Good old Laventille, it just can’t stop making the news. As I make my way along the Old St Joseph Road, nestled between the bustling back roads lies the Frank Chin Grocery and Bar, my destination.
When we arrive the photographer jumps out of the van and begins snapping. It is a hot sunny day and not dark and cloudy as the crime stricken stereotype which plagues this part of Trinidad. Men sit and chat on the chairs on the outside, knocking glasses while a pregnant woman and a man whisper quietly- “Who are they?”
As we walk into the bar we are greeted with even more suspicion. “Why you all come to take pictures?” asks a man with a friendly but curious expression. A Chinese woman comes from behind the counter and enquires as well: “Can I help you?” I tell her that I am here to take photos for a big story on Susan Chin, the girl who competed and stunned the Caribbean in the recently concluded Caribbean’s Next Top Model (CNTM) show aired on TV6. Indeed this is not a crime story or any of its kind; the headline will not speak of doom and despair, this is actually a success story and yes it’s from good old Laventille. With my news, a smile spreads across the face of the petite oriental woman and she informs me that Susan Chin is her daughter. “Susan my daughter, I am Linda! You spoke to her about interview?” she is genuinely surprised. I nod my head and the whole bar full of patrons begin to shower praises so much so that I feel
feel as though Chin would have gotten a CNTM Fan’s Favourite Award if votes were taken from her native town of Laventille.
“She is the pride and joy of Laventille, she grow and born here, she is a daughter of the soil!” an old man slurs. “I know Susan long time. I doh watch TV but I watch her for the show, they thief she!” says a Spanish-looking man. “Susan is Laventille top model!” decides a young man. Linda Chin looks on in pride but gets her two cents in as well. “Susan always like model since she little girl she posing in mirror. I tell her no, no; no modeling thing study and get good job. You like to cook get job in hotel but she just love this modeling. A neighbour tell her bout Caribbean modeling show and she enter. I was vex, yes, very vex but Susan do what Susan want.”
I do not tell her that I know...it is not the right place and time to compare notes on the fact that Chin entered the show without her mother’s knowledge to pursue a dream which many didn’t approve of. “But she did well and stayed in the competition amidst other Caribbean hopefuls up until the final stages. Were you proud of her regardless?” My question brings that smile to Chin’s mother’s face again and I am convinced that the “Laventille Top Model” made not only her fellow townsmen proud but her mom as well.
Earlier that day I had spoken to the woman in the spotlight. She was organising some fine details for her new work tenure at the Mark Restaurant by Jean Georges in New York City. The only contestant in the Caribbean Model debut show with exotic Chinese features, Chin dazzled the fans, judges and fellow models with her picture perfect still poses regardless of her unorthodox modelling demeanor. When she revealed that she was from Laventille jaws dropped and some of the models even asked her to see her ID card to confirm.
No one could accept the fact this positive ray of light had dawned from the most feared territory in Trinidad, furthermore a Chinese girl… so well mannered, focused and educated. The notion of her as a born and bred Laventille native was unthinkable.
“Whenever I tell people I am from Laventille they never believe me. I grew up with my two brothers and three sisters right here in Laventille, it is and will always be my home."
"Where we live is a nice neighbourhood. People have this misconception that the whole of Laventille is bad but where I live, everyone knows each other and they are all good people,” the Providence Girls’ graduate claimed. Her home was her pet conversation piece. “Everyone in the area knows my mom and she told me everyone backed me for the show. The thing is, my street is just like anywhere else in Trinidad where you have to be safe and careful!”
“Tell me about your mom and family’s response to your CNTM stint, were they supportive?” That was when she dropped the bomb- “My mom didn’t know that I was going to be on the show. She became angry when she saw me on the TV starring. She knew it was a competition at that point but customers to the grocery had to explain what it was. I never intended it to be this way but I had a dream and I felt it in my heart that my mom will understand once she saw the hard work I put into it!”
Indeed after the long hard weeks of photo shoots, catwalk sessions (which Chin never mastered fully), team building sessions interspersed with catfights, model rivalry and other activities, the 25-year-old felt her choice to leave her job as a Sushi Chef at More Vino restaurant paid off. “The show increased my self-confidence. I learned how to deal with different personalities and different people. I also saw firsthand the challenges models have to face in the industry. It doesn’t only take a pretty face to make it in this industry, it takes a whole lot more!” she says.
In the end, Chin survived elimination up until the final four. Her fledging experience in the modelling arena paled in comparison to her beautiful photos and her easygoing personality which were more than enough to keep her in the running.
Now that the competition has ended and she has etched her mark on the first ever CNTM, it’s back to reality, back to her former role of Susan Chin, the Trini Chinese girl from…Laventille. It’s not a bad title for the self-taught cook who has a knack for cooking Asian, French and Italian Cuisine. With dream one under her belt, she now has her eyes set on dream two.
“I love cooking and my uncle has a restaurant in San Fernando and I would love to come home after international experience and open a couple of restaurants in Trinidad,” she advised. Her family has a rich history with roots crossing borders all the way to Guangdong, China. – “My dad who is now deceased came from China to live in Trinidad when he was just 16 years old. He opened Frank Chin’s Grocery and Bar which my mother and aunt now run. You won’t believe me if I told you that I used to work there with my siblings! My mother came from Guangdong. I actually visited there once, I got a culture shock, I was amazed and would love to go back there to live for a while.” Can you speak Chinese?” I asked. “I can speak a little Chinese but I understand it better than I speak it,” the graduate of Institute of Culinary Education, New York City avowed.
Looking back at her pictures from CNTM, I see more than a pretty face, more than a pose, I see a profile which defines the Susan Chin behind the make-up and couture clothes. I see determination. “I grew up cherishing the value of hard work. Nothing comes easy in life and you have to work for whatever you want,” she insisted. I see pride and patriotism juxtaposed with a strong sense of identify and cultural appreciation- “I know who I am and I love who I am. People see me as a Chinese girl, some people see me as a Chinese girl from “gasp”-Laventille and others see me as trying to fit into a (modelling) world which is not for me. But, I see myself as a woman with a the best mix of origin, background and culture, someone who wants to live her dreams and make something of herself, a Trinbagonian who wants to make her ‘news-making’ community proud,” Chin continued. Undoubtedly, she is an inspiration to her volatile community and just may be the needed sunshine to end the cloudy perception of Laventille. Just ask the liming party at Frank Chin’s Grocery and Bar.