Entering a “Chinese shop” is bound to bring back memories: orioles bought after mass, fatty candies wrapped in paper.
These shops, which are part of our heritage, are disappearing, let’s continue to tell their stories.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF CHINESE SHOPS
The shops are installed throughout the island and are an integral part of the landscape of the cities and also of the Hauts. They were generally called by the first name of the shopkeeper. The front of the facade was decorated with pieces of nailed sheets, on which there were advertisements for such and such products. Sometimes, the other advertisements on paper, put a little color to this banal construction, it must be said.
The shops of the first were very modest with doors that closed with a rocking lever system. The architecture of the shops of these Chinese migrants was recognizable both externally and internally with the layout of the counters inside. Adjoined to this construction, was the refreshment bar which gathered many people around one or two “small glasses”.
These shops usually stood at a street corner with its four-pitch corrugated iron roof and awning. The latter ran the entire length of the building, advantageously protecting doors and passers-by from the sun and bad weather.
Traditionally the shop is a place of conviviality where the men of the village like to meet.
ALI BABA’S CAVERN
The interior was a real Ali Baba’s cave, as these are small convenience stores that offer all kinds of foodstuffs and basic necessities.
The layout of the interior of the shops was practically the same everywhere. Often at the door, also covered with sheet metal, stood, lined up, “gonis” overflowing with loose rice, corn kernels, cake, coffee, sugar, beans of all kinds, A little further back and to the left was a shop window. This one, handcrafted and made of tamarind wood, was an essential element of commercial furniture. The shopkeeper stood behind this display counter. An interior door led to the back of the store.
On the right side of the store stood another window. On a beam behind the shopkeeper, on a hook, hung yellowed “Chinese cones” in which the goods were wrapped (no plastic bags!). These cones were made by the Chinese themselves, hence the name “Chinese cone”.
On the window on the left were large jars containing mints, fruit candies, candy canes and others. And very close to these jars, was placed a Chinese abacus. Sometimes, some shopkeepers who did not know how to handle the abacus put the operation on a newspaper filled with numbers, or on the cone. The upper part of this window contained the pastries, cookies, macatias of the time, and that the children never took their eyes off. The lower part contained religious objects, tools, and others. All the goods rubbed shoulders in a small space. Felt hats hung here and there for the gentlemen.
This business was a family business run by the Chinese, his wife, and also the children. The wife was mainly responsible for selling items from the right side of the store, i.e. canvas, shoes, buttons, braid, thread, perfume books.
A special place was made for the Roberval balance and its weights. It was also at this shop that the children bought the biggest firecrackers, and the most beautiful fireworks for the Christmas holidays. These lighting objects are inseparable from the end of the year celebrations.
What made this business work with the poor population of the island was this practice of loans (based solely on trust), interest-free called “carnets”. The merchant noted in these notebooks all the unpaid purchases of each person living with credit. This was kept in duplicate, and at the end of the month, when the salary fell, the customer came to pay for the Chinese, and it was off again for another month.
In some shops, basic foodstuffs were stored in wooden bins (racks) into which the Chinese dipped with a quick hand, a tin measure or a kind of small rounded shovel made locally. These boxes were mainly reserved for grains, coffee, corn, sugar. In these foodstuffs, maize was widely sold, from flour to grain, including the fabulous “sosso maize”.
Not too far from these bins, logs were used to cut meat, dried cod, the smell of which stank the whole shop.
The Chinese shop, with its various goods, its snack bar for the “little dry shot” put its large scales at the disposal of the planters to weigh their productions of corn, cassava, or essential oils. There, the goods were exchanged but also the news of the district. The shop also acted as a bank with credit on notebook or advances on harvests (most often on essential oils in the highs).
The Chinese is still active, but the Creole will say when he sees another Creole bored, he will be told that he is like “a Chinese without a shop”. This means that the Chinese are inseparable from their shop, without it, they are lost.