An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
PRE-HISTORIANS claim that the people occupying the island of New Guinea first migrated here over 40 thousand years ago.
Contemporary Papua New Guinean historians like Professor John Dademo Waiko agree. In the 1500s, when the first Europeans of Spanish and Portuguese origin sighted the island of New Guinea, this was just the beginning of regular European visits and the naming of islands, mountains, rivers, bays and sometimes people after European places and features.
By the late 1920s, the islands and most coastal areas of New Guinea had come into contact with Europeans of different nationalities and professions.
A few Asians of Chinese origin had also arrived in New Guinea during early times and more arrived in shiploads to work on European owned plantations in the late 1800s.
The Chinese are a cultured race whose origins and civilisation dates to more than 250,000 years ago. On arrival in New Guinea, they worked hard and did not succumb to dominant European ways.
Later they began to organise through economic activities and other dreams they pursued. The communities where they settled, built and called home later became known as Chinatowns.
Some Chinese fell in love with the people and environment of Papua New Guinea and stayed on to toil alongside the natives and Europeans in the nation building process. They could be Chinese at that time, but their children are now Papua New Guinea citizens.
Chinese helped develop many commercial centres in PNG and there are also Chinatowns in Solomon Islands and other parts of the Pacific.
The two peoples coexisted in Papua New Guinea without much official interaction until 1976, when the relationship was cemented through China’s diplomatic recognition of PNG as an independent country.
Papua New Guineans knew Chinese before they knew other Asians and continue to generalise Asians of other nationalities as Chinese.
I recall accompanying an Indonesian friend from Java to Goroka market three years ago when someone selling broccoli shouted at us, ‘Saina man, kam baim brokoli blong mi’ (China man, come and buy my broccoli).
The Indonesian who was conversant in the Pidgin creole replied, ‘Mi no Saina man, mi Indonesia man’ (Am not Chinese, am an Indonesian).
In the same way, many Papua New Guineans called Europeans ‘waitman’, thinking all of them came from the same country.
Only after World War II did Papua New Guineans come to realise that Europeans are ofmany different nationalities and black people live and work in Europe too.
The relationship between China and PNG has continued to expand over the years. There has been an influx of Chinese in PNG for different reasons.
Chinese discipline and the culture of trust, hard work and refusing to take a free meal from another’s toil sees them work like they don’t need money.
Chinese are commonly seen as owners of trade stores, restaurants and small supermarkets and are now venturing into other services.
A friend of mine told me two years ago that a Chinese tyre service owner in Lae landed a wheel spanner on a Simbu man’s head, killing him instantly, for demanding three times that the Chinese inflate his car’s tyre free of charge.
Another Chinese ventured into roadside betel nut and cigarette selling in front of the Asaro District station last year. His “buai and smuk” table was reported to be cheaper and more reliable than those of other vendors. Chinese have a business knack that is missing in Melanesian culture.
Papua New Guineans are good at taking free meals and have modified this culture to lie and scavenge on other people’s hard work.
The strategy that works well for lazy scavengers has been adapted to prey on people who work hard for a living. The term ‘claim’ is popular among landowners occupying a section of the Okuk Highway in Simbu.
They demand for some form of compensation to fix almost any landslip or pothole on the highway. We also hear that some public servants perceive the claim culture and their cut as a quick way to thicken their purse and have been unashamedly facilitating claims.
It appears that the Chinese are aware of Papua New Guineans’ aptitude for free meals, deceit and theft.
Chinese have been conservative and not open to Papua New Guineans. Over these long years of contact, Chinese culture and language has not been exposed or taught to Papua New Guineans, nor have Chinese exposed their children to PNG culture.
Many Chinese prevent their children from learning Pidgin and Motu in the early years and teach them Chinese and later English and other complex languages.
At government level, China offers scholarships to Papua New Guineans to study in China and a requirement is for interested Papua New Guineans to study basic Chinese. This is a breakthrough for PNG.
In the last decade, China has also expanded its investment throughout the Western Pacific and PNG has been a major recipient of this.
The University of Goroka has been fortunate to receive a portion of the Chinese investment loan. The Guandong Foreign Construction Company (GFCC) of China has been engaged to build a number of 6-7 story students’ dormitories, staff houses, midwife program lecture rooms and also renovating the students’ dining room.
GFCC has brought almost all of its equipment and manpower from China. The wheelbarrows that GFCC are using are different from what we would find in Chemica or Didiman Hardwares in Goroka town, so they must have come from China.
GFCC recruited a number of nationals to work in various capacities in the construction area. It is not clear how they recruited these people, but what is clear is that almost all of them were recruited from the streets of Goroka.
These people are mostly involved in the laborious part of the construction. At times they are seen tightening bolts and nuts around important parts of the building.
One afternoon, I was observing two young Papua New Guineans struggling to tighten bolts and nuts of the glass wall at the balcony of the floor facing my house.
Papua New Guinean workers and Chinese do not understand each other well. They shout at each other as if they understand.
At lunch time, Chinese drive off in truckloads for lunch and the Papua New Guineans smoke rolled tobacco, chewed betel nut and hang around the construction area.
Globalisation dictates the integration of nations and cultures. It calls for PNG and China to step up relationships.
However, the conservative tradition of Chinese people and culture poses a challenge for Papua New Guineans. This is compounded by the PNG government’s lack of institutional and policy initiative in promoting and creating a middle ground for a fair people-to-people relationship between the people of China and PNG.
In the next 10 or 20 years, China may use its economic power to promote its citizens interest in PNG and threaten the well-being of PNG’s people and cultural heritage.