Carved out of four city blocks in the center of a tiny island in the Indian Ocean – Chinatown near Port Louis’ central market in Mauritius – is an assault on the senses.
Ground spices, aromatic vegetables and restaurants serving up Asian cuisines invite visitors.
It’s colorfully painted, white, red and blue wooden shop fronts date as far back as the mid-1800s - when built by eager migrant hands hoping to make a small patch of a new world their own.
And with a history spanning more than 160 years, it has long been a trade epicenter - and a popular tourist destination.
But things are changing. Younger generations are looking for a way out – mainly overseas and leaving the historic structures to fade into ruin, and neglect.
“Chinatown used to be a very vibrant place,” recalled Christian Foo. He is president of Hua Lien, the largest Chinese social club on the island founded in 1974.
“But slowly because it’s a place mostly for trade and less for a living area… Gradually Chinese moved out of Chinatown,” he told CNN.
According to Foo, this meant the vibrancy that Chinatown was also known for faded. It became a place for trade only.
It’s a problem that is being seen elsewhere in the world from Washington and San Francisco’s Chinatown to Cuba, in Havana’s Barrio Chino, one of the oldest and largest Chinatown districts in Latin America that now famously contains very little Chinese, according to the Visit Cuba website.
Aging buildings, infrastructure, and gentrification were among the pressures faced by San Francisco’s Chinatown according to a 2017 report by its Chinatown community development center.
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But given that the area still maintains its magnetic charm for tourists a new generation of young people in Mauritius is doing their best to bring back that vibrancy while leaning toward the future.
And as Chinatown’s population changes, there are some willing to preserve its unique old world heritage.
A ‘new Chinatown’
A group of young people formed the New Chinatown Foundation to try and bring vibrancy, and identity to the district.
New Chinatown Foundation members organize street cleaning and pull together to repaint neglected buildings.
Stephan Ah-Sen was born in Mauritius and is part of the group. He organizes flash mob dances in the middle of Chinatown to help drum up energy within the district’s center.
“We are seeing shops closing down because no one is around to take up the shop and continue the legacy in a way because a lot of the kids who go abroad overseas to study they don’t come back,” he said.
His grandfather first came to Mauritius from China in 1954, followed by his grandmother in 1962. As a choreographer, Ah-Sen had been living in Singapore for the last 17 years but recently returned to help his father run a hardware store that has been in his family for over half a century.
“I am one of the rare ones to come back and stay to work in the shop,” he said.
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Jean-Paul Lam is a fourth generation Chinese Mauritian and founder of the New Chinatown Foundation. The members believe that if they can spark a revival in Chinatown, the community will thrive once again and entice other young people back to Mauritius.
A volunteer patrol group was organized to walk the streets at night to keep the area safe from a spate of recent night-time crimes.
“Since there have been constant attacks on people coming and going from restaurants and cars. This action has been taken very quickly,” said Jacques Lee, a Wing Chun martial arts master who helped organize the nightly walks.
“We do not substitute any police or authority, so we are here just as an eye watch on the community let’s say in peak and vulnerable hours of the night.”
He claims the patrol group has helped keep the peace and cut down on crime in the community by just being present.
Historical melting pot of cultures
Mauritius is well known for lush landscapes, turquoise waters and its fusion of cultures.
First discovered by Arabs, the island was uninhabited when the Portuguese found it during their early voyages around 1507.
Next came the Dutch who named it after their prince – Maurits Van Nassau in 1598.
Dutch, French and British colonial governments turned the island into a slave plantation, enforcing slaves from neighboring Madagascar and elsewhere across Africa.
When slavery was fully abolished in 1835, the British bought in indentured servants from India whose descendants now make up around 70% of the population.
The first big wave of Chinese immigrants to Mauritius took place during the 1780s. But there has been a small Chinese presence in Mauritius since the 1600s when the Dutch bought over indentured laborers. The melting pot of these various cultures forms the basis of the island’s Creole language and customs.
Mauritius Porlwi festival
While Mauritian Chinese make up less than 3% of the island’s population, today, Chinatown’s Hua Lien social club has about 1,600 Chinese members.
It is a gathering spot for cultural customs such as celebrating the mid-autumn festival also known as the mooncake festival. The festival offers a chance for both young and old to participate in centuries-old traditions and draws tourists.
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“In China, they celebrate the harvest, here in Mauritius its still about harvest but it’s about the harvest of our labor, of our work, of our commitment to do things,” said Foo.
“It’s at a time when the moon is at its fullest, and the roundness of the moon is a time to celebrate peace and harmony,” he explained.
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According to Statistics Mauritius, the latest available data shows the island saw approximately 1,875,872 visitors in 2017.
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But it has witnessed a slump in Chinese visitors, which fell by 11% to 79,374 in 2016.
While visitors from China made up just over 5% of tourist arrivals in 2017, with French visitors making up the largest bulk of tourists at over 20%, Chinatown can still be one of the biggest draws believes Lam.
“We want to make it a touristic destination,” he said. “We need to find something special that only us, we have, in the whole world.”