I WAS researching my birth village of No. 72, Upper Corentyne, known also as “Hong Kong/Chinese Field/China land” with the intent to write an article on this once Chinese settlement. Our neighbour was the last Chinese family who lived in this village. The Chinese are all gone, although some of them still do own property in the village. In the process of researching, however, I ran into the following article in the journal of Caribbean Quarterly (2021) “No. 59 Village, British Guiana: Three Wives of John Ty-A-Young” by Aliyah Khan, an Associate Professor of English and Afro-American and African Studies at University of Michigan. I decided to delve deeper into this article to see how the information can assist me to develop my own article.
Khan’s article is about a Chinese man named John Ty-A-Young who was one of the 13,533 Chinese brought from China to British Guiana between 1853 and 1879. Young was born in the 1850s or early 1860s and was five years old when he arrived with his parents in British Guiana. The author claims that she is great-granddaughter of Young and “pivots on the speculative fable of John-A-Young’s larger-than-life existence as remembered by his current descendants, [and] older relative…” (p.128). A number of academic questions are subsequently asked such as what it means to be a Chinese or a mixed-race Chinese in British Guiana. These questions are foregrounded within a theoretical framework, which is typical in academic articles. I will not take you through that journey.
What strikes me, however, is the first line of the article that states that at No. 59 Village, Corentyne, Berbice, Young “had three wives: a Chinese woman, an African woman, and an Indian woman.” I grew up not too far from this village and had no idea that a Chinese family was living there. Nevertheless, Khan provided one photograph to show Young’s Indian wife, Kunti, and his three mixed daughters. I take it that Khan does not have any photographs of the other two wives, an unfortunate blind spot in the article. That said, Khan writes that her “Indian great-grandmother Kunti was not really his [Young’s] wife” (p.133). However, the question worth asking is, how was Young able to have so many wives from various ethnic backgrounds in a racially and culturally divided British Guiana? Khan informs us that: “John Ty-A-Young was an outlier…who took up with women of whatever race he pleased, though it is important to note that though he was born in China, he grew up in British Guiana and held all the Guianese racial opinions of his time and after it” (p.133).
Young’s life story is one from rags to riches, rising from farming to shop-keeping to becoming a wealthy man. Apparently, he was never indentured, according to Khan. He was only legally married to his first Chinese wife. His second African wife, Kidaroo, was his servant, and his “outside” woman in a “sweet man” arrangement. Kunti became his third wife after his first Chinese wife died, although he never married her.
The article is strong in three areas. First, it would make sense that Young would cross over from his own Chinese culture and marry someone from a different culture. There was a shortage of Chinese women in Chinese immigration to British Guiana, about three women to every 100 men landed. In this setting, to have a partner meant cultural crossing. Second, and although the inter-cultural marriage was not the norm in British Guiana, Young’s marriage experience has challenged the stereotype that Chinese did not marry outside of their own ethnic group. Third, and perhaps the strongest point, is Khan’s ability to reveal the micro-aspects of the Chinese experience in British Guiana. Many studies on the Chinese in Guyana and the wider Caribbean, although impressive, have focused on macro-aspects – recruitment, plantation life, and business. The consequence is that minor history such as biography is buried in the depth of larger history. I find that it is noteworthy not only to prove or disprove a story but also to weave a story that is worth telling and sharing. Young’s life is worth telling because his life proved to be as equally important and significant as other life stories. In this process, the writer is not silent but self-reflective. Professor Aliyah Khan ought to be commended for bringing the story of John Ty-A-Young and his three wives to the surface which will certainly inspire other writers to explore life stories in Guyana and elsewhere (firstname.lastname@example.org).