Out of Many, One People: Jamaica’s Rich Chinese Heritage

The winning costume group parading at Jamaica’s 1972 Grand Gala at the National Stadium. The group, formed by the Chinese Benevolent Society, depicted aspects of Chinese culture – a part of Jamaica’s rich heritage. (Gleaner Archives photo)

Once upon a time, Jamaica had an influx of Chinese that caused so much unrest among natives, that the Government implemented quota restrictions on Chinese immigrants. The Chinese who were already here – about 4,000 by the mid-1920s and 6,000 by 1930 – had to suffer through ill-will to ward their many businesses, which included  laundries, restaurants, bakeries and retail groceries. During the 1930s labour riots, their stores were robbed and looted. According to Dr Rebecca Tortello:

 “This decree stood until 1947 when the Chinese consulate (established in the 1920s and largely supported by the Jamaican-Chinese community) in Kingston succeeded in persuading the Jamaican Government to relax these restrictions, remove the quota system that had been placed on wives and children and parents and allow Chinese immigrants to send for their family members.”

Long before this happened, however, the Chinese arrived in Jamaica in the mid-19th century, during a time when labourers were required for the building of a railroad from Panama City to Colon, and when the excitement of the gold rush in California, America, offered promises of better opportunities and a higher quality of life. The first large group came to Jamaica from Hong Kong on July 30, 1854 to work as indentured labourers. Later, when yellow fever broke out in Panama, Chinese workers demanded to leave the country, and Panamanian authorities sent them to Jamaica – because of the close geographical proximity. They arrived in ships in exchange for Jamaican labourers. Not many of them survived.

One of them, Robert Jackson-Chin, was a trailblazer for what most Chinese are known for in Jamaica today. He opened a wholesale house in downtown Kingston, and soon, other Chinese opened stores nearby. They helped other Chinese immigrants to come to Jamaica and do likewise.

Defining Jamaican staples

As more Chinese arrived in Jamaican from Trinidad and British Guiana to work as indentured labourers on contracts, they started setting up small shops and offering a unique brand of service which can actually be credited for defining some of the most common Jamaican food staples today. Dr Rebecca Costello says: “By this time, Chinese grocers were becoming known for extending credit to favoured customers, selling by barter, providing round-the-clock service and selling goods in small, affordable quantities. It is as a result of their importation activities that items such as rice, saltfish, saltmeats, flour and cornmeal became staples of the Jamaican diet.”

By the end of the 1860s, Downtown became known as Chinatown because of the proliferation of Chinese businesses in the area. As more Chinese came to the island as labourers, and as more businesses emerged, the Jamaican business community became unsettled and lobbied the Government to impose new restrictions on Chinese immigration – a plea to which the Government conceded in 1905 when they required immigrants to register with the authorities and provide a guarantee from a reliable person as to the soundness of their characters. Harsher restrictions were imposed in 1910, when new immigrants had to pay 30 pounds upon landing and also pass a physical and a test showing that they could write and speak 50 words in three different languages.

Despite these restrictions, Chinese presence and the Chinese community in Jamaica has continued to grow. In 1891, Chin Tung-Kao founded the Chinese Benevolent Society with the aim of “offering humanitarian and social aid, as well as protecting Chinese customs and preserving their ethnic identity”. At Jamaica’s Independence Grand Gala in 1972, the Society won the costume group parade for costumes that depicted the history and heritage of Jamaican-Chinese, proving that the Chinese are now a bona fide part of Jamaican life and culture, adding to the mix and meaning of our motto, ‘Out of Many, One People’.

Source: Jamaica Gleaner Pieces of the Puzzle: The Arrival of The Chinese

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