transport | urbanism | adventures | pontification
Riding a local bus down Fabers Rd., a small store with a sign reading Yan kee Snacks caught my eye. Like many of the other small neighborhood stores I saw in Belize City, it was a nondescript cinder block building with metal bars running up from the storefront counter. At first I assumed its name was similar to Yankey Clothes – “We bring the New York fashions to you” – a variation on the spelling of Yankee that I’m used to.
As I continued my rides around the city, I noticed a large number of groceries and restaurants with Chinese names scattered throughout. After passing Tan Liang Shop, Ma Ma Chen’s, Tow Tow Grocery, and Ah Wing Saloon, I realized the relationship of Yan Kee Snacks to the Yankee that first came to my mind was probably completely unintentional.
Carlos, a native Belizian who helped run the Seaside Guesthouse I stayed at and gave me some great advice in my first week in the country, shared some of his thoughts on the preponderance of Chinese-owned food stores. He estimates that 90% of the food outlets in Belize City are owned by Chinese or Taiwanese immigrants. They gained a substantial share of the fried chicken market by significantly undercutting the prices of other proprietors. The Chinese grocery stores, often staffed by immigrant family members who are compensated in-kind with lodging, maintain regular hours throughout the day, unlike the stores that take the customary lunch break and close once they feel they’ve made enough money for the day. Carlos also shared the story of a Chinese investor who bought both the Caye Caulker Water Taxi Association and the San Pedro Belize Express when they were in financial trouble, gaining a monopoly on ferry service while appeasing customers with promotions and giveaways.
Foreign investment is big in Belize. The Museum of Belize, recently opened in Belize City’s old jail, was funded in part by the government of Taiwan. In 2008, the value of the Belize’s imports was 1.6 times the value of its exports. The 2008 estimate for the country’s external debt was $954.1 million; with a population just over 314,000, that turns out to be more than $3,000 of foreign debt per person (in comparison, this figure is $43.35 for the United States).
Some fellow travelers passing through the Seaside Guesthouse talked with an official at the Austrian Consulate General, a brother of former prime minister Said Musa, and he explained to them that consumer goods are relatively expensive here because so many are imported. The Musa family owns Brodies, a large department and grocery store chain in Belize. The Brodies I shopped at definitely had a full array of goods from the United States.