Journey To Beauty & Chaos In Paradise Islands

Mauritius II: Globalization, Life And Death In Land Of The Dodo


July 2003

Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore

Sugar Mills St Geran Resort Chinatown Caudon Waterfront
Creole Man in Chinatown Caudon Waterfront, just outside my hotel View of Port Louis Another view


Mauritius II: Globalization, Life And Death In Land Of The Dodo


As dead as a dodo.  This is a bird that once lived in Mauritius – a fat, clumsy giant cousin of modern-day pigeon has a strange awkward-shaped beak and could not fly.  It once thrived on this island that forms the remains of an extinct volcano at the lower end of the Indian Ocean , where pure precinct isolation protected the flightless bird from the ravages of larger predators.  However, after the arrival of man in the 17th century, the bird was hunted to extinction, and its eggs devoured by dogs, cats and pigs brought here by their human masters.  One might be tempted to blame the Dutch sailors, though contemporary accounts said that the dodo tasted disgusting, but who could blame these sailors who had spent half a year on the sea from Europe and would have tasted nothing but half decomposed turtle and sick chickens?  Whatever it is, today, the dodo, or rather, skeletal remains of this once magnificently ugly bird, is only found in museums.  In Mauritius , the dodo has become a national symbol.  Around the world, it has become the byword for extinction, or dead, dead silence. 


Port Louis , capital of Mauritius , on a Sunday, is quiet, not quite as dead as a dodo but not significantly more.  Hardly any soul in sight.  A watchman sweeping the entrance to the ornate mosque, its inner compound with a lotus pool; an elderly Chinese hawker selling yong tau fu, a whole category of dumplings the Hakka people of southern China are famous for; vendors arriving, setting-up stalls in the nearby market.  This is a small city at the head of a sheltered bay, hammered in by the mountains.




Mauritius – named after Maurice, Prince of Orange, leader of the United Dutch Provinces.  At 1865 sq km, this is an island three times the size of Singapore but will only 1.2 million people.  The friendly Mauritians tend to complain about how crowded their island is, but I can only wish Singapore is larger, and equally endowed with a few wild green mountains, some mysterious unfathomable forests, ocean-beating cliffs, fine sandy beaches and pretty tropical coral atolls.  Maybe I am asking too much, for Mauritius has become the by-word for paradise.


This is land of the sugar cane – 80% of all cultivated land is covered by sugar cane plantations and 25% of all export earnings is derived from sugar.  As one drives across the island, the roads pass through endless horizon of sugar cane, singing Bihari peasants and an occasional Creole mansion. It was the Dutch who first introduced the crop to this island and within no time the sugar cane has covered the entire island.  The French intensified the cultivation of sugar cane and the local French aristocracy grew enormously wealthy from it.  They built palatial mansions in their enormous estates across the island, and held grand parties and festivities.  When the British Navy came during the Napoleonic War, these “Grand Blanc” (or “Great Whites”) surrendered quickly to the British on the condition that they were allowed to run the economy and practice their religion and customs in the same way as before. 


The sugar barons, as this wealthy class is known, continue to control the Mauritian economy today.  The Franco-Mauritian community comprises of about 1% of the population but most of the wealth.  51 of the top 100 chief executives in Mauritius are Franco-Mauritians, and five of their top families control 18 of the top 50 companies in the country.  This is a country with a GDP per capita of US$3800 and most of the wealth highly concentrated within this very small group of people.  In 1968, just before independence, riots broke out between Creoles and Muslims.  "Government announced that only 4 died but we all knew more than 100, courtesy of BBC," said a senior Franco-Mauritian banker.  "And most of my relatives departed emigrated to France , South Africa , Australia ."  The rest stayed on and the old lifestyle continued.  The rules of the game since then is, the Indian-Mauritians will run the government and civil service while the Franco-Mauritians keep the economy and their wealth.  As for the Creoles, well, well, well.




This is a fertile land midway between the tropics and temperate.  Thus it can grow many types of fruits - both tropical and temperate ones, including strawberries, papayas, bananas, melons and pineapples.  However, they don't seem very tasty or large.  Perhaps this is the case of a Jack of all trades and master in none.  What this island grows well is sugar cane.  Unfortunately, they don't drink sugar cane juice, which Southeast Asians love.  Here, they export everything. 




I stayed at Labourdonnais Waterfront, the top business hotel in Port Louis .  The Waterfront area is the most modern and chic area in the capital.  The rest of the capital is fairly dilapidated apart from the glass tower-headquarters of a few local banks and financial institutions.   Mauritius aspires to be the regional financial centre of the Indian Ocean rim, but post-Apartheid South Africa is the real powerhouse of Africa .  Who needs to do banking in Mauritius ? 


Small nations like Mauritius and Singapore provide refuge for capital when larger neighbours are less advanced, or in political trouble, but when order is restored, the money runs away if there is no special reason to remain.  We all have to find our niche and survive.  Both Mauritius and Singapore face the same challenges.


Mauritius tells the world that it is part of Africa and Africa ’s bridge to the world, but the reality is somewhat different. 


“We don’t really know Africa well.  We went in and are cheated by the Mozambiqueans, Malagasy and so on.  We don’t do business the same way they do.  But if we don’t move in, where do we go from here, from this side of the Indian Ocean ?” said another senior banker.


I am reminded of Singapore ’s own experience in dealing with China , Vietnam , and the rest of Asia .  We are Asians and we aren’t.  We thought we know the region well, but we have a lot to learn, and we are paying a very high school fees to learn from our mistakes.


Transparency International rates Mauritius as one of the least corrupt country in Africa , after Botswana and Seychelles .  However, this is nothing is celebrate about, for African standards of public and corporate governance are hardly impressive by world standards.  Everyone here knows the intertwining strings of influence and money in this country, and how the tiny elite and politicians pat each other’s back. 




Mauritius is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations (i.e., an organization of former British colonies who have decided to meet together for the poorer countries to beg for some cash from the richer ones, and for the Brits to re-live the long-past glories of the Empire in a painless manner) and so I thought they might be very English.  In fact, I was surprised to find how French this island is.  The locals speak Creole at home and French at work.  English, however, is the language of public signboards and documentation.  The premier local business periodical, Business Magazine, has an English title and French contents.  There are a few French language papers but only a weekly in English, called News on Sunday.  News on Sunday, which has screaming tabloid-like headlines on Beckham and the latest Miss South Africa, is on sale on Friday and usually sold out by Saturday.



People here – the well-to-do ones, that is, still send their children to France for studies, though there is an increasing trend for people to go to Australia .


There is French cable TV soft porn on Fridays and Saturdays.  Once I stumbled onto a bizarre Chinese porno dubbed in French, and it contained people wearing costumes of different historical periods.  Of course, costume authenticity is not critical in such movies.




Port Louis has a Chinatown .  Here it is quiet, dilapidated and dirty. Like Chinatowns elsewhere, it has traditional Chinese gateways.  A few street hawkers and rugged stray dogs greet the visitor.  A few Chinese restaurants, but again, the best Chinese restaurants have moved away to the suburbs. 


Mauritius has over 30,000 Chinese, descendants of Hakka traders. Today, they are scattered throughout the island but still many have remained in Port Louis and surrounding areas.  Isolated from the mainstream Chinese-speaking world, the Sino-Mauritians are relatively integrated.  They are more comfortable speaking Creole and French, than Mandarin and Hakka.  As a Chinese street hawker told me, “we have lost our roots.”


All humans are prisoners of history.  Sino-Mauritians have names in formats which are unfamiliar to most ethnic Chinese worldwide.  The full name of the first generation Sino-Mauritians often become the surname of his descendants.  For example, say somebody called Jean-Claude Yong Shing Fook.  Note the French first name, Jean-Claude: this is a guy – Jean is a masculine name in French.  His surname is Yong Shing Fook, for that is the full name of his great grandpa who emigrated from Guangdong Province , China , in the 1920’s.  Yong was obviously the surname of his great grandpa and Shing Fook the “first name”.  However, colonial bureaucrats those days in Mauritius had decided that this is their preferred format for names.  And so all of Monsieur Yong’s descendants would have to be known not as Monsieur Yong but Monsieur Yong Shing Fook.


In any case, some supposedly Chinese traits have remained.  I have met a number of well-educated local Sino-Mauritians, many of them hold important positions in the financial sector.  Chinese, as usual, are good at numbers and technical things and hence they basically run the finance and accounting departments of a large local bank, as well as anything that requires familiarity with numbers.  The Franco-Mauritians and Indians tend to score better in marketing and group leadership, and so run a lot of major operations – in fact they hold the most important positions in the banks.  (Of course, it is the Franco-Mauritians who actually own everything!)  The Creoles (descendants of African slaves) generally do less well in schools, and many do manual work.




There is no Harry Potter fever in Mauritius .  You can walk in and buy the book off the shelf.  I'm not totally sure if Mauritians read a lot – Mauritius rank 67th in the Human Development Index and 2nd in Africa .  The local bookshops are few and small.  I don’t know what they do after dark.  Everything closes down at 5pm – including restaurants and bars (apart from those in hotels and on the Waterfront).  Perhaps they all go home and watch TV or make babies.




Manufacturing is the second pillar of the Mauritian economy (followed by tourism and finance).  The heart of Mauritian industry is the Export Processing Zone (EPZ).  Since the 1980’s, Mauritius has provided incentives for foreign manufacturers to produce here.  This has led to massive investment by Hong Kong textile manufacturers seeking to take advantage of unutilized textile quotas Mauritius has with major Western economies.  HK investment in EPZ has increased employment significantly in Mauritius and created a second pillar to the previously largely agricultural nature of the local economy. 


16% of the nation’s workforce work for the EPZ, 80% of which are in the textile industry, which contributes to 20% of the Mauritian GDP. Mauritius , a warm subtropical island, has suddenly become the largest exporter of woolen knitters in the world.  However, these investors soon realized that Mauritians were somewhat less productive than workers in China , and this led to a bizarre development – Mainland Chinese workers were flown into Mauritius to work in these HK-owned factories which have already used up both HK and China ’s textile quotas with EU and USA , to supplement the less productive local workforce. 


The EPZ, however, is now in deep crisis.   China is now in the World Trade Organization and much of the previous textile quotas lifted.  With China ’s enormous industry capacity and cheap but highly skilled and productive workforce, there is no more reason for Hong Kong manufacturers to fly Mainland Chinese workers to far-flung factories in Mauritius , Guatemala and Honduras .  As Mauritian subcontractors have not upgraded their skills and equipment during the good old days, they find their cost high and sales revenue dropping.  One by one, the foreign investors leave, and factories close. 


The process is continuing.  The story is not new.  Mauritius has to find its niches fast, just as Singapore faces the same challenge.  Yet another anecdote in our increasingly globalised world.




Last week, CNN had a report about the plight of Diego Garcia, the largest island atoll in the world, right at the heart of the Indian Ocean .  This island was once ruled by the British from Mauritius but was detached to become a separate colony in 1965 known as the British Indian Ocean Territory  (though Mauritius retained an official claim on it).  In 1972, more than 2000 inhabitants of the island were forcibly removed to Mauritius so as to facilitate the building of one of the largest air bases in the world by the United States .  Today , the islanders of Diego Garcia languished in the slums of Port Louis , dreaming about their island paradise, of that idyllic lifestyle, fishing, birds and everything that comes with it.  Many among them have no jobs and suffer from chronic alcoholism and depression.  Suicides are also high.  CNN describes their removal as "from Paradise to Hell".  In 2000, they won a law suit in London against the British Government, for the terrible injustice they had suffered.  However the judgement stops short of deciding whether they should be allowed to return to their homeland.   An injustice done on an entire people carried out by a democratic country in such recent times.  The islanders asked if they could visit their ancestral graves but the British told them that they would have to ask the Americans.  When the islanders approached the US State Department, they received a polite letter about how critical the islands are to the Fight Against Terrorism, and that since the islands are nominally British territory, the islanders should ask the British Government instead.  And so the saga continues for the Diego Garcia islanders.




The hotel placed a copy of an African business magazine, Traders - African Business Journal, under my door.  It's a very interesting magazine - the cover with headers of some of its articles.  The main article announces: "Business Opportunities Blossom in DRC & Angola following peace initiatives".  It shows a picture of a sunflower bursting out of a pistol.  Unfortunately, to the left of the pistol is the header of another article, "Corporate Governance - A Return To African Values". 


One of the key articles is an interview with President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in which he invited investors to DRC, and he spoke about the wonderful opportunities in the tourism, hydroelectric power and mining sectors.  Well, I guess he forgot to tell you that one of the worst civil wars ever fought anywhere in the world in the last 5 decades is still being fought in his country, and that he barely controls half of his country.




After a month on the project, we finally had a chance to go to the beach (just for one night).  We hopped into two taxis and headed for Le St Géran, a luxury resort that charges a ridiculous sum of money per night (named after a 18th century sinking ship which carried a stubborn girl, Virginie who refused to remove her bulky formal dress to swim ashore and drowned in the open seas near here as a result, thus inspiring the famous story, Paul & Virginie).  What a scandal – Wee Cheng going to a bourgeois resort and dining in an Alain Ducasse restaurant?  (Alain Ducasse is a Michelin three star French celebrity chef who gives fanciful names to the dishes and charges silly diners for the privilege.)  Well, every dog has its day, isn’t it?  At least, I have learned that luxury resorts aren’t for me.  I missed the smell and sounds of local markets; the Bohemian atmosphere of a local writer’s café; the most exotic street food with flies and maggots; or really bad crowded buses with all the chickens on your lap. 


I got onto a paddle boat and tried to reach the Hindu temple on the other side of the cove.  Instead, the strong currents brought me away the beach.  Only my frantic paddling efforts finally brought me back to the sheltered safety of the inner cove.  It’s like an hour-long intensive cycling session in the gym – the only difference being that it wasn’t a session I could stop if I wanted to.  Well, I thought I would have reached Australia or Sumatra if the currents really brought me away.




And so, life goes on.  More stories from these faraway isles, next from Wee Cheng’s Indian Ocean series.  On Saturday, Seychelles is the target!





Wee Cheng

Port Louis , Mauritius


Seychelles: Sex Politics In The Garden Of Eden


If You Like This Website,

Click the button above to support TWC's website!

Caveat :

Send your comments to Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore

Back to Homepage of CHASING THE INDRI

Back to the Main Homepage of