“To help others is to help yourself”
Numerous setbacks and difficulties— from being robbed, to breaking her finger in a noodle press, to getting into a serious car accident— did nothing to quell Maria Lee’s determined struggle. After many years of hard work, her efforts were gradually rewarded. The restaurant, grocery store and noodle factory she founded continued to perform better and better; and as her children grew older, they began to help her with the tasks of running the business. Now that she had more free time, more and more local Chinese people were coming to her for help.
“If you’re ever in any trouble, just look for Aunty Seven (Maria Lee’s nickname among the local Chinese community), and she’ll take care of you,” said one local Chinese. Lee, a devout Buddhist now in her seventies, has lived all these years by the belief that ‘to help others is to help yourself’.
“When I was getting ready to leave the country in 1964, there was a rare and strong typhoon in Zhongshan. I was at home, and looked outside and saw that this family’s house had been torn down by the wind and rain. I didn’t even think twice, I just ran out to help them. But just as I ran outside, my own house got blown down by a strong wind. If I hadn’t run out to help those people, I might have been crushed to death inside the house. Thinking about what could have happened is still frightening, but it only made me believe more firmly that helping others is helping yourself.”
Promoting Chinese culture: “I’m willing to invest all my savings”
In addition to helping Chinese people now arriving in Trinidad and Tobago, the main theme of Maria Lee’s life is gradually becoming the organizer of Chinese cultural performances and the promoter of Chinese culture. The Chinese Arts and Culture Studies Society was established in 1989 by Lee, together with a friend of hers called Li Guoxing. The ‘studies’ part of the name expressed their hope that local Chinese people in Trinidad would learn more and do more research about Chinese arts and culture. “In the first few years we didn’t have the money to organise the Society’s cultural events. Later on our financial situation got a little better, and we organized a few amateur arts performances. It went on like that up until 2006, when we were celebrating the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Chinese people in Trinidad and Tobago. So, for that occasion I went up to China and spent over $100,000 to bring down a professional lion dance and acrobatics troupe, and we shipped all their costumes and equipment over from China as well. Their performance was a great success, so I invited them to stay here in Trinidad.”
From then on, Maria Lee left all of her business ventures in the care of her children, and dedicated all her efforts to organizing the events for the Arts and Culture Studies Society, leading the performance troupe all around the country. “It’s not only Chinese people— Trinidadians from other backgrounds love our shows as well, and they invite us to perform the lion dance at a lot of weddings and other celebrations. There are even a few schools that have opened up special classes, and invite our performers over to teach the students lion dancing or martial arts.” The lion dance is an important symbol of traditional Chinese culture; moreover, it is a lively and exuberant performance that lends an air of festivity to any event. For these reasons the lion dance is enjoyed greatly by Trinidadians. Maria Lee hopes that through the lion dance and martial arts performances that she organizes, the people of Trinidad and Tobago will come to have a sense of closeness to— and a better understanding of— Chinese culture.
In order to improve the quality of the Arts and Culture Studies Society’s events, Maria Lee invested almost all of the savings that she had earned over all those years of bitter struggle and hard work, and even took out a huge loan from the bank. In San Fernando, where she and all the performers from the lion dance troupe live, she built a large performance hall. In the performance hall, the lion dance troupe holds its rehearsals. Every year around cultural festivals, or when a cultural performance troupe arrives in Trinidad from China, Maria Lee always organizes events in the performance hall that have a distinctive Chinese cultural flavour.
“A lot of people don’t understand why I still do the grocery and fast food takeaway business at my age, when I’ve already earned a good bit of money. In truth, almost all the money I make now goes into supporting the day-to-day running of the Society. If I just depended on the money we get from performances, it wouldn’t be enough to cover the wages for the performers, far less to build a performance hall. In the past, all my hard work and struggling used to be to bring up my four children. Now my children are all grown up, and I’m still working hard and struggling, all for the development of the Society. I hope that more local Chinese people, and more people who are interested in Chinese culture, can participate in and support the things we do.”