WILLI CHEN, born in 1934 in Couva, Trinidad, is a highly-acclaimed writer, artist and sculptor. After his formal education at St Mary’s College, Port of Spain. Following that, he established his own business, taking up painting as a hobby. Mainly self-taught, he has exhibited in mixed shows in Trinidad, the United Kingdom and the USA, and has held one-man shows locally.
Over the years, Chen has written over 20 plays, and his short stories have been included in several anthologies, including the Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories and McMillan Caribbean’s Under the Perfume Tree. His literary works include the short story collections King of the Carnival (1989) and Crossbones (2009).
Son of a Chinese Immigrant Family
I was born in 1934 in Couva, to my parents John and Iris Chen, Chinese immigrants from Ten Sim Wei, a village in the south coast country of Guangdong, China.
They had arrived in the thirties (1930’s), long after the first batch of the Chinese travelers who arrived in 1806. And successive arrivals of other Chinese immigrants，who left their homeland seeking betterment across the globe. They took part in the Panama Canal construction and came to work in Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. Naturally they would have visited other island territories as well.
Almost all of the Chinese immigrants were shopkeepers. They did not have the strength and passion to replace or work alongside the Indians and Negros in the open fields cutting cane and planting rice.
My father was a short-tempered, robust, family man who was impetuous and energetic, while my mother was quiet and homely and caring, who encouraged us to drink from the hot Chinese tea pot, to speak Chinese and to be well-behaved, frugal and to be respectful to elders. She discouraged us from playing with other children outside of the shop because she found them wild, and discourteous, unmannerly.
We lived all over Trinidad moving from district to district setting up little shops selling groceries to the villages. We lived in Couva, Savonetta, California, Claxton Bay, Caparo, Cedros Fullerton, Pointe a Pierre, and finally in Marabella. My father was an impatient man and he was completely devoted to the welfare of his family.
At Marabella where I am stationed, my younger brothers and myself had to journey home on Thurdays to help our parents in the grocery and rum shop because the workers patronized our rum shop especially on weekends. My three younger brothers became medical doctors, but I stayed at home taking part in the business.
My father had bought the plot of land on the main road and was on the property where he collapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital. I was called away from college. I took over the construction of the building while he went for a stomach operation. I was only sixteen and a half years old. I hired contractors and was totally taken up with the building that housed a shop, a parlor and a rum department. I bought a welding machine and learnt to weld and constructed all the beams and trusses for the building now being erected. I looked after transport, building materials, bank finances and the host of responsibilities needed to have construction done.
When I left St. Mary’s college in 1952 I worked as a refinery operator in the Trinidad Leasholds Ltd. Refinery (now Trintoc).
It was at this time later in life that I went into the bakery business. I knew nothing about baking but a very large established bakery in the island had closed. So I imported machines and I bought used fire bricks and constructed a small oven which became too small. This made me build a much larger one and later on I imported two large revolving ovens.
Bakery work was long and tiresome and the hours tedious. I supplied the Hospitals and the Defence force at one time. I used to rise at three in the morning and retired at midnight. I did this for over fifteen years, without a vacation.
I finally decided to dispense with shop and parlor in the late nineties, and went into the printing business.
So not knowing anything about printing, I ordered printing machines, guillotines, a large camera and went into the printing and packaging business. I needed space so I built my upstairs and enlarged the space around the building.
Chen, the painter
I first discovered my interest in Art when I surprised myself by drawing a banana leaf on brown shop paper. I used to do the posters celebrating our victories in the football games between QRC and St. Mary’s college.
There were no art classes in college but a few students in the City schools attended art classes at the back of Whitehall. Classes conducted by a Mr. John Harrison from England. Classes were on afternoons. I read books on fiction and painting from the Trinidad Public Library. Our English classes were involved with Wordsworth, Coleridge and John Milton. I was keenly interested.
Faintly remembering now was my first attempt at water color which proved fascination by using water color paper. The paper had its own peculiarities which were advantageous if you were skilled. I later turned to acrylics which were fast drying and more easily adaptable.
My life has been taken up with many businesses. But painting on cardboard became a habit as a time saving custom. And my subjects varied from many things. But I found myself absorbed in leaves and painting trees because I was surrounded by massive trees in the Cedros forest. They left a strong impression on my memory. But always remember, I paint from memory, experience and instinct. The vertical trunks of forest trees imprinted a strong impression on my feelings, dictating an unconscious formula to express the varied layout with strong lines.
So in producing any two dimensional work from a visual perspective the artist is motivated by a latent feeling for exposure of his thoughts and feelings that must come out in spontaneous projections, where line, texture and borders occupy a potent portion of the picture frame. I have done that representing all my life and has involved in a development of a format that took various shapes and directions.
Chen, the playwright
A Mr. James Lee Wah of the San Fernando Theatre Workshop, a drama group of San Fernando asked me to design a stage-set for a play, Ti Jean and his brothers by Derek Walcott. He was satisfied with my layout and asked me to design the posters, the tickets and the programme. After designing many more stage-sets I was moved to try doing a play myself. I did “Freedom Road” a play about a cane cutting Indian family. It won first prize in the National Cultural Competition, played in several theatre houses in Trinidad. It was taken with a local cast with local props to Guelph, Hamilton and Toronto Canada. All the West Indian immigrants were moved by the production. Some people cried because of the nostalgic effect of the play, touching on the lives of their parents.
This was a beginning of a batch of many many other stage plays performed locally. I have written twenty five plays, designed over 40 stage sets and was somewhat successful in having many of my plays performed here.
In conjunction with playwriting, I wrote short stories and poetry and published several volumes. i.e. King of the Carnival, Crossroads, Chutney Power, that was short listed in the Canada Commonwealth writers. But book prize. My books of poetry include Dinner Time and Mindscape. These literary work appear in the local press and in prestigious foreign publications abroad.
Coupled with the literary production over the years, I have written two novels. Gonsang and Touloom, published in my printery, Printex Converters, a printing and packaging company involved in the production of cardboard inner cartons.
I am involved in sculpture and sheet-metal work. My Solar Marinorama 64’-14’ metal mural had won the Central Bank Competition. The competition was judged by a panel of judges including the curator of the museum of Modern Art in New York. I was the only completion to submit two entries out of total of seventy six. This huge metal mural was done in my backyard and transported by six large trucks to the size for installation. That was completed one weekend under my supervision.
The Trinity was the name of the three domed lighted outdoor sculpture that was donated to the Marabella Festival Committee and installed at the Marabella Roundabout.
The Escriva Lighthouse Tower is a 40 foot cylindrical tower that is permanently displayed at the Point a Pierre Roundabout, commissioned ten years ago. The Trimphant Christ is a 12’-38’ metal mural frontispiece donated to the RC Church and is erected as a part permanent frontispiece at the entrance of the Christ The King RC Church in Les Efforts, San Fernando.
(Text: Willi Chen)