity. During the annual Chinatown food and cultural festival, it morphs into a concerto of fireworks, drum beats and music, accompanied by dancing Chinese lions. With an exponentially growing crowd, the event attracts everyone with an interest in the East Empire’s treasures, and the streets become an open theatre for all kinds of artists and performers: acrobats, calligraphists and dancers. Children sitting on their parents’ shoulders gaze in wonder at the long, colourful, silky dragon that wooshes past them.
Food stalls rub shoulders with traditional music bands, shops display their carefully chosen wares out on the pavements, and the roads – illuminated by hundreds of red-and-gold Chinese lanterns – are closed to traffic. And on these nights you may well see dancers hiding timidly behind their fans, ladies dressed in the qipao attire (traditional Chinese dress), and even little Miss Chinatown Pageants.