Beyond the White-sand Beaches, Tahiti Is Home to a Vibrant Chinese Culture Worth Exploring

Tahiti is known for its beautiful beaches, diving, and waterfalls — but it also has a vibrant Chinese heritage.

Residential building along the mountainous landscape in Papeete, Tahiti, Society Islands, French Polynesia, Pacific
Photo: Merten Snijders/Getty Images

Ten teenage girls grin from a stage, standing side by side with their arms intertwined and right feet kicked up in the air. They're wearing costumes of Taiwanese aboriginal clothing — red shirts and skirts lined with white and blue embroidered trim and matching headbands. It's a photo of Tahiti's Li Yune Chinese dance school, hanging on the wall of a local Chinese organization. My mom has a similar picture of me on her refrigerator; I'm dancing — jumping high in the air — wearing bell-lined wristbands and leg bands like the girls in the picture.

It was an unexpected photo to encounter in Tahiti, where I was more ready to toss back piña coladas on white-sand beaches and dive with manta rays than learn about Chinese culture. It was both delightful and surprising for someone of Taiwanese descent, making my visit to Tahiti last October feel somewhat like coming home.

In fact, Tahiti contains a sizable Chinese presence — 5 to 10% of the population. Most are Hakka Chinese — an ethnic group mostly from the Guangdong province of China — who arrived more than 150 years prior for menial labor jobs and then made Tahiti home. In fact, 2022 marks the 157th anniversary of the first Chinese workers arriving in Tahiti.

For visitors, the Chinese population also presents another — and perhaps unexpected — side of Tahiti that will surprise, delight, and offer opportunities to experience the island culture more fully. It also reminded me of my childhood and my loving parents who wanted me to be "all-American" while developing a deep understanding and appreciation of Chinese culture — as Asian Tahitians, both show pride in their home country and celebrate their ancestral traditions.

Street restaurant in Papeete, Tahiti, Society Archipelago, French Polynesia - "At mamy's, chinese specialities". "Les roulottes", little street restaurant whose food is prepared in vans, are typical of Papeete nights.
In 2000, a street restaurant in Papeete, Tahiti, where a sign reads, "At mamy's, chinese specialities". "Les roulottes", little street restaurant whose food is prepared in vans, are typical of Papeete nights. Veronique DURRUTY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

I landed at Faa'a International Airport in Papeete — on the northwest coast of Tahiti — on a sunny October morning. Its bustling harbor and lively streets are home to a multicultural population of almost 26,000, including a mix of mostly Polynesians, then Asians and Europeans. Modern luxury hotels mix with historic French colonial-style buildings and coconut palms in this port city — the capital of French Polynesia. Tahiti is the largest of the 118 islands comprising French Polynesia, with Papeete as the economic center.

I spent one day learning about Chinese history in Papeete with Roland Sam, a local historian and author, who met me outside Te Moana Tahiti Resort. Our first stop was a stately off-white French colonial-style building in the city center. It's the home of the Association Koo Men Tong, a local Chinese organization — one of several formed in 1918 to assist with welfare functions and sustain Chinese traditions.

Koo Men Tong association for Chinese Culture in Tahiti
Kaila Yu

The banquet hall is lined with black and white group photos of past members and full color shots of young performers from the on-site Li Yune Chinese dance school — the latter clad in azure silk dresses and grasping traditional Chinese folding fans held high above their heads. Mandarin Chinese classes are also taught here.

Touring the upstairs classroom, I'm transported back to Saturday mornings as a kid, resentfully studying Mandarin Chinese at a school in Upland, California — a predominantly white city — and missing cartoons like DuckTales and Alvin and the Chipmunks. "You'll appreciate this when you're older," my mother would snap when I complained, and she was right. It's heartening to see that Chinese parents in Tahiti are no different than mine; they, too, want their children to experience the culture of their homeland.

For lunch, we headed over to Dahlia, one of the oldest Tahitian Chinese restaurants on the island. I had never heard of Tahitian Chinese food before. Sam explained, "It's exceptional — different from traditional Chinese food and designed for the Tahitian palate. They love sugary dishes!" The Tahitian Chinese roast duck, he added, is particularly special because of its sweet peanut sauce. Pricey Chinese abalone dishes inspire another specialty at Dahlia, which instead uses a local shell called troca and costs just a fraction of the price.

The lively space hummed with Polynesian and Chinese families and plates were filled with Tahitian Chinese food like steamed parrot fish, fish maw (dried fish bladders), and roasted pork. We also enjoyed poisson cru à la Chinoise — the Tahitian Chinese version of Tahiti's unofficial national dish: raw tuna marinated in coconut milk and ginger. Meanwhile, the candied lemon chicken reminded me of American Chinese fusion food like sugary General Tso's and sesame chicken.

Older section of Arue Chinese Cemetery in Tahiti
Kaila Yu

Stomachs full, we were ready to hike to the Arue Chinese cemetery, which covers the entire side of a hill in Arue, just east of Papeete. It shelters more than 5,000 graves since opening in 1877 and reflects Chinese traditions. "The Chinese bury their dead with their head toward the mountains, feet to the sea," explained Sam.

Luckily for its eternal residents, it features stunning views of the bay in Pirae. Entombed in the upper section are the wealthier occupants, resting under gleaming granite and marble headstones etched with Chinese characters and emblazoned with black and white photographs. In contrast, haphazardly scattered and dilapidated headstones can be found in the lower, older section of the cemetery.

Most even feature individual stone roof patios held up by four 10-foot-high poles for shelter from the rain. Here and for Chinese people everywhere, we left food offerings on the burial sites. My parents also taught me to bring fresh oranges and dumplings to my grandparents' graves to provide them with sustenance in the afterlife.

Chinese temple in Papeete on Tahiti island
Getty Images

We were quietly contemplative on the drive to our last stop, the Kanti Chinese Temple. The entrance here is lined with 12 three-foot granite statues of the Chinese Zodiac animals, perched atop thick circular pedestals — a gift from the Chinese government, facilitated by Sam in 2011.

The ochre-topped temple features a traditional pagoda-style roof, resembling a miniature version of the enormous temples I've visited in Los Angeles and Taiwan, like the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California. It was renovated and rebuilt in 1987 after the former structure burned down in a fire.

"We're very inclusive," shared Richard Chenoux, the guardian of the temple who was pleased to learn that I also speak Mandarin Chinese. "Although the temple is dedicated to Kanti — the god of justice, war, and hell — any faith is welcome here."

In front of the temple was an older Chinese woman, gripping three-foot-long sticks of red incense. She was bowing her hands in prayer toward a four-foot-tall granite incense holder featuring intricately carved Chinese dragons dancing off its sides. Faint ashes floated off the ends of the burning incense as the woman handed one of the sticks to a young girl by her side. The little girl solemnly mimicked the woman, as I once did at a temple far away with my grandmother. And I was reminded that no matter where we immigrate, the Chinese teach their young to celebrate the culture of their home country.

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