From May 16 to May 31, the exhibition Snesie: A portrait series of a shared Surinamese-Chinese history can be seen in the Atrium City Hall, organised by Carla Tjon (author, research) and Lidwien van de Ven (co-research, image design and photography). The exhibition tells the history of the Chinese-Surinamese community in the Netherlands.

Auteur & Researcher Carla Tjon

Abolition of Slavery
Ten years before slavery was officially abolished in Suriname, eighteen contract labourers were brought from the Dutch East Indies to boost the plantation economy. Fourteen survived the journey and the work on the plantation.

Five years later, 500 Chinese were recruited through the mediation of the Dutch consulate in Macau. In We Slaves of Suriname, Anton de Kom describes their arrival in 1858. When it turned out that nobody wanted to hire these labourers as long as the already available slaves could work for nothing, their contract was changed by the governor. And when the Chinese revolted against their slave status, they were punished by caning. 

During their five-year contracts, several Chinese labourers managed to buy their freedom one by one, after which they could set up a business. This was possible through a well-known and active savings and loans scheme based in their native country, later also used by Surinamers under the name ‘kasmoni’ (literally: cash money). The shops owned by omoe Snesie (Chinese uncle) soon became a distinctive part of the street scene in Paramaribo.

Foto uit de tentoonstelling Snesie. Zwarte Chinese kinderen. Jaartal onbekend.

Chinese migration cannot be understood in isolation from the social unrest in China that resulted from changes of power, and from Western and Japanese occupation from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. In the time of the weakened empire, Western merchants forced the country to legalize the opium trade and Christian missionaries reached the remote Hakka villages in the southern province of Guangdong. The Hakka, known to the surrounding residents as a ‘guest population’, had lived there for more than two centuries. Over hundreds of years, major social shifts had led to their migration from northern to southern China, and ultimately out across the globe, including to the colonies in the West. The Hakka brought their traditions and cuisine with them everywhere, adapting it to their new environments.

Without knowing this early history, it is impossible to comprehend how the Chinese migrants came to be in Suriname, or why many Surinamese have Chinese surnames. The children of the early Chinese migrants who were born in Suriname had mothers of Creole origin.

In this series of portraits, every individual story carries that early history within it. The separate stories are not independent of each other. They have a common origin in forebears from the Hakka clans in southern China, and they form a coherent shared history in the present day.

Tentoonstelling Snesie in het Atrium Den Haag.

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