A Sobering Tale of Chinese Immigrant Dreams, Failure, and Fears in Belize

A Personal Essay

By guest blogger Danny Chung

Leaving China, especially during politically unstable times, isn’t like happily waving goodbye to the neighbors and moving in accord with a well-oiled plan. Imagine leaving without knowing if you can (or will) ever return, whether the family you leave will be punished because of your flight, and if you’ll make it to your destination without getting robbed, deterred, lost, or killed. Nonetheless, the Chinese migration to Belize first began in the 1950’s. An eager and motivated people were fleeing hard times in China. Another mass inflow occurred during the eighties and nineties. Since then most of them have migrated to the U.S., Canada or China. The majority of the ones in Belize today, came recently–within the past ten years. All settled in Belize hoping for a better life, and profits, with which they would use to further improve their situation. Naturally, in those days many (as they still do today) set up shop in the food and beverage industry—it’s all they know, and luckily it’s a very transferable skill set, since everyone loves Chinese food.

Being born in Belize into a Chinese food and beverage-focused business family gives me a very clear purview of the industry and how business is conducted within the Chinese community operating in the country.

Inside the Chinese Food & Beverage Industry in Belize

Since the turn of the last decade, Chinese entrepreneurs have been venturing into the grocery or clothing business, rather than food and beverage. However, the majority of businesses still involve food and beverages since Chinese food is in high demand among both Chinese immigrant communities and the mainstream population.

In Belize, some restaurants are more popular than others, while some are cleaner than others. Sadly to say, the cleaner ones aren’t always the popular ones locals choose.

Much of the ill-sanitation practices are due to a number of factors on the Belizean side:

1) The lack of enforcement by the government of Belize. The deficiency of proper coding and principles allow businesses in the food and beverage industry to basically do what they want. The laws are in place, but most of the time they aren’t properly enforced.

2) Bribery of authorities also plays a role in why these laws are not properly enforced.

3) A number of locals do not care as much about food sanitation. In a country like Belize, where there is a high unemployment rate (around 24%) and a very high poverty rate, sanitation is not the priority of the masses.

…as well as from the bad habits the Chinese brought to Belize:

1) By default, a number of Chinese food venues do not practice proper sanitation. This is clear and evident when one is walking the streets of China.

2) There is the lack of business education, and proper training in the food and beverage industry. The business owners simply go by the gut feeling and old habits and set up shop hoping to rake in profits.

3) Most can’t speak the local language (Spanish & English).

From my travels, I can note that the U.S. has in place very stringent standards in the food and beverage industry. For example, there is the FDA which regulates all food, beverages and drugs. In Belize, there is no such thing. Another tactic that I noticed that is being used in the U.S. is that there are letter sized alphabetical letters posted on the doors of restaurants and food places of the like. These letters indicate the sanitation level of the establishment. If this system was properly implemented (with the same stringent standards as that of the U.S.) in Belize (without bribery), most of the establishments would simply fail.

As aforementioned, most of the Chinese owners do not have proper training in business. Most of them in this industry have a high school diploma at the most. Any higher, and they would not be in the spot they are in today. Given this sad fact, there is no PR, there is no marketing strategy, no business collaboration, no investing back into the business, and most cannot speak English or Spanish. They are simply coming out of China in search of a better life, which is commendable.

But unfortunately, many do not find a better life in Belize, particularly in Belize City. Belize City is the most populated city in Belize with a population of over 70,000. Belize City also has the highest crime rate in the country. And the Chinese are usually caught in the middle of this. The Chinese community has been targeted in many robberies, forcing Chinese business owners in Belize City to take major precautions.

Most Chinese stores are always behind burglar bars (selling minor grocery and food items). Why burglar bars you ask? Well, let’s say if those burglar bars were not in place, they would be robbed at least twice a day and possibly shot. It truly saddens me to see my people locked up in a small shop behind burglar bars with the constant thought of being robbed or killed in the back of their minds. Most of these shops sell groceries and minor fast food items. All transactions are done while the business is behind burglar bars and metal screening. Fortunately, this is not always the case. Like in every country, certain areas are much safer than others.

The future for the Chinese currently doing business in Belize is still unknown; however it is likely that as more resources become available and education levels increase, the majority will look to other destinations in which to move their business (as their predecessors did). As tradition will have it, the Chinese will do whatever it takes to secure a better life for themselves and their families; even if it means leaving everything they’ve ever known behind.

Danny Chung was born and raised in Orange Walk Town, Belize. He is currently majoring in marketing, with a concentration in advertising, at Galen University to support his professional aspirations in music and photography.

Disclaimer: This essay is based on opinion and should not be used as a single source to reflect the actual circumstances of every Chinese business, community, or individual living and working in Belize.