By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 13, 2023
Walton Look Lai has written an indispensable book about the life of Eugene Chen and the important role he played in Chinese history between the 1920s and 1940s, the full flowering of Chen’s career. Chen, a shrewd diplomat, possessed a superior command of the English language which he used as a weapon against his internal antagonists within the party and external foes.
However, Look Lai glossed over the important part that Trinidad played in Chen’s early development. Chen stood out as a pupil at St Mary’s College and articled under Edgar Maresse Smith, a progressive figure in Trinidad. He must have picked up some of Smith’s radical tendencies.
Chen was also a student of JJ Thomas, author of Froudacity (1889), and a prominent member of Trinidad’s literary establishment at the end of the 19th century. He was also a nationalist at the time, using poetry and literary criticism to express his national pride. I argued in Beyond Boundaries, “Interestingly enough, this unfurling of the nationalist banner was being led by two brilliant Trinidadians who were of Chinese origin.” Charles Assee was the other Chinese poet. Much of Chen’s polemics were honed during this period.
Although Look Lai offers a good description of Chen’s family life, a reader can profit immensely from reading Footnote to History that is written by Chen’s daughter, Si-lan Chen, who offers a more intimate look at her father’s life. Although she speaks warmly about him, she also noted his aloofness from the family. While he took care of them financially, he spent so much time away that they hardly knew him.
Si-lan was aware of her African heritage that came from her mother. She says: “It took a desperate love to survive the stinking holds of the African ship. This is how my remote ancestors arrived in his American home.” This might be one reason why the British authorities were so scared when she visited and gave dance recitals in Trinidad in 1940-41.
Eugene, the eldest son of the family, was his mother’s favourite. Look Lai notes the consternation of Eugene’s parents when he announced his intention to marry a black woman. Si-lan offers another take on it. She says: “The Chinese are extremely race-conscious, rarely marrying outside their own race. When my father announced his intentions towards Agatha Ganteaume, there was a storm of protest from my family and relations. My mother possessed a square jaw, and my father was also obstinate, so they were married.”
Eugene’s boldness, self-confidence and cosmopolitanism revealed him to be a quintessential Trinidadian/West Indian. He promised to write a biography on Sun Yat-sen “which will contain a full chapter dealing with the last days of the dead leader, with pen pictures of a few of the figures who threw their shadows across the death scene”.
Chen’s political life mirrored that of George Padmore (born Malcolm Nurse), another Trinidadian who found himself at the pinnacle of power in Russia’s political hierarchy. WM Warren of the University of London wrote in 1972: “Perhaps the best indication of the dizzy heights he reached was his membership of the Comintern Commission set up to investigate the charges of ultra-left deviation levelled by Mao Tse-tung against Li Li-san” (Pan-Africanism or Communism).
That both Chen and Padmore reached such great heights within the international political arena spoke of an audaciousness that is prominent among West Indians. Marcus Garvey did a similar thing in African American politics. Like these other outstanding scholar-activists, Chen possessed “the revolutionary desire to make history and the writer’s impulse to describe it and grasp its meaning” (Pan-Africanism or Communism).
In his eulogy, Li Weichen recited Eugene’s words: “More than 50 years ago, when I was still a child, I loved walking alone under the moonlight, especially in the coconut grove by the sea. Listening to the waves, I often thought to myself that I wanted to go far beyond the island. I always thought that one day I could make a meaningful contribution to this big world. I thought of China, but China was conquered by the Qing Dynasty, which my parents refused to succumb to…I had made no contribution to China and I was always in angst.”
Such a statement suggests Chen had not suddenly thought about China when he became an adult. Eugene was inspired by his father taking part in affairs of his motherland. Other Chinese whose parents came to Trinidad as a result of their participation in the Taiping revolution attest that they were inspired by their parents’ revolutionary example.
Look Lai ends his biography on the following note: “A few years after the dramatic movement on October 1st 1949, when Mao Tse-tung, with Madame Sun Yat-sen standing at his side, proclaimed to China and the world at Tienanmen Square, ‘The Chinese people have stood up!’ Chou En-lai authorised a memorial tombstone for Eugene Chen (Chen Youren) to be erected at the Babaoshan cemetery in Peking, where the revolutionary heroes of the Chinese Revolution are honoured.”
Chen is mainly remembered in China today as the revolutionary foreign minister of the 1927 Hankow (Wuhan) government who commanded world attention at the time of the Chen-O’Malley negotiations. He is also remembered as the leader who, while under house arrest, resisted coercive Japanese attempts to co-opt him into their wartime government.
Look Lai has written a powerful, well-researched book, but it was not as well-crafted as his previous work, Indentured Labour, Caribbean Sugar (1993) which is more engaging. It would have been stronger if he had paraphrased the longer quotations that interrupted the flow of his narrative. Nonetheless, Look Lai has presented us with a fascinating work that we need to study and embrace.