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Sāmoa and the Dragon's long tail

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Sāmoa and the Dragon's long tail

by Ashalyna Noa - Monday, 11 August 2014

Since their arrival in Sāmoa, the Chinese have played an integral role in the fabric of Sāmoan society. Ashalyna Noa reveals how the Chinese have made significant contributions to the economic development and culture of Sāmoa. Indeed it is believed that about one third of Sāmoans today have Chinese heritage, even if many do not know it.

This article is a companion to our exhibition, Entangled Islands: Sāmoa, New Zealand and the First World War.

First arrivals

Permit to look for work in Samoa, March 1915, which refers to the Chinese worker as a \"Coolie\", unthinkable now but common parlance back then.

Permit to look for work in Samoa, March 1915, which refers to the Chinese worker as a "Coolie", unthinkable now but common parlance back then.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. MS 599.

The first group of Chinese arrived in Sāmoa as either crew on ships or as Government officials. There were only three Chinese men living in Sāmoa before the 1880 law passed by Malietoa Laupepa, paramount chief of Sāmoa, forbidding Chinese entry into Sāmoa. All three men lived in Sāmoa with free settler status and had set up successful businesses, married Sāmoan women and adapted to the Sāmoan way of life.

Despite this law however, by the time the German Administration began in March 1900, there were a further nine Chinese men living in Sāmoa. These men were granted European status by the German Administrator Governor Wilhelm Solf in 1904 and were able to continue to live in Sāmoa. Although this group of Chinese men were small in number, their businesses helped influence the Sāmoan economy at the time and paved the way for Chinese entrepreneurship in Sāmoa.

During the late nineteenth century, many companies from Germany, Great Britain and the United States showed interest in Sāmoa for its agricultural potential, and wished to take advantage of Sāmoa’s economic possibilities. European plantation owners, engineers, businessmen and lawyers migrated to Sāmoa to assist with the development of plantations for the cultivation of copra, cocoa and rubber. These crops were used for making a wide variety of goods. Sāmoa’s economy grew as the number of plantations was increased to meet the increase in demand.

Indentured labour

The German Administration further developed the plantations, with Governor Solf passing a law requiring landowners to plant a certain number of coconuts each year. As the number of plantations increased, so did the drive for success and competition for resources—especially labour. It became clear that there was a constant need for a cheap and reliable source of labour. Due to a lack of supply from the Sāmoan labour market, and trials of workers from the Cook Islands, Solomon Islands proved unsustainable, it was concluded that the Chinese were most suitable for plantation labour.

To assist the recruitment of cheap Chinese labour, Governor Solf passed a law in 1903 overriding Malietoa Laupepa’s law, allowing the Chinese to work on the plantations in Sāmoa as ‘indentured labourers’. Indentured labourers work under a restrictive contract for a certain period of time in a foreign country. Upon completion of their contract they must then return to their home country.

In 1903, the first shipment of Chinese indentured labourers arrived in Sāmoa from the Fukien (Fujian) Province. Between 1903 and 1934 over 6,900 Chinese labourers were recruited to work in Sāmoa. Many Chinese came to Sāmoa to flee the harsh conditions they faced in China, such as overcrowding, unemployment, famine and war. The majority of the labourers came from the southern provinces of Fukien (Fujian) and Kwangtung (Guangdong).

Posters recruiting Chinese indentured labourers used images portraying Chinese men sitting in rickshaws being fanned by Sāmoan women, or images of Chinese labourers arriving in Sāmoa and being greeted by a reception of Chinese women. But when the Chinese men arrived, they found that the posters did not portray the reality of working as an indentured labourer.

These men faced harsh working standards, including low wages, denial of their Chinese holidays, up to 11 ½ hour working days, and only two Sundays off a month. The Chinese labourers were not offered sick pay and were not allowed to leave the plantation without the permission of their employer. Flogging was authorized once a week, and was to take place in the presence of a Government official. Flogging was permitted if labourers were found guilty of hiding, laziness, running away, disobedience, insulting behaviour, breaking curfew and for not bowing low enough in respect for their masters. As word of the harsh working conditions got back to China, Chinese officials were sent to Sāmoa in 1908 and found low wages had been cut, contracts had been breached, and flogging was excessive. As a result a Chinese consulate was opened in Sāmoa at the end of 1909.

Working conditions faced by the Chinese labourers forced continual changes to the laws surrounding the treatment of Chinese labourers. Under the New Zealand Administration (1914 – 1962), the working conditions of the Chinese improved as a result of support from the Chinese Consulate and with the introduction of the Chinese Free Labour System (1920 – 1936) which gave labourers the right to change jobs if they had approval from the Consul. This saw a number of Chinese labourers leave plantation work for urban work. A number of labourers became mechanics artisans, or worked in stores.

The New Zealand Administration also passed the Sāmoa Immigration Order 1930, requiring the repatriation of labourers brought to Sāmoa under any scheme. The 1934 shipment of Chinese labourers was the last. By 1949, the numbers of Chinese indentured labourers were reduced to 174 by repatriation. The remaining Chinese who had been brought to Sāmoa as indentured labourers were elderly, too old and sick to work, and had lived in Sāmoa for many years. They were able to remain in Sāmoa as free settlers, exempted from repatriation.


Sāmoan women began to have relationships with Chinese men when they first arrived in Sāmoa. As thousands of Chinese indentured labourers were brought to Sāmoa through the indentured labour scheme, relations between Sāmoan women and Chinese men became increasingly common. Chinese men were seen as very hardworking and they married Sāmoan women as Chinese women were few in number (Chinese women went as family of officials or as their servants).

However under the German and New Zealand Administrations, intermarriage of the Chinese indentured labourers and Sāmoan women were forbidden. To discourage Sāmoan-Chinese relations, laws were passed preventing Chinese labourers entering Sāmoan houses, and also against Sāmoan women entering Chinese labourers’ quarters. Relationships between Chinese labourers and Sāmoan women became problematic as there were instances where some Chinese men were forcibly repatriated to China, leaving behind large families in Sāmoa.

Eventually, the New Zealand Administration passed the Marriage Ordinance 1961 which amended all prior laws, recognising marriages between Chinese and Sāmoans as being lawful. This was of great significance to the Chinese and Sāmoan families who had long lived together without approval of the law or church.

Chinese and Sāmoan relations has had a huge impact on Sāmoan identity—the most obvious result of these unions is the Chinese features found on the faces of Chinese-Sāmoan offspring and the commonness of Chinese surnames in Sāmoan families. The Chinese completely assimilated into the Sāmoan way of life, even becoming Christians and learning the Sāmoan language. The Chinese have also put a stamp on some parts of Sāmoan culture, and by earning the respect of their Sāmoan peers, some Chinese have been bestowed with matai titles. One of the greatest influences of the Chinese has been in the development and diversity of what is now considered to be Sāmoan food, for example chopsuey (sapasui), chow mein, oka (raw fish with coconut cream) and rice. Over many years, the similar cultural values that Sāmoans and the Chinese share allowed for an easy transition between the two cultures. These similarities include honouring family, respecting elders, the pivotal role of food in social interactions and the importance of the land.

From 1962 until the present, Sāmoa has been a self-governing state. During this period Chinese-Sāmoan entrepreneurship had been consolidated, and there has been a new influx of Chinese arriving in Sāmoa and venturing into business. Chinese-Sāmoans have become an integral part of Sāmoan culture, contributing to the Sāmoan economy, arts, culture and sporting achievements. More recently the independent Sāmoan government has leaned heavily on Chinese aid to develop infrastructure and educational facilities.

Over the last 130 years the Chinese have played a significant role in the development of Sāmoa. This has been expressed through a number of different forms as a result of Sāmoa’s economic reliance on China. In the past, the Chinese indentured labourers and entrepreneurs have been an integral part of the development of the Sāmoan economy, subsequently influencing Sāmoan law and culture. We are now starting to see how China’s financial aid and the new influx of Chinese migrants are impacting on Sāmoa. Although the influences may differ, it is certain that the Chinese have been a key and constant contributor to a modern Sāmoan society.

This article is based on Ashalyna Noa’s thesis, Catching the Dragon's Tail: The Impact of the Chinese in Sāmoa, 2010.

  • Post by: Ashalyna Noa

    Ashalyna Noa holds a Master of Arts in Pacific Studies and is currently the Pacific Advisor with the Pacific Development Team, Student Services and Communications, University of Canterbury - Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha. Ashalyna completed her research which analysed the impact of the Chinese in Samoa in 2010. She is of Chinese-Samoan heritage.

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