By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 27, 2023
In 1944, when news reached Trinidad that Eugene Chen had died from neurasthenia in China, Chien Chiao (the Chinese homonym for Trinidad), a Trinidad Chinese community journal, made the following announcement: “Eugene Chen (1879(sic)-1944), Trinidad’s greatest son and for many years Chinese Foreign Minister, died from a heart attack in Shanghai this year. Born of humble parentage in San Fernando, he practiced as a solicitor in the courts of the colony before going abroad.” (December 1944).
I suspect that many of our citizens do not know who Eugene Chen is. He is someone with whom Trinbagonians should be acquainted. In October 2021, Walton (Wally) Look Lai, one of our more brilliant scholars, published an excellent biography, West Meets East: The Life of Eugene Chen (1875–1944), that centred on Chen’s life in China. It did not receive the public attention it deserved.
Chen’s father, Chan Kam, was born in China. After he left China, he migrated to Martinique where he married into a Chinese immigrant family called Elang-Shao-Long, but rechristened Longchallon by the French authorities. In the 1860s he immigrated to San Fernando, Trinidad, where his son, Eugene Bernard Acham, was born in 1875 . He later changed his name to Eugene Chen or Chen Yu-Jen in Chinese.
Chen studied at the Borough schools in San Fernando, after which he went to St Mary’s College in Port of Spain, where he received his high school education. After graduating from St Mary’s, he became an articled clerk at the solicitor firm of Edgar Maresse Smith, “a well-known local mixed-race lawyer of radical sympathies and a prominent and controversial reformer of that generation”. (West Meets East.)
In 1889 he married Alphonsine Agatha Ganteaume, the daughter of Francois Ganteaume, a French Creole planter, and his African cook. Eugene and Agatha had eight children, four of whom survived. Percy Lionel (b. 1901); Sylvia (b. 1905), who later changed her first name to Silan; and Jack (b. 1908) were born in Trinidad. The last girl, Yolanda or Yulan (b. 1913), was born in London.
In 1896 Chen qualified as a solicitor. He was also an active participant in the Port of Spain literary scene and attended many of the public lectures at Victoria Institute where many Trinidad intellectuals gathered. Arthur Young, a visiting Chinese journalist who interviewed local residents about Chen’s background in 1928, noted: “He was an omnivorous reader. His library, crammed with classical and legal works in expensive covers, furnished the vintages that his thirsty mind craved. He quaffed deeply after office hours. In this way, he acquired the intellectual culture which many inferred was Oxford-inspired, but in reality, was self-made.”
To an observant reader, this sounds like the intellectual training that college students at the time received. It is a mode of education that CLR James experienced at Queen’s Royal College from 1910 to 1918, which he described in Beyond a Boundary.
Like many of our earlier intellectuals and activists, Chen found Trinidad intellectually stifling. After more than ten years of successful legal practice in Trinidad, he moved to London with his family in 1911. “It was claimed later on that he had gotten into severe financial difficulties in Trinidad that year, and was being pressed by local banks and commercial firms with the threat of bankruptcy proceedings”. (West Meets East.)
In Trinidad Chen showed little interest in Chinese politics although his father was a veteran of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), “the Hakka peasant social movement which swept southern China and almost toppled the Manchu Ching dynasty.” Once news of the outbreak of the Chinese Revolution reached him in London, he and his two friends “travelled to China to volunteer their services to the motherland”. They arrived in China in 1912.
Once Chen got there he became active in Chinese political affairs. He edited the Peking Gazette from October 1914 to November 1917, but was imprisoned in 1916 for his fierce ideas. The Peking Gazette advertised itself as “the only paper published in China in the English language that is owned as well as edited by Chinese” while Chen established himself “as one of the foremost independent journalists and political critics in Peking”.
After 1918, Chen became a staunch supporter of Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Kuomintang, the Nationalist Party of China, and later joined the party. That same year he became the editor of the Shanghai Gazette and travelled to Canton, Paris, and London on behalf of Sun Yat-Sun between 1918 and 1921. They became close friends and collaborators.
In 1919, Chen was selected by the Chinese government to represent China at the Paris Peace Conference, a formal meeting of the victorious Allies and Germany to set the peace terms after the end of World War I. The refusal of the China delegation to sign the Versailles treaty on June 28 had devastating consequences for President Wilson and US politics.
Ultimately, the US Senate “refused to ratify the Versailles treaty and all its bright ideas like the Wilson-inspired League of Nations”. Look Lai claims that a letter that Chen sent to William Borah, a Republican member of the US Senate that was published in all of the major US newspapers, was mainly responsible for the US not signing the treaty.
This victory must have been a bit heady for this country boy from Trinidad, who did not even speak a word of Chinese. After the conference, he travelled to London to reunite with his family who were very proud of “his new-found status in far off China… In 1920, he attended the inauguration of the League of Nations in Geneva as a member of the Chinese delegation. He did not return to China until July 1921”.
2 thoughts on “Eugene Chen: a forgotten Trinidadian”
Our post Colonial history told us that Mr Chen was born in Guayaguayare, and like Mr George Padmore, must be considered giants of their time. Is there any difference between Mr Chen and minister Young? , both colonial created. After writing this discourse, Dr Cudloe, U owe Mr Young an apology.
Would also appreciate profiles on (if you and your colleagues have the time)
-Dr. Bert Achong
-Mr. Henry Sylvester Williams
-Mr. J. J. Thomas
-Dr. Arthur McShine
-Dr. James Waterman
-Dr. David B. E. Quamina