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French Polynesia has a culinary secret. It’s home to mouth-watering Chinese fusion cuisine

Papeete, French Polynesia CNN —

It’s a cloudless morning and the sun is shining brightly off the coast of French Polynesia’s capital and largest city, Papeete, enhancing the water’s already vibrant shades of blue.

Though just meters away from the territory’s largest commercial port, cruise ship terminal and airport, the water is clean and clear, amplified by the presence of kaleidoscopic coral and a diverse array of marine creatures.

My spearfishing guide is scouring the coral reefs for anything that might make for a delicious meal, but I’m hoping we catch some tuna, mackerel or parrotfish to make poisson cru à la chinoise, a Chinese take on French Polynesia’s national dish, poisson cru au lait de coco (lime-marinated raw fish with coconut milk).

Both versions of the national dish are as ubiquitous as they are delicious, but the popularity of the chinoise version poses an interesting question: How did Chinese food become one of this French territory’s favorite cuisines?

Forging new lives, thousands of miles from home

An aerial view of Mo'orea, an island in French Polynesia.

According to historical accounts, the first group of Chinese immigrants, primarily of the Hakka and Punti ethnicities, arrived in French Polynesia in 1865.

The majority were brought from China’s Guangdong province to work on a cotton plantation in Atimaono, located on the south side of French Polynesia’s main island, Tahiti.

But in 1873, the owner of the plantation died; just one year later, his cotton company went bankrupt.

Being more than 11,000 kilometers from home and having little money, many of those Chinese workers remained in French Polynesia to forge new lives.

Some continued farming on the defunct plantation, others opened small